“Breathe,” whispers the disembodied voice in the darkened threshold to the Barbican’s Curve gallery. “Just one breath, shared by all living things.” The air we breathe comes from sea creatures and trees, it tells me, with a sort of irksome intimacy. Beyond the heavy curtain, the air is filled with sounds and furies, the cawing of a stuffed crow, the sound of a heavy downpour, a distant clamour of voices. It is a cacophony in there, with mutterings, corporate-speak and sound effects. The din is putting me on edge. All the fungi in the soil, the springtails, centipedes and millipedes, the mycelium, sugar nutrients, ants and earthworms, the plankton in the seas and the insects in the air are having a hard time, too.
Filled with sometimes radical, sometimes nonsensical speculations about how we may reverse the appalling and seemingly irreversible impact of human activity on our planet, the Barbican’s Our Time on Earth offers a number of visions of how the world might look, and how we might also change, if we are to rethink our place in the world. One of the tasks the show takes upon itself is to raise our consciousness, less to inform us how bad things are, but more to recalibrate our sense of interconnectedness to the natural world.
My own time on Earth is bad enough, without all the magical thinking. Some of the solutions proposed here, to share our dining table with pests as well as pets,, appear risible. Some smaller changes, such as making fabrics and building materials in more ecologically and environmentally sound and sustainable ways, are undoubtedly a good thing. But for all the talk of spiritual awareness and wise nature, Our Time on Earth is a physical as well as metaphorical – never mind spiritual – obstacle course. The guest curators, Caroline Till and Kate Franklin, run “a futures research agency working with global brands and organisations to explore and implement design, material and colour innovation”. Exhibition making, and what they probably call the visitor experience, is about more than filling up the space.
Trying to negotiate the numerous snags, chicanes, the forest of dangling banners and signage, the rustic dinner table and tree-stump chairs, the angled and overhead screens, the overdressed stage-set displays, the intrusive wooden structures on which many works are mounted and the acres of wordage, as well as the jumps from topic to topic, is a nightmare. It is hard to take in the little architectural reliefs that wink with bright colours, the numerous talking heads on small monitors, the filmed fashion catwalk show, the displays of building materials, of leather made from mushrooms and a T-shirt partially woven from “Brewed Protein™fibers”.
Marshmallow Laser Feast’s HD animation of the ceiba pentandra tree goes beneath the bark to show us nutrients coursing through the trunk and branches. Film director and architect Liam Young imagines a single hyper-dense metropolis housing the entire population of Earth, with 120 bn people living in a giant, self-sufficient city occupying a fraction of Earth’s surface, leaving the rest of the planet for rewilding and regeneration. He gives us a series of fantastical costumes and a film, and a totting up of mind-boggling statistics: how many million neighbourhoods, how many kitchens, how many TV channels, dentists, beehives, protected parklands, tomatoes, fish and heads of lettuce. How many languages, left-handers, autonomous tractors, songs and deaths a day (254,082 the stats say, though that strikes me as a grave underestimation). What of internecine wars, contagious diseases and pandemics, the sheer horror of such a place? What of nomadic and Indigenous peoples? How and where would they live? Forgive my footling doubts.
Brigitte Baptiste’s Queer Ecology imagines a world where identity is fluid, to the point of merging humans and nature “in a multi-species co-existence”. In Baptiste’s motion-capture work, visitors look as if they’re fizzing in the manner of an Yves Klein body print being beamed up to the Starship Enterprise, or morphing into part-human, part-vegetable beings. The motion capture has such lags and other glitches some visitors, desperate to experiment and reinvent themselves, resort to ever more extreme gestures and wild gyrations to get a response on the interactive screen.
In a final, darkened space, spotlights play about a large crumpled sheet of silvery polyester film suspended in a metal structure, though you can barely see more than the odd shimmer in the wan lighting. Silent Studios’ Sonic Waterfall emits a sort of industrial whirring noise, quite unlike any waterfall I have experienced. “The nearer the fountain, more pure the stream flows,” sings Damon Albarn (the song also provides the title of his last album, recorded in Reykjavik, on which he collaborated with the members of Silent Studio), and his plaintive voice echoes as the lights flicker. “Aiming to use sonic frequencies to relieve anxiety and promote restoration, this healing environment brings us together through sound and light,” we are told, and also that the installation is “a time for reflection and a therapeutic journey into awareness”.
Suddenly aware that I wanted to run away, I found myself down in the Barbican’s Pit theatre, in media artist and UCLA professor Victoria Vesna’s Noise Aquarium. I hadn’t realised the seas had risen so far. The waves are rolling in and breaking on the wall, the fizzy wash slopping across the floor to my feet. Standing at the edge of the cinematic surf, I hear the unexpected call of the whale, and suddenly we are submerged. Hugely enlarged 3D scans of different species of plankton hove into view, floating in what I take to be a soup of microplastics. The sound down here is even worse than in the Curve: underwater detonation blasts, puttering motor boats, the roar of oil drilling, sonar pings and whale hoots are mixed in with the slosh of water, in an immersive soundscape using frequencies of underwater noise composed especially for the work.
While most of the audience keep their distance, someone has to go and stand on the edge of the projection in order to activate the virtual underwater plunge. This is annoying, because everyone else then gets a rear view of a lone spectator facing the sea. Perhaps this is deliberate. “Stay still/balance”, reads a caption on a side screen. “Observe the plankton. Hear the sound of the whale”, before going on to tell us that we are all implicated. Especially that bloke at the front, waving his arms about. While contemplating the terrible, terrible things being done to the planet, give a thought to the awful art being done in nature’s name.