A remote provocation
We asked Selina to come and speak at Curio, but she couldn’t make it. Instead, she suggested that she could send us a remote provocation instead: a letter to the audience that we’d read out on her behalf, without looking at it beforehand. We loved the idea and said ‘yes’.
This is what Selina sent us…
Read all of this out loud, please.
This will either be (I am told) the beginning or the end of the event today. So could you do me a favour? Could you look up and tell the folks listening to you, in front of you, one thing that you are feeling grateful for? And could you leave a pause, so that they can each turn to the person sat next to them, and they can tell each other something they feel grateful for? An exchange of gratitude as it were.
So I don’t know if we’ve met before, but my name is Selina Thompson. It’s really beautiful to be here with you all today, to share space with you, in this way. I have been writing this provocation in bed. Lying on my stomach, listening to music from the mobile phone game ‘Two Dots’. This is the fifth, or maybe the sixth draft.
I’m sort of inhabiting as a vessel for a time, the lovely person who has been so brave as to read this for out to all of you, but mostly for me.
Thank you, to you.
We are at another juncture where art and creativity can feel like a move away from concrete change, rather than feeling like the vehicle that should be driving it. I felt like this in 2014 when Ferguson happened, and Michael Brown was shot by Darren Wilson. A lot of other folks didn’t feel this way until Trump, or Brexit. For some it was less of a lightning moment, and more of a slow grinding away of hope and optimism.
A few months ago, I felt a deep fear and panic. Apocalypse, the end of the world felt so near – and not in the way I had envisioned it. All I could see was suffering.
Usually, when I feel like this, art making is what I turn to – but I’m trying at the moment, with all my might, to not let art, my job, fill up the space where personal growth could be. Solo, autobiographical work, which I made for a very long time, fits neatly into neoliberal models, and this can mean that I think making art products to sell is the same as doing the work of healing. But it isn’t. I sometimes think artists and creatives lean so hard on using art and culture for change that we forget about what can be achieved when we use the full breadth of our humanity, not just our creativity.
I decided instead to turn to art as an audience member, rather than as a creator – nothing reaffirms the purpose of art quite like experiencing it when you are afraid – and During my search, I came across a beautiful podcast about rocks.
Specifically, the work that geologists are currently doing trying to define the Anthropocene. Or, in English, the work that scientists that study rocks are trying to do to figure out if we as a species have left or will leave enough of an impact on this planet – it’s climate, its environment and most importantly, it’s rock formations – for us to be considered one of the ‘ages’ of the earth.
The International Commission of Stratigraphy are a group of scientists that watch over the earths 4.6-billion-year history. They do the definitive thing that humans do, and create order out of chaos. The podcast, published by the Guardian (of course!) described them as ‘the custodians of the earth’s timeline’. I loved this. Made them sound like a council of Gandalfs.
Back to the Anthropocene.
It is a surprisingly controversial topic.
Philip Gibbard, the secretary-general of ICS, said, and I quote:
‘Few would deny we are in a period of climatic turmoil, but many feel that, compared with some of the truly apocalyptic events of the deep past – such as the period, 252m years ago, when temperatures rose 10C and 96% of marine species died – the change so far has not been especially severe. “Many geologists would say: it’s just a blip,’
A blip! It blew my mind somewhat. Xtinction rebellion were occupying the streets of London and Generation Z were storming the UN. And this man was describing all of this as ‘a blip’.
This is not uncontested, of course.
One geologist, Anthony Barnosky, argued that we have ‘scrambled the biosphere’, removing species from their natural habitats and releasing them into new ones, and making the natural world more homogenous. The world’s most common vertebrae are the broiler chicken (at any one time there are 23 billion of them alive) and they’re a species that we created for us to eat.
We have built mines and roads and towns and cities; we have created new materials and tools – a conservative estimate states that everything humans have ever built and manufactured will weigh 30 trillion tonnes; and all of this, from our smart phones to our ballpoint pens could leave a new type of ‘technofossil’ that the planet has never had before.
We have also coated the earth with a fine dusting of radioactive fallout, settled, the podcast said, ‘like icing sugar on a sponge cake’. The earth will always hold a remnant of our compulsion to self-destruction, whatever steps we may or may not take next.
Despite all of this, the Anthropocene – the time of humans – is nothing more than “two centimetres of unconsolidated organic matter”, and when compressed into rock after millions of years of pressure, it may not even be that. In purely geological terms, our entire existence as a species has been nothing more than an instant,” The epoch prior to us, the Holocene, was 12 millennia long. There is, many of the geologists argue, no compelling reason to believe that we humans will ever be legible in the rock of this planet.
I found this oddly comforting.
There is something deeply compelling about the solidity of rock in the face of Climate Catastrophe. Learning about the work of geologists reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians from Slaughterhouse 5 ‘seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is’.
Everything I am reading about climate change suggests to me that the path we are on is fixed, that we do not get to change oncoming catastrophe; only that we get to decide how we are going to interact with it. What do we want out 2 cm of unconsolidated organic matter to say about us? If our species is to die out, how might we go with grace? How do we wish to disappear from this glorious and ancient planet, ancient beyond anything we can even conceive? How might we earn our place back in the ecosystem, so that whoever sees our sliver of rock views it with a wistful sigh, rather than a tut of disdain? What might we learn from Climate Catastrophe from looking at it like Tralfamadorians, accepting an end, and thinking about different ways of getting there?
Recently, I heard a description of Brexit as being like ‘arguing over the bar bill on the Titanic’. I wish I could remember who said this – it’s a great and pithy take.
The Titanic feels like a rich way of thinking through ‘the end of the world’. One of the most enduring tales of the Titanic’s demise is that of the string quartet, that continued to play as the Titanic sank. Music, and musicality is something unique to humans. There’s a very specific combination of abilities that enables us to create and experience music as we do, and so far, no other species is known to have all of them. It is not hyperbole to say that music – in so many ways, the purest of creative expression – is a defining human trait. So what does it mean to keep playing music as the Titanic goes down?
That decision. To see death. To accept it. In those dying moments to reiterate once more the best and the most beautiful of what humanity can be: that we can create things- ephemeral and delicate, lasting only as long as it takes for vibrations to move through the air – and to decide to share it, to bring comfort and to inspire. To be completely in the moment. I keep coming back to it.
It doesn’t offer me an easy solution. But it does comfort me. It grounds me in the present, and reminds me that I can think through the how, as well as the what. That’s what I’d like to offer you today.
I hope that you are all having and continue to have an excellent day.
Sending Warmth, Strength, Softness and Solidarity –
Selina is an artist and writer whose work has been shown and praised internationally. Her practice is intimate, political and participatory with a strong emphasis on public engagement, which leads to provocative and highly visual work that seeks to connect with those historically excluded by the arts.
Selina’s work is currently focused on the politics of marginalisation, and how this comes to define our bodies, relationships and environments. She has made work for pubs, hairdressers, toilets, and sometimes even galleries and theatres, including BBC Radio, the National Theatre Studio and The National Theatre of Scotland as well as theatres across the UK, Europe, Brazil, North America and Australia.
Selina has been described as ‘a force of nature’ (The Stage) and ‘an inspiration’ (The Independent). She was featured in The Stage 100 Most Influential Leaders 2018, and awarded the Forced Entertainment Award in 2019.