Amy Balkin by Monica Westin

“Criminal evidence, not scientific evidence, as gathered from sites of slow crimes in progress.”

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


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Black slipper recovered from New Orleans’s Upper Ninth Ward. A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, New Orleans Collection, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

For the past decade, Amy Balkin has focused on projects concerning climate change, the public domain, and the commons broadly construed. Her work is characterized by ongoing interventions with national and supranational systems—political, legal, and economic in scope—as is the case with the Public Smog project, her ongoing attempt to create a “clean air park” by buying carbon emissions and then keeping them back from use, and also pushing for the Earth’s atmosphere to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In contrast to these explorations that intercede in bureaucratic systems, A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, which Balkin has been steadily cultivating along with co-registrars Malte Roloff and Cassie Thornton since 2011, uses a form that is new to the artist. This archive moves transiently between global institutions, often as part of a group exhibition, where it grows with crowdsourced (not curated) items donated from places that risk disappearing because of climate change. The documents in the archive thus operate as a kind of worldwide record of loss.

I first visited the archive back in the spring of 2014 when it was housed at Southern Exposure in San Francisco, and I was struck by the variety of objects, many of which are cheap and ephemeral: a tin can, a bottlecap, a clip. A People’s Archive takes contributions of “anything that happens to be there,” including detritus, as long as it weighs less than half a pound and includes an explanation of how the location is impacted by climate change (sinking, erosion, desertification, rising sea levels, and so forth). As of 2015, the archive includes objects from Antarctica, Australia, Cape Verde, Santiago de Cuba, Germany, Greenland, Venice, Mexico, Nepal, New Orleans, Alaska, New York City, Panama, Peru, Republic of Komi, Russia, California, Senegal, and Tuvalu. It’s currently on view and open for contributions at Kunsthal Aarhus in Denmark.

My conversation with Balkin took place in two distinct parts—first in June of 2014, then about one year later, after the archive had grown a bit more.

June 2014

Monica Westin What prompted your decision to use an archive as the form for this project?

Amy Balkin In other work I was really trying to get away from—though obviously you can’t get away completely—a focus on discrete material objects and, instead, deal with common-pool resources. I began this project because it made sense as a way to respond to a particular set of questions, and the archive felt like the right form for these questions—though, as it’s a heavily utilized, fetishized, and problematic form, I recognized that I would be dealing with those issues as well.

MW What kind of issues?

AB Well, I’m not sure the archive is the right form, even here. I’m going to continue with this project, but ultimately I’m not sure that questions about climate change are well addressed by this form, which assumes certain kinds of futurity. I also question whether or not it might reflect a kind of regressive politics in relation to its presumed audience.

MW Archives do seem to inspire a melancholic nostalgia.

AB That’s the problem. This idea of sadness—that’s where the politics become problematic. I was just at a climate change conference in Oslo last summer, and I kept hearing that people in the Pacific Islands aren’t sad: they’re fighting. So, what does this mean—this politics of pathos? I would also say that one of the things I can do is describe this project as not just an archive but simultaneously as a garbage dump or midden, and as a collection of evidence.

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A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, New Orleans Collection, 2012. Contributions by Pleasur’ne Thomas, Monique Dean, Tyjunaique McKenzie, Wynell Davis, LaShine Dickerson, Milissa Orzolek. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.

MW What do you see as the future of The People’s Archive?

AB Right now my questions are all about who can support the archive, how it can travel, problems with submissions, problems with participation, and problems with exhibition contexts. To me, these questions can also speak to questions about national power and economic difference. In my imagination, when I started the project, I was thinking, “Oh, I’ll reach out to people in Bangladesh.” But there are obvious problems, including the politics of participation and the language barrier. So, it’s mostly been about where I can work, my social network and others. Will this make the project the one I imagined? I’m not sure.

MW In previous projects, like Public Smog, you seem to have been testing a hypothesis about how art can act like a government or state. Do you think it can?

AB I’m not sure I can answer that question. I would love to, but I can’t. For example, at dOCUMENTA, with the Public Smog project—for that to have really succeeded it would have needed all of dOCUMENTA’s budget. And what would that have really been used for? Maybe bribes. That’s facetious, but I think the question has to do with power and politics: What does it mean to try to operate in support of a united front? You know, I went to Stanford from 2001 to 2003—during the war, the invasion of Iraq—and the art department was right next to the Hoover Institution, and so I began to think about how power operates, and what kind of scope of ambition is possible.

MW I want to ask more about how understanding The People’s Archive as a collection of evidence changes how you understand its politics. What kind of evidence, and potentially for whom?

AB Criminal evidence, not scientific evidence, as gathered from sites of slow crimes in progress.

MW Can you explain a little bit more about the kind of “future anterior” created by the archive? And expand on any of your discomfort with the pathos the form creates? Are there any archival projects that can, either in reality or hypothetically, overcome such pathos?

AB “Future anterior,” in this case, presumes that the places from which people have sent things will disappear, and that there won’t be political change to overcome predicted events, yet the institutional framework to present the archive will still exist, along with an audience able to view it. The pathos assumes that politics as usual will prevail and that the political change to mitigate the dangers of these scenarios won’t be achieved—rather, that these losses of habitable place are inevitable, with their attendant migrations, and the violence of militarized resettlement that nations are already planning for.

In addition to projects like the Peoples Museum in Palestine, some museums are working to reconsider materials collected in a colonial, ethnographic, and archaeological context as future sites of return for peoples displaced by climate change, and also attempting to reimagine these materials and their social function in the context of environmental justice. But this is, of course, fraught.

MW What do you think about the idea—I read it first in Agamben, but I think it’s probably common—that the archive, at its most powerful, acts as a kind of testimony or counter-testimony to the narratives of history? Do you think The People’s Archive can accomplish this kind of speaking from the margins?

AB That opens onto broader problems of storytelling and the power of speech, as well as whether the contributor or their contribution is foregrounded in the work.

MW Are there any objects in the archive you find especially interesting or problematic?

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German train ticket receipt contributed by Sabine Reinecke. She notes: “A simple receipt [for] a train ticket (one way) which I purchased at an automat in the small town of Jeßnitz (ANH) in Germany when going back to Freiburg after I had helped my mom with the flooded house. The noticeable thing (“sinking”) is that a day or two before, the train station was still closed because of the severe flooding of the town.” A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, Germany Collection, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

AB Problematic objects might include those submitted from where there is still scientific uncertainty about the level of influence of climate change on a specific weather event, such as the flooding in central Europe in the summer of 2013.

MW Do you have any sort of ultimate dreams for the archive? Do you want it to live on in any specific way? How long-term is this project?

AB I do hope the work can have some type of social function through participation, circulation, and use in the present.

June 2015

MW I’d love to start this second part by getting an update about the current site of the archive in Denmark, and, more generally, hear about how it has grown and changed over its entire history.

AB Well, it began as a commission from Cape Farewell for the group exhibition “Carbon 13” at Ballroom Marfa, where it was funded by the Rauschenberg Foundation. After that, it travelled to Freiburg, Germany, then to San Francisco for functional use as an archive at the Prelinger Library and at SOEX. Since then, it’s also been at the Science Gallery in Dublin, to the Austrian Cultural Foundation, INOVA in Milwaukee, and now Aarhus, Denmark for the summer—all these are countries which are Annex I Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. During this time, the archive has developed, particularly with the help of co-registrars Cassie Thornton, Malte Roloff, and Olga Kopenkina, who all made significant contributions. At that same time, my hope was to collaborate with artist Amanda Eicher and bring the archive’s questions to local concerns in Colima, El Salvador—a Non-Annex I Party—in the context of a long-term collaborative project she developed with local residents there. But it hasn’t been possible owing to local political conflicts, violence, and a lack of funding. Otherwise, over the last year, it seems the archive functions best when it’s peripatetic, and when the collections are available to handle, so I hope to continue to circulate it and get the chance to bring it to Non-Annex I contexts.

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Seaweed contributed by Michael Hampton. A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, United Kingdom Collection, 2014. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Ruza Leko.

I’d also like to mention three more recent contributions. All complicate it in unforeseen ways, as far as the question of what it means for a place to disappear. The first is seaweed contributed by Michael Hampton. In notes accompanying this contribution, he writes:

In Memoriam Charlotte Blackman. The sample was collected on the Hive beach, Burton Bradstock, close to the site of a fatal rockfall that happened in 2012. Erosion at the site was due to a combination of extreme rainfall that penetrated the limestone cliffs creating fissures below the surface along with bedrock erosion caused by the sea. The collapse killed an unfortunate passer-by, Charlotte Blackman, who must be regarded as a victim of global warming.

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“Finger from the caterpillar mechanism…” contributed by Evgeniy Usov. A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, Russia Collection, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

The second is the “finger from the caterpillar mechanism of a cross-country vehicle which is used by geologists as well as in petroleum industry,” from Erayol settlement, Republic of Komi, Russia. It was contributed by Evgeniy Usov of Greenpeace Russia, who writes: “the land was affected by consequences from crude oil production: floods, land erosion, fires, social instability.” This contribution was facilitated by Olga Kopenkina, the curator of the New York exhibition “Lenin: Icebreaker,” who through journalist-ecologist Angelina Davydova, sent my request to ecological activists in Russia.

I was also hoping to find contributors from Russian autonomous okrugs, which are largely indigenous regions in the North. She did say it would be difficult to make contacts and motivate people in Russia to contribute to a project that could “appear rather unusual” without going there in person and establishing my interest and forming a network, which has also been true elsewhere.

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Brown glass bottle contributed by Walter Brinkherhoff. A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, California Collection, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

The third contribution is a brown glass bottle, marked with the logo of Anheuser Busch and partially melted. It was contributed by Walter Brinkerhoff from the site of the “Rim Fire,” California’s third largest wildfire. He writes:

At the time, the forest service was not allowing anyone into the area yet. So, I scrambled off the roadway a little bit and went exploring. I wasn’t even supposed to do that, but I was very curious as to the total impact of the fire. I lived in Groveland from my sophomore–senior year in high school, and I spent many summer days at Rainbow Pools, which is directly adjacent to the area where I collected those items… If anything, the area is experiencing a desertification due to this prolonged drought, and it was my personal feeling that although the Rim Fire itself began through manmade error, the total fire was exacerbated through drought conditions… Other than the obvious pain it causes to see our whole planet going through such drastic temperature change, I think it is also personally surprising for me to see such drastic change in a short span, within a human lifetime. The changes we are seeing are usually only seen across a much longer geological timeline. I grew up in Modesto and first hiked Half Dome when I was 12–13, so even before my family moved into the foothills I felt connected to this region from a very young age. All of Yosemite was lush and green then, and now, even before this fire, I was aware of just how brown and dried out everything had become.

MW So, these anecdotes help to give a broadened sense of “what it means to disappear,” as you put it. Are there any other complications that have been illuminating in terms of directions the archive has taken or ways that your understanding of the project has changed since it began?

AB It’s thrown up many complications, some related to the infrastructural and conceptual demands of setting up and maintaining a project taking the form of an archive for the first time—such as how to independently develop, circulate, and house the collections. Central questions of participation, positionality, and representation—who can and would contribute, and who can’t or wouldn’t?

MW You mention wanting to bring the archive to Non-Annex I contexts. Are there any places in particular you’d really like the archive to travel—a location you’re most keen to get objects from? If so, are these related to places that you regard as particularly at risk in terms of climate change?

AB I try to leave what enters the archive to the logic of the project, leaving those decisions primarily to participants. That said, I do make a call for participation in each place the archive is invited and occasionally contact people directly to contribute if it seems they have shared concerns. There’s also an ongoing global public call online.

While there are many places I can imagine it might make sense for the archive to be, I hope for it to circulate in UNFCCC least-developed countries (LDCs) and other vulnerable countries most subject to adaptation and likely to “feel the brunt” of loss and damage, such as the island nations in the Alliance of Small Island States. Beyond that, I think it could function in some places after climate change-related extreme weather events.

MW Last year, you talked before about the problematic politics of archives. Are you still ambivalent about the form for this project? Has your understanding of the archive as form changed since you began?

MW I’m less ambivalent about the form as “one among many” archives and artist-initiated projects engaged with the problems of climate change. I’ve also become very interested in how some large collecting institutions, such as the American Museum of Natural History, are seeking to reposition their collections as sites of debate and return for communities in the context of climate change—and the complexities and conflicts this institutional interest poses.

Monica Westin is an arts writer based in San Francisco, where she is an associate editor at Art Practical. A regular contributor to Artforum’s critics’ picks, her writing has appeared in Frieze,The Believer, and Raw Vision, among others.

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