07 November 2018

Visualising the Challenges of the Anthropocene

07 November 2018 - Written by Laurence Cornet

Rooted in a commitment to study the inextricable relationship between mankind and nature, visual artist, Katie Holten investigates the collapse of language and looming crisis of representation as our species adapts to life in the Anthropocene.

© Katie Holten, from the work in progress, Stone Alphabet

In Learning How To Die In The Anthropocene, writer Roy Scranton writes: “We have passed the point of no return. From the point of view of policy experts, climate scientists and national security officials, the question is no longer whether global warming exists or how we might stop it, but how we are going to deal with it.”

For the past 15 years, artist Katie Holten has been hosting salons in her New York City apartment, inviting artists and scientists along with the likes of Scranton to discuss the issue. “We wanted to focus on art and activism at this specific moment and use it as a way to frame the conversation about the Anthropocene”, she explains. “The one thing that keeps coming back in these conversations is about stories - we need new stories, for ourselves and for our communities, in order to address the problem, engage and negotiate change.”

© Katie Holten, drawing from the work in progress, Stone Alphabet

Since her beginnings in 1997, Holten has worked on the relationship between nature, environment and landscape on a planetary and personal scale. She explored the similarities between artefacts and natural phenomena, turned satellite photographs of the Earth at night into skyscapes, and surveyed Louisiana’s coastline, criss-crossed with oil exploitation’s channels. “I am interested in how patterns replicate in different scales”, she says, about her work.

In 2015, she has created a remarked “tree alphabet”, in which each letter corresponds to a different species. And by doing so, she invented a visual language usable by everyone – one that turns sentences into forests and translates the poetry inherent to nature. The following year, during a residency at the Camargo Foundation, in Southern France, she began writing an entire novel, based this time on an infinite alphabet - that is, the myriad of stones that she collected on a headland facing the Foundation. “I wanted to translate Cap Canaille into a short story in my notebook with all these characters and thought of the photograms as a way to illustrate it”, she says.

© Katie Holten, from the work in progress, Stone Alphabet

Reminiscent of an old process, they give Holten’s drawings and research the touch of old botanic catalogs. In the tiny blue frames, the nuggets of stones she picked draw the same lines as those of the larger cliff they’ve been extracted from. Unexpectedly, they take the viewer back to the formation of the Earth itself, when particles exposed to high temperatures and pressures formed into stones of various shapes. “When I worked on the field with geologist Juliette Lamarche, we looked at my books and realized that we were looking at stones the same way. But she had the knowledge of what these lines mean, and how it’s connected to the landmass. So, her lines have a tridimensional reality”, Holten recalls.

More strikingly, her photograms are a statement in trying to slow down. “Photograms show a different truth. You pick up a stone, place it and 20 minutes later you have a memory of it”, she continues. “I realized that it was capturing something essential – time, which is futile and impossible.”


Katie Holten is an Irish artist and resistance fighter based in New York. She has been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including a Fulbright Scholarship, Pollock Krasner Award, and multiple Bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.


Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

4 minutes

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