I’m a geologist by training, and my present employment has a decidedly environmental slant. I use this as an excuse for my ongoing interest in land/environmental art. While not explicitly classified as sci-art because it isn’t necessarily always directly commenting on Science, it nonetheless uses the Earth as an artistic medium, with artists employing (or taking advantage of) geological processes in the creation of their work. I see sci-art as a bit of a continuum. I can’t think of any examples, but I certainly imagine that art made using biological processes that doesn’t specifically comment on biology would still be considered Sci-Art. So why not geology?
This post is about earthquakes. And not just art about earthquakes (there are some gorgeous Japanese prints along these lines), but contemporary art using Earthquakes. The catalyst for this post was a long time in the making—Tania Kovats, in her gorgeous “The Drawing Book” shows one of her own drawings—made using earthquakes. She sees seismograms as drawings made by the earth with an instrument constructed by the human hand. Keeping this fascinating conceptual idea in mind (and frankly wishing that I’d come up with it myself), I started to wonder whether there were other artists who have made contemporary art about Earthquakes. I came upon a fascinating article published in the journal Leonardo by Ella Mudie called “The spectacle of Seismicity: Making Art from Earthquakes.” The projects highlighted in this article include:
Trigger, The Loma Prieta Pony by Natalie Jeremijenko
At first, it may seem like a simple children’s rocking pony. However, she has configured the motor of a child’s mechanical pony to cause it’s bucking to follow the ground motion of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. On one level an educational tool, but also something that plays to our kind of perverse relationship between risk and excitement. When I lived in California, I longed to feel an earthquake. Not just because I was studying geology at the time, but also for the excitement of it, and the excitement of things falling around me. I could die! (but probably wouldn’t).
Mori by Ken Goldberg
Ken Goldberg bills his project Mori as an internet-based earthwork. Minute motions along the Hayward Fault in California are transmitted from a UC Berkley seismograph via the internet and converted to acoustic signals. A viewer enters the gallery through a curtain and looks downward at the angular patterns of the seismogram, a visual reference to the view in the scientific data. Mudie points the similarity of this experience to the concerns of land artists, such as Robert Smithson, who were interested in the relationships between interior and exterior spaces. The concept of site/non-site. The San Francisco Ballet also performed a related piece in which the dancers interpreted these sounds, as they played in real-time. You can listen to the recording of the sound used in the performance here.
Parkfield Interventional Earthquake Fieldwork (PIEQF) by DV Rogers
Parkfield, CA is a strange town, which bills itself as the earthquake capital of the world. “Be here when it happens,” advertises the water tower. I visited while an undergrad at UCSB. Its fame is not without reason—it straddles the San Andreas fault and has (fairly) regular M6.0 earthquakes, which led the USGS to set up a field station there. Taking place over 91 days, the PIEQF was a temporary intervention into the landscape in which the artist installed a re-engineered earthquake shake table in a trench, which would shake every time an earthquake occurred in California. The installation was intended to visually comment on the dynamic landscape of California and our relationship with the landscape and earthquakes. Geophones installed in the ground around the table could also activate the table. It brought to bringing to light small vibrations (distant earthquakes or rumbling cars) which might not otherwise be noticed. DV Rogers eloquently noted, “PIEQF is a conceptual intervention within geological time. Collaborating with USGS scientists has enabled a linkage between earth science and art, enabling a vehicle to broaden and expand the reach of earthquake awareness, education and preparedness for the people of California using a contemporary cultural model.”
I haven’t seen any of these pieces in person. However, I find it interesting that, with the exception of Tania Kovats’s appropriation of a seismogram, they involve a participatory element. Perhaps because so much of what an earthquake is about is the physical sensation—yes, there is the aftermath of the fallen down buildings, buckled roads, etc, but event of the earthquake is exciting. As Natalie Jerimijenko shows, there’s a slight perversity to it all. A spectacle. It’s why we love disaster movies– to experience it, but to return home safe and sound at the end of it all. I am also extremely excited by the degree to which scientists were integral to the Mori project and the PIEQF. Not just merely accessories or inspiration, but active participants in the artistic process. Given that we’re talking about earthquakes here, it’s appropriate.