The Anthropocene Series // The Otolith Group: Earthquake Sensitives and the Science of Affect

The Anthropocene Series looks at shows in the framework of the two year project launched by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, running from January 2013 to December 2014. Through a series of comprehensive exhibitions, the Anthropocene Project aims to investigate a paradigm shift in the natural sciences toward a human-centred understanding of nature.

When Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar of the London-based collective The Otolith Group presented their exhibition Medium Earth last week at HKW, they emphasised the curatorial unease of their piece inside this weighty cultural institution. Leading into the screening room, where the film-essay ‘Medium Earth’ played, was a trail of hand-scrawled faxes under glass vitrines. On a research trip to California, the group happened upon an informal archive of “warning” letters, written by Earthquake sensitives – those who predict seismic onset through feelings in their bodies – to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in California since the early 1990s. The very intimate nature of these letters (redacted for anonymity) made them a strange addition to the museum atmosphere.

As Eshun described them during the public talk, the missives read like something in between love letters and death threats, written with the kind of intensity reserved for passionate obsessives. As a result, they were virtually disregarded by USGS scientists, and only kept by the receptionist out of pure interest. The predictions offered by the “sensitives” – precisely marked with date and time – present a very real physical awareness of shifting geological formations, which was not deemed scientific enough to be taken seriously by professionals.

Nevertheless, the sensitives persist with their warnings and what emerges, once more, is the disjuncture between affect and reason. While somewhat of a warn trope, the topic continues to captivate us perhaps because of our ongoing blind faith in the field of science, experimental as it is. Institutionalized inquiry tends to win out against personal feelings (however systematic they may be) in the battle for scientific truth, despite countless other methodologies for understanding the world, largely deemed too ‘esoteric.’ In the context of the anthropocene, what is more appropriate than a truly human reading of seismology?

The Otolith Group’s work has always been attuned to post-colonial discourses in both aural and visual cultures. The talk, however, presented some problematic binaries: linking the earthquake sensitives’ methods to practices of indigenous groups worldwide, while simultaneously characterizing the “indigenous” Californian they were investigating as a yuppie-meditating-yoga-new-age-type (surprisingly seeming not to recognize the actual First Nations population of the West Coast). This comparison inadvertently undermined the argument, by presenting affective and scientific knowledge as polar opposites, rather than suggesting where they might intersect, and re-instating the prophetics within psychological and racialized stereotypes.

The semi-poetic film-essay from their time in Southern California is an accumulation of sound and images that make up a narrative about the changing geological scape of the area and its effects on the population, especially the earthquake prophetic. The exhibition was created in 2013 for the Los Angeles REDCAT Center for Contemporary Art and is now presented at the HKW until December 8th, as the final instalment in the Anthropocene Project.


Additional Information

HKW – Haus der Kulturen der Welt
“Medium Earth” – THE OTOLITH GROUP
Exhibition: Oct. 17 – Dec. 08, 2014
John-Foster-Dulles Allee. 10 (click here for map)


Blog entry by Alison Hugill in Berlin; Monday, Nov. 24, 2014.

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