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A time-travelling guide for the climate apocalypse

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A time-travelling guide for the climate apocalypse by Sera Waters from fine print magazine on Vimeo.

Flash Forward

Standing before this wall I recall those apocalyptic film/television scenes where a character, a lone survivor, returns to the ruins of a museum or gallery. They blow, then wipe away layers of dust, to uncover art once revered and valued. In their eerily silent city, devoid of traffic noises and birdsong, this survivor examines what was once given pride of place, a whole wall like this, and considers what it said to the people now lost.

Now we stand here, on the edge of a tipping point, pre-empting that futuristic scene that some scientists say will occur in my, our, lifetimes. Science fiction movies are becoming documentaries or scenes played out on 24-hour news. For that character living the aftermath, we embody a flashback; a flashback they imagine when thinking of people who knew what was coming and were trying to say and express something, anything, that might start to tip the balance back in this cacophonous, deafening time, where our leaders, our media, our greed, our habits, our clutter, our waste, drowns us out. We are drowning and it is not without irony that one of most ludicrous apocalyptic movies made, ‘Waterworld’ starring Kevin Costner, might be the most accurate depiction of the future yet (well at least the water part).

If we are to get to a future that is not that apocalyptic museum or gallery scene, how can we differently embody those people in that flashback who stood before this wall. How can we not go forward but instead turn things back?

Flash back

In the spirit of Greek tragedies, humans tend to catastrophise a future and romanticise a past. This is true of my thinking, for in this accelerated climate this wall offers me nostalgic comfort. That is discomfiting as these objects and what they represent pulse with colonising practices: of un-homing by taking possession (building homes, putting up fences), of planting gardens and farming livestock while severely damaging and wiping out intergenerationally tended crops, of taking parcels of Country that weren’t theirs to take, chopping down trees, digging up clay and layering new meaning onto and into Country hoping it would take root in a land that was already so full of deeply rooted spirit, stories, knowledge and love. In Australia, including the regions represented here of the Barossa and Adelaide hills, the colonisation of Country has without doubt led us to today’s situation. Yet in contrast to our contemporary sprawl of bitumen, rising buildings, piles of rubbish, and recycling with nowhere to go, this wall of objects and paintings made from the 1850s to early 1900s is evidence of an era and a community which moved at a slower pace and had simpler material existences. This was in somewhat of a bubble, for the ship loads of goods had already been arriving into Port Misery from the 1830s in a consistent swell, monthly, weekly, daily, and had by the 1960s filled the dug out pugholes to the brim with household waste. But this is nothing compared to the 52 fashion cycles of our year, of plastics, and a time when Marie Kondo and ‘Hoarders’ have had to step in.

Once upon a time a wall like this would have spoken to me only through its colonial language. Now I have become a scavenger, reading walls like this for clues to how to live differently. I now see this wall as evidence of how human ways have long roots towards meaning-filled survival, traditions which are planted, transplanted and grown with the people who carry them, wherever they go. As well as the ingenuity of the colander, it is also the decorative hand carved detail on the 1890s chip frame, the hand carving of the red-gum for this 1880s chair, the floral leatherwork replicated on the 1850s or 60s Portrait of a Lady, or the hand-painted details on this mid 1860s jar, which all convey the care-filled, intimate and slow ways of people comprehending their world that they continued to pass along and share. As many anthropologists have studied, despite being disparaged, it is the decorative aspects, the patterns and motifs, as well as the undervalued domestic traditions which are rich repositories of coded and abstracted knowledge from the past. They tell a woven tale of how people can undergo great change yet carry on taking pleasure in life, revering nature, enjoying small details, being in touch with the stuff around them. They can guide us into the future.

A little bit of eccentricity and risk taking is also necessary. My own roots entangle somewhere genealogically in the homeland of these of the German migrants, with my German grandfather who between the two world wars saw danger coming and took action to make a life elsewhere, jumping ship in Australia. In Loxton in the 1930s he dug a bunker as an underground games room and used the soil and stones he unearthed to build the walls of a home and fences. All of this was topped off by an excessive rose garden. His lesson to me is working hard to celebrate life and build a future.


When we marry an apocalyptic catastrophising with what Svetlana Boym calls a prospective nostalgia, there is not only hope, but a way forward by looking backward. In this way and in Boym’s words, “nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress”.(1) Progress is no longer an aim, and it is time for a rebellion.

Looking back can tell us what we are not any longer. As a result of Modernism many have thought we have reached a post-tradition age. We are no longer only of clay, wood, pigments, leather and earth, we haven’t had to rely upon making our own clothing, growing and harvesting our own food, making our own furniture and so on. We are of the fast-paced and mass produced. We are of speed. Are we out of pace with our own ways? On a wall that almost smells of baking bread, unlike my ancestors I can’t eat bread. The speed has reduced the goodness and my body’s ability to digest it. Added to that I feel lost in a sea of waste my hands, my body, is removed from. What can I make? What can I do? Often we look to technology to save us, but perhaps a wall like this reminds us of slower technologies we already know and which hold more readily graspable solutions – of familiar materials such as string, cloth, earth, stone, wood, of gardening and of slowness and having less. These technologies are of the hand and the land, and in many cases have passed along familial lines for generations. Traditions necessarily change generationally through being passed on, shifting to the places, people and the materials around them and the needs that arise. How do we re-grasp skills for a time that is very different, when we need them more than ever?

Photo by Sam Roberts.
Photo by Sam Roberts.

Change is certain and is coming faster than we know. The traditions celebrated on this wall are guides for a future where we face a new challenge which is a really old one; survival. The danger of catastrophising is that it avoids action. A healthy combination of comprehending the looming catastrophe with a nostalgic looking back, can provide ways forward based on what has been. We take responsibility but it is not all ours to take. We put political pressure on our Government to act. From now, guided by this wall we plant and grow food slowly and nearby. We re-make our world, using our hands and the stuff we are drowning in. We take time and we take care. These are traditions to carry forward to avoid the apocalypse.

Installation view: Elder Wing of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2018. Photo: Saul Steed.
Installation view: Elder Wing of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2018. Photo: Saul Steed.