Archive | By Our Own Hands

From there to here: A mosaic about the driving forces behind the Anthropocene

How did we get here? That’s the question at the heart of my mosaic, “The Three Horsemen”. It’s not an angsty, existential question. It’s a specific question, where the “here” is the Anthropocene. So, how did we get here, to a point in geologic time that’s the equivalent of a dumpster fire for which humans are to blame?

I’ll be diving into the hallmarks of this new geological age in future mosaics, covering such uplifting topics as altered nutrient cycles, invasive species, mass extinctions, erosion, pollution of all kinds, sea-level rise, and so much more. But I figured that I should probably take a look at the journey first before immersing myself in the destination. Thus, “The Three Horsemen,” or, how we got here.

There are plenty of different combinations of factors that you could argue brought us to this point, and indeed, each article I read when researching this mosaic was sort of a variation on a theme. But the one that resonated with me, both intellectually and artistically, was from a 2016 article in Science by Colin Waters et al. The authors identify three “linked force multipliers” that produce many of the drivers associated with the hallmarks of the Anthropocene: (1) accelerated technological development, (2) population increase (and a shift to urbanization), and (3) increased consumption of resources (e.g., fossil fuels, minerals and metals, etc.).

These force multipliers really emerge onto the scene in a big way in the 1950s, just after WWII, in a period known as the Great Acceleration. It’s in this period that we see a rise in economic activity and resource consumption that prompts all the upswings in the global distress signals that are characteristic of the Anthropocene (see: list above of future mosaic plans).

“The Three Horsemen” (2018), 22″ diameter — Slag, lightbulb innards, shale, mortar tesserae, cement, marble, knob and tube, earphones, limestone, red dog, brick, architectural glass, ceramic, smalti, circuit board, resistors, coal, hard rubber, gears

“The Three Horsemen” (a nod to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) takes these force multipliers and the Great Acceleration and turns them into an explosion. At the epicenter is a big chunk of slag that my dad brought back from his days working at Inco (a mine, mill, smelter, and refinery of all kinds of metals up in Sudbury, ON). Creeping out from under it are the innards of burnt-out incandescent lightbulbs (now relics of the past). From the start, these have always given me the heebie-jeebies; I find them very unsettling, though in a good way when put in context of this piece.

They’re coming to get you…

And then the impact ripples out in successive waves of Anthropocene materials. For technological development, there are circuit boards, resistors, two pairs of earbuds that (of course) broke far too soon, bits of hard rubber, gears from an old shredder, and the ends of bolts (which I saved each time I trimmed the hanging hardware on the back of a mosaic, you know, just in case…). For population increase and urbanization, we’ve got mortar and concrete, brick, some old dishes, and architectural glass samples. And for resource consumption (notably energy and metals), there’s the slag and incandescents, of course, but then there’s also knob and tube insulators, shale, coal, and a wee tiny bit of gold. (Click to embiggen any of the detail shots below!)

So this is how we got here: an explosion of people using things, aided and abetted by technology. Like all of my work, that tension between the sobering and the beautiful is here again, and I find that it is especially appropriate when talking about the Anthropocene. Thinking and talking about this issue will inevitably stir up conflicting feelings. I freely admit that I look at cities and their feats of architecture and engineering, and even at industrial sites, and often swoon at their hard lines and complex beauty. I appreciate the convenience of driving my car and having a house that’s neither too hot nor too cold. And don’t get me started on my phone and computer and all the other tech gadgets in my life. But there is always a little voice in my head, reminding me that all of this comes at a price. And that tension and dichotomy is what I try to channel in my work. Yep, these are good-looking mosaics. There’s a calmness and an elegance to them. But let them draw you in…look closer…and you’ll find a darker, more sobering side.

Side view of the rippling explosion


Dear future: We tried and…

Who knew that plastic cutlery would be such an inspiring material? Certainly not me. This is one of the big things that keeps me coming back to mosaic: the surprise of new and unexpected materials.

After finishing “We Were Here Now“—the first mosaic in my Anthropocene series—I definitely wasn’t done with those plastic knives, forks, and spoons, and they weren’t done with me. I loved how they had taken on a sort of hieroglyphic appearance in that mosaic, so I thought: Why not just zero in on that and play with it for a minute? This intersected nicely with a beautiful comment left for me in the guestbook at my final residency show, which had been rattling around in my brain for months (in a good way): “What affected me most […] was the vision of mosaic and the actual materials used being a snapshot of what will be left of our current civilization, bits of rubber, bones, concrete. The idea that you are a distant future archaeologist reconstructing an image of your past / our now is compelling.

So I wrote a letter to future generations. Mosaic was my language, and the unholy Anthropocene trinity—concrete, plastic, and aluminum—was my material. For the aluminum, I thought nothing could be more representative of our throw-away, consumerist, globalized reality than a bright red can of Coke.

“By the time we realized…” (2018), 12.5″ x 10″ — concrete, plastic cutlery, aluminum Coke can

There are no secret coded messages in this mosaic. I didn’t go as far as to create my own actual language or script. It’s just me playing around, making writing-like lines, though you will find a few commas and periods.

The importance of punctuation: Comma after the opening salutation, slashes between the parts of the date above…

The title—“By The Time We Realized…”—leaves the ending open. By the time we realized…it was too late? By the time we realized…we had just enough time to get our act together and turn things around? We, collectively, still have time to decide what that ending will be, but that window is getting narrower. I, for one, am still fighting to turn this ship around. What about you?

Ripped and a bit crumpled. This letter has seen some wear.


How they’ll know we were here: Plastic, concrete, aluminum

I’m so very excited to be diving into a new series. It feels like a really nice way to start a new year and also to shift gears after ending my residency. Please don’t worry: the climate change series lives on! I’ll keep adding to it indefinitely—there’s certainly more than enough material to keep me going for…ever—but this generalist Jill-of-all-trades is feeling the need to branch out a bit and tackle some other, albeit related, issues.

And so, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to my new series, “By Our Own Hands,” a series that will explore the Anthropocene from all its terrifying angles.

“We Were Here Now” (2018), 16″ x 22.5″ — mortar, concrete, plastic, metal, ceramic, red dog, coal, limestone, shale

What is the Anthropocene? In short, it’s the new geological age we find ourselves in and we only have ourselves to blame for this new era. Yep, humans have exerted so much influence on the climate and the environment that our impact is the defining feature of this new era. And no, this isn’t a “yay us, look what we’ve accomplished” sort of thing. More like an “oh shit, look what we’ve destroyed” sort of thing. As R put it: it’s an “epoch-alypse.” Ha! Clever girl.

Way to go, humans!

Now of course there’s scientific debate over exactly where the Anthropocene starts and the Holocene ends, debate over what marker denotes that official shift. (The frontrunner is 1945-ish, with radioactive elements from nuclear bomb detonations being the identifier.) But it’s really just a matter of time before scientists come to an agreement and make it officially official.

There are lots of hallmarks of this new geological age, and I’ll be drawing inspiration from many of them over the course of this series. For the first mosaic in the series, however, I decided to tackle one key characteristic of the Anthropocene: the mind-blowing scale at which we produce concrete, plastic, and aluminum, all three of which are now firmly rooted in the geological record. Centuries and millennia from now, anthropologists and geologists (if humans are still around) will find a layer of these materials—and many other things, collectively known as technofossils—as they dig into the earth. This is our legacy. And some legacy it is. Consider these sobering facts:

  • We have produced about 500 million tonnes of aluminum since the 19th century.
  • We have produced about 50 billion tonnes of concrete and more than half of this was in the last 20 years. That’s enough concrete to spread a kilogram of the stuff on every square metre of the planet.
  • We now produce about 500 million tonnes of plastic a year.

Plastic utensils and bread bag tags getting cosy with metal scrap and concrete

The mosaic is divided (roughly) into thirds. The bottom is just plain rock, a nod to geological eras gone by. The middle is moving closer to the present day, with hints of human influence showing up with the inclusion of small ribbons of plastic, layers of ceramic, and, perhaps the most dominant feature of this layer: seams of coal and red dog, the latter being a by-product of coal extraction (for extra credit, read Rachel Sager’s blog about red dog, which is actually a really spectacular material to work with). Together they speak to transformation and the impending transition.

sperling mosaic about anthropocene using limestome and shale

The bottom: shale (dark brown) and limestone (greys and black)

mosaic detail of anthropocene using red dog, coal, ceramic, and plastic

Ceramic, red dog, and coal (and a fork for good measure)

Then there’s the big disruption: a chaotic jumble of concrete, plastic, and metal (I exercised my artistic license and didn’t restrict myself to aluminum here). And after that, a field of mortar (drawing that link to concrete) and plastic. The careful viewer will note that, while the colours and materials themselves are arranged into horizontal layers, the lines of the mosaic—those rows of piece after piece after piece—actually run vertically. This is by design, to give the tangle of that unholy trinity something more to disrupt.

We interrupt this timeline…

Almost like plastic morse code…

The plastic details are some of my favourites. I didn’t really know what to expect when I started cutting up the plastic utensils, or even as I started incorporating them. But as I placed more and more of them into the mosaic, it became increasingly obvious that they looked almost like some sort of hierogyph. I love this. I like to think of it as a sort of message to the future. I’m not sure what it says… “Sorry we screwed everything up”? Probably not. It’s likely something more along the lines of “MORE EVERYTHING!”

A message to the future

The title, “We were here now,” is partly inspired by those plastic messages to the future; it’s a reference to our inescapable need to leave our mark, to say we were there, to satisfy our ego. Think scratched initials in a bathroom stall or on camp bunk beds or in the bark of trees, but on a much larger scale. This new geological layer proclaims just that: We were here. The past tense is intentional. Not we are here. Were. Continue down the path we’re on and we, as a collective, are not long for this world. The “now” is meant to disrupt, to make you pause over the disconnect between “now” and the use of the past tense, and, ultimately, convey how quickly everything is changing and how we can lose it all in the blink of an eye (geologically speaking).

I look forward to sharing many more cheery, uplifting facts and thoughts about the Anthropocene with you, so stay tuned! And now, I need a drink. Anyone else?


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