The Abyss Pokes Back
The Anthropocene is all about layering—it’s a story about the horrible toxic lasagne that a hypothetical future stratigrapher[i] might find if they chipped into the lines of rock (and bones and rust and shark nets and Styrofoam and cellophane and Roundup and razor wire and rusted guillotines[ii]) that are settling all around and through us as the fallout of an approximate now. This pile-up is also semiotic, semantic, sentimental-sedimental: under the literal weight of the world (worlds and worlds and worlds[iii]), meaning and materiality (abstraction and representation, time and matter, the human and the nonhuman: failed figurations of Western colonial[iv] capitalist[v] separation) are collapsing back into each other.
This is the terrain the heavily layered paintings of Don’t Call the Void ‘Daddy’ rise out of and return to (topographic maps in alien languages; sonograms of unborn worlds with long, pointed teeth). These paintings remind me that to talk about layers is to talk about time and to talk about time is to talk about layers; they ripple with temporal depth (immortal toothbrushes, placental microplastics, generations of bodies piling at boarders). At the same time (simultaneously, concurrently, in chorus, all at once) they are rendered with such cleanliness and precision that the processes of their creation slip in and out of view. History can be a wily beast, and rarely by accident.
It can be hard to see a better future right now. My utopias are laced through with my worst nightmares (there’s no emerald city without the dustbowl). The future needs prying open. I’m desperately trying to learn how to see what I cannot see—to see what lies in excess of my current, desperately restricted horizons of possibility. This desire—this necessity—to see what I cannot see, to know the excess, carries me forward into these paintings. Haunted by the forms of discarded plastic (sliding under surfaces; rising up as though underwater and hungry), they remind me that to be in excess is to be waste[vi], to be wasted. Waste and wastedness is the story that colonial capitalism is writing in the Earth (the rank, bubbling unconscious of an eco-economic system). Waste is intimate (creepy); the system of meaning that will not recognise waste is dependent upon it. Waste is dangerous; that which is in excess to a system of meaning threatens its coherence, its claim to totality.
Those of us desiring radical, systemic, structural shifts, might turn towards waste; waste is a prophet (our ally, our icon, our idol; an ibis-headed god eating from a bin[vii]) here to spread the word that things must change. I want to learn how to hear what it has to say; I want to see what possibilities[viii] appear when waste pushes the failure[ix] (gruesome, glorious, liberatory failure) of the fever dream of endless growth further into vision. What has been discarded returns, will return, is returning (the kid at the climate march chanting EAT THE RICH looked like she meant it).
But how to see it? How to build the literacy required to see the potentials still alive in this moment? How to see what meanings and values and behaviours and visions and possibilities lie in excess of the colonial capitalist death machine? How do I live in a world that I did not anticipate? How do I watch for what I do not know? How do I change (shape, shift, style, tune, attune) myself into someone who might recognise the moment of possibility for dramatic change when it arises? How do I do this in and with and a part of pulsating upswells of others (red and green blood; lively[x] dirt and listening rocks[xi])? How can I learn so much so quickly?
These paintings laugh at me (lmao) and they reply—how better to learn that how we first learn? How did you learn the last time that you had to start from the beginning? You learnt with the silliness of sage and the seriousness of a child at play. Play with these paintings—they want to play with you. Joyfully and foolishly (popping bubble gum by the grave of the status quo; tearing handfuls of fairy floss into the watchful abyss) they point and probe and press at the edges of the known (energetic, the clever hands of primates, the fine-tuned beaks of carrion feeders). They joke with candy colours against deathly rips and splits.
Cheerful and desperate, these paintings speak to the pattern-loving part of my mind in the language of repetition and rearticulation[xii] and meme and memory. They remind me: being a defeatist is no better than being a denialist. Giving up isn’t rebellion. Don’t fetishize the collapse. Don’t assimilate into your own nihilism. Don’t attribute too much meaning to meaninglessness (Don’t call the Void ‘Daddy’). It’s happening today. It’s happening right now. New layers are settling in the space between your breaths. There’s still time to decide what the world will be made of.
Briohny Walker is an academic and PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania in Philosophy and Gender Studies. She has interests in queer theory, feminist philosophy, anti-capitalist politics, the Anthropocene, and the political significance of education. Briohny is a cofounder of Brisbane Free University and and Queering Health Hobart. She lives in the mountains near nipaluna/Hobart.
[i] Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime. Cambridge, UK; Medford, MA, USA: Polity Press, 2017.
[ii] GuillotineOperatorsUnion, @GuillotineUnion
[iii] la Cadena, Marisol de. “Uncommoning Nature.” E-Flux 65, no. May-August (2015).
[iv] Davis, Heather, and Zoe Todd. “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene.” Acme 16, no. 4 (2017): 761–80; Grieves, Victoria. “The Plough as Settler Colonial Cultural Icon: Voices from the Other Side of the Blade.” In Ecological Entanglements in the Anthropocene: Working with Nature, edited by Sy Taffel and Nicholas Holm. Lexington Books, 2017; Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015; Whyte, Kyle Powys. “Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene.” English Language Notes 55, no. 1–2 (2017): 153–62.
[v] Malm, Andreas. Fossil Capital. London and New York: Verso, 2016; Moore, Jason W. “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 44, no. 3 (2017): 595–630; Moore, Jason W. “The Capitalocene Part II: Accumulation by Appropriation and the Centrality of Unpaid Work/ Energy.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 45, no. 2 (2018): 237–79.
[vi] Schaffer, Guy. “Queering Waste Through Camp.” Discard Studies, 2015.
[vii] Brisbane Free University, brisbanefreeuniversity.org
[viii] Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015; Osborne, Natalie. “For Still Possible Cities: A Politics of Failure for the Politically Depressed.” Australian Geographer, 2018, 1–10.
[ix] Halberstam, J. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
[x] Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.
[xi] Povinelli, Elizabeth. “Do Rocks Listen? The Cultural Politics of Apprehending Aust.” American Anthropologist 97, no. 3 (1995).
[xii] Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” Abigdon and New York: Routledge Classics, 2011