Polymers Are Forever
06 July — 04 October 2015
curated by Jack Parrott
Look around you at today’s world… Leave it all in place, but extract the human beings. Wipe us out, and see what’s left. How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it and our fellow organisms? How soon would, or could, the climate return to where it was before we fired up all our engines?
— Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
Writer Alan Weisman’s thought experiment, expounded in his book The World Without Us, explores the hypothetical results of the sudden removal of humans from planet Earth. Science fiction writers have investigated this idea for many years, setting stories in post-apocalyptic worlds that are the outcome of either natural or man-made disasters. Weisman, however, takes an ecological approach based on scientific studies of once inhabited geographic areas. In these situations, what artefacts would survive the test of time? What traces and echoes would be left that we were once here?
This exhibition’s narrative will explore Weisman’s thought experiment using the work of artists Lando, Jack Parrott, Stathis Tsemberlidis, Maria Arceo and Ryan Curtis. Each artist’s work will represent an aspect of the exhibition’s three sub-sections: Plants, Plastics and Space. These sub-sections are just a minor exploration of the vast concept of a human-less world, but are still integral parts of the greater whole.
In the event of a sudden extinction of human life, it is in cities where the effects would be felt first. Manhattan was once made up of 27 square miles of porous ground and living roots, and is now the most densely populated borough of New York. The 47.2 inches of average annual rainfall that falls on Manhattan was once absorbed through the trees and grass, and this amount of rainfall has not changed. This means that the rainfall either puddles on the streets or flows into sewers and subways. Thirteen million gallons of water are kept from flooding New York’s subway tunnels every day, with only attentive subway crews and 753 electric-powered submersible cast-iron pumps keeping the incessant attack at bay.
Jack Parrott’s photography series Trees Eat Wire, 2013, uses the idea of how nature eats away at the cracks of civilisation if neglected. Trees are shown devouring barbed wire, transforming their trunks into disturbingly anthropomorphic faces which swallow our protective barriers with ease. Without our realisation, nature slowly invades these protective boundaries every day, and it is only with our intervention that this is combatted. In the case of New York’s subway tunnels, if the cast-iron pumps were to fail, as they would with no human intervention, in half an hour water would reach a level at which trains could no longer pass. A chain reaction would then ensue as one flood would flow into another subway zone until the whole system was filled with water, all within 36 hours. Soil under the pavements would be washed away, streets would begin to collapse and in less than twenty years Lexington Avenue would be reclaimed by the East River.
In the midst of the flooding, ground temperature fluctuations would expand and contract the concrete, and plants would seize control of the pavement fissures usually combatted by New York’s city maintenance. Weeds blown in from Central Park such as mustard, shamrock and goose grass would be on the front line to quickly widen pavement cracks so that further plant life could establish itself. The Chinese ailanthus tree is a formidable invader and even now with a human presence, it has occupied an abandoned elevated iron bed of the New York Central Railroad on Manhattan’s West Side to the point of transforming the area into a designated park. After trains stopped running through this area in 1980, the ailanthus infested the region and laid waste to all human construction. The area became known as the High Line and became a small victory for plant life in the concrete jungle.
Lando’s animation shows a plant victory in which the growth of plant life envelops and consumes all traces of civilisation in a high-speed swarm. The scenario of accelerated plant life is a chilling one and, although there can be no kind of emotion associated with plant growth, the heightened speed of growth mimics a malicious attack that appears to drive its progression. However, the reality of plants taking over an industrial landscape such as Manhattan will be in a constant flux for the first 100 years or so. The corrosive deposits of unattended petroleum tanks and chemical power plants will spread industrial toxins into the soil, killing the rooting plants. Never the less, after every death and regrowth the toxins will be pushed further under the soil so new crops of native species do better each time until human contamination has been eradicated. The New York Botanical Garden contains a wealth of continental biodiversity which, if given freedom, could expand as a culturally diverse forest. The American chestnut would grow amongst foreigners such as the Japanese barberry and the Oriental bittersweet, creating a range of trees collected together purposely by humans. Once plant life’s overthrow was final and the last residues of fuel and lubricants are reduced to organic hydrocarbons, this purpose of collection would hold a memory of human intervention on Manhattan Island.
A particular chapter in Weisman’s book, Polymers Are Forever, from which this exhibition takes its name, refers to important research undertaken in the Southwest of England by marine biologist and professor at Plymouth University Richard Thompson. Thompson currently studies the rising amount of plastic in our oceans on a microscopic level. These studies come predominantly from the work of Alister Hardy who, in the early twentieth century, created a sheet-like apparatus that was dragged by English merchant vessels to sample the amount of krill in shipping lanes. This apparatus turned a moving band of silk which filtered plankton through the water passing through it, with each band of silk having a sampling capability of over 500 nautical miles. Hardy’s apparatus was dragged through North Atlantic shipping lanes for several decades, amassing a huge database of krill levels.
Thompson discovered Hardy’s samples in a climate-controlled warehouse in Plymouth and realised, if put to another use, were the key to measuring the rate of microscopic pieces of plastic present in our oceans. Two regularly sampled routes out of Scotland, one to Iceland and one to the Shetland Islands, were chosen to be analysed. Rolls of silk that dated to the 1960s showed a rapid increase in the number of plastic particles, compared to anything before the Second World War when the only plastics being used were for telephones and radios which were yet to enter the waste chain. By the 1990s, the amount of acrylic, polyester and crumbs of other synthetic polymers had tripled from the amount present decades earlier. Hardy’s plankton recorder only trapped plastics 10 meters below the surface and, given that plastic floats, it is safe to assume all the collected readings are underestimated.
Thompson’s recordings are still only a fraction of the potential volume of plastic in the oceans, and show no sign of biodegrading even when reduced to tiny fragments. Like shoreline rocks being ground into sand, the waves and tides are grinding the plastics into microscopic sizes. While it is common to hear of seabirds with large amounts of plastics in their stomachs and turtles choking on plastic bags, the effects on smaller organisms could lead to larger problems that affect whole food chains. In this situation where organisms at the bottom of the food chain, such as zooplankton, are consuming plastics it can be reasoned that everything alive is eating plastics in some degree.
As to whether plastics could ever naturally break down, at the moment they have not been around long enough for anyone to know. There is even the possibility that once they did break down, they would release more harmful chemicals that would threaten organisms in the future. Thompson states ‘suppose all human activity ceased tomorrow, and suddenly there’s no one to produce plastic anymore. Just from what’s already present, given how we see it fragmenting, organisms will be dealing with stuff indefinitely.’ Maria Arceo uses the medium of found plastic and acrylic debris to investigate the close interactions between human manipulation of the natural world and nature’s response to these interferences. Her work examines our waste in an archaeological manner, cataloguing found debris into various arrangements such as colour and original uses. In a future without humans, if we were to be eventually unearthed by other intelligent life-forms, her catalogued debris could easily be imagined to be their objects of study to understand how we lived. It seems then that after every trace of human existence has gone, these plastics could be the very last remnant of our influence on the Earth’s environment; an indefinite legacy to humanity.
What about beyond the Earth’s existence? Ryan Curtis’s film Borderland, 2015, and his other sculptural objects are created with a range of pre-manufactured materials and found objects. As well as through print and video, these works are produced as intuitive and developmental responses to particular post-industrial landscapes that evoke sci-fi and post-apocalyptic fictions. In these types of fictions, often the idea of humans living beyond Earth’s existence on other planets and in space stations is used for the basis of sci-fi narratives.
The illustrations of Stathis Tsemberlidis show a human body disintegrating into dust, and eventually into nothing at all. Even in Tsemberlidis’s portrayal of our remains reducing to absolutely nothing, our former home planet would still continue to spin through space. We can ask then whether there would be any traces of life if the Earth were to be uniformly changed beyond recognition by tectonic upheavals, or even if it were completely swallowed up by the sun. In 1977, NASA invited Carl Sagan and fellow Cornell astrophysicist Frank Drake to devise an object to accompany two Voyager space-crafts that would represent humanity in the case of the crafts’ encountering other life-forms. Sagan and Drake sought the help of artist Jon Lomberg to develop an illustration of human identity that could be understood by a being that had never encountered a human before.
A gold-anodized aluminium box, designed to withstand cosmic rays and interstellar dust, would hold the document they put together along with a cover for the box designed by Lomberg. It was estimated that the box could last at least a billion years, but the intention was for it to travel interstellar space forever. Two space probes which Sagan and Drake had worked on previously, called Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, were launched in 1972 and 1973. After an encounter with radioactive ions in Jupiter’s magnetic field, Pioneer 10’s last transmission came in 2003. It was calculated to be 8 billion miles from Earth during that transmission, while Pioneer 11 will not pass any stars for 4 million years.
With no access to digital media yet, Drake recorded images and sounds onto a 12-inch gold-plated analogue disk. A stylus and instructions for how to play the disk were also included, and the contents of the disk were directed by Lomberg. Sounds contained with the analogue disk were greetings in 54 human languages along with other sounds that went beyond humans. The songs of whales and birds were accompanied by the sounds of a jackhammer, ocean surf, a crackling fire, thunder and a mother’s kiss. Music was chosen which ranged from Azerbaijani bagpipes to Chuck Berry, and also included most notably Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In that particular piece, soprano Eddie Moser hits a high F, which is recognised as the highest note in the standard operatic repertoire and the absolute limit for a human voice to achieve.
Orchestrating images in a way that could be conveyed by beings beyond any rational guess, Lomberg sequenced them in a way which they would give more information to their audience than the sum of the individual pictures. Diagrams of DNA, photographs of nature and architecture were all combined with pictures of more menial things such as people eating and children looking at a globe. Depictions of humans were shown as silhouettes to distinguish the figures more distinctly, along with captions indicating sizes, ages, weights and genders. This time capsule that Lomberg created would not only be an artefact that would be humanity’s chance to interact with alien life-forms, but possibly the very last representation of human aesthetic expression that could theoretically outlast the Earth itself. Long after we have ceased to exist, it will act as our very last anchor to the universe and hopefully has the capabilities to be interpreted by any sentient being that comes across it.