Extrodæsia encyclopedia: navigating in an anthropocentrism-transcending world

A strong urge to democratise brought the extrodæsia encyclopedia to life: while philosophy, social sciences, literature, and the fine arts are shaped by the notion of the Anthropocene, spectators’ understandings of works in these fields are frequently impeded by their lack of knowledge about pertinent theories. The lack of access is not always a matter of will. Whether we have the time and resources necessary to read the most recent, generally English philosophical works is essentially a question of class. The personal and professional interests of the artists involved with extrodæsia were reconcilable with the systematic reading of these pieces, but what is even more important, is that they did not retain this knowledge, but created a book undertaking the role of a dictionary. 

Extrodæsia can take on the role of a compass for multiple strata: those that wish to create in textual or visual form, or those that wish to be the recipients of these pieces. Or, for that matter anyone with whom the climate discourse has caught up, so by now, just about everyone. The creators of the dictionary also paid attention to avoid that their end-product remain tied to its own linguistic context. They expanded the accessibility of the encyclopedia by publishing it in both Hungarian and English. 

The dictionary’s most frequently cited concept is the Anthropocene, the speculation that posits human activity (environmental pollution, mass extinction, deforestation, overpopulation, etc.) has had such a profound impact on planet Earth that we should name the geological epoch following the Holocene after humans. As a critique to this understanding of the Anthropocene, capitalocene proposes that the destruction cannot be considered the entire human species’ collective action, but destruction is rather generated by capitalist exploiters, while the exploited bear the burden. 

Illustration by Rita Süveges

The dictionary’s entries include concepts necessary to grasp ongoing destruction and a web of concepts that offer escape routes for society living in the shadow of a climate catastrophe. For instance, it includes theories that remove man from the center of philosophy and discuss a co-ordinated theory of existence in which all entities are peers. Or Donna Haraway’s notion of kinship, which is an answer to the overpopulation of Earth: “make kin, not babies”. 

The dictionary is a grand interdisciplinary endeavour, which was thought up and developed by Anna Zilahi, Gideon Horváth, and Rita Süveges. Their cooperation dates back quite a bit: the xtro realm art group has already created multiple, similarly themed events, including group exhibitions; fieldtrips that expanded our understanding of nature and environmental destruction; and reading sessions, where participants read classics introducing concepts that they later included into the dictionary. The artists of xtro realm wrote a number of the entries, which were expanded with the theory-oriented contributions of five invited authors. Moreover, six well-known Hungarian poets wrote prose poems in dialogue with these concepts. This leads the end result to supersede the typical framework of an encyclopedia. They created a book-object, which facilitated the development of a transdisciplinary (artistic) work method, while it was also testament to this approach – it provides an example to what it sets out to accomplish. It is simultaneously a methodological manual and a show-piece. The prose poems reflect the influence of a new ontology in literature, conveying a use of language that enables us to grasp the world as it approaches ecological catastrophe. Rita Süveges’ graphics also represent the organic community of theoretical knowledge and artistic representation.

extrodæsia – Encyclopedia Towards a Post-Anthropocentric World. Typotex, Budapest, 2019.

Photo by Judit Flora

What does extrodæsia, the title of the dictionary, mean?

Anna Zilahi: We created this neologism from a term used in land-surveying. It refers to surveying the external world, with the addition of the extro prefix. The concept attempts to describe the book’s intention that we ought to supersede an anthropocentric world. We look at and survey, what lies beyond it.

Rita Süveges: The creation of the concept also links to the book’s visuality. Landscape, as a concept, surfaced during our brainstorming. This was not particularly surprising, given that I engage with the landscape in my doctoral research. Simultaneously, I was immersed in a 3D modelling software which I was attending at the time. These contributed to the idea, that we should create a non-existent three dimensional (CGI) landscape, where we are free to roam and which helps us map the intellectual content of the book. We did not seek to convey independent terms or concepts, but rather to construct a space where these installations (essentially the CGI artistic creations) are present. This is how, for example, a hybrid plant was created, which consists of different elements of various trees. In other locations, ancient rhinoceros footprints continue into the landscape with spiral-shaped bird feathers fluttering above. The book came together organically: texts and visuals were created gradually. Finally, a map-covered landscape emerged, providing both assessment and direction.

Already prior to the publication of the book you worked together as an artist collective called xtro realm. Where does this name originate from? 

Zilahi: The xtro realm name was inspired by French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux’s Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction text. The study essentially focuses on whether or not a non-scientific fantasy genre can exist, which exists independent of the laws of physics and in doing so also looks beyond the paradigmatic dogmas and rules of sciences. That is, can we imagine a fantasy beyond all of this? A reality that exists outside the system of rules determining contemporary thought is embedded in this notion, which is why I chose to name our projects at the time as such. In our collective’s name, xtro refers to what I have mentioned, while realm translates to empire. Therefore, xtro realm is a world beyond human construction – ultimately, the object of our artistic inquiry. 

Was it a challenge for you, as artists, to create a text-based piece, a book-object?

Süveges: If we look at the creation of the book’s corpus from a curator’s standpoint, then Anna was the head curator (Anna Zilahi is an active poet and translator – the editor). Thus, it was her job to choose the authors. Of course, alongside this, we all edited the texts and wrote entries as well. We continuously read theoretical pieces and occasionally, as a part of our artistic work or for scholarships, we write such texts as well. It was not an entirely unknown, but nonetheless very insightful process. The text’s conceptual part was accessible to us, given our experience with theory and despite us not primarily occupied with writing. Moreover, editing was significantly facilitated by Márk Losoncz philosopher, who took on the role of a strong-willed lector in developing the corpus, and Ákos Déri the editor of the volume at Typotex Publishing.

Gideon Horváth: All three of us have an interest in research-based art, which primarily draws on the written word. Thus, working with texts was not entirely new to us, but it was still very exciting to see how a theoretician or a writer approaches this book. There were cases when a writer would send us a text that turned out to be very theoretical. We found ourselves in an interesting situation, since we had to decide where to draw the boundary: did we want literature pieces to be highly theoretical as well or do we want to keep them more lyrical? When we discussed this with the given author, we learnt that ultimately we speak the same language and that there is no significant chasm between the artist and the writer – we understood each other from the onset and did not have to engage in extensive elaboration. This was a wonderful experience, it is not by chance that interdisciplinarity is such an important basis of xtro realm’s projects. It was also eye-opening to see that we may have had many contributors from numerous fields, but ultimately the pieces formed an organic, harmonious whole with many overlaps – something we did not expect.

Why did you find it important to create such a dictionary?

Zilahi: We began our projects in 2017, by organising the first reading groups, followed by an exhibition based on these, which were then followed by further reading sessions, and finally, Rita joined us with Anthropocene-themed field trips. When we began these, we had already considered that the knowledge we had collected should become tangible and accessible. However, our main motivation was that there was a very limited discourse on the ecological catastrophe or the Anthropocene in the fine art or the literary scenes. We found that it was very difficult to enter this discourse and the minimum predicaments for this were to possess not only English, but Hungarian terms that facilitated participation. We compiled a list of concepts that we thought were necessary, but simultaneously we acknowledged that we are not theoreticians and therefore do not wish to publish a merely philosophical and socio-theoretical dictionary. Instead, we set out to create a transmedial piece of work where various forms of knowledge could engage in dialogue with one-another. Meanwhile, the bilingual nature of the publication reconnects it to the English language; a gesture, with which we sought to indicate that we are able to contribute to the discourse which we drew upon. 

Horváth: It’s important to add that Anna and I met at the Intermedia Department of the University of Fine Arts in Budapest, which we both attended after having studied abroad. Both of us already had an understanding of what a well-functioning higher education institution should resemble. We both ended up dropping out of the university programme following our first year, because we felt that that setting did not allow us to progress as we had hoped. The suffocating environment both there and in the broader Hungarian institutional system we experienced fuelled our eagerness take action, to create a discourse and a community-based knowledge sharing project, providing a foundation for the fine arts to inquire about the climate catastrophe. The Studio of Young Artists’ Association provided a perfect setting for this – where Rita and I are still leadership members – by continuing to allow very important projects to come to life. The institutional system’s suffocation that we experienced was only a small part of the process, but it provided motivation for us to create xtro realm. Since then, there has been a profound change in the collective conscious regarding the climate catastrophe. When we initially began to engage with the Anthropocene or global warming, we experienced a general incomprehension or cynicism from people. Climate catastrophe only blew up as an unavoidable theme of colloquial language when we were preparing this book, during the spring of 2019. 

Süveges: A point of my frustration that relates to what has been said links to the fine art scene. When I enrolled in my doctoral school in 2014, a young female artist colleague of mine presented her work focused on trees. The Head of the Doctoral School, naturally a man, asked her “so you like trees?” In the five years that have elapsed since, the environment has changed enough to allow us to engage with topics that are not solely dedicated to introduce the experiences of humans and their society. What’s more, the ecological turn has slowly grown to affect all domains of the arts and is not labelled naïve tree-hugging anymore. 

Climate Crisis and the Imaginary field trip to the Zsámbok Biofarm, led by Logan Strenchock, 2019. Photo by Rita Süveges

Do you think it is an artist’s moral obligation today to engage with the climate catastrophe? 

Süveges: No. In principle, In principle, I do not think that a normative statement dictating moral obligations to artists can be made with respect to anything. If we expand the question to include what the role of an intellectual is in this respect, we find ourselves on a slippery slope, yet again. We have to consider that engaging with this topic presumes a certain level of well-being. It’s quite clear that we cannot expect families living in deep poverty to reduce their consumption, given their lack of access to essential services. The long-term social objective should be to ensure that material well-being manifests more evenly globally and locally – a key tenet of ecological thinking. This is the only way we can introduce ecological principles into organising our lives, which, by the way, recursively affect us, since the health of the Earth’s ecosystem fundamentally shapes our well-being as well.

Zilahi: It would be important for everyone to engage with this question, but not only at the level of the individual, but rather on a societal level, applying a system-oriented approach. The individual can (and should!) make efforts, but most things should be managed at the community level. Naturally, how and with which tools cannot be defined. An artist can engage with this question, without this surfacing in their work. The current pandemic, interpretable as the result of the ecological crisis, also reflects how we are all impacted, but to different extents.

Horváth: I think that it is not a moral obligation to engage with this question as an artist, but it is an obligation to do so as a civilian. No one can escape the impact of the climate crisis, and by now it is not a question of whether we want to engage with it or not. Of course, it makes a great difference what knowledge constitutes the basis of engagement.

Given that you have worked philosophical and artistic accessibility of the ecological crisis for such and extensive period of time has your approach to the topic changed? If so, how?

Zilahi: Our approach has changed a great deal and I find one of the project’s strengths to be rooted in its process-based approach, it continuously grows. Our intellectual development has become inscribed into it. Our initial reading sessions were focused on new realist concepts, but this has since shifted to a more ecological approach. And, our interests in ecology has continuously expanded to include a perspective critical of capitalism, which has since become a key element of our projects.

Horváth: We also held a large number of book launches domestically and abroad that stimulated intellectual development, because the interesting feedback we attained shaped our thoughts about the topic and this has been reflected in more recent projects. In our own environment, a concept’s use can frequently become self-evident; thus, it was very interesting when we could discuss them in foreign environments.

Süveges: It has become a goal of ours not to remain within the confines a single scientific field, but to create connections between different fields, and to link them in a way that allows them form a single whole. Ecological questions cannot be severed from social questions. For example, when seeing the very material process of energy production in an oil refinery during a field trip, we also discuss what fossil capitalism means. We try to link different fields to expand our horizon of understanding: ecological questions cannot be separated from questions of capitalism, economic, social, and cultural determinations. These are woven into a single fabric, as are they in our lives. This would be transdisciplinarity’s key point and the basis of a new redistribution of knowledge. We engage with the arts precisely because it welcomes the radical juxtaposition of ideas.

xtro realm exhibition

Exhibitions, reading groups, field trips and a bilingual encyclopedia is behind you. What’s the next step?

Zilahi: We were set to introduce an exhibition titled ACLIM! (Agency for Climate Imaginary!) at the third installment of the OFF-Biennale in Budapest. This was the result of a year and a half work process and was to include Slovakia-based artists, András Cséfalvay and Csilla Nagy. The exhibition would have been developed similarly to extrodæsia: with the involvement of geologists, ecologists, and representatives of other scientific fields. The global pandemic has forced us to postpone this even by a year. Recent weeks and the cancellation of the project have, however, allowed us to intensely work on assembling the Climate Imaginary Reader, which was to be the a reader accompanying the exhibition. The ten texts that we included from invited contributors explore the linkages between the climate catastrophe and the social imaginary. It unmasks the ideological determination of our thought and seeks to move us beyond the climate catastrophe-induced paralysis, paving the way for the imagination’s new pathways to devise alternative futures. It discusses experiencing the world’s contingency, the alternative forms of action, regional energy imaginaries, ecofeminism, and numerous other related topics. The Reader’s English version will also be published in tranzit.hu’s Mezosfera in September, so stay tuned! 

English translation: John Szabó