How is the Anthropocene at sea/local level? And how can climate change be be felt, and dealt with through the time worn understandings and handlings of material in the oceanic zones? Reviewing Saoirse Higgins’ show PapØycene at the Pier in Stromness, Antonia Thomas suggests that art and artists can open us to new perspectives – and that Higgins, in particular, sets a ‘benchmark’ here.
PapØycene / Angle of Vision, Pier Arts Centre, Orkney 24th July – 28th August 2021
Capitolocene, Plasticene, Chthulucene, Anthrobscene, Plantationocene, Technoscene … PapØycene?
Names are important. Our current geological epoch may now be widely known as the Anthropocene, but this designation is layered with assumptions[i]. Critics of the term have disputed its foregrounding of the Anthropos, and the essentially western, male, colonial perspective it invokes. A range of counter-terms have been suggested. In her audio-visual exhibition at the Pier Arts Centre, Orkney, this summer, Saoirse Higgins offers another alternative: the Pap-Øy-cene.
The exhibition comprises installations in a range of media, from time lapse films to sculptural pieces, original archival material and artefacts. It documents research undertaken for ‘Survival Tools of the Anthropocene’, a practice-based PhD carried out at Glasgow School of Art and completed in 2020. This drew upon three years of intensive fieldwork by Higgins on the island of Papa Westray – or Papay as it’s known locally – in Orkney. Her process-driven practice explores islandness as a context for building sustainable futures, presenting a much-needed counterpoint to the usual ‘mainland’ thinking about the Anthropocene.
Papay’s unique environment and community form the focus of Higgins’ research, which examines how participatory design approaches can articulate engagements with the Anthropocene. She termed this reflection on the local Anthropocene in Papay the Pap-Øy-cene – Øy meaning island in Old Norse and a nod to both Orkney’s rich Norse heritage, and the Øy festival she co-founded on the island in 2016.
Islands have always attracted artists and researchers. But all too often the gaze has been from the outside looking in, presenting a romantic vision detached from the lived experience of island life. What makes Higgins’ work different is the way in which she immersed herself within the island environment and community, allowing different questions to be asked, and gaining insights that might otherwise be overlooked. In doing so, she investigates what a small island such as Papay (population 88), and its unique environment and community, can contribute to wider conversations about climate change and the Anthropocene.
Higgins’ approach is influenced by Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) and the work of the Annales historians. For Braudel and the Annalistes, time could be divided into three durational scales: short term events, medium term ‘conjunctures’, and long-term structures, which unfold over centuries or millennia and which they termed the longue durée. Higgins interprets these durations as three interconnected island viewpoints: the local – from the island looking out to sea; the relational – the way islanders care for their environment and community, while looking to the future; and the long – the view from the island to the external world. These three scales – as much geographical or spatial as they are temporal or durational – are returned to repeatedly in Higgins’ work, in film, photography, sculptures and archive material.
The exhibition is dominated by three large cotton flags, each representing one of these three viewpoints: signals between Papay and the world. The central banner depicts an Ordnance Survey benchmark, carved into the stone of one of the island’s houses to offer a relational view. The flags either side are based on the International Code of Signals but annotated for this project. The first – the symbol for ‘Man Overboard’ – is overprinted with ‘Anthropocene’; the second has ‘Pap-Øy-cene’ printed over the symbol for ‘I wish to communicate with you’. The investigation of how these three different temporal and geographical scales relate to one another, runs through both Annales theory and Higgins’ practice.
Included in the exhibition, and on loan from the Papay archive, is the Telephone and Signal Log of HM Coastguard Papa Westray, left open on the entries for 31st July 1943. In amongst the accounts of visibility and wind direction, and the calm repetition of “nothing to report”, an inked note makes a passing mention of the dangers facing the wider world: “spitfire passed hut”. This awareness of both the local and global is characteristic of the islandness that permeates Higgins’ work. Her insight is timely. Once seen as isolated and peripheral, islands have emerged as forceful symbols within current Anthropocene discussions, re-imagined as models for sustainability and resilience[ii]. Islands – and with them oceans, and archipelagos –appear to offer rich contexts for understanding relational entanglements, and the connectedness of humans and non-humans, people, places, and things over vast temporal and geographical scales.
Island living also brings with it an appreciation of collective endeavour and responsibility, a willingness to be flexible in the face of challenges. During her research, Higgins explored this sense of islandness through a range of participatory workshops, including a two-day caasie wall building event on Papay. Conventionally used in coastal revetments, caasie walls use vertically set stones, packed tightly together to form a strong defence against tidal surges. It is a style of building that characterises the islanders’ vernacular knowledge of materials and environment, and Orcadians’ ancient relationship with both stone and sea.
Traditional designs like these represent several millennia of stone-working in Orkney. The sedimentary rock, laid down as sandstone deposits some 400 million years ago in the Devonian period, splits readily, lending itself to easy quarrying and building. It has gifted the islands an almost unparalleled archaeological record of stone-built tombs, houses and standing stones stretching back thousands of years. At the Knap of Howar, on Papay’s western shore, are two of the oldest standing buildings in northwestern Europe. Constructed around 5,500 years ago, they stand proud, testament to the stone-working skills of Orcadian builders over the millennia. Orkney has a vast chronology of innovation: from Neolithic architecture to the 21st-century renewable energy industry[iii]. It offers the ideal lens through which to view the deep time of the Anthropocene.
A stone from the caasie wall appears in a triptych, photographed alongside a flagstone slab with ancient, fossilised wave ripples, and a large piece of pumice, which washed up on Papay’s shore from Iceland some years ago. Three artefacts; three viewpoints; three durational scales; and a story written in water and stone.
A series of time-lapse films, of varying durations from 3 minutes to 12 hours, are projected along another wall and show footage shot over the three years of Higgins’ research in Papay. One film shows the local fishing boat gathering crabs, some of which will ultimately be destined for the Chinese market. The viewpoint shifts once more, from the island out to sea, and from the local to the global.
Orkney has never really been peripheral or isolated, of course. For centuries, the islands’ geographical location placed them on a route which took antiquarians, polar explorers and deep-sea trawlers across the Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. The accounts of Arctic-bound travellers, such as Joseph Banks in 1772, provide some of the earliest surveys of Orkney’s famed Neolithic monuments.
Building on a residency undertaken with the Icelandic Glaciological Society in 2015, Higgins also travelled north for her research. Taking the conversation beyond Papay, to Iceland, she returned the pumice stone to its place of origin. It served as a springboard for conversations about the links between the two islands: their Norse heritage, and the climate emergency. Accompanying Higgins on her journey was the ‘Papay Probe’. Specially designed and fitted out with temperature measuring and positioning tools, an ice auger, and an origami wind sensor, it was used for ‘health checking’ the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Through interviews and workshops with glaciologists, archaeologists, and schoolchildren, the Probe explored the ‘see-saw’ relationship between glacial melt in the High North and rising sea levels in Papay.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report[iv] was released on 9th August of this year, it was seen to signal “a code red for humanity”[v]. Its assessment was stark. Human influence has caused global mean sea level to rise faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in at least the last 3,000 years. Extreme sea level events, previously only occurring once every 100 years, could happen yearly by 2100, leading to frequent and widespread flooding in low-lying areas, and severe coastal erosion. Ocean warming and acidification will have a disastrous effect on marine ecosystems, and all of those who rely on them for their food and their livelihood, from Papay fishermen to Pacific islanders. If seawater finds its way into farms and reservoirs, even staple crops and drinking water will no longer be able to be taken for granted.
Current projections for Orkney indicate a possible sea level rise in the region of 0.2 m to 0.4 m by 2050, and 0.4 m to 1.00 m by 2100[vi]. Combined with the potential for increased storm frequency and intensity, and tidal surges, the islands’ future looks bleak. It is likely that, by the end of this century, many of Scotland’s low-lying coastal areas will become not only economically unsustainable but completely unliveable. Climate change is writ large on islands. And as islanders are all too aware, the apparent resilience and sustainability of small communities often mask socio-economic inequality and vulnerability. Despite being a centre for renewable energy, Orkney is desperately reliant on heating oil and other fossil fuels. Long winters, exposed conditions and windchill, combined with old housing stock resistant to retrofitting, mean that fuel poverty is amongst the highest in Europe. Defined as when as a household spends more than 10% of its income on fuel, around 60% of the county’s households are in this position[vii].
It was the recognition of these challenges which led to the development of the ground-breaking National Islands Plan (NIP) by the Scottish Government[viii]. A key aspect of the legislation, which came into effect in December 2019, was the concept of ‘island proofing’ to improve outcomes for island communities. As part of the consultation phase, the Scottish Government funded a NIP Embedded Artist Placement and Commission, developed and coordinated at The Glasgow School of Art by Mónica Laiseca and Susan Brind. It was devised in the spirit of initiatives such as the Artist Placement Group of the 1960s and 1970s, with its tradition of embedding artists in ‘non-art’ contexts, to prompt debate and encourage new ways of seeing.
The commission was awarded to Higgins after an open competition and saw her join a consultation team visiting 40 of Scotland’s 93 inhabited islands – from Unst to Arran – to collect the views of islanders and inform the Plan’s development. ‘Angle of Vision’, the body of work created during her placement, took its title from a 1957 poem by Orcadian Robert Rendall, a ‘man o’ pairts’ as noted as much for his research on shells and prehistoric flints as he was for his poetry: an appropriate choice for Higgins, whose interests likewise span art and science.
The exhibition includes a specially designed aluminium ‘Island Centre Marker Buoy’, printed with the mathematical formula used to calculate the island geographical centre points. Dominating one wall is an unfolded 1:1,000,000 scale map, a bespoke chart created by Higgins and developed in collaboration with cartographic design consultant Paul Naylor and technical consultant Chris Mee at the Ordnance Survey. Angle of Vision – Map of the Geographical Centre Point of 93 inhabited Scottish Islands was also reproduced as a limited edition of 50. It depicts a uniquely island-centred viewpoint; the detail of the UK mainland is absent, the islands and their centres foregrounded.
Directly opposite in the gallery, within a glass case and on loan from the Orkney Library and Archive in Kirkwall, sits a very different map – the famous 1750 chart developed by hydrographer Murdoch Mackenzie (1712–1797). The two maps, created 270 years apart, sit in conversation with each other, each offering a different yet complementary viewpoint.
The full title of Mackenzie’s chart is ‘Orcades: or a geographic and hydrographic survey of the Orkney and Lewis Islands, in eight maps: exhibiting the rocks, shoals, soundings, quality of the bottom, diversities of the coast, flowings, setting of the tides, and distant views of the land’. This gives its name to ‘Distant Views of the Land’, a 360° VR film created by Higgins during the commission and projected onto the wall between the opposing maps. Filmed and recorded on location at Fowl Flag, the northernmost point of Papay, it shows an oblique view of Higgins looking out to sea. We are invited to gaze with her, drawn to the horizon and mesmerised by the film’s voice-over in which 16-year-old islander Jessie Dodman narrates an excerpt of Mackenzie’s 1774 Treatise on Maritime Surveying.
The placement of these three pieces – the two maps and film projection – on the three walls of the gallery is significant. They triangulate around the viewer in the room, a physical reminder that all maps are subjective and themselves dependent on a particular viewpoint.
Higgins’ work shifts between the social and scientific, the playful and the deeply serious, and draws on inspiration ranging from early 20th-century radical folk movement Kindred of the Kibbo Kift to feminist theorist Donna Haraway. Her repeated use – and subversion – of survey and cartography allows her to trouble the ‘God’s-eye view’[ix] of much Anthropocene thinking. By foregrounding an islander’s perspective, Saoirse Higgins’ Pap-Øy-cene offers us a new angle of vision and in doing so, sets a critical benchmark for art in the Anthropocene.
The NIP Embedded Artist placement and exhibition work was co-curated by Susan Brind and Mónica Laiseca (Glasgow School of Art).
Fig 1. Three flags in exhibition in PAC
Fig 2. Photo from caasie building event.
Fig 3. Three stones – caasie, wave rippled, pumice
Fig 4. Still from timelapse film showing fishing boat
Fig 5. Sledge and Papay Probe on the glacier in Iceland
Fig 6. Image of Angle of Vision map
Fig 7. Still from ‘Distant Views of the Land’ film
Fig 8. Island Centre Marker Buoy
Alaimo, S. 2017. ‘Your Shell on Acid: Material Immersion, Anthropocene Dissolves’, In Richard Grusin (ed.), Anthropocene Feminism, University of Minnesota Press, pages 89-120.
Chandler D. & Pugh J. 2021 ‘Anthropocene islands: There are only islands after the end of the world’. Dialogues in Human Geography. doi:10.1177/2043820621997018
Day J.C., Heron S.F, Markham A., Downes J., Gibson J., Hyslop E., Jones R.H., Lyall A. 2019. ‘Climate Risk Assessment for Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage property’. Historic Environment Scotland, Edinburgh.
Demos, T.J. 2017. Against the Anthropocene. Sternberg Press.
Watts, L. 2018. Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga. MIT Press.
[i] Demos, T.J. 2016
[ii] Chandler and Pugh 2021
[iii] Watts 2018
[vi] Day et al 2019, page 34
[ix] Alaimo 2017, page 90