Practicing the Anthropocene (workshop)Thursday 14th July 2016 11:00 am Pig Rock Bothy, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 75 Belford Road, Edinburgh

As part of a series of events to accompany the exhibition Neo Neo // Extreme Past at the National Galleries of Scotland, curated by ATLAS Arts. GeoStudio have been invited to lead a day of discussion exploring the relationships between material cultures, arts practice and the Anthropocene.
 
Practicing the Anthropcene
 

It has recently been suggested that the impact of human activities upon the planet – people are for example responsible for moving about ten times as much rock and earth as tectonic plates, volcanoes and landslides – has significantly altered its ecosystems, occasioning a new geological era – the Anthropocene; a proposition that challenges such longstanding dualisms as human and non-human, nature and culture.

GeoStudio is a group of staff and post-graduate researchers, theorists and practitioners, within the Department of Arts at Northumbria University. The interests of members include the philosophy, politics and aesthetics of geo-materiality, The Geologic/Material Turn in Contemporary Culture, Post Human Nature, the legacies of Land Art, cross overs between art and physical geography, the studio/field as critical axis, matter, subjectivity and desire.

Through discussion, short readings and practical activities this workshop, led by members of the group, will consider some of the implications of this for critically engaged contemporary arts practices and our aesthetic, ethical and imaginative engagement with the phenomenal world.

To book: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/practicing-the-anthropocene-tickets-26115610494

Making geological models as part of the event
Making geological models as part of the event

That Oceanic Feeling - publication

A new 62 page publication (colour and b/w illustrations) with essays by Artist, Rona Lee, Art Historian, Andrew Patrizio and Geographer, Kathryn Yusoff, published John Hansard Gallery 2012

Price £8.95. Available to purchase from: 

http://www.cornerhouse.org/bookstore/product/rona-lee

Profiles

I have been playing around with the Erdas software creating a series of profiles representing an outline of the terrain traversed when journeying from one point on the seabed to another. My first experiments involved a ‘walk’ from Lands End to New York followed by a ‘hike’ down the mid Atlantic Ridge.

The image included here shows the route taken by the Nautilus submarine during its journey of 20,00 leagues, laid out in one sequence. I am thinking about creating panoramas or friezes of some kind using these profiles.

Somewhere in my mind I have the image of the seas peeled away from the earth like the flayed skin of anatomical Ecorche.

I have also been exploring the possibilities offered by cutting out different oceans and extruding them – as in this image  of the Mediterranean (bottom right) - the boot of Italy is visible in the top centre. I am now getting some of these files translated into 3d form using a 3d printer to see what the results look like.

Doing this exercise has brought up the question of where the boundaries lie between one ocean and the other - seemingly they frequently follow the pattern of the undersea plate boundaries and I have considered using these as basis for isolating one from the other. It also occurs to me to make a series of ‘models’, which expand the existing territorial boundaries of different countries to take account of undersea claims they are making, extending Canada for example into the arctic by an additional 750,000 square kilometers

More generally the question of what I might ‘do’ at NOCS is surfacing more frequently. Up until now I have been gathering information, learning new processes, forming contacts etc and this will continue for some while, I need to let the situation work on me, to absorb record and process the information I am being given access to. Tim and I were talking about the work we have done together so far, he was saying how important he felt it was to make a departure from the usual visual conventions of scientific modelling. I agree but at the same time its important to me not to simply produce material, which while it might be aesthetically pleasing, bears no logical or conceptual relationship to the source or context in which it was generated. I want to have a dialogue with something bigger than my own preoccupations or tastes. At the same I keep returning to the conundrum of wanting to give form to something the ineffability of which is precisely what attracts me to it. The scale of the material I am trying to synthesise appears impossible sometimes, making some kind of imaginative, allegrorical reading, which  combines creative license with 'hard' information seem the only appropriate way forward.

Profile of the journey of the Nautilus submarine (from 2000 Leagues under the Sea) - laid out in one sequence
Profile of the journey of the Nautilus submarine (from 2000 Leagues under the Sea) - laid out in one sequence
'cut out' of the Mediterranean
'cut out' of the Mediterranean

Border/Land

This coming week I have meetings arranged with NOCS researchers whose role it is to advise on the making and refusal of claims to undersea territories.  I remember going to Poland in the 1980’s and being forcibly struck by the idea of living in a country whose boundaries had changed so many times over the centuries. Rationally I understood this fully of course but coming from an island nation something about the concept effected me powerfully.

While we mourn the loss of parts of our coastline to erosion and the threat of rising sea levels hangs like a spectre over the future, negotiations are taking place around the ownership of the seabed, which will fundamentally change our existing perceptions of national boundaries. While the landmass shrinks, the expansion and extension of human territory continues, un-hindered.

The planting of a flag on the Artic seabed by Russia in 2007 (footage of which was then revealed to incorporate material from the film Titanic) vividly brought the issue to popular attention. In 2008 Britain made claims to parts of the Southern Atlantic around the Ascension Islands adding to those already in place for areas of the seabed around the Falklands reigniting and casting a new perspective on old conflicts.

As I understand it over and above claims to their immediate territorial waters countries may assert their right to parts of the seabed on the basis of ‘land mass extension’ - or by demonstrating a geological connection, which establishes the seabed as part of their terrestrial continental shelf .The capacity to establish cultural or historical links provides another basis for such claims.

‘Experts say that fewer than half of the world's maritime boundaries have been agreed and there is significant potential for conflict where more than one country submits claims to overlapping areas.’

I find this juxtaposition of physical and cultural factors fascinating, the one rooted in seemingly irrefutable materialities, the other reliant on interpretation and influence.

A Wikipedia entry on territorial waters refers me to the Principality of Sealand, a micro nation located on HM Fort Roughs a former World War II sea defence in the North Sea, whose claims to the seabed on which it is built remain so far unrecognized.

Russia plants flag on Arctic seabed
Russia plants flag on Arctic seabed

Google earth goes underwater

Goggle Earth Goes underwater

This week amid a flurry of media coverage Goggle Earth issues an update, which allows viewers to navigate the deep-sea bed.

My own attempts - clumsy no doubt - to use this facility afford the exhilarating experience - and it is strangely physical  - of crashing down towards and through the sea’s surface into an environment which is strangely reminiscent of some of the undersea scapes I have been producing using the Erdas modelling software

What is strikes me most forcibly is level of visibility it assumes. In parallel I am editing some video footage shot at a depth of between 2,500 to 3,000 metres which makes evident the difficulty of seeing anything beyond that which might be illuminated by the beam of a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) (an area of approx 9-16 sq metres). No horizon is visible confounding immediately one of the primary pictorial conventions of landscape. The other surprise perhaps is the constant stream of snow like debris that falls  through the water to rest on the bottom and which as soon as it is touched swirls up dramatically, obscuring the view. For me this powerfully evokes the depth involved while for the scientists I am working with it is a source of extreme frustration .

I remember when I was producing work in response to the site of a wrecked boat at Prawle Point  in Devon, putting the camera (see Above and Below this page) in waterproof a housing and allowing the tide to animate the camera as a means to embed within the work a trace of the circumstances in which it was made. By the same token this dark, awkward, footage excites me because of the echo it offers of the physical the space of the deep sea bed and the resitance it offers  to  the attemtp of the camera to reveal it.

Sitting in the video archive at National Oceanography Centre watching this footage I am awed by the hours and hours of tape held there, all of which must be painstakingly logged. I read the entries which record sightings of a purple anemone, small sponge, vase bug etc In this world, which is so vast and lacking in familiar landmarks a mussel shell serves as an provides an important point of orientation

Returning to Goggle Underwater I find myself thinking about the virtual world it conjures and the ways in which this in turn shapes our perception of the actual world. I can’t help feeling that despite the wealth of data on which it draws, Goggle Underwater represents a making of the world in our image, which is as much scenic as it is scientific.

Video shot at a depth of  2,500 - 3, 000 metres  Video
Video shot at a depth of 2,500 - 3, 000 metres
Google Earth Ocean floor
Google Earth Ocean floor
Footage shot with remotely operated vehicle - mid atlantic 3,000.00 metres  Video
Footage shot with remotely operated vehicle - mid atlantic 3,000.00 metres

Underwater Boyles

I have been thinking about the possiblity of working with the undersea locations that formed part of the Boyle Family's journey to the surface of the earth 'random locations' project.

In 1964 they invited members of the public to throw a dart into a map of the world, while blindfolded, thus generating a 1000 different locations, which became in turn the basis of the World Series, an ongoing project, which involves the making of a three-dimensional cast of an area of each site.

As far as I am aware they have yet to tackle those which resulted from darts that fell into the sea.

In one sense my interest in their work echoes the random basis of the original selection, offering a means to select undersea locations from the infinite number available. At the same time the concepts behind their enquiry resonate with my own interest in questions of objectivity, truth and knowledge.

“They attempt to present a slice of reality as they found it at the moment of selection. And yet, so much is left out. The world is not a fixed and permanent place. There are an infinite number of elements and factors that are constantly changing. No matter how good the recreation, it is still a recreation and only an approximation to reality. They know that it is impossible to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But they try to isolate and reduce the elements to see if it is possible to tell the truth about anything.”

Talk

Gave my introductory talk today. Despite my anxieties that my audience might feel alienated by the speculative nature of what I do and the fact that it has little to do with the acquisition of hard data, it seemed to go well. A number of points were raised, prompting discussion about different mapping conventions and the impact of these upon popular perceptions of different areas of land mass - Africa appearing much smaller than it is and Russia much bigger – the later being a significant factor in levels of American cold war paranoia, apparently.

At one point I mention my interest in the possibility of creating a globe, which inverts height and depth. Clive Boulter a structural geologist responded by saying that he frequently uses pseudoscopic techniques or reverse relief as a way of viewing terrestrial features. As he discusses the possibility with Tim of using a similar approach to model undersea environments I feel that I have perhaps in some small way facillitated a conversation that might not otherwise have happened.

Perhaps the most striking discussion was had later on the bus to the station. Bramley Murton was talking about the way in which at depth buoyancy counteracts gravity and how, seeing a small jelly fish swimming along at 30,000 metres below sea level, its tentacles splayed out to the sides, he had been prompted him to reflect on the extent to which while in terrestrial environments the fact that everything finally falls to the ground exerts a primary influence, in undersea environments it has a limited currency.

I am still pondering the implications of this conversation, immediately it made me think of the extent to which the notion of a return to earth fundamentally unpins our myths and beliefs and how profound a shift the idea of being buoyant represents to the ways in which we understand who we are.

Mean of the earth

Tim continues teaching the 3D modelling software he uses. Today our source was a bathythemetic map of the world. While showing me various functions he pointed out that the programme had calculated that in approximate terms the mean height / depth - depending on how you view it - of the Earth's surface is 1424 metres below sea level!

A statistic which for a moment held us both rapt, bringing home afresh the extent to which the sea, rather than earth, dominates the surface of the planet.

The most common height above sea level is 85 metres and the least 3,3800 metres below.

turning the world inside out

I have begun to learn the software Tim Le Bas, the scientist with who I am working, uses to model bathymetric data. I start with a map of the world, reversing the usual blue /green coloring of land and sea and going on to reverse height and depth. At one point I transform the Himalayas into a void – even then its hard to conceive of the fact that if Challenger Deep was turned inside out it would tower a mile higher than Everest!

Circling above the globe it is possible to change your viewpoint at will, turning the world upside down in a second, its amazing though how, once the familiar, western centric viewpoint of the Americas, Europe and Africa is displaced, hard it is to orientate at all. Left to my own devices I manage to produce a set of strange exaggerated, psychedelic landscapes, which look like covers for a Yes album. These and other experiments can be seen on the Maps/Models page

Reverse map of the world
Reverse map of the world

Marie Tharp

At coffee break someone mentions Marie Tharp describing her as an ‘artist who drew sections of the seabed’. Further research uncovers a cartographer and geologist, working in the fifties - a time when women were not allowed onto research vessels, who with a pen, ruler and data collected by her colleague, oceanographer Bruce Heezen, plotted the Mid-Oceanic Ridge, a line of undersea mountains that run along the sea bed between Europe/Africa and the Americas. An undertaking that laid the foundations for theories of plate tectonics and continental drift which were controversial until well into the 1960’s.

‘She wondered whether the depression was evidence of a continuous rift - a crack in the world - down the middle of the ridge. And … in turn whether that rift might be evidence of what scientists now call seafloor spreading, popularly known as continental drift. She and Mr. Heezen argued about it. She threw erasers and bottles of ink at him. It took him some time to come around. “I discounted it as girl talk and didn’t believe it for a year”

Many of the tributes to Tharp, who died in 2006, emphasize her fiery nature and powerful intuition observations which charecterise her achievements in a way that it is hard to imagine happening to a man, the later offering never the less a point of reference for my own less than rational approach.