The Apocalypse is Selective, Not Total: Geoffrey Pugen’s Disanthropic Moment

Geoffrey Pugen, "Skeleton Lake," 2020. Courtesy the artist and MKG127.
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I clung to my ferocious habits, yet half despised them; I continued my war against civilization, and yet entertained a wish to belong to it.

– Mary Shelley, The Last Man

The first remote weather station I encountered was named THELMA (The Harp Environmental Lake Monitoring Ark), anchored in the middle of the 100-foot deep waters of Harp Lake, an oligotrophic lake in central Ontario. Since 2010, THELMA has transmitted biomonitoring and meteorological data to the Dorset Environmental Science Centre at a staggering rate of one update every ten minutes. I paddled over to THELMA as hesitantly as the apes approaching the monolith in 2001. The mechanical raft, adorned with solar panels, barometers, anemometers, sleek weathervanes, and other more esoteric gadgets, appeared to have fallen from orbit. Even though no person was aboard, my presence felt perverse; noticed, but unacknowledged. The air was slightly damp; to borrow a phrase from Dylan Moran, I was nothing more than a hot flea pacing through the gulping dark of THELMA’s statistical universe.

Geoffrey Pugen’s Weather Room, at MKG127  in Toronto, elicits a similar biocentric reaction, strategically eliminating anthropos from the frame. Greg Garrard, eco-theorist and Associate Professor of Sustainability at UBC Okanagan, has described this structural move in narrative storytelling as “the disanthropic moment,” possibly playing on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the decisive moment in photography. Garrard’s essay “Worlds Without Us: Some Types of Disanthropy” can be found in Issue 127 of the journal SubStance published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2012. Garrard distinguishes disanthropy from misanthropy when disanthropists (who may also have misanthropic inclinations) envisage their own absence in a hypothetical, unpeopled future. It can be an alluring thought. Permitted to flourish, this would be The World Without Us, as it’s referred to in Alan Weisman’s thoroughly-researched step-by-step account of what would happen if humanity suddenly disappeared. Pugen engages with the tropes of sci-fi, but his depictions are too immediate to be speculative, too tangible to be fiction. The world he represents is a familiar world – lush, sublime, and worth missing. The same strategy of trope-subversion was famously used by Rachel Carson in “A Fable for Tomorrow,” the first chapter of Silent Spring (1962), where she cleverly hijacks the pastoral genre to retell the story of what was happening to ecosystems with the indiscriminate use of DDT in the 1960s – yet the mechanical indifference of Pugen’s camera distills its message with more acuity than the relational warmth of prose, making a suitable medium for a disanthropic world.

Geoffrey Pugen, “29 Palms,” 2020. Courtesy the artist and MKG127.

Weather Room is bracketed by two photos that highlight the co-dependent relationship between the natural and the manufactured. In the front space, Butterfly Museum (2020) depicts a verdant burst of tropical foliage housed in what appears to be an expansively-windowed Modernist structure. At the back of the gallery, Skeleton Lake (2020) intrudes on the charred interior of a recently-incinerated, cordoned off cabin on a quiet Muskoka lake. Skeleton Lake, reminiscent of photographer John Divola’s California beachfront Zuma series, is one of a few nods to the contemporary canon in the exhibition, with echoes of Nancy Holt, Nam June Paik, and the art hubs New York City, Paris, and Venice. Just as Venice is a synecdoche for both the artworld and Global Warming’s rising tides, the lone spider tending its web stands in for all the surviving networks of non-human life – a hint that Pugen’s apocalypse is selective, not total.

Geoffrey Pugen, “Old Montreal,” 2020. Courtesy the artist and MKG127.

The disanthropic moment in Weather Room struck me while returning the gaze of a coy fawn stalling within the Diefenbunker (2020). The Diefenbunker is a 100,000-square-foot relic of the Cold War – an underground fortification constructed 30 kilometers west of Ottawa between 1959 and 1961 to shelter government and military officials in the event of a nuclear attack. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that humans had been digitally erased from the photos. Like many people who take pictures, I’ve agonizingly waited for lingering perambulators to leave in order to frame a composition that is more essential and less restricted to the timestamp of random passers-by; that Pugen merely had fortuitous timing wasn’t beyond possible in my mind. This makes the images eerily convincing and distances them from the more incredulous conceits of the sci-fi genre.

Geoffrey Pugen, “Diefenbunker,” 2020. Courtesy the artist and MKG127.

In a recent conversation with Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) curator Julian Cox, Pugen referenced Robert Rauschenberg, specifically the Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), as a catalyst for the works in Weather Room. Beyond erasure as a generative methodology, it’s worthwhile to consider Rauschenberg’s “combines” in the context of Pugen’s weather stations and the discordant data-collages they display. Collected over the course of eight years, Pugen has stitched together, layered, manipulated, and intensified an enormous variety of meteorological graphics and animations. The stations’ structure of steel tubing and pragmatic welds register on a human scale with their concave screens ergonomically thrusting toward the viewer. The anomaly is a monitor resting atop a hexapod base that recalls the techno-fauna crawling through Arthur C. Clarke’s alien starship in Rendezvous with Rama (1973). This weather station, Station 4, is the most overt reference to the sci-fi genre in the exhibition.

Geoffrey Pugen, “Station 4,” 2020. Courtesy the artist and MKG127.

The stations remind us that the weather, the short-term, erratic persona of climate, is only accurately described as data, which is later analyzed and translated into visual information, often in the form of graphs, maps, and animations. The apparatuses that deliver these data are abundant, stationed in the oceans, at the poles, in the thermosphere, and nearly all places inhabited by humans. Occupying these stations would be impractical, so most of them have been designed to observe the world independently. With this autonomy of information-processing, Pugen orchestrates a scenario in which the surveillance infrastructure outlives the species it was designed to oversee. What we’re left with is a world of machines enmeshed symbiotically with the non-human organisms of the world, finally closing the pestering, ontological gap between “nature” and “culture” – a division in occidental thought that contemporary eco-criticism has strived to rectify. In the absence of a ghost, the machine marches on.

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