These wrinkles of the earth won’t lie to you.
On the petrification of time and our crimes.
The materialization of time and of its passing is often, from a human perspective, a fugitive process. Aging—we all get marked and made vulnerable by its convoluted games on our skin and body. But time continues to unfold, stone-faced, in its multidirectional and tentacular trajectories. Its course, aged over millions of years, is to implode and explode again, to branch off and rejoin other paths, with its scars and rifts, multiplying itself in stratifications, layers, and sediments. If the density of its composition is something that evaporates and escapes our perception across generations, deep time does materialize and condense somewhere: probably in the thickness of air and in the consciousness of zoe—the vital force of life—but more evidently it does so in the hardness of rocks and stones. Time petrifies.
I meet Silvia Noronha in a studio in Berlin Neukölln. She tells me she is sharing it with an artist working with ceramics. Silvia, who I met through our mutual friend Monaì de Paula Antunes, is also chasing high temperatures. She likes to challenge materials, she tells me, by exposing them to difficult environments, to provoke their unexpected reactions and physical transformations. In the studio, smaller and larger stone-sculptures are installed on a table clothed in white paper, carefully placed as if in a scientific laboratory, while on another desk, little objects are meticulously laid out next to each other like documentation of a crime scene or a collection of evidence gathered for a forensic investigation.
A broken shell, a small plastic film can, a short piece of computer cable, some ashes or crumbs of sand, a battery, a small plastic gear wheel, another piece of cable, a test tube, a fractured motherboard, some different shaped pieces of plasticine, a tiny red plastic case, a few pebbles and cobblestones of different dimensions and unknown materials, a gently wilting object resembling frayed vegetal filament that, on closer inspection, becomes a tangle of thin cables and other tiny items.
Silvia tells me that in the last couple of years her practice and investigations have been focusing on “speculative geology,” that is, imagining post-human or future planetary scenarios. Working with soil and found materials, she has been experimenting with petrology, and speculating about how traces of anthropogenic agency could become stratified and fused into the terrestrial crust of the coming millennia.
She says she likes to get into a conversation with materials, to unfold a collaboration that is as horizontal as possible, trying to avoid a troubling colonization of matter. It’s an operation that obviously reveals itself to be ambiguous, but which she conceives as much as possible as an empathic dialog, rather than a form of subjugation to her human manipulation, and which she conducts in a precise and quasi-scientific way.
Silvia grew up in a territory of mining industries in Brazil, in a region whose name immediately tells of this long history of extraction: Minas Gerais. Since her childhood, Silvia has been particularly worn down by the morphology of her region and marked by the appalling wounds and injuries that centuries of extraction have left on her home. Since the early phase of Portuguese colonialism, mining has been fundamental to the economic, political, and social development of that region, but Silvia’s family, and in particular her father, have always been openly critical of the tremendous environmental impact and the history of violence and deep exploitation embedded in their land.
More recently, she had been troubled by a devastating ecological catastrophe and humanitarian crisis that occurred in her region: the Mariana Dam Disaster. On 5 November 2015, the dam of a retaining basin collapsed, flooding a village with a cascade of mud containing toxic mining waste. A few weeks after the disaster Silvia traveled back to Brazil to visit the site of this tragedy and collected contaminated mud and soil. She took the rubble back to Germany and, in cooperation with the Institute of Applied Geoscience and the Geochemical Laboratory of the TU Berlin, analyzed the samples. This experience led to the project Future Stones, which she has been creating and shaping since 2017. In this work, she speculates on the composition of the future grounds of our planet, imagining contaminated terrains and a nature and a soil assembled and intermingled with man-made materials such as electronics, plastic, and toxic waste. In an artistic exercise about the future of geology, she has experimented with the transformation and metamorphic processes of stones through very high pressure and extreme temperatures, addressing, as Noronha describes it, the “increasingly precarious interferences between natural ecology and human impact, as well as the development of a manmade next nature.”
Fossils of our present becoming past in the future.
These rocks and stones represent fossils of our present becoming past in the future. They condense and preserve information about the temporal unfolding of our planetary composition. Through a science-based artistic process, Noronha freezes the present and the possible future by collapsing these rocks at high temperatures in a kiln, almost as if it was a time machine. Soil, plastic, toxic waste, glass, cables, metals, mud, and pebbles time-travel and blend into each other as in a cosmic soup cooked for millennia by the forces of the universe.
I suppose that what triggers Noronha’s experimental practice is the possibility of observing and witnessing transformation in action. Her curiosity for future material compositions is not driven by a narcissist urgency of omnipotence or a Faustian will to control nature, but above all by a sense of responsibility. A response-ability, both as a burden that humans have to bear in the face and prospect of future apocalyptic scenarios, but also a capacity—an ability—to respond: provoking a reaction that is both, the one of the materials brought together to intermingle and her own one, as an artist and an alchemist transforming things to unsettle and move energies.
As she writes about her work, she intends “to give voice to the materials by combining different substances and letting them communicate with each other. Being curious about the individual characteristics of the matter and how these interact.”
This is what led her to continue experimenting and ultimately create the works Cognitive Nature (2016), The Future of Stones (2017) and Shifting Geologies (2020), in which Noronha confronts herself with the transformations and the relationships happening between the materials when pushed to their limits under very high temperatures. Her interest lies in exploring the inherent character and property of every single component and the exploding matrix of relationality between them. The resulting sculptures, photographed by the artist as if she portrays beings with all their psychological intensity and presence, seem to hold an impressive fierceness and disposition, letting them become proud agents in this world. I hold one in my hand and its smoothness and character talks to me. I leave it there, with Silvia, but this sensual impression stays with me.
In these post-rendezvous reflections, still holding the tactile memory of those pieces and of their material presence standing as a memento of a possible and most probably irreversible catastrophe, I continue speculating what might emerge from the toxic ruins of modernity.
As Ann Laura Stoler writes in Imperial Debris, “ruins” are “symptom and substance of history’s destructive force” and of “the ‘fragility’ of capitalist culture.” They represent traces of violent encounters with “the imperial” and its corrosive power, and they give us evidence of past and current human hybris that refuses a timeframe.
As an analyst of the contemporary and an archeologist of the future, Noronha asks how coloniality and brutality is made material: in social forms, in human and nonhuman bodies, and in the landscapes in which we live. She concerns herself with the politics of poisoning that governments across the globe perform without hesitation against people and the landscapes in which they live. A contamination that doesn’t solely happen on the soil and in the air, but that translates into a “body burden,” an accumulation of harmful substances in human and non-human bodies.
As we learn from Vanessa Agard-Jones—whose scholarly work more precisely engages with material and immaterial exposures to racism, sexism, and homophobia in the French Atlantic and with the (im)possibility of imagining remediation and repair, the accumulation of toxicities must be addressed from a transgenerational and wider perspective, and from the entangled vantage point of the environmental, political, and corporeal crisis in which we find ourselves today.
Noronha’s work, not in a dissimilar way, urges us to confront the wounds of the world and provokes critical and creative responses. We are left with the task of imagining collective and individual forms of repair and caring for human and more-than-human communities.