Fossils pose in museums and burn in our aeroplanes

Text by Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris

Blue Mountain Cultural Center ,  25 May 2019

Fossils pose in museums and burn in our aeroplanes. Figures from beneath our feet build the past, present and proclaim futures. As curators, it is urgent for us to share the work of these critical artists who attempt to understand this question of ‘what lies beneath our feet?’  

I grew up in the Blue Mountains and it’s very special to be back here, in this out of body curating-at-a-distance experience. I am writing to you from Stockholm, Sweden and my words are reaching you through Nina, who grew up in Stockholm, so in a way we are time travelers, conversing with a tin can telephone through bushlands and arriving in forests.

Here at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre we meet and converse on the traditional lands of the of the Darug and Gundungurra peoples. I acknowledge that this meeting is being held on Aboriginal land and recognise the strength, capacity and resilience of past and present Aboriginal people in this region.

I would like to say this curatorial research was influenced by many great thinkers and artists, I especially want to thank the artists Joyce and David for their generosity in creating a new work for this setting and being here today, to Sam for sharing his new work from Gotland Sweden, and to Lina and Oscar too, plus my great collaborator Nina and team at BMCC, especially Sabrina.

I’d also like to mention one of the key influences of this research in a little more detail. The work of Bruce Pascoe, an author of Bunarong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage, and his book Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture. Thank you to the author for his compelling writing on the shamefully (and willfully) overlooked understanding of Australian Aboriginal agriculture, aquaculture and architecture. Pascoe’s writing helped me to understand the urgency in questioning how we understand history, First Nations land rights and what is beneath our feet. What does the land, the soil, the fossils, the caves, the pipes, the railways, and the mud below our feet, how do they help us understand our present predicament. 

On May 14 2019,  American undersea explorer, Victor Vescovo, journeyed 10,927 meters (35,853 feet) to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the southern end of the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, as part of a mission to chart the world's deepest underwater places. This is thought to be the furthest underground a human has travelled. The Mariana Trench is deeper than Mount Everest is tall. Discoveries in the Challenge Deep included rocky outcrops, prawn-like supergiant amphopods, and bottom-dwelling sea cucumbers. He also returned with the news that in the deepest cave visited by humans he found rubbish. Plastic bags. Lolly wrappers.

The fact that rubbish exists in the deepest cravats of the earth is one of the reasons why scientists suggests naming this time a new geological era. This new geological era where the activities of humans effect every ecology on the planet. The most commonly accepted name for this new era is the Anthropocene (human-era). It can also more specifically be called the Capitalocene (a slightly better name in my mind as it shows that capitalism, specifically the idea of limitless growth through utilizing fossil fuels has effected every ecology on the planet - rather than ‘all humans’ as it’s really not ‘all humans’ it’s some humans). Other suggested names also include the Plastocene (a good name as plastics are now found all over the planet and also as microplastics within our own blood streams and breast milk), for Australia there is the very fitting title of the Pyrcocene (the era of fire, where the giant uncontrolled fires epitomize the planet under climate chaos). Here I also pay thanks to the writer and visual anthropologist TJ Demos, whose book ‘Against the Anthopocene’ was also very useful in my thinking. I can recommend it.

At this point in time, suddenly geology has begun to take on new meanings and urgencies.

As curators, it is urgent for us to share the work of these critical artists who attempt to understand this question of ‘what lies beneath our feet?’. Now the so-called Anthropocene has begun, how artists engage with geological thinking and concepts of deep time have become burning questions.

And lastly, thank you for being here to read this text, to hear these words, to even see the exhibition. To gather together is a political act. Today we gather at a time of critical change, of massive social and cultural upheaval. Young people protest on the streets, demanding their future on a planet that has quickly reached its resource limits. Fossils pose in museums and burn in our aeroplanes. A fossil in a baseball cap sits in Canberra. In these critical times we appreciate your belief that artists voices need to be heard and that artists intellectual and aesthetic proposals provide opportunities to discuss a future already here.

May 24, 2019
Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris

This project has been assisted by
the Australian Government through
the Australia Council for the Arts
its funding and advisory body.
website by Emmeli Person
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