2005. ‘Measuring Beauty in the Upper Ice-World’. In Gilchrist, Bruce & Joelson, Jo eds. Little Earth. London: London Fieldworks, pp. 11-19.
The Little Earth book also includes a foreword by Gustav Metzger and essays by James Flint, Bruce Gilchrist & Jo Joelson, Stanley W H Cowley, A L Mackinnon, Dugal Mckinnon, Marjory Roy, Jeni Walwin, 96pp 56 b/w and colour illus. You can order the book at:
Measurement and Experience
Bruce Gilchrist and Jo Joelson’s art project, Little Earth, began with two rime encrusted atmospheric observatories on mountains in Scotland and Northern Norway. The artists researched the lives and work of Victorian scientists, C.T.R. Wilson – who worked at the Ben Nevis Observatory at the turn of the last century investigating electricity in storm clouds, and Kristian Birkeland – who was investigating the aurora borealis at Haldde Observatory. Gilchrist and Joelson engaged with the scientists’ experiences by being at the observatories themselves, encountering the weather conditions there and working with the nearby communities in Fort William and Alta. The Little Earth project examines the interaction of embodied consciousness with the natural environment. This is a recurring issue in Gilchrist and Joelson’s work – in, for instances, Syzygy (1998/1999), KnoWhere (2000/1) and Polaria (2001/2).1
The conditions worked under by Wilson, Birkeland and other meteorologists at the mountain observatories were extreme. In the winter they had to dig their way out of the buildings through piles of snow or heat up instrumentation and hands paralysed by the freezing temperatures. The imminence of an electric storm could be presaged by the experience of having your hair stand on end. There were lightning strikes and battering winds. For long periods the mountaintops and the meteorologists were inside heavily saturated clouds that reduced visibility to a few inches of wet, white, near-tangible fog. Haldde Mountain, above the Arctic Circle, was subject to 24-hour darkness in the winter and 24-hour daylight in the summer. During the summer the meteorologists could experience clear days with endless views of landscape and sea, and balmy temperature inversions when it was hotter at the top of the mountain than at the foot.2
The atmospheric phenomena the meteorologists witnessed from the mountains were also extreme. The aurora borealis appeared as spectacular curtains or streamers of green or coloured lights reaching down from the high altitudes of the night sky. They saw glories, haloes, coronas and St Elmo’s fire – an electrical discharge that can be seen during thunderstorms around high projecting objects. The Brocken Spectre observed by Wilson on Ben Nevis in 1894 is otherwise known as a ‘glory’, a phenomenon where the observers see their own magnified shadow thrown onto a cloudbank and encircled by rainbow-like bands.3
There were good scientific reasons for undertaking observations on mountaintops. Before the invention of radio it was the only way to investigate the vertical structure of the lower part of the atmosphere and to study the ionosphere – the electrically charged conducting layer in the upper atmosphere – with its electromagnetic forces. Birkeland’s research at Haldde linked geomagnetic activity with the aurora. Wilson’s observations from Ben Nevis led him to a major contribution to atomic physics and a Nobel Prize.
But there appears to have been some resistance to the mountain observatories from the Victorian scientific establishment. The Ben Nevis Observatory was built and mostly maintained through public subscription and was repeatedly unsuccessful in achieving any serious financial support from the government or the Royal Meteorological Society. After 21 years of operation it was allowed to fall into disuse, with funding going instead to the Low-Level Observatory in Fort William. Despite the hardships involved in collecting the Ben Nevis weather data that was sent daily down its heavily armoured telegraph cable, it appears that it was barely used in weather forecasting.
Perhaps part of the resistance to the mountain observatories was an uneasy awareness of their contingency with a romantic engagement with nature. There was intensive activity and interest in the 19th century in both mountaineering and polar exploration. The numerous polar expeditions included attempts to find the Northwest Passage, to reach the North Pole, and to explore Greenland and the Bering Straits. 1882 was the first International Polar Year with 15 polar stations being established. The intrepid 19th century polar explorers included Ross, Peary, Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott. The glamour of these adventures was only heightened by the fact that the hostile environments took the lives of many mountaineers and polar explorers including Franklin (1845), De Long (1881), Scott (1912) and their crews. The northern mountains the meteorologists chose to perch on were steeped in associations with the sublime, the mystical, the heroic.
Sublime landscapes are familiar territory in Gilchrist and Joelson’s work. Amongst their previous projects Syzygy involved fieldwork on the uninhabited Scottish island of Sanda, the KnoWhere project took them to Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, and for Polaria they conducted research in remote North East Greenland. One of their central concerns is an interrogation of the contemporary in relation to Romanticism.
A fascination with awe inspiring landscapes and natural phenomena – waterfalls, canyons, mountains, storms – developed in the 18th century and was addressed by many writers including Burke, Kant, Goethe and Ruskin. Emerson, Thoreau and Muir also all wrote rapturous essays on mountains.4 Throughout the 19th century this fascination is imaged in the work of many painters – ranging from the lurid emerald polar seas and threatening icebergs of Frederic Church, the stormy wrath of god in John Martin’s work, the maelstrom of weather and sea in Turner’s paintings, to Constable’s cloud studies. Many of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings including The Wreck of the Hope, 1823 (also known as The Polar Sea) and Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, 1818, emphasise that there was a direct relationship between these artists’ work, the activities of gentlemen (and occasionally gentlewomen) explorers and scientists and the dilemma widely felt in European and American 19th century society in relation to religion and science. Discoveries arising from astronomy and geographic exploration, as well as an increasing emphasis on the individual in the 15th and 16th centuries had already challenged the Church. The impacts of the theories of Darwin and other scientists in the 19th century further undermined religious belief. Friedrich’s work in particular images a world where divinity is either transferred to nature or absent altogether and yet nature is redolent with awe nonetheless. 5
William Blake had objected to Isaac Newton’s measuring of the universe, seeing this as reductive and blind to its wonder. There certainly was a chasm between the handwritten records of hourly observations of temperature, wind speed and direction, and rainfall kept for 21 years at the Ben Nevis Observatory, for instance, and the stunning beauty of the phenomena the meteorologists were witnessing there. There is a gap in articulation between measurement and experience.
Taxonomy, dissection, reduction and disassemblement have been key scientific strategies along with the dualist construct of an objective subject examining an object. Mark Dion’s recent work critiques the exercise of power, dominion and closure in a taxonomical methodology. Much of Duchamp’s work critiques the reductive idea of knowing through measuring and quantifying. The mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare who had expressed a fundamental doubt as to the possibility of objective scientific knowledge influenced Duchamp’s ideas. Poincare argued that laws believed to govern matter and its behaviour were created solely by the minds that ‘understood’ them and that science could not reach the things themselves – only the relations between them.
Traditionally it has been assumed that it is efficacious for the scientist to observe and record data with no reference to the human measurer. Susan Hiller argues that ‘objectivity is a fantasy that our culture has heavily invested in’. Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigms suggests that experiments can produce meanings that are ‘contingent on the experimenter’s interests’. Subjectivity shapes science, just as it shapes art. Belief, and the limits of belief dictated by the current paradigm, must influence ‘knowledge’.
The myth that science works with empirical truths and that art is the unique expression of a born genius is a strong myth. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for instance, in an essay entitled ‘Science as the Artist’s Muse’, suggests that
The most important scientific discoveries … those that came from the minds of undeniably great scientists, would all have been discovered eventually by one or more other scientists… In art, however, Cezanne didn’t have to rush-paint his Mont Saint-Victoire out of fear that somebody else was going to create the identical landscape (in Gamwell, 2002: 6).
Both art and science are the result of individuals or teams of individuals working with the material that is in the collective milieu. Cezanne’s innovations were as likely to be, if not replicated, at least approached by other artists, in the same way as a scientist’s theories might be.
Despite the overstatement of the notion of construction in some postmodernist theory, the immanence of reality is central to both art and science. Scientific interpretation has been embedded in methodology and worked towards achieving a stability of knowledge whilst art has always had a capacity to allow fluid interpretations. The understanding in the Humanities is that meaning cannot be definitively deciphered, that interpretation is an unending play with infinitely varied meanings, that art is contingent on its context – the contexts of its framing, the context of its making and of its reception.6
Dissection and taxonomy have taken us a long way in the technological and scientific developments of the last two centuries – however the issues that science is probing now – such as quantum theory or human consciousness – are not yielding at all well to this methodology. There is now a recognition in the scientific community of the value and indeed need for first person methodologies and an engagement with subjectivity which was hitherto unthinkable, a new understanding of the fluid, dynamic, creative process of interaction going on between subject and object.7
Gilchrist and Joelson’s work is an on-going enquiry into the ways that the data of natural phenomena is interpreted and made manifest in both science and art. In Syzygy they worked with Imperial College and Cranfield University to develop a smart materials sculpture that was responsive to physiological and weather data being transmitted to it. In Polaria an interactive light installation responded to the physiological state of the visitor. In Little Earth they take a different approach – a theatrical engagement with the scientists’ experiences – using strategies of re-enactment and staging. In particular they focus on Wilson and Birkeland’s invention of idiosyncratic instrumentation, and mirror this in their work with the invention of their own instrument – the Little Earth installation.
Instruments of Art and Science
The essays in this publication by Stan Cowley and Marjory Roy locate Wilson and Birkeland’s work at the turning point in a shift from naked eye observation and speculation based in a natural philosophy framework to a science increasingly dependent on instrumentation and technological simulation. These developments show an increasing distance between the scientist and the raw materials or phenomena under examination. Both Wilson and Birkeland invented instruments – Wilson’s cloud chamber, which visualised the tracks of ionising particles and Birkeland’s terrella machine that demonstrated the aurora and its relationship to solar activity.
Instrumentation and simulation reduce the vast scale of natural phenomena to a human scale where it can be seen, played with (like a doll’s house), manipulated and harnessed. The cloud chamber and terrella are in effect models of the atmosphere – the atmosphere in a bottle, a storm in a teacup.
The four screen video installation of Little Earth is also an instrument for understanding and manipulation. The work is a fictional recreation of the activities of the two scientists at the observatories. The artists describe this as an audiovisual poem. Incorporating a script by James Flint and sound score by Dugal McKinnon, the video work is projected onto the four sides of a cube suspended from an architectural rigging. The projection structure was designed by architect, Ed Holloway. He was inspired by radar dishes and antenna arrays the artists had photographed at scientific installations on the island of Svalbard. Drawing on these and other images of the Cluster satellites, the installation requires of the audience that they orbit the work much like a satellite around the planet.
Little Earth, however, is not simply the art installation shown at Wapping, Fort William and elsewhere. Gilchrist and Joelson’s work characteristically employs a process of interrogating their subject through several modes of artistic ‘output’. In Little Earth this process has included a series of residencies at the Headlands Centre for The Arts, San Francisco, Allenheads Contemporary Arts in Northumberland and at Dartington Gallery in Devon; Joelson’s Arts Council/Arts & Humanities Research Board Art/Science Fellowship working with Professor Stan Cowley and the Radio and Space Plasma Physics Group at University of Leicester; an official twinning ceremony for the Haldde and Ben Nevis Observatories held at Fort William in October 2004 and this publication in which the artists have collaborated with a number of writers.
During the Headlands Centre for the Arts residency the artists made a series of visualisation experiments to represent the methods and ideas of Wilson and Birkeland. They were inspired by the vagaries of the San Francisco microclimate, from the fogs rolling through the Headlands and the Bay Area to temperature inversions at the top of nearby Mount Tamalpais. They were given access to contemporary Space Weather Science for the first time at UC Berkeley Space Sciences Lab and were introduced to the phenomenon of Sprites.8
At Allenheads Contemporary Arts, Gilchrist and Joelson conducted a series of interviews with particle and quantum physicists about how contemporary scientific knowledge is disseminated to the lay public. They became interested in the possibility of fictions being created through the interpretations of the lay imagination. At Dartington they experimented with ferro liquids and magnetic materials in a lab-like construction of glass vessels and clamps and invented ‘proto-instruments for the sub-conscious’. At each residency location they were at pains to engage audiences in their developing ideas.
Their work is collaborative in a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary way – involving, for examples, members of the mountain communities of Haldde and Ben Nevis, a composer, script writer, architect and writers for Little Earth and a team including stunt kite flyers, computer programmers, materials scientists, writers and musicians for Syzygy. Their work is also participatory and it is unusual for artists’ practice to span both the gallery world of the art cognoscenti and a range of localised communities. The twinning of the observatories was initiated by Gilchrist and Joelson. They designed the official twinning document with its swathe of aurora across the sky between the mountain top observatories. They brought together a range of people from the two remote communities to make it happen including; the John Muir Trust who own the summit of Ben Nevis, the Fort William Justice of the Peace, the Highland Council, Fort William and Alta Museums, bagpipe players and a Sami musician. Jeni Walwin’s essay describes the twinning event further. Gilchrist and Joelson’s working process has enabled the reconnection of aspects of history and identity for these two remote communities and been a catalyst for a new dialogue: the Director of the John Muir Trust told the community of Alta, for instance, ‘Our mountain is now your mountain’.
A lot of current ‘sci-art’ – where artists collaborate with scientists and work with the concerns and materials of science – is still mired in the idea that art can be an illustrative, accessible, user-friendly mediation for science or that science offers art an alluring range of kit and language to be appropriated. There is still a mutual lack of understanding of functions and methodologies in many science-art projects and above all a misunderstanding of the role of art. Gilchrist and Joelson’s work bypasses the binary fallacy of sci-art. Rather than attending to agendas proposed by the artificial construct that is the ‘science-art’ domain, the artists instead see it as ‘part of their creative freedom to measure using their own scale and methods, inspired perhaps by the rigours and questioning of science but unsatiated by its self imposed limitations’.
Cultural authority currently resides with science and not with contemporary art. A puritanical or sceptical streak in traditional science tends to evince a fear of the frivolous and pointless, a fear of the credulous and superstitious. Gilchrist and Joelson’s work approaches a complex knot of belief, desire, creativity and knowledge. It reminds us of the play, the intuition, whims and idiosyncrasies in both art and science. By walking in the scientists’ shoes, and through a process of theatrical fictional re-enactment, they have been able to image the intuitive leaps of the scientists and the ways in which they were inspired by the beauty of natural phenomena, and then to relate that to the contemporary world. Whilst they engage aspects of the mimetic and simulated their work also emphasises the direct engagement of being and becoming. They explore both direct and mediated experience in their work. They enact the role of the generative human imagination in making and unmaking the world and examine how ideas leak out into the manifest world.
1. Syzygy interrogated the relationship between consciousness and weather; KnoWhere was a collaborative work with blind and partially sighted artists exploring sensory modalities in interaction with the natural environment and Polaria was concerned with embodied consciousness and natural light phenomena. See Gilchrist, Bruce & Joelson, Jo, eds. (2001). Syzygy/Polaria. London: Black Dog Publishing, Gilchrist (2001) CD Rom and Warr (2001) article both on KnoWhere published in Performance Research, and the London Fieldworks website: http://www.londonfieldworks.com
2. For a graphic description of the physiological effects of cold and altitude see Ashcroft, Frances (2001). Life at the Extremes. London: Flamingo and for a description of the meteorologists’ life on Ben Nevis see Roy, Margery (2004) The Weathermen of Ben Nevis 1883-1904. Fort William: Royal Meteorological Society.
3. Brocken is the highest peak in the Harz Mountains in northern Germany. It is reputed to be the scene of witches’ Walpurgis-night revels. The relative position of sun, observer, mist and the size of the raindrops and the reflections and refractions of the sun’s rays within the cloud droplets cause the Brocken Spectre phenomenon.
4. ‘The upper ice-world’ is a quotation from Ruskin’s Peaks, Passes and Glaciers (1859). See also Macfarlane, Robert (2003). Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. London: Granta.
5. See Gamwell, Lynn (2002). Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science and the Spiritual. Woodstock: Princetown University Press for a discussion of Romantic art in relation to science.
6. See Ede, Sian (2000) Strange and Charmed: Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts. London: Calouste Gulbenkian and Wilson, Stephen (2002). Information Arts: Interfaces of art, science and technology. London/Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
7. See the Journal of Consciousness Studies and Towards a Science of Consciousness conferences held at the University of Arizona, http://www.consciousness.arizona.edu and abstract of a paper by Gilchrist & Warr (2000) on art and first person methodologies.
8. Part of the artists’ enquiry included discussions with a Stanford researcher who is an authority on the recently imaged sprite phenomena – upper atmospheric, electrical discharges occurring above stormclouds. She created a linkage with Wilson, relating how he predicted the existence of sprites in the 1920s. They were photographed for the first time in 1989. A sprite event has been linked with the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster: a photograph taken by a San Francisco astronomer appeared to show a purplish bolt of lightning striking the shuttle during re-entry.
Ashcroft, Frances (2001). Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival. London: Flamingo.
Ede, Sian (2000). Strange and Charmed: Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts. London: Calouste Gulbenkian.
Gamwell, Lynn (2002). Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science and the Spiritual. Woodstock: Princetown University Press.
Gilchrist, Bruce & Warr, Tracey (2000). Art as a First-person Methodology in Consciousness Research. In Sutherland, Keith. ed. (2000). Consciousness Research Abstracts: Toward a Science of Consciousness 2000. Thorveton/Tucson: Journal of Consciousness Studies/University of Arizona, p. 162.
Gilchrist, Bruce & Joelson, Jo, eds. (2001). Syzygy/Polaria. London: Black Dog Publishing.
Gilchrist, Bruce (2001). KnoWhere. CD Rom published in Performance Research, 6 (3).
London Fieldworks website: http://www.londonfieldworks.com
Macfarlane, Robert (2003). Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. London: Granta.
Roy, Marjory (2004). The Weathermen of Ben Nevis 1883-1904. Fort William: Royal Meteorological Society.
Warr, Tracey (2001). Circuitry. In Performance Research, 6 (3), pp. 8-12.
Wilson, Stephen (2002). Information Arts: Interfaces of art, science and technology. London/Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, oil on canvas, 163.51 x 285.75cm, 1861. Reproduced by kind permission of Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.
Marcel Duchamp, 3 Standard Stoppages 1913-14, replica 1964. Reproduced by kind permission of Tate Modern.
Church’s painting, The Icebergs, 1861, is based on studies he made off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada during a voyage in 1859. Church was rigorous in his attempts to accurately represent what he saw in nature. The ice in the foreground looks wet and glistening because it has risen from under the water, the changing level of the sea has left horizontal stains on the main iceberg and the brilliant blue veins in the iceberg are caused by water frozen in the cracks of a glacier.
Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, 1913-14, involved inventing a new unit of measurement based on chance by dropping three metre long lengths of thread and then creating wooden ‘rulers’ based on their chance position. He explained: ‘the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight edge as being the shortest route from one point to another.’ He then used these wooden templates in mapping the diagrammatic painting Network of Stoppages, 1914 and for positioning the Bachelors or Nine Malic Moulds in The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass), 1915-23. 3 Standard Stoppages was made at a time of widespread scepticism concerning the objectivity of scientific knowledge. In Science and Hypothesis (1902), for example, the philosopher of science and mathematician Henri Poincaré questioned whether or not it would be ‘unreasonable to inquire whether the metric system is true or false?’. The concept for 3 Standard Stoppages may also be linked to Alfred Jarry’s Pataphysics, or ‘science of imaginary solutions’, explicitly designed to ‘examine the laws governing exceptions, and … explain the universe parallel to this one’.