The Ghost of Islands Past

Several times a month I cycle by a small island located close to the south shore of Vancouver’s False Creek, a narrow inlet that separates the downtown peninsula from the city. South East False Creek (SEFC), where the island is situated, was the site of the Olympic and Paralympic Athletes’ Village for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. The island’s profile is quintessentially Canadian – rocky shore, brush, tall spikey trees, it is like something from the brush of a wilderness painter. Maybe this connection is what makes it seem strangely familiar, like something I can’t quite remember.

The first few times I rode by I did not see anybody on the island, just standing and looking at it from the shore. But over time numbers grew – people began to sit on one of its logs or rocks, walk its path, or lie on its shore. Once when I passed by there was a bald eagle settled on the top of one of its trees.

The island wasn’t always there. It wasn’t there when I left the city in 2007, but when I came back in 2011 it was, a small island connected to the shoreline by a stone walkway. Since I first noticed it, it has fascinated me and drawn me to it for reasons I didn’t fully understand. I resolved to enquire into where the island came from, why it was there, and try and uncover what story it might have to tell. I decided to follow my intuition, which told me that it had something to tell me about a world diminished and in decline.

False Creek, where the island is located, was once marine estuarine wetlands. Historic descriptions of the area describe tidal grasses and swamps at low levels, while higher upland there were dense bushes of Pacific crab apple. Early First Nations people – Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh – came to these shores to fish, hunt and harvest the local plants. The land was then settled by primarily European populations (although no treaties ceding this land to the incoming settlers were signed by the First Nations). Serious ecological changes began to occur through the late 1880s and the early decades of the 20th century with the rise in immigrants, increased economic growth, and the arrival of the railroad. The wetlands were dredged into a 150 metre wide, 7 metre deep canal used for local and regional trade. The increase and importance of lumber in BC also created a need for the waterways to become a zone for lumber storage. Industrial and residential developments in the 1950s through the 1970s resulted in the extensive fill of the area, leaving it without a natural shoreline. As a result of development and ensuing destruction of habitat, species were pushed out and False Creek was turned into an industrial brown field: an area degraded from decades of industrial pollution.

In recent years False Creek light industry has been moved out and the lands have been slowly remediated and developed for housing and entertainment venues (BC Place Stadium, Edgewater Casino and Science World). The 32 hectare South East False Creek Neighbourhood is one of the last areas of False Creek to be developed and is advertised as ‘one of Canada’s leading sustainable communities and Vancouver’s first comprehensive sustainable neighbourhood development… [It] will, when fully developed, provide a mix of land uses, be home to 10,000 – 12,000 people in market and non-market housing, and demonstrate exemplary practices in energy and water conservation, innovative infrastructure practices and transit oriented development.'(i)

Condos at the site were initially used to house the athletes during the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. While the original plan was for the post-Games development to include two-thirds affordable social housing, it ultimately became almost exclusively market driven, with condo prices now in the range of $1,000,000.

It was as part of the landscape design for SEFC that a 0.6 hectare island was created. Sixty thousand cubic meters of rock, cobble, gravel, sand, and boulders left over from construction of the Athletes’ Village were used to build the island, shoreline, and inlet. Indigenous trees, as well as shrubs, flowers, and grasses were planted along the waterfront path and on the island. The island was originally designed to be completely inaccessible during high tide, but public safety concerns and fears that people would get stranded on the island at high tide resulted in the creation of a rocky pathway to the island making it, technically, a peninsula. The island’s street address is 1616 Columbia Street, and its official name is Habitat Island.

It seems that the main reason Habitat Island was built has to do with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Prior to SEFC being developed in 2007 the shoreline on the south side of False Creek was about three blocks back from where it is now. In order to make new land for construction, developers had to fill in that portion of the creek. At the time, the DFO had a process wherein if a project near water was anticipated to cause damage to fish habitat then a compensation agreement had to be reached. In the case of False Creek compensation for habitat loss was arrived at by having developers increase the shoreline by a margin of two to one. Given the space restraints at SE False Creek, the solution was to build an island.

Habitat Island was soon identified by the Vancouver Parks Board as a site that should be included as part of their rewilding plan, an element in the City’s ‘aspirational goal’ to become the Greenest City in the World by 2020.

Since Vancouver was incorporated in 1886, observe the authors of the plan, ‘We have buried nearly all of our former salmon streams; driven species like the yellow-billed cuckoo, western bumble bee and spotted skunk to local extinction; and cut down forests that were taller than any still standing in Canada today.'(ii) But while nature has been diminished, Vancouverites, argue the authors, maintain an enduring attachment to the natural world.

‘Vancouverites deeply value their mountains, ocean and the Fraser River. Within city limits it is possible to see sights – immense flocks of snow geese, prowling coyotes, pods of porpoises – that are the equal of the wildest parts of many nations. We live in perhaps the only big city on earth in which a wild-living creature – salmon – is a part of our identity, as it has been since the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations first cared for these lands and waters.'(iii)

The hope is that by pursing a policy of rewilding, citizens will have more access to the natural world and nature will have more access to the city. ‘It is possible to imagine a city where everyone can have rich and meaningful experiences in nature as a part of their everyday lives.'(iv)

One of the objectives of this policy is to create Special Wild Places in the City. This includes the identification of 28 biodiversity ‘hot spots’. Sites are located on public and private lands across the city and include forest, shoreline, stream, wetland, and marine environments. Habitat Island (coupled with Hinge Park) is included on this list of hot spots:

’27. Hinge Park + South East False Creek Habitat Island. Hinge Park is a small stormwater-fed wetland that is rich in bird life. It connects to the restored shoreline of south east False Creek including a constructed island and intertidal zone. The cobble intertidal zone around the island has been used for herring spawning which has contributed to the return of sea birds and other species. Together these natural areas showcase the City’s recent efforts to restore natural areas within urban neighbourhoods.'(v)

Proponents of the plan note that the island’s vertical snags, native vegetation, and a natural shoreline have already attracted a range of wildlife, including bald eagles and a variety of waterfowl. Fish are also returning. Pacific herring (one of the key indicator species for the health of inter-tidal habitats and a vital food source for Pacific salmon, sea lions, seals, porpoises, eagles, gulls, cormorants and other diving birds) have returned to spawn for the first time in many years. Possibly as a result of the herring spawn, orcas have recently been seen chasing dolphins into False Creek, and a grey whale swam into English Bay for the first time in decades.

Unfortunately, Habitat Island’s visual similarity to a Canadian wilderness island seems to have made it irresistible to visitors yearning for a bush party experience in an urban setting. As a result, by the summer of 2014 Habitat Island was being called by another name: Beer Island.

When recommending the site for locals and tourists, the Bored In Vancouver website says:

‘”Why Beer Island?” You may be asking… Well, for one reason, it’s a heck-of-a-lot better name than ‘habitat island’. Also, this little island (more of a peninsula type thing) is a great location to crack a beer with friends and enjoy a front row view of False Creek, BC Place, Yaletown, and Science World.

A beautiful location, a nature-friendly habitat, and an island that only has one entrance and exit, which makes it much easier to hide tasty bottles of the island’s new namesake if a disciplinary force so happens to come by.

Beer Island can be found in the Olympic Village area. You’ll know it when you see it, it’s in the water. And, it looks like an island.'(vi)

During the pleasant summer weather of 2014 the evidence of partying – empty beer cans, bottle caps, cigarette butts, and beer cases – could be seen littering the island. Parks board commissioner Constance Barnes told the press, ‘What we don’t want to do is discourage people from having a nice beautiful space to go and enjoy. If you’re going down and have a beer and you’re having a picnic or you’re playing your guitar, I don’t see that the park board would really come down on you for that.’ But the parks board asked visitors not to litter or damage the island’s vegetation or be disrespectful of other people using the island.(vii)

The Vancouver Police Department has taken steps to patrol the island more regularly so as to kerb the rowdier antics. The last time I visited the island my friend and I observed a couple enjoying a toke while looking out over the city skyline. Two VPD officers passing by on bicycle patrol saw them and escorted them off the island.

This vigilance has had at least some effect and this winter there is less evidence of serious partygoers on the island (although it seems unlikely that they won’t return with the warmer weather).

Habitat Island is clearly many things to many people. Initially created to fulfill a bureaucratic requirement in the development of an affluent new neighbourhood, it became an element of a rewilding policy and a destination for urban partyers. Might it also be a work of contemporary ecological art? The island is in close proximity to several pieces of public art, including three major ecological pieces. And it has parallels with the work of ecological artists who fuse natural and human elements in an urban setting. In the case of Habitat Island these natural elements include habitat for birds and fish (bird feeders, nesting opportunities, spawning habitat) which, an artist may argue, allow for damaged nature to be repaired in a beautiful and meaningful way. Human elements include its educational value – enlivening the curiosity of people passing by and visitors, Habitat Island stirs interest in the birds, fish that now live there, and raises questions about the loss of nature in the city. As well, people may stop and ‘look’ at it like an art piece, appreciating its whimsy and sense of fun.

Viewed from this perspective, the island is in the company of Cascadian artworks that revere the natural world:

‘Certainly one of the most distinctive cultural values to emerge from Cascadia is an informal, non-sectarian, virtually universal reverence for nature. In the Pacific Northwest, where traditional religion does not pervade the cultural landscape, nature religion … And the visual art we most treasure in Cascadia’s galleries and the stories we read by its most cherished writers are invariably suffused with nature reverence. The popular visual artists, such as B.C. painters Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt and Washington’s glass-blowing Dale Chihuly, continually employ images of nature to symbolize transformation, power and mythology.'(viii)

But the ecological works that are in close proximity to the island are critiques – they hold up a mirror to society and ourselves:

The Games Are Open by Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser (2010-2013): Construction on this larger-than-life bulldozer, located almost directly across from Habitat Island, began three months after the Athletes’ Village was vacated. During the Olympics great effort had been taken to protect the as-yet-unsold luxury condos from the foibles of their temporary residents – this included sheathing kitchen appliances in the ‘environmentally friendly’, biodegradable wheat board that was used to build the bulldozer. The artists understood that because the artwork was on City-owned land its fate would inevitably be determined by capital and municipal neoliberal strategies. They chose as a symbol a bulldozer, a destructive engine which would later morph into earth with the help of the community, who at the opening were invited to implant seeds into the structure. In the spring of 2013 the City added a thick layer of soil to the artwork to further its greening and within a week a local rogue gardener planted a vegetable garden on the site. That fall the City expedited the process by burying the sculpture and garden in another load of soil, and ultimately the bulldozer returned back into earth. Its remains sit in land slated for development, surrounded by a chain link fence.

The Games Are Open

The Birds by Myfanwy MacLeod (2010): Since being introduced to North America by English settlers in the 1800s (as pest control and out of feelings of nostalgia), sparrows have become so commonplace that they have driven out many other native species and wreaked havoc upon ecosystems. Parallel to this is the impact of white colonialists on the lives of indigenous peoples. The large size of the sparrows (5.5 metres high) makes a visual statement about this impact, while locating this artwork in an urban plaza highlights what has become the ‘natural’ environment of indigenous wildlife.

Birds 1

A False Creek by Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky (2012): Painted chromatic blue stripes on the pilings of the Cambie Bridge, which is visible from the island, mark the midpoint of the anticipated rise in sea levels that will occur with the melting of the earth’s major ice sheets (5 metres). The decorative effect of the stripes is ambiguous when considered in relation to the design’s purpose as a marker and a tool for visualization. Seen in relation to the scale of the engineering of False Creek and the Cambie Bridge, the scale of looming environmental change is visually and physically palpable.

A False Creek

So what happens if the island is viewed as a work of art that is not so much here to ‘repair and educate,’ but to critique? Given the history of False Creek over the past 150 years, it seems fairly straightforward to view the island in these terms. The island speaks to us about how nature has been manipulated and diminished by demands of colonization, capitalism, and bureaucracy; how rewilding is a limited, probably self-deceiving response to the fate that awaits us; and how imagination has failed us in our relationship with nature (Nature = Habitat).

But since first seeing the island I have felt there is something else. Probably because I was initially jarred by its appearance, a sense of familiarity while not having seen it before, it seems to me that the island may have something to say about forgetfulness. Sallie McFague, ecotheologian and Vancouver resident says: ‘Cities are made from nature; one could say they are “second nature”, made of transformations of energy from “first nature”. All human building and transformations are but changes within nature, for there is nothing “outside nature”. This deeper meaning of nature – nature as the source of energy that sustains all life and all change – is the nature we city dwellers tend to forget. We slip into simplistic, dualistic thinking when we think that nature in our cities involves only the trees, gardens and beaches – and that we create the rest….

‘Our gradual transformation of first nature, from when we lived as hunter-gatherers, into second nature – the twenty-first century city – now faces us with the deterioration and destruction of everything we hold dear. The human ability to distance ourselves from first nature, both by changing it and by objectifying it, is causing a deep forgetfulness to overtake us.'(ix)

Natural science and First Nations’ oral traditions tell us that False Creek was once a wetland rich in bird, fish, and animal life. But it has been so transformed that we have forgotten what it was and what we had, as everywhere we have forgotten our deep embeddedness in the source of life. Our efforts at remembrance result in the creation of pale imitations of the ‘natural world,’ a series of Habitat Islands. Ironically, as Beer Island the island has become a place we can go to lose ourselves even more deeply in this oblivion. I now think that what I have been seeing as I ride by on my bicycle is a phantasm, a ghost island, a glimmer from the past of a world soon to be gone forever. Judging by the blue stripes on the bridge, the waters will soon cover the island and surrounding land, at which point the traces of this memory will finally slip deep beneath the surface.

(i) PWL Partnership, ‘Southeast False Creek Partnership’ [accessed September 29, 2014].
(ii) J.B. Mackinnon, ‘Foreword’, in Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, Rewilding Vancouver: From Sustaining to Flourishing. An Environmental Education Stewardship & Action Plan for the Vancouver Park Board, July 2014, vi. [accessed October 21, 2014].
(iii) Mackinnon, ibid.
(iv) Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, Rewilding Vancouver: From Sustaining to Flourishing. An Environmental Education Stewardship & Action Plan for the Vancouver Park Board, July 2014, 5. [accessed October 21, 2014].
(v) Rewilding Vancouver, 52.
(vi) Bored in Vancouver, ‘Enjoy a Cold One on Beer Island’ [accessed October 25, 2014].
(vii) Ian Holliday, ‘Vancouver officials crack down on “Beer Island,”‘ July 10, 2014 [accessed October 25, 2014].
viii Douglas Todd, ‘Introduction’, in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia. Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest, ed. Douglas Todd (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008), 19-20.
(ix) Sallie McFague, ‘Toward a New Cascadian Civil Religion of Nature’,  in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia. Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest, ed. Douglas Todd (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008), 158-159

Sea Siege


England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame.
Richard II, II.i

It comes, not with a whimper but a bang. I have seen climate change arrive on the shores of Southern England. I have stood, and quickly stepped back, witnessing its arrival. It is visceral and frightening and not about to be theorised. It is a successions of walls of green water, white capped in its eagerness to unfurl upon me, roaring louder than a highway and aimed directly at my cosy preconceptions of millimetre by millimetre sea level rise as the icecaps slowly melt. Here they are already and charging me down with an unpredictable force that throws heavy spray in the air at sudden intervals. The huge rocks behind me on the coastal car park lay heavy with portent, or actually the pastent of a night even worse, or actually a future lived rather differently. All edges are gone. All boundaries awash. All dualities – sea and land, water and rock, seawater and stone buildings, resources and neoliberalism, nature and culture – are here dissolved in sucked-back sea water. And it is dangerous, disturbing and disruptive to shoreline tourism, fossil collecting, rock pool probing, beach kite flying, fish and chips, coastal nuclear power stations and estuarine cities. To say nothing of English seaside sunbathing and the Factor 54 industry.

Charmouth. A quieter alternative, if one is needed, of Lyme Regis, setting of John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The first weekend in February 2014. The South Coast Footpath dips yet again here between cliffs where the little creek of the Char attempts to make a kind of mouth. Backpackers passing through think they are retreating into the past, but they are the future. We visit a joyous family of friends, shaken in a strange way by the destructive force they thought they had the measure of. A week of this storm has the mother sobbing at the threat to their little sea-living community. It’s not the mess made of its emerging Visitors’ Centre, but something much deeper reached by this storm sea, something washing into her dreams and the futures of her small sons.

At our Charmouth B&B the garden is now smaller, having slipped into the landslip that slipped into the sea. A crack like a seismic line in the far edge of the lawn is the next sacrifice to making a living on this cliff top. The garden fence has gone down in a chaos of mud and vegetation under the command of gravity. How many years before the house itself is called for by the deeps? Behind the house is our modest car. (Soon I will fly to a conference in California about John Muir, Scottish founding father of the American conservation movement.) Fossil fuel has facilitated our visit to the Jurassic Coast. At low tide we walk the boulders that hold huge ammonites up to the gaze. We look down on earlier extinctions, without irony. They are in front of our eyes, clearly circling with stories we carelessly step upon and move on under a burning sun. Is ‘tourism’ a word of the past, like a knapped axe of granite from Langdale? Is it already secretly reduced in its range by the small green people of the planet? Have we already made the first small changes in our lives, if only at an emotional level? Is it really happening now, not with a whimper but this sea sieging bang? Are these three paragraphs adequate to the bang? Is their data in any way useful? How could it be? I am now bound in with several reasons for shame. Is this my only default position? you ask. Tell me what it should be and I will tell you if I can live with it. Of course, you will tell me that I should. Choices are narrowing. Sea is still sieging, you and me, incessantly.


Technê and Technology: an invitation to contribute to Dark Mountain Issue 8

In the opening essay of Dark Mountain issue 6, ‘The Focal and the Flask’, Tom Smith discusses the difference between the digital technology-based world we increasingly inhabit, and a human-framed ‘focal’ world, in which cultures are built around the collective focus of a fire. Focal things, he writes:

‘involve real reconnection with people, species and landscapes… entail greater involvement, greater work and knowledge, greater negotiation with others, all often seen as inconveniences in the narrative of modernity.’

To reverse the destiny of our restless, machine-driven world, we need to take up practices that go in another direction entirely – practices like growing vegetables, saving seeds, making and repairing things for ourselves. We need to learn another way of framing our lives and another way of relating to the things within it. If we don’t, our lives will be designed for us, and the direction of travel will be away from the physical and towards the digital; that is to say, away from a relationship with the world around us,and towards a deeper immersion in ‘virtual’ worlds made by and for humans alone.

Yet we can’t ignore, either, the technological changes which, with ever-increasing pace, are spreading their runners under our feet, into our homes, and through the very substance of our thoughts: the ever-present web, the hand-held devices, the apps-for-everything, the coming ‘internet of things.’ At the same time that the machinery of civilisation is colliding with ecological limits to growth – in terms of space, energy, resources and the amount of abuse the Earth will absorb before it responds with violent change of its own – innovations in software, robotics, artificial materials and genetic manipulation are accelerating, altering the fundamental relationship of humans to the world and to themselves. It is happening so fast that it is barely possible to measure it, let alone properly assess its impact.

Where does this leave us?

From its inception, the Dark Mountain Project has sought to find ways to reconnect writing and art with the material, the practical, the focal. We took the decision to publish real books and vinyl albums, and to invest in making them well-crafted objects of beauty. At our Uncivilisation festivals, many people learnt to forage, scythe and use traditional woodcrafting tools.

At the same time, we have never seen the value in an artificial regression from our contemporary technological reality – a pretence that we can simply carve our wooden spoons and not think about the hidden infrastructure of technology supporting the fabric of our lives. Instead, we have tried to draw the best from the past as we think about the future, and we have tried to think about that future outside of the often dualistic and divisive frameworks that are set up around the discussion: romantic versus progressive; technocrat versus ‘Luddite’; doomer versus utopian; future versus past.

The seventh Dark Mountain book will be published next month (to get your copy hot off the press, you might want to consider our subscription options) but we are already turning our minds to book 8, which will be published in October this year. And while some previous Dark Mountain anthologies have had very broad themes, we are looking to do something a little different with this one.

Dark Mountain issue 8 book will contain a more focused selection of writing than we have produced before, which engages with a single idea: the relationship between human beings and the things we make; with our machines and our tools, our technologies and our hands, and the future of all of them. The Greek term technê encompasses all of these ideas, its implications stretching all the way from music to motorcycle maintenance, from ancient philosophy to AI.

Specifically, this time around, we are looking for two kinds of contribution:

* Non-fiction of between 1000 and 6000 words, engaging with issues of the human relationship with technology high and low, with making, craft, art and skill. This might be in the form of analytical essays, personal stories or creative non-fiction. For this book, we are not looking for fiction or poetry. Alongside these essays, we are seeking shorter pieces: designs, blueprints, objects, musical scores, recipes or instruction manuals that embed the book and the reader back into the world of doing. We’d like the philosophical and the practical to sit side by side.

* Visual art which offers new and dynamic ways of looking at technologies low and high, including photography, painting, drawing, objects, graphics, portraits of makers. We will also be looking for submissions for a colour cover. There will be more space for artwork in this issue than we have had in previous books, so photo essays are also welcome. For formats please check our submission guidelines.

The deadline for Dark Mountain issue 8 is Sunday 31st May. Please send all submissions as separate attachments to an email addressed to [email protected], with the subject line BOOK 8 SUBMISSION. We look forward to seeing what you send us.

Image: Three Gorges Dam in China by Edward Burtynsky from the documentary Watermark.

Worried about the future? Then read ‘A Future Manual’

Did you see that? That man on the bike? He was wearing too many clothes and a camping rucksack, with heavy pannier bags stuffed with sticks and rags. He was moving slowly through the traffic jam, ignoring the red lights.

Or there was the man on the patch of grass outside the DIY superstore, remember? He was dressed in a khaki t-shirt and walking shorts; he had his pack next to him and a flask of water, and he was perched on his knee like he was looking out into the valley below. Only he couldn’t have been, there were houses in front of him, buses and cars blocking the view. He only looked a few years older than us. His skin was bronzed from the sun.

Do you remember the woman on the high street, standing still, with a bag on wheels, and five spring onions in her out-stretched palm? She can’t have been selling those spring onions, can she? It must have been some sort of mistake.

There was the transit van driving slowly down the street, with its windows wound down, and one rubber-gloved hand extended out of the passenger-side window, ringing a small bell. No-one will tell you what this means.

There was the man fishing in the concrete channel in the middle of the city, next to the railway station. The man walking through the fields, through the waist high weeds of summer, in a boiler suit, with dark stains across his shoulders. The man in the hi-viz jacket, pushing a trolley full of scrap metal, old toasters, sewing machines around the streets where you live. The couple walking hand in hand along the canal, bow-saws swinging in the crooks of their arms.

If you’d seen one or two of these things, you wouldn’t think anything of it. But the more you see, the more you notice. And all of a sudden, you can’t go anywhere without seeing it. Always out of the corner of your eye, from a bus, in traffic. Always disappearing out of sight. No-one will admit it. No-one will talk about it. But suddenly, it’s all around us. Now, every time I open my eyes, I see the future.

I wrote the above text quite a long time ago. I started seeing these things when I lived in Sheffield, but they increased dramatically once I moved to London. Wherever you’re living, I’m sure you’ve seen them too. I was going to send the writing in to Dark Mountain, get it published, get it read. But on its own, that didn’t seem enough. The more I saw the shoeless old men, and the silent wastelands with traffic jams all around, and the foxes in the day time, the more I thought about what to do about it. Whether to try and stop it. How to start preparing. How to help.

In the end, I decided to create something that could try to help other people, once those visions came true.


It’s called A Future Manual. It’s a DIY guide to surviving and thriving in the bitter, barren world we’re creating for ourselves and our children. It aims to teach you the skills you’ll need once the oil runs out, and the internet’s off, and the Big Sainsbury’s at the end of your road is knee-deep in flood-water.

Every issue aims to cover one thing, with full step-by-step instructions, diagrams and photographs (where technology allows). Issue one is about how to build a fire: from ignition to tinder to sourcing fuel. There’s also some more philosophical tit-bits, to help keep your spirits up. It comes packaged in a plastic bag, to keep it dry in the floods, and includes a free piece of kindling, to get you started.


Is it serious? Is it a joke? This is the first question that everyone asks. To be honest, it’s half and half. I wanted to do something to reflect the weird position we’re in: where we know our cosy world is going to end soon, but don’t really know what we should be doing about it, or how to spend the time in between. What should you do to start preparing for a life without central heating and pyjamas and breakfast cereals? Start living in the woods? Get buff like those American guys on YouTube in camouflage? Throw away your phone and form a commune?

I think there’s something really interesting in all this. You can’t prepare for ‘the future’ in the same way that you can for a war or a hurricane, because ‘the future’, at least the one that most of us worry about, won’t be over any time soon. And today, right now, while most of us have full bellies and a roof over our heads, it always feels like you’re pretending, anyway.


So hopefully A Future Manual reflects those contradictions. It’s half hopeful and half hopeless, half useful and half useless, half tragic, half comic. Because it is funny, at least a little bit, when we put our bananas in polystyrene boxes, and ship them across the world, and then don’t eat them anyway, and then throw those boxes back into holes in the ground. It’s funny in the same way Easter Island is funny, or the extinction of the Dodo. We’re a short-sighted species in an evolutionary cul-de-sac, blindly eating and spending our way to death. It’s a planetary sit-com.

It’s important that it looks right too. I thought of doing it on the internet, as you can reach billions more people that way (I’ve only photocopied 500, after all). But at the same time, it felt like it had to be something physical. Something that could still be produced once YouTube and WordPress and Google Maps are just a distant, magical, almost unimaginable memory. So this one’s printed on a typewriter, and photocopied. Long term I’d like to use things like letterpress, and get the copiers powered by solar, if that’s even possible: answers on a postcard, delivered by hand.

I’m not 100% sure about any of this. How to distribute it, how to write about it, what sort of tone it should be. Perhaps it would be better on YouTube? Perhaps it should be a PDF? Perhaps the time I spend learning to ride horses or jump start ambulances would be better spent campaigning for a 10% cut in carbon emissions, or a worldwide communist revolution, to End Growth Now? But the nice thing is that learning to start a fire with an old file and a piece of flint, or learning to grow a courgette from a seed, is actually an enjoyable thing to do in and of itself. It makes you feel connected. It makes you feel a little bit more capable. It makes you feel a little safer.


If you’d like a copy of A Future Manual, please send five pounds/ten euros in a well-concealed envelope to
A Future Manual,
239 Fordwych Road,
NW2 3LY.

Or you can use PayPal on this website. Don’t worry mum, the website’s broken on purpose. I thought it would be funny.

Issue 2 (Ride a Horse) should be produced sometime in the summer. Thanks for reading. Noah says: build your own ark.

Photos by Andy Felton

The Crossing of Two Lines

The walls of the house on the Antešić land at Rab were built in the last years of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but three generations would go by, and two wars, before it came to have a roof. They were a metre thick, those walls, made of local stone, the openings in places no architect would think to put them. It was the brothers Stjepan and Mile Antešić who began the building. On the island, the family grew olives and grapes, but what paid for the construction was the money Stjepan sent back from his work as a ship’s captain on the Danube.

War came and the building stopped. Stjepan joined the Partisans, fought against the occupying forces and the homebred Catholic fascism of the Ustaša, a stand that lived on in the lifelong anti-clericalism of his daughter, Dorica. It was her daughter, Milica, who married Alojz Brečević, a ship’s mechanic. They had met in Sweden, as migrant workers, and they started a family there, a family that would travel back each summer to help with the wine-making. Don’t get too used to this country, they told their son, each autumn: one of these years, we are going back for good.

That promise was severed by the new war of the 1990s and it was not until 1997 that Robert Brečević returned, alone, on a bus from Munich. Later, he and his wife, Geska, would come to visit the family land at Rab and — together with his stonemason cousin, Đani — take on the task of finishing what Stjepan and Mile had begun a lifetime earlier.

A black oak tree hides the stone house from the road. What can be seen is the small chapel, built the same year that the roof went on the house. In the evening, visitors come from around the island — families, old people, young couples out for a walk—to peek through the keyhole and, as if at a fairground peepshow, catch a glimpse of the moving figure of St Christopher carrying the child who will turn out to be Christ. The patron saint of the town of Rab, but also the protector of travellers, his presence is, among other things, a reminder of the journeys that went into the building of this house.


‘So when did Robert convert?’

The question came from a mutual friend who had heard that I was writing about the turn in the work of Performing Pictures that led to the projects documented in this book. More often, such questions are left politely unspoken, but they hang in the gallery air when this work is shown.

We are used to art that employs the symbols of religion in ways seemingly intended to unsettle or provoke many of those to whom these symbols matter; yet to the consumers of contemporary art, those who actually visit galleries, it is more uncomfortable to be confronted with work in which such symbols are used without the frame of provocation. The viewer hesitates between two anxieties: is there something here that I am missing — an irony, a political message, a joke — or is this a piece of propaganda on behalf of the believers? (Whatever they may believe, the evening visitors to the chapel at Rab show no sign of such anxieties.)

The turn is striking, certainly. There is nothing in the work of Performing Pictures prior to 2009 that would lead the viewer to expect the saints and shrines and altars we find here. The story behind such a turn deserves exploration. Yet if we want to trace the routes that led to this work, I suggest that the question of personal belief will prove misleading: it will not bring us closer to an understanding of what took place, and it may lead us to overlook those clues that have been left along the way.


Geska Helena Andersson was born into a family of small farmers in Skåne, the southernmost region of Sweden. Her parents’ life was anchored to the land — she was thirty before they had a holiday together — though the family had been migrant workers, too, in times when the farm alone could not support them. Her grandmother cycled half the length of Sweden, in those times, picking crops.

These family stories weave into the work of Performing Pictures. Indeed, the presence of the family, within the production process and the work itself, is one thread that connects the projects here to earlier works such as Kids On The Slide and Fathers and Sons, Verging. That young man standing on a Polish beach is Cesar, the boy who took his bucket and spade to the graveyard in Kids On The Slide; now, he and his father are ready to cycle to the Adriatic, installing roadside chapels along their route. Under a parasol on a Mexican hillside where the Virgin of Guadalupe is about to appear, you can make out Katja, four months old, in the arms of one of the women from the Zegache workshop. Đani Brečević, the stonemason, stares past the camera from under the brim of his hat, fixing the cross to the roof of the St Martin chapel in his home village; then there he is again, cigarette hanging from his mouth, looking hardly less at home as he lays bricks for the St Anne chapel in Zegache.

The presence of family is felt in other ways: not least, there is the image of St Anne, a mother teaching her daughter to read. Those placing votive candles before it in the Église Notre-Dame de Bon Secours do not know this, but the St Christopher of Movement no. 6: To Carry a Child is also a family portrait: the saint is played by David Cuartielles; the child, who weighs on his shoulders more heavily than if he carried the world, is his young daughter. On a ledge in the door of the shrine, where people might leave images or scribbled prayers, Robert has placed a photograph of his father as a young man on the deck of a ship.

There is a movement outwards from the earlier work, in which the children themselves were often the subject, to the community and the village. Yet it would be a mistake to see this as a move away from the family or from the domestic; rather, the implications of these themes now reach wider and deeper. The name of the village of Brečevići, site of the St Martin chapel, is only the most obvious clue to this.


The sound of the mariachi trumpets goes up into the arches of the church and lingers there. When the service is over, the mourners follow the band through the streets of this dusty town. At the graveside, among the flowers, a video camera stands on a tripod. The band falls silent, the priest says a prayer, the coffin is lowered into the ground. Three of the dead man’s brothers are away, working in the United States, and it is for them that the burial is being filmed.

When John Berger and Jean Mohr made a book about the experience of a migrant worker in Europe, nearly forty years ago, they called it A Seventh Man: in Germany and in Britain, at that time, one in every seven manual workers was an immigrant. Today, one in every three Mexicans lives outside of Mexico, the great majority as migrant workers in the United States. This epic displacement forms the background to life in a village such as Santa Ana Zegache, where the painter Rodolfo Morales founded the community workshops in 1997 as a project to restore the Baroque church, but also to restore life to the local economy, training young women in the crafts required for the restoration of its eighteenth-century altarpieces. Robert and Geska came to visit the workshops in 2008, and it was during a conversation that day that the idea of putting the saints into motion first surfaced, almost as a joke, but a joke that caught everyone’s imagination. Here, in a place where most of the young men are far away, working the land north of the border, you find the point of departure of this work.

In 2011, A Seventh Man was published for the first time in a Mexican edition. Its account of the experience of Gastarbeiters in 1970’s Europe, men of Alojz Brečević’s generation, continues to make sense of the lives of migrant workers on whose labour the economies of the rich countries continue to depend. Berger returned to the subject of migration in a later book, and our faces, my heart, brief as photos. ‘Never before our time have so many people been uprooted,’ he writes. ‘The displacement, the homelessness, the abandonment lived by a migrant is the extreme form of a more general and widespread experience.’

To speak about such homelessness, to acknowledge the loss that it involves, it is necessary to speak about ‘home’, and this is made difficult by the ideological uses to which that word has been put. The language of home is used by those who would stir up hatred against the immigrant worker and also by those who would undo the ongoing transformation of possibilities experienced by women over the past half-century. These toxic associations can hardly go unacknowledged, yet it may be possible to reach behind them, and with this aim, Berger draws on the comparative studies of religion made by Mircea Eliade.

In traditional societies, Eliade observes, home is the place from which the world makes sense. This is possible because it stands at the crossing point of two axes: the vertical line, along which one is connected to the world of the gods and the world of the dead, and the horizontal line, which stands for all the journeys that might be made within this world. (If such a cosmology seems remote from our own experience, consider these axes to stand, among other things, for two sets of relations: to those who went before and may come after us, and to those of our own time.) Emigration may be prompted by hope as well as desperation, Berger recognises: it may represent an escape or a dream, but its price includes the dismantling of this centre of the world.

And yet, somehow, this loss is not the end of the matter: ‘the very sense of loss keeps alive an expectation.’ The substitute home which the migrant finds—and here, again, the migrant experience is an extreme version of the common experience of modernity — is no longer secured to a physical space. ‘The roof over the head, the four walls, have become, as it were, secular: independent from whatever is kept in the heart and is sacred.’

Nevertheless, by turning in circles the displaced preserve their identity and improvise a shelter. Built of what? Of habits, I think, of the raw material of repetition, turned into a shelter.

On that first visit to Mexico, what impressed Robert was people’s ‘way of making a home in something which is totally temporary.’ The images which go up on the wall, the figures, the habits and repetitions that go with them were familiar, not only from the Catholic prayer cards at his grandmother’s home in Brečevići, but also from the ornaments of the household in which he grew up, the little figurines, the flowers and images with lace around them. Misunderstood as kitsch, dismissed or ironically celebrated, these secular altars are also a means of making a home, another form of the ‘popular ingenuity’ by which the displaced continue to improvise meaning. Out of this recognition, the idea of working with shrines took hold.

Oaxaca (Zegache) - day 18 035

As a child in rural Sweden, Geska remembers, anything ‘shop-bought’ had an aura: shop-bought biscuits, shop-bought meatballs, these were the things you pleaded with your parents to have, and the very fact of coming from a shop gave them glamour. Later, living away from home for the first time, it struck her how upside-down that childhood perception had been. Yet the idea that the supermarket version of anything was special, rather than just taken for granted, hints at the tail-end of another world, a world that still centred on the home-made.

All creation stories involve a prising apart of the preexistent. The sky is lifted from the waters, light split out of dark, time from space, and the world as we know it roars into being. The industrial world, the social, economic, technological, political and material realities within which the unprecedented uprooting, the great gains and the seldom fully acknowledged losses of modernity have taken place, began with such a fission: the prising apart of production from consumption, which took concrete form in the new separation of work from home.

The history of the industrial revolution is a history of massive resistance on the part of ordinary people. This resistance fell into two phases: in the first, it was an attempt to defend a way of living; in the second, which began when this way of living had largely been destroyed, it became an attempt to negotiate better conditions within the new world made by the destroyers. What had been lost was a way of living in which most production took place on a domestic scale, interwoven with the lives of families and communities. Work was hard, but it varied with the seasons and required skill and judgement. Many of the basic needs of a household could be met by its own members or their immediate neighbours, not least through access to common land, so that people were not entirely exposed to the mercilessness of the market.

It is not necessary to romanticise the realities of pre-industrial society: the intensity and duration of the struggle which accompanied its passing are evidence enough. (In 1812, at one of the high-watermarks of this struggle, the British government deployed 12,000 troops against the Luddites in four counties of England, more than Wellington had under his command that year in the ongoing war against Napoleon.) The relationship between this first phase of resistance and the labour movement that would arise out of its defeat has most often been presented as a progressive development: the dawning of a new political consciousness, and with it new forms of organisation and effective action. Yet it was also an accommodation to what had previously been fought against: the new division of the world between the space of work, dedicated to the sole purpose of maximising production, and the domestic space, now dedicated to reproduction and consumption. The sentimental idealisation of the home as a woman’s sphere originates in this division, as established in Victorian England. Behind this advertising hoarding lay the real transformation of the home from a living centre of activity to a dormitory, a garage in which the worker is parked when not in use.

Yet even such a transformation, so elemental that we hardly perceive it, can never be the whole story. In the words of Eugenio Montale:

History isn’t
the devastating bulldozer they say it is.
It leaves underpasses, crypts, holes
and hiding places.

The memory of the seasonal return to help with the wine-making, the memory of the shininess of anything shop-bought, these are fragments that have survived the bulldozer, clues to another way of living. More widely, the older rhythms of working life survive in certain historical underpasses, as E. P. Thompson notes in his essay on ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’:

The pattern persists among some self-employed—artists, writers, small farmers, and perhaps also with students—today, and provokes the question whether it is not a “natural” human work-rhythm.

In this respect, the practice of Performing Pictures is hardly exceptional — how many artists could draw a line between work and life? — but certain elements, in particular the involvement of the whole family in the work, resonate strongly with the world whose memory remained alive in their own childhoods, a memory which still finds echoes in the places where this work was made.


A priest is fetched to bless the chapel. He comes from two villages away. The proper words and gestures are performed. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that these stones were cut and carved, the door made, the animation shot or the screen rigged to the solar panel, either for or on behalf of the institution which he represents.

‘We have become fascinated,’ Robert writes, ‘by those rural chapels to be found outside of the control of the churches, the patrons and urban plans.’ A series of photographs shows small capillas at the corners of cactus-fenced yards in the lanes around Zegache. Improvised out of industrial materials, concrete and rusting corrugated iron, with shop-bought figures, a virgin studded with LEDs, a vase of drying flowers, these unofficial shrines are also expressions of popular ingenuity. Sometimes, nature adds its own contribution: a spider has caught Christ in a net that funnels into a silk vortex in the gap between body and cross, like an opening to another universe.

Looking through them, I remember another set of photographs, taken by the British artist Rachel Horne in the South Yorkshire coalfield where four generations of her family worked as miners. Many of the former colliery sites have been grassed over, the slag-heaps topped off with public artworks. In Horne’s photos, these sculptures seem to have landed from nowhere, unaware of the pride, the conflict and the loss that these sites represent. They are asking to be vandalised, and, in one case, this has already happened, the stone structure toppled like a children’s toy and a stencil sprayed onto an exposed face.

Modern public art has its beginnings in the assumption by the secular state of a symbolic power which had formerly been exercised by the church. Yet the contrast between those commissioned memorials and the improvised sites of devotion around Zegache suggests the limitations of official art. The capillas are cared for by small fraternities which take responsibility for their upkeep. The shrine as physical object is held within a web of mutuality which lends it a certain resilience, beyond the properties of the material itself. A similar principle applies to the chapels in this book.

‘As media artists,’ Geska points out, ‘you’re not invited to do public space installations, because it’s not something that’s stable, and there’s the electricity, and everyone knows that the technology is going to break within three years.’ The idea for the Chapel of St Anne grew out of the previous collaborations with artisans at the Zegache community workshops, although it required the support of the local mayor to go ahead. In Brečevići, it was a group of villagers who proposed the St Martin chapel and provided the materials. ‘If the screen breaks, there is someone who will make sure it’s mended.’

The thing that redeems this fragile work from being a future piece of junk is its embedding within a community of people to whom it matters. The tasks of maintenance that would have been a line to be cut in a public budget become, instead, part of the rhythm of life for those around the work; or, seen from another angle, this activity becomes part of the work, as in the Maintenance Art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles. The connection is significant: few artists have addressed so directly the schism between home and work. As Ukeles writes of her younger self, ‘She was looking to sew back together a great fabric that she saw rended, torn apart.’ Except that in this case, the context is not the museum — literally, ‘the shrine of the muses’, home to the cult of art — but the vernacular Catholicism of those for whom this work becomes part of their venerative practice.


The discomfort with work that appears to be an expression of religious faith and the polite avoidance of putting the direct question about the artists’ beliefs are both symptoms of the modern doctrine that religion belongs to the private sphere. Within the boundaries of one’s own home, there is complete freedom of belief, but to bring one’s belief into the public sphere is to threaten the stability of the secular order which guarantees this freedom.

As Robert observes, today’s Sweden has become the kind of radically secular society that the ideologically atheist states of the former Eastern Bloc proclaimed without achieving. In such a society, religion becomes countercultural: to experience and express a religious faith as something stronger than a personal opinion is to put yourself at odds with the background assumptions of the world around you. The forms of religion that emerge in such a society reflect this: faith becomes a conscious foreground statement.

Yet in much of the world — in rural Oaxaca, and even in rural Croatia, despite a generation of official atheism, and despite the toxic entanglement of Catholicism and nationalism — religion remains part of the social background. If one person has more time for the church than another, this is a matter of inclination, rather than a charged personal dilemma. It was in this world that Performing Pictures began making venerative objects. The experience they reflect is not so dramatic as the language of conversion would suggest, neither as personal in its intensity nor as universal in its implications. More like the experience of coming home.


When work began again on the house at Rab, its stone and timber construction must have seemed an anachronism; on neighbouring land, a German property speculator was building a set of holiday apartments. Yet it is these which now stand unfinished, ghosts of brick and concrete, abandoned by their owner, who no longer answers correspondence from the municipality. Perhaps, three generations from now, his descendants will return to finish what he began, but as the sun goes down over the Chapel of St Christopher, this seems to stretch our capacity for belief a little further than it will go tonight.

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The Crossing of Two Lines by Dougald Hine and Performing Pictures is available to order through the Dark Mountain shop.