The Coccolithophores Project

Collage, sculpture and video artist Julien Masson collaborates with researchers in a dynamic dialogue between digital technology, science and arts to explore coccolithophores: tiny, photosynthetic marine lifeforms with an important role in our planet’s oxygen and carbon cycles.


approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes  


This art installation, funded by Arts Council England, for the atrium of the Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium takes the form of a cascade of sculptures representing the micro plankton coccolithophores. This figurative work is constructed from carved opaque recycled milk bottles, a method we have used on previous projects. In interpreting the architecture of these microscopic creatures I hope to stimulate both scientific and artistic enquiry. Approximately 1,000 high density polyethylene (HDP) milk bottles will be used to create a series of scaled up Coccoliths. 

I partnered with local sculptor and recycling artist C. Cudlip on this project and we were very lucky to be able to work with Dr Samantha Gibbs, Royal Society University Research Fellow within Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton at the University of Southampton. Dr Gibbs provided us with invaluable information relating to the science of the coccolithophores, reference images and advice on how these unicellular phytoplankton are formed and worked with us on outreach events to present the subject to the wider public. 

Coccolithophores have an important role in the carbon cycle of our planet. We were very keen on a project that would not only have an artistic dimension but also have scientific and educational connotations.

We proposed to produce a cascade of coccolyths made of recycled milk bottles to recreate the shells of these creatures. In using this throw away material we wanted the public to be aware of the environmental and ecological impact we are submitting our planet to.

Bottle Coccolithophores, installation at The Winchester Science Centre (supported by Arts Council England)
Artists: Julien Masson & C Cudlip © 2016 jfmmasson.com

Coccolithophores are tiny marine lifeforms called micro-plankton. Measuring just a few microns across, they are made up of smaller sections called coccoliths. The living coccolithophores form into layers called blooms, spanning hundreds of miles of ocean.

These photosynthesise and act as one of the planet’s most important sources of oxygen production. The fossilised remains of these creatures create a vital form of carbon capture, locked into the calcium carbonate of their skeletons.

Coccolithophore microscopy images from Nannotax 1 Isochrysidales, 2 Ceratolithus cristatus HET nishidae type 3 Syracosphaera anthos HOL 4 Nanolith Family

Carbon and coccolithophores.

Next to the rainforests, coccolithophores are one of the biggest producers of oxygen on the planet. Coccolithophores also have an effect on the carbon cycle. The production of coccoliths requires the uptake of dissolved inorganic carbon and calcium. Calcium carbonate and carbon dioxide are then produced from calcium and bicarbonate by the following chemical reaction:

Ca2+ + 2HCO3− ←→ CaCO3 + CO2 + H2O [1]

Because coccolithophores are photosynthetic organisms, they are able to use some of the CO2 released in the calcification reaction for photosynthesis [2]. During calcification, two carbon atoms are taken up and one of them becomes trapped as calcium carbonate. This calcium carbonate sinks to the bottom of the ocean in the form of coccoliths and becomes part of the sediment; thus, coccolithophores provide a sink for emitted carbon, mediating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions [3].

Bottle Coccolithophores, installation at The Winchester Science Centre (supported by Arts Council England)
Artists: Julien Masson & C Cudlip © 2016 jfmmasson.com

Plastic pollution

In 2012, it was estimated that there was approximately 165 million tons of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Polystyrene pieces and nurdles (manufactured plastic pellets used in the creation of plastic products) are the most common types of plastic pollution in oceans and, combined with plastic bags and food containers, make up the majority of oceanic debris. The Marine Conservancy has predicted the decomposition rates of several plastic products. It is estimated that a foam plastic cup will take 50 years, a plastic beverage holder will take 400 years, a disposable diaper will take 450 years, and fishing line will take 600 years to degrade [4]. The decomposition rate of plastic milk bottles is also estimated several hundred years in a landfill [5].


Find out more

References in Julien’s text:

1. Mejia, R. (2011), “Will Ion Channels Help Coccolithophores Adapt to Ocean Acidification?”, PLoS Biology 9

2. Mackinder; Wheeler, Glen; Schroeder, Declan; Riebesell, Ulf; Brownlee, Colin; et al. (2010), “Molecular Mechanisms Underlying Calcification in Coccolithophores”, Geomicrobiology Journal 27 (6–7): 585–595

3. Marsh, M.E. (2003), “Regulation of CaCO3 formation in coccolithophores”, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part B 136 (4): 743–754,

4. Lytle, Claire Le Guern. “Plastic Pollution”, Coastal Care (see link below).

5. Brian Palmer Monday, February 28, 2011; Washington Post (see link below).

Find more information about the Palaeoceanography and Palaeoclimate Research Group at Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

Discover the biodiversity and taxonomy of coccolithophores at the Nannotax site.

Read about plastic pollution of the oceans at the Coastal Care site.

Compare the environmental impacts of different types of milk container in this article by Brian Palmer in the Washington Post.

The Ocean as Abject: Between Seduction and Defilement

Fine artist Mary Eighteen and multimedia artist Julien Masson collaborate in painting and video, to explore the space between seduction and defilement in a world where meaning has broken down in relation to ecological protection of our oceans.


approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes  


As well as researching Benthic Communities in the Shelf Sea, as mentioned in my last blog (have started the first painting, which I will include for discussion in another blog), I am working on a collaboration with the UK-based French artist, Julien Masson. Our project is called The Ocean as Abject. This collaboration seeks to explore the space between seduction and defilement in order to present an exhibition that is ‘A Visual Encounter with Abjection’. In essence, this is at the moment a research project and we hope that when an exhibition site is agreed and formulated, there will be an essay and accompanying information for visitors to take away with them. We would also like to hold a symposium, where a mix of backgrounds – from cultural and ecological, to visual and scientific – could ask questions and provoke a debate.

Seduction and defilement

The proposed exhibition, The Ocean as Abject, presents a world where meaning has broken down in relation to the ecological protection of our oceans. With rising C02, ocean Dead Zones and ocean suffocation, human existence is under threat; the sad reality is that we have done this to ourselves. The seduction of the ocean has reversed to defilement by our lack of thought and our own self-inflicted banality. The essence of The Ocean as Abject invites viewers to imagine a world where the ocean, as we know it, is on the trajectory to extinction. Both painting and video are presented together, to accentuate this experience.

Abjection and Julia Kristeva

The exhibition will re-evaluate the notion of abjection perpetuated by Julia Kristeva, the French/Bulgarian philosopher, literary critic and psychoanalyst, who is Professor Emeritus at the University of Paris Diderot. In 1980 she published Powers of Horror [1]. In this essay, Kristeva refers to the abject in relation to mankind and the body. This could be migration, the humanitarian disaster that is the present famine in Somalia, or individual human trauma of any nature. However, our exhibition places the ocean as central to the notion of abjection. We take the stance that it is the ocean that is in trauma, and humanity has created this by a lack of human responsibility regarding our seas. In short, we have done this to ourselves and there is a reversal of roles as the abject is transferred from the person to the ecology of the ocean. It is human nature that is at fault and the environment that is in trauma. It could be argued that human nature also causes suffering to other humans. But that is not the argument in question here; it is the oceanic trauma that is central to the debate, and it threatens human existence. An ocean finally depleted of oxygen will survive on the planet in another form, but we as a race cannot.

Defilement - Abjection 1 by Mary Eighteen
Abjection 1 (Acrylic, ink and pigment on canvas: 230cm x 190cm) – part of The Ocean as Abject, ongoing.
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2017
http://www.maryeighteen.com

Painting, video, and the frame

The essence of the frame has always been a commonality between painting, video and film [2]. The construction of composition, light and movement within a frame has fundamental similarities [3]. But of note is the relationship between the artwork and the architectural space within which it is exhibited. Julien Masson has produced a video called The Ocean as Abject, inspired by Acidification. The video is compartmentalised into three sections and, depending on the gallery space provided, can be projected in varied ways. To this end, the projection of the video is determined by the architectural space surrounding it. This clearly brings into force the extended relationship between painting, video and architecture.

Similarly, I have produced a large painting, Abjection 1, which is 230cm high by 190cm wide. Supporting this painting are three further paintings which are narrow (70 cm wide), and are in two vertical sections. With a nod towards installation, the paintings will each sit on a set of steps that will be in line with the canvas and flush with the wall. A gallery space will again determine how these are presented alongside the video. This further examines future possibilities wherein the steps are installed on the wall space and the canvas is on the floor. The steps alluded to are the steps we as a race are taking to our own ecological annihilation. But equally it could be video projected onto the floor! The possibilities are in profusion. Video’s transference qualities are endless. A video can be projected onto the outside of a building, or used as a light installation. The subject of ‘process’ is present in both video and painting. The end product of painting is static, although the process has much movement, while a video is a moving image that involves a different kind of process.

In summary, The Ocean as Abject is an installation of painting and video destined to be curated in relation to the architectural space provided. The collaboration brings together a multimedia artist with an interest in the Anthropocene, and a painter with ecological interests who would also like to extend painting into installation work. Central to The Ocean as Abject is the need to accelerate public awareness of the seriousness of the problem regarding our oceans. To support this notion, the writings of Julia Kristeva’s abjection have been explored and appropriated, placing the abject firmly within the realms of the oceanic cultural dilemma of our time. Our planned exhibition directly confronts the problem, and we want talks and discussions to bring the debate to as many of the public as possible.


Find out more

References for the text:

1. Kristeva, Julia: Powers of Horror, Columbia University Press 1982

2. Elwes, Catherine: Worrying the Edges of the Frame, in Installation and the Moving Image, Columbia University Press 2015

3. Elwes, Catherine: Architectural Space, in Installation and the Moving Image, Columbia University Press 2015

Julia Kristeva’s Jackson Pollock’s Milky Way, appeared in Journal of Philosophy and the Visual Arts (Academy Group, 1989) and there is more at the website Julia Kristeva.

Bringing Our Monsters Back Home

Mark Goldthorpe reviews John Gardner’s Grendel, a novel that reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf and speaks to us about ‘Othering’ the natural world, and how our excluded monsters insist on coming back in.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


“The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. ‘Ah, Grendel!’ he said. He seemed at that instant almost to rise to pity. ‘You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for a long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’ … I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure.” – John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Grendel lives in a cave beneath the mere, beyond the settlement of warrior king, Hrothgar. He visits terror and death on Hrothgar’s people: “I burst in when they were all asleep, snatched seven from their beds, and slit them open and devoured them on the spot”.

Border dweller, walker of the world’s weird wall

This beast is an “I”, not an “It,” and his discovery of self, humanity and the world that mankind is making blurs the boundaries between human and monster. Boundaries are important. In Old English, Grendel is mearc-stapa, ‘border dweller’. In the novel he’s the same: “shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall”.

The story takes Grendel from his late childhood, knowing only the cave he shares with his speechless, unfathomable mother and the questions he can’t answer about what and why he is, and out into the world of nature and humans. He observes the growing society of warriors as they settle and transform the world he comes to know, and watches their wars, art and religion. Terrible to confront, he’s rejected by humans and rejects them in return, but is unable to deny his fascination with their determination to make meaning of their own existence. And he encounters the know-it-all dragon, who sees all space and time and the apocalypse at the end of the universe, and subjects Grendel to its nihilistic cynicism. Struggling with the animal, human and dragon-like aspects of his own nature, Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s meadhall time and again and eventually meets his own, inevitable death at the hand of Beowulf. The dragon has seen that too, of course, and so have we; we know the story, but nobody told Grendel.

Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1973
http://michaelleonardartist.com

The novel provokes the question: who is it that is speaking? Grendel is the ‘I’, John Gardner his author. Gardner uses the creature he found in Beowulf, a text handed down from unknown Anglo-Saxons writing in a Christianising England before the 10th century; who took their sources from oral traditions we can’t know fully; which told of another country, another time, another (pagan) worldview. Many versions have come between Beowulf and Grendel (including a 1957 prose translation by David Wright – I’m fortunate to have an edition with cover illustration by Michael Leonard, who also illustrated my copy of Grendel), and more since, including films, books, cartoons, songs; each one pouring other texts into their own work, as Gardner did with his novel.

Creating realities

Of course fiction is creative – but in the reading as well as the writing. Reading is not so much about uncovering what lies beneath: the author’s intent. We cannot go beneath the text in the way Grendel dives under the mere to reach his hidden cave. But we bring to this text the others we’ve read, heard about or imagined, and make something out of our particular constellation of them all. Our reading cannot fail to include and use all we’ve read, seen and heard before; and so, creatively, we understand each ‘new’ text through past experiences, and our anticipation of more to come. This is the sort of sense-making that mystifies and torments Grendel.

Reality, however, is always in ‘excess’ of our perceptions, texts and sense-making. Our senses are limited in what they can detect, and they filter out what we do not ‘need’ to know. They can’t bring everything inside; if they could, reality would overwhelm us, crippling our ability to do anything about it. As biology, we reduce our environment to things we can discriminate, then rebuild it into something we can use: something always incomplete. The dragon sees this:

“Counters, measurers, theory-makers … They only think they think. No total vision … They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories … They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense … That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me … He knows no more of total reality than they do – less, if anything.”

Gardner saw his novel as a defence of human values – of life, love, art, home, knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, hope, friendship, and faith – against the ironic alternatives represented, not by Grendel but by the dragon who lectures him on the bleak universe.

When Grendel first emerges from his dark, womb-like cave, he encounters humans as they also first discover the land they will settle. Shocked by their violent rejection, disillusioned in his repeated attempts to learn meaning from them, he becomes alien, the ‘Other’. A self-reflexive Other:

“I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes.’ … No thread, no frailest hair between me and the universal clutter.”

He witnesses the humans’ systematic destruction of their environment. Unlike the dragon, Grendel is not so much supernatural as a force of nature attempting to understand humanity even as it seeks to control, expel or destroy him.

Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1970
http://michaelleonardartist.com

(B)ordering the world

This monstrous protagonist-narrator foregrounds questions of how we order the world, border it, make sense of it. How does this (b)ordering privilege some ‘things’ and marginalise or exclude others? How do the marginal and excluded parts of the world respond? What becomes of us in the process of creating our world this way?

Grendel lives on our borders. Hrothgar’s meadhall is ours, created to keep out the cold and dark wilderness and contain the telling of tales by the fire. The meadhall is the new centre of a human world that’s set on expanding forever. Hrothgar subjects and absorbs other tribes, demands tribute, pushes back the world around him. Nature is to be managed, defended against. And, where its threats are too great to be directly comprehended, they’re ‘contained’ in the words of Hrothgar’s poet, Shaper, or the religion of his priest, Ork. ‘Others’ managed as stories: darkest fears hidden in plain sight. But the monster keeps reappearing, whatever words Shaper conjures up. As humans centre the world on themselves, Grendel is increasingly decentred in his, forced onto the margins, but always ready to slip back in.

In that gap between excess reality and incomplete perceptions is space for ambiguity: room for manoeuvre, for creativity – or denial. When we use culture and politics to continue the job of biology, filtering out aspects of the world that we deem unimportant, inconvenient or fearful, we’re pretending something doesn’t exist even though we know it does. We grant it power: the agency to intervene, Grendel-like. Excluding what would overcomplicate our lives, we find it overflowing our frame, pouring back into what we wanted to simplify and manage. Our lives recomplicate, our meadhall doors thrown down again.

Monster culture

In Monster Culture: Seven Theses, English and Medieval Studies scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “We live in a time of monsters”: from global terror to global warming, WMD proliferation to technological acceleration, and ecological collapse to industrial pollution. (Or, as the future-seeing, nihilistic dragon says to Grendel: “Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things”). That this has led to a state of generalised anxiety is revealed in

“a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desires to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” – Jeffery Jerome Cohen

Cohen proposes seven ways to read cultures through the monsters they engender:

  • Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body

As construct and projection of fears, “the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’ … Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”.

  • Thesis II: The monster always escapes

Whether ‘defeated’ or not in any telling, the monster escapes classification and slips back beyond our re-secured borders, ready to return in another guise: “its threat is its propensity to shift”.

  • Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis

Monsters refuse to participate in the order we seek to impose, reappearing at “times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematises the clash of extremes”, of binaries. Grendel: “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal – a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world – two snakepits.”

  • Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference

As “difference made flesh, come to live among us” the monstrously embodied ‘Other’ “justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act as heroic”. Differences multiply and “slide together like the imbricated circles of a Venn diagram, abjecting from the centre that which becomes the monster”.

  • Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible

Once we’ve created our multiplying and shifting Others, this uncategorisable assemblage takes a “position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes … borders that cannot – must not – be crossed”.

  • Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire

What is forbidden is also appealing and the fact that it is beyond control only enhances this attraction. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time as we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.

  • Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold of becoming

Although we push them back, they always return. “And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge”.

Fiction offers safer encounters with our monsters, but an encounter nonetheless. Grendel invites you to explore your boundaries and beyond. And when you come back, a returnee to what you regard as a human-centred world, you maybe find your self-knowledge a little changed. Perhaps you ask yourself ‘How am I human? How am I monster?’

Look your monsters in the eye - Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe
Look your monsters in the eye
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Find out more

At the British Museum Beowulf page you can view their digitised copy of the manuscript in their collection — and Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky.

Jeffery Jerome Cohen essay Monster culture (seven theses), appeared in Monster Theory: Reading Culture (Cohen J, ed), published by University of Minnesota Press (1996).

John Gardner’s Grendel was published by Gollancz (1971).

David Wright’s Beowulf (a prose translation), was published  in 1957, and is out of print.

On Sullied Seas

acidificationFine artist Mary Eighteen introduces her ongoing collection of works on a theme of the Sullied Atlantic and ocean acidification, exploring her deep concern for how humanity is destroying the future of our oceans and, in turn, ourselves.


approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes  


One day I was sitting on a train commuting home. Opposite me a man was reading a newspaper, the front page of which was facing me. On that page was a large muted image of a fleet of obsolete naval ships. They were the Mothball Fleet, soon to be known as the James River Ghost Ships because in America, under the Bush administration, these ships were left to rot and decay on the James River in Virginia. As their plight unfolded, it became national news and when thirteen of the ships were destined to be destroyed in Hartlepool Greenpeace got involved. The ships were so toxic it was feared, given their toxic state, they would break up at sea, causing an environmental disaster. Eventually four ships came to Hartlepool. Although I wanted to travel to photograph them, it was not allowed due to their toxic state. While at first I saw these ships as lost souls destined for a ships’ graveyard, I became seduced by their rusted surfaces and eventually the toxins that lead to their destruction.

The toxins within these ships made me realise only too clearly the demise of our oceans in relation to ocean toxicity and its threat to the future of our oceans and subsequently mankind.

Climate change and ocean toxicity are inextricably linked, and this scenario has become the cultural phenomenon of our time. Our oceans are sick. They are slowly suffocating under the plethora of carbon dioxide entering its surface and depth.

An Atlantic story

Sullied Atlantic 14 (work on canvas 102cm x190cm)
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2016
Further info: http://www.maryeighteen.com

And so, the ships’ story, evoking the problems concerning ocean toxicity, has become my story, a story that has taken me to the mystical island of Skye, Pembrokeshire, Cornwall and hopefully soon, the West of Ireland, to document and research the Atlantic. The Sullied Atlantic series of paintings started as a response to a visit to Skye In the Hebrides. I wanted to see and experience the purity of the Atlantic in the Hebrides and then ‘Sully’ it on canvas, to show how humanity is destroying the future of our oceans and in turn ourselves. I work in a series of collections that are constantly being updated and developed. I work between them in accordance with that development and add new collections when inspired to do so.

My paintings are a metaphor for change. They allude to an opposition to ecological purity and human endeavour, by presenting an oceanic world devoid of tenacity and social concern. The paintings are the opposite of purity. They present a sullied ecology, sucked into an anoxic environment. They acknowledge an indulgence in nature’s richness while at the same time destroying that possibility through thoughtlessness and banality. That banality underpins the depth of the problem concerning the relationship between humanity and the ocean. Thoughtlessness has become a contemporary subterfuge that lends itself to misguided human activity, resulting in the pollution now affecting the ocean. Ocean ‘dead zones’ are becoming more common, acidification accelerating, with unprecedented speed, and it is only our human race that can halt this progress.

Sullied Atlantic 8 (work on canvas 140cm x 125 cm)
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2015
Further info: http://www.maryeighteen.com

The paintings included in this blog respond directly to various facets of ocean pollution. While a collection box is not open yet, I am at this moment researching the plight of our Benthic Communities: the small organisms that live within the sediment of the ocean floor or the sediment in the shelf sea. Larger Benthic community members might be clams or crabs. The smaller organisms such as the Brittle Star that live in the shelf sea sediment are vulnerable to trawlers that scrape and dig into the sediment. The most vulnerable are the microscopic organisms that are so small they cannot be seen. These communities intrigue me, because they form a whole ecosystem that is vital to our survival. Apart from trawlers, these organisms – including crustaceans – are increasingly the victim of ocean acidification. The depletion of these communities would eventually affect human life. Sadly, because many people are not aware of these small organisms so vital to our survival, the problem is now serious. This means that people need to be made aware of that problem.

Acidification – invisible threat

Recently I was in a solo exhibition at ONCA Gallery in Brighton. It gave an opportunity to exhibit work in a gallery committed to the environment, but also a chance, through talks that were juxtaposed with the exhibition, to raise how serious this problem is. We can see the devastation caused by oil slicks, we can see the rubbish left by humans on the beach and in the sea, but we cannot see many of the microscopic organisms that are so under threat.

At the moment, I am hoping that my own research into Benthic Communities will help raise such awareness. The paintings once again will be a metaphor for change. They will be created and presented with this need for change in mind.

Acidification 5 (work on canvas 190cm x 210cm)
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2016
Further info: http://www.maryeighteen.com

As I always work between varied collections of work, the acidification paintings I have been working on will also be in progress. In the acidification collection, the work is more monochrome in terms of limited colour. This is because acidification is about bleaching of the healthy colour of a crustacean or other sea life. Communities will be sucked away under the toxic suffocation of carbon dioxide as it enters the sea in unprecedented amounts. I have used varied shades of green white and creams to respond to this subject. I am enjoying the process and am pleased to be invited to be part of ClimateCultures.


A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #1

Anthropocene objectClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe set Members a challenge: share your choice of three objects with personal significance for you and that say something of the past, present and future of the emerging Anthropocene. Here is his personal contribution.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


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 by Killick & Company
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, photograph by NASA/JPL-Caltech
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. There is much of the story of Marie Killick’s life, invention and struggle at Marie Louise Killick.

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

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?