Artifacts of the Anthropocene
by Gwendolyn Meyer
I often pick up plastic on the beaches in Cape Town, but in 2016 I found a group of plastics that profoundly drove home an understanding of the impact humans are having on nature. One week in summer 2016 the prevailing South-Easter wind caused significant ocean upwelling in False Bay. A large amount of plastic was brought onshore, tangled in the long strands of Bull-whip seaweed. Amongst the loose plastic waste were some strange objects, anomalous forms made up of half nature, half plastic. They illustrated the re-making of nature and how nature is reshaping the future in this Anthropocene.
These strange hybrid seaweed forms look mechanically like nature’s original designs. Yet they are made up of plastic waste which is bound with seaweed, shells and sea grass. The seaweed fronds are not natural but a plastic bag ripped up by ocean currents and perfectly mimics natural fronds. In another example, a plastic circle is embedded in the holdfast, the anchor of the seaweed, and this plastic is now an integral part of the holdfast. The oceanic force of ocean currents, the ebb and flows and the movement of water and waves that shape ocean life are clearly reconfiguring waste into hybrid objects, third forms, binary objects of life and waste.
Will these false-nature forms be a scaffold for life like false reefs or will they be deadly deceiving habitat structures and cause wastelands in the ocean? It is hard to know. At the same time, they suggest a type of adaptive behavior, as artifacts of the Anthropocene.
As of September 5th, 2016, we are perhaps fairly certainly officially in a geological epoch, called the Anthropocene. Naming a new geological epoch takes a long time, and can only be official when there is physical evidence embedded in layers of rocks and dirt or as science puts it, the geological record. That obviously means whatever is influencing the planet has to have been going on for a while, such as the ice age in the previous Holocene Epoch. The Working Group on the Anthropocene recently confirmed geomorphic evidence of plastics and radioactive isotopes embedded in the layers of the earth, which officially confirm humans as biological agents on a planetary scale. Despite this new designation it is difficult to fully comprehend the scale of a planetary epoch, or the significance of passing from one to another, let alone what this new designation will mean for how ‘we’ imagine the future.
Finding these hybrid configurations masquerading as real amplifies the uncertainty of what the future of life will be. At the same time it is a metaphoric moment similar to the grass cracking though the cement for me. These forms reveal nature’s force in this future.