Craig Campbell: Anthropocene Greetings

On Thursday, September 2, Craig Campbell shared his project, “Anthropocene Greetings,” with the Faculty Fellows. Campbell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and directs the Intermedia Workshop at UT Austin. He is also part of the collaborative Bureau for Experimental Ethnography.

“Birthday (humorous);” “Anniversary (special);” “Graduation (money holder); “Any Occasion (blank).” Most of us have perused the rows of greeting cards at a drugstore or Target, looking for an appropriate sentiment to send to a nephew who is getting married, or a far-away friend celebrating a birthday.  But what is a greeting card, really, and what does it do? What sorts of social relations does it make and sustain? Campbell’s project, “Anthropocene Greetings,” seeks to explore the possibilities offered by creating and sharing greetings that address climate catastrophe.

Campbell presented from inside the Design Lab in the campus Fine Arts Building. He introduced the Fellows to the Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection, which include the 19th Century typefaces he has used to make a variety of anthropocene greeting cards.

Campbell describes  Anthropocene Greetings as a project of research-creation, a methodology that considers the place of making in the practice of research. Citing the work of Erin Manning and Brian Massumi in Thought in the Act and Natalie Loveless in How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto for Research-Creation, he explained that research-creation permits movement between disciplinary territories and asks the question, “what counts as research?”

Campbell walked the Fellows through the process of creating a letterpress print, showing them the Vandercook press used to print the cards. He emphasized the embodied and sensory nature of the printmaking process: the ways in which the printmaker becomes related to the machine as it forces certain postures or bodily behaviors, the squelch of the ink as it is expressed. The process forces the maker to slow down. The type must be set, the paper cannot be rushed through the press, the ink must dry between each color application. For Campbell, the slowness of the process allows for different kinds of thinking.

Greeting cards serve as a form of “human infrastructure,” helping us to send words of condolence or celebration while alleviating the burden of coming up with them on our own. They are “gestures of concern” (Ingraham 2020) that promote shared awareness and seek to create connection. Sending a card permits us to discharge an obligation with minimal effort and, perhaps, minimal risk. Fellows discussed what sorts of accountability and care greeting cards in general, and Campbell’s Anthropocene greetings in particular, offer.

The climate crisis prompts us to question the effectiveness of individual acts when confronting complicated and multi-pronged problems. Loveless suggests that research-creation “can persuade us to care and to care differently” (2019: 107). Making and sharing Anthropocene greetings provides a means to communicate concerns about climate change, a small way to shore up the world, a minor gesture that reminds “us” that we’re all in this together, though we may not experience it in the same way. Perhaps expressing care through the template of a card creates more mental and emotional space for other, more large-scale, efforts and affects.

The climate crisis prompts us to question the effectiveness of individual acts when confronting its complicated and multi-pronged  problems. Loveless suggests that research-creation “can persuade us to care and to care differently” (2019: 107). Making and sharing   anthropocene greetings provides a means to communicate concerns about climate change, a small way to shore up the world, a minor gesture that reminds “us” that we’re all in this together. Perhaps expressing care through the template of a card creates more mental and emotional space for other, more large-scale, efforts.

Fellows questioned whether the form of the greeting card works across different social and cultural contexts, citing communities in which cards are not part of a shared affective vocabulary. They also explored “touch” as both a physical form of, and a metaphor for, care: keeping in touch, a touching message, feeling moved by a message. What about moments when touch and closeness are undesirable?  Liberal ideals of community and commons stress conviviality, but Covid puts pressure on those ideals.  If the cards are about creating social relations, what sorts of relations are created when they are sent to those who deny climate change? Perhaps the cards communicate dissent, or serve as provocations.

The question of access also surfaced. Printmaking requires access to materials and equipment.  Additionally, there are many kinds of print cultures. What are the possibilities for meeting communities on their own terms? How does literacy work into the the question of affect? Can communities that don’t operate in that mode participate in the project? What would broadening the typefaces used in the cards imply?

Campbell acknowledges the limitations of the form, while positing it as a site of possibility. Non-literate people live among literate people; cards are often read aloud or become prompts for narratives, like photos in albums. Once the card is made and sent, it is in the hands of someone who can alter it. The cards provide a low-stakes invitation to play even if the maker or recipient is not personally familiar with the custom. Future plans include workshops to be hosted in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada with Cree participants, and at Marfa Community Print in West Texas. Working with Cree syllabics might require making a new typeface, while the Marfa site could allow for access to Spanish language typefaces.

Creating anthropocene greetings provides an opportunity for conviviality that pushes against and extends beyond congeniality and what  Teju Cole, writing in The Atlantic,  calls the “sentimental need to ‘make a difference'” (2012) that undergirds many white Western responses to social injustices. A greeting card cannot halt climate disaster, but its creation and dissemination can be part of efforts to sustain community.  It’s an imperfect response to an impossible situations. As Campbell said in closing, everyday materials present much with which to work.

 

 

 

 

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