Type
Fiction

My body is a global catastrophe monitoring station*

I’m more alive now without my body.

I told this to my colleagues when I came back to Sydney after the procedure. I watched them, mouths gaping, when I explained what I had done. They didn’t seem to have the words to ask me why I did it, let alone comprehend my choice.

Their expectant silence made me feel awkward, so I blurted out extra details that I myself had just learnt. Like how the Australian Government paid for everything, and that I was entitled to a monthly stipend – kind of like a danger bonus – paid directly into my account for the risks my body would be subjected to. I thought that was a good tid-bit of trivia but I don’t think it worked to calm anyone else down.

Honestly, I was surprised no one had seen it coming.

  _____
/;;====

Our parents were in that generation who quit work by droves in fits of panic and rebellion. Driven away from the monotony of a capitalist routine, and faced with overwhelming total natural destruction, they were drawn to do anything other than sitting at a desk.

But then real destruction came. Oceans surged and the country scorched. And millions died around the world. After that, I guess they kind of just crept back into the safety of office buildings and banks like nothing had happened. In the worst of times all they could do was turn a blind eye, and cling to the familiar, lest the screaming nothingness of life in the 22nd century claim them.

  _____
/;;====

Milky white fog coats the valley, drifting with the breeze between craggy outcrops of dull stone. It’s hard to say, but I think I hear the static whir of machines nearby, like fingers scraping down a board. The noises grow from a hum to a shriek but I can’t move.

  _____
/;;====

Back in March an old friend of mine in New Canberra passed on a hush-hush offer around ‘exploring the effects of increased solar activity on the population’.

Reading between the lines, it was pretty clear they were looking for people dumb or desperate enough to walk out west into the unprotected zone and measure the damage. Can you imagine? Just sending people out there to see how nature will destroy the human body?

It’s so laughable to think of past scientists monitoring our destruction of nature. Especially now when there’s no such thing as ‘nature’ – at least not in the sublime way I’ve seen in dated documentaries. Or in the way my grandma got quiet when talking about the time she saw one of the last whales as a kid. ‘Nature’ these days means hayfever weeds, and yellow sick bamboo.

I’m no daredevil and this government offer didn’t particularly grab my attention when I first heard of it. I wasn’t about to go waltzing out into the wrecked zones with a notepad to write down what I felt.

This old friend passed on some extra details the next day. From then, the offer became irresistible.

  _____
/;;====

Science has come leaps and bounds in the last few decades. It’s funny how environmental collapse creates such fertile ground for invention and development.

For example, in Sydney we’ve got those new industrial air filters that hover over the city. I read somewhere they’re the size of stadiums but they don’t look that way from down on the ground. People used to hate them. I remember studies about the noise pollution from them, but then people started actually dying from air pollution and suddenly industrial filters were a great idea.

Now there’s a dozen of them floating over the city and it feels like more and more people from the suburbs are relocating to the inner city just to get near them.

Those air filters are a safe topic for watercooler talk at work. Chatting about the weather while milling in the office kitchen seems a bit tasteless when ocean acidity is off the charts, and the solar flares might hit the city at any moment.

To be clear, everyone knows the term ‘solar flares’ is a total simplification for all those monster storms and radiation spikes we see happening on the news. There are these coronal mass ejections from the sun that bathe the earth in searing heat and expand what’s left of the ozone. Where the ozone’s all but gone we get the brunt of those geomagnetic storms, electric surges, and everything else in this nightmarish domino effect which originates from the centre of the solar system.

  _____
/;;====

Diaphanous bloated hands float in the water in front of me. My hands? The water feels like nothing. I could just be drifting in the air. A mental numbness develops in the persistent silence here, and I watch the hands become more engorged and irritated in the still water. Days or weeks may have passed just like this.

  _____
/;;====

I supposed I had been continuing that grand tradition: I got up every day and went to work in one of Sydney’s many insurance firms. It remained one of the only industries operating at a profit, not a shadow of its former self. But I’d been restless at work. I couldn’t understand how others weren’t also in a state of internal panic when all we heard about was that parts of the coast kept literally falling into the sea, and that the solar flares were getting worse and worse.

That old friend confirmed it over email: they weren’t planning on just sending people off west. Instead, this experiment – ‘exploring the effects of increased solar activity on the population’ – was to be the first trial of bifurcation in Australia.

This offer was a paid opportunity to rip my consciousness from my flesh. It sounded perfect.

  _____
/;;====

This town looks like it could be anywhere – it’s the fifth one we’ve sped through but it has the same dilapidated wooden shop fronts with peeling paint as the others. There are so many cars here, all abandoned and rusted, burning up in the sun. This heat is unimaginable; my skin feels like it’s curling off in strips, peeling like paint. 

  _____
/;;====

I was given multiple chances to opt out.

The scientists and lawyers stood over me and explained that my body would still have a brain and lungs and nerves and flesh so it would react to the external environment. I signed form after form indemnifying them against all kinds of scenarios and outcomes: “My body may be subjected to the following (included but not limited to): burning, suffocation, drowning, radiation, poisoning, disfiguration, mutilation, melting caused by caustic or acidic substances, etc. as a result of pre-approved and scientifically monitored research activities.”

My eyes glazed over as I signed on each dotted line. I was already feeling like I was detaching from my body. I had convinced myself I was trapped behind my own eyes, trapped inside my fingers, my mouth, my skull. I thought of the years wasted at a desk in Sydney and I thought of my parents and my grandparents who hadn’t done enough. By surrendering all that I had, I was thinking, perhaps, that I could make a difference by disappearing entirely.

  _____
/;;====

I don’t remember the bifurcation itself.

I just remember the icy fear I felt immediately afterwards, at the idea of turning around and seeing my own body still sprawled out on the gurney. Would my body be statuesque, my skin like smooth marble? Or would my body look monstrous, like a dead fish, devoid of its lifeforce?

I was terrified that I would see myself as abhorrent, that I would never escape the burden of my existence, no matter my form.

In the end, I did turn back and look at my body – now no longer mine. I had never seen my body from the outside. I had conceived of myself as a doll or mummified, with blurry distorted edges. But it appeared fully formed, with clear sharp edges, real and defined in a way it had never felt to me while I inhabited it.

  _____
/;;====

Water laps at the sides of the four-lane bridge. The old road is half flooded and riddled with pits and fissures. Black asphalt crumbles off the side as the water’s movement softens and erodes it, while sections further in simply cave away from underneath. Down in the muddy potholes I see maggots squirm and burrow industriously, and realise these are the first living creatures I’ve seen. In my mouth, I taste rust and blood.

  _____
/;;====

There’s no such thing as seasons in Australia. It’s just hot and humid all the time and it has been since before I was born. When it rains we stay inside, just in case of bacteria in the droplets, and when it storms we stay away from the windows, because the lightning and wind cause more damage each year.

We huddle together in small city centres now. The spaces are smaller, but the buildings are all taller. No more dreams of a backyard and a pool. Now, everyone just wants to be under the air filters and safe from the solar flares.

Cities start small, emerging as if from nothing into bustling hubs of activity. Then, fairly often, cities can just collapse back into nothingness. I feel like it will happen to Sydney soon. The dwindling lifeforce here makes me think of the empty void of Malevich’s Black Square. He said, ‘it is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins’.

I like to think he meant we’ll all keep going, that we’ll endure and evolve just when we think there’s nowhere left to go.

And I hope that once I’m zero, my true being will begin.

  _____
/;;====

that was it. Now a consciousness alone, I was sent back to Sydney. Set up with my monthly stipend, I could have stopped working altogether. But I discovered I am first and foremost a creature of routine, and just like everyone else, I clutched at normalcy.

The scientists and lawyers messaged constantly to check on my quality of life. Yes, I responded, typing was fine, I could get to work just fine, speaking was fine. I just…. wasn’t a body.

They said that if it all worked out well for me, there would soon be others, and then they would look at setting up a support group or counselling where we could help each other. I didn’t reply to those emails.

  _____
/;;====

The static in the atmosphere feels like a caress down my scalp and spine. Dust devils form and dissipate in violent twirls around me while a purple and black electric storm brews on the horizon. The air smells like charcoal and ozone and it stings my eyes. I try to blink and realise I must have been crying.

  _____
/;;====

place is small like all city apartments.  There’s a little farm up top, and the usual tunnels and infrastructure down below. I’ve lived in Sydney my whole life. My parents were born here. I wonder if they knew Sydney was going to become the natural safe spot it is – at least compared to other regions. I guess that’s why they never left. Snuggly nestled between the Eastern Sea Wall and the Blue Mountains, this little sliver of land is protected. But after the north was wiped out and Melbourne flooded, I can’t stop this prickling idea that Sydney might be next.

There are occasional new arrivals in Sydney – we never see crowds of displaced people because if you were going to move, you would have done it a decade ago. But, when I see small groups, or couples getting off the train at the central interchange, the violence of nature and the effects of global catastrophe are clear. Weathered skin, frailness, sickness, poison, not to mention the severe psychological impacts seen in their staring, far-away eyes.

We’re all monitoring stations. Everyone’s body – their flesh, their minds, their relationships, their lives – measures this global catastrophe, just by waking up and existing. Just like my bifurcation, just like this city, they’re all emerging here from nothing, and their small routines might not be enough to survive the threat of sinking back to zero.

  _____
/;;====

Staring at the sun, straight out into space, and towards the centre of the system that gave us the earth and now wants to take it back. I smell stagnant water too acidic to provide for life. Grey dirt drifts around me, covering my fingers and slowly piling up over my shins. The earth is still and I am still. 

  _____
/;;====

I still dream. And I can’t be sure if these dreams are my anxiety over my existence or if I’m somehow dreaming through my body.

Surely my body is hundreds of kilometres away. But I feel so sure I can see myself outside, gracelessly strapped into a capsule during a storm. And I wake up sensing the electricity around me as if I had been there. And I see my body’s blood coagulated into the backs of my thighs, and the micro-cuts from the rampant fields of razor-sharp grass and insect bites, and the scientists in bulky suits who trudge out to retrieve my form after weeks in the sun beneath the ozone hole.

The routine is violent and the environment is so unforgiving. Yet through all this, I see my body as peaceful and doing something useful that I could never have done.

I was permitted to escape my flesh, but the body persists and endures. I wished to be no longer defined by my body. I thought I was a series of tasks which required a body as an apparatus. I thought I could I locate myself without a self.

But now I am confronted with the reality that my body’s service means I will always be defined by its participation in the history and politics and systems birthed by our global catastrophes. The same systems that built those air filters. That built those trains. That shrunk our cities. That destroyed our home.

My body endures. It will never resist, because I never resisted.

 

 

* This work’s title is inspired by a 2017 exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Artist Lin Tay-jou’s solo exhibition, My Body is an Air Quality Monitoring Station, documented a government failure to monitor pollution levels in southern Taiwan where a petrochemical plant caused untimely deaths and serious health concerns for local residents. ‘In essence, they were like laboratory mice exposed to a toxic environment, sacrificing their health while living under constant threat’.

 

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Hannah Jenkins is an arts writer and poet with a masters in curating and cultural leadership. They are assistant editor for the Sydney-based arts publication Running Dog. Hannah’s poetry can be found in Scum Mag and Ibis House, and their arts writing can be found in Framework, Running Dog and Art Almanac.

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