Thursday 30 June 2016

shuttle 14: crystallize

'To get back to that metaphor of Oz ... through the force of the twister, you're propelled to this central image ... The people go there, the child and the scarecrow, to the Emerald City of Oz which is a palace - but essentially a crystalline buildup ... to me, on a kind of fairy-tale level that's indicative of something ... I don't exactly know what the actual building of Oz looks like. Oz, like Atlantis, is this difficult place ... a vanishing point, you know' (Robert Smithson, 1970) 

The Crystal Land

"I turned on the car radio: '... countdown survey ... chew your little troubles away ... high ho hey hey ...'. My eyes glanced over the dashboard, it became a complex of chrome fixed into an embankment of steel. A glass disk covered the clock. The speedometer was broken. Cigarette butts were packed into the ashtray. Faint reflections slid over the windshield ... Under the radio dial (55-7-9-11-14-16) was a row of five plastic buttons in the shape of cantilevered cubes. The rear view mirror dislocated the road behind us. While listening to the radio, some of us read the Sunday newspapers. The pages made slight noises as they turned; each sheet folded over their laps forming temporary geographies of paper. A valley of print or a ridge of photographs would come and go in an instant. [...]

The quarry resembled the moon. A grey factory in the midst of it all looked like architecture designed by Robert Morris. A big sign on one building said THIS IS A HARD HAT AREA. We started climbing over the piles and ran into a 'rock hound', who came on, I thought, like Mr Wizard, and gave us all kinds of rock-hound-type information in an authoritative manner.We got a rundown on all the quarries that were closed to the public, as well as those that were open.

The wall of the quarry did look dangerous. Cracked, broken, shattered: the walls threatened to come crashing down. Fragmentation, corrosion, decomposition, disintegration,rock creep, debris slides, mud flow, avalanche were everywhere in evidence. The grey sky seemed to swallow up the heaps around us. Fractures and faults spilled forth sediment, crushed conglomerates, eroded debris and sandstone. It was an arid region, bleached and dry. An infinity of surfaces spread in every direction. A chaos of cracks surrounded us. [...]

As we drove through the Lincoln Tunnel, we talked about going on another trip, to Franklin Furnace; there one might find minerals that glow under ultraviolet light or 'black light'. The countless cream colored square tiles on the wall of the tunnel sped by, until a sign announcing New York broke the tiles' order ..."

Extract from Robert Smithson, 'The Crystal Land' (1966), reprinted in Jack Flam (ed.), The Collected Writings of Robert Smithson, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996

"Entirely lifeless, based on nothing but the dynamics of inorganic chemistry, the crystal nevertheless is said to 'grow'. It invades and coats a surface with absolute indifference, like mould or rust. And yet, unlike either of these - organic or inorganic processes - it is not necessarily an entropic process. While a mould might exploit the decay of a dead tree that it grows on, or while rust signifies the alteration of iron as it is exposed to air and water in a process of oxidisation, the process of crystallisation is one of resolution; it is what happens when the internal chemical instability of the copper sulphate solution resolves itself through the formation of the crystal.

Perhaps it is also significant that in the process of crystallisation, transformation is achieved through an internal process rather than external application. In a biological process such as the growth of a mould, the transformation of one sort of matter into another requires some external input of energy or outside substance. Similarly, with an inorganic process such as rusting, the process occurs only through a combination of external elements - the presence of oxygen and water. By contrast, crystallisation is an ordering of molecules within the crystal solution itself.

Crystallisation, then, is the purest expression of a self-contained, self-producing process of matter which goes from internal instability to stability, indifferent to materials and energies outside of it. In the iconography of Roger Hiorns' work, it is the clearest expression of the auto-generative theme that runs throughout. In the context of Harper Road, and of the crystallisation which has overcome an entire space of habitation, it is also the most absolute contrast to the processes of life and of living that this space bears witness to. [...]

The dense, dark cobalt blue of Seizure, its implacable and complete smothering of the straight lines of the original flat, seems to express a blank indifference to the troubles that afflict human building and human dwelling. If Seizure had continued its growth, one might imagine how the angles of the space would progressively disappear, as the crystals continued to grow inwards, towards each other. Ingrowing, like a crystal geode, this former space of human habitation - with its worn lino and peeling paint, with all the marks left by a living person - would be filled up, would disappear, transformed into pure crystal growth, with all signs of former human habitation obliterated. And with its cave-like floor, undulating with compacted crystals, Seizure suggests a return of the geological and inorganic world of prehistory. Rather than the complex and unstable relationship between human beings and their own built world, Seizure offers a lifeless form which, with its poisonous and lacerating surfaces, cannot even offer the primitive human shelter of a cave.

Auto-generative, inward-looking and ingrowing, independent of human intervention and human touch, Seizure contains Hiorns' fascination with the metaphorical potential of the inorganic, and of the strange life of inhuman processes. 'Seizure' might indicate the recovery of something that is rightfully owned, or a moment of paralysis or sudden arrest in the processes of a living organism. Here, in this flat that has become not a cave but a crystal geode, it is as if the living space of modern humanity is being reclaimed by the inorganic. While a more conventionally Romantic ecological narrative might imagine the reclamation of human space by organic nature - ruins overgrown by plants and trees - Seizure expels even organic nature in favour of the inorganic, choosing simple molecular growth over that more complex and curious molecule, DNA.

Seizure's perversely inhuman spectacle doesn't present us with the scene of a modern world, derelict or abandoned, or a futuristic fantasy of the ruins of a bygone civilisation. Instead it negates this human world and its human-scaled architecture, filling interior space with hard, inert matter, reclaiming it from those who have given it up. Seizure's paradoxical existence lies in the fact that, like any crystal geode, it has to be cut open to reveal its internal order and complexity, its hidden opulence and dazzling colour. In other words, the very act of seeing its internal form assumes a human presence; yet in this scenario, it is the human witness to the crystallised space which has become alien. No longer a derelict space of modern human habitation, Seizure positions the human spectator itself as trespasser. Seizure's internal order is a physical phenomenon before it is a visual one - by entering it one brings to it one's own human sense of visual, aesthetic value as if it were an intruder. However much we think of it as an artistic spectacle, Seizure remains indifferent. All it does is grow, in darkness. [...]

In this poisonously downbeat cultural atmosphere, it is not hard to grasp how Seizure resonates, even as it remains indifferent. Seizure's entropic, mineral and inhospitable formation, independent of human will, echoes all of our worst moments of doubt about what a world without humans would mean. The machine for living in has stopped. There are no signs of life. Art enters in".

Extract from JJ Charlesworth, 'Signs of life', in Roger Hiorns: Seizure, London: Artangel, 2008

Images: (top) 'Iberian quarry no. 3', photograph by Edward Burtynsky. For Burtynsky's website, see here. (Bottom): Robert Smithson's drawing, 'Map of Broken Clear Glass (Atlantis)', 1969

For further details of the conception and making of Roger Hiorns' Seizure, a 2008 Artangel commission in South London, see here and here

Wednesday 29 June 2016

shuttle 13: salt

Scientific research suggests that people's sense of taste is diminished significantly by certain conditions present inside aircraft cabins: notably, the lower humidity levels, adjusted air pressure, and particular frequencies of ambient white noise. So, for example, a drier mouth and throat have the effect of decelerating the communication of odors to the brain's receptors, and thereby stripping food of much of its flavor. Therefore, in order to enable in-flight food to taste roughly the same as on the ground, airline caterers compensate by supplementing their food with about 30% additional salt.

For the Danish artist Signe Emma, a gifted graphic design graduate from Kingston University near London, this information triggered a research project of her own, Airline Food, which resulted in a series of large scale scanning electron micrographs of dissolved salt. 

Astonishingly, these images resemble exquisite, crystalline landscapes as if viewed from the window of an aircraft at great height.

For Signe Emma's website, with further details of her 'Airline Food' series, see here

Tuesday 28 June 2016

shuttle 12: sweat

liquid self (portrait), Zingaro, Sicilia, 11 September 2006

Lone Twin: 'A story about sweat'
Said while rain dancing and out of breath in front of an audience at SceneKunst Theatre Festival, Aarhus, Denmark. Slightly planned, but mainly made up:

This is a story about sweat, sweating and perspiration. What do you call them? Ecologists? They tell us all water is constantly in a cycle, it’s either on the earth, or being evaporated, moving up into the sky going into the clouds and raining back down again. Water in a cycle. And sometimes we wonder if we’ve seen water before. If maybe some of the rain we saw on the way here tonight we might have seen before, maybe we’ve watched that rain already on the television. It was raining when they took down the Berlin wall, when the hammers went in and we wonder if some of that rain that we watched on the news in England could be this rain out here tonight. Maybe this rain out here has some of the water in it that was once frozen and helped to sink the Titanic in the form of a mighty iceberg. Maybe the rain out there is quite sinister and dangerous and has a very interesting and ludicrous past. Now, we want to extend that idea to personal sweat, we’re here sweating and maybe some of you here are also sweating? Some of our sweat might be some of your sweat. Or maybe some of our sweat was Winston Churchill’s sweat, or maybe Florence Nightingale’s sweat, or maybe some of Bruce Springsteen’s sweat, which is personally at the moment my favourite sweat. Or maybe – I don’t know – the Queen of Norway’s sweat. I don’t know if they have a queen there I’m slightly off-track. But we’re interested tonight in some of our sweat becoming some of your sweat, and that it might enter into some of that rain that also might contain some of our sweat.

Lone Twin: 'Dart action'

Wearing a tracksuit and a sports hat: run from the Yew Tree in Dartington Hall’s graveyard, Devon, England, through the Dartington Hall Estate and into Totnes. Follow signs for Bridgetown and find the left bank of the River Dart. Run the full length of the river path. At the path’s end continue into the Dart until about knee deep. Take off your sports hat and with your hands on your knees wait for sweat to drip into the river. 

Texts from Lone Twin's The Days of The Sledge Hammer Have Gone series, from of pigs and lovers: a lone twin research companion, 2001. Photos: (top) David Williams; (middle two) Gary Winters/Lone Twin; (bottom) Hergé - Tintin, Snowy & Captain Haddock work up a sweat in the desert

Monday 27 June 2016

shuttle 11: glass of flow


'Still today, it is water who is stranger here. Water is the exile, carried back in cans and flasks, the ghost between your hands and your mouth' (Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient)

'In the desert, the horse drinks first' (The Barbarian, Sam Wood, 1933)

Movement and transformation. The resilient persistence of matter, its survival, its memory - and yet the bottom line is that the only constant is mobility, change. It’s all circuits and flows in the mortality of forms, and the unpredictable migrations of their constituent parts. 

There are the remains of sea creatures in deserts and on mountain tops. Shells on Everest. And a tiny bead of sweat on a forehead might contain something of the exhaled vapor of another person or creature from long ago and far away. 

A glass of water here now is informed by the past. Perhaps it holds molecules evaporated from a glacier, a tree, tears, mist, snow, fog, ice, a cough, the gurgle of a new-born child or someone’s final sigh. Maybe even molecules from Archimedes’ bath water. 

Countless micro-moments of time, from yesterday or centuries ago on the other side of this blue ball, potentially co-existing in the same small container. The glass itself was once sand. 

It’s almost promiscuous, this co-mingling, and there is joy and mystery in that thought.

‘Ordinary human beings do not like mystery since you cannot put a bridle on it, and therefore, in general they exclude it, they repress it, they eliminate it – and it’s settled. But if on the contrary one remains open and susceptible to all the phenomena of overflowing, beginning with natural phenomena, one discovers the immense landscape of the trans-, of the passage. Which does not mean that everything will be adrift, our thinking, our choices, etc. But it means that the factor of instability, the factor of uncertainty, or what Derrida calls the undecidable, is indissociable from human life.

This ought to oblige us to have an attitude that is at once rigorous and tolerant and doubly so on each side: all the more rigorous than open, all the more demanding since it must lead to openness, leave passage: all the more mobile and rapid as the ground will always give way, always. A thought which leads to what is the element of writing: the necessity of only being the citizen of an extremely inappropriable, unmasterable country or ground’.

(Hélène Cixous in Rootprints: Memory and Life-Writing, London: Routledge 1997: 51-2)

For a brilliant account of the histories, economics, politics and ecologies of water in the western states of the USA (and with the overpumping of the vast fossil  aquifer, the Ogallala, very much in the news right now), see Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water, London: Pimlico, 1993

For drinking-water-driving music, here is James Blake's live cover of Joni Mitchell's A Case of You ('that was incredible, dude ...')

Photograph (at top): Nick Winter, 'Badwater, Death Valley', 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point on earth; summer daily average temperature - 116F/47C; highest recorded temperature - 134F/57C

Sunday 26 June 2016

shuttle 10: stars

‘Galloping horses of the departed century, I will consult ashes, stars, and flights of birds’ (Czeslaw Milosz, ‘The Unveiling’, from The Rising of the Sun)

'We are both storytellers. Lying on our backs, we look up at the night sky. This is where stories began, under the aegis of that multitude of stars which at night filch certitudes and sometimes return them as faith. Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky' (John Berger, And our faces, my heart, brief as photos)

'... Look: the Tower of Babel and the Felicity of Tents; up there are highway robbers, and doves bringing ambrosia to the gods, and the twin horsemen of the dawn;     up there the daughter of the wind, mourning for her husband lost at sea;     the Strong River is there, and the Palace of the Five Emperors, the Kennel of the Barking Dogs, the Straw Road, the Birds' Way, the Snake River of Sparkling Dust;     up there are the nymphs who mourn their brother Hyas, killed by a wild boar, and whose tears are shooting stars;     there are the Seven Portuguese Towers, the Boiling Sea, the Place Where One Bows Down;     look: the Ostriches Leaving and the Ostriches Returning and the Two Ostriches who are friends;     Cassiopeia, Queen of Ethiopia, who thought she was more beautiful than the Nereids, is there, and her hapless daughter Andromeda, and Perseus who rescued her with the head of Medusa swinging from his belt, and the monster, Cetus, he slew, and the winged horse Pegasus he rode;     there is the bull who plows the Furrow of Heaven;     up there is the Hand Stained with Henna, the Lake of Fullness, the Empty Bridge, the Egyptian X;     ...     up there is the Butcher's Shop, the Easy Chair, the Broken Platter, the Rotten Melon, the Light of Heaven;     Hans the Wagoner, who gave Jesus a ride, is there, and the lion who fell from the moon in the form of a meteor;     up there, once a year, ten thousand magpies form a bridge so that the Weaving Girl can cross the River of Light to meet the Oxherding Boy;     there are the braids of Queen Berenice, who sacrificed her hair to assure her husband's safety;     up there is a ship that never reaches safe harbor, and the Whisperer, the Weeping One, the Illuminator of the Great City, and look: the General of the Wind;     the Emperor Mu Wang and his charioteer Tsao Fu, who went in search of the peaches of the Western Paradise, are there;     the beautiful Callisto, doomed by Juno's jealousy, and the goddess Marichi who drives her chariot led by wild boars through the sky;     there are the Sea Goat, the Danish Elephant, the Long Blue Cloud-Eating Shark, and the White-Bone-Snake:     up there is Theodosius turned into a star and the head of John the Baptist turned into a star and Li Po's breath, a star his poem make brighter:     there are the Two Gates, one through which the souls descend when they are ready to enter human bodies, and the other through which they rise at death;     there a puma springs on its prey, and a Yellow Dragon climbs the Steps of Heaven;     up there is the Literary Woman, the Frigid Maiden, the Moist Daughters, and the Head of the Woman in Chains;     there is the Thirsty Camel, the Camel Striving to Get to Pasture, and the Camel Pasturing Freely; there the Crown of Thorns or the crown that Bacchus gave Ariadne as a wedding gift;     look:     the Horse's Navel, the Lion's Liver, the Balls of the Bear;     there is Rohni, the Red Deer, so beautiful that the moon, though he had twenty-seven wives, loved her alone;     up there the Announcer of Invasion on the Border, the Child of the Waters, the Pile of Bricks, the Exaltation of Piled-Up Corpses, the Excessively Minute, the Dry Lake, the Sacks of Coals, the Three Guardians of the Heir Apparent, the Tower of Wonders, the Overturned Chair;     up there is a cloud of dust kicked up by a buffalo, and the steamy breath of the elephant that lies in the waters that surround the earth, and the muddy water churned by a turtle swimming across the sky;     up there is the broken circle that is a chipped dish, or a boomerang, or the opening of the cave where the Great Bear sleeps;     up there the two donkeys whose braying made such a racket they frightened away the giants and were rewarded with a place in the sky;     there is the Star of a Thousand Colors, the Hand of Justice, the Plain and Even Way;     there is the Double Double;     there the Roadside Inn;     there the State Umbrella;     there the Shepherd's Hut     there the Vulture;     look: the Winnowing Fan;     there the Growing Small;     there the Court of God;     there the Quail's Fire;     there St Peter's Ship and the Star of the Sea;     there:     look:     up there:     the stars'.

From Eliot Weinberger, 'The Stars', in An Elemental Thing, New York: New Directions Books, 2007, 174-6

Images: (top) - 17th century celestial map, 'Planisphaeri coeleste', by the Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

(bottom) -  the Milky Way in the night sky, photographed by Steve Jurvetson, Black Rock Desert, Nevada, 22 July 2007

Saturday 25 June 2016

shuttle 9: night

'Whatever else a photograph may be about, it is always about time' (Richard Misrach)

John Paul Caponigro: There was one thing that you said that I found very poetic. You said, when we were talking about photographing at night, "It just lead me to it. I learned that there’s a new language of working photographically at night; I just fell in love with the language." The notion of a language of night is beautiful. Tell me more about it. 

Robert Misrach: Well, thanks very much. I can only go back to when I worked at night, earlier in my career, very early. I found it really liberating just to be able to work at night because there hadn’t been that much done in the history of photography. You know Brassai had worked at night, and there’s been individual photographs done at night, but there’s just so many other things photographed so thoroughly, it was hard to get away from that. It’s a trap in a way. Early on, working at night, there were so many things I didn’t know. Mistakes I made would lead to understanding new things. I guess the language evolved out of that ... 

JPC: It struck me that photographing the desert and photographing the night have similarities, both seem like spaces that when first approached can seem empty and yet when you spend time with them you realize how full they are. 

RM: Right, that’s very good. I was working exclusively at night and it’s only recently that I’ve come back to working at night again. But, as part of the Cantos, the way I’m approaching it now is conceptually much different.

JPC:  How so? 

RM: What’s different now is that I’ve become interested, in the last couple Cantos, with language and the way it shapes the way we see things. I’m working on a book right now. There’s a series of skies where I’ll pick a place on a map, like a Rand McNally map, and go to that place and photograph the sky. What’s in the photograph is not clouds, there’s no horizon line. There’s nothing in there. It’s really atmosphere, light. My idea was that the photographs become a rorschachs. What gives it its conceptual meaning is the name of the place. Each of the places is keyed by where I took it.

The night skies is a follow up on that in what I call the series 'Heavenly Bodies'. What I’m implying is the way that the night skies, the stars and the planets, have been named, is actually very Eurocentric. It’s based on Arabic language and Greek naming and mythology. All these different things that have been imposed on the American Southwest. Even though on one hand it’s sort of innocent, just a classification system, a naming system, it actually has a lot of bearing on how we understand ideas, sort of imperialist ideas about how one culture can lay its system over another – again relatively innocently but actually having a huge impact. Along with the skies which are based on place names, the Heavenly Bodies are based on constellation, star and planet names. What I’m doing is still looks very much like night photographs of the sky, it’s pretty straight forward in that sense. And yet, now with foregrounding the names and the language we use to describe those, at least the way Eurocentric culture does, it adds another element to the Cantos.

What I have done with the Desert Cantos is that each has a different strategy or approach to making images. Sometimes they’re very traditional. Others give you different ways to think about the overall picture, which for me has been the desert for these twenty years. 

JPC: I’m looking at Crimes and Splendors, it looks like there were eighteen Cantos at the time of publication. (In numerical order – 'The Terrain', 'The Event I', 'The Flood', 'The Fires', 'The War (Bravo 20)', 'The Pit', 'Desert Seas', 'The Event II', 'The Secret', 'The Test Site', 'The Playboys', 'Clouds (Non-Equivalents)', 'The Inhabitants', 'The Visitors', 'The Salt Flats', 'The Paintings', 'Deserts', 'Skies', 'Las Vegas' and several 'Prologues'). Are there any other themes that you’ve found since the publication of this book? 

RM: Well at the time of the book there were 18 plus what I call the metaprologue. Since then there have been a number of new Cantos; the 'Heavenly Bodies' for instance is the 21st Canto. And I’ve been doing the 22nd Canto – 'Night Clouds'. The 19th Canto is 'Las Vegas'. The 19th and 20th I’m still working on and I haven’t published any of those yet. The 21st and 22nd I’ve actually been publishing recently and will be doing a book on just those. 

JPC: Your work seems multi-perspectival, it’s almost as if a cubist got a hold of the theme rather the form. And I wondered if you felt that has a scattering influence. 

RM: I think that’s a really, really good analogy. One of the things that was really influential early on was Ezra Pound’s Cantos, one poem he worked on for 50 years. It’s epic. I had a great deal of difficulty understanding it. One of the problems was you’d be reading along in English and he would move to a Chinese ideogram or French--he actually used seven different languages in a given poem. And for somebody who’s not fluent in different languages it has the impact of rupturing your way of understanding something. It was very purposeful on his part to put these obstacles of language in there so that you become conscious of the whole system. You don’t get a neat narrative or a neat poem. Once you run into these obstacles of language you have to stop and think about other things. So, for me, in putting The Playboys or The Paintings or these language things in with these more conventional landscapes they inform each other. It does scatter, it does rupture, the way cubist paintings would. Each gives you a different way to approach something and sheds light on everything else. 

JPC: Right. In a sense, less authoritarian and perhaps a little more true to our experience of life, which these days is none too cohesive. 

RM: Our experience with knowledge, the way we know things, is not that neat. It doesn’t fit into a grand narrative, the way we’ve been taught to read. Things just don’t work that way any more. [...]

JPC: I find the desert fascinating. It’s a very fragile environment. It also points to our fragility. We’re codependent with the land and when the land is so fragile we too are fragile. Many people see the desert as a place of death. When I first moved from Connecticut to New Mexico it was a pretty barren place to me. But I learned to walk out there and instinctively avoid the cactus, look for the lizards, watch the night hawks. You become accustomed to a different rhythm.

RM: Yeah. When I was kid growing up the desert horrified me. I used to go skiing and we’d drive through the desert. You don’t want the car to break down. You don’t want to stop. You don’t want to get out. You don’t want to do anything. Once you fall in love with it, that’s it. The light, the space, the solitude, the silence. Oh my god. It’s a really powerful place to be. You’re with yourself. But the problem is because people characterize the desert as a waste land that’s why military corporations like to dump their toxics out there, because they consider a place like Nevada a "national sacrifice area." Because it’s a waste land. It’s ugly. It’s barren. And yet it is a remarkable place.

Extracts from an interview with Richard Misrach by John Paul Caponigro, first published in View Camera magazine, September-October 1998; for an online version of the full interview, see here 

Photographs above: Richard Misrach, 'Night' series (1975-7)

For an earlier post related to night in England ('nightfall'), see here 

Friday 24 June 2016

shuttle 8: gone birds

A partial listing of the extinct birds of North America, perhaps to be read to the sky, the desert, a salt lake, or the sea ...

Aiolornis incredibilis, Antillean cave rail, Atitlán grebe, Bachman’s warbler, Bahaman barn owl, Bermuda night heron, Brace’s emerald, Californian turkey, Carolina parakeet, Cathartornis gracilis, Chendytes lawi, Cuban red macaw, Daggett’s eagle, Dow’s puffin, Dusky seaside sparrow, Eocypselus rowei, Eskimo curlew, Gould’s emerald, Grand Cayman thrush, Guadeloupe caracara, Guadeloupe parakeet, Guadeloupe parrot, Guadeloupe storm petrel, Gymnogyps amplus, Gymnogyps varonai, Great auk, Heath hen, Imperial woodpecker, Ivory-billed woodpecker, Labrador duck, La Brea stork, Lesser Antillean macaw, Martinique house wren, Martinique parrot, Mauge’s parakeet, Merriam’s teratorn, Puerto Rican obscure bunting, Passenger pigeon, Pavo californicus, Phoenicopterus minutus, Phoenicopterus copei, Saint Croix macaw, San Benedicto rock wren, Semper’s warbler, Slender-billed curlew, Slender-billed grackle, Spectacled cormorant, Teratornis woodburnensis, Woodward’s eagle

Photographs (from top): Atitlán grebe, Eskimo curlew (1962), Ivory-billed woodpecker (1935), Passenger pigeon (1898)

For an earlier post, 'Ghost flock (last song)', about artists making work in relation to extinct birds for the travelling exhibition 'Ghosts of gone birds', see here 

For an earlier post, 'wac wac', about Al Lingis, birds, feathers, the quetzal, see here

Thursday 23 June 2016

shuttle 7: there is a moment

'There was a moment in prehistory when a large animal slumped down with its last breath and thoughts to leave its bones in the earth that the researcher is carefully sifting through in the fossil pit.

There was a moment when the Cro-Magnon artist lifted the pigment-dipped natural-fiber brush to the walls of the cave that one now enters with electric light to view the image of the ancient bison on its walls.

There was a moment when your father died, and his before that, and the same moment when the impulse and attraction between two human beings fused into the one that is yourself, as you will do / have done so many times in the past.

There is a moment when the newborn first lets out a cry into the dry air, when the pressure of light first falls on the virgin surface of the new retina and is registered by some pattern of nerve impulses not yet fully "understood".

There is a single moment when the flash of insight busts into your unguarded mind, when all the pieces fall together, when the pattern is seen or the individual element uncovered ... when the breath of clarity opens the mind and you "see" for the first time in a long while, remembering what it was like again as if suddenly jolted from sleep.

There is a moment when a single neuron fires in the darkness within the brain, when a threshold is reached and a tiny spark jumps the gap that physically separates one cell from another, doing the same shimmering dance when the heat of the flame touches the skin or when a deep memory replays on the surface of the mind.

There is a moment, only truly known in anticipation before it happens, when the eyes close for the last time and the brain shuts down its circuits forever (the end of time). 

There is also the moment of recognition, the return of the familiar, the second-time perception that releases the latent energy and excitement of the first. It can be in a face, in a landscape, in a desire.

Then there is the moment of awareness of the other, embodied in the physical separation of mother and child, and restated from the first conceptualisation of persons and objects in a space outside the skin, to the first encounter with an animal in the wild.

The power of the gaze crystallises these moments, and the eyes become the conduits of the exchange of energies between the organism and the environment, between the observer and the observed. A line of sight can just as easily slice through the separation between subject and object as it can define it ...'.

From Bill Viola (1995), 'I do not know what it is I am like', in Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994, London: Thames & Hudson / Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 142-3

Wednesday 22 June 2016

shuttle 6: the book of sand

'He told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this [book] has a beginning or an end' (Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand)

'We live surrounded by ideas and objects infinitely more ancient than we imagine; and yet at the same time everything is in motion' (Teilhard de Chardin)

'Sand is formed when rocks are ground down by weather or when they simply dissolve. Many of the commonest rocks are actually made of small crystals; if you pick up a stone at random and look at it closely, chances are you'll see small bits and pieces of slightly different colors. Different minerals dissolve at different rates, so rocks that are exposed to the air will gradually start looking like sponges, with tiny pits and holes where some minerals have dissolved away. Other rocks are ground down by rivers or cracked by ice or abraded by wind, and slowly pummelled into smaller and smaller pieces.

The sand you see on a beach or in the desert might have been freshly extracted from some mountain nearby or it might have been brought there by a river or an ocean that has long since disappeared. One of the wonderful things about sand is how far it reaches into the past ...

It used to be thought that sand grains became round by rubbing against each other in the surf or being tumbled together in riverbeds. Recently, geologists have realised that it takes millions of years of abrasion even to begin to round a sand grain. That means that a well-rounded grain ... may have gone through several 'cycles': first it was a crystal in a rock, then it was dislodged and ended up on a beach or in a riverbed. It may have been tossed around in the ocean for a couple of million years. Eventually, it settled somewhere - say at the bottom of a lake. As smaller grains of dust and dirt settled around, it became impacted and eventually hardened into stone. A few more millions of years and the lake might have dried up, exposing the lake bottom. Again the little grain would have sprung free and been washed away to some other beach. Again it would have been tossed around and gotten a little rounder.

A round grain ... might have lain about on different beaches three or four times over the course of a hundred million years - an amazing thought. It would have sat on a beach long before there were dinosaurs and then again millions of years after the dinosaurs vanished, and then one last time in the late 19th century, when an amateur naturalist scooped it up and put it on a microscope slide. The smaller the grain, the more slowly it becomes rounded. A really tiny round grain could have been at the bottom of a lake and then - in the scale of time that only geologists can appreciate - it could have been slowly lifted up into a giant mountain range, and then broken off the mountain, washed down to an ocean, stuck in a deep sediment, turned again into a rock, and so on ... at least for me, the aeons are too long to imagine.

"Sand grains have no souls but they are reincarnated", is how one geologist puts it. He says that the "average recycling time" is around two hundred million years, so that a grain of sand that was first sprung free of its first rock 2.4 billion years ago could have been in ten mountain ranges and ten oceans since then. Even the giddy numbers of Buddhist reincarnations (some deities live billions of years) can't bring home eternity for me in the way this simple example does.

Think of it next time you hold a grain of sand in your palm'.

Extract from James Elkins, How To Use Your Eyes, London & New York: Routledge, 2000, 176-81

Photographs: top - 'archive sand' from the Vatican archives: 'Walking through the storerooms of an archive containing documents dating back to the 17th century at the latest, on the shelves holding registers, volumes of letters and strings, one can notice a very fine type of sand, or sediments from other materials, mainly iron dust. Before blotting paper was invented, the “polverino” - as the sediments were called - was spread on freshly-written paper in order to dry the ink more quickly. Even nowadays, on desks in archives and libraries that preserve manuscript collections, as soon as they have finished looking at their desired item, researchers are likely to find a considerable amount of sand grains on their table. Flipping through the pages, the sand which was still adhering to the ink, falls from the sheet. For this very reason, in conservation labs, it’s a good rule to dust the documents in order to remove the grains that hold a strong grip onto the ink, even though the manuscript is often used. In order to remove the sand, a “dusting” is carried out with the so-called “Japanese brush”, a small brush deprived of its metallic parts, with very soft bristles that act in an extremely delicate manner on the paper, without causing any damage to the material'.

Bottom: Charles Henry Turner, 'Sand Dunes', c. 1890: cyanotype
For an earlier post about slowness in art practices, 'The little by little suddenly', see here 

Tuesday 21 June 2016

shuttle 5: duster

'Between the earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out' (Willa Cather)

'Dust allowed him a perception of time as a kind of seamless duration in which past and future could not be sundered' (Carolyn Steedman)

'Dust storms in three shapes. The whirl. The column. The sheet. In the first the horizon is lost. In the second you are surrounded by "waltzing Ginns". The third, the sheet, is "copper-tinted. Nature seems to be on fire" (Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient)

'Nobody knew what to call it. It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard - a black blizzard, they called it - with an edge like steel wool ... 'Did you see the color of that monster? Black as the inside of a dog' ... 'The earth is on the move'. 'Why?' 'Look what they done to the grass. Look at the land: wrong side up' ...

The rains disappeared - not just for a season but for years on end. With no sod to hold the earth in place, the soil calcified and started to blow. Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or ore in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains - a force of their own. When the dust fell, it penetrated everything: hair, nose, throat, kitchen, bedroom, well. A scoop shovel was needed just to clean the house in the morning. The eeriest thing was the darkness. People tied themselves to ropes before going to a barn just a few hundred feet away, like a walk in space, tethered to the life support centre. Chickens roosted in mid-afternoon ...

Many in the East did not believe the initial accounts of predatory dust until a storm in May 1934 carried the wind blown shards of the Great Plains over much of the nation. In Chicago, twelve million tons of dust fell. New York, Washington, even ships at sea, three hundred miles off the Atlantic coast - were blanketed in brown.

Cattle went blind and suffocated. When farmers cut them open, they found stomachs stuffed with fine sand. Horses ran madly against the storms. Children coughed and gagged, dying of something the doctors called "dust pneumonia". In desperation, some families gave away their children. The instinctive act of hugging a loved one or shaking someone's hand could knock two people down, for the static electricity from the dusters was so strong ...

On the skin, the dust was like a nail file, a grit strong enough to hurt. People rubbed Vaseline in their nostrils as a filter. The Red Cross handed out respiratory masks to schools. Families put wet towels beneath their doors and covered their windows with bed sheets, fresh-dampened nightly. The sheets turned a muddy brown ...

A Sunday in mid-April 1935 dawned quiet, windless, and bright. In the afternoon, the sky went purple - as if it were sick - and the temperature plunged. People looked northwest and saw a ragged-topped formation on the move, covering the horizon. The air crackled with electricity. Snap. Snap. Snap. Birds screeched and dashed for cover. As the black wall approached, car radios clicked off, overwhelmed by the static. Ignitions shorted out. Waves of sand, like ocean water rising over a ship's prow, swept over roads. Cars went into ditches. A train derailed ...

'It was like I was caught in a whirlpool. All of a sudden it got completely dark. I couldn't see a thing'.

That was Black Sunday, April 14 1935, day of the worst duster of them all. The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day ...

At its peak, the Dust Bowl covered one hundred million acres ... '

Extracts from Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, New York: Mariner Books, 2006

For driving music on this day of the summer solstice, see here: Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, 'April the 14th (Part 1)' - a song that weaves together disparate events that happened on 14 April, 'ruination day': the assassination of Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, Black Sunday

Monday 20 June 2016

shuttle 4: dusting

'[Dust] is not about rubbish ... It is not about Waste. Indeed, Dust is the opposite thing to Waste, or at least, the opposite principle to Waste. It is about circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing, or going away, or being gone. Nothing can be destroyed. The fundamental lessons of physiology, of cell-theory, and of neurology are all to do with this ceaseless making and unmaking, the movement and transmutation of one thing into another. Nothing goes away' 

(Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002, 164). 

'Dust is particulate matter, the dispersed, disordered raw material from which everything ordered and coherent arises, and it is to dust that the complex decays.

From the beginning to the end, dust underlies all existence. It is the species of light one sees flickering in a sunbeam, the molecules of gas dashing randomly in all directions. It is the atoms and molecules of matter that can be recombined and reshaped into something new such as the ordered array of atoms in  crystal or in a living cell, and it is the dusts of interstellar space that condensed to produce the sun and its planets and all the galaxies.

Everything that we understand as consistent, the living creature, the machine, the tree, are dust in its coherent phase, part of its continuous evolutionary cycle from order to disorder, from growth to decay repeated in seemingly endless variations ...

Most dust particles have crystalline interiors, but the microcrystal in one speck of dust cannot coordinate its order with that of another grain, and the dust remains chaotic. Yet it is from these dusts that the complexities of our civilisation are built. Dust on one level is chaotic, and orderly and precise on another.

As the universe evolves it creates new dusts for its various eras ... The dusts of our era, though but a transitory formation in an evolving universe, will persist for many trillions of years. Its great miracle, life, is a cycle of ordered dust that strives to perpetuate itself. The great by-product of life, intelligence, is also like dust, with bits and fragments of coherence being produced out of disorder, but all too often lapses back into chaos again'.

(Agnes Denes, extract from The Book of Dust: The Beginning and the End of Time and Thereafter, Rochester NY: Visual Studies Workshop, 1989: quoted in Graham Gusin & Ele Carpenter (eds), Nothing, London: August, 2001, 84-6).

‘Quick: why aren't you dusting? On every continent, we sweep floors and wipe tabletops not only to shine the place, but to forestall burial.

It is interesting, the debris in the air. A surprising portion of it is spider legs, and bits thereof. Spider legs are flimsy … because they are hollow. They lack muscles; compressed air moves them. Consequently, the snap off easily, and go blowing about.  Another unexpected source of aerial detritus is tires. Eroding tires shed latex shreds at a brisk clip, say the folk who train their microscopes on air. Farm dust joins sulfuric acid droplets (from burned fossil fuels) and sand from the Sahara Desert to produce the summer haze that blurs and dims valleys and coasts.

We inhale “many hundreds of particles in each breath we take” … Air routinely carries intimate fragments of rug, dung, carcasses, leaves and leaf hairs, coral, coal, skin, sweat, soap, silt, pollen, algae, bacteria, spores, soot, ammonia, and spit, as well as “salt crystals from ocean white-caps, dust scraped off distant mountains, micro bits of cooled magma blown from volcanoes and charred micro-fragments from tropical forest fires”. These sorts of things can add up.

At dusk, the particles meet rising water vapor, stick together, and fall; that is when they will bury you. Soil bacteria eat what they can, and the rest of it stays put if there’s no wind. After thirty years, there is a new inch of topsoil ...

We live on dead people's heads’

(Annie Dillard, For The Time Being, New York: Vintage, 1999, 123-4).

Photo at top (Professor Larry Taylor): lunar dust, including volcanic glass beads and agglutinate, viewed under a microscope.

P.S. Some years ago, an artist friend in England (who shall remain nameless here) told me that he had been invited to set a piece of moon rock in a ring; the owner had worked at NASA, I think. One evening at home, in a moment of alcohol-induced lunacy, he decided to crush the rock fragment, roll it in a spliff, and smoke it. Disappointingly, it seems it didn't help him achieve 'escape velocity'. The following morning, he found a piece of rock of similar size and colour on a local building site and used that for the commissioned ring.