88 letters (archival ink on paper), stainless steel time capsule, audio recordings
5 hours duration, 160 x 80 x 70 cm

In February 2070, a theremin recording made by Russian students in 2001 is predicted to reach the constellation Delphinus.[1] Back on Earth, the number of days above 35 degrees in parts of Victoria will have increased from 9 days to 26 days per year.[2]

It may be one of those scorching days when eighty-odd middle-aged people make their way to the Bendigo Art Gallery to each receive a letter that has been sitting, waiting for fifty-two years. Some scientists predict that around that time, the world’s population will reach its peak of 9.4 billion before declining to 9 billion in 2100.[3] What happens in those thirty years is not clear, though, with such a steep decline, it can’t be good. Clearly the earth will not be able to sustain us and we won’t be able to sustain ourselves anymore. What a time it will for us to die, leaving our children living with the consequences.

In the early twenty-first century, at the time of squeezing a child—wrinkled, shocked and
mucousy—into the world, few of us can claim to be ignorant about the rapidly declining state of the world. Now, while we enjoy golden moments at the beach with cousins, giggle over misspoken words, our hearts exploding with love, how much is tinged with the inevitability of it all? What would we actually change if we had a timeline for the end of the world? Would we still take our kids to swimming class every Tuesday if we knew there were only a few weeks of it left?

We are all too clear on the human and meteorological maelstrom that is climate change:
extreme flooding, deadly heat waves, mass extinction, social unrest. We’ve heard rumours of bees disappearing altogether. We’ve been given about another fifty years until all the good soil is used up.[4]

And yet, many of us today still choose to make the greatest act of optimism: creating a child. Do we hope that, having failed ourselves, our children will solve the problems we created? Or do we just hope that they will be resilient enough, smart enough, privileged enough, to get by, while decline whirs around them? It’s a shot in the dark.

In 2070, when our elderly children make their way to the Bendigo Art Gallery to open the time capsule of letters we parents penned half a century earlier, who knows what kind of world they will be living in. Will they roll us into the gallery, floating in our boxes, wires instead of veins? Will they still be recommending controlled crying as a go-to method of sleep training for their grandchildren? Will the mystery of peanut allergies be solved? Will antibiotics still be effective?

Will the cultural distinctions between men and women have dissolved? Will our children’s
children even know what handwriting is? Will they have taken care of their teeth? Will they have chips implanted instead of phones, will they travel to space for the weekend?

When they hear our youthful, but tired voices recorded, declaring our immortal love for them and their tiny bodies, will they wish for more? Will they lament at the simple predictability of a parent’s love for their child, at the cyclical inescapability of reproductive urges, to which they may have also fallen victim. Will any of the changes we so hopefully describe—gender equality, clean air, a cure for cancer, political stability, world peace—will they be any more possible in the world of 2070?

Most of the parents have wept while reading me their letters to be sealed up in the time capsule until 2070. Some cry because they know they will no longer be around; some cry because they love their children in a way that is impossible to put into words. I think some cry because implicitly they are terrified of what is to come. In the whimsical daily details of their lives lies an unnameable foreboding. Far greater than the referred pain of skinned knees or playground rejections that every parent endures, the fear of what is to come can only be levelled by the devastating love that we are biologically programmed to embody.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teen_Age_Message
2 http://www.environment.gov.au/climate-change/climate-science-data/climate-science/impacts/vic
3 https://phys.org/news/2014-10-world-population-peak.html
4 https://www.businessinsider.com.au/r-only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues-2014-12

Letters to the Living (2018), installation view at Bendigo Art Gallery for  New Histories.  Photo: Ian Hill  Painting above: Thomas Kennington, Homeless, 1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Bendigo Art Gallery, Purchased 1906

Letters to the Living (2018), installation view at Bendigo Art Gallery for New Histories. Photo: Ian Hill

Painting above: Thomas Kennington, Homeless, 1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Bendigo Art Gallery, Purchased 1906