Ayesha Hameed’s Blog Post – Black Atlantis// The Plantationocene

In December 2016, UK-based artist Dr. Ayesha Hameed undertook a 2-week residency at Fresh Milk, where she conducted research for her ongoing project Black Atlantis. Ayesha shares an excerpt from a longer piece about her residency experience, and her exploration of the ‘plantationocene’ – a term which looks at the relationship between agriculture and our current geological era. Read more below:

Black Atlantis// The Plantationocene[1]

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Speed

This is my first evening at Walkers, once a sugar plantation and now a dairy.  It is dusk.

I step outside of the flat, climb the slightly mossy stairs and turn right into the purpling light. To my left are horse stables, behind me is the house and in front of me are fields of grass.

The sound of the frogs begins at dusk and it gets louder. The paved drive I am walking on ends at the field, and I turn right onto a dirt path.  The grass is long on either side of the path.  When I reach a lone tree to my left, the path dips down a small hill and continues to a line of trees in the distance.  To the right is the South and there are some twinkling lights in the distance.  A small bat swoops over my head.

Underneath the alien and screechy whir of the frogs there is a silence. A black dog runs up to me from the big house and then turns around and goes back, looking back at me as if trying to get me to follow it.  I walk away from it and into the long grass and listen.

The frogs get louder.  The sky turns black.

What is the relationship between climate change and plantation economies?  This is an exploration of many things – the beginnings of a fourth chapter of an ongoing performance called Black Atlantis, visiting the heartland of one of the three stops of the triangular trade, and taking seriously Donna Haraway’s and Anna Tsing’s use of the term ‘plantationocene’ which connects the development of a plantation form of production to the beginning of the current geological era that we are in.

The ‘plantationocene’ is a placeholder for the relationship between agriculture and the new geological era we find ourselves in called the anthropocene.  But the kind of agriculture they are thinking about is the violent replacement of diverse farming tactics, of forests and of pastures by the factory-like extractive structure of plantations – the cultivation of single crops like sugar and cotton for export, produced by enslaved and indentured laboring bodies forcibly transported across vast distances.  Plantations eradicate the diversity of what is cultivated, devastating the land, violently exploiting and expropriating the bodies working on the land and destroying any possible autonomy for self sustenance for those living in these areas.

[we use the term] Plantationocene for the devastating transformation of diverse kinds of human-tended farms, pastures, and forests into extractive and enclosed plantations, relying on slave labor and other forms of exploited, alienated, and usually spatially transported labor… Moving material semiotic generativity around the world for capital accumulation and profit—the rapid displacement and reformulation of germ plasm, genomes, cuttings, and all other names and forms of part organisms and of deracinated plants, animals, and people—is one defining operation of the Plantationocene, Capitalocene, and Anthropocene taken together (Haraway 162).

The plantationocene suggests that the geological force of humans on the planet’s ecosystem had its roots in plantation slavery, its instrumentalisation of the soil for a singular kind of production and its violent enslavement of bodies to be used as machines to cultivate and harvest the cane, and to ideally reproduce and sustain itself.  As Anna Tsing says, the plantationocene is formed of “machines of replication” or “simplified ecologies, such as plantations, in which life worlds are remade as future assets” – in other words it highlights the aftermath of a radical and violent incursion and its effects on lifeworlds that intertwine the human and the natural.

It is a nearly impossible endeavour to read an over three hundred year old history of plantations and their continually evolving social relations in the wake the oldest instance of plantation slavery, and in the continued presence of descendants of slaves and plantation owners and overseers, against the slow temporal swings that mark climate change.  Reading a still living and present history against a slowly unravelling future of increasing frequencies of natural disaster, the warming of the ocean, the jeopardisation of sea life is incommensurable and probably pointless as they operate on such different registers, and the possibility of finding common ground at ground level is nearly nil.

*

Another beginning: It is half past two and I’ve been waiting in the parking lot outside Harrison’s Cave for about thirty minutes. Tour buses and hired taxis efficiently pull in and out of the parking spaces, loading and unloading their American passengers.

Two men are chatting beside me, one of them offers the other one a lift and they walk over to a brightly painted bus.  I figure I have 20 minutes more to wait.

I hear a loud noise and look up from my book to see a diesel powered mini bus hurtling through the lot like a getaway car for a heist. It abruptly stops at a hasty angle near the bus stop where I am sitting.  The sign on the bus just says ‘city’. People climb out quickly with the diesel engine rumbling.

As I climb the stairs the bus speeds up again so fast I trip onto a seat. I pull myself up holding out my 2 Barbadian dollars to the driver with an apologetic ‘excuse me?’ and the man in the passenger seat waves impatiently at me to sit down.

I look out the window as the bus hurtles down dirt roads hewn through fields of cane speckled with sun and dust.  We screech to another stop and the engine grumbles and roars.

Outside are the fields of cane and men and women waiting on the side of the road.

*

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[1] This is an excerpt from a longer chapter forthcoming in MAP Office’s Catalogue “My Ocean Guide published by Lightbox” (2017).  Research for this work was made possible by a Travel Grant awarded by the Canada Council for the Arts to attend residencies at Alice Yard (Trinidad) and Fresh Milk (Barbados).

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This residency was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts

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