‘What would a palaeontologist of the far future do if he, she (or indeed, it) came upon technofossils, the petrified artefacts of a long-extinct civilization?’
This is the question palaeontologist Jan Zalasiewicz and artist Anne-Sophie Milon asked themselves when creating an installation for ‘Reset Modernity!’ – an exhibition inspired and curated by the philosopher Bruno Latour.
The exhibition, showing at the ZKM arts and media centre in Karlsruhe, is described as a ‘thought experiment’ that aims to ‘reset a few of the instruments that allow you to register some of the confusing signals sent by the epoch.’
Zalasiewicz, who chairs the Anthropocene Working Group, has long been involved in research into the possibility of a new geological time period – the ‘Anthropocene’. For the exhibition, he and Milan have created ‘the untidy workspace of our puzzled future palaeontologists’ to ask how future scientists would study and interpret the remains of our present.
‘There was a fascinating story to tell here’ they explain. ‘We had to get inside the mind of a future palaeontologist, one hundred million years from now, of a very different species to ours.
‘What would a palaeontologist’s methodology be in that time? Perhaps, we thought, close to the Victorian one of a century before our present time, when much of the science was still a mystery, and the border between art and science was full of possibilities, and the spirit of narrative had not yet been submerged beneath a sea of technical jargon. Agreed on these starting points, we could begin to evolve our story…’
Their story is set down in an imagined research paper, written by a geologist 100 million years from now, entitled ‘Brunaspis Enigmatica: Reinterpretation of a presumed artefaction from the Great Crisis Stratum as a predator-modified organic petrifaction’ (Journal of Ancient Phenomena.)
‘We took as our object of research just one of the many millions of technofossils that humans produce – you will see these particular objects scattered by the pavement on almost any walk through an urban area, and we hope you can guess what they are…
‘And then, we recreated the careful description, meticulous illustration, logical interpretation and cautious creativity of our future-geologist protagonists as they wrote their monograph – who then (but of course!) get the interpretation of these mysterious objects absolutely, crashingly and exactly wrong – exactly as the early geologists and palaeontologists of our own species came up with inspired misinterpretations of (for example) what fossil conodonts and graptolites might once have been, and whether or not continents drifted, or whether ice ages occurred or not.
‘And, of course, we are still getting things wrong, all the time….’
In January, the Anthropocene Working Group published a report in which they stated that ‘the Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distant from the Holocene, citing evidence ranging from changing geochemical signals, traces of nuclear fallout, rising extinction rates and global dissemination of materials like plastics and concrete, which they call ‘technofossils.’
All of these are enough, the group says, to produce a stratigraphic signature in sediments and ice which distinguishes our time from the Holocene – an epoch that began 11,700 years ago.
‘Some features of the Anthropocene are just too big to be told only through words and numbers’ say Zalasiewicz and Milon. ‘This project has been an opportunity for us to translate those through art.
‘”The mystery of Brunaspis enigmatica” is a way of bringing to people the nature and the consequences of technofossils that we are producing every second of every day; or to put it another way, it offers a new perspective on our rubbish.
‘We chose a specific object for this project, but there are almost an infinite number of our artefacts that could also be treated this way, as part of our speculative future. Hopefully Brunaspis enigmatica will encourage people to think of how the past, present and future are linked, across enormous spans of time.’
The exhibition is open until 21 August, but Zalasiewicz and Milon already have more projects underway, exploring ‘this current, extraordinary moment in Earth history.’
‘We’re currently working on a children’s book, and developing a new art piece on how the current increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide – likely the most rapid increase in very many million years – can be made to seem real to people, rather than just being an abstraction, scientifically expressed in parts per million.
‘The facts and numbers are already there – but they seem not to engage policy makers as much as they should. Art can be another tool to help scientists to be heard.’
- Journal Reference: ‘Nilom A-S (The Assembly of Radical Savants) and Zciweisalaz J (The Guild of Rock Artisans)., ‘Brunaspis Enigmatica: Reinterpretation of a Presumed Artefaction from the Great Crisis Stratum as a Predator-Modified Organic Petrifaction’., MKZ Journal of Ancient Phenomena (1)., 89-96.