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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