It’s a bright September morning in the early Anthropocene and we are in the back of a Maxi Taxi heading west towards the lowest point in Narrm, near where the Birrarung and the Maribyrnong flow together in the shadow of the Westgate Bridge. Our destination is Scienceworks in the Melbourne suburb of Spotswood; our goal for the day is to see what we can learn from the museum’s collection about the world we live in now, and (more concerning) turn it into a performance to be delivered at a “slam event” in the evening.
The field trip is occurring under the auspices of the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne, a four-day conference of anthropologists, scientists, artists and other scholars hosted by Deakin University. As the name suggests, the event focuses on the idea of the Anthropocene, the proposed new epoch in Earth’s history in which people – through burning fossil fuels and rapaciously upending ecosystems, as well as through sheer weight of numbers – have become a dominant planetary force.
As the world warms, it will undergo a phase change: like water molecules falling out of their crystalline patterns in a melting iceblock, everything we know will shift and rearrange itself. Flows of air and water will wander, rainfall will migrate, seas will rise, cyclones will range further from the equator, old ways of living will become impossible, and habitats and societies will transform and collapse.
“We thought we could control the environment, but our tools have turned against us,” says Tim Neale, the anthropologist who organised the conference. “So the idea is to use this as a moment to reflect on what kinds of knowledge we need to get us out of this crisis.”
Geologists are still wrangling over the technical formulation of the Anthropocene – when exactly it began, how it fits in the deep time of Earth’s past – but the notion that we live now in a human-haunted world has been a fruitful one for thinkers of all stripes. In the Maxi Taxi, for instance, are Thao Phan, who studies artificial intelligence and gender; Jacina Leong, an artist-curator “exploring experiments in transdisciplinary curation”; me, a tag-along science journalist; and Marita Dyson, our guide and a history and technology collection manager at Museums Victoria.
As we make our way to Scienceworks, Dyson talks us through the history of the wetlands over which Melbourne is built. The museum itself stands “where all the sewers drain to”: on the site of the pumping station that for decades pushed the city’s human excreta westward to the treatment plant at Werribee.
Soon after arriving at Scienceworks we are taken behind the scenes to the museum’s cavernous collection space. Here are defunct steam engines, electric cars that never were, and the original Tattslotto machine stored beside a crudely humanoid robot named Robbie.
One shelf is reminiscent of those cartoons that show an ape evolving, step by step, into a modern human, only for Apple computers: natural selection steadily refining the primordial beige slab of the Apple II into the upright Macintosh and then the streamlined, gem-toned iMac G3.
When it comes time to draw a theme from our tour, what emerges is waste: biological waste, technological waste, the disposable nitrile gloves used to handle objects in the collection, the fly droppings that build up on display items, the distressingly large pile of packaging left over after we’ve eaten lunch … Perhaps the near-cosmic abstraction of the Anthropocene really comes down to the earthy question of waste and what is to be done with it. Call it the Anthropoocene, Phan quips. Shit too is made of stardust.
At the end of the Scienceworks tour we head back to the main Melbourne Museum in Carlton and reunite with the half dozen groups who have wandered through other parts of Museums Victoria’s collection. Tasked with producing a 10-minute performance for the slam event, everyone has responded differently: one group delivers a story for children from a future without birds; another recites an ominous countdown through history to the moment of the Trinity atomic bomb test. One group doesn’t want to get up on stage, and instead shows an astonishing short animated film about bee colony collapse they had somehow produced during the day.
For our group’s performance, Leong has drawn on her curatorial experience to produce elegant slides that pair invented object labels with photos of select items. As these are shown, we recite entries from an imagined museum catalogue.
The four-day conference itself has been a light-speed mix of lectures, workshops and conversations, stories and ideas and new angles of vision. One minute you might be reading about the secret history of schemes to tow icebergs from Antarctica to irrigate the outback. Before you know it you’re hearing a theory that ties together human evolution (“everyone knows ‘out of Africa’ is nonsense”) with Amazonian earth mounds and heterodox climate science. This is followed by a talk from Wurundjeri elder Uncle Dave Wandin, who is trying to revive Indigenous fire-based land management in Victoria.
All this in an ultramodern tower complex with views to the CBD across the construction sites of the Docklands. Far below, dwarfed by cranes, you can make out a 25-metre statue of Bunjil, the eagle creator spirit of the Kulin nation.
Themes emerge and recur over the days: the interrogation of objects and artefacts for their function and connections and history (in one workshop, an interrogation of a windproof match almost sets off the smoke detectors before it is dunked in a cup of tea); decolonisation, since Anthropocene problems arise most of all from the ways of living pioneered by Europeans and imposed on the rest of the world over the past few centuries; ending the idea of any real separation between human and other; and feminist philosopher Donna Haraway’s idea of “staying with the trouble” – less solving problems or re-establishing normality, more “living and dying together on a damaged Earth”.
After the conference, the enormous technical, social and political problems that we face in the coming decades and centuries still remain. Carbon emissions must still somehow be checked, mass extinctions still loom, and global inequality and injustice are still rampant. But connections have been made, and perspectives have been changed. If humans are a geological force, then human minds are as good a place as any to start intervening in planetary affairs.
The moment that sticks is the American sociologist Hannah Landecker’s response to a question asked one evening about microbes’ ability to adapt at the molecular level to changed environments: “You’re welcome to use that as a source of hope, if you like.”
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