Placing the Golden Spike: Uneasy Temporality in the Anthropocene

At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Institute of Visual Arts’ (INOVA) current exhibit, Placing the Golden Spike: Landscapes of the Anthropocene (March 26 – June 13, 2015), uses art to mobilize conversations about topics of the Anthropocene. The curators seek to instigate interdisciplinary discussions that ask, “what does it mean to live in this time, to live in this place?”

In the field of geology, a “golden spike” is driven into the lower boundary of a rock layer that represents a distinct geological stage. The artists in this show were asked to address ideas of the Anthropocene by exploring sites where a golden spike for the Anthropocene could theoretically be placed. But how, in the context of this human-driven geological era, might the nature of “site” be newly imagined? The conditions that could potentially be interpreted as the start of the Anthropocene stem from slow environmental changes that are the products of cumulative human behaviors. The art in this exhibit, therefore, grapples with how to define site, but it does so with a particular attention to history and temporality.

Adopting a fluid approach to time, some of the artists create future projections through which to define Anthropocene golden spike sites. These function as a way to look back on the potential effects of our current actions. For example, Scott Rettberg and Roderick Coover imagine future narratives of our present landscapes. One of their pieces, The Chemical Map, is comprised of documentation of a kayak trip and a collection of landscape data along the Delaware Estuary. This work examines the potential pollution sources that will soon contaminate the waterways. The composition is paired with their film Toxi-City, which is a continuously-running collection of everyday stories from the viewpoint of a dystopian near future. The stories describe humans living in dangerous landscapes: landscapes of disease, chemical pollution, social and political breakdowns, and decomposing food chains are subjects of these future reflections. In addition, the stories add “the body” to the list of potential golden spike sites for the Anthropocene, as some of these fictional narrators tell of landscape toxicities passing the boundary of the skin (in animals, plants, and humans). These storylines are continuously regenerated so that the sequence in which the stories are presented is ever-changing.

Eve Laramee, ReptileWoman from Slouching Towards Yucca Mountain, 2015, still from video. This reptile woman, a time traveller from a distant future, witnesses our legacy through desolate post-atomic landscapes. Click to enlarge.

Eve Laramee, ReptileWoman from Slouching Towards Yucca Mountain, 2015, still from video. This reptile woman, a time traveller from a distant future, witnesses our legacy through desolate post-atomic landscapes. Click to enlarge.

Eve Laramee’s collection of works also uses the future as a lens through which to examine the present. A scrolling text that runs along the full length of the wall, titled Inverse Alchemy: Shadows in Reverse, clearly labels the development of nuclear technology as the moment that the Anthropocene began. The text lists the metric tons of used nuclear energy fuel located in a series of U.S. states. My eyes were immediately drawn to the figure “Wisconsin 1,430,” since it brought these ideas into a sharp, home-rooted focus.

Laramee’s other works, which are placed above the scrolling text, incorporate a sense of playfulness, which is unexpected and refreshing when contemplating the severe implications of the Anthropocene. A series of stills from her Slouching Towards Yucca Mountain video depicts a variety of fanciful, sci-fi western characters. These characters are part of a storyline of time travelers from a distant future who are exploring our long dead, post-atomic landscapes. Though whimsical, her art’s message doesn’t lose its potency; these characters are witnesses to our atomic legacy. Laramee’s video Uranium Daughters, which explicates the 4.47 billion years that it takes Uranium-238 to decay into inert Lead-206, reverses the myths of turning lead into gold—a playful nod to the golden title of this exhibit.

The audience space for Marina Zurkow’s video animation, Mesocosm (Wink Texas), is framed by what appear to be two children in hazmat suits (HazMat Suits for Children), echoing the disturbing playfulness of Eve Laramee’s work. Zurkow’s animation has a runtime of 146 hours and depicts the passage of a whole imagined year. It shows the stark landscape of a sinkhole from a single vantage point. The view is framed with signage, a dead bush, and a picnic table in the foreground. As one watches, plastic smiley-faced shopping bags blow in the wind, birds wheel in the sky, various creatures visit the site (including humans in hazmat suits), and at night you can see the burning glow of oil refineries in the distance. The idea behind this piece—slow and unstoppable change—is potent even though the experience is frustrating: a single day takes 24 minutes to watch.

Marina Zurkow, Mesocosm (Wink Texas), 2015, still from video animation. The landscape of a sinkhole, located on the property of a private oil company, slowly changes over the course of a year. Click to enlarge.

Marina Zurkow, Mesocosm (Wink Texas), 2015, still from video animation. The landscape of a sinkhole, located on the property of a private oil company, slowly changes over the course of a year. Click to enlarge.

Framing the edges of this room is Yevgeniya Kaganovich’s grow. The description states that a plastic bag has a 100,000 year life-span; I thought of the blowing smiley-faced bag from the animation I had just watched. Kaganovich has molded recycled plastic bags into plant-like forms that suggest systematic growth, successfully making beautiful, playful forms from our culture’s accumulation of trash that still add to the show’s provocative commentary on the Anthropocene.

At the end of my gallery experience, I was standing outside INOVA when a plastic bag blew by and realized that I was feeling unsettled. The show as a whole had managed to communicate a new and uncomfortable awareness of temporality. Much of the exhibit’s art is dynamic, slow-changing, and progressive. Some of the videos offer no beginning or end; one video’s runtime is measured in days; some of the narrative sequences will never be exactly repeated. My unease stemmed from the inability to see all the show had to offer, and from the feeling that one can never see the whole of it.

This sense of temporality brought the show’s messages to clarity. The Anthropocene describes a geological age, a time frame that not easily perceptible in everyday life. We are changing our world, but these changes are very long-term and very gradual. In unsettling ideas of geological “site” in this exhibit, the artists of Placing the Golden Spike also generated a different sense of temporality, one that recognizes that our perceptions must account for changes to our landscapes that we cannot immediately observe. In a sense, it is this moment of uneasy self-awareness and sense of personal responsibility, which exists in the here and now of the exhibit, that can be defined as an Anthropocene spike site.

Featured Image: Time Traveller in Black, from Eve Laramee’s Slouching Towards Yucca Mountain, 2015, still from video. This man in black, a time traveller from a distant future, witnesses our legacy through desolate post-atomic landscapes.

Sarah Keogh is a Ph. D. candidate in the Architecture Department at UW-Milwaukee and is a CHE affiliate. Her work explores that relationship between place and identity and looks at the potential roles that architectural design can play in informing everyday landscapes that are more sensitive to our relationship with our environment. Contact.

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