Dystopia/Utopia: 2070 Exhibition

Back in February 2020 author Alanah Andrews alerted me to an opportunity to submit a  short descriptive piece picturing an element of life 50 years in the future (Australia 2070) for consideration for an upcoming Dystopian/Utopian exhibition at Artisan in Brisbane. The idea was that a visual artist would respond to or use ideas from the piece to create pieces of art.

I took on the subject of an agricultural dystopia and wrote the following short piece.

Green

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Agricultural Dystopia

I can no longer see the mirrors and lights of my cubicle through the green of the chloroplasts in my eyes. The movement of the air changes around me and there is a whoosh and the sound of footsteps. A technician changes my drip. I cannot pull nutrients and water out of the soil like a plant. Not yet. The technicians wear masks to avoid breathing in the carbon dioxide rich air. I soak it in through my skin and combine it with water and light to make sugar for energy. They probably think I don’t understand, that I’m just a child, but I grew up learning about plants and crops. On the farm.

Today it is the quiet technician. I prefer the other, the one who talks to me and explains what she’s doing and the meaning of it all. My dad used to say that plants grew better if you talked to them. The technician leaves and I am alone again.

On the farm I was never alone. I had brothers and sisters from many different parents. We moved and ran and played together. We walked through the crops and removed weeds and insects by hand and picked and sorted produce at harvest time. We grew just enough to feed ourselves and to trade to cover other essentials. There wasn’t enough land to grow the wheat or potatoes or rice that would quiet the gnawing in a growing child’s belly. We were constantly hungry.

I miss the nights when we slept all together in the big room. We’d sneak into each other’s beds for warmth, comfort and protection from the monsters in the stories told by the older children. Am I one of those monsters now? Surely my appearance would scare a small child.

I’m green all over. A drooping membrane of skin hangs between my arms and my body. There’s webbing between my fingers, toes, and legs. Each strand of my hair is a hollow tube lined with chloroplasts. Even with all these photosynthesizing surfaces I only produce enough energy to merely exist and can do no more than stand supported by hooks like a staked tomato plant or a bean growing on a trellis. The parts of my body I no longer need have shrivelled and my bones are dissolving. Still my mouth waters when I remember the foods I used to eat. Biting, chewing, digesting. Hunger wasn’t so bad.

My childhood on the farm ended not long after the corporate military came with their big guns and dusty boots and ripped out every plant and confiscated all our seed, claiming they were stolen technology. After they left my dad explained that the adults had let our ag-tech license lapse due to the outrageous fees. All the government subsidies and grants were being awarded to factories producing food from microbes.

We tried growing free-seeds for a while but they were low yield and more susceptible to root-fungus and insect pests, as well as needing a lot more water. We were hungrier than ever.

Then the military returned, accompanied by suits. The parents called a meeting in the dining hall after they’d left and told us the ag-tech company would provide limitless, condition-free licenses in exchange for a loan of six children for experiments into ecological nutrition research. They made it sound like an adventure. A chance to see the world beyond the farm. We would be well fed and housed in their high-tech facility in the city. When the experiments were complete, we would go home. I was the oldest of the volunteers, on the cusp of puberty. My body would never go through the changes that I feared would end my childhood. It went through other changes instead.

The other five volunteers and I clamoured into the back of the military van and waved a cheery goodbye to our parents. I turned away from the doubt and tears in my dad’s eyes. We were met at the research compound with warm, clean beds, no work to do, plenty of time to play, and all the food we could ever want. We pulled the mattresses off our beds and onto the floor in the middle of our sparkling-clean dormitory so we could all sleep together. At first we didn’t mind the lack of sky and the chemical smell of the air.

Technicians, medics and scientists assessed and monitored our health and returned us to an optimal state. When we had forgotten what hunger felt like they separated us.

I was surrounded by machines that beeped and whirred and flashed. A medic stuck a needle in my arm and I slept. Consciousness came and went. My skin was greener, more porous and less sensitive each time I woke. I never saw any of my siblings after that but the talkative technician tells me they are in cubicles like my own, lined up next to me. If only I had the roots of a plant to sink beneath the concrete floor and join with them. Then I wouldn’t be so alone.

The talkative technician enters to take blood and skin samples for analysis. I feel pressure, but not pain. They once told me they are doing these experiments in the hopes of creating an ecologically friendly human with a patch of skin for energy production from the sun and the ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere.

Today the technician tells me about a new synthetic chloroplast up to ten times more efficient than the one they forced into every cell on the surface of my body. What does this mean for me? Without the power of speech, I cannot ask.

The technician leaves and after a time the lights in my cubicle dim in an artificial dusk. My energy ebbs. Soon I will have not even enough left to think. I will sleep. The dreamless sleep of plants until I am awoken again by an artificial dawn.

Before my brain shuts down I imagine them one day taking me down from these wires and cutting the membrane over my mouth so I can eat real food and get strong again. The green will fade from my skin and my pores will close. When my muscles are strong enough I will walk out of here with my brothers and sisters by my side and we will return to the farm. My dad will hug me and I will see the world in all the colours of the spectrum once again.

***

The exhibition was postponed and is now taking place on 29th May to 17th of July 2021. You can find out more about the exhibition here.

My agricultural dystopian piece was selected by jeweler Clare Poppi. In response she created these stunning pieces (as photographed by Michelle Bowden)

Bio Headpiece, 2021

925 silver, copper, glass, plants

Seed Fereter I, 2020-21. 925 silver, glass, seeds, QLD sapphire; Seed Fereter II, 2020-21. 925 silver, glass, seeds, QLD sapphire; Seed Fereter III, 2020-21. 925 silver, 9ct gold, glass, seeds; Seed Fereter IV, 2020-21. 925 silver, glass, seeds; Seed Fereter V, 2020-21.925 silver, glass, seeds; Seed Fereter VI, 2020-21.925 silver, glass, seeds, QLD sapphire; Seed Fereter VII, 2020-21. 925 silver, glass, seeds.

Seed Reliquary I, 2020-21. 925 silver, seeds; Seed Reliquary II, 2020-21. 925 silver, glass, seeds, cork, QLD sapphire; Seed Reliquary III, 2020-21. 925 silver, glass, seeds

Clare’s artist statement:

Mel Ferguson’s story connected with me because it highlights some of the fears that I hold around corporate agriculture, seed sovereignty and individual agency and power. I responded to the story through my own interpretation of the green-hued, chloroplasted boy character by creating a child sized bio headpiece. Though this differs visually from the narrative in the story, it reminded me of a childhood conversation I had with my father (a scientist) about the hypothetical possibility of  humans photosynthesising sunlight and the imagery this put in my head of people walking around with plants growing out of their skulls.

The part in the story which affected me most however was not the plight of the small boy, taken from his parents and subjected to a period of scientific experimention but the mention of seed licensing and the subjugation of small scale family farms by large corporate agriculture. To me this was so scarily realistic and utterly believable – indeed we are already experiencing the headwinds of this now with the patenting of heirloom varieties, buy ups of land by corporate investors and mono-culture cropping with multi-national company seeds, pesticides and fertilisers.

So in fifty years time what will we value most? What will be treasured and shared with communities as a symbol of hope? Historically, reliquaries hold sacred and treasured relics, and fereters are small transportable versions of these ornate vessels, moving from community to community to share the knowledge, stories and power of the object contained within. In a dystopic future where our food system is controlled by large corporate entities, it is small communities and individuals who can subvert the status quo and the simple act of seed saving and sharing can become a powerful symbol of resistance.

Clare Poppi is a South-East Queensland artist with a Master of Visual Art from Griffith University. Her primary practice is in jewellery and small object making, with a focus on sustainable design and wearables. She uses a combination of recyclable and biodegradable materials, adopting a cradle-to-cradle mentality in her exhibition and production work. As part of her Masters work she undertook research into collaborations between jewellers and wearers with the aim of fostering meaningful relationships between the wearer and their jewellery collections. Her work critiques the fast fashion model and seeks to examine and improve the sustainability of jewellery production. Instagram: @clarepoppi

2020 Snapshot: Melissa Ferguson

Australian SF Snapshot Project

When Melissa Ferguson was a kid she wanted to be an author because she loved reading. When she was a preteen she wanted to be a choreographer because she loved dancing, or a zoologist because she loved animals. When she was a teen she wanted to be a dietitian because she loved food. She ended up obtaining qualifications in biology and human nutrition and found herself working with things she didn’t love, like blood, faeces, placentas, cancer cells and flesh-eating bacteria (okay, maybe she loves blood a little bit). She didn’t return to her love of writing until she was in her thirties and her debut science fiction novel, The Shining Wall was published in 2019. She still loves food and animals but doesn’t get to dance as much as she’d like to. You can connect with her on twitter @melissajferg

1. Tell us about your recent publications/projects?

My debut…

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Non-book recommendations and Melissa Ferguson on science fiction and writing about the future

I was thrilled to be included in a line-up of amazing Australian authors on one of my favourite podcasts, The First Time , in April 2020

The First Time podcast

This week the hosts give recommendation for thing that they think are great.

Katherine’s are:

Kate’s are:

  • Taking cuttings of plants
  • The Australian Ballet has a digital season!  i.e. you can watch online.  Hard recommendation for Sleeping Beauty
  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s Instagram – she’s answering writing questions.  One great answer : Write ONE (no more hour per day.
  • Fires (controlled ones in your backyard)
  • Buying delicious and unusual  things locally rather than going to the big stores.

Then Katherine talks to author Melissa Ferguson.

Some links to things they talk about:

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Neandertal Depictions in Pop Culture

I began writing about cloned Neandertals after Harvard geneticist George Church claimed it could soon be possible to bring the archaic species of human back from extinction. In my research I found that recent evidence shows Neandertals weren’t all that different from us. To find out more about what we know about Neandertals you can read my blog posts In Defence of Neandertals and Facts about Neandertals. To find out more about the scientific process of cloning Neandertals you can read my blog post How to Clone a Neandertal.

Recently I gave a Deep Dive presentation on Neandertal Depictions in Pop Culture at Continuum 15 Convention in Melbourne. Below  is a list of the movies and books I spoke about.

Neandertal depictions have been influenced by the scientific evidence available at the time of creation, as well as the political and social climate. Depictions have ranged from brutish ape-men to just-like-us. Our depictions of Neandertals reflect how we define humanity,  intelligence, wisdom, and progress, they highlight our prejudices and concepts of Same and Other, reveal our difficulties in comprehending that other humans used to coexist, and remind us there’s a lot we still don’t know about human evolution.

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The popular view of Neandertals as ape-like, was largely influenced by this reconstruction (above) of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton by French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule in 1911. This Neandertal was actually an arthritic old man. Boule exaggerated the stooped posture with his face thrust forward and embellished with thick body hair and the brutish club-wielding stance, despite the lack of scientific evidence for these things.

Neandertals were first characterized during the late 1800s and early 1900s when colonialism, scientific racism, and eugenics were in full swing. This climate influenced attitudes and interpretation of Neandertals remains.

Books depicting Neandertals:

quest book

The Quest for Fire by J.H. Rosny was published in Belgium in 1911 and was not published in English until 1967. Seems to be the origin of the enduring trope of Neandertals having no mastery of fire.

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lostworldapemen

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was published in 1912 and is an example of the type of story where Neandertals have lived isolated somewhere in hiding until modern times. It represents them as threatening and savage ape-men. Early depictions like this were influenced by the colonial mentality at the time of conquering the world for the ‘civilized man’.

grislyfolk

In The Grisly Folk by H.G. Wells (1921) Neandertals steal the children of men when they venture too far from home. Describes warfare and the conquering of the grisly beasts by Cro-magnon man . Neandertals are portrayed as speechless, clumsy and not quick enough to hunt men.

inheritors

In The Inheritors by William Golding (1955) Neandertals are no longer simply brutish and primitive. Rather are childlike and gentle. Story is told from a Neandertal perspective. The men practice telepathy and there is fertility cult. Still contains the idea of antagonistic confrontation and extermination of Neandertals by modern humans. Which has never been proven to be the reason for the disappearance of Neandertals but seems most easily imagined by artists.

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Michale Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead (1976) reimagines Beowulf with Neandertals as the monsters and is one of several texts that imagine Neandertals as the source of troll and monster myths and legends.

clan

The 1980 book The Clan of the Cave Bear was the first in the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel who, reportedly, extensively researched the evidence about Neandertals available at the time. It’s kind of an ugly duckling story. The Neandertals call the Cro- Magnon orphan Ayla ugly, but when she strikes out and finds other Cro Magnon people after the end of the first book she finds out she’s actually really hot.

Eyre affair

Early in the new millennium we saw the first of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series of novels. In this world Neandertals have been cloned to act as medical test subjects and following a public outcry are released to fill low-paying jobs. They have an excellent ability to read body language and produce abstract art.

Hominids

In Hominds (2002), which is the first novel in the Neanderthal Parallax series, Neandertals exist in a parallel universe where they are the dominant species of human. They live in a kind of environmental and social utopia with no concept of religion. Despite this, they are still technologically advanced.

Shaman

In Shaman (2013) the Neandertals are called the Old Ones and are assumed to be not as bright as the modern human protagonist. They communicate in broken phrases, whistles and clicks, and are intelligent but different from humans.

americanneolithic

In American Neolithic (2014) a band of Neandertals have survived in secrecy and now live in squats in New York, dumpster diving and sleeping in a pile. There is a Neandertal protagonist who is portrayed as fairly intelligent. He has the ability to read, but has difficulty with numbers and abstract concepts. He’s not as adept with tools and speaks with a whistling slur. The Neandertals have a matriarchal society and are very timid and gentle. They have excellent eyesight, are prolific artists and good dancers.

LastNeanderthal

The Last Neandertal (2017) has a modern day narrative alternating with the story of a Neandertal woman set 40,000 years in the past. It is a motherhood story that underscores how humans and Neandertals share much in common genetically, how we once lived together and even interbred.

The Shining Wall_COVER2019 Read first chapter

Movies Depicting Neandertals:

1953- The Neanderthal Man

By the 1950s scientists widely believed Neandertals may be the ancestors of modern Europeans and more evidence had proven them less-apelike than first assumed. However it seems that public perception and pop culture was still stuck in the ape-man paradigm.

Neanderthal Man is about a scientist who turns himself into an ape-man who kills men and carries off women.

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1977 The Ugly Little Boy

The Ugly Little Boy was originally a short story by Isaac Asimov, written in 1958. In the story the Neandertal child is 3 years old and stays for four years where he learns to speak and read and is very much like a human child.

In the 1977 short movie the Neandertal child is played by an actor with the stage name of Guy Big who was actually a thirty something with dwarfism. The boy is portrayed as very ape-like, barely able to walk and with a limited ability for language.

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uglylittleboy

1981 Quest for Fire

Based on the 1911 Belgian novel discussed above. The story is set 80 000 years ago and shows a number of different hominin species co-existing. The Neandertals are portrayed with squatting, grunting, mouth breathing, sniffing, spear wielding, simple, they wear animal skins, child like, ape-like movements and noises. The replication of Neandertal facial features earned the makeup department an Oscar for this moviw.

The movie also portrays the exchange of culture and technology (fire and spear throwers) between Cro Magnons and Neandertals, as well as interbreeding. And demonstrates the trope of rampant and patriarchal Neandertal sexuality.

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quest-for-fire-1981-800x450

Quest for fire1

1984 Iceman

Iceman is a Neandertal fish out of water story. Set in modern times it features a Neandertal, Charou, miraculously thawed from an ice block. The Neandertal doesn’t have the typical facial features, but he does display the typical squatting, grunting, mouth breathing, sniffing, spear wielding, loin cloth wearing, he’s simple and child like with ape-like movements. Charou displays a knack for art, hunting and has ritual, spiritual beliefs and alludes to a nuclear family structure. The tropes of rampant sexuality and patriarchal ideas are also evident in Iceman. There are also colonial themes at play, for example they anglicize his name from Charou to Charlie and equate his culture with that of nearby indigenous people.

iceman1984

1986 The Clan of the Cave Bear

The Clan of the Cave Bear was the only of the Earth’s Children books to be made into a movie. Ayla, the Cro-Magnon orphan, is depicted as much smarter than her Neandertal clan. Neandertals can no longer change or develop whereas Ayla is creative and represents progress.  The clan is depicted as a patriarchal with women subservient and forbidden to hunt or touch weapons. There is an interbreeding event between species- Ayla has a half Neandertal child.

In this movie Neandertals have limited speech and vocalizations and communicate primarily with sign language. They have a knowledge of fire and medicine, they wear and make jewellery, and have a belief in spirits and magic.

clanofthecavebearmovieclanofthecavebearcrew

clanwomanThe rarely spotted female Neandertal!

1992 Encino Man

People assume Link in Encino Man is a Neanderthal. I always thought he was supposed to represent a Cro Magnon man until I saw the poster (below) that uses the word Neandervision. Franky I don’t think the people who made the movie really thought too much about what it’s actually about or did any research. The movie does include the Neandertal tropes of obsession with fire, loin cloths, squatting, grunting, rampant sexuality. As well as being a fish out of water story is also a makeover story as they turn Link into a Californian teen.

200px-EncinoMan1992brendan fraser

2006 Night at the Museum

In this movie four Neandertals on display in the American Museum of Natural History. Along with everything else on display in the museum they come to life at night. The Neandertals are played for comedy value with all the tropes of fire and grunting and spear wielding and childlike stupidity. They set themselves on fire when night guard Larry gives them fire and one of them is shown drinking from the fire extinguisher. They also fight with the other exhibits.

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2014 Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

In this installment of Night at the Museum the Neandertal exhibit is given a new addition in the form of Laaa. It’s the same depiction 8 years later, stupid, childish, barely able to speak, but he does get a love interest in the form of a security guard played by Rebel Wilson and from memory he is not at all rapey with her which is a nice change.

nightclubber

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Neandertal Memes

Neandertallica

The Ridiculously Photogenic Neandertal

In 2016 this ridiculously photogenic wax Neandertal from a museum in Belgium was the subject of many an internet photoshop makeover

neanderthal hipster

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goodlooking

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The Comments Section

Comments found after a Neandertal documentary on Youtube

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Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive list of Neandertal depictions and inclusion on this list does not equal endorsement or recommendation