Ghost Nets and Phantom Islands: Mapping the Anthropocene

In this creative collaboration, Ben Smith, Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth, worked with artist and archaeologist Rose Ferraby to combine speculative fiction and visual art, exploring new possibilities for mapping our changing planet.

The project draws on a wide-ranging tradition of maps and travelogues, from aboriginal ‘dreamings’ to geological surveys and explorers’ accounts of ‘phantom islands’ and imagined trade routes across an Arctic free of ice. Rose and Ben explored how these historic techniques and discourses – with their tall tales and shifting truths – could be adapted to provide new ways of engaging with the current uncertainty of climate change, offering new and unexpected insights into the very real but no less bewildering landscapes and seascapes of the Anthropocene.

Ben and Rose are developing this project into a book and a series of public exhibitions for 2022.

By now the top of the mountain had been flattened. As they reached the deeper layers they discovered seams of copper, zinc and gold. Something needed to be done with this excess material, so they built smelting works and factories, a casino and a stock exchange. As the mountain diminished, a city rose; as the mine sunk deeper below the surface of the plain, more material was taken away, by road, by rail, by boat, to build cities in distant countries. Goods flowed out and news flowed in.

From 'Mountains of the Moon' by Ben Smith

Creating the maps: Rose Ferraby

"Each map was a process of exploration in itself. I had to feel my way into what material or technique best suited these imagined landscapes. I used the cut pieces of collage to form a quarried and recycled cityscape. Abstract markings of acrylic and charcoal explore the cartography of eroding landscapes. The cross-section of a manganese nodule became an island surrounded by an ocean topography – the veins carving the seascape into deep-sea mining territories. I was inspired by a sealskin map made by the Chukot of the Bering Straits and maps of Aboriginal ‘dreamings’ to explore resource exploitation, ice melt and the vast networks of shipping lanes, playing with ideas of disorientation but also connection.  

Making these maps feels like a beginning. The process invites you to think backwards and forwards in time, to see where they will take us."

'Soundmarks, Village Green' 2019 Rose Ferraby

'Soundmarks, Village Green' 2019 Rose Ferraby

Rose Ferraby

Rose Ferraby is an artist and archaeologist whose work explores the relationships between people and the earth. In 2019 she created Soundmarks with artist Rob St John, exploring the sub-surface of Aldborough Roman town through image and sound. Commissions from museums and heritage organisations have developed new ways of communicating archaeological sites and ideas. Increasingly Rose’s work is looking forward, addressing conservation and climate concerns in positive, imaginative ways that might help encourage change. She often collaborates with writers, and illustrates regularly for Guillemot Press, winning the Michael Marks Award for Poetry Illustration in 2017. Rose’s enthusiasm for storying landscapes has led to broadcasting work with BBC Radio 3 and 4, including Open Country and The Essay.

Creative Associates

The Sustainable Earth Institute's Creative Associates projects aim to explore novel and innovative ways of communicating research and develop a portfolio of case studies of the different creative approaches possible.

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Image: Carey Marks/Creative Associates

Sustainable Earth Institute 

The Sustainable Earth Institute is about promoting a new way of thinking about the future of our world.

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We link diverse research areas across the University including science, engineering, arts, humanities, health and business.

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