Placing the Sea

It's a great pleasure to welcome new Member Wallace Heim with her first post for ClimateCultures. Wallace - a researcher and writer on performance and ecology - recently completed 'the sea cannot be depleted', her online project exploring the military exploitation of the Solway Firth. Here, she shares her reflections on the inspiration behind this powerful project and her creative process.

approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

Outrage is compelling. It moves you. It flares around an event, lining up adversaries as it draws temporary certainties from the flux of life.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) fired at least 30 tonnes of artillery shells containing Depleted Uranium into the Solway Estuary to test those munitions on behalf of an unnamed ‘customer’. The firings began in the 1980s, from the Scottish side, with the last firings in 2011 or 2013. The MOD justified this illegal dumping of radioactive waste into the sea as being ‘placements’. Attempts to retrieve the shells have failed. Their locations are unknown.

DUFERC Meeting 36, 17 June 2004
Photograph: Wallace Heim © 2018 theseacannotbedepleted.net

Responses to this news slide easily into anger for the injustice of these firings and shock at their stupidity, alongside a desire for accountability or reparations by the military, which will not and cannot be met. But what happens when the clarity of outrage, and its certainties, get mixed up with everyday life? When they somehow bind with a place, when they merge and dissolve into it, like the radiating materials drifting in the Irish seas?

“No brink of the end of humanity was gazed over. It barely made the news … Thousands of years pissing in the sea with everything we can’t digest, all the rancid debris that we could throw in there, all of it, and now this … The military got it the wrong way around. They didn’t place the uranium. No. They placed this estuary. They made it into their place. They made it into their military nuclear sea," the Man says.

Sensing the insensible

‘the sea cannot be depleted’ is an online project, composed of three parts: a spoken word and sound piece for three voices, accompanied by essays and by documentation about the firings and the effects of Depleted Uranium. The sound piece is fictive, based on interviews and research. In it, a Man speaks from the Scottish side of the estuary, the firth, an area of cliffs, bays, granite and farms. A Woman speaks from the English side, flat lands of ancient peat, grasses and farms, around the headland from the civil-military nuclear industries of West Cumbria. And a Diver speaks as she enters the night sea:

“On the edge here, soft sand, bird tracks and worm casts and the plish of water on my bed-bare feet. More salt than fresh. Read the surface for danger. Go in, between heartbeats, mine and the sea’s … Tentacles brush my legs. Wrapping me in the softness of their sucking, jelly skins. They are curious about me. Me. Am I food? … Drifts of something cloud my eyes. Plankton wandering in from far seas. I swim in sex and food and sea talk.”

The form of the piece was shaped by my need to ‘hear’ the radiation, to have it enter somehow directly into the human ear. And by the negotiations of outrage and conflict that were needed in order to understand and express something of the turbulence of unknowable consequences and the transfiguration of uranium let loose in the continual, mixing tidal forces of an estuary. 

Radiation cannot be heard, smelled or touched, but is known through the rattled clicks of the technologies that measure it and make it perceptible to humans. Those sounds are too familiar. I wanted to hear it and to represent it through the human voice, through its vibrations and resonances as well as through the articulations about the effects of knowing what has been buried. The music by Pippa Murphy, too, does not use conventional ‘nuclear’ sounds, but creates a melodic line, that holds, falls apart, dissolves, and reforms.

Nuclear issues are stark and divisive. My certainties are reasoned, ethical and emotive: I find these military actions unjustifiable, expressive of hubris and embedded in a global economy of harm. I had to relate those certainties to the government position which supports the use of Depleted Uranium, and to the scientific reports available, both by independent researchers and the military. The latest find that ‘uncertainty’ characterises what is possible to definitively measure; no one ‘knows’.

From a public road on the Kirkcudbright Training Area
Photograph: Wallace Heim © 2018 theseacannotbedepleted.net

Against the against

I did not want to set out adversarial arguments between conflicting sides, as if that was a kind of balance or a reliable process towards truth. Nor did I want to hone the subject matter into something more solidly activist. Rather, for the Man and the Woman who reflect on their relation to the sea and the firings, I wanted to keep to the outrage, but as it is compromised and embedded in everyday life.

The action in theatre, by historical conventions, moves with the forces of adversarial human conflict; two sides, with variations. But theatre and performance have, for the past decades, developed other dramaturgical strategies, broadly categorised as the postdramatic, for creating flow, mood, character and vibrancy. The ‘two-sides’ device has seeped away from some performance practices as it doesn’t adequately allow for a genuine expression of a situation or condition. At the same time, in ecological thinking, the entwining of human conflicts with environments, waters, lands, other living beings, or perceptions of nature – are complicating the order offered by adversarial conflict and requiring other ways to comprehend and address what is a condition of life, one that is pervasive, intractable, characterised by uncertainty and a lack of lasting solutions.

The firings were a rehearsal for war and were hostile fire on a home sea. How can one understand the slow corrosion that endures? What does it mean for a place, a people, to cohere with the unseen objects of war? How do you make a life with, or disavow, the symptoms of the civil-military nuclear complex? How does the knowable coalesce with the not-knowable?

“How do you keep safe? 

The Military devised tests to prove these firings were safe for humans. They measured seaweed and crabs and grit and urine. What they forgot was the sea. They forgot the turbulence, the planetary forces of gravity pulling oceans across a chiselled bed. They forgot the curiosity of the tender animal, too small for any net. They forgot that some humans are pregnant women. 

It’s probably all right. It has to be. We have to live as if it was. 

The swells of silences, they hold us tight … What adds up, what counts on this coast is what keeps the working public paying taxes. That’s what keeps things quiet … The sea will loosen and unravel all that we can’t talk about," the Woman says. 

Crossing the threshold

The Diver is a different kind of force, ambivalent between the imaginal and the real. She speaks of her sensed perceptions as she repeatedly dives below the sea surface. She sets out with promise and high delight but stays too long. She passes that threshold when coming back would be possible, making a loose association with the nuclear dream and the impossible scramble to return to a world without its waste.

“My body curls and tumbles. It joins the pock-marked hard things that roll along the bed. We’re a pulse of moving things. Another brush of something like dust. My skin starts to bleach with it. I’m burning, down here with no light, no air … I cool my body in a garden of soft-skinned creatures … Everything moves, the living with the dead. Lives within lives. Our cells are the lenses through which we see our futures. We are all transparent to the longer waters of the sea ... ”

The uranium was pulled by brown hands from hot, dusty places, fabricated and made into rich pieces of tradeable merchandise. The military sent those high-priced shells out over the miles of waiting water. In the instant that they touched the sea surface they were waste. As they bedded into the soft sands, they began their dissolution into sea salts and the human imagination. ‘the sea cannot be depleted’ takes off from what seems like discrete events, but those events are only part of a long arc that has no end.

Sandyhills
Photograph: Wallace Heim © 2018 theseacannotbedepleted.net

Find out more

‘the sea cannot be depleted’ was written and produced by Wallace Heim, with music and sound composition by Pippa Murphy and the voices of Camille Marmié (Diver), Vincent Friell (Man) and Lisa Howard (Woman). The project was funded by Future’s Venture Foundation, Manchester.

You can hear the full dramatised audiopiece for ‘the sea cannot be depleted’, and view Wallace’s extensive research journal and other background documents about Depleted Uranium, the MOD’s firings into the Solway Firth and the area itself, at the sea cannot be depleted. And you can explore more of Wallace’s work via her ClimateCultures profile page.

Wallace has also shared a number of references you might like to explore:

Heim, Wallace (2017). ‘Theatre, conflict and nature’ in Performance and Ecology. What Can Theatre Do? Ed. Carl Lavery. London: Routledge. also in: Green Letters. Studies in Ecocriticism. (2016) 20:3. The journal is behind an academic firewall, and the book is exorbitantly priced. Please email me if you would like a pdf of the article: home[at]wallaceheim[dot]com

On the ‘postdramatic’:

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. (2006). Postdramatic Theatre. Trans. Karen Jürs-Munby.  London: Routledge.

Jürs-Munby, Karen (ed). (2013). Postdramatic Theatre and the Political. International Perspectives on Contemporary Performance. London: Bloomsbury.

Art, Rise Up!

We welcome artist Ottavia Virzi to ClimateCultures with her account of Art Rise Up, a new creative collective that brings art and activism together for environmental protection. 

Ottavia describes their recent intervention in support of the campaign to halt opencast coal mining, using art to engage cultural meaning.

How to realign our creative practice in support of effective actions, aiming to help achieve some steps in the process leading to a fairer society? As creatives, feeling this need can lead to different paths: paths that can be centred on raising cultural awareness, or be part of a sustainable design process, or can look at the bridges between art and activism. We are interested in testing this last option inside the collective Art Rise Up. Approaching activism can be an uplifting experience for those looking to direct ways to have an impact, overcoming the sense of frustration and disempowerment that is felt by so many citizens today. Our creative intervention in support of the direct occupation of Pont Valley started from this common need we perceived, to use our creative skills to directly support a significant environmental campaign.

A direct occupation of the valley has been taking place from early March until eviction last week, but the campaign is however motivated to stay strong.  A campaign lasting decades for some members of the community, trying to stop an invasive open-cast coal mine from opening right in front of the villages of Dipton and Leadgate, County Durham. A campaign felt ever more strongly today, right when England is committed to coal phase-out by 2025, in an areas which has been historically exploited for coal.

Creative intervention

Coal is the symbol of many countries’ slow response in tackling the climate crisis. Moreover, the impact of coal on local community is extremely high, due to coal dust produced through the distressing excavations. A petition signed by 88,000 people regarding the Pont Valley mine was brought to the Home Office in February and ignored by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Sajid Javid, the same Tory HCLG Minister — just appointed Home Secretary — who recently denied permission for another mine — at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, on the grounds of climate change and implications on health and wildlife — did not react regarding Pont Valley. The same private energy company, Banks Group, is involved in both mines. This scenario underlines the conflicts between private corporate interest and governments, who are not able to pronounce a complete and definitive “no”. National usage of coal power has diminished in England, amounting to a 8% of the energy mix in 2017. But the continued dependency on cheap polluting energy is a direct consequence of our economic system — based on boundless consumerism — and the lack of extensive policies reforming energy usage through real investments in renewables and energy efficiency, and of a brave discourse regarding the need to re-adjust energy demand. This does not mean de-growth seen as a step backwards, but rather as a different growth and a step forward.

“Sajid Javid turns a blind eye to Pont Valley”
Image: Art Rise Up © 2018

All of these thoughts informed our decision to organise ourselves into a collective which could keep supporting the campaign in London, where our life as creative freelancers often means compromises in a constant search for balance in our actions.

Cultural meaning

The task we gave ourself was to create something simple and efficient, to give a shape to this large amount of information on the issues in the form of an artistic intervention which could also try to help to influence directly. The exercise of art is after all an attempt to condense communication, and give it tangible cultural meaning.

Pont Valley masks
Image: Art Rise Up © 2018

With the use of a critical neo-classical bust, we decided to underline the responsibility of governments and power figures in handling the climate crisis. This is a call for politicians to re-think the meaning of providing community welfare beyond exploitative models.

Our installation consisted of a clay bust picturing Sajid Javid — empty black eye cavities, and coal around him — and a plaque referring to his controversial silence regarding the Pont Valley mine. In the plinth, built-in speakers were emitting sounds of birds chirping with overlapping industrial sounds of excavators.

More-than-human community

The statue has been officially unveiled in front of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Direct action and artistic intervention can share with theatre a performative key, which is increasingly used in protests. We decided to unveil the statue in a ceremony with four officiants wearing masks inspired by Pont Valley wildlife – Skylark, Crested Newt, Pont Burn River, and Gorse Bush. These masks to represent a wider community of people and living beings behind our actions. Mining and burning coal harms the smaller creatures in our ecosystems as much as human communities worldwide.

All images: Art Rise Up © 2018

Our intervention didn’t manage to change Sajid Javid’s mind. The Pont Valley Protection Camp was evicted last week. Banks Group are even planning to appeal against the Druridge Bay decision. What this little journey helped us discover though, is how committed and motivated is the movement behind environmental campaigns. How a small example such as a coal mine in County Durham and a larger perspective necessarily live together. How the journey will still be long, with countless the campaigns to fight. How important it is for all to embark on this journey to adjust the system, from politicians to countryside dwellers, to city workers and artists together, committing to spread awareness and give shape to a real plea for change.

 

Find out more

Ottavia Virzi is a set and costume designer focusing on sustainability, heritage crafts and social history, and you can find her work at her website and on Instagram via her ClimateCultures Directory page.

Art Rise Up has a Facebook page and intends to promote and share contents about Art and Activism.

You can learn more about the open cast coal mine at Pont Valley and the campaigns to prevent it at Coal Action UK and in these articles from The Ecologist, BBC News and Chronicle Live: Protecting Pont Valley: meet the protesters fighting a new coal mine (28/3/18); Dipton opencast mine protesters in underground tunnels (20/4/18); All the opencast campaigners kicked out of protest camp after 33 hour stand off with bailiffs (20/4/18).

 

 

The Ocean as Abject: Painting as Installation

In this welcome return by one of ClimateCultures' earliest contributors, visual artist Mary Eighteen brings us up to date with her collaboration with video artist (and fellow ClimateCultures Member) Julien Masson. In the earlier post - The Ocean as Abject: Between Seduction and Defilement - she explored how their project "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." Here, Mary focuses on the concepts of framing within painting and video as a means to provide the visual encounter with abjection.

Our project is ready to launch in terms of seeking the correct exhibition space. The appropriation of Kristeva’s abjection, by reversing the abject as human trauma and positing it within the world of oceanic trauma, remains central to the work.

When preparing or proposing ecological scenarios for an exhibition that invites the spectator to view and consider the abjection of our oceans, it is important that our frame itself also challenges the oceanic problems facing humanity. Both of us have explored this in relation to the idea of the architectural space provided for our proposed exhibition.

The viewer and the frame

Our further research into spectatorship, regarding the viewer and the frame, responds to Paul Sharit’s concept of “presenting and viewing a film as close as possible to the conditions of hanging and looking at a painting.” (1) Therefore, for The Ocean as Abject, I have as a painter responded to a process of painting as installation, so that spectatorship is addressed not as an observational exercise, but as a concept of thought in terms of viewer participation. To this end the viewer is invited to contemplate both video and painterly installation within the structure of the frame.

In my previous post I presented my painting Abjection 1 and said:

“I have produced three further paintings which are narrow (70cm wide), and 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.”

Since then the steps have been made and suitably sprayed black with car spray paint.  It can be seen from the images here that the paintings aligned with the steps are moving towards installation. The steps are symbolic of a possible sixth extinction, and of the steps we need to make to prevent such an occurrence. The frame therefore challenges spectatorship on two levels. The steps incite interest by deconstructing formal notions of the frame. In doing so, the viewer is invited to question further the purpose of the artwork. Subsequently they must consider the powerful insights evoked by the exhibition.

Abjection 2
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2018
www.maryeighteen.com

Steps to the future

The three paintings — Abjection 2, Abjection 3, Abjection 4 — are the beginning of a body of work that embraces this notion of the frame. While the top smaller sections on all three (70cm x 60cm) make a reference to landscape, albeit in an abstracted manner, the lower long canvases (70cm x 122cm), suggest a disruption of flow that symbolises a world where meaning has started to collapse. The steps are a prelude to that plausible collapse and invite the spectator to consider this conundrum. They make reference to both ecological concerns as well as exploring the art object in relation to the frame.

Abjection 3
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2018
www.maryeighteen.com

While the paintings — unlike video — are static, the steps are a move away from the manner in which a canvas is so often traditionally presented. This could be further investigated by also interrogating the way in which painting can be displayed on a wall. After his death in 2015, Ellsworth Kelly’s last paintings were exhibited at Mathew Marks Gallery in New York (May 5th to June 25th 2017). In his critique of the exhibition, Terence Troullot shares Branden Joseph’s quote on the artist, “The wall is part of the painting and always has been.” (2) Troullot’s own summary of Kelly’s painting White Diagonal Curve (2015) suggests that “a crescent shaped white canvas set against an all-white partition wall, seems to be part of the background, and yet escaping from it as well, outwardly moving in all directions.” (3) In relation to Troullot’s observation The Ocean as Abject makes it essential that frame as well as painted image emanates the idea of a sullied ecology. This is to ensure an enlightened spectatorship, by presenting painting via a disrupted surface that not only interrogates the viewer but also the architectural space within which it is exhibited. By ‘disrupted surface’ I mean that, in my case, the nature of displaying a painting is challenged by the addition of the steps.

Painting, video and architecture

Similarly, Julien Masson’s video for The Ocean as Abject (which can seen in the earlier post) was initially presented as a concept in three parts. It was suggested that the video would work well as a series of slow panning shots stacked (in strata), on one screen or in succession. This makes me think of montage and the whole idea of assembly or editing. In his thesis Eisenstein’s Theory on Montage and Architecture Jeffrey M Todd states that “Montage then deals with the combination of several dissimilar elements which through their assemblage establish new meaning “(4) For me this statement elaborates the purpose of our proposed exhibition. The Ocean as Abject juxtaposes painting and video for the purpose of evoking an ecological awareness for the spectator, and this assemblage as installation uses the designated architectural space to convey meaning and purpose via the frame.

Abjection 4
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2018
www.maryeighteen.com

“If as Eisenstein suggests, film and by extension, moving image installation descends down one line from architecture, then another branch must necessarily proceed from painting, that other creature of duration.” (5) Within the historic links of architecture and painting, punctuated by the more recent mercurial rise of video art and installation, The Ocean as Abject will in the end be defined by the architectural space provided. Within this space, spectatorship must then focus on the frame in order to transcend the meaning and purpose that lies beyond the frames presented.

Together, Julien and I have created work that aligns a relationship between video and painting, but we have also considered work that has the flexibility to relate to the architectural space that it will be exhibiting in. In her book Installation and the Moving Image, Catherine Elwes says “There are obvious continuities across both practises arising from formal considerations — both moving image and painting organise pictorial elements: shapes, textures, colours, light and dark into readable signs, for the most part defined by the frame.” (6)

Two artists — one a fine artist and painter, one a multimedia artist whose work straddles both video and the visual arts — have addressed how the frame can be used to heighten awareness of the worrying conditions that are affecting the survival of our oceans’ future, and in turn our own.


Find out more

Notes from Mary’s text:

  1. Elwes, Catherine: Painting, Approaches to Painted Surfaces in Installation and the Moving Image, p21. Wallflower Press. 2015
  2. These Are The Last Great Paintings Ellsworth Kelly Made Before He Died: Terence Troullot, Artnet News, 4th May 2017. This essay includes the painting, White Diagonal Curve (2015).
  3. Troullot: Ibid
  4. Todd, M Jeffrey: Eisenstein’s Film Theory on Montage and Architecture. A Thesis Presented to The Faculty of Division of Graduate Studies. Georgia Institute of Technology. 1989
  5. Elwes, Catherine: Painting, Approaches to Painted Surfaces. In Installation and the Moving Image, p21. Wallflower Press.  2015
  6. Elwes: Ibid

You can find more of Mary’s work at her site. Julien Masson’s video as part of this collaborative project appears in the earlier post The Ocean as Abject: Between Seduction and Defilement  and you can find more of his work at his site.

The Beating Heart of COP24

ClimateCultures welcomes a new voice to the blog, with Paul Allen sharing his reflections after taking part in the COP23 talks in Bonn - and looking ahead to the cultural challenges for COP24 next year. Paul is Project Director of the Centre for Alternative Terchnology's Zero Carbon Britain programme.

We humans live by our values, shaped through, communities, experiences and culture. Our communities and our experiences are increasingly compelled to engage with climate change, but can our culture also grasp it?

At the next year’s UN climate summit, we will have reached a point in the negotiations where all nations must raise their ambition if we are to deliver on the Paris Agreement. As we prepare, it is vital we recognise the influence of culture; in helping us grasp exactly where we are in the world and the scale and speed of the actions we must take. The arts and creative community, in many ways the beating heart of culture, has a powerful role to play in this.

From the bubble of forgetting where we are …

From shifting seasons to wild weather, communities across the UK now experience both the large and small effects of climate change in their own back yards. On top of this, as we watch the global news, we see increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as forest fires, floods, hurricanes and droughts, hitting communities in other parts of the globe. But then, as the news ends, and normal TV  returns, the characters in our films, soaps, dramas and reality TV series simply never discuss this. They never take any of the actions we know we must all take; they never discuss any of the changes we know we are seeing. This creates a bubble in which we have forgotten where we actually are in the world, where we can ignore what we know we need to do, and where we never witness the positive co-benefits that rising to our challenge could offer.

To make matters worse, every time contemporary culture tells a story of human interactions set a decade or two into the future, we paint it against a background of ecological collapse and zombie-ridden dystopia. Turning us into zombies works well to dehumanise society in ‘collapse’ scenarios, so making the mass-extinction narratives more palatable. Be it a novel, theatre, film, a TV or the gaming world, any future setting is dark – and a whole new generation is now growing up within this, transforming the way we think. We have shifted from that exciting 1960s vision of progress and anticipation, to a dark, uncertain and fearful future; which makes us easier to manage. If we only tell future stories set against chaos, collapse and devastation, no one can imagine positive solutions, so nothing happens.

So, as we move towards COP24, with its urgent need for ambition, it’s time to re-think the future. Evidence-based art, firmly rooted in the reality of where we are and what we must achieve, can bring to life exciting new stories. In stories of a future where humanity has delivered on Paris, and is enjoying the co-benefits – what would change and what would remain? What would we be doing, wearing or eating? How would we get around? Where and how would we spend our holidays or leisure time? What will drive our happiness in this new chapter of our story?

To visualising a climate safe future

A decade of Zero Carbon Britain research from the Centre for Alternative Technology has clearly demonstrated that we have all the tools and technologies we require. Powerful research is now emerging from across the globe at an accelerating rate, offering the hard data and confidence required to visualise what a climate safe future might actually be like. Rather than an unresolved technical challenge, it is increasingly accepted that what we actually face, is a mix of political and cultural barriers.

In the run-up to this year’s COP23 climate negotiations in Bonn, I was heartened to see Julie’s Bicycle working in collaboration with the UNFCCC to offer a weekly spotlight on arts and cultural responses  to climate. It is now time to build way beyond the scale of arts engagement achieved at COP21 in Paris. As we prepare for COP24, our cultural community needs to engage deeper with this process. This does not necessarily mean being on-site during the negotiations; ongoing engagement connecting local and community actions with the global process is every bit as important.

Giving a Hand to Nature
Artist: Pedro Mazorati © 2017
http://pedromarzorati.com

Since the Paris Agreement, mainstream UK media has barely engaged with the COP process, so few are able to connect with what goes on. Surely progress in providing a safe niche for future generations is every bit as important as the latest X Factor or Bake Off? So, to help explore new approaches, in the run up to COP24 I am seeking collaborations across the creative community to build on our Zero Carbon Britain work, and have pulled together a short film to offer a glimpse into my engagement with COP23 in Bonn in November this year. 

Find out more

You can read more about Paul’s recent experiences at COP23 at the Centre for Alternative Technology blog.

You can download Zero Carbon Britain resources and sign up for the next Zero Carbon Britain training course.

Explore the official UN climate negotiations process at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

You can see more images such as Pedro Mazorati’s from the Art4Climate series at the UNFCC Climate Action pages.

Questioning the COPs? Space for creative thinking... 
 
Bali, Berlin, Bonn, Buenos Aires, Cancun, Copenhagen, Doha, Durban, Geneva, The Hague, Kyoto, Lima, Marrakech, Milan, Montreal, Nairobi, New Delhi, Paris, Poznan, Warsaw... We've had 23 'Conferences of the Parties', with next year's in Katowice, Poland. Where, when and how would you hold the COP where the world celebrates delivering on 'Paris 2015'? Why there? Sketch out a 'creative timeline', mapping out how you think we might get there... 

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #5

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

This seventh generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun machines: the future for now

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

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

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

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

Solar ‘farming’ Photographer: unknown

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

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

The long past of the Long Man

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

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

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

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

Find out more

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

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

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

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


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

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

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

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

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

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