Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs shares thoughts on the place of artists, and of creative ensemble practices, in a culture of possessive individualism that must urgently address its chronic failure of imagination in the face of eco-social crisis.


1,480 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes 


“Art is a parasite that feeds upon the corpus of culture. Its insularity is just a conceit….”
– Simon Read

One — driven to be part of the problem

The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss is Maddy Paxman’s account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique. She writes:

“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life.”

This sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she loved deeply, a man very clearly ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry, gives me pause for thought. In part because I recognise all-too-clearly the need to paint that she speaks of. In part because I think that, indirectly, her observation relates to the performance artist Andrea Fraser’s claim that artists are not part of the solution to our current socio-environmental crisis, as many assume, but part of the problem.

That sounds like a betrayal of both my own work and that of many people I deeply admire, at least until I think about the art world’s financial reality, its ‘big hitters’ — Jeff Koons, John Currin, Damian Hurst, Odd Nurdrum et al. What is the nature of the work such artists produce if not an expression of the culture of possessive individualism, the global economics the culture feeds and is fed by, and the deepening epistemological crisis in which current presuppositions about creativity are embedded? And that’s clear even before we link these things to an environmental situation that, in all probability, is now nearing its terrible endgame.

Two — the Great Derangement

As it happens, Andrea Fraser is simply restating in variation concerns raised by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley and, most recently, the writer and academic Amitav Ghosh. Despite a lifetime spent making and teaching art, I find myself sharing their various concerns. So I want to raise two possibilities.

Firstly that, if we have a stake in the arts, we should now very seriously consider in what ways the arts, in the culture of possessive individualism, have and are enacting just the chronic failure of imagination that Ghosh calls the ‘Great Derangement’. Not as some kind of quasi-masochistic guilt-trip in the best Protestant tradition, but as a necessary step to re-orienting our notions of creativity.

Cover to 'The Great Derangement' by Jill Shimabukuro
Cover to ‘The Great Derangement’
Artist: Jill Shimabukuro

Secondly, that we might ask ourselves whether the tendency to psychic monomania that Maddy Paxman describes as ‘driven-ness’ can be addressed by radically rethinking the nature of creative activity from a more inclusive perspective. Might it not be both more productive and more accurate to consider the attention and skills associated with arts practices, not as an end in themselves that justifies the artist as a ‘driven’ individual, but as catalysts or models for larger ensembles of heterogeneous skills, concerns and activities? Ensembles that would retain the psychic (if not necessarily the economic) benefits of a creative practice, but at some distance from the assumptions, expectations, and protocols central to the hyper-professionalised art world to which Andrea Frazer refers. Considering increasingly heterogeneous creative practices as compound ensembles might be a useful step towards reversing the situation in which art serves to perpetuate the culture of possessive individualism, and with it the Global North’s Great Derangement.

Three — ensemble practices

In the past I’ve used the term ‘mycelial’ to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates the roles and skills of citizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor and, more recently, fortune-teller and student of shamanism. Maybe ‘ensemble practice’ is a better term, more able to consolidate the more inclusive understanding I’m reaching for. To stress an individual’s mycelial entanglement in multiple, interconnected tasks, connectivities and interdependences, all of which will, to a greater or lesser extent, involve creativity understood inclusively. If nothing else, the concept of ‘ensemble practices’ posits the parallel notion that individuals are themselves compound, multi-relational ensembles, supporting by extension a view of the artist that does not presuppose an exclusive hyper-individualism.

ensemble practices - Akin: art by Lucy Gorell Barnes
Akin: compost, strawberries, Letraset, pencil, watercolour and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Four — between self and other

I think we now need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. We are in reality, of course, constituted quite differently, in and through our connections, attachments and relationships. Consequently, I’m intrigued by the distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make in proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a ‘life-as’ at one extreme and ‘being-as-becoming’ at the other.

‘Life-as’ requires massive investment in a monolithic psychosocial identity, one that must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not reinforce its coherence. It lacks, that is, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse — fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended.

The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple. To face our eco-social crisis, we must now find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. This cannot be done by investing in any ‘life-as’, including ‘life-as an Artist’.

ensemble practices - I am done with apple picking now: art by Luci Gorell Barnes
I am done with apple picking now: knife marks, apple juice, watercolour, pencil and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Five — placing the artist

Do we now need to differentiate ‘life-as an Artist’ from an involvement in making art that’s ultimately predicated on the understanding that the self cannot be reduced to a categorical identity? Isn’t this what’s implicit in Edward S. Casey’s distinction between a ‘position’ as a fixed postulate within a given culture and a sense of ‘place’ that, notwithstanding its nominally settled appearance, is experienced through living experimentally within a constantly shifting culture? If so, then isn’t what ‘places’ those who acknowledge the ensemble nature of practices itself predicated on negotiating multiple psychic, social and environmental connections, attachments, and relationships? On an open engagement with the productive tensions between experience and category, reality and representation, life and language?


Find out more

Iain’s notes on ensemble practices relate to a book chapter he has recently submitted for the ecology section of an anthology, The Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, which should be published later this year. “These are, as the title suggests, simply notes and lack the references, etc. which will appear in the final chapter when it sees the light of day.”

When working on these notes, Iain had in mind the work of two visual artists. Simon Read — who he quotes at the beginning — is an artist who fosters projects on a collaborative basis and who has immersed himself in environmental debates where collaboration on an interdisciplinary level is vital. Luci Gorell Barnes — who has herself recently joined ClimateCultures — is a visual artist whose participatory practice and responsive processes aim to help people think imaginatively with themselves and others. Iain and Luci have worked together on various projects, including a ‘deep mapping‘ workshop that I took part in at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in 2018. When I approached Luci, she generously agreed for me to use her images as an accompaniment to Iain’s text.

You can read more of Iain’s reflections on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016, published by University of Chicago Press) on his blog.  In the book, Ghosh asks “Are we deranged?”, seeking to explain our imaginative failure to grasp — at the level of literature, history, and politics — the scale and violence of climate change.

Fellow ClimateCultures Member Cathy Fitzgerald uses the term ‘eco-social art’ for her own works, which she also describes as ensemble practices: “often involving art and non-art activities and many ways of knowing from art, ecophilosophy, science and traditional and local knowledge and practical experiential knowledge.”

With Far-heard Whisper, O’er the Sea

Artist Rebecca Chesney describes her explorations creating With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea for exhibition in Newlyn this year — taking inspiration from the town’s tidal observatory and its unique role in revealing the UK’s rising sea levels.


1,250 words: estimated reading time 5 minutes 


At the end of 2018 I was invited to make new work for inclusion in an exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall. As my work looks at our relationship with the landscape and is usually connected to specific places, I organised a trip to Newlyn in January this year to help me understand the place better, and to explore its location, learn its history and meet people working and living in the town.

Tidal observatory

One of the first things to pique my interest was hearing that Newlyn has a tidal observatory. A plain little building standing next to the lighthouse on the south pier, it looks more like a fishing shed than how I imagine a tidal observatory might look. Not usually open to the public, it was the director of the gallery, James Green, who organised permission for us to visit and gain access to the building. It felt really special to go inside this modest old outhouse with an enormous significance.

Newlyn Tidal Observatory, next to the lighthouse
Newlyn Tidal Observatory, next to the lighthouse
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

The observatory was built in 1915, along with two other observatories (at Dunbar and Felixstowe) to establish a national height system to provide vertical reference levels related to a measure of mean sea level. In 1921 the Ordnance Survey decided that there should be only one national datum and selected Newlyn as the most suitable of the three. Hourly recordings of sea level were used to determine an average that could be related to the head of a brass bolt set in the floor of the Newlyn observatory and this brass bolt is the benchmark from which all heights in mainland Great Britain are measured.

The Newlyn Tidal Observatory Datum
The Newlyn Tidal Observatory Datum 
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Although old equipment remains in the observatory it is now fully automated, with data collected every second via Global Navigation Satellite System technology.

Following my visit I met with local historians Richard Cockram and Ron Hogg. My work and ideas have always benefited from discussion with others: those who share a common interest, or have a passion for a subject I am exploring too. Looking at the same theme from different angles can produce some exciting conversations. They told me more about the history of the building, its importance and how they helped to get the observatory declared a grade two-listed building by Historic England at the end of 2018.

It was only when they mentioned never gaining access to the Observatory themselves that I realised how special my visit was and how lucky I am to have been inside (they have since organised an open day at the Observatory and been inside, so I don’t feel too bad now).

Although the Observatory was built to establish a datum for height across the country, it is the sea level records that have become so valuable for the study of climate change.

Sea level recording at Newlyn Tidal Observatory
Sea level recording at Newlyn Tidal Observatory
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Drawing out a vast truth

Providing the longest and most accurate tidal information in the UK, the Observatory has continued to record sea level data for over 100 years. And with these records showing that mean sea level at Newlyn has been increasing, I decided to use this information to make new work for the exhibition. Rising sea level is an environmental, social, economic and political issue: it is about land loss and displacement and will impact us all. And although it is a complex, multi-layered issue I think it is important to keep reminding people that climate change is happening.

While looking into the subject I noticed that sea-level data is typically shown in a short graph, a spiky image rising over half a page (or computer screen). But I wondered if it would have a bigger impact if I lengthened how the information is displayed. I wanted visitors to the exhibition to see time in front of them and to understand that every millimetre makes a difference. Trying different methods and materials and stripping back any labelling I decided that a pencil line on graph paper was a subtle yet visually effective way to show the information. Comprised of 102 individual record cards, the finished drawing is 8.75m in length. Each of the specially made record cards represents a year and the pencil line across it shows the mean sea level recorded at Newlyn for that year. Viewed all together the line undulates and slowly rises across the gallery wall. Minimal in its execution, the drawing holds a vast truth: sea level is rising.

The title of the drawing, With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea, is a line taken from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Written in 1797, I think the theme of the poem is still relevant today.

'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea'
‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Installation at Newlyn Art Gallery 2019
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

In May 2019 I was invited to speak at an event in the gallery alongside Richard Cockram, the local historian I had met earlier in the year. Richard gave an illustrated talk revealing his interest in the Observatory, outlined the history and also spoke of how his research contributed to a book published by the Newlyn Archive in 2018, The Newlyn Tidal Observatory.

Ten Years - part of 'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea' Artist: Rebecca Chesney
Ten Years – part of ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

I followed by detailing how my trip in January inspired me to make the work and where I got the data for the drawing (individual station data is available online via the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level). I also related the drawing to my other works in the exhibition: Forewarning, a three-screen video and sound installation considering land erosion on South Walney Island off the coast of Cumbria (filmed in 2018); and Far, three large hand screen prints showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes (2017). All these works represent the themes I continue to explore and am keen to learn more about into the future.

Four Years - part of 'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea'
Four Years – part of ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Find out more

Invisible Narratives at Newlyn Art Gallery also included the work of artists Lubaina Himid and Magda Stawarska-Beavan and ran from 23rd March until 15th June.

Ordnance Survey plaque at Newlyn Tidal ObservatoryYou can discover more about the Newlyn Tidal Observatory’s history at its designation page on the Historic England site and on the Penwith Local History Group site, and about its role in measuring sea level as part of the National Tide Gauge Network. Rebecca also mentioned the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level, which was established in 1933 for the collection, publication, analysis and interpretation of sea level data from the global network of tide gauges.

The Newlyn Tidal Observatory, compiled by Richard Cockram, Linda Holmes, Ron Hogg and Frank Iddiols (2018, edited by Pam Lomax) is published by the Newlyn Archive. ISBN 978-0-9567528-4-0

You can find Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in full at Poetry Foundation. ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’ is taken from Part III.

Rebecca’s work Far — showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes — was featured in her previous ClimateCultures post, Near / Far, in February 2018. And you can find out more about Rebecca’s other work that formed part of the Invisible Narratives exhibition, Forewarning, at her website.

Earth Living — Now, Facing the Storm

Jennifer Leach's artwork, The EyeballWriter and artist Jennifer Leach shared some of her stories at Reading’s Earth Living Festival. Here, she discusses these questioning tales for a world’s ending — and the relaunch of her Outrider Anthems enterprise as a sanctuary of creativity.


1,700 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes 


There is a profound sense of collective bewilderment in the air right now. A disbelief that we are alive at the very time the world as we know it is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, coming to an end. There are theories and queries as to what this actually means — will Life on Earth end, will Homo Sapiens survive in any form, will the elite few succeed in their bid to safeguard an AI-supported future for themselves, will we all have to endure unbearable suffering? We are about to journey as we have never journeyed before. Permanence is already a foreign concept; it always was a delusional one. Already, the status quo is no more. On our internal radar we have seen it, and know it; we are now awaiting the shock waves.

Earth Living

In this context, how does one live? As an artist, how does one engage? Do we simply carry on, for now, until ‘now’ brings with it the storm we are all awaiting? Or do we drop the rhythm of conventional society, and walk out to meet the storm? Is our role to stand our ground, asking the uncomfortable and unanswerable questions?

I do not know the answers. Like many of us, I hear many calls. There is a call to action, which for me is being answered largely through a firm commitment to my local XR group; there is a strong call leading me into both immersive art practice and community ventures; there is the call to live each moment with a light heart and a sense of fun, and there is the call to hold fast to all that is dear, and to spend focused time with those I love. And Time tells me I cannot, in truth, answer all of these calls. At some point, I must choose.

Striving to find the rightful path for my organisation, Outrider Anthems, has provided me with a strong clue as to how I might be moving forward into this time of unknowing. In a remarkable and unexpected branding opportunity offered me by the talented and insightful young graduate, Ed Hendry, we have understood that Outrider Anthems is to declare itself a ‘sanctuary of creativity in the inevitable turbulence of climate breakdown’. We are building a strong team for this work, and paying close attention to what, in practice, it will mean. Following impulse and instinct, we trust that knowing will come when knowing needs to.

As an aside, I wonder how many collective shudders issued forth from that insouciant use of the ‘branding’ word. Used wisely, understood well, I have learnt the value of embracing what the commercial world has to offer, and to teach me. For Outrider Anthems, we worked hard and rigorously to hone a clarity of concept, purpose, mission and values, and in doing so, finally gained an authority that was previously obscured. It is a process I recommend.

In my personal work, I have been exploring these issues through story, as story is one of the most portable, direct and accessible art forms we have. They create a space where fears can be unmasked, held, explored, and honoured. The soundings are the first step in the process, and practical solutions play no role here.

My most abstract exploration of the letting go of fear is Dancing in the Dark, a work that is just ready to make its way out into the larger world through another new venture for Outrider Anthems: a dedicated Kickstarter campaign to create this visual story poem as a limited print first edition. (You can explore Dancing in the Dark, and how to get involved, via the link at the end of this post.)

Jennifer Leach storytelling at the Earth Living Festival, Reading in May 2019
Storytelling at the Earth Living Festival, Reading
Photograph: Alice McGuigan © 2019

Other questioning stories were written to share at the Earth Living Festival in Reading in May. This festival was a wonderful new venture established by Alice McGuigan to nurture, in Reading, a community learning to live in greater balance with the Earth. In the chill of a spring evening, by a quiet River Thames, and beneath a circle of listener-enclosing yew trees (all upshoots of one Mother Tree), I brought my tales. As the light waned and the day darkened, we explored greed, and need, and pain, and sorrow. Catastrophe and equanimity.

Earth Living - Jennifer Leach's story, The Eyeball
The Eyeball
Art: Jennifer Leach © 2019

The human being sees life from one pair of eyes. Everything from this one pair of eyes. The first story grows from one of these eyeballs, a nascent hairy eyeball whose voracious appetite proves to be insatiable:

After one great turning of time, the eyeball woke one day and its razor gaze fell, like a blade, upon a new land far beyond the known shale ridge, a vision of waving fronds and swaying bands. And the engorged eyeball swivelled impassively towards this new goal, setting its inscrutable sights upon a new paradise. Off it went, scuttling across rocks, and through foam, between boulders, and under stones. Unswerving, unerring, grotesquely unnerving. And from it all creatures cowered and hid.

The eyeball cannot see. The Patterners can. Have you heard of the Patterners?

They are rare beings born engraved with the interconnected patterning of all things. You understand this, it is not something they have chosen? They are carved so. Their skin, their eyes, their tongue, their ears, their hearts, all engraved with the patterning of all things. Each waking moment, each dreaming state, they see the web. They see each knot, each node, see each and all as sacred weights in the integral patterning of holding. Each unique, essential in itself. One knot carelessly broken, is the first small hole in the web. Two knots broken is the first bigger hole in the web. And so it goes. And so it goes.

Earth Living - Jennifer Leach's story, The Patterners
The Patterners
Art: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Who is to say what breaks the web? What ‘should’ we now do? How should we now act? In our daily lives, many of us will have noticed a growing sense of partition, as we judge not only our own actions, but those of others. Why is he saying yes to that plastic bag at the checkout? Why does she even ask if he needs one? Did you know X drove down to Y today to pick up a pair of party shoes from that designer outlet? So-and-So is flying again, off to Magaluf/Vietnam/Cuba, as if there’s no tomorrow. Judgement and separation set in.

Earth Living - Jennifer Leach's story, The Old Man and the Glacier
The Old Man and the Glacier
Art: Jennifer Leach © 2019

And from this space a tale unfolds of an old man who finally meets the majestic icelands of his lifelong yearning, in the twilight of his dwindling years.

I don’t normally use words like magnificent; I don’t feel comfortable with them. But sometimes there is only one word that will do. It was so grand and beautiful that it made me cry. I got frozen tears in my beard, and hanging from my nose as well. I probably looked a sight, but it didn’t matter. I could not stop looking at the, at the magnificence of this sight. I stood there until I was so cold I could take no more…

And in the very same landscape, amidst the rising oceans and the shrinking ice, a woman rows in her boat across the ocean, leaving behind the luxury cruise liners, the activists and the warriors, to arrive in the shadow of the melting glacier:

Quietly I haul in my sodden oars, lay them softly in the rowlocks. Gently I seat myself. I turn up my collar and release my hood. My white hair falls loose. And in my lap I slowly place my hands face up to her glistening face. I bow in her cloudbound shadow. Her diminishing body drip drip drips upon my uncovered head. Quietly I sing to her, a lullaby of passing.

Earth Living - Jennifer Leach's story, In the Shadow of the Melting Glacier
In the Shadow of the Melting Glacier
Art: Jennifer Leach © 2019

It is mystery

These are our viewpoints, those available to the limited frameworks of a human mind and imagination. However, there remains the word beyond. The final story offered the fragile thought that, shifting beyond our limited field of vision, all is as it is meant to be.

Upside out is inside down and here is neither there and thought is energy and matter is light and light is frozen as a waterfall that is placeless and ubiquitous and spaceless and timeless and infinite and eternal. And words that are vessels back down on Planet Earth, are mere echoes of energy, and each is an impartial resonance that holds, in itself, no power. Life and Death and Future and Past and Redemption and Ruin are all absorbed equally and mutually into the blue echo of dark Space. One hears nothing, for there is no means of carrying the words. It is mystery.

Earth Living - Jennifer Leach's story, Space
Space
Art: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Find out more

Jennifer performed her stories at the Earth Living Festival in Reading on 11th May 2019, under the title In the Shadow. The festival was organised by Alice McGuigan, Outrider Anthems’ project manager for the earlier, year-long Festival of the Dark, in Reading.

Jennifer at the Earth Living Festival, Reading
Photograph: Alice McGuigan © 2019

Jennifer is producing Dancing in the Dark, combining her poem-story and art in a limited edition, high-quality artist’s book, on the Kickstarter platform. To find out more, to support this publication and receive a copy of the book, visit Dancing in the Dark – an artist’s book on Kickstarter.

You can find two more of Jennifer’s stories in full on ClimateCultures: What the Bee Sees, and The Gift of the Goddess Tree.

You can find Ed Hendry — the designer who worked with Jennifer to create the new Outrider Anthems logo, branding, website and identity — and other examples of his work on Facebook and Behance.

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe is pleased to have joined the relaunched Outrider Anthems as freelance creative administrator, organising publications such as Dancing in the Dark and a forthcoming series of Outrider Anthems events.

Bone Landscapes

Bone Landscape, Jo DacombeArtist 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.


1,430 words: estimated reading time 5.5 minutes 


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.

Future Fossil 3, Jo Dacombe
Future Fossil 3, Jo Dacombe © 2019. Conte and graphite on paper.
jodacombe.blogspot.com

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.

Bones: Bone Landscape, Jo Dacombe
Bone Landscape, Jo Dacombe © 2015. Charcoal on paper.
jodacombe.blogspot.com

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.

Bones: Bone Forest, Jo Dacombe
Bone Forest, Jo Dacombe © 2015. Charcoal on paper.
jodacombe.blogspot.com

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 Lab conducts 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.” 

Rubbish! The archaeology of garbage, by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, was published by University of Arizona Press (2018).

The Mirrored Ones

Anthropocene objectsClimateCultures 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.


2,890 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes 


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.

Future Remains cover. Objects to think with.
Future Remains. Objects to think with.
Photographs: Tim Flach / Design: Isaac Tobin
www.press.uchicago.edu

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

Objects - Anthropocene in a jar
Anthropocene in a jar
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

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

Plowshare
Plowshare
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

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

Objects - Marine animal satellite tags
Marine animal satellite tags
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

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 … One  might 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

Objects - Cryogenic freezer box
Cryogenic freezer box
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

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 a supposed 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 

Objects - Monkey wrench
Monkey wrench
Photographer: Tim Flach timflach.com

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

Germantown calico quilt
Germantown calico quilt
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

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 

Davies Creek Road
Davies Creek Road
Photographer: Tim Flach timflach.com

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…”

The Mirror

Objects - Mirror test
Mirror
Photographer: Tim Flach
timflach.com

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.

Boundary objects

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 the University of Chicago Press (2018). It is illustrated with the photographs of Tim Flach, and you can find more of his work at timflach.com.

You can also find short reflections on two of the other objects featured in Future Remains at my small blog: Gary Kroll’s Snarge and Jared Farmer’s Technofossil.

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 our Curious Minds section. I’ve also posted a list of these to my small blog