Ruth Jones : respondent’s summary of the ‘Common Ground’ seminar

Ruth Jones : respondent’s summary of the “Common Ground” seminar Some common themes that emerged from the different papers:-

  • Difficulties with or tensions between different types of representation of geological phenomena
  • The search for knowledge as motivation to study landscape
  • Narrative – problematic but necessary?
  • Scale
  • The constancy of transience
  • Hidden landscapes / deep time

1. Difficulties with or tensions between different types of representation of geological phenomena

The “carnal knowledge of landmass” v a more conceptual or rational approach to landscape.

Ilana’s paper discussed a Mexican “Renaissance Man” painter who set up his easel at the foot of the erupting Paracutin volcano and his opposition to the long exposure photographic shots taken of the same event. He felt that these did not show what it was actually like to bear witness to the eruption.

Palimpsest and a useful or not useful metaphor for multilayered landscapes? Is the concept of the palimpsest too much located in the imagination of surfaces as Doreen Massey suggests or is it a metaphor for dynamic deep mapping?

Maps: instruments for the development of knowledge or political tools created by the powerful?

Shelley’s paper demonstrated the tensions between different sorts of maps and what they emphasise based on particular periods of history and the current knowledge, speculative ideas and political forces at work. Maps are created to suit a particular need or desire and therefore generally emphasise one particular perspective. “Who tells the stories of space and in whose name?” (from Iain’s paper).

Computer generated images: accessible but are they useful?

Shelley discussed how a satellite image of a weather pattern looked remarkably similar to a scanned image of the retina. Why is this so? Because similar technology created by the same people has been used to represent both? These images are readily available on the internet, but can they be misleading? Do images such as these encourage us to be more removed from a “carnal knowledge of landmass”? or indeed of the body.

Phenomenological being versus political becoming

Iain’s paper discussed the tension between space as cultural representation and place as phenomenological experience with Massey perhaps moving from the former to the latter in her thinking.

Iain also discussed the possibility of holding two contradictory thoughts in our minds simultaneously and how this could be seen as a form of intelligence.

2. The search for knowledge as a motivation for studying landscape

Both the scientist and the artist are motivated by the search for knowledge, although they may put that knowledge to very different uses. Some questions around this theme prompted by the papers:-

  • How great a risk do you take in the pursuit of knowledge in terms of putting yourself in physical danger? Is there an attraction for some people towards place of physical instability? Not only volcanologists, but also mountain climbers, and people who try to get inside the eye of the storm. Although the number of volcanologists who have been killed by volcanoes is relatively small, is there something romantic in the idea of dying in the pursuit of a passion?
  • To what extent is the search for knowledge motivated by a desire for mastery or control of landscape, our environment? Or to what extent are we motivated by a fascination with the irreducibly complex world that can never be grasped fully? Massey: space as “a multiplicity of trajectories” seen as “provisionally intertwined simultaneities of ongoing, unfinished stories. David spoke about the difficulty of what to focus on as an artist when attempting to represent a landscape, the detail or the wider picture? He discussed the need to embrace the seen, the known and the imagined simultaneously.
  • Are we in danger of losing touch with our intuitive relationship to land due to an over-reliance on instruments of measurement and technology, an over-mediation of our experience of land / nature?

3. Narrative – problematic but necessary?

Narrative is in a sense in conflict with geological landscape where many activities are occurring simultaneously and in synchronicity with other locations, whilst narrative relies on being able to present a coherent meaning through a linear trajectory. But can we do without them? Some thoughts:-

  • The interpretation of specialised data requires a narrative. Steve’s presentation contained some scientific data that most people present would not be able to understand without his narrative to connect the information with which we are being presented.
  • Steve’s presentation both contrasted with and complimented Ilana’s presentation, which focuses on her personal narrative as well as the narrative of volcanologists as a way to relate on a human level to the vast scale of geological events. David’s presentation also made use of personal narrative as a way to present an insight into a particular location.
  • Narrative as a means of control: events which are totally out of our human control, events that we cannot alter can be made to seem more manageable through the use of narrative even if this is an illusion. For example in the tower of magma that appeared after the devastating Mount Pelée eruption in Martinique, volcanologist Angelo Heilprin saw a monument to the 30,000 people who died, even though due to his specialist knowledge of the field he would have known and understood the geological reasons for this occurrence. Are “restorative narratives” an essential element of being human after tragic events? Babara Bender from Iain’s paper “ Landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time (History) and Space (geography), or between nature (Science) and culture (Social Anthropology)”
  • The metaphor of the palimpsest as a way to understand not just one narrative, but narrative upon narrative that cannot truly be separated out but exist simultaneously. Iain is looking for a verb that means “to palimpsest”!
  • Exploring a concept of narrative that like the landscape itself is changeable. Is it when narratives become entrenched that problems arise?
  • The narrative of place, why are we drawn to particular places (Ilana, Greenland, David, North Pennines etc) How do these places echo our own personal narratives and why? How does that relationship manifest in a working practice? David spoke of an “obligation towards a location”.

4. Scale

Several of the papers touched on the uncertainty of the scale of what we are dealing with when we see images relating to geological landscapes. When something gets vastly beyond a scale that is relative to human body size (either on a micro or macro level) it becomes very hard to conceive of it in real terms. Some thoughts:

  • The imagination needs tangible triggers to be able to cope with the vastness of scale, e.g. The specimen of earth held between two pieces of glass helps Ilana to conceive of an island that appeared of the coast of Sicily and then just as quickly disappeared again. David’s bottles of mineral samples help him to conceive of the vast underground world from which they have come.
  • Shelley mentioned how data gathered on micro or macro levels needs to be reconfigured to make it “visible” to our human scale.
  • Shelley also showed an image of a human skull with tumours, which looked remarkably like volcanoes – an illustration of how our imaginations can play tricks with scale.
  • Timescale: again when 450 million years are mentioned, the mind cannot truly make any sense of this time period. In terms of volcanoes there is an enormous contrast between the suddenness of an eruption that then shapes the geological landscape in that region to many millions of years afterwards.

5. The constancy of transience

One thing we can be sure of is that nothing stays the same, a source of both comfort and anxiety.

Ilana spoke of the fear that she felt in a glacial moraine because it seemed so utterly static. We are used to the cycle of life and death and understand that we cannot have one without the other, but for her this utterly still and apparently lifeless place seemed to her to be a space out of time.

Exploitation v conservation – drastic human intervention in the landscape can cause environmental problems however the desire for conservation at its extreme can have the effect of attempting to “fix” places so that they don’t change at all, which is equally artificial.

6. Hidden landscapes / Deep time

Steve’s paper showed us images of volcanic craters so large and often hosting a lake that for the non-specialist we would not recognise these places as volcanic.

David spoke of the hidden landscape of mines and the “roots” of many generations of close relationships with landscape through mining being erased due to a privileging of certain narratives over others.

Shelley’s x-ray images revealed the hidden landscape of the body as well as its surface.

The concept of geology as a kind of “collective unconscious”

A fascination with so-called “virgin territory”, or landmasses that appear from hidden terrains under the water.

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