2021 hybrid EnviroAnt Workshop in Tallinn illustrates force of environmental research and engagement

The second workshop of the EASA Environment and Anthropology (EnviroAnt) Network, titled “Environmental Anthropology 2021: Hope, Ruination and Environmentalism” took place in Tallinn, Estonia, on 14-15 October 2021 in a hybrid format. It successfully considered the themes of environment, post-socialism, ruination, and hope and brought together the disciplines of anthropology, performative arts, and activism. Here is the full event report, along with links to the published workshop presentations from our Network Youtube channel, which you can subscribe to HERE.

The network presentations included three keynote lectures and 32 Pecha Kucha presentations. The hybrid format of the event appealed to both in-person and virtual attendees. 36 delegates registered for in-person attendance and 132 for virtual participation. Eight presenters (including three keynote speakers) were either already in Tallinn or were able to travel and present in person while the other 27 speakers logged in virtually and shared information on their research projects. During the discussion sessions we included questions and comments from the room as well as directly from virtual attendees and the chat. It was an excellent way to start moving beyond the restrictions of the pandemic and cater for both, people who could travel and those who chose not to. We believe this may be a common requirement going forwards and were pleased to be able to test this format, further aided using hybrid conference technology lent to us by University of Tartu.

Panel One: Contesting the relations of landscape, art, and environment

The first panel focused on contesting the relations of landscape, art, and environment. The panel addressed how to find and define the advantages of artistic and curatorial practices for addressing the Anthropocene, how to develop collaboration with environmental and life scientists, activists, communities and what does curatorial and artistic activism mean in the context of the Anthropocene and environmental degradation/ruination.

Dr. Rasa Smite and Dr. Raitis Smits from the RIXC, the Center for Art and Science in Latvia, presented the keynote for this panel. Their presentation on sensing environments. artistic practices and methodologies revealing eco-systematic relations introduced the artistic practices of RIXC, exploring various environments, real and virtual, sonic, and visible, as well as invisible – from pioneering internet radio experiments, pushing the boundaries of an “acoustic cyberspace” and artistic investigations in electromagnetic spectrum. It also considered more recent ‘techno-ecological’ art projects exploring the landscapes using sensing technologies, data sonification and visualizations to reveal the invisible activity in nature ecosystems, such as bacteria activity happening in the swamp ecosystems or volatile emissions of the pine trees in the forest and atmosphere. They concluded, “we argue that focusing our attention on “terrestrial co-existence” (Latour) and combining both ‘constructivist’ and ‘experiential’ approaches may help us to find less hazardous routes into the future and to create interactive relations with ‘more than human’ environments.”

The Pecha Kucha presentations for Panel 1 started with Sandro Simon, PhD student in the DELTA Junior Research Group at the Anthropology Department of the University of Cologne, Germany. He reflected on the audiovisual installation Bidonmondes (2020) and how it sensuously explores some of the products and residues of the Plantationocene (Haraway 2016) and the reuses and remodifications by those who live with and within them in the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal. He noted, “Bidonmondes centers around palm oil plastic canisters. These canisters take part in and inherit a range of processes of extraction and dispossession in different world regions.” 

This was followed by a presentation by dr. Carlo Cubero, Department of Social & Cultural Anthropology at the School of Humanities of Tallinn University. His presentation described the latest findings of an ongoing anthropological film-making project about Lahemaa National Park. Carlo described, “Thinking with a camera contextualises the participant observation experience on cinematic terms and highlights the aesthetic, sensorial, and tonal experiences of fieldwork, over the discursive, structural, and conceptual.” This presentation made the case for the application of film-making methodologies that go beyond the illustrative, the evidential, and data gathering, and propose ways in which film-making methodologies can offer positive contributions to the politics of landscape. To view Carlo’s presentation, please click this LINK.

Jeanne Féaux de la Croix, of the Junior Research group on Environment and Society in Central Asia at the University of Tübingen in Germany discussed the highs and lows of a virtual exhibition on the ‘Social Life’ of the Naryn and Syr Darya rivers in Central Asia. Feeding a partly flourishing, but largely disappearing Aral Sea, these contested rivers connect a wide variety of agricultural, industrial, and post-industrial communities along their 3000-kilometre trajectory. The presentation explored the conditions, possibilities, and limits of art-based and virtual spaces of communicating between Central Asian River communities, river arts and sciences. To view Jeanne’s presentation, please click this LINK.

John Grzinich, sound/video artist, educator and Head of New Media of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Estonian Academy of Arts shared some examples from his creative work that illustrate how listening practices that ground us in time and space also re-establish forms of meaning that challenge the anthropocentric by alluding to the sentience of non-human otherness. “For years I have sought to create experiences that convey perceptions of the world beyond the hegemony of our visually dominant sensory regimes. I have done this using sound as an artistic medium and by engaging myself in various listening based practices”, John said. 

Laura Kuusk, Assistant Professor at the Estonian Academy of Arts shared her interest in the patterns created by human and other-than-human behaviour. She noted, “My presentation is about continuing the route as an artist in the ongoing situation of environmental disaster. As a visual artist I am working with the ideas of the environment that is created by the juxtaposition of biological and technological matter.”

Kitija Balcare, PhD student in environmental humanities at the University of Latvia considered how the pandemic raised awareness of environmental issues through theatre imaginatory and newly approached stages. “Many questions and some subjective answers look on the process of performative arts during the year of pandemic 2020 in Latvia. I am digging deeper for eco-narratives and exploring site-specific theatre choices where site becomes not only scenography, but also co-author of the performance itself,” Kitija commented. To view Kitija’s presentation, please click this LINK.

Alessandro Rippa of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at the LMU Munich and Carolin Maertens, doctoral candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the LMU Munich spoke about hunting, conservation, and multi-species entanglements in the Italian Alps. Their presentation mapped out an ongoing visual project focusing on hunting in a peripheral and impoverished mountain valley in Italy’s Trentino Province. Their presentation was based on long-term ethnography among the valley’s small – and shrinking – community of hunters, and employed camera traps, eco-acoustic recorders, as well as more traditional visual anthropology methods. They addressed the nexus of conservation efforts, memory, and multi-species entanglements that lie at the core of hunting practices in this region. To view Alessandro and Carolin’s presentation, please click this LINK.

Marie Lusson and Christelle Gramaglia from the French Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment Sciences (INRAE), spoke about repairing the rivers of the Anthropocene and offered a story of a socio-visual experiment to move from technical action to care. They said, “Urbanisation and industrialisation have altered the hydromorphological and ecological functioning of many rivers. Different practices and knowledge of the river can then clash, sometimes compromising the implementation of projects. Thanks to a method that mixes ethnographic and filmic investigation, it could be possible to take advantage of the controversies to imagine a new regime of cosmopolitical knowledge of the rivers to be repaired, at the interface of the technical, the sensitive and care.” To view Marie and Christelle’s presentation, please click this LINK.

Eeva Berglund, Adjunct professor of environmental policy, Department of Design at Aalto University completed the first Pecha Kucha panel by discussing the social in environmental imaginings from the point of view of a teacher. Eeva stated, “I find optimism in helping introduce social and political thought to mostly design and business students of a Finnish Masters programme. Promoting sustainability in a very unsustainable environment, it fosters awareness of the inseparability of technical and cultural arrangements. My teaching builds on anthropology, with a particular emphasis on landscapes and livelihoods, as well as the situatedness of all knowledge. My sense is that this enriches both students’ academic work and activism.”

Artists Excursion

The theme of the workshop was aimed to both address through the lens of art and activism  how hope and ruination combine with environmentalism, but it was also expected to chime with the location of the event, a post-socialist country that has decisively moved away from what is experienced as a ruined past. This was accentuated by the specific place where the event took place, a small location of the event, the edge of a uniquely complex peninsula in the outskirts of Tallinn, comprising of partly abandoned Soviet era industrial sites and a refuse heap turned into a view point to admire the surroundings; a water purification and human waste composting plant; a nature protection site – but also a potential seen in this area for a new gentrified sleeping district. This location enabled us to invite to the event the students from the Estonian Academy of Art who had been working in the area before, but now could hone their performative arts projects as a response to the presentations of the workshop. This offered the participants an opportunity to learn to collaborate across disciplines. During the excursion with the students, the participants were treated to performances and exhibitions, and short live clips for those attending from afar. The students described the location as Tallinn’s last fragment of not-sufficiently-capitalised and thus fiercely contested land, and “a place where imagination takes different trajectories, where conflicting dreams collide, often leaving nightmares in their wake.” The performances included some rather close encounters with the hopeful processes of breakdown – from feces to soil – as well as searches for well camouflaged art, encounters with rebellious birds and leaves introducing brief poetic quotes.

The day was concluded at a local vegan restaurant Vegan Oasis.

Panel Two: Ruined pasts, ruined futures?

The second panel and the final day of the event started with the keynote presentation by Annika Lems, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. She spoke about precarious politics of placemaking: why the historicity of environmental future imaginaries matters. Annika commented, “I explore everyday placemaking practices people in an Austrian mountain community engage in as a response to the exploitative and destructive nature of global capitalism.” She zoomed in on grassroot projects aimed at food sovereignty, demonstrating the important social role environmental future imaginaries can take as a means of creating a sense of belonging and solidarity in ‘forgotten’, rural places that are marked by unemployment, defunding and out-migration. As Annika clarified, “This politics of place does not just act against extractive capitalism. Based on historically ingrained notions of otherness, it has the side-effect of reproducing reactionary and exclusionary ideas of belonging to place.” 

The Pecha Kucha presentations commenced with Nikolaos Olma, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, Germany. He considered de-industrialisation and toxicity in a former mining town in Kyrgyzstan. “Mailuu-Suu is a former mining town in southern Kyrgyzstan which produced a partially refined form of uranium ore that fuelled the Soviet nuclear programme. But the Soviet Union’s dissolution led to the town’s rapid de-industrialisation and economic depression, leaving behind poverty, unemployment, and massive outmigration, as well as industrial ruins and empty residential buildings. The slow pace of remediation and the Kyrgyz state’s limited politico-economic involvement in the process make locals pessimistic about the town’s future.” To view Nikolaos’ presentation, please click this LINK.

Dragan Djunda, a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology of the Central European University, spoke about hope at the ruins of energy transition in rural Serbia. “The dispossessive energy transition in the Western Balkans appears in the various forms of ruination and hope. On the one hand, ruination is an ecological consequence of thousands of small hydropower plants that recently mushroomed on the region’s pristine rivers, endangering the survival of both species and communities. On the other hand, it is a socio-material decay characteristic of post-socialist villages, which operates as an enabling condition for extractive investments,” commented Dragan. 

Michaela Haug, Assistant Professor at the University of Cologne, offered a Pecha Kucha presentation that was in essence a story of hope and solidarity that is currently growing out of the ruined forest landscapes of Indonesia. She analysed the attempt of the network Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity (TPOLS) to develop a just transition perspective for the palm oil industry by building on the collaboration between the labour, indigenous peoples and environmental justice movements. To view Michaela’s presentation, please click this LINK.

Man-kei Tam, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Anthropology of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, considered activism after Fukushima. “How can we move on, after Fukushima, from a “damage-centered” analysis that focuses narrowly on the victimhood and incapacitation of affected communities? The collaborations between farmers, citizens, and experts to digitalize agriculture and restart rice cultivation show how their activism unpacks the trajectories of violence and makes powerful claims on the future, despite the open-endedness of the fallout.” To view Man-Kei’s presentation, please click this LINK.

Joonas Plaan, lecturer in anthropology at Tallinn University and a sustainable fisheries expert for Estonian Fund for Nature spoke about nature tourism in Anthropocene landscapes. Joonas said, “Oandu visitor centre in Lahemaa National Park is a starting point for numerous hiking, study and cycling trails. The trails pass ecosystems and landscapes with various conservation values, inviting its visitors to learn and think about the human-environment interactions in the past and present. What do the trails mean for the tourists visiting the park, its managers, and developers, and what is the role of trails in landscape conservation? Overall, does nature tourism bring hope for creating future landscapes?”  To view Joonas’ presentation, please click this LINK.

The panel was concluded by dr. Markéta Zandlová of the Faculty of Humanities at the Charles University in Prague. She discussed creative worldmaking – tracing the transformative acts of human and non-human inhabitants of the landscape of Untertannowitz – Dolní Dunajovice, a village in former German South Moravia. “My focus is on activists, winegrowers, solitary trees, tumbleweed, and maps, and how they move together towards sustainability and resilience despite ruination and environmental degradation.”  To view Markéta’s presentation, please click this LINK.

Panel Three: Hope and activism across boundaries

The final panel commenced with a keynote presentation by Stine Krøijer, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen. She spoke on activism and its futures in landscapes of broken developmental dreams. She discussed how, in the second half of the 20th Century, modernization projects and associated narratives of economic development and progress made their imprint on landscapes and altered human relations to nature. Across ideological and political standpoints such narratives informed people’s outlook to the future and even their projects of progressive political change. Yet no more than a decade after the story about reaching an “end of history” gained momentum among European politicians – a story advocating the idea that a particular politico-economic formation would constitute the endpoint of all societal development – it became accompanied and even overwritten by experiences of environmental destruction and anthropogenic climate change. Stine commented, “I take my point of departure in landscapes of broken developmental dreams with a view to examine the forms of activism that they may give rise to. I take the listeners to sites of environmental destruction in both Germany, Denmark, and Amazonia. I do so to outline human and non-human forms of vigorous action, their relation to imperial debris and renderings of time, and to discuss the roles that anthropologists might take in such projects.”

The Pecha Kucha presentations started with Larisa Kurtović, Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa and Yanna Jović, University of Ottawa, and Program Advisor for Employment and Social Development, Canada. They spoke of postindustrial natures and post-extractive futures in postwar Bosnia Herzegovina. In 2018, an activist campaign in the central Bosnian town of Vareš successfully challenged the plan of an EU-sponsored ¡Vamos! Program to test underwater mining equipment in a nearby pit-lake Nula which formed on the site of the now-defunct coal mine. The presenters said, “How might we make anthropological sense of zones of anthropogenic resource depletion that are at once potentially toxic and beautiful, and emerge as unlikely sites of affection, communal care, and environmentalist concern?” To view Larisa’s presentation, please click this LINK.

This was followed by the presentation of Eunice Blavaskunas, Associate Professor at the Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She considered outbreaks of bark beetle and nationalism in the Białowieża Forest, Poland and the way forest activists, bark beetle and the nationalist turn afford the opportunity to think through how the forest and its ecology are suffused with agency and agents of change. To view Eunice’s presentation, please click this LINK.

Maike Melles, M.A., from the Frobenius Institute for Research in Cultural Anthropology, spoke about hierarchies of knowledge between landowners and land workers in the Spanish Dehesa landscape. The presentation noted that overgrazing has led to impoverished soils which are less and less able to sustain animal herds throughout the year. Emblematic of these developments are the numerous fences that criss-cross the once vast dehesas. To view Maike’s presentation, please click this LINK.

This was followed by a Pecha Kucha presentation by Ruy Llera Blanes, Associate Professor and Carolina Valente Cardoso, Postdoctoral Researcher at the School of Global Studies of University of Gothenburg on hope and citizenship frameworks in the face of drought, devolution, and death in Southern Angola. They said, “Southern Angola has been experiencing a cycle of extreme drought and food insecurity. Small-scale farmers and herding communities struggle against political and economic interests. We studied the material and rhetorical architecture of relief and aid mobilization, to illustrate the autonomist and collaborative modalities of personhood and citizenship entailed in these grassroots activist projects.”

Helen Vaaks, researcher at the Lahemaa National Park, spoke about endangered species, threats, and conservation through the case study of the life of freshwater pearl mussels in the hands of humans in Estonia. She utilized this case study to highlight the importance of human-environment relation for the meanings of biodiversity, the ethics of landscape manipulation and hope for conservation.

Arev Papazian, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and social anthropology at the Central European University, considered conflicting stances toward the ecological change of Armenia’s Lake Sevan. He commented, “The ecology of Lake Sevan in Armenia has seen decades of overexploiting the lake’s waters, overfishing, pollution, and increasing water temperatures due to climate change. Today the damage brought by human activities is acknowledged and the state regulates and monitors activities affecting the lake’s ecosystem.” The presentation discussed the differing positions of environmental activists and local communities toward the ecological change of Lake Sevan. 

Jeannine-Madeleine Fischer of University of Konstanz concluded the third Pecha Kucha panel with an exploration of the South Durban local community’s proximity to polluting industries. She commented, “The local community keeps fighting for environmental justice and develops diverse strategies to make their daily sufferings provable: local activists keep records of local cancer cases, monitor air quality through bucket air control and document spills and illegal dumping to confront authorities.” The presentation illustrated how embodied knowledge is passed on through toxic tours and a range of tools to create an informed understanding and capacity to act among the community, imbuing the struggle with prospects of hope. 

The workshop successfully considered the themes of environment, post-socialism, ruination, and hope and brought together the disciplines of anthropology and performative arts to go beyond the academic sector by involving local activists. While the format of short Pecha Kucha presentations already worked well in the Inaugural Network Event in Cologne 2019, it proved particularly valuable in the hybrid environment of this event. Top posts from the seminar reached about 150 viewers. The convenors would like to thank everyone involved in making this event a successful example of engagement and sharing of research in environmental anthropology and beyond. 

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