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Journal

A reflective journal of my practice, process, and thoughts.

Posts in Research
Tutorial 3 - 21/06/19 + Process May-July

In my recent tutorial with Jonathan I shared some of the practical experiments I’ve undertaken in the past couple of months which had not been published here - for that reason I have developed a short video to summarise my activity. I find documenting my process in this way to be advantageous in that it demands reflection in even the piecing together of the bare material (scans, screenshots, photographs), clarifying progress made and action to be taken. Through questioning the ways in which I see the project developing in relation to the lenses I am applying to my research and building a vocabulary through which to communicate, our discussion helped clarify the skeleton of my intention as to form methods of communicating a narrative rooted in identity and personal experience utilising multiple languages (written, material, digital); informed but essentially speculative rather than didactic. This is a continuous exploration through metaphor and poetic association between specific fields (neurology, geology, technology) that pivot around the ‘fixed’ point of home, represented by the ‘shed’ (a basic symbolic reference to Aristotle’s storehouse theory) a place which all of these explorations which are represented in different forms (text, manipulations of text as visual form, rendering, contact prints, video, 360° AR/VR) return to and fold into. I am taking the opportunity this week at the beginning of my summer break from work to consolidate and reflect, to update my project proposal, and to identify key action points for development moving forward.

 
 
London Trip - 15-06-19 - AI and The Invisible / Semiconductor Revisited
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A couple of weekends ago I went back down to London for a day to check out some shows I’d been eager to see for a while, particularly ‘AI: More than Human’ at the Barbican.

As an examination of how AI is increasingly permeating our lives, at a glance and if at least through the cacophonous curation of show, I think it worked reasonably well as an introduction to the development of technologies driven by an insatiable human pursuit of pattern, measurement and ‘progress’. However, by the time I had squeezed my body a third of the way through the show it was hard not to feel completely overwhelmed by the unbelievable volume of work and display in a narrow tunnel-like space in The Curve, on top of the sheer volume of people jostling to be able to focus for more than ten seconds on one piece. Truthfully, maybe worst of all, I simply didn’t even find much in the exhibition very interesting (which to be honest is a feeling I very rarely encounter or feel weighed down by). I spent the visit wading through and elbowing people ‘playing’ with pieces that barely seemed to offer space for meaning or a question beyond a gimmick. Another factor which did affect my navigation of the show was having felt personally quite low for a few weeks due to several work-related issues - not in and of itself relevant or of interest, but in terms of the context of the show and some of the words that came to mind - power/powerlessness, control, prediction, removal - my interaction with the work suffered from a lack of focus in curation and design which might have provided more space for a critical human reading… most of the people around me seemed to be at the very least excited by the interactive quality of each zone but I question how much collectively was taken away in terms of a reflection of the place of creativity in an AI driven social landscape. Scattered throughout were subjects which I intend to explore further and would have liked to have been able to hone in on, for example neural networks and bioengineering (Organ-Chips in the form of tiny devices lined with responsive living human cells and tissue designed by Emulate Inc. - which sounds like the name of a corporation straight out of a sci-fi movie - to ‘better predict’ human responses to drugs, I read as being at once hopeful and disquieting). I don’t typically find Jonathan Jones’ writing to be constructive and balanced, but I understand the central questions he asks of the show in reflecting on my experience; ‘The question I’m left with is why so much is being invested in talking up the creativity of AI.’ My frustration I think gravitated not towards a feeling that creativity was not to be found in AI technologies - at least not the undercurrent - but the talking-up and hype did not allow for a critical analysis of how an AI can become creative. This perhaps was not a central concern of the premise but the premise itself to me also seemed slightly muddled.

An element that did interest me was some of the focus on written language - one piece in particular tucked away amongst the noise presented extracts of text and asked the viewer whether it was written by a human or an AI, and revealed the answers (one extract for example, pictured above, was a film script generated by ‘Benjamin’, written by a neural network trained on dozens of sci-fi screenplays), which were interesting I think in terms of the way we process poetry or word association… botpoet.com offers a similar ‘test’, and an article from New Scientist (‘Neural network poetry is so bad we think it’s written by humans’) perhaps rightly argues that while an AI could be programmed to write about Brexit in the style of a Greek epic, the emotive drivers of creative intent are missing. This is perhaps not entirely unrelated to Austin Kleon’s reflections on his own ‘newspaper blackout’ work which we discussed in our group Skype chat (18 June) - questioning intent in relation to the ways in which we develop ideas, and maybe some of our hang-ups about originality. I find these convolutions in itself compelling rather than ineffective or purely pointless; the origin of the algorithm itself contains human intent, which has to emit an undercurrent of meaning, especially if we stop to reconsider that AI again is ‘artificial’ - designed, and is not an infallible non-human species. Anxieties abound. The podcast ‘The End of the World’ with Josh Clark effectively explores such considerations of the limits to which AI might influence and shape the future of civilisation outside of our control and the degree to which AI could be, or already represents, an existential threat, and is presented in a way which introduces subjects and issues in an accessible, scaffolded manner. Language, and the use of multiple forms of language is something Jonathan and I discussed in my last tutorial which will be detailed in a post to follow, and building on a suggestion I received in the Mid-Point Review, an exploration of written work and the incorporation of text in visual sequences is something I am focusing on now in making. Memory, as the container of meaning, perhaps still lies buried at the roots of the mechanised plant, and in this I will be researching more on neural networks and deep learning, and the ‘mining’ of natural neurological systems, in order to inform the potency of my project. This will also feed into my research paper which will examine the work of Jon Rafman - again, more to follow.

Today those who peer into the future want only relief from anxiety. Unable to face the prospect that the cycles of war will continue, they are desperate to find a pattern of improvement in history. It is only natural that believers in reason... should turn to the sorcery of numbers... Just as the Elizabethan magus transcribed tables shown to him by angels, the modern scientific scryer deciphers numerical auguries of angels hidden in ourselves.
— John Gray (The Soul of the Marionette, 2015)

Unsound:Undead by AUDINT at arebyte Gallery was not immune to the swamp of future-collapse anxiety either; toxic-green projections and percolating sound (crickets chirping, robotic corporate-style narration of animations describing how the brain processes auditory signals, meandering interviews with White House employees) bounce the viewers’ attention around a media frenzy, over the unravelling of a situation involving alleged sonic attacks on US embassies in Cuba and South China, and speculation on the source of the recorded signal leading to reports of ‘mild-traumatic brain injury’ among US diplomats.

‘The air is crammed and not a moment goes by that doesn’t presage the demise of an eleven billion strong species. Volatile weather systems, environmental warfare, and insect-machine hybrids that infect humans via targeted DNA sequencing, all meld this ecology of collapse. The hierarchy of Earth’s species is about to enter an irreversible flux.’ - Ghostcode, AUDINT

One of the main things I’ve taken away from the two shows I’ve seen at arebyte is that the curation in itself I’ve found very sensitive and effective in enabling the work to engage and not collectively overwhelm. Visiting RE-FIGURE-GROUND was an important moment for me in February, encouraging me to explore intricacies of new technologies and methods of presentation - I appreciate the currentness of the gallery’s programming and Unsound:Undead continued to make me reflect back on my intentions in those terms. How and in what ways do I intend for my project to be immersive? While Unsound:Undead was visually compelling and curated in a way which conveyed a sense of urgency and the battle for persuasion taking place beneath the hum of the swarming media broadcasts and in the rapid-fire twitterbot monitor, I did also consider the penetrability of the work and how, despite being installed in a cohesive way, possibly lacked cohesion in message and effectively suggesting relationships between the video work and the physical cabinet-style assemblage containing 3D printed symbols that seemed to be associated with weaponised sound. The ambiguity and offset focus of the work, the dim but frenetic buzz of the panicked communications, substantially reflected what I read as being an examination of an imminent thread-bare social order, but across the show sound seemed to come secondary to the visual narrative somehow, which I was not expecting. This serves as a reminder for me to continually consider clarity and the specific properties of how my work communicates so that the project engages and reaches as many viewers as possible in offering a space for meaning and reflection.


SEMICONDUCTOR REVISITED

Through the AEgIS, semiconductor, 2017

Through the AEgIS, semiconductor, 2017

In contrast to the Barbican show, the Dark Matter show at Science Gallery London presented a collection of fragile and captivating work which effectively communicated complex principles, questions and introductions to contexts in contemporary physics, in a manner which did not seek to provide an exhaustive history or review. A piece from artist duo semiconductor seemed central to the investigation - their intentions of ‘putting the human back into the data’, working often in residency with research facilities such as CERN, the Smithsonian and the British Geological Survey, serves to draw our attention to the ways in which we rely upon the scientific lens in our understanding of the natural world and forces that shape our environment. The piece ‘Through the AEgIS’ (2017), in which isolated particles nervously scratch and burn across a photographic plate, has a magnetic visual simplicity, and the sensitivity of the formats chosen to examine and translate information into visual sequences throughout their work, which often include obsolete domestic technologies that might have promised the future of recording or display, stitches together narratives of change; growth and recession, activity and disappearance, knowing and unknowing.

There is a great flexibility and versatility in their approach which I admire, and specifically influential on my thought process over the past year has been the use of multiple languages, as previously described, sequenced together to form stories or constructs that question time and our perceptions of environment. I will be exploring their practice and methodology more extensively this week, in order to consolidate and evaluate the relevance and impact on my thought and practice as I move forward.

 
 
 
Low Residency

The low residency last month was a wonderfully enriching experience in a number of ways, and prepared me for moving forward in my project contextually and practically. Meeting everyone in person felt very seamless, and I think it is a strength of the course format that after having only communicated online to that point, as a group we are close in being knowledgable of the rhythms of each of our concerns and processes.

I felt this strongly in the group tutorial session on day 2. Our group was led by the MA Designer Maker course leader Maiko Tsutsumi, and I shared my work with Michelle, Chris, Lyu, and Omer (IG @omerder) from the Designer Maker course, who showed us around his ‘work in progress’ show installation - something which I think we were all very grateful for. There is a tenderness to Omer’s use of materials in his sculptural work - an echo of the inner subjects which reveal themselves on closer inspection - relationships between gender, place and expectation, identity and geological activity. I found the installation cohesive and the work itself seductive, and this has since made me pause to think more about exhibition and presentation of my project and how that might work. The gallery visits, tutorials and workshops on 3D printing and Virtual Reality work, have pushed those considerations forward as discussed within my Mid-Point Review material and evaluation in my last blog post.

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Gillian and George in the 3D workshop guided me through the practical refinement of the extruded model from my primary school achievement binder scans I’d been struggling with in Fusion, and printed a sample of the model for me which demonstrated how the properties of what I had produced in Fusion would result in a brittle, spiky surface. Part way through the print, the sample looked much closer to what I had hoped for, with a more ‘readable’ topography than the finished piece in which the detail had been pulled out from the base of the mesh to such an extent that it resembled more of a forest, which I felt overshadowed the subject and lost clarity. George shared an alternative method of producing height maps in Blender which seemed much more appropriate than Fusion - much faster and easier to configure, and more intuitive to me, and he explained to me how I could use a plane to cut through and achieve a surface that did not taper into the tall spines that the original produced.

Our visit to areByte gallery fed into the VR workshop I attended, led by Fine Art Digital alumni Alejandro Escobar, and both experiences were thoroughly constructive and informative. Alejandro showed us how to animate scenes and export as 360 video in Blender, as well as explaining the context of contemporary VR work in art-making, and an introduction to the vast array of technical considerations or variables that related processes involve. Both the workshop and the ‘RE-FIGURE-GROUND’ show at areByte were incredibly engaging, (I found Lorna Mills animated GIF work and Eva Papamargariti’s sequencing of CGI, text components and live-action film especially compelling) and, building on the tutorials I had with Gillian and George, the week coalesced to a great learning experience in which the vitality of the media and processes at the base of interdisciplinary VR, CGI, simulation, and print gripped my attention and gave me many ideas. These have informed the second version of my Project Proposal.

Installation shots credit: Christopher MacInnes https://www.arebyte.com/installation-shots-refigureground

Yellowhirlaway, Lorna Mills. 4-channel GIF animation, 2017.

But for now all i can promise is that things will become weirder (Trailer) - Eva Papamargariti

The stream of human knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality. The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter. We are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of this realm.
— Sir James Jeans (1930)

Alejandro Escobar, 2018 www.alejandroescobar.com

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Thanks to Danni (thank you again!) I had the opportunity to attend a performance of WHIST at the Watermans Arts Centre, which again was so motivating and tied into the same considerations and concerns. One of the most immediately clear benefits of attending Alejandro’s workshop was to be able to interpret and analyse WHIST in the context of it’s design and also functionality as a VR piece, and to be able to apply questioning which has begun to inform ideas for ways forward in my own project. The problems I experienced with the object identification element (the Augmented Reality component) during the performance hindered the immersive continuity of the narrative, and this, while being maybe my only substantial criticism of the piece, which was otherwise wildly compelling and pretty much unlike anything I’ve experienced before, did make me think about applying focus and a thorough process to ideas that might run the risk of being interpreted as over-reaching or unintentionally disparate. This specifically is something which I try to be mindful of as I map out what I referred to as the kind of ‘borderless geography’ of the narrative I’m developing. Certain pieces in the areByte exhibition also highlighted the technology not ‘being quite there yet’ in different ways - a few of us actually hit the gallery wall in the corner where Claudia Hart’s VR stage piece was shown as we attempted to physically navigate her maze of capitalist symbolism wearing the headset, and the joystick seemed to over-complicate the accessibility of the piece. Alejandro’s workshop generated a lot of very valuable questioning and discussion on issues from health and safety considerations to simply utilising the technology you have to it’s most effective potential rather than pushing for something that weakens an idea. I intend to begin forming sequences of animated scenes to work into larger pieces, and the experiences of the low residency week will certainly help guide me in making informed practical decisions.

 
 
Mid-Point Review

FEEDBACK

The feedback I received during the crit session has already proved tremendously helpful and I’m grateful for everyone’s comments and insights - it’s so important to share work, and to ‘test’ it - is the work doing what you expected it to? This is one of the aspects I’m most enjoying about the course, being back in a shared environment with the framework in which that is an objective.

To a large extent and overall I feel as if the recurring themes throughout my crit align very strongly with my own feelings about where I am at right now, and some of the questions that would be constructive to consider. This is very encouraging.

The question of the extent to which my project is rooted in and weighted by personal history and identity, and how effective it might be in communicating something relatable on a wider scale is something I think is central for me to address, and it one of those continuous considerations that I am working to unravel. It was very valuable to hear how, for example, Betty read the project as being more concerned with a search for identity than an investigation into geography and change, and in response to this Ed said that he felt that identity was one of several subjects tied in together, being expressed through metaphor, and that the tricky part will be to communicate all of that in a way that each subject gives meaning to another. This is definitely a key objective for me now and something which I will focus on more as I work my way through the project - Aristotle describes what I am handling as a ‘phenomenal amount of data’ - and I do feel this. Identity is definitely a concern, and the way I have been approaching the project is from a point of this forming the basis, or the roots, of it and everything that follows or is overlaid or extruded from personal narrative, into something that I intend to speak more of our collective experiences in today’s geological context, and something that works outside of the confines of my own geography, or my home. More and more I am treating this project as something which is so multi-faceted that I do not, in one way, want to impose borders on it, but rather begin to focus in on one metaphor or ‘dimension’ at a time. I will be revisiting and reworking the globe-shaped project map, in order to begin working into it - the project - now, rather than reading around it. I hope to develop something compelling in that multi-faceted way, in which connections that at the moment feel like hints or confusions might emerge more thoroughly as the result of working on this for years to come.

Action Points / Development

Consider the potential of both writing, and verbal description, as a branch of methodology in the communicative behaviour of the project

Pav commented that he felt the quality of the spoken narrative in the video was more important and effective than the visual communication. This is one of a few comments that surprise me - it is intriguing and I am very eager to engage with this. I did not write a script for the video presentation. I made the video piece in a way that was possibly much less efficient than I could have, and I think that this is actually an example of my continuous approach and nature to labor over something, which often results in research dominating time I could be utilising more carefully in making. I developed the video in a very linear way, beginning to end, adding visuals and making mental notes for what I might say as I worked my way along the timeline, then made two sound recordings for the narration - a hiccupy and stumbling rough edit and then something a little better. However, I did greatly enjoy this and this is important actually in a couple of ways - I love writing and research and I have often gravitated towards those modes over visual communication. In this case, I spent much longer processing the visual work I had made and images I had collected along the way via the research than the text. This feedback is helpful also because it suggests to me that the text or the ‘non-visual’ research is at a point where I have something I can begin to articulate and make sense of in terms of a basic framework, so now I can really push forward with that framework more into visual/aural. Having said that, there is something about the spoken element which I, though I do not necessarily in any way enjoy listening to own my monotone drone, think might be worth pushing or at least reminding myself of as I work because it could inform part of the communicative behaviour of the project. Alexis provided a connection to the work of Stephen Jay Gould, explaining how “his essays sweep ideas together in classic form taking one through a disclosure of idea that eventually settles as a sedimentary bed in ones mind, creating a geology of thought”. In response to Alexis’ question, I have considered writing previously, and the feedback he has offered encourages me to revisit it in this context, and indeed how writing could form a dimension of the project in itself, in relation to the thread of historical constructs and reconstruction.

Explore the soundscape, and evaluate it’s potential relationship to the aesthetic of the project

For the Mid-Point Review video piece I wanted to record a very simple soundscape, and something that echoed the time-bound aspect in connection to the research; deep time, memory, life-span. I slowed down and amplified a recording I made of ice cubes cracking in warm water, and this together with one piano chord formed the basis of it. I did enjoy this, and I am thankful for the feedback I received as regards how the sound worked; Aristotle commented that it was significant in his reading of the project, and this seemed to be a shared interpretation amongst others in the group. The development of soundscapes in correlation to the environments that I am imagining each of those metaphorical dimensions within my project to ‘look’ like is definitely something I intend to pursue - I will continue experimentation, and I plan to make field recordings to enrich the process moving forward.

Continue to investigate: extrusion, depth maps, interaction

As I state in the video, testing and trialling methods and techniques of making the project immersive and experiential is a key objective of the project. Christopher suggested the concept of being able to navigate through the embossed landscapes in real-time, which certainly speaks to the thoughts I have regarding experimentation I plan to begin this week in connection to perceptions of the past. On the subject of the embossed landscapes, I’m grateful to Ed for pointing out that those I included in my presentation look very similar to satellite recordings of the breaking up of ice sheets in the Antarctic - this is a useful reference point. Kelda spoke about the way in which I’m currently switching between digital and physical and how that is intriguing and this is something which I have thought about quite a lot; generally I imagine this as actually being a comment within the work somewhere about the two, and about formats - I’m thinking back here a little bit to Daria Martin’s show at the Barbican which I discussed in my previous blog post, and also I am always quite mindful of, for example, the fluency of Joseph Beuys’ interdisciplinary process. I’m also very interested in Kelda’s reading that my work “has a gritty monotone approach a bit like a black and white documentary, which looks real but is a representation of the real.” Documentary is very important to me… there are a few very distinct qualities concerning direction, narrative, and truth (Werner Herzog’s pursuit of the ‘ecstatic truth’ comes to mind) which I have always been fascinated by in that field that deals with negotiating representations of the real - and persuasion. I’d like to pay some more attention to this. Dannii and Jonathan referred back to the concept of extrusion as a device which should be investigated further, and core samples as frozen records of previous events and environments, lifeforms, being literally pulled from within the earth, the question of how our behaviours will be defined in future samples - layers of plastics, the ‘unnatural’… These are certainly reflective of, and valuable extensions of, my thought process. All of the feedback I have received is beginning to inform my planning and direction, and the weight of the focus I give to certain questions that directly affect the experience of viewer.

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COMMENTS FROM ONLINE STUDENTS >

COMMENTS FROM THE STUDIO -

 
 
The Museum as a Lens
 
 

Before the beginning of the Low Residency in London last Tuesday, I took a couple of days to visit some shows and also some museum collections, including the Rock Room at UCL, housed in the Kathleen Lonsdale Building, as well as revisiting the Natural History Museum, and exploring the somewhat haunting Horniman Museum. For a number of years museology has played a role in my practice, and most of my BA was dedicated to unravelling the properties of narrative and representation through display and curation of collections, with a broad focus on Natural History as a set of constructs. Beyond interrogating the construction of the communicative presentation in museum display, I have used cabinets, vitrines, labelling and other components as aesthetic connections to our expectations of the museum as a voice of authority or a storyteller, to invite questioning and inspection - I am aware however that museological commentary work is not only a well-established but a very saturated subject in making today, and I definitely burned myself out on this a little. Still, I remain fascinated by museological treatment of objects, visual cues (as clues, or triggers - the familiar and the uncanny) and the design properties from museum to museum still grip me in their isolation, from dusty old spaces to the hyper-sensational and polished. Over the past month or so I’ve been reconsidering the nature of the museum as a lens both for representation and inspection - as well as a set of aesthetic devices which I would like to revisit in my work; moving forward I am very interested in making my work much more immersive and experiential through applying different modes or lenses to my subject matter, in order to question the construction of a narrative or a mythology - more on this in posts to follow. My recent meeting with David Gelsthorpe at Manchester Museum really made me consider audience engagement from the perspective of the curator, and how strategies are applied in museum spaces to invite questioning about collective concerns in the present, and embed knowledge (David mentioned the notion of ‘facts in inverted commas’) in comparison to other types of space where expectations are different, for example in the gallery, or outdoors, or on our iPhones. It also made me think about materiality and value judgments. These things tied in to my induction into VR and 360 Video processing, and various aspects of work I saw during the low residency.

The Bendegó meteorite, one of the few artefacts remaining after a fire destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, in 2018.

The Bendegó meteorite, one of the few artefacts remaining after a fire destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, in 2018.

MUSEUM
Shuntaro Tanikawa

A stone axe among others
Quiet on the far side of the glass

The constellations rotate,
Many of us perish,
Many of us are generated,
Over and over comets narrowly avoid collision,
Many dishes are smashed,
Eskimo dogs walk on the South Pole,
Great tombs are raised, east and west,
Collections of poems are dedicated
And quite recently
They split an atom,
And a president’s daughter sang a song…
Various things have even happened
Since then.

A stone axe among others
Lies quiet on the far side of the glass

DARIA MARTIN: TONIGHT THE WORLD

A piece which utilises a number of different modes to build an experiential narrative similar to the way I am describing in this post, and an immediate influence on this line of thought is Derek Jarman Award winner Daria Martin’s ‘Tonight the World’ currently on show on the Barbican Centre. Through film, video-game style animation, objects and letters, Martin explores the 20,000 pages of her grandmother Susi Stiassni’s dream diaries, which were kept originally for the purposes of psychoanalysis. In video-game ‘play through’ projections, we explore a simulation of her grandmother’s childhood home in the former Czechoslovakia, which was seized by the Nazi’s after her family fled to the U.S. in 1938 (Stiassni only ever returned in her dreams). Walking through the villa we encounter domestic objects and ornaments, and drawers full of photographs - the piece stops to focus on these and scans them, providing information about their significance to the historical context of the diaries, the villa, the country, as if hitting a button on a joypad to select the item. Pages from the diary are pinned to a wall further along in the space, and a 3D model of a small robot toy which appears in the villa, and also the subsequent film piece as a kind of talisman which speaks of Czech writer Karel Capek and the first use of the word ‘robot’ to describe an artificial person in 1923, sits on a mantle in a space cut away from an exhibition panel against a backdrop which looks like a wall of crumbling clay. At the opposite end of the space, a 16mm anamorphic film presents five reconstructions of separate scenes from the diaries which focus on intrusion and anxiety, with allusions to occupation and exile (in one scene a young Stiassni is shrouded in blue twilight running from three young militarily dressed hunters through a forest - they catch up to her but freeze) - in this piece four different actresses play Stiassni interchangeably at four different ages. At every stage Stiassni seems equally to know or be aware of more than the people around her but also locked inside a mental space which she struggles to comprehend as the lucidity of the dream cracks and consciousness becomes blurred; in which time seems to unravel and we are witnesses to an increasing mental vulnerability, evocative in a way which questions the extents to which the traumas that maybe lay on the edge of our consciousness move us forward and shape us; the accumulative engine of the subconscious possibly has the power to envelop us.

In a number of ways this piece spoke to some of the questions I am exploring in my research - Sebald’s thoughts on trauma and fault lines seem exemplified in my reading of the work, and also the methods of sequencing and presenting source material in multiple formats which overlap, push and pull away from the core of the subject, but weave together to suggest a nonlinear narrative which concerns a shared history and collective memory through a microcosm of an individual lens over what it means to be in the present.

Conversation with David Gelsthorpe, Manchester Museum 08-02-19
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A few weeks ago I met David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections at Manchester Museum, and we discussed a broad range of topics relating to engagement, representations of time, climate change and positive action. I always greatly appreciate the opportunity to consider possibilities and lines of inquiry in my research from a different perspective, and from within a very different specialism. Museology as a ‘lens’ for representation is quite an established thread in my work and recently I have been reconsidering the effectiveness of that, my use of that, in the past and how I could utilise this again. David provided valuable insight and offered numerous viewpoints which I continue to reflect on moving forward. The following is a transcript of our conversation.

M: In the museum setting, how important is narrative in encouraging audiences to position themselves within the context of, for example, geologic time?

D: I think that narrative is absolutely essential because I think geologic time particularly is a very hard concept for people to understand. I find it quite interesting in terms of climate change and geologies because climate change has always happened - it always will happen, it’s an entirely normal and natural thing.

M: But do we subdue it?

D: Yes, I think that’s a good point because, sometimes, in the context of for example the work we’ve been doing around action on climate change, it’s almost a confusing narrative for the public, because if people get the strong message that climate change has always happened and always will, then people could see it as being a helpless thing. I always heavily qualify climate change narratives with human induced carbon dioxide levels and the massive changes on a geological time scale, which happens pretty slowly generally, but climate change in the last hundred, hundred and fifty years is astronomical. Saying that, there is some reasonably good evidence that in the last Ice Age, particularly from dating different fossils in our collection, for example in bones, that some of the changes were quite extreme and quite quick. From dating bone specimens such as from Hippo from North African type climates and Woolly Rhinoceros for example, some of the major climate changes from those extremes were probably several hundred years, and that is almost a lifetime isn’t it?! And that’s not so radically different to what’s happening now, but now it’s very very clearly manmade, and there are massive consequences to what is happening. So trying to help empower people to act positively is important.

M: Thinking politically on some level, the museum has a voice as an authority doesn’t it, and so does that translate to an exciting position for you to be in here?

D: Absolutely. Basically, we feel very strongly that there are so many public institutions that have a very heavily eroded level of trust – the NHS, the government… so we feel that we’re a very trusted organisation and that people identify strongly with us, and trust us to give them the ‘facts’, in inverted commas, and positive interpretations. We’re very conscious of that and don’t ever want to be in breach of that trust. We try to provide a really safe and balanced space as well, in which people can disagree with us, and we are totally okay with that.

M: We were talking about the power of conversation, and there are so many museum spaces I feel that do not enable conversation in the same way as Manchester does… in terms of a different type of space – the art gallery, there is obviously quite often the element of the uncomfortable or the impenetrable which the public invariably struggle with, and maybe some of those conversations that could happen remain internal because of the pressure of the space. What you have with the Natural History collections in the Living Worlds space here seems to be something which bridges display, and objects, with issues and contexts in a multitude of engaging ways.

D: That kind of makes me think about the question of ‘who has the answers?’. For example, in terms of our exhibition on climate control, we very specifically said ‘we do not have all the answers – what action on climate change would you like to take?’, and we had a lot of responses from visitors that were entirely unprompted, which was brilliant. Equally we had a lot of feedback from visitors who had been telling us they want to do great things about climate change but were overwhelmed and would appreciate some guidance on what they could do to make a difference. In the Living Worlds gallery downstairs we still have the display ten ways to make a difference, which includes a lot of things people have generally heard about already but another thing we looked at were the values we share as well. So, with climate change particularly there is a lot of research which points towards people feeling that they do great things and are ‘doing their best’ but nobody else cares, and actually we are trying to devise a way which shows that other people share your values. With ten ways to make a difference we had sweet jars and we had recycled bits of plastic that you voted into these sweet jars. With each one there was ‘yes I want to do more of that’, or ‘no, it’s not for me’, and the idea was that, with the votes saying ‘yes I want to do more of that’ you could suggest ways forward.

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It’s quite a false environment being in the museum in lots of ways, but people love it and keep coming back, and we get so much feedback when, for example we are doing work on the galleries and renovations people will ask ‘you’re not taking that away are you?!’. The mammals gallery used to be very 1970’s – a very of-its-time undergraduate display and you can’t really imagine why anybody would want to keep that, but for example lots of people really loved the polar bear!

M: I must admit I’m a real sucker for that as well. The last time I visited the comparative anatomy gallery at the Jardin des Plantes, which is basically the old Great Chain of Being style display which seems very impenetrable in terms of language – there seemed to be almost no attempt there to tease out any kind of dialogue or question from the collection and the context of the arrangement; it did literally seem like a dead space in a lot of ways and seemed very static and fixed. Which in itself of course is fascinating and has its properties. 

D: I think we tend to approach from the perspective that we have an incredible building here from 1888, and I guess there are two ways you can see that – we try to see it as something which nobody else has got – very atmospheric, beautiful and a phenomenal backdrop to work on. Or you could see it in the other direction of all the cases being listed so we can’t do an awful lot to them or with them! It’s never going to be a white cube space. We can’t have a Brontosaurus in our space for example! But we’ve absolutely tried to play on our heritage as something that’s an absolute treasure, and our objects play a similar role in that – the key ones in terms of popularity I guess now would include the T-Rex even though we only got him in 2006, but you can’t possibly imagine that space without him in it now. It’s interesting how things evolve in that sense.

M: This makes me think about the relationships between funding and engagement with the big charismatic pieces. The Natural History Museum had its Diplodocus and the dinosaur exhibit is still such a big sensational selling point… a lot of those people might visit and take away that they’ve seen big dinosaur models but what is embedded in terms of knowledge or the present?

A very different experience to that might be that in terms of the Holderness coastline every now and again when I’ve read about the geological history of the area or visited museum collections, I‘ve seen examples of Woolly Rhino teeth or Ice Age animal remains from the area, or even just online or in the local news… someone has been down to the beach and pulled a tiny Ichthyosaur vertebrae or part of a fin or something out of the cliff and this happens a lot and that opens up questions I suppose about why they aren’t there anymore – ‘that’s an amazing thing that I’m holding but that isn’t there any more’… or is it? Just transformed?

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D: With Ice Age animals for example, they are categorised as sub-fossil bone, so they are half way between being the original animal and the fossil. Half-way between the bone being replaced by mineral content. I always find it quite interesting that when you take it out the ground, to stop it from being destroyed, you’re also stopping the geological fossilisation process – almost halting it’s potential in some way.

M: I’m interested in that within my practice and my research – looking at absence or ‘fixedness’ and trying to draw parallels between geology and memory loss. Most of my grandparents suffered from degenerative neurological diseases and witnessing those things as a young person aren’t necessarily unique or unusual, for a child to lose a grandparent, but there is something I’m trying to explore there on some kind of poetic or experiential level about erosion and transformation. What you are describing about retrieving things from the ground and ‘fixing’ them in the process is similar maybe to the ways in which we encode memory; encoding, consolidation, retrieval. These are very broad ideas to unravel!

D: In lots of ways those suggestions make sense. Things that spring to mind involve erosion which is obviously something very stark on the East Coast – effectively time is speeded up. This makes me think about the top of Mount Everest being made up of marine limestone – how more extreme do you want to get than that?! In terms of the fossilisation process, some bits have a much higher chance of becoming fossil – this is so complicated but the process is so heavily dependent on water, water temperature, chemistry of what is around at the time dissolved in the rocks et cetera which might be displaced, so there are so many variables on whether something becomes a fossil or not, and even if something is on its way to becoming fossilised it might be pulled out of the cliff and not get that far and placed in a museum or something…

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M: Which is similar to a memory in terms of variables – the strongest memories taking hold for a number of reasons becoming more robust possibly either because of being very negative or very positive, mostly I think the negative memories are those which really take hold but are easy to ’confuse’. I was talking to my lecturer about this and the act of reframing memories as being transformative rather than being positive or negative, for example witnessing a process of neurological degradation as being something in which a person might reach a state of peace or a different space which is unique to them and is almost protective rather than purely terminal and traumatic for the people around them. There is something within that that takes me back to what you were saying earlier about viewing climate change as something which is transformative but it’s not something that is very definitely terminal – maybe we are in a space now in which a lot of collective reflection is happening…

D: I think thats maybe right. I think one of the key problems we have when we’re talking about rising sea levels et cetera… Manchester for example: currently it’s looking like it might be a few degrees warmer maybe but the feeling is that we’re safe, or even that those differences are desirable – the reality of course is that there could be thousands of refugees, we could be struggling to get certain types of foods… to take it back to the exhibition we did on climate change, in the case of our brilliant front-of-house staff, they took quite a lot of ownership of the public workshops we ran, they devised flashcards as a way of talking to people and asking questions, and we had items for example like a model of a Manchester tram driving through the snow to get people thinking about the idea that we might not be able to get work. We are just trying to think about some of the smaller or more subtle ways in I guess. 

M: Maybe the places that we read about this happening can also be very potent politically and the challenge is to keep the critical mind open. In terms of migration, you mentioned refugees – I have this fascination with historical migration in particular as regards the last Ice Age and conceptions of Doggerland’s submergence – the implications this would have had on our distant ancestors and the idea that our island isn’t a fixed shape. Im not entirely sure we are all familiar with the reality of what it might be like to be a climate refugee today or are even vaguely presented with objective information on how immigration actually works. If our institutions and our media and our education systems aren’t adequately explaining without political agenda or bias why immigration might be occurring in and from certain areas in a more accelerated fashion then we’re left to make judgements, maybe treating people as numbers possibly rather than in a humanitarian way – the rightwing press in my opinion has an awful lot to do with this. There is something very strange about this because at least in my mind if I think about migration its nature is as a very human or a very ‘natural’ phenomenon which adapts to pressures and changes over time and is not some huge threatening and fearsome set of behaviours. 

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D: I think the key is having something people can relate to in terms of how to intervene and engage with reality. It’s also interesting thinking about the last Ice Age in terms of what exotic animals we did or didn’t have in Britain at different times, and its migration in and out of Britain rather than localised extinctions that shaped our landscape then to a large extent. Something which struck me a few years ago when I was working on a research paper was that even though we talk about a land bridge between Britain and Europe we tend to make it sound much more simple than it really was – there would have been really massive substantial rivers that created boundaries which animals like Giant Elk could obviously swim across, but it wasn’t as casual as maybe the images in our minds would lead us to believe. Presumably the people of the last Ice Age would have found it quite traumatic if they managed to settle in a place with access to hunting and a degree of relative safety, and they gradually found that life was getting harder and harder, and actually people can relate to that.

M: That sounds very present!

D: Yes it does – absolutely. And no doubt there were people migrating elsewhere all the time and simply couldn’t survive. You’re right that I think it’s saturation point in terms of information, that it’s too much and you just switch off, but actually some of the interesting conversations we had around the climate change exhibition were about us not overwhelming people with facts and leaving people depressed, and feeling unable to act… actually we came to conclusion that it was okay to make people aware of realities and possibly even a little bit depressed as long as you give them the tools to deal with it, and the means to actually do something about it, a strong sense that other people you care and have shared values. It’s something that we can influence positively. For us here as a museum, if we’re not meaningful and relevant to people visiting here then we are not going to get funding and we don’t have a future as an organisation. If we’re irrelevant and unpopular then we cannot exist. People will not come here if we do not care about relevant issues.

M: What does the future look like?

D: The future is an exciting place where things can be quite amazing. I think the future looks like something we can shape. I don’t think that we are victim of where things are now and where they are going. I don’t think a lot of people think that necessarily. There’s sometimes a feeling amongst people that things are only ever getting progressively worse, and it will be worse for our grandchildren, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

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The Fault Line
It is a characteristic of our species, in evolutionary terms, that we are a species in despair, for a number of reasons. Because we have created an environment for us which isn’t what it should be. And we’re out of our depth all of the time. We’re living exactly on the borderline between the natural world from which we are being driven out… and that other world which is generated by our brain cells. And so clearly that fault line runs right through our physical and emotional makeup. And probably where these tectonic plates rub against each other is where the sources of pain are. Memory is one of those phenomena… And I think there is no way we can escape it.
— W.G. Sebald
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At the Edge of the Humber

In September I attended an interesting lecture by historical and cultural geographer Dr. Briony McDonagh, during the British Science Festival at University of Hull. The lecture traced the histories of settlements on the River Humber, beginning with an examination of the intercommoned wetland marshes of Wallingfen which resisted drainage and agricultural development until the eighteenth century and parliamentary enclosure, working along to the mouth of the river via the remote Sunk Island in Holderness, all of which was also waterlogged until the Middle Ages, and has more in common geologically with the Netherlands than other parts of Yorkshire. I am much more familiar with Sunk Island, living nearby and aware of it’s strange, fractured and lonely beauty, and did not previously know of the existence of Wallingfen, but figments of the soft Holderness clay and the way I visualised the Norfolk Fens in my reading of Graham Swift’s Waterland came to mind, which is probably quite an obvious and reductive reference to make at first. Incidentally, a couple of years ago I traced my mother’s family back a few generations to living in Norfolk. One of the reasons for them moving north and settling in Holderness might have been connected to a more widespread migration of labourers from Norfolk to Yorkshire in the early 1800s as the result of an excess of agricultural workers in a region feeling the effects of increased mechanisation. Nonetheless, it made me consider the winding rural psychogeography Swift developed; the drenched landscape an active witness slowly shifting and churning the past into the shared present, reshaped - reclaimed, and present back beneath, eventually out to the river and lost into the sea. “That's the way it is: life includes a lot of empty space. We are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson. For most of the time the Here and Now is neither now nor here.” 

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image credit - Andy Medcalf

Collapsed WWII gun emplacements exposed as the cliffs wear away at Kilnsea.

Read The Draining of the Marshlands of South Holderness and the Vale of York, June A. Sheppard, 1966

Mountain Lake
Mountain Lake.  Salvador Dali, 1938.

Mountain Lake. Salvador Dali, 1938.

I can say without fear of falling into the slightest exaggeration that each outline of a rock, / and / of the beaches of Cadaques, each of the geological anomalies of its landscape and its unique light I know by heart, for in the paths of my wandering solitudes, it was these silhouettes of stones and its states of light attached to the structure / and the aesthetic substance / of the landscape that were the sole protagonists on the mineral impossibility of which I project day after day all the accumulated and chronically unsatisfied tension of my erotic-emotional life.
— Salvador Dali

A few weeks ago at Tate Liverpool, I rediscovered my teenage fascination with Salvador Dali. When I was 17, I obsessively dedicated my A Level Personal Investigation to exploring his twisting, turning, melting and shape-shifting personal myth-narrative in relation to psychoanalysis, hooked on his use of symbolism, and I attempted to keep a dream diary (though this was unsuccessful, because I couldn’t and still can barely ever remember any of my dreams). I also remember watching a documentary entitled ‘The Dali Dimension’ which examined the numerous scientific influences on Dali’s process and preoccupation, and this fed into my interest in wider subjects of belief, relativity and forms of knowledge which continue. Dali’s malleable appropriation of ideas with a scientific basis into poetic or suggestive questions less concerned (although I imagine he might have argued differently) with empirical evidence, challenging percieved rationality, provided me with an exciting platform for pushing my very general understandings of, possibly of the interdisciplinary scope of, art, as a young adult, and I realise now that this was the real beginning of my dedication to a practice as I moved past A Level into my BA. Dali disappeared however.

Since being surprised by the mollases-laden painting ‘Mountain Lake’ a few weeks ago, a few interesting things have occurred to me, in my remembering the bits of Dali’s life and work that stood out to me as a teenager, and I have discovered something I was (I think) unaware of: Sigmund Freud’s fascination with archaeology as a metaphor for uncovering hidden experiences, and his topographic theory of the mind.

‘Mountain Lake’ retraces the footsteps of Dali’s parents, who visited the lake after the death of his brother, also named Salvador, who died almost nine months to the day before Dali was born. The artist grew to believe that he was either his older brother’s living reincarnation, or that his brother was still existent in the form of a spectre over his life. As Tate describes, the painting combined personal and public references, with the disconnected telephone in the foreground alluding to imminent war - to be specific perhaps the negotiations between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler over the annexation of the Sudetenland in September 1938. This combination of personal past and political present seems intentionally ‘muddy’ and loaded with a kind of subconscious tension; the slippery fish-lake of memory and ebbing lucidity separating the visual or physical structures of the past, and representation of a stratified mental landscape, and foreboding communications, the tension in the onset of the unknown, in the present. A summary of ‘Freud and Archaeology’ on the Freud Museum website explains that “In clinical work, Freud was engaged in an archaeology of his own, digging into minds to uncover hidden experiences, fragments of the past that he tried to put again into a living context.”. Expounding on this, a fascinating essay from Julian Thomas (2009), available here, suggests that “Archaeology encapsulates a series of evocative themes: of repression, of loss and concealment, of discovery and revelation.”, and explains how “Freud thus sees the mind as built up through a temporal process of sedimentation, with the deeper layers being the most ancient, as in a geological formation. Yet the deepest layers of all effectively transcend time altogether, and approach the condition of being archetypal or universal.”

Dali’s methodology was clearly much influenced by this, and this returns me to considering my own practice and methodology - mining the past to point towards a future, personal narrative/past and wider ‘political’ future. ‘Mountain Lake’ is a geo-archaeological poem and a timely reminder of where I have been, in the early development of my practice a long time ago, and of how some of the concerns I had are still elements I am unravelling.

Questions and Decisions
still from ‘Worlds in the Making’, Semiconductor, 2011

still from ‘Worlds in the Making’, Semiconductor, 2011

I am three weeks into my MA, and so far each of the students in my group have taken turns to introduce our practices to one another, and consider connections, advice and possible ways forward. This has resulted in some interesting shared ground between many of our concerns as individuals; geography and time, identity and absence amongst those. I am thankful for the questions I received in relation to my presentation, particularly that of what it is I am trying to communicate about the past in the context of technological advances, which are helping me to push forward at a point in which I am overwhelmed with possibilities for development. Pav’s question relating to technological advances, and Alexis’ comment that my work seems to be “mining, excavating and bringing forth constructs from the past that inform a future world” have tied themselves together in my thought, and the notion of ‘pointing towards a future landscape’ is something that could become a really useful pivot point. This also relates to a project I have been working on exploring political myth in the Anthropocene (more to follow in a separate post). For a while now it has been one of the primary aims of my practice to consider how to make my work current, and engaging. The mining for information and historical sources is something I have become ‘confident’ with, and this actually unsettles me slightly because there may be a danger of becoming stuck in reflective repetition. I want to explore active physical and mental processes that lay at the roots of my concerns now, and will this week begin to make enquiries with university departments, geological and neurological researchers and practitioners so as to begin communications that will hopefully inform my understandings.

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A couple of Sundays back, Emily and I took the train to York to visit the Ceramics Fair (Emily is a ceramicist and I am constantly amazed by the intricacies and hazards of ceramic process), and also the ‘Strata - Rock - Dust - Stars’ show at York Art Gallery. The day was full of serendipity, and really confronted me with identifying the properties and potentials of different media and disciplines at this crossroads in my work. There is a slight conflict in me at the moment about making objects, and whether this is something I want to continue, at least in terms of the idea of making work that seems ‘concluded’ - I think the nature and properties of print are really helpful for me as the constant in my process, because print allows me to work sequentially and feels like moving forward in a way that sculptural or assemblage based works I’ve made have not - and this is I’m sure entirely down to my individual approach. I’m trying to unravel this. Because of this, my interest in ceramics is an odd one: I have been hesitant to begin working with ceramics because I know that from my experience of observing and learning from Emily as she has been developing her practice that the discipline needs - and deserves - time, which I do not want to plough through insensitively in order to gauge it’s relative potential to my research, but I love the inherent and invoked geological aspect embedded in the foundations of making work with clay, and the work showed by various artists at the Ceramics Fair transfixed me. (Note: I think I have just decided in writing that last sentence that I should just try working with clay a little and stop overthinking. This, in combination with my tendency to be an archivist rather than an ‘activist’, might be one of my main stumbling blocks in everyday life. I’m sure Em would agree.)

^ Mitch Iburg, source: IG @mitchiburgceramics

I think the main aspect of ceramic work that grips me is that which makes accident and chance, and organic or unexpected results very visible, in contrast to and rather than controlled products which emphasise function, and obviously here I am talking about the spectrum of different intentions within the discipline. I was fortunate enough to be given two pieces made by Mitch Iburg for our wedding anniversary, and there are facets of his process which resonate very strongly with my feelings for geological history. Iburg investigates and collects from the clay deposits and natural resources inherent to specific regions, challenging practices related to the use of local materials in contemporary ceramics, and makes work from those. Aesthetically the forms he produces seem to be driven by a very honest and intuitive reverence for the inherent shape or design and character of the material, almost found-object-like as if discovered already formed, or frozen in state. A process of discovery, and recovery; reshaping an object with an abstract past. It also makes me curious about what the boulder clay from the Mappleton cliff stretch nearby would look like fired, and this is an experiment I intend to pursue. I also intend to research digital innovation and process in contemporary ceramic practices - 3D printing, clay work driven by data?

During my presentation last week, Friederike described the earth as being a collector of hidden memories made visible through fossils and studies, and that somewhere these memories “must also be present in a brain that does not remember”. Forms of memory, and the relationships between the surface (the landscape, the ‘present’, the visible) and the ‘beneath’ (the unseen, the subterranean, the ‘past’), are two immediate lines of inquiry for me as I begin to formulate my project proposal. Those relationships are interrogated in the work of the artist duo semiconductor, Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, currently exhibiting the 3 channel film piece ‘Worlds in the Making’ at the York Art Gallery show. In the film, a number of scientific processes are used to generate and translate sound and animations from seismic data collected from beneath volcanos, amplifying the shifting, invisible forces beneath us that determine the physical foundations of the planet. The piece has a slow-burning anxiety, and the properties of the installation - it’s cinematic projection scale, and the jittering time-lapse quality of the animation (see below for a snippet), evoke the feeling that the observational lenses we employ to monitor the changing landscape are always hostage to the rapidity of natural forces which perhaps slip away before we have chance to capture meaningful measurements and interpretations. The uncontrollable rate at which are affecting the geological structures of the earth is unquestionable, and an interesting facet of this piece in my interpretation is that we are now as much observers of our own self-destruction in the context of climate as we are investigators of natural processes, and slow even in the race to catch up with ourselves and unravel the damage the industrial damage that has been done over the past couple of centuries, to understand this in ways that can translate those effects into suggested ways forward. I am interested now in considering this in relation to the human biologic, to our internal structure and memory.

Best watched full screen! Semiconductor: ‘Worlds in the Making’ preview, 2011

^ Liz Orton, from series ‘The Longest and Darkest of Recollections’, & ‘This Connection Should Make Us Suspect’

Liz Orton’s work also explores ‘entanglements of land, vision and natural science’. Her intimate photographic works invite close inspection, and relationships between forms of measurement and our relationship to geological scale seem to be called into question. There is an immediacy to Orton’s work that I appreciate, and the ‘punctured’ photographs suggest the way in which print can be connotative of memory, returning to the idea of the ‘timestamp’, or the frozen frame. Friederike’s feeling that there is great power in slowness being counter-cultural relates to this, and this is something which I am thinking about a lot right now; how to be engaging and encourage reflection in the present. This might extend beyond the counter-cultural. Seth Denizen, contributor to Making the Geologic Now (Ellsworth & Kruse, 2012) describes that in relation to the pace of material physical change we are experiencing, “The world becomes defined not by a time, but by a speed. This is the point at which the world can no longer be merely an extension of our own, a difference in degree, but rather something which takes on a difference in kind: another sea, another wind, another world at right angles to our own.”

This exhibition really presented me with a lot of a different possibilities and pause for consideration of utilising techniques and processes, especially outside of print and sculpture, through which I might discover surprising connections and paths - I am so excited about this. Time to explore. Please, if you have any comments or would like to contact me in relation to my journey and process, please do so by emailing me at mpfratson@gmail.com.

unfold.alt RYOICHI KUROKAWA, 2016, 4K video | 2ch sound