People Archive of Sinking and Melting by Amy Balkin

An Archive of Evidence

By Blanca de la Torre

Year 2068. 44 states have disappeared, in particular the 44 countries that formed the AOSIS, a coalition created in 1990 of small islands and low-lying coastal countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The steps taken after each COP since the first one in Berlin and the Kyoto Protocol two years after were never fulfilled, and they wouldn’t have been enough. Apart from the total disappearance of these ones, a considerable number of areas are under the threat of extinction, and have been facing a whole range of natural disasters—floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, toxic soil, polluted underground water.— It started with Kiribati, the first country devastated due to global warming, where, decades ago, the government acquired 6,000 hectares of terrain in Fiji, 2,200 km south, to be able to relocate its population. After it other countries started falling like dominos. And it’s not over…

This could be the stereotypical dystopic landscape from a cliché introduction to any dime science fiction book. It even sounds ridiculously reiterative to insist on the fact that this is already happening. Just as I am writing these lines, there is a huge crevice rapidly growing in the Larsen C ice shelf, in West Antarctica, that could soon be one of the ten biggest icebergs in the planet, approximately 5,000 sq. km. Larsen A and Larsen B were already lost years ago, in 1995 and 2002 respectively.

A permanent state of cynicism seems to be the pattern. Confronted with this situation, understanding scientific facts is not enough, and art presents itself as a viable tool of knowledge to contribute to the public debate, through artistic proposals that may offer alternative ways and viewpoints to the current ecocide.

For Timothy Morton environmentalist writing seems like “patching up the void with duct tape.” Many solutions seem either out of date or inadequate in their attempt to generate different ways of making us feel regarding the state we are in, without changing it, and environmental art and politics are no exception. For the philosopher of the so-called Dark Ecology, Eco-critique could establish collective forms of identity that include other species and their worlds, both real and possible. 1

For David Haley, the role of art here becomes clear: “As humankind starts to recognize that apocalyptic change is imminent, the practice of art(s) may be an essential discipline to emerge beyond collapse … [t]urning the face of disaster to the face of opportunity, this paradigm shift attempts ‘to bring the whole to life’ through ‘growth ecology.’ 2

Amy Balkin is one of the artists whose work turns that face of disaster, combining cross-disciplinary research and social critique in her often participatory projects, which have usually been concerned with climate change and its effects.

This is the case in A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, a collaborative project in the form of an ongoing archive of heterogeneous objects from places where climate change is implicated in either current or future disappearance, which Balkin has been developing since 2011.

In the beginning, Balkin had the idea of participation in mind and was inspired by the community-oriented archives of the People’s Museum in Birzeit, Palestine, a museum of self-representation based on contributions collected through dialogue, and the Donora Smog Museum in Pennsylvania. The latter houses materials documenting a deadly 1948 air inversion of smog that trapped air pollution from U.S. Steel’s Zinc Works and American Steel & Wire, sickening and killing residents there. It also triggered the clean-air movement through the first Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 in the United States.

As of 2017, the archive contains contributions from Anvers Island (Antarctica), Australia, Cape Verde, Santiago de Cuba, Germany, Greenland, Iceland, Venice (Italy), Kivalina (Alaska), Mexico, Nepal, New Orleans, New York, Panama, Peru, Republic of Komi (Russia), California, Senegal and Tuvalu. The last ones, presented here, are from Trinidad and Tobago, oddly enough the earliest-settled part of the Caribbean: Ceramic Plate Shards, Red Clay Brick Shards, and Broken Road and Dislodged Firebrick, contributed by Alicia Milne and Luis Vasquez de La Roche.

Participation here is a keystone, as in most of Balkin’s body of work, not only in the making process but as a crucial part of the discourse. In this case it has been created with all the contributors who sent the objects, along with co-registrars, including Malte Roloff and Cassie Thornton.

There are many aspects to consider regarding how history is written and rewritten: who does it, from where, and for whom. With this testimonial archive Balkin opens up different modes for this “writing” while sharing it with her collaborators. Some of these co-authors answer a survey after sending the objects, recontextualizing the double testimony: that of the experience and the objects themselves. These become another type of evidence that stress the real fact, not only the scientific records related to natural disasters (should we continue naming them ‘natural’? Or, is this just another way of avoiding responsibility?).

This responsibility in writing History beckons us to rethink the modes of preservation of the past and its cultural representation.

In this sense the archive operates from the principle that anything is equally valuable as a record. The resulting sort-of-readymades achieve the extra value of that evidence. Regardless of whether the debris is natural or manufactured, found or discarded as trash. There are no scales of value, all forming part of a chronicle of loss.

Therefore, knowledge is co-created, where evidence of climate change is the epicenter of an amalgam of relationships between people and their relationship to places, revealing the economic, political, and social layers that underlie them.

When the artist is asked about this evidence, she points out the archive might serve, in exhibit and testimony, as potential ‘criminal’ evidence, 3 not scientific evidence, as gathered from sites of “slow violence.” 4

Evidence of the “accumulation by dispossession”, 5 as David Harvey says, as the main victims of the fossil fuel economy of the so-called developed countries are especially small island nations.

An evidence that, as the title of the work suggests itself — People’s Archive — ends up being collective. Could we hence speak about ‘collective evidence’? A collective evidence where the spectator takes part too, shared by the contributors, either the ones that live where the objects come from or the passersby. The feelings among them might be different and that’s when the notion of empathy would play a crucial role. Like one of the interviewees explains: “I purchased the carved whale vertebrae from a resident of Kivalina, an artist named Russell Adams Jr. The people there are primarily Inupiat and have lived in the area thousands of years through subsistence; hunting bowhead whale is a large part of that tradition and culture. I contributed because I think climate change is the single greatest issue facing humanity right now. Already we are seeing Inuit populations losing an entire way of life, because of global warming’s radical effects on the Arctic. This is the beginning, and we need to pay attention, and feel, and act, before the only option becomes reacting to the inevitable.”

The work immediately functions as a kind of time-machine, bringing the public towards a possible future society that would find the archive, like an archeological discovery that opens up to those places lost due to human hubris.

We cannot be sure that all those places in danger will disappear, some may and others may not, but since the threat is there, steps are to be taken and the possibility is already present. A fear of losing a home, place, roots, heritage. The alarm of no return, no possibility of looking back.

This brings us to the figure of the “climate refugee”, a category that is not yet recognized by ACNUR, even though it assisted the victims of natural catastrophes, like the Tsunami of the Indian Ocean in 2004. According to the International Organization for Migration future forecasts vary from 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, moving either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate. 6

Razmig Keucheyan in Nature is a Battlefield points out how these refugees are sometimes presented as the “missing link” that attaches economic crisis to the political tensions that may ultimately result. 7 The status of the migrant and the refugee are quite different, and Keucheyan reminds us that migrations related to climate always existed, like the Dust Bowl recalled by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, portraying the migration of the Southwest during the Great Depression, victims of the dust storms. 8

The structure of the archive is organized based on the idea of “common but differentiated,” in reference to the phrase used by the UNFCCC Annex Party “common but differentiated responsibility,” in relation to the liability of countries depending on their contribution and benefits from their CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases. This approach would reflect on the varying impact that climate politics have upon different states, communities and areas of “conflict.”

The compilation operates then as an archive of evidence, not only an evidence of climate change, but of the unequal political relationships, of the ecological debt of the North with the South, of postcolonialism, environmental racism, of unfairness and imbalance. But at the same time, it speaks about solidarity, empathy, and the importance of activism and the movements of environmental justice as a common goal.

These objects are spoken of as byproducts because, as Cassie Thornton explains, “it formalizes the relationship between the objects and their common origins.” 9
An archive of detritus from industrial capitalism, that opens up a path of symbolic resilience through the testimonies of the Capitalocene, as Donna Haraway proposes taking the term coined by Andreas Malm and Jason Moore, to name this era instead of the hackneyed Anthropocene. 10

Balkin’s archive, intended to support cultural equity and self-representation, works as a direct and straight good answer to T. J. Demos’s question: “How can artistic practices, operating at the rocky juncture of art institutions, activism and non-governmental policies, challenge the emergence of a neo-liberal eco-governmentality? How can art oppose the commercialization of nature, packaged as an economic resource, or counteract greenwashing to alternatively define the environment with a paths to define the environment a focus on global justice and ecological sustainability?” 11

  1. Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: United Kingdom: Harvard University Press, 2007), 140-141.
  2. David Haley, “Seeing the Whole: Art, Ecology and Transdisciplinarity. Arte y Políticas de identidad,” Servicio de publicaciones de la universidad de Murcia, vol. 4 (2011).
  3. Monica Westin, interview on Amy Balkin, Artists in Conversation BOMB July 2, 2015 (last access 20.02.2017).
  4. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013)..
  5. David Harvey, The New Imperialism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  6. International Organization for Migration (IOM): Migration and Climate Change (Last access 20.02.2017).
  7. Razmig Keucheyan, La naturaleza es un campo de batalla. (Madrid: Clave intelectual, 2016), 172-174
  8. Op.Cit.
  9. Dana Kopel, What Will Have Been: Interviews on A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting Brooklyn Rail, June 5, 2014 (last access 20.02.2017).
  10. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chtulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 101.
  11. T.J. Demos, Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016), 54.