Feature

Deep Time

Rob La Frenais on art that might outlive the human race

John Latham, <em>Niddrie Woman</em>, 1975–76, view from the Heart

John Latham, Niddrie Woman, 1975–76, view from the Heart

As the reality of climate change comes into sharp focus, what does it mean for long-duration artworks by artists such as Robert Smithson and John Latham or Katie Paterson and Bebe Williams – and does it matter that no one may be around to see them?

One-point-five to stay alive! That was the motto chanted by the South Sea Islanders at risk of losing more of their land and low-lying islands to rising water levels if the increase in global warming was not kept to 1.5ºC. The 2009 Copenhagen Climate conference, COP15, stalled at such an ambitious target, later replacing by it the far more modest target of below 2°C set at 2017’s COP21 in Paris. Now the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, simply entitled Global Warming of 1.5ºC, released in October 2018 and compiled by 91 scientists from 40 countries, drops the bombshell: in stark terms, unless we keep to the original 1.5ºC, the planet will probably be uninhabitable in the lifetime of our grandchildren.

In the face of this, US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, the new prime minister of Australia, Scott Morrison – who, in 2017, brought a large chunk of coal into Parliament in an infantile bid to show that it wasn’t something to be afraid of – and others are ripping up even the modest Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, the latest UK budget made absolutely no mention of climate issues, yet the government – distracted with ideological turf wars over an unnecessary Brexit – continues to massively subsidise air travel with tax-free aviation fuel. (Ironically, though, Brexit may help to slow climate change with its massive disruption of the car and transport industries.) The climate emergency is here, now, and we are still in denial about it.

Given that many mainstream media outlets interpret the IPCC report as ‘we are all doomed’ – at least our families are – and as this article is a feature on deep-time art, let us go the darker route of imagining a planet with no more people (in spite of our best efforts, we probably won’t eradicate all carbon-based life quite yet, despite current species extinction rates running at 1,000 times more than in 1900 and triggering the planet’s sixth mass extinction event, the first since the last dinosaurs died out 65m years ago) and think about what kind of art might remain on a planet without humans and what it might look like. Let’s start climbing the Dark Mountain for a while. (The Dark Mountain Manifesto proposed the notion that ‘humans are not the point and purpose of the planet’ and was the first manifestation of what is now called ‘Dark Ecology’.)

Countless artists have been creating deep-time projects that go well beyond their lifetimes. One could perhaps start with the burying of the Time Capsule 1 at the Chicago World Fair in 1939, which included an anti-war message from Albert Einstein and a rather pessimistic note from writer Thomas Mann: ‘We know now that the idea of the future as a “better world” was a fallacy of the doctrine of progress. The hopes we centre on you, citizens of the future, are in no way exaggerated. In broad outline, you will actually resemble us very much as we resemble those who lived a thousand, or five thousand, years ago. Among you too the spirit will fare badly.’ Particularly if there is no one around to open the capsule.

A good starting point for artists might be Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks. Started in 1982 for Documenta 7 and completed by his son Wenzel in 1987 at Documenta 8, each oak tree has an accompanying basalt column – just so you know it is an artwork – but also the basalt is said to act as a symbol for countering human extinction. It continues to be maintained by the city of Kassel and has been continued in cities like Baltimore in the US. Before his famous dictum that every living being is an artist, a universally misinterpreted statement, Beuys also said in relation to 7000 Oaks: ‘Here my idea is to declare that art is the only possibility for evolution, the only possibility to change the situation in the world.’ It’s a tall order. But would the 7,000 oaks, or any other works for that matter, have any meaning at all in a world without people?

A forest has also been created by Katie Paterson for her work Future Library (Profile AM338). In 2014 the artist planted 1,000 trees outside Oslo in Norway, which in 100 years will be fully grown and will then provide the paper for 100 books, commissioned once a year, from authors and poets chosen by the Future Library Trust. Paterson, whose final degree work at Glasgow School of Art in 2007, Earth-Moon-Earth – which bounced Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ in Morse Code of the moon in a radio transmission – has been shown worldwide, but Future Library is becoming the Scottish artist’s defining project. Four books have been commissioned, by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, the Icelandic writer Sjón and Elif Shafak. Each book is delivered in a ceremony in spring each year. The catch is that no one will get to read the book in the lifetime of the writer (or the artist). A library will be constructed from the wood felled to clear the land for the Future Library trees. ‘It’s a work of art that breathes and grows,’ Paterson says, ‘and which invites us to care for the planet while imagining future generations, an exquisite corpse of texts which assumes that in a hundred years, both books and forests will continue to exist.’

There are at least two music works which share this methodology. John Cage’s 1987 work Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible) is designed to play for hundreds of years. The performance of the organ version at St Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, Germany began in 2001 and is scheduled to have a duration of 639 years, ending in 2640. It was adapted from the 1985 version of ASLSP. Cage did not say how long each version should last and there have been shorter versions, lasting from 20 to 70 minutes. It, too, is maintained by a trust, and it too will require humans to survive climate change to complete it. Not so Jem Finer’s Longplayer, which started in 2000 and continues at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London. It is designed to keep playing without human intervention if necessary, although it might well need some power. Finer has said that there are many ways for it to ‘exist in a future without humans’, because ‘adaptability is written into its composition’. ‘But survival at all costs is not the point,’ Finer states. ‘Longplayer was born out of optimism and a real hope that there would be a future in which there would be humans around to listen. It was never my intention to make a self-sustaining sonic beacon ringing out to no one. But if reflecting on the thought of a score for a post-human world moves anyone to act towards a better future, that can’t be a bad thing. While there are advocates for Longplayer becoming autonomous, my position is that it should only play on if people want it to do so. I am drawn to the idea of people taking responsibility and passing that on to, and for, future generations, and my hope has always been that that will engender a broader sense of how we consider, and care, for the future.’

Projects intended to endure also need protecting. In Finland, House of Khronos is a conceptual environmental artwork by the artist duo IC-98 (Visa Suonpää & Patrik Söderlund). Consisting of a property surrounded by a gateless chainlink fence, it is a space where nature is allowed to take over without human influence. The artists describe this as ‘a property where time itself dwells’. They describe the work thus: ‘A property was bought, the grounds with its flora and fauna were documented, and a fence was built around the perimeter … After this, people are forbidden to interact with the house and garden in any way. We are only allowed to observe the decay of the house as nature takes over during centuries passing by. The property will be preserved and protected with all legislative means to ensure its detachment from society, the first step being an application for the status of a nature reserve. Theoretically, the final state will be terra nullius, a status of no-man’s land.’

John Latham specialised in this sort of thinking in his Flat Time Theory. It entails a fundamental rethinking of the time base of the human presence on Earth, one that may indeed need to be rethought when faced with imminent extinction. Artists and thinkers are still unravelling Latham’s thinking, difficult to understand when he was alive and speaking but perhaps clearer in print. Flat Time proposes what Latham assigned in this text as ‘things’, ‘spaces’ and ‘times’, which can all be considered ‘events’ while being precisely distinguished from one another in terms of their ‘Time Base’ – ie the actual elemental components which comprise a galaxy, a star, a geological era, a tree, a human being, a plant, a gnat or an elementary particle – because all of the components are there before and after it exists as an apparent ‘thing’. But the duration of the components’ ‘clustering’ in that precise recipe to which we give something a name has what Flat Time refers to as a definite Time Base. Latham has constructed a vast Land Art work from slag heaps that will continue long after the ‘Time Base’ of humans has finished – the Niddrie Woman in Scotland. Flat Time Theory could be a useful tool in understanding how to deal with the climate emergency.

Neal White of the one-man Office of Experiments has been continuing the work of Latham and recently conducted a book-burning, authorised by the estate of the late artist, at the Portikus Gallery in Frankfurt, which also showed the controversial God Is Great, in which holy books including the Koran were displayed (Censorship AM292). At the same time, White has been continuing a long-term residency with the Centre for Land Use Interpretation, specifically studying the effects of climate change on Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Submerged for two decades after its creation, the Great Salt Lake where it is situated is now drying up, and this monumental art is slowly dessicating in the increasing salinity which is definitely caused by climate change. This must be one of the only Land Art works in the world that is actually responding actively to climate change. White says that ‘ironically, the preservation of Spiral Jetty has been under a new threat of drought’. The inaugural director of the Holt-Smithson Foundation, Lisa Le Feuvre, formerly head of the Henry Moore Institute, says: ‘An artwork is always going to be impacted by everything around it. When it is an earthwork located in the landscape rather than a museum, this includes the bare facts of climate change. For Smithson the processes of entropy were of great interest. Spiral Jetty shifts and changes all the time, changing by the minute, by the year, by the decade and by the century. It reminds us of our short lives, our humanness and our relationship with the planet.’

Little did I know in 1994, when I lay on my back with artist James Turrell looking up in the centre of the Roden Crater, that, after 40 years of building work, the vast Land Art work and labyrinthine tunnels would still not be open to the public. The artist has spent $15m on it since he saw the crater from his light aircraft and purchased it in 1977. It is even uncertain that the Skystone Foundation will open the crater to the public in Turrell’s lifetime. It is the largest and most ambitious public artwork and, like Spiral Jetty and the Niddrie Woman, it will certainly remain after humans have gone.

One of the central aspects of long-term art projects is the element of the ‘contract’ or ‘legacy’ that enables the artwork to continue beyond the artist’s lifetime. Bebe Williams’s early 1980s conceptual project Instructions for Meeting Time Travellers relies on the passing on through the generations of a document which cites a meeting place that you may know to exist in the future. Having made the arrangements, you then go to the designated spot, and if nothing goes wrong you will meet a visitor from the future: ‘You need to find a place you firmly believe will still exist in the time period of your Traveller because that’s going to be your meeting place,’ says Williams. ‘It could be a semi-famous structure in your community such as a monument anyone hardly notices … Just be sure you don’t choose a heavily travelled area where people that don’t understand what the two of you are doing take notice. What you are attempting is a secret private matter. Pick a place that is completely vacant at night if you prefer. Think about it seriously and you’ll find the perfect place.’ I do not know if anyone has ever tried this.

Intentional intergenerational legacy is also the basis for Erich Berger and Mari Keto’s Inheritance and Open Care projects. In a process which Berger describes as ‘radical witnessing’, highly radioactive material is made into jewellery to be passed down through families. Berger describes these artworks as a set of artefacts which propose a social thought experiment: ‘What if nuclear waste were a very personal responsibility and thus part of our everyday life and our cities? It is an imaginary system for distributed nuclear waste storage which implicates us intimately in a much longer swathe of the future than most of us can imagine easily.’ Like Latham, Berger sees the answer to the way we see the future as a reversal of the process of scaling down time to our expectations, to embrace the vastness of the future. The work was triggered by a visit to the Onkalo Nuclear Waste facility in Finland, which inspired the documentary Into Eternity. One of the issues dealt with in the film is the issue of ‘marking’ the facility as unsafe for an era when there may no longer be humans living on this planet, at least, as is seemingly inevitable over the coming millennia even if we avert climate change. This was also addressed by the late James Acord, the ‘Nuclear Artist’, in his attempt to build a monument using used fuel rods on contaminated ground in Hanford.

The IPCC report provides a viable roadmap to keep global warming down to at least 2ºC, if not 1.5ºC, and scientists have made remarkable progress in pointing out what needs to be done. But, as Daniel Aldana states in an article in the Nation: ‘We’re only doomed if we change nothing. The IPCC report makes it clear that if we make the political choice of bankrupting the fossil-fuel industry and sharing the burden of transition fairly, most humans can live in a world better than the one we have now.’

Enter the newest climate-movement kid on the block, Extinction Rebellion, who have pledged to undertake immediate non-violent action against governments and the fossil-fuel industry. They made the headlines by occupying Greenpeace headquarters and issuing statements demanding that Greenpeace ‘up their game’. The interesting thing about Extinction Rebellion is that it is mainly led by disaffected scientists and is a data-driven rebellion based on established principles of non-violent direct action. ‘Children alive today in the UK will face unimaginable horrors as a result of floods, wildfires, extreme weather, crop failures and the inevitable breakdown of society when the pressures are so great,’ says molecular physicist Gail Bradbrook, ‘Our experience is that, when the truth is told about climate change, it’s very hard for people to hear the latest data and the scientists who are breaking rank to speak out.’

Another voice behind Extinction Rebellion is academic and activist Roger Hallam. ‘We will go to London and block transport and government infrastructure,’ he says. ‘We will be arrested. Once released we will do it again.’ Critics say that they don’t have the intensive training Greenpeace activists undergo, and that after they are arrested again and again they will be infiltrated, weakened and consigned to the historical wasteland of Occupy after President Trump. Maybe, but as they have said, it becomes a crime not to act: ‘After years of denial we finally have to accept the terrible truth – those in authority are going to kill us – the infliction of unimaginable suffering on billions of innocent people. This is what is planned – openly and wilfully. There is no greater crime. So the time for facts and figures is over – the speculations, the distractions – the talks that lead to more talks. We are adults and no longer children.’ I think Beuys and Latham would have agreed.

Rob La Frenais is an independent curator.

First published in Art Monthly 422: Dec-Jan 18-19.

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