Darksleep, a story of a photosynthesizing child was published in Grandpa’s Deep Space Diner edited by Jessica Augustsson. Purchase here.
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.
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