Selley discusses his latest project, which combines image and sound from landscapes where evidence of the first human species in the UK were found, with anonymous quotes from world leaders
I originally made these photographs and recordings in 2016, when I travelled to archaeological sites in Britain where evidence of the very first human species had been found — species that have since become extinct.
I recorded soundscapes of my journey, something that, at the time, seemed far too left-field and abstract to give a second thought to. The work wasn’t fully formed back then, and I ended up shelving the project, but during the pandemic, they began to take on a new significance.
I found a solace in re-exploring them — thinking about, listening to, and looking at these sites where earlier human species once roamed. It helped me to think about the situation with a broader perspective, and making abstract compositions using the field recordings was a way for me to explore these thoughts, and process my own emotional experience of the situation in which we find ourselves.
I’ve titled the series Pubs Shut Till Xmas: taken from The Sun newspaper’s strange front-page story on 20 April 2020, which captures the complete surreality of the situation in which we find ourselves.
The quotes beneath the images are from world leaders since the outbreak of the virus, and attempt to bring the work into the present. Even after the World Health Organisation declared the pandemic a public health emergency of international concern, several leaders were still claiming the whole thing was a hoax or pushing wild conspiracy theories.
The fundamental role of an elected leader is to protect their citizens. The pandemic made this more obvious than ever before in my lifetime, and it exposed the leaders who seemed to forget it, shamelessly twisting public perception of the pandemic for their own re-election purposes.
I wanted to leave the quotes open for interpretation because when certain politicians’ names appear underneath, it suddenly doesn’t seem surprising. In recent years, we have become used to the inflammatory, insensitive bleating of populist leaders, and I hope that by anonymising them, the words are removed from their context, and can, therefore, be considered in their own right.
I recently read about Brecht’s ‘alienation effect,’ with which he tried to combat the audience’s tendency to passively accept what they saw in his plays, and instead assess it critically. The anonymising of the quotes speak to that approach in the sense that when isolated, they seemed more open to question.
For me, the pandemic has brought to mind how fragile everything suddenly seems to be — the fragility of humans, as animals and individuals, but also the fragility of society itself. The human species that once existed in the landscapes I photographed seemed to be very settled — each wave of colonisation lasting for around 30,000 years.
I felt that there were larger lessons to be learned from the extinction of these distant ancestors of ours. These photographs and sounds demonstrate — metaphorically and literally — our temporality; they show that we are one of many. They lead me to question whether any animal species can exist permanently.
I think we find it hard to look at ourselves outside the culture we are surrounded by, but attempting to comprehend the amount of time that our current species has existed in comparison to others, as well as the lifespan of the earth, is a humbling exercise — and one that inevitably leads to questions of the anthropocentric way in which we see the world.