The Carbon Lab – An Anthropocene Conversation Between Artists

She was a tiny clot of earth, a nano particle of something finer than clay, finer than silt, but soil nonetheless. She was ancient with memory rushing though gills, feather, bone and gullet. She rubbed against scales, swallowed spore of dinosaur plants, arctic tundra and Devonian rocks. The ingestion of millions of earth years all held in one big watery sponge of memory. It adhered to her, refused to let go, to be absorbed by some other fleeting jolt of reality. It would not dissolve in those acidic depths, nor would it break up or break down. It just remained. It was the taste of infinity that knew no definitions between plant or animal, organic and inorganic, human or non-human. Her hair turned copper red, her skin became dark brown leather, creased at the edges of dreams, slipping in and out of viruses, bacteria and the DNA of a million frozen glaciers. She had become that, and all, a cosmic conflagration.

I am an artist, writer, and researcher who has always held a deep fascination with bogs: peat bogs. In Alaska in 2015, on a Writers Fellowship through the Island Institute, I was in a thick boreal forest late afternoon when the sun’s rays hit spots on stumps, branches, trunks, and leaves. The light was riveting as it seemed to illuminate those spaces from within. That moment encapsulated for me the moment of carbon capture and I was hooked into something.

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Since then, I have pursued my interest and lack of knowledge about the carbon cycle. I want to understand how/why carbon is captured, stored, and released in a story of transformation from organic matter to inorganic mineral (peat, lignite, coal, graphite, diamond, and many in-between). In these Anthropocene times where concrete evidence of indelible human impact on the planet’s life systems has been acknowledged, carbon, the element, has become demonised. It is one of the major greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. I am keen to develop my own relationship and insight into this crucial life force. I look to the intersection of the arts and ecology as a way of deepening into my embeddedness with the earth, and as a means to make sense of these times. I trust the arts and creativity as a way of knowing, and I wanted to work with a group of artists to open new possibilities.

The project began with an invite for a gathering of an open group of artists, working across various arts modalities, such as writers, visual artists, poets, printers, photographers, story tellers, dancers, musicians, performance artists, all interested in the story of carbon, and working on one particular place: a peat bog on mainland Australia. This peat bog, a glacial relic, is estimated to be at least 20,000 years old and has been strongly disrupted from its trajectory by humans and domesticated animals, yet still survives, albeit in tattered form.

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The type of questions I was hoping to explore were: What can this peat bog teach us? How can our own arts practice speak of the bog? What are the stories that emerge from this place? What might it mean to share the stories of this place and our art work in a series of conversations both private and public? How does our relationship with and our understanding of carbon and the earth itself develop through this process? Is it possible for humans to develop an understanding of Deep Time through the process of engaging with an ancient bog?

The idea was for people to go to the bog independently and develop their own arts response to it, then come together on a regular basis to share those responses, tease out ideas, see the art work in progress, and create a dialogue between artists, known collectively and fondly, as Bog Rats. A Secret Facebook page was established as a platform for people to share their work and ideas. ‘Secret’ because the bog is not legally accessible, hence this artistic work requires boldness and risk, just as we humans living in the Anthropocene need to think and act in a disruptive fashion in order to forge new relationship with the earth. The possibility has been raised of a podcast, or documentary and presentations at conferences, or an art exhibition. We were also hoping to grow the project so people living in other countries could be part of their own carbon lab and share ideas across the globe.

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So far, we have had 30 or so artists express interest and embark on their own art work, as well as a public performance story telling group offering to be part of this work in re-telling and re-enacting our stories. We have had several meetings full of showing, sharing and asking questions. The dialogue is always rich and alive. When an artist speaks from her/his voice, I am exposed to a different way of knowing expressed through their particular arts modality, and it makes me see and understand things differently. Like the bog, I ingest new layers of sediment, swirl them around together, then something settles in me for a time of waiting, to emerge, who knows when, as a new articulation.

I want to speak to some of the work that has emerged so far through my art: I have written four short pieces, a few poems, taken photos of the bog in golden light, of human presence insinuating itself into bog life, played with bog art using bog mud on paper, and tasted bog mud, bog plants. Finally, I have smeared my body with bog mud in an echo of ‘Bog Man’ stories of preservation. I have dreamt about the bog…

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The ideas that are coming to me for further work concern the seeming surface stillness versus the seething mass of movement of sediment in water throughout the under layers of the bog; how my concept of time alters in dialogue with bog time/carbon time; the notion of a state of equipoise or suspended animation as regards the ‘hold’ on life the bog has – it reminds me of hibernation – when the normal process of life has been intercepted, so that decay, the natural process we associate with death, is held at bay or deferred; and the curious transition from organic to inorganic states.

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Dr Carol Birrell is an artist, researcher, and writer. She has taught in universities and schools, is passionate about the intersection between ecology and the arts, and Indigenous knowledge systems. Her land-based art practice, developed over 20 years, called Touching the Earth, is a dialogue with the earth. Carol knows, as part of her Climate Change work, she needs to urgently spend time in Greenland listening to glaciers melt, and in the Arctic Circle responding to permafrost thawing. You can FB Friend her at Carol Birrell where she may allow you to join the Secret Group of Carbon Laboratory.

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