Feral Atlas

Reviewed by:
Nicholas Dease, Digital Learning Librarian
Pratt Institute Libraries

ARLIS/NA Multimedia & Technology Reviews
April 2022

The anthropocene, a new geological period defined by humanity’s indelible mark on nature, is a topic of great interest among scholars in various disciplines. One doesn’t need to look far to discover a wealth of literature, datasets, news articles, and documentaries exploring the topic. However, it is rare that we see attempts to capture this phenomena as a work of art in the digital humanities. Published online by Stanford University Press, Feral Atlas is an openly accessible experiment that does just that. It is at once a work of interactive digital art, a dense informational resource for researchers, and a passionate call to action.

The image shows an overhead view of a port with buildings, shipping containers, and ships drawn in oblique view, with a gathering of people near two smokestacks. The water is shown in shades of blue and green, fumes are shown yellow, and other small multicolored accents are scattered throughout.
An image from Feral Atlas, depicting a port scene, pollution, and protest.

Curated and edited by Anna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena and Feifei Zhou, the Feral Atlas is a set of four massive interactive artworks or maps, seventy-nine field reports produced by humanists, artists and scientists, and a “Super Index” to enable a more traditional exploration of the essays, poems, and other multimedia content. As described in the introduction, its goal is to invite the user to explore the “feral effects” of the anthropocene–to explore the ways in which human interventions have produced effects beyond human control.

The image shows a scene of two areas of land, shown in bright green, separated by an hourglass-shaped area of water, shown in shades of blue. The land on the left side shows leafy plants and trees and four human figures. Three humans appear to be land surveyors, and a fourth human points a gun at an elephant. The land on the right shows planted fields and a field of purple flowers, between which is the back view of a human holding a gun.
An image from Feral Atlas, depicting an interpretive view of colonization.

The experience of interacting with the atlas begins in an empty plane of white. Over time, a random selection of feral effects to explore drift into the browser viewport. Clicking on these effects will drop the user on one of the four maps, named Invasion, Empire, Capital, and Acceleration. From there, the user is invited to explore the map by panning, zooming, and clicking on feral effects represented by interactive dots or pins. Clicking on the dots reveals a “Tipper.” These are rich and often poetic descriptions of ecological changes that “shift ecologies past tipping points.” Viewing the tipper content provides a direct link to a field report that describes the effect in-depth and may reveal additional poetry, video, or other multimedia.

While the overall experience should be familiar to users that have navigated online interactive maps, the atlas itself is quite opaque at first blush. Much of this is intentional. Users are invited to slowly explore, learn how the system works, and come to their own conclusions. As such, the interface design and link names are quite unconventional and may confuse first-time users. This is reminiscent of the early days of the web, when interfaces were experimental and game-like. For impatient users, clicking on the rotating key at the top-left will direct them to the Super Index, where they can pick and choose what to explore in a more structured manner.

As for the content, the artwork, essays, poetry, and video poems are all impeccably produced. It is a joy to discover new things and ruminate on the themes. Even panning over the four maps can be a powerful aesthetic experience in itself. Certain segments are painted. Others are drawn in a sketchy minimalist style and others still are collage. The compositions are all imbued with dense meaning and references.

However, there are some challenges with the design of the atlas. Particularly, the website is not optimized for mobile devices. Attempting to view it in a mobile browser will trigger a message to urge the user to view it on a desktop or laptop instead. However, this doesn’t detract from the value of the work.

Ultimately, the Feral Atlas is a dense project. While the site can be difficult to comprehend and the interface isn’t optimized for all devices, there is no doubt that the work is a stunning achievement of collaboration and should serve as a model for future digital humanities projects in the same vein.