Making the Geologic Now

Time and the Breathing City
During the early research phase of a large Arts-Sciences-Design collaboration in the UK, I joined a site visit to the Portland stone quarry on the south coast of the UK, part of the area designated as the “Jurassic Coastline” World Heritage Site. The small team I was part of comprised meteorologist Dr. Janet Barlow, composer and sound expert Holger Zschenderlein and myself as artist and designer. We were in the midst of exploring concepts of time, material evidence, data, and embodied cognition/experience especially connected with complex systems in the atmosphere and our understanding of them. In thinking about how to devise some form of exhibition or “encounter space” which could connect the embodied knowledge of a visitor to these developing areas of scientific research, we wanted to share some insights among the group around core concepts and our varying perceptions of what these are. Such issues as how time is represented, how continuous change in dynamic systems may be modelled and studied, and how rational analysis weaves in with intuitive or ‘felt’ perceptions.

We started our process by visiting together places of “frontier” activities, in order to generate an exchange and appreciation of views from the different disciplines and practices represented. The Portland Stone quarry, (Portland Bill, Dorset UK, part of the Dorset Jurassic Coast) was chosen as one such place, presenting as it does a kind of “time interface” in two entirely different ways;

1/ the collision of a rock formation of equatorial marine origin; Portland Bill itself as part of an “object” traveling from the equator eventually to what is now the south coast of England and embedding in the sedimentary rocks of that place. Here the differences in material properties along the collision zone altered the local erosion behavior and continues to modify the coastline. Places are accessible where a cross section of the collision zone can be seen.

2/ places where a vertical slice is visible through the integral, layered record within the Portland stone itself of alternating periods of forestation, shoreline formation, and subsequent reforestation forming a kind of “grammar” of observable repetition. This material history has been conveyed intact over planetary distances to the Portland area. The dominant perception for me in this remarkable conjunction of phenomena became now inverted. The rock I was standing inside of and adjacent to was now “process”, rather than as it had been before I arrived- an area of England on the map, ‘a vague place’, in the abstract. I had used a map to travel to this ‘place’. The abstraction carried in my mind was now confounded by the paradoxical hardness of material; a material that had consolidated nuances of alteration over planetary time; literally a parallel universe to that of which I was presently conscious by virtue of the discontinuity of it’s, and my own, time scales. The hardness was yet again dissolved in sensory terms because the processes embodied were those of flow, of weather, of tropics and temperate change, of coastline, forest, plant and marine living process all within the illustrative ‘rock’. It was as solid as it gets yet was all about ‘flow’. A beach environment could be seen overlaying a collapsed fossilised forest from a previous era. In turn at a later time, the fossilised beach had been overlaid by a different ecology, and so it was repeated, both up towards the visible (present) surface, and below, further than could be seen.

This real sense of the inadequacies of the abstract created for me a consequent sense of the existence of an entirely different ‘outcome space’ in my own perception. This is to say that we need not be confounded by apparent contradiction in our knowledge. Paradox does not independently exist in the world. Paradox is more accurately thought of as a description of a subjective ‘felt’ experience signifying a mismatch between what appears to us and what we think we know. There is no such thing as paradox in the world; only in terms of relational properties; and it is within these relational properties that our struggle for meaning occurs. Standing in this place I experienced this perception of the materiality of time which felt simultaneously incomprehensible yet real and incontrovertible as if I feel myself pushed in the direction of a realisation without inherently being able to understand it.

Breathing CIty Installation, ‘Festival of Science’ London 2010
Four years after the rock visit, Holger, Janet and myself, joined now by Patrick Letschka, another designer, were concentrating on a specific installation for the Royal Society of Science on London’s South Bank. The installation linked aspects of urban weather effects, data visualisation and the inherent unpredictability of complex systems, coupled with the thought that everyone is ‘connected’ to weather. In terms of the group’s interest in the role played within a public ‘encounter space’ in an exhibition or event addressing such things as the challenge of representing complex systems, the possible connections between everyday embodied knowledge and specialised research, we had been thinking about different forms of expression coming together. The combining of high resolution video, sound, movement and information, all somehow would be interconnected in a manner which would engage the visitor to generate this sense of a knowledge space. Progress had been made yet we were still looking for a material connection within this complex set of ideas.

An unknown number of paradoxical variables are implicated in the tangible substance of the rock described above in my earlier experience standing in front of the Portland stone face, and the places and times it had been and was now. Weather processes, the interactive ebb and flow over geological time of completely different bio-eco environments, geological, (temperate, tropical, glacial etc.,) chemical and electro-magnetic changes are involved in the material we call land.

For our installation we discovered that ice carried an evocation of material and process relationships analogous to those I have described standing at the rockface. A two-ton block of ice within an architectural interior space provides a complex anchor for a surprising range of human perceptions and emotions engaging as it does all of the senses. It is solid, heavy, somewhat hostile, yet ephemeral. It is affecting and un-missable. it chills the air. You are confronted by a solid heavy mass which we know is transient. Where does it go? It contains a huge amount of embodied energy (it took three weeks to freeze) and many consequences of the gradual transfer of this energy were complex, unpredictable and surprising. Material changes occur and re-occur. The changing manner in which light behaves in the material; all of this amounts to highly engaging potential relationships with groups of viewers where specialists, families, the public etc., all have things to say both about ‘it’ and to each other; they are ‘drawn out’ by their experience. The dynamic at play here is a perceptual drama revolving around the tensions between expectation, anticipation, experience and narrative. We know little but experience much.

I could sense being ‘drawn out’ by the experience of contemplating the rock face at Portland Bill and its relationships with the rest of the ‘information’ visualised in the local area which I hope you can sense from the illustrations. The entirely abstract nature of what I had carried perceptually, to that place, was shown up for what it was; ‘without substance’. Useful as they may be for helping us move from one place to another or from one idea to another, it is transporting to confront such abstract representations and to sense them for exactly what they are; abstract; a tangible sense of the abstract. The direct perception of such things as the materialisation of time, or the ‘flavour’ of different energies, while not necessarily revealing what we sense that they promise, certainly give us a clear intimation of that domain of knowledge that exists beyond any particular form of representation and which is embodied in the substance of material existence.

The term ‘self illustrating phenomena’ is familiar to us in its most obvious forms ( for example tree-ring dating, animal and plant forms fixed within the fossil record, the apparent bouncing of water droplet upon the water surface etc.) However there always exists a challenging relationship between what we think of as self illustrating phenomena and any specific story we choose to tell about it. Here is the potent intersection between ‘fact’, experience and narrative.

I am learning that the entire domain of what we call embodied cognition, a domain incidentally shared by everyone alive, can be thought of as a resource that will assist in our continuing efforts to understand what surrounds us. It is my belief that by attempting to engage critically with the apparent contradictions of and intersections between intuitive perception and theoretical representation we will continue to expand our knowledge space. Perhaps more significantly we may effectively engage a greater range of individuals in how science actually works and understand more about the social construction of knowledge.


This essay forms part of ‘Making the Geologic Now’ online publication; a Smudge Studio project.

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See Also :
Ice-Traffic from The Breathing City Group »
Stem To Steam »
Heterotopia »

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Light on the Water

This form of natural focussing appears like writing on a surface in this video clip which I made in response to the Richard Feynman commentary on ‘seeing’.

Feynman’s explanation is concerned with how the workings of the senses gives us a human sense of agency, ‘despite’ the electromagnetic maelstrom in which we are suspended. As Feynman establishes, this maelstrom is constituted of evidence of ‘everything’ and it’s ‘out there’. Something more selective, suggesting meaning, is afforded by this surface and its very specific behaviour. The surface gives us an intersection; it interrogates the maelstrom. It does this by interposing a chunk of animated mathematics into the visible spectrum, thus providing something our senses can attune to.

In connection with the concepts I wrote about in ‘Making the Geologic Now’ (which illustrates an equivalent physical phenomenon within the geologic record) it seems from this that there are processes of imprinting history that occur at every conceivable scale of both time and material, that is, from Nano- Micro- Macro. In order for this to become intelligible we have employ the notion of a ‘surface’ via which we establish a meaning. Without such ‘surfaces’ the information, or ‘that which can be written’ may not be lifted from the chaos. I’ve compared this to the narrative imprinting ‘into the rock’ of the figurative forms and human actions from the Egyptian pantheon, joining the everyday to the metaphysical; in other words, adding additional dimensionality to the everyday moment. This narrative becomes accessible across time, even though some of it is concerned with such ‘moments’.

The modally of human vision appears to exist exactly at this mid scale interface in the quantum environment, meaning that our visual cognition can extend both in directions from outer to inner space. ‘The Problem of Scale’ indicates a knowledge boundary that continually retreats. As we look further into inner space there are additional dimensionalities wrapped up everywhere we look. If a convenient surface is not available, a notional one must be invented in order that we may engage with what’s ‘out there’ as well as what’s ‘in there’.

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What Is Embodied Cognition?

This is a short discussion paper to help locate a big topic. It was generated in the Grad Studies Elective class ‘Creative Insight; Arts/Science/Design collaboration’ with Chris Rose.

The human body has nothing more than its various surfaces and other sensibilities*, more or less well understood, with which to comprehend, to act, to relate to and to project, to imagine and live within this environment.

Embodied Mind Theory holds that even our most abstract or grand concepts are in some ways founded upon the biological and electromagnetic phenomena underpinning the sensory procedures upon which we so completely depend in order to ‘act’ in the world. The roots of our expressions of experience and knowledge have certain common ground in this embodiment of process, however different their ultimate expression may become within differing types of work for different individuals. This concept can be useful in exploring endeavours that are effectively (i.e., actually) interdisciplinary.

* ‘other sensibilities’ in one sense refers to the essential mystery of consciousness, i.e., such questions as ‘what is it for?‚’ ‘where does it reside?’ ‘what are its connections with neuroscience?’ ‘are animals conscious?’ etc. This is a contested subject with interesting tensions and paradoxes. Concepts range from the extremes of scientific materialism as claimed by Francis Crick and others, (a cultural development recently critiqued well by, e.g., Marilynne Robinson in ‘Absence of Mind’ where she shows how contemporary scientific materialism tends to deny the validity of an inner life) to the wild reaches of quantum entanglement in which the brain is seen as a non-passive interface to a quantum environment containing all possibilities. (‘You are Not Your Brain’ author Alva Noe, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ documentaries etc)

A good basic reference is Consciousness by Rita Carter. A good source work on diverse aspects of embodied cognition is Philosophy in the Flesh; the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought by Lakoff and Johnson. For a discussion on how this way of thinking applies to an arts installation, see the paper listed below from the ‘Breathing City’ project. You will not be surprised that there are critics of Lakoff and Johnson who say their claims are exaggerated. To help begin thinking about where this connects to a bigger picture, here are two sets of three-point comparisons of related subjects;
‘Embodied’, ‘Situated’, and ‘Distributed‚’ Cognition;

1. Embodied= relationships of mind, body experience and tacit knowledge (haptics). ‘We need a body to think’. ‘I think therefore I am‚’ may just as well be re-stated as ‘I am therefore I think’.

2. Situated= the cognitive skills of a skilled surfer are ‘situated’ in and on the water surface and in the weather; they may not apply to the tennis court (situated differently).

3. Distributed= team play is necessary where multiple and differing skills connect up into a whole, think a ships crew, the totality of a hospital etc. In this case no one person has the whole picture. One person alone may have concepts of the whole, or even over a period of time have done each of the separate jobs in turn, but not all of them at the same time, hence the complex action in real time is distributed over, and dependent upon, the group.

Three kinds of science;
- The science of ‘what is out there’
- The processes of science
- The science of Politics and Society.

Ken Robinson
Marilynne Robinson
Alva Noe
Consciousness Rita Carter
Philosophy in the Flesh; the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought Lakoff and Johnson
From the Sensory to the Rational — Between Embodied Experience and Disembodied Knowledge/Theory Rose, Zschenderlein 2009 (PDF) | (Zip File)

See Also :
Wild Chair Workshop »
Ice-Traffic from The Breathing City Group »
Making the Geologic Now »

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Design Thinking

Design thinking involves a willingness to critique our conception of ‘the big picture’ and how this may be communicated, disassembled or re-envisaged. It involves an unpredictable array of seemingly unconnected activities…and above all it involves the deliberate employment of multiple means of investigation, portrayal, and exploratory communication in order to engage with each of our many intelligences. Finally it involves the emergence of brilliant ideas in a context that people can relate to even if they hadn’t previously predicted it.

Design thinking is a process to find creative solutions and discover new opportunities. It is a way of thinking that maximises observations, limits judgments, and seeks balance. The idea is to build from a variety of perspectives – it’s multidisciplinary.

Many fields including science, art, and business can implement design thinking. It can be used to solve problems, make improvements, organise ideas, and create knowledge. Design thinking is creative, collaborative, personal, experimental, and integrative. It is helpful to define, and re-define problems.

Design thinking requires applying multiple perspectives and asking questions to frame the problem in such a way that creative solutions are encouraged. The ability to do this requires limited judgment and an open-minded, inviting environment. Multiple perspectives and open minds will lead to many options. All options should be considered and new opportunities may surface in the process of trying to communicate and critique these. The team can then work together to identify the best emergent options and go further from there.

Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR is going to work with RISD to incorporate design thinking into aspects of research, education, and public engagement. As a researcher, practitioner, and theorist, Chris Rose is connecting arts, sciences and design for students, educators and policymakers.


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Five Essays on Design »
Green Composites »
Hi-Res »

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‘Heterotopia’ is a very strange but exciting book due for publication in late 2012 from Zero Books. It takes a journey through ideas for transforming engineering education, through the voices different philosophers and local communities. This book is definitely for like minded people who are looking for inspiration in the light of the Occupy movements. Many are crying out for ideas for transforming education and this contribution by authors Caroline Baillie, Jens Kabo and John Reader is in the sphere of the Engineering, Social Justice and Peace Network and will be reviewed in their Journal.

This book is about transformations. Particularly the sort of transformations that many would like to see happen in our profession, school, community, country. Transformations that lead to shifts in ways of thinking and being, about who we are, what we do and why we do it. Many of us are disillusioned with contemporary society and how the economic drivers and dominant discourse lead us all to selfish, point-gaining behaviours. As we write this text, increasing numbers of riots, revolutions and peaceful protests are appearing on the global scene. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ has led to a number of other peaceful demonstrations against financial centres of major cities, which show that many members of our societies are discontent with the greed that they see in contemporary neoliberalism and are prepared to risk arrest and disruption to their lives to say so. The competitive behaviours they protest about act against community and a sense of social justice and leave us empty, bereft of direction, running in different directions at the behest of someone, but we have almost forgotten who and definitely, why. We attempt, in this short manuscript, to explore possible transformations to alternative ways of being, using a multitude of disciplinary traditions and experiences from different walks of life. We hope that it will be useful in provoking the development of a consciousness about transformation, which transcends disciplinary and professional boundaries and in starting a conversation, which will allow us to converse with each other about the changes we would like to see and how to help these happen.

Continued here (PDF) | Continued here (Zip file)

See Also :
What is Embodied Cognition? »
Hi-Res »
A New World »

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Why Make?

There’s so much stuff in the world; why should we make any more?

This question often arises; here is a possible answer.

We are embodied beings — that means the entirety of our lived experience (the ‘stuff’ of experience) has an embodied aspect. In the current culture of over-emphasis in visual representation (think adverts, icons, TV, screens) over actuality, we tend to equate whatever is in our conscious mind with our ‘reality’. However consciousness has only limited access to the totality of our embodied experience. Movement, touch, performance, time-based endeavor, etc., have complex ways of engaging that which lies in our haptic or embodied experience, both the familiar and that which is latent or remains to be discovered. Art forms and practices that engage more comprehensively with these factors tend to have more humanistic results. Another factor is that we have been taught to focus upon what we think of as the ‘rational’, whereas in fact the body has only its multiplicity of sensing surfaces, interior and exterior, with which we encounter the world. Everything else including concepts and actual perceptions and their meanings is built upon the workings of that interface. Since materials and their various qualities- behavioral, tactile, weight, sticky, alive etc., are what we encounter, air- stone- heat- wet and so on, you could say that our entire sensory domain is and has been formed by material interaction. So continuing to work with materials is a thoroughly rich knowledge- and experience-based experimental domain that taps into other forms of intelligence, memory, the intuitive etc. Before we can design or create, we need to discover, experiment, play, communicate, question, attempt, and do. The more of our faculties we bring into that process the richer the experience.

That’s why we make things.

See Also :
Objects + Drawings »
Hi-Res »
Design Thinking »

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A New World: Travelling to America from Europe

My own Father never travelled to the Americas. I’m sitting listening to Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” in Providence Rhode Island. In a former time in the ‘Massachusett’ language this was a part of the country they referred to as The Dawnland, the inhabitants of which were the People of the first light. Dvorak’s music for the new world included European folk melodies with their own roots in a previous time, with memories and sources possibly not so dissimilar.   The melodies explored the paradoxical realm of one’s cultural roots being both remembered, and travelled away from; roots that have been obscured or made inaccessible by events, and the journey both away from that loss and toward an unknown yet open future where perhaps these spirits and essences may somehow be rejoined. Will they or won’t they? We don’t know, they are ideas, feelings, memories. The imagery of Longfellow’s Hiawatha finds a kind of Bohemian resonance in Czech dances and songs.

My father enjoyed this music but I wonder what it was to him? In what ways have myself and he made this journey? He and his own father and that generation of fathers were caught up in the first and second world wars of the twentieth century. My father’s enjoyment of travel was taken to Europe- to France, Germany, Italy, Austria. The ‘New World Symphony’ was played on the record player often in my family home in Buckinghamshire, England when I was a child. For me it is one of those sound pictures or backgrounds that formed an unregarded part of familiar life at home, and which I took to be a defining example of ‘classical music’. From the standpoint of now in the year 2007, on hearing this music I can see mental images of leisurely arrival by ship into New York harbour, with the grey skyscrapers of the 1930’s looming in the background, of Ellis Island and the reaches of Manhattan. The music takes on yet another conceptual space; that of something that never happened, something that was for a time an aesthetic sensibility suspended upon the ocean, only existing in transit, never actualised either at source or at destination. But a source of strength when one has neither to hand and must create a space in which to be able to live.

See Also :
Design and Traditional Indian Manufacturing »
Stem To Steam »
Making the Geologic Now »

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In all the places I have met students of art and design over the past twenty years, in Helsinki, London, Oxford, Paris, Delft, Warsaw, Berlin, Naples, Bangalore, Sydney, Brisbane and here in the USA, the desire is tangible; for design education to move out of the shadow of the gross consumer business model and to really address the diversity of transferable skills needed by the informed designer of the 21st century. The evidence surrounds us of a dysfunctional material culture, yet in our immediate future we really do have the potential and real techniques to move beyond this; to inhabit the materials we are dependent upon, and not merely deploy them. In the context of our vision for materials, Buckminster Fuller observed that an ‘important idea’ for society took 25 years to register with people, and that a ‘really important idea’ took 50 years.  He said that in 1974, so we are well into the 50-year span he was thinking of.

Learning from nature (from our own nature as well as from the ‘other’ natures) is essential if we are to grasp the co-dependency at the heart of a living ecology. Although it is true that nature needs only half a chance to draw breath and recover the living imperative at it’s core, it is half a chance we still have to give it. This applies both internally and externally. Multiple single voices add up to steps we may take in a different direction; away from the exploitative and the empty, and towards a socially constructed material culture; a culture in which the question “Who pays, and who gains?” is more transparently answerable.

‘Hi-Res’ is a grassroots event. Real design of a humanistic nature is a grassroots process, and a good position to be in for the design schools of the future is to continue to seek ways to nurture this emergent paradigm.

See Also :
What is Embodied Cognition? »
Ice-Traffic from The Breathing City Group »
Design Thinking »

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