Artist Jo Dacombe explores sense of place, layers of history and the power of objects. Jo describes her work with museums and researchers on visual art inspired by relationships between bones and landscapes, now and into the future.
approximate Reading Time: 6minutes
I often consider the continuum of time, and how the present is part of the past and the future, one influencing the other, both forwards and backwards. Commissioned by Leicestershire Museums to create Myth Maps in 2011, in my proposal presentation for the project I drew a timeline on a sheet of transparent acetate. I held this up and explained that we experience time in a linear way, because of the way we think about it (by ‘we’ I refer to Western thinking; there are other ways of perceiving time, such as cyclical time; perhaps a subject for a future post). Then I folded up the timeline, so that you could still see the line but now it was concertinaed onto itself, and different parts of the timeline could be seen in the same place, one on top of each other. This, I explained, is how time is contained in a landscape.
This happened before I came to work with archaeologists, but I believe was probably the beginning of that particular thread of interest. In 2014 I became Artist in Residence in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester; however, I was working with zooarchaeologists in the Bone Lab and looking at animal bones rather than at landscapes per se. But throughout the residency, it became clear that landscape, bones and animals (including ourselves) cannot be separated out so easily.
Future fossils, future landscapes
In looking back at archaeological landscapes, we also begin looking forward to what archaeology of the future will perceive of our time now. What will be the future fossils?
Working with archaeologists, my perception of landscape has become framed by the idea of time past and time future — a time continuum that all landscapes contain; in fact landscapes are a manifestation of time, formed by aeons of material shaping and movement.
Jan Zalasiewicz writes of the Technosphere, an era where our mass-produced technological objects will clutter up the world and end up as strange fossilized shapes in the future. He has created examples of what these objects might look and feel like. He tries to imagine how our technological world will shape the stratigraphy of the future. Zalasiewicz, Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester, is both studying fossils from the distant past and imagining future fossils. Again, looking back is looking forward.
However, there is another and perhaps more profound change in the landscape that we are creating now. A change that is more directly linked to our bodies, and draws on the interrelationship between ourselves as material beings in a material landscape, and our modern world of mass production. It is to do with our mass production of food and how this affects what our bodies are made of.
During my work with the University of Leicester, zooarchaeologist Dr Richard Thomas and others proposed the idea that one of the markers of the Anthropocene that future archaeologists will discover will be broiler chicken bones. The broiler chicken has a skeleton that is vastly accelerated in its growth, genetically engineered to reach huge proportions within a short life span in order to feed ever-increasing human populations across the world, cheaply. As he explains, there will be thousands of millions of broiler chicken bones deposited into the landscape over our time:
Over 65.8 billion meat-chicken carcasses were consumed globally in 2016 and this is set to continue rising… The contrast between the lifespan of the ancestral red jungle fowl (3 years to 11 years in captivity) and that of broilers means that the potential rate of carcass accumulation of chickens is unprecedented in the natural world.
I cannot imagine the piling of chicken bones of that scale, even for only one year of consumption. But humans have been eating animals and leaving their carcasses and bones for many centuries, and we do not find our landscapes overrun with bones because they decay and return to the earth. Won’t this happen with chicken bones too? Perhaps not, because our way of disposing of so much rubbish has changed; we put this in landfill, piling up all our waste in one place, which changes the way that they degrade. As Cullen Murphy and William Rajthe have written in Rubbish! The archaeology of garbage,“organic materials are often well preserved within landfill deposits, where anaerobic conditions mean that bones ‘do not so much degrade as mummify’”.
How will this shape a landscape? I imagine future fossils of boulders created from the shape of broiler chicken leg bones. A lump of stone with jutting humerus shapes rippling across its surface.
Bodies as bones as landscapes
In working with Richard, I came to realise that landscapes and bones, and therefore us, are inextricably linked. When we die, we become deposits in a landscape, and our bones become part of the layers in the earth. But before that, our bones are created from our environment; the minerals within the food and water we eat drink and in the landscapes that we inhabit, actually create our bones. Archaeologists can work out the location of where an animal or human has been living by analysing the isotopes contained in the bones that they excavate. We are, in fact, a part of our landscape in a material way, not just a spiritual way.
This idea became two drawings that I created for The Reliquary Project exhibition in 2016: Bone Landscape and Bone Forest. Although the project studied archaeological animal bones, I don’t recognise a difference between humans and animals on a material level, and so my two drawings relate humans to landscapes too.
I tried to make stone bones. I cast bones into reconstituted stone, to think about how a fossil is a material transformation of an object. Making a cast is like making an instant fossil. The rather beautiful quality of a bone, the smoothness and whiteness of chicken bones, which are like silken tools in my hand, are completely lost when they become stone. The stone bone is a bit of a monstrosity. Its surface is odd, its weight is wrong, and it seems to have a material permanence that bone does not. I imagine these stone fossils stacked to the height of a landfill deposit, one day to be excavated by future archaeologists as they pick through the sky-high garbage left behind by our epoch.
We are reshaping and reconstituting our landscape by the deposits that we make, including broiler chicken bones. But by doing this, perhaps we are reconstituting ourselves too. As our environment changes, how will we evolve as a part of this interconnected recycling of material that is the process of life, death and landscape?
Future landscapes will be made of bones, and our bones are made of our landscapes… As our landscapes become transformed by the plastic and metal remains of our technological objects, what will we become as animals living on and made from our landscapes?
Find out more
The University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History Bone Labconducts a range of interesting research projects, including the work led by Richard Thomas on the ‘rise’ of the domesticated chicken as humanity’s most widely established livestock species, and the proposal that one of the markers of the Anthropocene that future archaeologists will discover will be broiler chicken bones: The broiler chicken as a signal of a human reconfigured biosphere (published in the Royal Society’s journal Open Science, Dec 12 2018).
Jan Zalasiewicz’s writing on the Technosphere includes The unbearable burden of the Technosphere (published in UNESCO’s journal Courier, 2018): “In the geological blink of an eye, a new sphere has emerged, and is evolving at a furious pace. Weighing thirty trillion tons, this is the technosphere. It includes a mass of carbon dioxide which is industrially emitted into the atmosphere – the equivalent of 150,000 Egyptian Pyramids!” He also wrote A Legacy of the Technosphere (published in Technosphere Magazine, Nov 15 2016), with illustrations by artist Ann-Sophie Milon: “In the end, the technosphere will be buried deep as any other conglomeration of earthly materials, forming timelines of past eras as patterns on the face of cliff faces.”
Environmental artist Laura Donkers works with the embodied knowledge of communities, through a form of eco-social art engagement, to help develop climate literacy. Laura describes her approach and experience with local communities in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
approximate Reading Time: 9minutes
This is the first part of two, and in her next post Laura discusses her move to Aotearoa New Zealand to expand her research as part of her final year of a practice-led PhD at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at Dundee University.
For the last thirty years, I have lived on the southern island chain in the Outer Hebrides, known as the Uists, where I work as a horticulturalist, artist and researcher. The population of fewer than 5,000 people is largely indigenous and is widely spread across several islands, with between four and fifteen people per square kilometre inhabiting small, close-knit townships of all occupations needed to sustain a community. The archipelago’s economic activities are reliant on the primary industries of tourism, crofting, fishing and weaving and dependent on the environment for continued livelihoods.
I feel I belong to this place; I both know and am known by my community. Without this social embeddedness, I could not have undertaken the sort of research I do, which relies on mutual trust and understanding, as well as a familiarity with the way that individuals and societies work at a local level. It’s a community that is interconnected across several planes of knowledge. Connected to the land, sea, seasons and with strong intergenerational and societal bonds, people exhibit a broad skills base extending across several identities; and, with shared spiritual connections and an interest in heritage and genealogy, people continue to pass knowledge on through generations.
It is natural then that I am interested in how eco-social art can be used strategically to promote sustainability in small island communities. Through the process of research for my PhD, I have come to understand that this is done best by working with the community’s own embodied knowledge, and I want to be able to show the importance of this.
My practice-led thesis aims to show that a specific set of knowledges accumulated through lived experience can help to improve ecological and social regeneration. My research reveals the role and value of this community embodied knowledge as a method for reengagement. Together with an eco-arts approach, this can bring local people, community organisations and national partners together into an open learning environment to develop ways of adapting to climate change.
Embodied knowledge, eco-social art
So what is community embodied knowledge?
I have found it to exist where people know each other through familial and experiential ties, are attached to their place/environment/land and utilise intergenerational knowledge to understand their own existence. It is also a practical form of wisdom, or practical reasoning, that is about individual ability to make good choices, based on understanding what is the right thing to do in the circumstances.
So, embodied knowledge helps us get to the deeper kinds of change that are needed at this time of climatic upheaval. When faced with challenges, practical rural-based people do not have it in their nature to just sit back and wait for others to act, but instead use their lived experience and inherited bank of knowledge to make decisions about what to do. However, in this new climatic regime, changes at a local level can be subtle (while still ultimately catastrophic) as they creep into everyday experience and become the new norm. While rural people are well placed to adapt to change, they share wider society’s lack of experience in understanding what irrevocable changes they will need to adapt to. In my opinion, it’s here that valuable reengagement opportunities lie, where ordinary practical people, local organisations and national bodies should come together and share knowledge and practices that may achieve solutions for local survivability.
And socially engaged art practice?
This is anchored in community-led development and uses art to draw the community into talking about and acting on social, political or environmental issues. It involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction, and this is, at some level, where the art lies. It is led by artists who recognise that the community is the expert in their own lives, and works with them to cultivate that understanding more widely.
So, place-making led by artists can revitalise communities: art and cultural activities involving local individuals and groups in collaborative activities with national organisations to develop meaningful public spaces where people can meet, celebrate and identify with each other. This kind of arts engagement can provide critical reflection and an alternative to the dominant social developmental discourse that can exclude the less vocal, less confident, less certain members of society, especially where historically these indigenous knowledges have been suppressed.
Many of the examples of this kind of ‘place-making’ are carried out by artists working in urban communities: Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s skills building projects develop the community’s capacity from ‘communication to construction’, to transform their roles into co-producers rather than merely consumers. However, I feel that the extensive productive capacities already present in rural communities require artists to take a different approach here.
A more rural approach begins with recognising the importance of the characteristics mentioned earlier regarding communities’ valuable interconnected knowledge and deep links to their places, and how they make use of their environments to sustain their livelihoods. So, finding a way to work that respects and upholds embodied knowledge is key to developing a good working relationship before even thinking of trying to shift mindsets for a changing climate. This is as much about showing the community the value of their own knowledge as it is about conveying how this form of knowledge can help other communities and wider society to re-think how to act locally elsewhere.
An example of my work is the Machair Art project. Machair is one of the rarest habitats in Europe: a fertile low lying grassy plain that only occurs on exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Machair Art was a collaboration between myself and artist Olwen Shone for the Conserving Scottish Machair LIFE+ project. It encompassed the year-long cycle of the machair in the form of four field trips to various crofting locations, exploring the themes of harvesting, seaweed, ploughing and wildlife. Students also attended drawing and photography sessions after school.
As part of my work combining embodied knowledge with eco-social art practice, therefore, I develop practical and theoretical engagements that rekindle old tacit knowledge and skills to help communities reimagine their places as ‘climate change prepared’. My eco-social arts activities centre on developing climate literacy through social, intergenerational activities and range from drawing and photography days-out, to long term strategies that establish community food growing sites. Planned actions, shared vision, co-intelligence and co-management strategies help build a deeper understanding and potential for assimilation into everyday life, with actions informed and underpinned by the local embodied knowledge of crofters and contractors, as well as local specialists and advisors.
Another short film I made, Tha Mi a Bruadair — I Have a Dream, shows the possibilities of rural education. In this case, through the Crofter Course run at the local high school, Sgoil Lionacleit, Isle of Benbecula, we engaged young people in land stewardship in their communities.
This video project was part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ Global Art, Farming and Peace project for Vancouver Biennale 2014-16, and was shown as part of Raising Farmers’ Voices for ArtCOP21 in Paris — an initiative by artist Shweta Bhattad, ‘Faith in Paris’.
Climate literacy: knowing and not knowing
A community’s embodied knowledge develops through its approach to change. While changes come about in all societies — alterations in population, climate, prices, policies, availability of healthcare, schools provision, and so on — tiny communities feel these much more acutely than larger populations. In places like Uist, they have learned that adaptation is always possible. There is no choice but to find a way to overcome challenges, and this produces resilient, adaptable people who can transform and sustain their lives as they need to.
The mindset of communities in places like Uist involves a very different experience of living than in the urban context. Understanding this means appreciating that these communities exist between knowing and not knowing. I will attempt to explain this and how I think my eco-social art abilities can work with these forms of knowledge to include climate literacy.
Rural knowledge is based on communities’ own capabilities to make and produce something to live from. Knowing the materials they require and how to access them calls on acute observational understanding and an ability to wait for the right signs. Counter to this runs not knowing whether they will achieve their goal this year. They cannot know for certain whether the materials (e.g. seaweed) will be available or sufficient, whether the right conditions (e.g. gales that bring the seaweed inshore) or signals (e.g. rainfall or lack) will appear, and finally whether these will enable the task (e.g. harvest) to be completed in time. Of course, they will achieve something of their aims, but they strive always with the hope that this year will be a good one that they can celebrate: that they can have some reserves, can feel a little satisfaction. This ability to live within these two states of knowing and not knowing comes through intergenerational knowledge, developing skills to source and make materials, and engaging deep durational and seasonal knowledge as well as acute capabilities to observe and to wait.
My eco-social arts process draws attention to wider issues of concern brought on by climate change and encourages reflexive reassessment via new thinking and doing that draw on the community’s existing materials, methods and processes. Our relationship develops through a collaborative process that respects existing knowledges and hierarchies, but introduces an alternative mindset that references climate change knowledge. While this is not at odds with a society dependent on the environment for its livelihoods, the way it is introduced needs sensitive handling in order for it to be considered rather than rejected. I occupy a different space, from another perspective, and can draw links to relevant information that can translate into local understanding.
Making space for climate conversations
I wish to activate and expand the potential of art as an agent of social intervention, community building, and cultural change. I have found the best way to do this is through an open-call process where participants self-nominate. What follows is built around close listening and dialogue and, importantly, showing this through projects that reference the participants’ experiences, concerns and ideas.
Essentially, what we create together is a space for the community to enter, influence and direct themselves. They start to have ‘climate conversations’ that make sense and lead on to transformative climate-aware actions that they take themselves. The artistic aspects help with visualisation and the creation of new spaces (e.g. Community Food Growing Hubs) to reconsider and reflect on recent local changes, whether increasing levels of social isolation, poor diet or mental health issues, as well as the potential climate change impacts of sea level rise, and increased food costs. The visualisations offer another view on the situation, enabling participants to see and hear themselves speaking and acting.
The creation of these spaces fits in with the community’s inherent qualities of knowing and not knowing. It feels true and believable, and sets parameters that are achievable and, in the end, self-determining.
Looking beyond the west
My work is about understanding mutuality through an artform that’s concerned with human interactions and social context acting in spaces of the everyday: negotiating the personal, social and political — in place. It’s about working with each other to gain new understandings of how to live in a changing world.
I contend that community embodied knowledge is a valuable resource that is not properly understood at present, and so cannot be truly valued. During my studies, I have come to appreciate something of the cultural disparities between the Western disregard for this knowledge and indigenous societies’ world views. These are based on interconnected environmental and spiritual values, and recognise human dependence on ecosystems and our influence on them through the use of land, water and air. As with the island community in Uist, this knowledge has come about through extended processes of observation and interpretation. But in non-western societies, the interconnected world view influences how they value their knowledge, affording a context for understanding from an embodied perspective that references the natural world, its materials, and conditions, in a natural state of co-existence.
To explore this point, I have been undertaking comparative research in Aotearoa New Zealand to gain perspective on the role indigenous communities with long-standing interconnected relationships with their natural environment can play in highlighting the importance of practical local knowledge. Māori see themselves as integral parts of ecosystems, and know that their basic necessities such as materials, health, good social relations, security, and freedom of choice and action are provided directly and indirectly by ecosystems. Knowledge of this interdependency supports their ability to care for their land and their people.
This part of my research — which I will turn to in my next post — focuses on learning how regenerative practices can influence the governance of resources and help to develop flourishing communities. And I am also looking at what maybe limits how we can transfer such a model to other places and contexts.
Artistic director and performer Paul Michael Henry, who has devised successive UNFIX festivals, discusses his motivation and ambitions for these international gatherings and explorations, ahead of UNFIX 2019 next month. UNFIX: a command form, a verb, an activity.
approximate Reading Time: 5minutes
UNFIX is a multi-art form festival based in Glasgow, New York and Tokyo. It starts from the proposition that the Anthropocene is happening inside your body, RIGHT NOW. The 2019 Edition is scheduled for 29th-31st March at CCA Glasgow.
I started UNFIX in 2015, looking to ‘Climate Change’ like a lightning rod for the vague and specific discomforts about this society that have plagued me all my life. People keep mis-labelling it ‘Unfixed’ or ‘The Unfix’ but it’s UNFIX: a command form. A verb and activity.
A loosening, disburdening, freeing-up. Anti-fatalistic, with the assumption that it doesn’t have to be like this. I experience climate change as a terrible affirmation: we cannot treat each other, ourselves and our surroundings this way. We can’t walk around with these egos functioning the way they do, and live.
When the ‘Banking Crisis’ hit in 2008 it occurred to me (and others I’m sure) that it could just as well be called the Banking Opportunity. With the cracks briefly showing, it could be a moment of vulnerability for finance and late capitalism, a gap in the concrete where something new could spring up. The fact that it wasn’t speaks simply to the aggregate level of human consciousness at that time. We were not awake enough.
I’m a Glaswegian artist whose work tends to focus on the body — specifically, the body as an ecological reality traumatised by, and intimately connected to, wider currents of politics, patriarchy, capitalism and climate change. I’m also interested in the body’s ability to soften these by love, connection and embodied understanding. I’m uninterested in finger-pointing, and am probably some kind of mystic at heart.
Actually part of that is a lie. I’d love to finger point, and sometimes I do. Jump up and down and rail at the capitalists and the patriarchs and the selfish and the sleeping, righteously righteously. Weep publicly, perhaps on TV, cradling plastic smothered turtles in my too late saviour’s arms. But climate change really isn’t about me and a wiser part of me knows that. It swallows me and I need to reckon with it, I live inside it and it shames me and prompts me to act.
When I don’t live in alignment with my values (which is often), a rat gnaws my stomach. The rat is tamed when I take actions with my whole being, like starting a festival for misfit artists to say what’s burning in our gizzards and draw what attention we can to The Situation.
The first UNFIX happened because a wonderful venue (the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow) was foolish enough to give me the keys to the building for a weekend. I was living in a camper van at the time, completely skint and dreaming. We teamed up, dozens of artists and activists, nobody getting paid, and we staged performances and film screenings and debates and ate together at another great venue (the Project Cafe) who made us all food from ingredients foraged in Kelvingrove Park. It felt a bit explosive. People still tell me how it affected them, boosted their resilience. I dunno. I’d like to think so.
But I mean: it’s art. The Situation persists. I throw my tiny actions and those of the artists involved in UNFIX on the pile, to be added to the older generations who saw this coming (the Joanna Macys, the Alastair McIntoshes) and the younger just now exploding in beauty (the school-age climate strikers). Outcomes are unknowable so I align myself, not sure, opting — as Alastair is fond of saying — to “Dig where I stand.”
So what about the Climate Opportunity? I don’t think shouting at Trump is going to be enough, though it is surely a part of it. But when I project all my climate rage outwards I’m being dishonest. I think that all of us raising our levels of awareness, radically –individually, in small groups, in large groups, in continental blocks, in cross currents and collaborations, and in the owning of our own shadows — CHANGING OURSELVES from the inside out, might make a difference.
I don’t know what our chances of survival as something resembling the human species are, and I’m agnostic about whether we deserve it. I’m to blame and you’re to blame and everyone is confused and the most ignorant and ego-driven have the most power and will kill us all if we let them. OK OK. The Situation. Perhaps we should just get to work?
This year’s UNFIX Festival has some (a little) money behind it. For the first time I have a budget and producers and paperwork, and people to account to afterwards. And I can pay the artists taking part, more or less. All of which makes me nervous because it dilutes my standing as someone powerless and shouting on the sidelines (my strongest suit). It’s not much power, mind.
If I were king, I would outlaw the term Consumers. Swap in the word Organism, or System, or ConsumerDigesterExcreter. I would have mandatory shit cannons primed for every time someone says ‘Economic Growth’. All would bow down before my solutions. Righteously Righteously.
I am not king, thankfully, signing on instead each day as an average-extraordinary worker bee in the Anthropocene: of unique gifts and no special importance, grief-stricken and hopeful and sometimes sick and faltering and giving up and starting again.
Who looks out through your eyes when you think about climate change?
Find out more
Paul Michael Henry makes performances that, most of the time, end up on a stage, but he also makes recorded music and films and collaborates on other artists’ projects. He is artistic director of UNFIX Festival and teaches dance workshops called The Dreaming Body. His themes are political, social and spiritual, dealing with love, neglect of the body, destruction of the environment and atrophy of the soul in consumerist society.
UNFIX 2019 is scheduled for 29th-31st March at CCA Glasgow. It will feature contributions from local and international artists and organisations including Minako Seki, Alberta Whittle, Chistiana Bissett, The Workroom, Extinction Rebellion, Creative Carbon Scotland, Niya B, Ruaridh Law, Verónica Mota/Urban Arts Berlin, VID art|science, Yulia Kovanova, NIGHTPARADE, Katrine Turner, VIDIV, Adam Fish, Paul Michael Henry and The Dark Mountain Project. You can discover more at www.unfixfestival.com. Tickets are on a sliding scale and can be purchased from the CCA website.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. This book’s objects offer a mirror test for our ‘Age of Human’ — and conceptual links to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
approximate Reading Time: 11minutes
Objects have a power over the human mind. They live in the world we live in, yet open into others — worlds of imagination and of experience. And maybe this power increases with apparent distance, even while the objects remain close to hand: distant pasts and places, distant cultures, distant natures. Maybe even distant futures, ones we now must reimagine as radical departures from our own experience.
Objects have a place in the growing ClimateCultures archive, of course: our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects has already reached 27, offering its own imaginative range of surprising totems of human presence on the planet, a planet being reprocessed. And some of my strongest memories from TippingPoint events remain those small group discussions where we each brought objects and shared accounts of their personal significance within rapidly changing natural and social contexts. It always seems special to add our story of material encounters to the accumulation of all those other ‘small stories’ that make up and question larger narratives. Objects have voices too.
This impressive book allows many objects to speak to our imaginations of pasts, presents and futures in what we are beginning to recognise — haltingly, imperfectly and with much debate over the terms and even the name of this invention-discovery — as the Anthropocene. The Age of Human. Or the age of some humans at least: those busy undermining planetary stability, resilience and value; more hopefully, the coming age of other humans, those now excluded and undermined in this Age of Precarity but whose voices also ‘we’ must hear, learn from, change with. There’s no clear, honest way of removing the quote mark around ‘us’ in this age, of refusing to acknowledge the provisional status of our knowledge of who we are. As the editors remind us, “Objects, too, can disrupt a sense of human exceptionalism,” and it is far from simply a ‘human’ age.
Objects to think with
Future Remains emerged from a “playful, performative space” — a ‘slam’ of artists and scientists to explore a Cabinet of Curiosities for this new age — and became an exhibition, a workshop and then a book. In all its guises and stages, it remains a provocation. What sort of new age is this; who and what produced and reproduces it; what is the nature of this world; what are its physical signs, wrapped up in nature-culture and available for us to think with, work on, act through?
In their preface, Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert Emmett warn us that objects demand caution as well as curiosity. While curiosity draws us outside ourselves — “can shake up our place in the world” — objects can also blind us to wider horizons, making either their exotic or their familiar worlds more absolute:
“Objects, then, can just as easily outshine as open up other worlds. The challenge is to ask not only what objects reveal but also what they hide. We need to take notice of less familiar things [to] entertain the possibility of other beings, other relations in the world, and other cosmologies not easily subsumed within the dominant tropes of Western science animated by one version of the Anthropocene.”
While it’s the fable-of-civilisational-progress version of the Anthropocene that the editors explicitly warn us to examine and hold up against other lights, it’s a useful caution against any singular, definitive story that the many contending Anthropocene labels seek to make the ‘official’ narrative. Curiosity, then, should remain our dominant mode of exploration, powered by humility in our lack of complete knowledge, just as in our lack of complete control.
Here, I’ve selected eight of the book’s entries.
Anthropocene in a Jar
On a family trip to the beach, Tomas Matza and Nicole Heller dug into the sand and attempted to answer their children’s question: “What causes the stripes?” They began to build an answer between them — a tale of “abstract earth processes … the moon’s tug on the sea, the wave’s tug on the sand and the shells” — trying to make it palpable to a child’s mind and their own as they continued digging.
Later, collecting samples in a jar,
“we came to understand that the jar contains a vast ecology of ocean cycles, tides and moons, wave dynamics, tunnelling critters, barrier islands, lagoons, and debris from ancient mountains — things one could classify as ‘natural’. And it contains pipes, dredging ships, dream houses, cars, carbon emissions, and people with toes in the sand — things one could classify as ‘human.’ … Our jar reminds us how difficult it has become to think of any earth process, whether oceanic, climatic, geomorphic, or otherwise, without also thinking of the human.”
The Age of Man
Through Plowshare, a 1970s Atomic Energy Commission film, Joseph Masco unpicks the grand narrative of the Great Acceleration: the exponential age of plenty we began to rapidly carve out after the Second World War. Powered by Enlightenment dreams of human mastery of nature, the perfectibility of human nature, Plowshare illustrates how the splitting of the atom seemed to “supercharge this imaginary … singling the imminent arrival of a superabundance, promising continuing breakthroughs in health, energy, and consumer economy.” This dream
“… if it did not end in the fiery flash of nuclear war, would push relentlessly and inevitably toward a perfected capitalist society. This was the first ‘age of man’ — a nuclear-powered fantasy that miraculously transformed an unprecedented destructive force into the expectation of a world without limits … Pause, just for a moment, to consider the intoxicating rush of this enterprise, the creative energy of making things that work on this kind of scale, of believing that people could finally shape reality rather than merely submit to it.”
Plowshare recasts the military legacy of nuclear explosions, making them weapons not against other humans but against the real enemy: nature. ‘Man’ reshaping “the land in dimensions never before possible … as he struggles against the geography nature has pitted against him.” Want to tear more wealth from deep time and deep rock? To blast new canals between oceans? Nuclear bangs are the way to go. When it comes to nature, war is peace.
Marine Animal Satellite Tags
Nils Hanwahr offers our gaze a much more benign technology — one that’s ubiquitous in our TV wildlife shows, refashioning our understanding of what and where ‘wildlife’ is, how it’s faring across the planet. Satellite tags are invaluable for the data they provide on animals in seas, land and air, logging continuous intelligence on their position, behaviour and environment. Bringing us closer to nature, though a nature wholly mediated through that technology, and living in the imagination rather than experience. And what of the tagged animals?
“Tagging a marine animal with a high-tech device endows the creature with a kind of agency that could only arise in the Anthropocene … Agency only registers on our human scale by leaving a trace and in the twenty-first century that means registering life forms and environments as digital data. We incorporate remote environments into our digital representations of nature … Onemight wonder if turning an animal into a data point does not itself entail an act of violent reduction into a digital infrastructure.”
Cryogenic Freezer Box
While some living beings are reduced to datapoints in digital infrastructures, other once-living beings become frozen species in DNA banks. Elizabeth Hennessy inspects our drive to preserve the world’s biodiversity in the face of our sixth mass-extinction event. “A key strategy of environmentalism in the Anthropocene is to freeze life.” It’s a ‘natural’ progression, as the “urge to collect has been integral to the production of Western knowledge of the natural world since the sixteenth century when Europeans brought home curiosities during an age of imperial exploration.” But this isn’t just about protecting knowledge (whose? for whom?); it’s also about asupposed insurance policy for the planet.
“Environmentalists position human agency as having a dual role in the Anthropocene — both culprit of environmental destruction and potential saviour of lost life. Cryogenic freezer boxes encapsulate both regret for biodiversity loss and faith in science and technology to deliver life from the shambles of massive environmental crisis.”
Hennessy is not the only Future Remains contributor to invoke, with irony, the words of arch techno-optimist Stewart Brand, that “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” But, she asks:
“Who gets to ‘play god’? Faced with climate change, rising oceans, and other Anthropocene crises, how do these ‘gods’ choose who, or what, should be saved? And if scientists in elite laboratories were able to revive extinct species, where in the world would these animals belong once they left the safe haven of the archive?”
The Monkey Wrench
Daegan Miller’s contribution is an emblem of mass labour in the hands of the individual Anthropocene worker. In his hands, the humble monkey wrench becomes a tool to “get a grip on the world.”
“Once used everywhere lithe human muscle struggled against iron intransigence, the monkey wrench had a hand in building the entire towering, now tottering mechanical skeleton of the industrialised, modern world. [It] now allows us … to consider inequality — whose labour built the Anthropocene? Whose labour laid the rails, fitted the pipes, shovelled the coal, felled the trees, grew the grain, picked the cotton, slaughtered the cattle, sailed the ships, forged the iron, drilled the wells, trucked the oil, poured the concrete, assembled the engines, mined the ore, strung the wires giving light, motion, form, and strength to the Age of Man? … And held once again in a warm human hand, the wrench confronts us: who profited from its work, and who has paid the costs?”
The Germantown Calico Quilt
Bethany Wiggins chooses a commemorative item from 1820s Pennsylvania: a cotton quilt stitched to record both the image of a French hero of America’s revolution against the British, and the treaty with the Native Americans that founded Philadelphia. If revolutionary wars are sudden (if long-developing) acts of violence, the longer processes of migration, colonialism and control of nature and culture are slow, hidden expressions of the same violent forces.
“Such disasters’ creep can be hard to perceive; their toll spans generations and continents. On a local, human scale, they can be difficult to witness … To make Anthropocene violence legible requires a setting simultaneously local and global, and it urges a historical frame extending at least to 1492. But the temporality of the Anthropocene is not only slow. It is also fast, and its pace is always accelerating … The story of the Anthropocene is thus double both temporally and geographically. Its places are always dislocated, at once local and global; its times are ever out of joint, both fast and slow.”
The quilt’s “layers recall geologic strata” and its panels display “the primal scene of the Anthropocene: fast three-masted sailing ships … hint at the new maritime technologies that moved humans and other animal species, plants, and manufactures across the Atlantic world and across the globe.” But, in recasting Columbus in the guise of the virtuous Quaker John Penn, the quilt erases those technologies that don’t suit its narrative: the guns and the slave economy.
Davies Creek Road painting
Robert Emmett senses that “we need emotionally powerful works of art that reorganise our structures of feeling around these transformations in environment and society.” And part of that need is to counter the momentum of Anthropocene narrative that assume continued, planned and perfected ideologies of human mastery. Emmett selects Trish Carroll and Mandy Martin’s painting, Davies Creek Road, as one counter to a ‘Big Dam Theory of Global Eco-Modernity.’
“The storied landscape in Carroll and Martin’s canvas, layered over with the figure of the goanna lizard in X-ray style, offers texture and meaning where the Australian government sees only a blank slate for a proposed dam. Before the Anthropocene becomes a single perspective, story, or agenda, it can still be used to name a raft of forces that resists a simple ending.”
As with the other objects in this volume, Davies Creek Road can help us to “steer the conversation in different directions [to] make a better environmental future from the predicaments of being just humans…”
Sverker Sörlin’s object comes with its own poetic reflection. Drawing on the ‘mirror test’ in psychology — “a check of whether you have an idea of who you are or, perhaps, that you are at all” — Sörlin suggests the Anthropocene as the ultimate, species-level mirror test. As individuals, humans pass the test at around eighteen months, and we know that elephants, apes, magpies and some other animals also recognise themselves as selves.
“Seeing ourselves in the Anthropocene mirror we stand a slightly different test. Not only: do I realise that I am there? But: do I realise that I am part of something larger? Do I figure what this larger something might be?”
The mirror in the exhibition is both physical object — at once the everyday experience of watching yourself and making an exhibit of yourself — and metaphor; the poem and video reflect on “human comedy, showing a few members, a small fragment of the collective Anthropos that the Anthropocene presupposes.” Together, these mirror acts shatter both individualising and globalising narratives of who we are, what we’re engaged in and how this age unfolds. “This is not just one world where a separate humanity impacts on everything nonhuman but a world of increasing entanglements across scales and species and forms of being in the world and thus a world of multiple becomings.”
The mirror is a choice. Of surface, of now and just now. Of what is underneath, how we became us, how we became insides, too. How we became divided already in the Pleistocene.
As Elizabeth Hennessy contemplates with her cryogenic freezer box, “the task of the Anthropocene is not to fill a box with life and an instruction manual with technical directions for reversing extinction …
“Nor is it to abandon hope. Instead, the blank pages of the instruction manual can offer a different kind of guide, a space to reflect on a more complicated task: recognising the human role in histories of environmental ruin, having the humility to know they cannot be fixed by extending the limits of life, and still daring to create a better future.”
Daegan Miller reminds us that the Anthropocene may be the end of many things. It should be “the end of a distinctly human past plotted against a static, inert natural world … But perhaps this is a good thing, for the earth, it bears repeating, is not in our hands; only our tools are. And tools are nothing if not the possibilities of a new future made material.”
Robert Emmett suggests that each of us might construct our own Anthropocene cabinets of curiosities: “perhaps do so in communities as ‘little free libraries,’ where the libraries also contain seeds, specimens, and directions for reanimating forms of extinct life.” Might they also be “an aesthetic survival kit, potent dream of a shareable planetary society that prevented numbness to loss?”
Sverker Sorlin’s own question, “Who are the mirrored ones?” is central to the Anthropocene: to how we understand and name it, how we recognise the ‘we’ that it names, how each person owns and experiences it, albeit differently and with different expectations of us. Part of the power that objects have is the power to serve as ‘boundary objects’: things which have ‘plasticity’, holding different features and meanings for different people but retaining enough common identity that they can help broker conversations, holding disparate groups together for deliberations of where and how to proceed.
And the curation of objects amplifies this power, modifies it. As Libby Robins says of the collective, “They stack and array, they align and contrast. Each object is a counterpoint to other objects, in conversations and contradistinction. Objects in museums have always carried stories across generations and places, drawing out memories of other times.”
And memories of other futures? We mirrored ones need to look, to talk and act, to reflect that the Anthropocene, the Age of the More-than-Human, is still open for multiple stories. Stories of change.
“The mirror is a test of hope.”
Find out more
Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert S Emmett, is published by theUniversity of Chicago Press(2018). It is illustrated with the photographs of Tim Flach, and you can find more of his work attimflach.com.
You can also find short reflections on two of the other objects featured in Future Remains at my small blog: Gary Kroll’sSnargeand Jared Farmer’sTechnofossil.
And you can explore all 27 of the objects that ClimateCultures Members have contributed so far to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects in ourCurious Mindssection. I’ve also posted a list of these tomy small blog.
Writer Sally Moss reviews Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate. Rich in detail (microscope and dictionary, as much as library) its landscapes, eras, expeditions, personalities and planetary prognoses pile up like brash ice.
approximate Reading Time: 6minutes
Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice documents both the realm of ice and humanity’s multifaceted relationship with it.
It was while working for a book and manuscript dealer in London that Campbell came to her decision to tour the ice-related destinations of the world:
“The more archives I catalogued, the more concerned I became about their future readers. Humans had libraries to preserve their fragile records, but the gloomy news headlines put our own survival as a species — and that of the wider world — in doubt.”
A contact of Campbell’s suggested she undertake a residency to concentrate on her own work, and she was persuaded:
“I would find out how other artists were recording this temporal world, and immerse myself in archives that nature itself had devised.”
This direct nature scholarship, and the latent fragility of the ecosystems that support us, are the themes that underpin The Library of Ice’s wandering course. We are presented with manifold landscapes, eras, hubris-driven expeditions, personalities and planetary prognoses, piling up like brash ice.
The poetry of precision
The book is rich in meticulous detail — it’s a microscope and a dictionary, as much as a library. Less familiar words bloom throughout (‘dioptre’, ‘firn’, ‘philtrum’), and it does well to veer only occasionally towards the abstruse. For all the density of scholarship, it’s a readable account, and highly poetic in places.
Vivid imagery is conjured, whether it’s through Campbell’s words (“The [curling] stone makes me think of a child potentate: everyone’s eyes are on it, and its apparently independent movement is cleverly controlled”) or the words of others (Arctic explorer William McKinley: “As I turned round to face the ship, old Karluk seemed to be doing her best to outdo nature. Her deck covering of snow shimmered like tinsel. Every rope and spar was magnified by a fluffy coating of frosted rime”).
The book also internally debates narrative approaches. An example: Robert Boyle was one of the founders of modern chemistry and devoted much of his energy to “the Phaenomena of Cold”. He said of his sources, “to get to the useful matter [the reader] must labour through ‘melancholy Accounts of storms and distresses, and Ice, and Bears, and Foxes'”. Campbell’s response is to smile and admit “My own journals are not free of such accounts”.
But when reading Boyle’s own words I find his personal fascination with his subject far more engaging than his results. And I am anchored and reassured when Campbell shares her rawest perceptions with us. What can be more important for humanity’s prospects right now, I wonder, than examining our subjective responses until we become, one by one, a great deal more self-aware and adaptable?
Whispers of catastrophe
When it comes to raising the climate alarm, the book is relatively measured: mere whispers of catastrophe punctuate the chapters. But while it may be a myth that a whisper can start an avalanche, several in concert can certainly trigger disquiet.
Campbell reflects in the opening pages that
“When the last of the ice has melted … the records of the past will be the least of our concerns.”
And the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, we hear, has predicted that snow cover will disappear from the Alps by 2100, leaving the unprotected glaciers to melt quickly.
In a changing climate, crop and animal husbandry have to change too:
“The flood becomes critical. The waters rise too quickly for [Icelandic] farmers to rescue their sheep. This year, the flock might have been safer up in the hills.”
The Icelandic landscape is regularly used for filming, often because it has the look of an alien planet; Campbell notes that “As the Earth changes, this rocky landscape may hint at humanity’s future, as well as its past”.
And Haukur, one of Campbell’s Icelandic glacier guides, comments that
“Sea-level rise doesn’t worry me so much … I’m more concerned what happens with the tectonic plates. They are going to rise up when the ice melts.”
Against this background, I began to think about the reading process itself, about the pace of life. I read The Library of Ice in snatched quarter-hours on commutes and in queues; reading a book such as this can take time that isn’t always easy to find, or justify, in a frenetic age. There’s the daily grind, which grinds ever harder under neoliberalism, and the fiery panic the climate emergency can induce.
But if a profound book can change a reader’s internal landscape in a matter of days or weeks, then I guess it works fast enough even for 2018. This one slows us down until we can see through the lens of geological time, see in academic detail what is happening to us, and begin to accept and process it. Rapid, society-wide change is certainly needed, but the personal change it rests on requires us to relearn patience.
Talking of the neoliberal grind: we discover that to complete this research and this book, Campbell needed not only the support of a variety of funds and institutions but also a knack for under-consumption of the essentials:
“… I had to live as frugally as I could, which meant moving between house-sits. Sometimes I sofa-surfed for a few nights, or spent the night on a train concourse, or holed up in an airport or bus station toilet cubicle, leaning against the door, ignoring the lock when it was rattled by the cleaner early in the morning.”
It seems that inventorying ecosystems is not yet as lucrative as despoiling them still is. These insights add poignancy to Campbell’s disclosure of her feelings when seeking a base in Greenland for one leg of the journey: “I needed someone who would invite me, tell me I was welcome.”
A possibility of movement?
Through Campbell’s reflections, we encounter a range of perspectives across times and places.
“I understand what has been troubling me about [Edmund A.] Petersen’s paintings: they represent a romantic depiction of the Arctic, from a more innocent time, before icebergs and sea ice had become an indicator of climate change, when convention framed such a view as majestic, rather than temporal or even tragic.”
And in a TV weather forecast in Upernavik, Campbell tells us, “Europe, North America, the rest of the world are off the map, beyond the edges of the screen — out of sight, out of mind” — just as those parts of the world that were ravaged first by climate disruption are often out of mind in Europe and North America. In this journey, she has joined the dots between nations who don’t always recognise their primary interdependence.
Another parallel: for hunters in Qaanaaq, where the ice is retreating, “The changing climate has removed both the possibility of movement, and the promise of rest”. Perhaps we face a corresponding conundrum in the guilty West, with many of us stuck in the chronic busywork of overconsumption yet still lacking a collective sense of the way forward.
Having starkly laid out the current condition of our planetary home, The Library of Ice concludes with an individual act of home-making: Campbell returns from her travels to a new base in the UK.
It strikes me that the book plays it very cool in ending as it does, transporting us to the melting point (and no further) in the settings it explores. This is no bad thing, I think. It leaves us to ponder for ourselves the journey onwards to unbearable temperatures, to drought and death — a journey already completed in the most vulnerably situated countries, and one that many more of us will make, globally, if our nature scholarship is lacking, or if we fail to start living by it in the very near future.