Mapping

Truthing Gap

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Truthing Gap
Submersion Dive Training Centre - Oban 2005

Between 2008-10 I was Leverhulme Trust, Artist in Residence at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, one of the world's top five oceanographic research institutions, working with sonar geophysicist Dr Tim Le Bas exploring methods of seabed mapping and undersea survey.

The deep seabed constitutes the largest, yet least known environment on the planet, one that is currently subject to rapidly accelerating economic, political and ecological pressures. Problems of depth and visibility mean that undersea surveys are conducted using sonar rather than optically, a circumstance that might be said to place the deep ocean 'beyond' the post enlightenment drive of science to render the world as observable phenomena.

Technically the term 'truthing gap' refers to the necessity to verify sonar data with other findings, here it refers the play of myth, imagination and objectivity, involved in envisaging environments that cannot be directly experienced, probing issues of knowledge production, perception and the nature of the scientific gaze. The work of Dr Le Bas and his colleagues seeks to minimize the challenges posed by such locations to attempts to map them, painstakingly cleaning and re-modeling raw data to achieve recognizable forms. For me this difficulty and the visual practices to which it gives rise are fascinating.

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See also That Oceanic Feeling


Physiographic diagram of the South Atlantic

Went to the British Library Map Room today to view Tharp's Physiographic diagram of the South Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Scotia Sea, and the eastern margin of the South Pacific Ocean. It is always a thrilling moment when you are handed a carefully packaged document, that may not have been viewed for many years, from the BL’s collections . Even so spreading the map out on the table was a revelation, what emerged, fold by fold, was a richly detailed drawing of the seabed which I spent a good hour pouring over, as much for the sensual and aesthetic experience of doing so, than anything else. The drawings of seamounts, of which an estimated 30,000.00 cover the globe, resemble maps of Tolkein's Middle earth.

I have discovered that a number of Tharp maps are held in different libraries throughout the UK, including the V and A and the Maritime Museum, suggesting the possibility of a Tharp pilgrimage to view all of them. NOCS have one of the North Atlantic, which I shall investigate on my next trip there.

 

Detail - Congo Submarine Canyon and Angollan Abysmal Plane - Tharp, Physiographic Diagram of the South Atlanticc
Detail - Congo Submarine Canyon and Angollan Abysmal Plane - Tharp, Physiographic Diagram of the South Atlanticc

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.

Tair Lair

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Tair Lair

Series of photographs taken at a tidal swimming pool Aberdeenshire


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.

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

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.

Cores

I spent part of today looking at sediment cores with Jess Trofimovs and Ben, a PhD student who is working on a project mapping the flow of volcanic eruptions from Montserrat and trying to determine a pattern to them. The core store is refrigerated at 4 degrees the average (i guess) temperature of the seabed.

A sediment core is a tube of what looks like mud made up of different kinds of detritus, the length and means of extraction of which depends on where it is taken from. Once in the lab it forms part of a kind of jigsaw puzzle which when allows Jessica and Ben to identify periods of volcanic activity, as indicated by changes in colour and composition.

The age of some sections, more than 250,000.00 years, is difficult to grasp, as is the fact they have only been exposed to light and air so recently. What is also striking is the laborious nature of the work Ben must do in order to piece together this picture. Much like the PhD students I share an office with upstairs who spend many painstaking hours separating grains of basalt out from other matter under a microscope, in order to prepare their samples, so Ben must carefully cut each core in half, photograph, log and test it in a variety of ways. The extent to which such basic, repetitive and simultaneously precise work, underpins even the most sophisticated scientific endeavour seems to offer a point of root connection with the role played by material and technical processes in artistic enquiry.

The core store itself is extraordinary, a material library that is both impressive and unsettling, it puts me in mind of 19th century collections of flora and fauna and while these drain-pipes full of sludge lack the glamour of either such earlier specimens or contemporary ice cores there, is still something deeply disconcerting about the journey they have made from the deep sea bed to a hanger in Southampton.

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

3D vision 2

Took the 3d samples down to Southampton today and everybody was very interested in them. Surprisingly it took some people a while to understand what they were looking at and even longer for them to work out that one of the prints inverts the height and depth of the seabed.

I think, and Tim agrees, that of the two the most successful is the one in which the seabed is raised up and the land dropped down, Sardinia and Corsica becoming holes

The next question is how to resolve the status of the work conceptually, especially given how aesthetically compelling the prints are. There are a number of possibilities including the idea of isolating those parts of the seabed which are currently subject to territorial claims under the United Nations Law of the Sea ratification process, the first part of which is to be finalised in May.

I am also interested in tracing the divisions of the seas as agreed in the 1950s

Either way more tests and the creation of different modelling formula will be needed I think.

3D print
3D print

Truthing Gap: MAPPING exhibition  (Nov 13th - Dec 11th 09)

A series of works in progress, generated at the National Oceanography Centre, as Leverhulme Artist in Residence, exhibited as part of a group show on Mapping at Howard Gardens Gallery, University of Wales Institute. 

Each marks an attempt to engage with processes of representing the undersea world while providing a counterpoint to the virtual and optical emphasis of scientific methods. Seeking ways of 'knowing', centred upon the imagination, desire, the body and touch, capable of resisting the separation of subject and object demanded by the use of observation as a way of encountering the world.

MAPPING exhibition  (Nov 13th - Dec 11th 09): Text

A New Set of Borders for the Kingdom uses geological and political data (deploying the same modelling programmes as the oceanographers I am working with) to reveal the underwater borders of the UK, while refering also to the current territorial undersea expansion of many nation states. For my scientific colleagues this kind of 3D dimensional map, which differs significantly from the 2d and screen based representations with which they are familiar, has prompted a new awareness of the different ways in which the movement of water and air determine topography.

By contrast to dive, to fall, to float, to fly while reminiscent of corporeal and geological forms has no actual geographic referent. Shaped by the tug of gravity, it conjures a space that pulls similarly at our imagination, both drawing and threatening.

Composed of 10,923.00 metres of string, enough to reach the bottom of the deepest surveyed point on Earth, Challenger Deep, A sailor went to sea, sea, sea, to see what he could see, see, see and all that he could see, see, see, was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea functions as another kind of index, offering a measure of both the distance involved and a trace of the near 2100,00 circuits of the space I walked while laying it out.

Similarly each of the 10-plaster reliefs that make up Ten Atlantic Days, the outlines of which were generated by a pen, hung by a thread from the table of my cabin aboard the RRS James Cook, offer a record of the motion of the sea over an 8-hour period on ten different days. Inspired in part by William Moon's embossed maps for the blind, they operate as kind of fingerprint making the otherwise invisible, tangible.

A freeze frame of a different sort is provided by the process of firing two handfuls of silt, collected from 4,000.00 metres below sea level in Whittard Canyon, a deep submarine canyon off the coast of Ireland, making the insubstantial solid. I want, I want, I want suggests the possibility of reaching down into the depths and grasping what lies below, giving a lie to the difficulty which accompanies the actual processes of retrieving such material. Its earthy materiality striking a sharp contrast with 11"21' North, 142" 12' East - Mariana Trench Abstraction a computer generated model, in which scientific data is manipulated so as to allow an impossible viewpoint in, around and through, the deepest place on earth.

Finally A long slow walk of 20,000 leagues fancifully charts a walk along the route of Jules Verne's Nautilus submarine, from the Pacific, through the Mediterranean, under Antarctica, to its demise in a whirlpool off the coast of Norway. A journey, the playful idiosyncrasy of which, offers a wry perspective on attempts to 'know' the deep sea.

That Oceanic Feeling

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That Oceanic Feeling

That Oceanic Feeling  John Hansard Gallery - Southampton - 28th Aug - 13th October 2012

The exhibition investigated our relationship to the deep sea - the most remote and inaccessible environment on the planet, combining new and recent works made whilst working alongside geoscientists at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, asking what it might mean to look into this otherwise dark space.

Commissioned by the John Hansard Gallery Funded by Arts Council England, Grants for the Arts, University of Wolverhampton 

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That Oceanic Feeling: Exhibition documentation