For the penultimate Landscape Surgery of the academic year, we were delighted to be joined by two guest speakers. Jol Thomson (PhD student at the University of Westminster) and Dr. Julian Brigstocke (Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University) joined us to discuss their work as part of Royal Holloway’s Centre for the GeoHumanities Creative Commissions, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and AHRC, and last year organised around the theme of ‘Creating Earth Futures’. Five works were selected for the 2018 programme, three of which we were introduced to in the session. Full details about all of the selected works are available on the Centre for the GeoHumanities’ blog.
First up to present was Jol Thomson discussing ‘In the Future Perfect’, the commissioned work he developed alongside Julian Weaver, an artist at Finetuned Ltd. Jol and Julian’s project seeks to interrogate the imaginaries and implications of scientific work operating in the realm of pataphysics: that which examines imaginary phenomena existing in a world beyond metaphysics; outside the basic principles of existence. In this regard, their work explores the discourses and materialities of nuclear fusion and its implications for energy provision and climate change.
Jol explained that the cultural imaginary around this branch of scientific experimentation and technological development has so far only existed in the future perfect, with fusion consistently projected over the past century to be ‘30 years away’ from being a viable power source. Decades of fusion experiments have faced continued difficulties in containing the reaction in a manner requiring less energy than the amount that can be extracted.
To develop their creative research, Jol and Julian sought to gain access to The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the UK’s national nuclear fusion research laboratory located in Oxfordshire, as well as visiting the ITER Centre in Marseille, an internationally-recognised experimental site for nuclear fusion. One of the most significant observations the pair have made during their research at both sites is the scale of infrastructure needed to make fusion reactions possible. Jol illustrated using maps and photographs how the UK’s Culham Centre is situated close to both a power station and solar field, and also draws on sources of energy from further afield to function. Meanwhile, it was explained by Jol that for fusion to be viable as a source of energy, research has shown that humans would need to mine off-world to recover the minerals needed to create adequate conditions for fusion to occur, which are rare to find on earth.
Even aside from these very practical limitations to the fusion process, Jol hypothesised what would happen if humans could harness the unlimited, self-sustaining energy that nuclear fusion promises. It has been projected that population levels could eventually become so high that our impacts as humans would become devastating to the earth’s ecosystem and ultimately be unsustainable, undermining the ‘green’ credentials of fusion as a method of energy production. In considering what the legacy of fusion energy could look like millennia into the future, Jol and Julian have been inspired by the film Into Eternity, which explores ideas about how a nuclear waste site in Finland could be marked as hazardous for future inhabitants of Earth, who are unlikely to communicate using the same languages we do today.
Both film and sound recording have been employed by the pair to interrogate the atmospheres and energies that permeate today’s nuclear fusion testing sites. In the session, Jol played sound files that audibly represented what takes place inside a tokamak test reactor, where a magnetic field confines the heated plasma used in nuclear fusion experiments, suggesting that him and Julian could eventually score this sonic output for a choir as a performative piece. Through the process of transforming these scientific operations into visual and sonic outputs, their work demonstrates both the elusive and ethereal qualities of current fusion experiments, and the level of imagination necessary to make nuclear fusion as a power source a tangible reality.
Following Jol, Dr. Julian Brigstocke gave a presentation titled ‘Thinking in Suspension: The Geoaesthetics of Sand’. His presentation introduced his collaborative project ‘Harena’, which he works on alongside Victoria Jones, an installation artist exploring the ways humans use their senses to connect with and create a sense of place. Their creative collaboration investigates the contemporary politics of sand mining through a series of experiments with the material properties and cultural experiences of sand.
For Julian, sand is both a vital substance and display of power. It connects the elemental to the global; marks time, decay and death; and as the primary component of concrete, cement, glass, fibreglass, asphalt, microchips and more, is the most important constituent material of our urban landscapes. Despite being a finite natural resource which takes centuries to form, it is the world’s most consumed resource after air and water, and humans are using it at accelerating rates, particularly in construction (Morrow, 2018). In 2014, the UN Environmental Program declared that sand mining was causing “unequivocal” environmental problems (ibid).
In this regard, Julian made particular reference to Hong Kong, where sand extracted from seabeds has provided the material for land reclamation, at the cost of catastrophic damage to marine ecosystems. While land reclamation projects appear to promise a quick fix to endemic housing shortages in one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas, political debates rage around how far these projects go towards reducing Hong Kong’s vast inequalities in wealth; where the sand itself comes from; why existing brownfield sites are not used instead; and government collusion with private property owners and developers.
As well as carrying out fieldwork in Hong Kong and visiting sand mines in the UK, Julian and Victoria’s work has delved into the sensual and material properties of sand through a series of ‘experiments’ that explore its qualities of suspension. Julian recounted his unsettling experience of a sensory deprivation tank, where participants lie face up on a pool of water warmed to body temperature and containing a high proportion of salt in suspension, enabling them to lose all sense of the body’s external boundaries. Elsewhere, him and Victoria visited an anechoic chamber, which prevents users from hearing anything inside it, as an exploration of the silence that suspension in air entails; while indoor skydiving allowed them to perceive how tiny adjustments in bodily weight can cause significant directional movements when bodies are suspended in air. In thinking about these processes of attunement with various environmental and atmospheric conditions – of drifting, disorientation and movement across earth, water and air – Julian was reminded of a quotation from Michel Serres (1982: 83): “nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal”.
Julian ended his presentation with a provocation central to the joint political and cultural territory of his and Victoria’s project. He asked: how might the granular thinking necessary to understand the properties of sand pollute the contemporary noisy landscapes of consumerism, for example in the concrete, glass and asphalt landscapes of Hong Kong?
To conclude the session, we were presented with a film by Matterlurgy (Helena Hunter and Mark Peter Wright) made in collaboration with filmmaker Daniel Beck, entitled ‘Rehearsals for Uncertain Futures’. Featuring Royal Holloway’s Department of Geology’s Sea Ice Simulator (SIS), used in climate science to predict and model the impact of black carbon on ice reflectivity, the film emphasises the create commission project’s broader emphasis on noticing (Tsing, 2015). Focusing on the polyphonic dimensions of environmental processes and methods of observing them, “[s]uch an inquiry finds its roots through interleaved theories of listening […] and the practices of performance and fictioning. It considers the vibratory, affective and speculative forms of agency bound within the technologies and practices produced by GEC [Global Environmental Change]” (Hall, 2018).
Heavily featuring the work and daily practices of Professor Martin King (Professor in Environmental Geoscience in the Department of Earth Sciences at RHUL), the film never once features Professor King’s full body or face, but instead focuses on the materiality of the shipping containers situated in the woodland where the SIS is stored, the bird song in the background and the diverse sounds produced by the SIS machinery.
“The film focuses on the interconnections between the lab and field amplifying physical and material production practices behind climate simulation and predictive data modelling. How does data become data, where exactly is the field, what practices of maintenance and care does simulation require?” (Helena Hunter, no date).
The film is just one part of a broader project which seeks to produce a series of artworks which “challenge and re-imagine how GEC is both sensed and non sensed, signalled and signed, heard and unheard” (Hall, 2018).
We would like to extend our thanks to Jol and Julian for joining us in the session, and to Helena and Mark for allowing us to view their film. We look forward to seeing how the projects develop.
Hall, L. (2018) Matterlurgy selected for the Creating Earth Futures Commissions. Available at: https://www.crisap.org/2018/01/22/matterlurgy-creating-earth-futures-commissions-2018/ (Accessed: 14 May 2019)
Hunter, H. (no date) Rehearsals for Uncertain Futures. Available at: http://www.helenahunter.net/rehearsals-for-uncertain-futures (Accessed: 27 May 2019)
Morrow, S. (2018) 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Sand. Available at: http://discovermagazine.com/2018/jun/20-things-you-didnt-know-about–sand (Accessed: 27 May 2019)
Serres, M. (1982) Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.
Tsing, A. (2015) The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Written by Alice Reynolds and Jack Lowe