Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. Edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert. S. Emmett. 2018. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Paperback, 224 pp. ISBN 9780226508795.
This edited volume presents itself, unusually, as a cabinet of curiosities. Inside the cabinet, so to speak, are 15 objects, each of which is held to represent the Anthropocene in some way. Some are artefacts, some are of natural origin, while others are mixtures of both. As is the custom with cabinets of this kind, objects are taken somewhat out of context and thus are only loosely associated with each other, forming an assemblage or group mainly by virtue of being gathered together and enclosed within the same glass-fronted item of furniture.
There are cabinets like these to be found in many museums – but usually, the period from which the collected items originate was in the past. What makes this cabinet of objects special and uncanny is that it contains things from the present-day or the very recent past. The Anthropocene is the proposed new geological epoch marked by human impact on Earth systems, though it is yet to be ratified by the International Commission for Stratigraphy. Even if it is formalized, the epoch is only just starting, and no-one really knows for sure how it will unfold, or how its physical traces and residues will be preserved in the stratigraphic record.
Instead of the remains of the past, then, the cabinet contains the “future remains” referred to in the title of the book. There is a rich ambiguity to the term. In the first place, viewed from the present, it is anticipated that at some point in the far future the objects will constitute material fossils of the Anthropocene. In the second place, as readers of the book and viewers of the cabinet, we find ourselves situated in an imagined future time looking back over distances in time on an Anthropocene epoch that has already taken place, rather as a visitor to a museum might peruse the artefacts of ancient Egypt. The cabinet acts like a time machine in this respect, taking us forwards and backwards in time, projecting our imaginations into the future.
The objects on view include a pesticide spray pump, a jar of sand, marine animal satellite tags, an artificial coral reef, a calico quilt, a monkey wrench, a mirror, and an example of “snarge” (the avian tissue left after a bird-strike – in this case a feather of the bird which downed Airbus A320-214into the Hudson River in 2009). Some of the objects, such as a cryogenic freezer box, have an inbuilt orientation towards the future. Others, such as a Germantown calico quilt made in 1824 depicting scenes from the early American Republic, have a similarly inbuilt orientation towards the recent past. Still others are poised between the present and the future. Thus, the painting of Davies Creek Road by Australian artists Trisha Carroll and Mandy Martin depicts a creek, rich in heritage and indigenous traditions, soon to be desecrated by the building of a dam. Like a museological TARDIS, it seems that this cabinet of objects materializes at some crucial juncture in time.
The background to the book was a multi-stage exploration of future remains through exhibition, slam, writing workshop and other formats. The participants choosing the objects are an eclectic mix of environmentalists, historians, ecologists, artists, anthropologists and designers. There are archaeologists too, as Rachel Harkness, Christián Simonetti and Judith Winter present the material concrete as an object in its own right – in its various states of matter from fluid to oozing semi-solid to solid – through the medium of a script for a dramatic performance. The interdisciplinary mix of perspectives, methodologies and approaches which characterizes the study of the Anthropocene is all there. Objects exhibited in the cabinet provide unique windows into the issues and controversies of the field, with a general undertone of critique – not only of what humans are doing to the planet in the Anthropocene, but also of the hubris that is embedded in the concept of the Anthropocene itself.
The object which attracted my interest and curiosity the most was the future fossil of a Blackberry Curve 8300, by Jared Farmer. Actually, there is a sense in which this is already regarded by many people as a fossil. Though the gadget was mass-produced in 2007, it quickly went out of date and now seems an ancient object in terms of speed of technological advance. But Farmer is concerned with what the Blackberry would look like as a geological fossil in the far future. Accordingly, he adhered a layer of polymer clay onto a piece of Utah mudstone, impressed into it a broken Blackberry phone purchased off eBay and baked it in an oven to create the durable fossil imprint. There is a fascinating contrast here between the very short time of an object’s life cycle as a cultural item, and the much longer period for which it could potentially be preserved as a fossil on geological timescales. Although this is a manufactured fossil and not a real one, it points to the fact that artefacts such as phone-cases, biros, computer keyboards and so on are likely to find their way into the fossil record, and to be preserved alongside the remains of organisms as fossils in sedimentary rock.
The example also illustrates the value of the term “technofossil”, which originates in the Anthropocene debate but could be usefully deployed by archaeologists for some purposes too. Of course, “technofossil” and “artefact” are interchangeable terms in certain respects, but “artefact” does not implicate the dimension of an imagined future on geological timescales. The word “technofossil” adds that dimension. Use of it may be particularly appropriate in the archaeology of the contemporary world, where objects such as canisters of nuclear waste often have more potential future than actual past, and it is very relevant to speculate on what is likely to happen to such things further down the line.
An important part of the book which must be mentioned is the middle section of 15 full-page colour photos by Tim Flach depicting all the objects in the cabinet, visually complementing the written descriptions and discussions provided by the chapters.
School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, UK