A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #5

— approx reading time: 6 minutes

It's a pleasure to welcome back writer Nick Hunt for the latest post in our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Nick's contribution of three objects traces one path from our present into a future which he reminds us will not stay forever on any one course. He returns us to a longer view, of a past which honours the power and beauty of natural forms - the human and more-than-human.

This seventh generation

On a grubby brick wall in Hackney Wick a small brown plaque bears the words: FIRST PLASTIC IN THE WORLD. It is bolted high on the wall, and few people passing by ever raise their eyes to see it.

A hundred and fifty years ago there would have been flat-capped workers on these streets, smoke billowing from chemical factories, the solvent stink of dyeworks. Now there are flat-capped hipsters, smoke drifting from narrowboats on the canal, the solvent stink of graffiti paint. This is the seventh generation of the Plastic Age.

Plaque to Alexander Parkes, Hackney, London
Photograph: Plaques of London
www.plaquesoflondon.co.uk

In 1866 the empire had a problem. The efficiency of industrial slaughter had surpassed natural capital reserves, and resources once abundant were becoming scarce. Whale oil, used for everything from lighting to industrial lubrication, was in sharp decline due to collapsing whale stocks. It was peak whale oil. But new techniques for extracting rock oil boosted the petroleum trade, and drills took the place of harpoons on industrialisation’s frontline. 

Around the same time, ivory – used to make ornaments, cutlery handles, piano keys and billiard balls – was running out as well. It was peak elephant. A substitute was invented by a man called Alexander Parkes: a hard, smooth, synthetic plastic made from nitrocellulose, better known as Parkesine, the first manmade plastic in the world.

(It is one of the stranger ironies of industrialisation: that petroleum saved the whales and plastic saved the elephants. Or at least that was how it seemed, before the icecaps started melting and plastic clogged the seas. Now it appears the world’s largest mammals merely had a stay of execution.)

Parkesine was first produced in the Parkesine Works in Hackney Wick, a zone of London dominated by dyeworks and chemical factories. It was a commercial failure, and the company folded two years later. But other plastics swiftly followed: xylonite in 1869, celluloid in 1870, and in 1907 Bakelite paved the way for mass production, disposable culture and the consumer boom. In its ever mutating variety – polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polytetrafluoroethylene – plastic would enter every home, replacing not only ivory but metal, glass, stone and wood, never decaying, never corroding, obsoleting organic matter. It would change the composition of the oceans, working its way up the food chain from bottom feeders to apex predators, and enter the geological record to become part of the planet itself. It’s hard to conceive of a more successful example of market penetration.

That small brown plaque says nothing of this, and most people don’t notice it’s there. But a carrier bag wafts on the breeze, and discarded plastic bottles litter the road underneath, like devotional offerings at the shrine of their creator.

Sun machines: the future for now

I moved out of Hackney Wick years ago and came to live in Bristol again, but inevitably London pulls me back. It means I spend too much time in the limboland between the two cities, going up and down the M4. The view through the smeared coach window is of transport infrastructure, road-signs, scrappy woodlands, fields. But over the course of the last few years this vision has started changing. 

The green fields are gradually vanishing from the flanks of the motorway, covered by a tide of grey: row upon row of darkly reflective panels angled to the south, ranks of mathematical squares in place of pastureland. Officially they are called solar farms, evoking bucolic rural scenes, but – as people who genuinely love the land have pointed out – more truthfully they are solar factories, electricity machines to fuel mankind’s expansion.

Sometimes flocks of nonplussed sheep are nibbling between the rows, competing with the machines for the energy of sunlight. 

Sometimes the angle of the sun turns the fields into a mirror, a blinding metallic glare that hurts the eyes to look at.

Solar ‘farming’ Photographer: unknown

Of course I know the arguments: they are infinitely less worse than climate-changing power stations, more palatable than nuclear plants, less intrusive than wind turbines. And I know that the fields they’re replacing, monocropped and glyphosated, are hardly natural anyway but products of tens of thousands of years of human meddling and control, reaching back all the way beyond the Neolithic. But the solid fact remains: a shiny plasticated skin has been clamped upon the land. What was green is turning grey. As an environmentalist I am supposed to applaud the sight, but it fills me with despair.

This will not be the future forever, but it is the future for now. The culture that makes these things will pass, but its objects will remain. 

The long past of the Long Man

When traffic is bad, or an accident has closed too many lanes, the coach occasionally detours past the white horse on Cherhill Down, created by cutting turf away to reveal the gleaming chalk below. Only a few centuries old, this monument is by no means ancient – unlike the more stylised white horse at Uffington, which dates back over three thousand years – but the mindset it represents seems to me very, very old: an honouring of the power and beauty inherent in animal forms, an act of devotion, of attention, that reaches back to the horses sketched in charcoal on Paleolithic cave walls. From the window of a Megabus such a vision is absurdly romantic, but these interventions in the landscape were surely intended to have that effect: to lift our eyes from the road, away from our self-involved routines, into other ways of seeing, into other aeons.

Last summer my mother and I walked the South Downs Way, which runs for a hundred miles along the top of the chalk down, on which human feet have beaten tracks for at least eight thousand years. The colours are very simple there – the green of grass, the yellow of wheat, the white of chalk, the blue of sky – and the walking is simple too: you keep the sea to your right and keep going east. On one of our last evenings of walking, aching after eighteen miles, we dragged ourselves on a limping extension to see the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk outline of a figure holding a staff in each hand, cut into the sloping turf of a Sussex hill. Nobody knows how old he is – he might have been made any time from the Iron Age to the sixteenth century – and nobody knows what the staffs represent. But they look like walking poles.

The Long Man of Wilmington
Photograph: Cupcakekid 2003 Creative Commons (CC)
Source: Wikipedia (‘Long Man of Wilmington’)

We stood in silence at the Long Man’s feet and eventually turned for home. Maybe it was partly exhaustion, but both of us were strangely moved. Even though we had offered him nothing, we felt as if we had left something behind.

Find out more

As well as Wikipedia, of course, you can read more about the history of plastics it this BBC News brief guide and this interesting piece from Scientific American

The Union of Concerned Scientists has this brief overview of the environmental impacts of solar power.

Among the many sites discussing ancient land art such as the Long Man of Wilmington, Britain Explorer has this quick but interesting guide to ‘The Top Ten Geoglyphs in the UK and the World’.

You can find more of Nick’s writing at Nick Hunt – and ClimateCultures is pleased to have Nick’s own selection of passages from his new book, which you can find via the links on his Profile page.


You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Nick’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures next month.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

 

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #4

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

For our latest post in our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, I'm delighted to welcome this contribution from curator Ruth Garde. For me, Ruth’s fascinating selection of three artworks evokes a sense of past, present and future that highlights how Deep Time and 'human time' are implicated in each other, and the imbalances in our relationship with the rest of nature that are produced by our culture of neglecting Deep Time. I'm grateful to have been introduced to these three artists.

As a curator and writer who has had the great good fortune to work on many Wellcome Collection exhibitions, I began with the intention of choosing three objects from amongst their own collections for my “history of the Anthropocene” post. However, it quickly dawned on me that, over the last few years, my increasingly insistent preoccupation and engagement with environmental questions has primarily been inspired by contemporary art. Moreover, since I feel strongly that contemporary art has the power to shine a light on and prompt reflection about such questions, it seemed like the most meaningful choice.

I have therefore chosen to share three artists’ works that have had a particularly powerful impact on me and on my professional preoccupations.

Out of Deep Time …

For the ‘Past Anthropocene’ I would like to introduce a work by Anaïs Tondeur. Anaïs is a French artist, based in Paris, who creates seductive and compelling works that combine fact and fiction in poignant, often unsettling, ways. Her piece I:55, or the girl who swallowed the remnants of a forest, traces the epic, imaginary journey of a specimen in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Pathology collection. The specimen is a calcified bladder stone, which contained the core of a pencil.

Graphite on Paper, map, pathologic specimen I.55 or the girl that swallowed the remnants of a forest – Selection of 41 drawings realised on an expedition from London to the French Alps to retrace the history of I.55, specimen from St Bartholomew’s Hospital Pathology Collection Artist: Anaïs Tondeu © 2012 http://www.anais-tondeur.com/main/i55/

Through a series of exquisite impressionistic drawings, also rendered in pencil, Tondeur depicts the journey of this specimen, beginning with the formation of graphite in a carboniferous Alpine forest 320 million years ago, through the vein of graphite formed ca. 100 million years later, which led to the French mine from which it was extracted around 1910. From here the journey continues to the remnants of the Plombagine factory, where graphite was transformed into powder, and thence to the Conté pencil factory. The final stage of the journey is the Sennelier art supply shop in Paris, where according to documents in the shop archive, an English journalist was a customer. And here we come full circle: as Tondeur’s narrative goes, some months later his daughter swallowed a pencil.

I:55 has stayed with me ever since I first saw it. To me, it beautifully captures both the deep time of nature and the relative pinprick of human existence, whilst also tracing how we through history have sought to exploit the natural bounties offered to us by the earth. 

Through our sweet overload …

Around the same time that I encountered Anais’s work I also discovered the art of Ken and Julia Yonetani, an Australian artist duo whose work is powerfully engaged with the detrimental impact of human behaviour on our natural environment. Their sculptural work Sweet Barrier Reef alludes to the bleaching of corals, which eventually leads to coral death.  

Sweet Barrier Reef (detail). Sugar, 2009. 1.4 x 8.5 x 3.7 in metres. © Image courtesy of the artists and GV Art Source: https://ruthgarde.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/sense-of-taste-a-delicious-solo-exhibition-at-gv-art/

Making their sculpture out of sugar, the Yonetanis highlight the fact that one key cause of the bleaching is the harvesting of sugar cane. However the work is more layered than that: sugar is also used metaphorically to indicate humanity’s insatiable greed for consumption and the destruction that it entails.

Into immense entropies

Finally, for my “Future Anthropocene” object I have chosen a photographic series by the artist Julian Charrière, whose work I sought out last year when he exhibited at Parasol Unit in London. The Blue Fossil Entropic stories documents an artistic intervention that Charrière undertook in 2013, when he stood on an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean armed with a blowtorch, attempting to melt the ice beneath his feet.

The Blue Fossil Entropic Stories I, 2013 Artist: Julien Charrière © 2013 http://julian-charriere.net/projects/the-blue-fossil-entropic-stories

For me this absurdist intervention succeeds in summing up the future of our relationship with nature: on the one hand we are but a blip in geological time, destined to be outpowered by nature whose majesty and preeminence we can never subdue; on the other, our assaults on nature will over time cause immense and irreversible destruction that will injure ourselves as much as our habitat.

The impact of these artists’ work prompted me to write three online pieces – linked to below.

Find out more

You can see Anaïs Tondeur’s I:55, or the girl who swallowed the remnants of a forest (2012) and other works at her website – and Ruth’s 2014 article on Anaïs’ work for Apollo Magazine, Lost in Fathoms: Anaïs Tondeur:

‘Anaïs Tondeur is an artist who delights in expeditions. Whether tracing the wildlife burgeoning in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant (Chernobyl’s Herbarium, 2011), or following the migration of a graphite pencil from its geological origins to its unlikely terminus in the bladder of a 17-year-old girl (I.55, 2013), her journeys conjure intriguing narratives that are in turn poetic, poignant, and scientifically compelling. Her installations have delved into history, geography, and an array of scientific disciplines (physics, geology, oceanography), but at the heart of each is a captivating story that engages the most human of emotions.’

You can see Ken and Julia Yonetani’s Sweet Barrier Reef (2009) and other works at their website – and Ruth’s 2011 post, Sense of Taste: a delicious solo exhibition at GV Art, on her blog, Words. Pictures. Objects: 

‘Maybe a … suitable cultural analogy would be Hansel and Gretel standing before the Gingerbread House. As in the Grimm fairytale, these works are delectably tempting to the senses – sight and touch as well as taste – but they also explore serious subtexts fraught with danger and ultimately, death. The danger explored by these works are environmental, the unhappy consequences of our endlessly insatiate consumption-lead society, so it is therefore utterly appropriate that one’s sense of taste is so aroused.’

And you can see Julian Charriere’s Blue Fossil Entropic Stories (2013) at his website – and Ruth’s 2016 article for Apollo Magazine, Smart art that will make you reconsider your smartphone:

The relationship between art and science, ‘The Two Cultures’ once lamented by Charles Percy Snow as mutually uncomprehending fields divided by an unbridgeable gap, seems more robust than ever. Artists’ residencies in scientific institutions, such as those established five years ago at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), are proliferating … That artists engage with scientific themes can be of little surprise at a time when rapidly evolving digital technologies, scientific breakthroughs and the Earth’s ecological fragilities are critical to our lives. Art can be a rich and fertile means for people to engage with such challenging subjects, harnessing emotional sensibilities where explanations on a purely intellectual level may fail.’


You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Ruth’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures later this month.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to let send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #3

— approx reading time: 3 minutes

This Members' Post sees a welcome return by Jennifer Leach - fresh from another season of Reading's year-long Festival of the Dark - with her excellent contribution to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Jennifer's selection of three objects evoking a past, a present and a future highlights care and nurture as constants across humanity's ages and communities, and her words move from prose to poetry with an ease that makes for a timeline of hope.

Object from the past – the first blanket

German and Chinese scientists investigating
Photograph © German Archeological Institute, Mayke Wagner
http://www.dainst.org/projekt/-/project-display/56627

There was a moment in human history where a mother, for the first time, took a covering and swaddled another in it. It was most likely an animal skin she took. Possibly soft, possibly not. Was it her cold old mother she enveloped? Was it her partner? Her feverish friend? Was it her child? Whoever it was, I imagine her gesture as a premeditated act of love.

From the skins of animals, blankets evolved into softly woven fleece, product of careful husbandry and responsive learning. Into the weavings over the years were entwined responses to the living world – stories, tales, colour harnessed from familiar plants, symbols, references to greater powers, and patterns laid down in homage to those observed in nature.

People wrapped themselves in imagination and creativity, to create a reverent, consoling, protective sheath of comfort and respite, to shelter their love in the midst of harsh lives.

Object from the present – the Trangia

Trangia cooking set
Photograph: Trangia © 2017 / Image effects: Jennifer Leach © 2017
http://trangia.se/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/bild_startsida1-1000×700.jpg

Ah the Trangia! What a marvellous union of creative thinking and problem solving, streamlined with beauty, functionality and brilliant design into an artefact with near-perfect qualities. An entire packaged stove, including pots, that is roughly the size of one standard camp cooking pot. Simplicity within nature.

Each time I use it – and we have used the same one for decades – I thrill at its Russian Doll abundance. I remove the tie that binds it together, and off comes the lid, which doubles as a frying pan. Two pots nestle inside and within the smallest lies the grip handle and the screw-lid burner. The whole family is held within the vented base, which lifts the burner off the ground and provides airflow, and a windscreen protecting pot and flame, even in the gales. All fuelled by a humble little burner punching above its weight.

Our faithful stove has accompanied us on a cycling honeymoon, up mountains and in tents. We bought a second to cope with the culinary demands of a growing family. What we have not stewed, brewed or fried on them is not worth eating. My daughter’s first proudly presented meal was created on a Trangia – for the record, cooked pasta with a tin of sweetcorn and a tin of tuna.

When Trangia brought out a little lidded kettle, with its own handle, to fit snugly inside the inner saucepan, my joy and awe were complete. The sheer abundant genius of it!

Object from the future – prayer wheel generator

Tibetan prayer wheel
Original photograph: Xinhua/Lin Yiguang © 2017 / Image effects: Jennifer Leach © 2017
http://eng.tibet.cn/culture/tibetan_buddhism/1449128868492.shtml

It will not be turned
By car
Nor bus
Nor plane
Nor mule
Nor by low-paid workers
Nor some robotic tool
But by each of us
Whilst the children play
And the sick and the old
And the tired
Will shut their eyes
And move it with their prayer.

All it will require

Is that my foot follow yours
And your foot follow mine
And my hand lead yours
And yours lead mine
And with our power
Combined
We will generate
High voltage
Song lines
To illuminate
The land.

Find out more

You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. 

Each post that appears in the series earns its author a copy of a book that had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. (Delivery in the UK only, sadly!) For her post, Jennifer receives a copy of Anticipatory History, edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett. This short book of mini-essays from a cross-disciplinary research network explores “the roles that history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes” and their wildlife.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking... 

 "What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to let send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects for a future post.

 

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #2

— approx reading time: 2 minutes

I set ClimateCultures Members a challenge: share your choice of three objects that have personal significance for you and that say something of the past, present and future of the emerging ‘Age of Human’. In this post, artist Julien Masson offers an intriguing selection: his personal contribution to a History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

When worlds collide…

Clash of two worlds
Photograph: Julien Masson © 2017
http://www.jfmmasson.com

The first object I selected is an amalgam of objects that were given to me in the past. This 3D collage of disparate elements that I would compare to a melange of old memories that have merged into a sort of mnemonic chimera. The use of contrasting material such as mineral and the manmade industrial metal alludes to the clash of the natural world and the manmade activity.

A disposable present

Voltaic throwaway
Photograph: Julien Masson © 2017
http://www.jfmmasson.com

The ubiquitous battery has a limited life span and in many ways symbolises the transience of our contemporary lives… the battery is a container, a vessel to convey energy to devices. In this case, a camera. When its power is spent, it is rendered useless and is disposed of in landfills or recycled. Its shape is simple and functional and I often wonder at the technical codes on these objects. Their meaning is lost to me and they might as well be some long lost cabalistic language.

Offered up to the future

Votive artefact
Photograph: Julien Masson © 2017
http://www.jfmmasson.com

The third object represents our future. My selection suggests a dystopian vision of the future, where virtual experiences replaces our spirituality. What will future generation of archeologist think of such a device in centuries to come? Out of meaning and out of network, maybe it is some sort of votive artefact? An empty shell for the virtual ghost of our times…

Find out more

You can see a short animation Julien has made, Funland: An Anthropocene amusement park, and more of his artworks at macuse.com and jfmasson.com 

Each post that appears in the sequence of A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects earns its author a copy of a book that had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. (Delivery in the UK only, sadly!) For his post, Julien receives a copy of William Golding’s classic novel, The Inheritors, “a startling recreation of the lost world of the Neanderthals and a frightening vision of the beginnings of a new age.”

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally.

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #1

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

I set a challenge: share your choice of three objects that have personal significance for you and that say something of the past, present and future of the emerging 'Age of Human'. Here is my personal contribution to a History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

“The Anthropocene – the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated – has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you?”

Here is my personal contribution to a History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects

From the here and now …

I’d booked ahead for a B&B, so my only task here was to trawl leaflets and maps and get some local tips. Although it was the Easter holidays and as busy as I’d expected, two advisers were free, chatting behind the counter. Both turned to help me as I approached.

“I’d like to see the Scallop,” I said. “I know it’s on the beach; which direction from here?” 

I’d not expected this to open up an argument in a Tourist Information Centre, even a good-humoured one. But, smiling, the woman immediately responded.

”Oh, don’t start your visit with that. It’s very unpopular around here!”

I’d hardly had time to wonder if this was an unusual tack from someone paid to promote the local sights when the man butted in, equally cheery.

“Don’t listen! Lots of people love it, and not just tourists. I think it’s wonderful.” 

It was maybe unwise to reveal that Maggi Hambling’s famous sculpture was the main reason I was visiting the town, or that I’d heard it had helped “put Aldeburgh on the map”, but I think I said something along those lines. I’d already heard that this very public artwork had divided opinion quite starkly; that was part of its attraction for me, although from photographs I already knew which camp I was going to be in. As I discovered, however, the photographs don’t do Scallop justice. Its setting does (and is repaid in kind). Being in its presence was to experience very direct communication with both environment and history, and an unsettling encounter with the future.

Aldeburgh, like many Suffolk coastal settlements, has been disappearing from the map for centuries. On my way from Tourist Centre to Scallop that morning in 2007, I also had my first encounter with the town’s 16th century Moot Hall. Once both the geographical and political centre of the town, this is now right up against the beach. All the streets and buildings on its eastern side have long gone, the sea moving in by stages over the centuries. Where Maggi Hambling’s massive, 4 metre high stainless steel seashell stands might once have been fields; now it’s shingle. 

Aldeburgh is famous as the home of composer Benjamin Britten and the annual music festival he founded there in 1948. Scallop, a tribute to him and his legacy, is also testimony to coastal changes that have sculpted Aldeburgh. Britten’s opera Peter Grimes tells the story of a fisherman, the deaths of his apprentices at sea and his own stormy fate. It’s based on a 19th century poem cycle, The Borough, by George Crabbe. Carved into the giant metal shell – actually cut right through it, so the sky writes the words through the absence within the solid matter – is one line from the opera: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.” 

Scallop, by Maggi Hambling, on Aldeburgh beach.
“I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe, © 2014

Every time I see these words on my visits to Scallop or in my photographs of it, it has the same cold-heat effect on my scalp. 

The coast-eroding waters have taken so many lives, but still we are here. Part of the flux, and subject to it, we’re drowned in a natural history that’s also, increasingly, made by our species. The fears and anxieties that coastal change brings can split communities from each other and from the institutions charged with planning for the impacts of future change: landowners, heritage bodies, councils, coastal agencies, government departments. The divided response to Scallop somehow exemplifies this ever-present potential for conflict over our local places, and (evoked in the words cut through solid matter) conflict over our national responses to refugees from climate impacts around the world.

‘For Maggi Hambling, the phrase has universal significance: “”We all have voices inside us all the time, whether we’re awake or asleep.” She wants those visiting Scallop to “contemplate the horizon and the movement of the waves, and have a conversation not only with the sea but also with themselves. To listen to their own voices.”‘ – Text on Scallop from website of the Britten-Pears Foundation

Scallop therefore continues to resonate, ten years on from my first encounter. We’re able to experience the lives of others in distant times or places – to ‘undrown’ and hear their voices – through our inner voices and empathies. 

Through the Great Acceleration

When did the Anthropocene begin? The candidates for ‘trigger point’ cover such a broad expanse of our species’ time – from Neolithic Revolution 8,000 years ago to Industrial Revolution 250 years ago and its Great Acceleration in the 20th century, to the widespread nuclear weapons testing of the Cold War – that we have the luxury of choosing our own personal start-point. My choice goes back to the early 17th century: the onset of significant European expansion around the world and the scale of species changes this brought. The diversity of plants, animals and microbes introduced ‘over there’ or brought back ‘home’ — and the species lost – had direct and permanent impacts on humans and others across entire continents, as future archaeologists will know even if the historical accounts we have don’t survive. 

But my chosen object for ‘Anthropocene Past’ doesn’t date from so long ago. The first technology for recording sound was the phonautograph, patented in 1857. Although its recordings could not be played back, an 1860 phonautogram of Au Clair de La Lune was finally heard for the first time in 2008. I’m intrigued that this first replay of the first recording leapfrogged the entire 20th century; the century that made mass recording and consumption of sounds possible and enabled cultural forms that have enriched billions of lives over that time. As with other technologies of capitalism’s Great Acceleration, this benefit comes at its own costs in materials, habitats, energy, waste and pollution. It possibly facilitates other impacts and makes it easier to ignore them: with so much recorded sound within instant reach, not only does it add to the incessant ‘anthrophony’ surrounding us; it masks the erosion of the remaining ‘biophony’, seemingly ‘compensating’ us (but not the other species) for that loss. For me, this complex mix of pluses and minuses hints at the wider Wicked Problem of the Anthropocene.

And my actual object? In 1945 British engineer Marie Killick patented Sapphox, the first truly reusable stylus for playing gramophone records. The innovation of a bevelled flat with sapphire tip made it possible to ride the groove without wearing away either the record surface or the stylus itself. Before this, the gramophone stylus was essentially a ‘one use’ technology that soon became unusable as it wore away. Now a disposable item became a lasting one, produced far superior sound quality and was safer to use with the discs. This must have been part of what made the mass production and enjoyment of records possible after the Second World War. Led Zeppelin wouldn’t have been possible without it! But modern audio technologies, including records, cassettes, CDs and mp3s, have played their part in spreading not only music and spoken word but also the learning of languages and enjoyment of natural soundscapes from around the world, and from the past. Sapphox represents this progress, but also some of the pitfalls of the age.

Killick’s Sapphox – sales pamphlet
Text by Killick & Company, 1946
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe, 2017

I’m unavoidably biased in my choice, however; Marie Killick was my grandmother. I never met her. Born in 1914, Marie died the year I was born, 1964. Her patent was infringed and, although she won a famous court case, the infringement and the battle for justice left her impoverished and in ill health. After many years of dodgy dealings by her industrial opponents, she was forced into bankruptcy before the damages from her court victory could be awarded. ‘My’ object for our ‘Anthropocene Past’ therefore has many nuanced associations with my own life as well with the stories of the unfolding Age of Human.

And into the dark 

My choice of ‘Anthropocene Future’ object perhaps seems to bend a rule, because the thing itself is current, not something originating in the future. But I’m imagining it at some future time, an uncertain number of decades or centuries away, and at barely imaginable distances from where it started. Already, it’s so remote that for almost all of the tiny proportion of humanity that’s even aware of it, it’s practically an object only of our imaginations.

In 1977, NASA launched two Voyager spacecraft on journeys that would eventually take them out of the Solar System. 40 years on, Voyager 1 has passed that particular environmental boundary and is headed on into deep space and deep time. Voyager 2, not far behind, is yet to emerge from the outer edges of the heliosphere, where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.

Both Voyagers carry a specially commissioned gold-plated gramophone record and a stylus (descendant of sorts of Sapphox), in the hope that if any extraterrestrials ever encounter it they might decode the instructions and play the sounds and images of Earth, human and more-than-human.

“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilisations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist & member of the Voyager team

Or perhaps the aliens will just eat it. But in a sense it’s human thought that has gone with the lifeless spacecraft, and maybe there are other thoughts out there that can connect with it, thousands of years from now, light-years from here. Will we still be here, then? Will the other species captured on the discs?

The Voyager Golden Record
© NASA/JPL-Caltech
Further info: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/index.html

The future I’m imagining for the Golden Records is not an alien discovery, or what birdsong and human voices might mean to them, but a future where those recorded sounds are the last to escape from Earth. Not because of a final holocaust or natural cataclysm that might wipe us out, but because at some point humanity might well switch off the technology that has indiscriminately been broadcasting our signals into the universe. Signals that were only ever intended for us – radio and TV shows and adverts from the Great Acceleration – have been radiating outwards for the past 70 years, ever since Earth went ‘radio bright’. For everything else out there (and down here), our radio signals are just another form of pollution. At some time, when inefficient technology is superseded, this expanding signal sphere will start to hollow out at its core and a second, more subdued sphere of more-or-less radio silence will grow outwards into the polluted zone. Our radio brightness will go dark again. No doubt by then we’ll have new, more interesting ways of making our presence known. But at the moment that the inner surface of the old radio sphere passes the two probes, the Voyager Golden Records will for the first time be surrounded by an unhuman quiet, and the discs will remain to be decoded. 

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” – President Jimmy Carter’s printed message on the Voyager spacecraft.

An Anthropocene timeline

I didn’t expect to pick three objects linked by sound. But the technologies for capturing the sounds of different cultures and times, and mixing these into a new, global mesh of music and learning; a seashell – long used by human ears to imagine a distant sea, and now also the voices of those who will not be drowned; the real voices of people and species frozen in time and cast off into the ultimate deeps; the fading echoes of human technologies broadcasting to the universe; these pick up one small thread among an infinity of possible timelines from whenever the stories of the Anthropocene began to wherever they go. 

Find out more:

A past

A Sound Revolution – By Cynthia Killick: a personal history of Marie Killick, her life and invention of Sapphox, her struggle and legacy.

Mega Invention 6 – The place of Sapphox in the history of inventions?

The Phonautograph – The history of the first known sound recording device. This article also has a sound file of the first phonautogram recording to be played back; although it maybe sounds more like a disgruntled bee than a human reading Au Clair de la Lune, it’s still remarkable to hear a voice from 1860.

A present

Britten-Pears Foundation – Maggi Hambling’s Scallop on the Britten Trail

Aldeburgh Museum at the Moot Hall – The history of Aldeburgh

Maggi Hambling – her site and her work 

A future

Voyager 1 & 2 Missions – The history of the NASA mission, its discoveries and ongoing journey.

Voyager Golden Records – What is on those records?