Sit on me, said the rock, and I’ll speak
For the mind, everything is in the future; for the heart, everything is in the past.
It’s the future and archeology is an extreme sport. Landmines, landslides, earthquakes, garbage ossuaries, shopping mall dolmens, bellicose survivalists, sewage geysers, wet-wipe formations and mutant wombats are just a few of the obstacles facing competitors. The rules are simple: players—all sponsored and PhD’d—are each assigned a patch of troubled earth to carry out their competitive fieldwork. Points are awarded for methods in excavation; the type and variety of objects unearthed; the ability of the player to reconstruct a compelling story from the pieces. It’s a gruelling, painstaking and perilous game. There are casualties. Bodies cave in, minds sink into madness. All those who watch know what the players must feel: the past is a reluctant, unreliable and irascible beast of the present.
Archeology was Freud’s preferred metaphor for his invented profession. It’s a fair comparison, since both the analyst and archeologist work to animate ruins. As he wrote in 1937, both disciplines have an “undisputed right to reconstruct by means of supplementing and combining the surviving remains. Both of them, moreover, are subject to many of the same difficulties and sources of error.” To work with the scraps and rubble of the past—whether buried in the mind or in the mud—is to tell a story in reverse. You arrive home after a long day at work only to discover that you are both already at home and still at work. As Freud observed, the destruction of Pompeii began with its discovery. This is how we reconstruct the present: arriving at ourselves through the cobbled together remains of what was once—but also never was—a recognisable life.
What structures do we build from the ruins at our disposal? Sometimes they are more artifice than edifice. Sometimes they seem completely determined by others. Things always go wrong, breakdown, need to be fixed, can’t be fixed. Inside it can be damp and cold, messy and loud, hot and sticky. Surfaces are uneven, it’s crowded, there’s nowhere to sleep, the toilet doesn’t flush, someone keeps using your toothbrush. The poor—out in the open in more ways than one—are forced to build with an inventiveness born of necessity, and are always being shoved along to elsewhere. The well-off pay others to build, clean and protect their structures, but no matter how high or spotless or spacious or secure or
light-filled these places become they are never immune to ruination. If the debris of the past reminds us of anything it is that it all begins on the ground, with a single brick or stone or slab, and will someday return there.
Using the past as a material for the present requires speculation and speculation requires time—the greatest and rarest of commodities. Time allows us to conceive of what we once were in order to know who we are (a task fraught with error and delusion). There are many things that ask us for our time—sleep, jobs, family, friends, emails, bills, dirty dishes, toenails etc—but something odd happens when we allocate time to unneeded things. When we concentrate on objects that have been disposed of or forgotten—objects that in themselves hold a more complex or confusing kind of temporality—we enter into a different time. This time is fat, unsteady, unproductive, full of potential.
Children—archeologists of their own pockets–excel at this kind of time. Occasionally, artists manage to build this kind of time into their work.
Who hasn’t willed an object to life in one way or another? Hasn’t mourned a broken inanimate thing as if it had just died? Hasn’t wished a rock would speak? (1) Recently, a 250-year-old pretzel was found along the banks of the Danube river in the German city of Regensburg. The pretzel (now a black, nondescript lump) survived because it was originally burnt in the baking process. A scrap can, at any moment, transform into a relic; become an object of virtu. This isn’t a Duchampian trick (turning non-art into art) but more of an awakening. Not unlike magic, an object suddenly begins to tell a story in reverse.
Is it impossible to force an object to say the same thing to me and to you? Is it impossible for an object to say the same thing for 10,000 years? In 2004, the U.S Department of Energy assembled a team of anthropologists, linguists, engineers, scientists and sci-fi writers to brainstorm designs for a series warning monuments. These monuments will eventually be placed at the Waste Isolation Plant (WIPP), an underground chamber containing highly toxic, radioactive transuranic waste, located near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The waste, buried 2,150 ft (655.32 m) below the surface, is a byproduct of the United States nuclear defence program. In 2029 the chamber will be full, and these dangerously toxic materials will need to remain undisturbed for ten centuries. The monuments, made of granite and standing at 25 ft (7.62 m), must therefore deter all future archeologists, alien explorers and any other curious beings from digging or drilling into a catastrophe. As such, the design of these monoliths must consider changes to climate, language and the way in which objects and images will be interpreted into the long future. (2)
Something odd. Along with the written warnings in multiple languages, emojis and conventional keep out signs, a graphic outline of Edvard Munch’s Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature) was included in the proposal, to be engraved into the granite.
Munch, who sensed “a scream passing through nature” and painted it, could not have foreseen this tormented figure, with his bean-like head and warped body, standing watch over America’s radioactive debris. There is something both unlikely and tragically prophetic about him being employed for such a task. Despite their best intentions, he is surely more of a prisoner than a guard? His future is grim; imprisoned by a catastrophic scenario.
Walter Benjamin’s reading of Paul Klee’s peculiar Angelus Novus (1920) as the angel of history comes to mind. Facing the past, Benjamin imagined the angel being blown forward by a storm into the future: “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it before his feet.” Are Munch’s and Benjamin’s figures not somehow united by the WIPP project? One blown backwards into the future by a storm, not knowing where it’s going, bumps into the other, who, fixed in place, is unable to do anything but let out a silent scream. And what would the angel say, before being swept along by the winds of progress? “Good luck…” or “Excuse me…” or “How’d you get here?”
To imagine a coming relic is to imagine, and create, a future. This is one way to build a recognisable and liveable structure out of the debris. A structure of and for speculation.
I’m writing this in a busy public library. I’m writing this with Various Relics of a Bright Future in mind. I have been trying to think about the way the artist behind this work is deeply invested in textures and forms, animals and minerals. I have been trying to think about how this artist makes objects that are an antidote to the overblown optimism of the tech-industry and the feckless and fashionable nihilism that is everywhere. This particular artist, my friend, reminds us of the apotropaic potential of objects. As relics, they refuse the easiness of today’s cynical art object in favour of a different set of relationships. The objects share an affinity with that very old pretzel. As objects, they carry an ancient sensibility, suggesting a different kind of time, their own archeological future, a story in reverse.
Why do we like “natural language user interfaces”, such as Siri? Her friendly, over-pronounced voice assures us that we are not alone, even if we are. Siri promises that if we speak to her (and recharge her) she will know, educate and love us. Such voices, which use to emanate from our head or from behind a mask, now come from the devices in our hand.
See Julia Bryan-Wilson’s discussion of the WIPP in relation to the exclusion of art historians and artists from such speculative thinking, in “Questionnaire on The Contemporary” in October (Vol. 130, Fall, 2009).