A London ‘fatberg’ – a basketball-sized mass of congealed wetwipes, dental floss and kitchen grease – is an unlikely inspiration for an artistic exhibit. Likewise, few might see possibilities in a cup full of beachcombed ‘nurdles’ – those plastic pellets that serve as raw materials for a host of products.
But these were some of the building blocks of creativity used by a group of students led by Kirsty Robertson, a Contemporary Art and Museum and Curatorial Studies professor, and Eugenia Kisin, a professor of Anthropology at NYU Gallatin, to create A Museum for Future Fossils.
Future Fossils was a series of events and projects in London, Toronto and New York, including exhibitions, a workshop, and a graduate summer school, that brought together a group of people working on museums, contemporary art, the Anthropocene, and climate change to answer an overarching question:
What does it mean to think curatorially about human impact on the environment?
In association with New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, Future Fossils looked to share knowledge, approaches, ideas, and plans for action, in a series of different environments, from intimate working groups and classrooms, to outdoor spaces and museums. The locations ranged from rural settings (Lake Huron), small cities (London), larger cities (Toronto), and mega-urban locales (New York City).
Robertson said 16 students were treated to field trips to a waste facility, a long trek along the Thames River; a beachcombing walk near Sarnia’s Chemical Valley; and talks by a beekeeper, a paleontologist, a mycologist and an environmental scientist.
Students also examined ‘plastiglomerate,’ a stone that’s a mix of sand, rock, held together by hardened molten plastic, which could become a marker of human pollution in the same way dinosaur bones are preserved in geologic record.
Together, the presenters and students challenged each other to think more deeply about pollution, climate change and water as a life source. Individually and collectively they learned about the permanence of discarded, dumped or spilled objects – lessons intended to percolate and become part of the artists’ future works, Robertson said.
“We asked them, which kind of futures they could imagine?”
Robertson said it’s unusual students could gain the insights from such a diverse a group of experts.
“The goal was to put together a bunch of smart, interesting people and see what would happen in a curatorial mindset and in light of this environmental crisis we are in.”
Artlab Gallery hosted an exhibition of the students’ work earlier this month; NYU’s Gallatin Galleries is hosting a similar exhibition until the end of July.
“It was important that it was in multiple locations and it was important that it was a collaboration between two universities,” Robertson explained. “It has potential to expand in the future.”
The project’s title comes from University of Leicester paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz, who said the age of plastic may last for eons. “Once buried, being so hard-wearing, plastics have a good chance to be fossilized – and leave a signal of the ultimate convenience material for many million years into the future.”