Archives for posts with tag: geology

Nothing truly exists – except in relation to other things. Carlo Rovelli

Work in progress.

Building the azimuth obelisk made from layered re-cycled paper. This sculpture is a response to the concrete obelisk erected in 1955 at Hartland Magnetic Observatory as a permanent azimuth mark from which to measure the drift of Earth’s magnetic field. Deep time geology holds the sedimentary knowledge of magnetic activity, from the degrees of variation between the magnetic and geographic north pole to the cataclysmic impact of pole reversals.

Etching Directional Magnetic Steel to reveal the jigsaw pattern which comes from rolling single crystals of an iron silicon alloy into thin sheets to minimise magnetic losses for use in industry.

The copper sulphate etching process creates a very thin, fragile layer of shiny copper under the red residue

Magnetism embodies magical qualities which have fascinated humans since the first encounter with a lodestone. These rare and enigmatic fragments found scattered across the surface of the Earth are created when lightning chances to strike the mineral magnetite.

The Lodestone, from Plato to Kircher by D. W. Emerson lists various historical references to the lodestone. The writer concludes – Lodestone, being very unusual, greatly impressed previous generations. Despite its unattractive appearance it was an admired mineral type more precious than pearls, it was celebrated in persuasive Latin hexameters, it was an analogue for the power of deities, it took a witch to subdue it, it was deemed explicable by Epicurean atomic theory, it was involved in a rather tenuous argument for eternal punishment of wicked persons, it meant doom for unwary mariners, it furnished fodder for folk lore, it resided in the arsenal of the apothecary, it helped to demonstrate the earth’s magnetism, and it assisted navigation. What other mineral has such a record? The lodestone was quite a remarkable rock; it still is, and oddly, yet to be completely studied and documented.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24 – 79) :

What is more amazing (than this stone) or at least where
has nature shown greater devilry? She gave rocks a voice
answering, or rather answering back, to man. What is more
indolent than the inert character of stone? Yet nature has
endowed it with awareness and hooking hands. What is
more unyielding than the harshness of iron? On it nature
has bestowed feet and a mode of behaviour. For it is drawn
by the lodestone, and the all-subduing substance hastens to
something like a vacuum, and on its approach it leaps
towards the stone, is held and kept there by its embrace.

Claudius Claudianus (AD fl. 395):

There exists a stone called lodestone; discoloured, dingy,
nondescript. It does not lend distinction to the combed
locks of kings, nor to the fair necks of girls, nor does it
gleam on the showy clasps of sword belts. But in fact if
you pay due regard to the strange marvels of this dark rock
then it outshines elegant adornments and anything, on far
eastern shores, that the Indian looks for in the weed of the
Red Sea (i.e. pearls).

Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430):

We recognise in the lodestone an extraordinary ability to
seize iron; I was much perturbed when I first saw it. The
reason is that I clearly saw an iron ring grabbed and held
up by the stone. … Who would not be amazed at this power
of the stone?

Generating a magnetic field.

The dynamo theory states that to generate a magnetic field, a body must rotate and have a fluid core with an internal energy supply that is able to conduct electricity and drive convection.  Earth fulfils all of these requirements. It rotates faster at the Equator than it does at the poles causing spiral convection currents in the liquid iron outer core which is an excellent electrical conductor, powered by the energy released as droplets of liquid iron in the outer core freeze onto the solid inner core.

Any variations in rotation, conductivity, and heat impact the magnetic field created.

Mars has a weak magnetic field as it has a totally solid core. Venus also has a weak magnetic field for although it has a liquid core it rotates too slowly to create convection currents.  Jupiter has the strongest magnetic field in the solar system, with a metallic liquid hydrogen core and fast rotation, it has a magnetosphere so large it begins to deflect the solar wind almost 3 million kilometres from its surface.

Highlights from a trip to Japan which offered many poetic and spiritual experiences.

Active sulphur vents of the North South Hakone volcano arc boundary dividing Japan into East and West….also used to cook eggs. The beautiful markings on the eggshell were gone the next day.

As Tristan Gooley says in The Natural Navigator, ‘There is a commonly held belief that “Moss grows on the north side of trees and buildings.” It does, sometimes, but will also grow on every other side. However, lots of satisfyingly north facing moss growth on the trees in this Tokyo park.

Moss tending in the rain, some splendid moss in the gardens of Kanazawa.

Inspiration for an absolute hut. The “Gassho-zukuri Village”, a World Heritage Site set in stunning mountain scenery, has more than 100 gassho-zukuri thatched rural buildings with wonderful steep pitched A-frame roofs.

To Discover the Meaning of Being Born as Human Beings. Higashi Honganji Temple

Moss heaven.

To visit Saihoji Kakedora Temple (the Moss Temple), you must send a postcard by mail to request a visit. On arrival, you spend time in the temple at a low table quietly copying sutras with a calligraphy pen to calm the mind before entering the garden.

The garden is built around the Ogonchi Pond shaped like the Chinese character, meaning heart and blanketed in over 120 species of moss.

master of persimmons

treetops are close to

Stormy Mountain

The poem stone tells the story of Kayori who had 40 persimmon trees in the garden laden with fruit which he intended to sell, but the night before they were to be picked a huge storm arose and in the morning not one persimmon was left on the trees. Kyorai was enlightened by this experience and called the hut Rakushisha – the cottage of the fallen persimmon.

Many famous haiku poets, disciples of Basho and including Basho himself, stayed here.

Home of the cloud dragon. Zen garden at Tenryu-Ji Temple, Kyoto.

The tour through the womb of the Zuigu-bosatsu. The darkness of the journey through the womb was absolute. The stone floor ice cold on bare feet. Rosary beads the size of grapefruits led a winding path to the softly lit zuigu stone and on to the light to be reborn. Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

Kaname-ishi, keystone at Seikanji Temple, overlooking the city of Kyoto, spread like a fan before it, is believed to grant wishes if touched.

Rivers in the sky. Theories about crown shyness range from being caused by friction as new shoots are eroded in a windy forest to sensing the shadow or warmth of a neighbour.

Binzuru (Pindola Bharadvaja) was one of the sixteen arahats and is said to have excelled in the mastery of occult powers.

In Japanese mythology, the god of thunder arrived in Nara riding a white deer. The deer have lived here for centuries and are revered as emissaries of the gods of the Kasugataisha Shrine.

They have learnt to bow to be rewarded with special deer biscuits, which you can buy to feed them.

Discovering the works of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, a Mexican media artist exhibiting internationally with a background in physical chemistry who creates large scale interactive work exploring and exploiting human interaction with technology to create an impressive catalogue of works from tethering a blazing sun to a face briefly echoed in a wisp of cloud. I was drawn to his work Atmospheric Memory inspired by Charles Babbage’s philosophy.

Whilst the atmosphere we breathe is the ever-living witness of the sentiments we have uttered, the waters, and the more solid materials of the globe, bear equally enduring testimony of the acts we have committed. Charles Babbage

Gallery Visits

Undertow at Unit 1 Gallery a group show with a subtle and astute use of material, quietly smoldering with agency.

Artists: Alex Simpson, Alison Rees, Isobel Church, Lauren Ilsley, Nicholas Middleton, Sarah Wishart and Tana West.

‘Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.’ – Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 2004/2016

Michael Taylor The Last Man at Standpoint Gallery. I really loved this luminous body of work.

Richard Slee Sunlit Uplands at Hales Gallery was a wonderful conveyor belt parade of glistening mini utopias.

We can see no detail, we can see nothing definable and it is, I know, simply the sanguine necessity of our minds that makes us believe those uplands of the future are still more gracious and splendid than we can either hope or imagine.” 

The Discovery of the Future, H.G. Wells 1902

The quote “sunlit uplands” has been used as political ideology, as an assurance for better days to come most recently the phrase has been linked to the promises of Brexit, with politicians leaning on this rallying rhetoric.

George Henry Longly Microgravities at Nicoletti. I found the slick production values, very shiny like outsize circuit boards of these works exposing sci-fi cliché and subverting popular space movie tropes sat very close to the ideas they are parodying. Microgravity – ‘the condition in which people or objects appear to be weightless’, according to NASA’s website – is responsible for metabolic and behavioural changes for space travelers. Some interesting theory behind this show about the human cost of living in space as our gut microbiome reacts to a weightless environment. I liked the reflection cast on the floor from the mirrored circle left exposed as a planet on the widescreen landscape.

On Failure group show at Soft Opening with Olivia Erlanger, Cash Frances, Jordan/Martin Hell, Kelsey Isaacs, Maren Karlson, Sam Lipp, Chris Lloyd and Narumi Nekpenekpen. While certain works function as indexes of failed attempts at control, others recognise the perceived failure of the human body, positing that from a spiritual perspective: if perfection is nonexistent, then failure is all we have, all that is real. One or two of the hanging pieces are reminiscent of the votive offerings at holy wells or the love lock bridges festooned with padlocks.

Bridget Smith Field Recordings at Frith Street Gallery. Natural material processes, simply presented. The weathering of bulrushes, the materiality of analogue photographic techniques such as ambrotypes and tintypes, the simplicity of a moon rising over the sea.

Daniel Shanken The Cascades at Stanley Picker Gallery. I was excited to see this show as the randomness within the work is derived from radioactive decay and I thought the title may refer to cascades of comic particles but perhaps it refers to cascades of data. The aesthetic was very game based and the randomness not explicit in origin. I liked the set up though with the projection onto the floor creating an abyss to gaze down into from an industrial style walkway.

David Blandy Atomic Light at John Hansard Gallery Southampton. Four films circumnavigating the fallout from the atomic bomb massacre at Hiroshima. The body of work is inspired by a family history, a grandfather, a prisoner of war in Singapore – held by the Japanese but felt himself saved by the detonation at Hiroshima. The golden hour light is so perfectly captured and reflected in The Edge of Forever which gives voice to the children, accusing, watchful and alone. This was filmed by his partner and features his own children. Soil, Sinew and Bone is a collaged documentary of archival material, mirrored so that the central area of the film takes on the shape of an a atomic bomb. In Sunspot two scientists, one in Japan, one at Mount Wilson Observatory are monitoring the activity of sunspots, the flares that can erupt and disrupt radio signals as the particle filled solar wind and magnetic turbulence blasts across the magnetosphere. The film Empire of the Swamp has a wonderful rich narration embodied in the voice of an ancient crocodile who remembers the mangrove swamps before the war and the arrival of the white man.

I enjoyed the Art Fictions podcast with guest Jennifer Higgie discussing her writing practice via the 2009 novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. I was then lucky to see Complicitie’s excellent interpretation of this novel on stage at the Barbican directed by Simon McBurney.

this is a tale about the cosmos, poetry, and the limitations and possibilities of activism.

Complicitie’s production employed the same blinding flash technique as Alfredo Jaar used in his work The Sound of Silence which I saw in 2006 and still remember vividly. Sitting in a dark space a story of one photograph, taken in Sudan 1993, is told in simple sentences on a large black screen. The photograph is shown momentarily before a blinding flash of light scores the retina. You are left blinking in the afterglow. The image won a Pulitzer Prize, but the South African photographer Kevin Carter committed suicide at 33 after struggling to come to terms with what he witnessed, and the public response for not having intervened to save the child’s life. In the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Janina, the eccentric ‘older woman’ does not hold back from intervening when she sees injustice to any living thing. She is also vilified, but for showing compassion for the animals.

Alfredo Jaar 'The Sound of Silence'

I also dredged up the memory of having seen the film Spoor at the 2017 BFI LLF also based on this novel. Finally I have bought a copy of the novel. A circuitous route to the original text.

I am very much enjoying reading Rebecca Solnit A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Her writing is like a torchlight illuminating one idea after another, sweeping across a multitude of topics with an infectious energy to explore and experience the unknown.

How will you go about finding that thing, the nature of which is totally unknown to you? – Meno

It was such a pleasure to show with Sandra Crisp and Jockel Liess at Saturation Point. We were very pleased with how our films worked together in Projected Topographies and reflected out into the night skies of London.

Sandra Crisp: E_Life uses 3D generated animation, presenting intensely textured and dynamic geometry sequenced over time.

Multiple constantly transforming organic forms, each originating from a simple 3D sphere are mapped with eclectic visuals such as emojis, fragmented images borrowed from 24-hour online rolling-news media and others downloaded via a search engine. Particle systems generate repeated, yet varied objects throughout the film which appear to have a life of their own. Overall suggesting the possibility of a simulated future/ nature.

Jockel Liess: Variations on a theme is a generative audiovisual system which starts from a point of fascination with the aesthetics of irregular organic patterns.

Visually as well as sonically the aesthetic of natural patterns thrives on their intrinsic imperfection which are never distributed even or orderly, are never replications of themselves. They are rather reoccurring variations that form a recognisable tapestry of familiarity across an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable structure. Prospering from the tension that arises between repetition and asymmetry, and playfully inhabit the border region between order and randomness.

Susan Eyre: Aóratos transports the viewer between everyday locations and terrains visually transformed via use of an endoscope, a microscope,and cameras launched in a high altitude balloon.

It is not impossible that wormholes exist in our universe.

Aóratos imagines journeying through hidden landscapes, distorted spacetime and alternative perspectives. Envisaging potential encounters with cosmic strings, space foam, primordial chemistry, radioactive particles and escaping gravity the work conjectures on the enduring allure of traversing a wormhole.

Black holes were once thought to be pure science fiction but in recent decades scientists have discovered that these extraordinary objects exist throughout our universe in all shapes and sizes and  astoundingly have even produced images of them.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity written in 1915 predicted the existence of black holes and is also consistent with the possibility of gravitational tunnels known as wormholes. It could be that there is a hidden web of planck scale wormholes linking all points in space. Theoretically, threaded through these tiny holes would be filaments of cosmic strings created in the primitive goo of early matter and flung across space when the universe burst into existence.

To traverse space by means of a wormhole would require vast amounts of negative energy, not something usually found on Earth yet in the current political climate in no short supply.

The risks and obstacles of entering a wormhole include creating enough negative energy to open the wormhole mouth wide enough to weaken the gravitational tidal forces which would rip travellers apart; keeping it from collapsing so travellers are not indefinitely trapped inside; exceeding the speed of light and avoiding incineration from deadly high radiation.

The video work explores hidden landscapes, the distortion of space and the permeability of barriers such as force fields and human skin to the unseen particles that constantly teem at near light speed across the universe.

Edge of atmosphere footage was achieved with the help of Sena Harayama, Romain Clement De Givry and Medad Newman from Imperial College Space Society supervised by senior lecturer in spacecraft engineering Dr Aaron Knoll. We also had help from the UK High Altitude Society. My ambition was to film cosmic particles at the point where most of the activity of collisions takes place, about 15km up and so we launched a cloud chamber in the payload of a high-altitude balloon. Unfortunately the prepared chamber was broken the night before the launch and the replacement was not really adequate. Also due to a turbulent launch the camera inside the payload was knocked to one side so we were unable to film this cosmic activity but did get amazing footage above the clouds, gained a height of 35km and successfully retrieved the payload from a field of horses.

Space travellers can ‘see’ cosmic rays as they pass through the retina and cause the rods and cones to fire, triggering a flash of light that is really not there. The retina functions as a mini cloud chamber where the recording of a cosmic ray is displayed by a trail left in its wake.

Aóratos translates as ‘unseen’.

It was a real treat to be invited by Alan Smith and Helen Ratcliff for a short residency at Allenheads Contemporary Arts in Northumberland as part of the Being Human Festival – a celebration of humanities research through public engagement with North Pennines Observatory at Allenheads Contemporary Arts partnering with Durham University to present an evening of discussion and potential stargazing. After a few days of conversations, preparing presentations and meeting the other speakers we were looking forward to the event but unfortunately this was cancelled at the last minute due to flood warnings in the area. We are hoping it can be rescheduled.

While the weather was clear I headed to Allenheads village for a walk and called in at the Blacksmith’s forge where I had previously shown Aóratos as a site specific participatory installation.

I am appreciative of the dark skies in this location which feels like it is on top of the planet and therefore closer to the sky. I live in south west London so it is a real treat to be away from light pollution. While there, I was keen to make some time lapse film of the stars circling Polaris as research for work about the earth’s magnetic field and magnetoreception. Birds can see the magnetic field and use this extra sense as well as the sun, the moon and the stars to navigate on their migration routes. I am also speculating about the possibility for humans to sense the magnetic field

As the centuries go by, the North Celestial Pole shifts and different stars become the North Star. It takes about 25,800 years for the Earth’s axis to complete a single wobble. Polaris became the north star in about the fifth century and will get closer to straight above the Earth’s north pole until sometime in 2102. Before Polaris was the North Star it was Thuban and next up is Vega.

The skies were clear for a few hours when I first arrived at ACA so I was able to build a short star trail sequence but after that the fog and then the rain settled in.

When reading about the history of Hartland Magnetic Observatory, established in 1955, it mentions ‘A permanent distant mark or azimuth mark was erected on a concrete obelisk 7 or 8 feet high near the site’s northern boundary. Viewed through the window in the north wall of the Absolute Hut, its azimuth is 11º27’54” E of N. It is still in use today.’ I was intrigued that an obelisk should be used for the azimuth mark. I had hoped to see it on my research trip to Hartland but found it is currently inaccessible with just the tip protruding from dense undergrowth.

I am reimagining this object as a sculpture made from stacked recycled paper to appear stratified like the sedimentary rock that holds clues to the Earth’s magnetic field reversals and am working to the dimension ratios recommended to avoid emotional unrest.

Obelisk dimensions from “The Problem of Obelisks” catalogued by Egyptologist with the Cairo Museum Reginald Engelbach, 1923.

Before the Meridian Line was moved to Greenwich, London time was calculated from the King’s Observatory at Kew.
There are three obelisks in the Old Deer Park used as meridian marks to adjust the instruments at the Observatory built by George III to observe the transit of Venus in 1769.

As I plan to make the obelisk pyramidion in copper I signed up for the Sheet Copper Sculpture Worksop taught by Robert Worley at The London Sculpture Workshop. To begin we were shown how to beat out a bowl shape and apply a dark patina using chemicals and heat.

I was introduced to the plasma gun. Very satisfying cutting with the fourth state of matter. These shapes are based on the fluid fluctuations of the Earth’s geomagnetic field and I plan to use these on the north wall of The Absolute Hut sculpture in my show next year, tacked over moss with copper pins.

Magnetism is caused by the motion of electric charges. Electrons spinning around the nucleus in atoms generate an electric current and cause each electron to act like a tiny magnet. In most substances, equal numbers of electrons spin in opposite directions, which cancels out their magnetism. In iron, cobalt, and nickel, most of the electrons spin in the same direction which makes the atoms in these substances strongly magnetic. By rubbing a piece of iron along a magnet, the north-seeking poles of the atoms in the iron line up in the same direction creating a magnetic field and turning the iron into a magnet. A magnetic field can also be created by running electricity through a coil of wire, but the field will disappear when the electric current is turned off.

Work in progress on Breath of Stars (the cosmic ray detector interactive video) has been to convert all the .avi star burst video files to VP8.webm using Shutter Encoder software. Jamie, the programmer, has code working now to display video files with transparency so they can be layered.

Gallery Visits

Simon Leahy-Clark solo show FEED at Artworks Project Space. Painterly surfaces made from newspaper clippings have unexpected depth in palette, flow and cosmic imagery, considering the origin of each segment. Mesmerizing to study the forms like spotting patterns in the constellations. Really liked this work.

Caroline AreskogJones Tonight Rain, Tomorrow Mud at Filet Space with live sonic response from Oskar Jones incorporating field recordings gathered whilst walking in Andalucía and captured acoustics whilst making the drawings.

A thoughtfully crafted exhibition capturing the fragile landscape that turns to dust without water and mud when the rains come. The beautiful audio accompaniment from Oskar added to the meditative experience of being transported elsewhere while having time to focus of the works installed with a resonant delicacy.

Lisa Chang Lee showing HZ-0 at Enclave Projects Lake, a sensory device created in collaboration with James Wilkie that creates soundscapes responding to the void around it. Equipped with seven sensors measuring temperature, light, air pollution, sound etc data is fed into an algorithmic software based on the Lydian scale. I hadn’t heard of this scale but am interested to discover it’s connections to gravity and magnetism. The Lydian Chromatic Scale is the most complete expression of the total self-organized tonal gravity field with which all tones relate on the basis of their close to distant magnetism to a Lydian tonic. Tonal gravity is the heart of the Lydian Chromatic Concept. Simply put, the basic building block of tonal gravity is the interval of the perfect fifth. Every tone within Western music’s equal tempered tuning relates to every other tone by either being close to – or distant from – the center of gravity, which is the tonic (or “DO”) of the Lydian Scale. There are 3 states of tonal gravity: Vertical, Horizontal, and Supra-Vertical.

This is a fascinating work thinking about other ways to experience a space.

Hollow Earth: Art, Caves & The Subterranean Imaginary at Nottingham Contemporary.

Inspired by the hundreds of caves hand carved into the rock beneath the city of Nottingham this exhibition explores questions of thresholds, darkness and prehistory. ‘Every culture and religion has told stories about what lies beneath. Caves are where extraordinary events come to pass, the domain of gods and monsters, of births, burial and rebirth. Dark, dangerous and unstable, caves are places of visions and experiences both sacred and profane. More recently, they have become home to data farms, seed vaults and doomsday bunkers.’

Artists include: Hamed Abdalla, Lee Bontecou, Sofia Borges, Brassaï, The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Steven Claydon, Matt Copson, Juan Downey, Chioma Ebinama, Mary Beth Edelson, Laura Emsley, Barry Flanagan, Ilana Halperin, Frank Heath, Ed Herring, Michael Ho, Hans Hollein, Peter Hujar, Athanasius Kircher, Alison Knowles, Antti Lovag, Goshka Macuga, René Magritte, Gordon Matta-Clark, Emma McCormick-Goodhart, Santu Mofokeng, Henry Moore, Nadar, Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, Pauline Oliveros, Lydia Ourahmane, Gordon Parks, Flora Parrott, Walter Pichler, Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, Liv Preston, Ben Rivers, Robert Smithson, Michelle Stuart, N.H. Stubbing, Caragh Thuring, Kaari Upson, Jeff Wall, Aubrey Williams, Joseph Wright of Derby.

This was a research trip with Julie Hill towards our joint show next year. The geological resonates through both our work, for Julie through the deep chasms of geology echoing those occurring cosmologically and for myself in the generation of the geomagnetic field deep in the earth which emanates out, reaching into space.

EVERY CLOUD at Bruce Castle Museum.

Nine artists celebrate the life and work of the Namer of Clouds and Tottenham resident, Luke Howard (1772 – 1864) to mark the 250th Anniversary of his birth.

Artists include Tam Joseph, Andrew Miller, Doodleganger, Gabriela Schutz, Helen Currie, Kerry Duggan, Lisa-Marie Price, Mary Yacoob, Siân Dorman with a live cloud sculpture performance from Alexander Costello.

Tam Joseph gave a heartfelt speech about his discovery of Luke Howard from seeing a blue plaque with the citation ‘Namer of Clouds’ which to him spoke of first nation peoples connection to nature and piqued his curiosity to learn more about this poetic origin; the difficulty of painting clouds – never from a photograph – a cloud is never still and a photograph loses the inherent transience; and the shared passion for the shapes and patterns found in the ocean of air above our heads.


Some history of early speculation, experiments and discoveries of three men who respectively broke new ground in understanding the Earth’s magnetic field, measuring time mechanically and mapping the hidden strata of the Earth.

Latitude and The Magnetic Earth by Stephen Pumfrey. The story of William Gilbert (1544 – 1603), a radical new thinker who questioned the perceived Aristotelian philosophy of the day, developing his own theory of magnetic philosophy of the Earth. His book On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on the Great Magnet the Earth was published in 1600 in which he concluded that the Earth was itself magnetic.

The lines of latitude and longitude remain fixed as the world flexes and shifts beneath them. Extraordinary to think these lines were drawn centuries BCC and mapped by Ptolemy in the second century on his many atlases.

The zero degree line of latitude is fixed by nature whereas that of longitude is a political decision. The founding philosophy of the Greenwich Observatory viewed astronomy as a means to an end – all the stars needed to be catalogued to chart a course for sailors to cross the globe. Ptolemy first set the meridian off the northwest coast of Africa and many countries set their own starting point for 0 longitude. Eventually, after publication of a series of star charts beginning in 1767, made by the then Royal Astronomer, that became used world wide for nautical navigation, Greenwich was declared prime meridian of the world in 1884 (except by France who took another 27 years to accept the decision).

Longitude by Dava Sobel tells the story of the battle between proponents of the lunar distance method and the mechanical clock to solve the problem of determining longitude at sea. Astronomers and engineers became adversaries spurred by a financial reward offered to the one who came up the most accurate and reliable method. John Harrison (1693 – 1776) carpenter turned clockmaker spent his life perfecting the marine chronometer.

The Map That Changed The World by Simon Winchester might have some historical merit in telling the story of William ‘Strata’ Smith (1769 – 1839) but I found it over perambulatory in the telling.

Delighted to have my video installation At a Distance included in The Anxiety of Interdisciplinarity  exhibition in the subterranean labyrinth of former police cells that is The Island Venue in Bristol. Curated by Sarah Strachan and Ayeshah Zolghadr. Exhibition Images by Steve Russell Studios.

This is a satellite exhibition of the International Printmaking Conference taking place at The Centre for Print Research, University of the West of England, Bristol. Motivated by the International Multidisciplinary Printmaking Conference IMPACT 12’s theme ‘Merging and Metamorphosis’, the exhibition aims to trace the metamorphosis of conversations between disciplines, seeking to reframe printmaking practice as a ‘site of interdisciplinarity’ and consider contemporary approaches to print as ‘a site of ambivalence, tension or a fertile ground for exploration and experimentation.’

Works include:

Valerie O’Regan, Vertical Landscape  Nicky Harwood Parachute  Åse Vikse The Sixteen  Hannah Robin Baker “In Conversation With…”  Heather Burwell Nostalgia Erika Cann Feldspar Score  Katy Drake Expose  Pauline Scott-Garrett An Almost Invisible Wound  Debby Lauder Fair, Fine, Brisk  Sarah Strachan The Security Dilemma  Lon Kirkop Ċella ta’ Wieħed  Rana Al Ogayyel Visual Sound and Hear the Print Judy Dibiase Trace  Laura Greenway Never Enough  Mick Paulusma Being There  A. Rosemary Watson line_space_form III.VII.I   Katherine Van Uytrecht Cellular Sound  Ayeshah Zolghadr Individuated Copy Series  Nicole Pietrantoni Still Life: Darwin’s Barberry  Simon Leahy-Clark Untitled  Cameron Lings Drawing: The Expanded Field  Mary Rouncefield Escape To Infinity  Jon Michaelides 16 x 64  Susan Eyre At a Distance  Corinna Reynolds Traces of Pathways Strachan + Zolghadr Boundary Objects  Heather Burwell Playing Games  Alexandra Sivov “Listen To Me!”  Joe Dean Southern Trains Loop  Corinna Reynolds Traces of Pathways  Daniel Bell Growing Blackness

At a Distance looks at remote methods of communication and relates this to the mysterious twinning of electrons in quantum entanglement where particles link in a way that they instantly affect each other, even over vast expanses. Einstein famously called this phenomenon ‘spooky action at a distance’. Filmed on 29th March 2019 in Cornwall as the iconic Lizard Lighthouse powers up its lamp, solitary figures using semaphore flags sign ‘We Are One’ out across the ocean in the hope the message will be echoed back. Drawing on the physical language of print that embodies touch, separation and mirroring the flags have been printed using hand painted dye sublimation inks applied via a heat press. This process transfers the ink from a paper matrix onto the substrate textile. The image passes momentarily across space in a dematerialized state as vapour before being reformed as its mirror opposite.

Research visit to Hartland Magnetic Observatory. I am very grateful to The British Geological Survey for allowing me access to the site and particularly to Tom who shared his knowledge and gave a fascinating tour of the observatory. He was a little perplexed by my request to see the obelisk with the azimuth mark determined by observations of Polaris as he thought this description was a slight exaggeration of what was actually present. The ‘obelisk’ is almost hidden in thick undergrowth and impenetrable woodland so this object, just glimpsed amongst the trees remains an enigma.

Hartland was established in 1955 and is part of a network of international observatories sharing information with governments and industry, the charts of the shifting magnetic field are also publicly available. The buildings are made of lime bricks and timber, with concrete flooring and roofing of copper.

The Earth’s magnetic field acts as a shield against potentially harmful charged particles from outer space. It is also holds clues to the planet’s deep interior and geological history which are inaccessible to direct observations.

Magnetic declination is the angular difference between magnetic north and geographical or true north for any point on the earth’s surface. The British astronomer Sir Edmund Halley was interested in the magnetic field and knew about declination based on the observations of sea captains and explorers in various parts of the world. He made two scientific voyages in the Atlantic Ocean as captain of the HMS Paramore between 1698 and 1700 when he charted declination in the Atlantic and from his observations published the first geomagnetic field map in 1701. His observations involved recording the position of celestial objects and the angular distance of the sun on the horizon.

I am intrigued to know what the middle species he encountered between a bird and a fish might be. Penguins with long swan necks?

Alexander von Humboldt determined that the magnetic field increased in intensity with distance from the equator based on magnetic field observations during his scientific journeys 250 years ago. He initiated coordinated observations across the globe and thus laid the foundation for international data exchange and collaboration.

Observation is essential to gain insight into the complexities of the geomagnetic field which is created by a combination of three separate fields. The main field is generated in the earth’s core, the second from electrical currents caused by solar weather as cosmic particles bounce off the Earth’s main field charging the surrounding ionosphere and thirdly from the magnetisation of the surrounding geology of the rocky mantle and crust.

The purpose of a magnetic observatory is to measure the size, direction and changes to the natural magnetic field at the surface of the earth. There is no clear separation between north and south currents at the equator as many diagrams suggest, everything just gets a bit muddled with tangled currents.

The fluctuations in the geomagnetic component fields occur over hugely different timescales, changing by the second as we orbit the sun, to the yearly drifting of magnetic poles and the millennia of deep geological time. To study these changes an observatory must make measurements at exactly the same point over a long period of time.

Activity in the ionosphere causes a compass needle to shift slightly throughout the day but these changes, although rapid, are very small, so the instruments measuring these fluctuations must be very sensitive and operate in an environment free from man made magnetic contamination which is why I was advised to park some way from the observatory.

Rapid changes in the geomagnetic field due to magnetic storms can impact navigation data which is particularly important for the oil industry that uses this data for accurate drilling references. Data monitoring solar variability can also help studies into the mechanisms of climate change. It has been noticed that the Sun’s coronal magnetic field has doubled over the last century and this may have an effect on cloud formation which has an impact on warming the planet.

Today at Hartland, the intensity and direction of the magnetic field is sampled using one manual and two automated instruments. A fluxgate magnetometer (variometer) is used to measure variations in the direction of the field every second. It has copper coils and three orthogonal sensors (measuring north, east and vertical). This instrument is extremely sensitive, mounted on a marble block on a pillar set into the bedrock to avoid tilting, it must be kept at a constant 23C temperature. It is housed in a special building with thermally insulated inner chambers within inner chambers, isolated in the dark, it is only visited once a year. We didn’t even walk too close to the building which appeared to have no door.

The second automated instrument is a proton precession magnetometer to measure the strength of the field. This also has its own building and new equipment is being tested here. As new instruments are introduced previously unseen minute fluctuations are revealed.

The manual instrument is a fluxgate theodolite housed in the Absolute Hut looking out of the North facing window. It sits on a lime brick and concrete pillar. This instrument has a magnetic sensor mounted on the non-magnetic telescope of the theodolite to detect when it is perpendicular to the magnetic field vector. True north is determined by reference to a fixed mark of known azimuth. This was the obelisk though today it is determined by GPS.

Absolute and variable measurements are combined to give a full record of the field.

It used to be that all the measurements were made by hand and this took time and skill to produce accurate results. The beautiful old instruments used still sit in the buildings at Hartland.

The Dye Coil measured the strength of the field in the vertical direction, using a coil that vibrates in the presence of a magnetic field as the sensing element. The Schuster-Smith magnetometer measured the strength of the field in the horizontal direction, using a magnet, a mirror and a light source to make a sensitive detector. The decinometer measured the angle between true and magnetic north using a freely suspended magnet and a theodolite to measure the angles. Three Danish LaCour variometers were kept in the recording house, each measuring the strength of the field, one for the north-south component, another for east-west and one for the vertical component of the field. All three used magnets attached to mirrors, which were free to rotate in the Earth’s magnetic field. A thin beam of light shone onto each mirror was reflected back onto a rotating drum covered in photographic paper. The drum driven by clockwork rotated once a day.

There are also three satellites which monitor the magnetic field from space (though these may only have about three more years of useful life). ESA’s ‘Swarm’ mission is dedicated to the study of the mysteries of the magnetic field which although invisible, together with electric currents in and around Earth, generates complex forces that have immeasurable impact on everyday life. 

Using measurements from ESA’s Earth Explorer Swarm mission, scientists have developed a new tool that links the strength and direction of the magnetic field to the flight paths of migrating birds. This new research means that the study of animal movement can now combine tracking data with geophysical information and lead to new insights on migration behaviour.

Hartland Observatory is situated on the dramatic North Devon Coast with stunning local geology. When the Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago from the collision, accretion and compression of matter it was rock all the way through. Heat from the massive violence of formation along with radioactive decay caused Earth to get hotter and hotter. After about 500 million years as a rocky lump it reached the melting point of iron. Known as the iron catastrophe this liquifying caused planetary differentiation to occur as lighter material rose to the surface becoming the mantle and crust while heavy metals sank to the core becoming the churning dynamo powering the magnetic field.

During my visit the weather was kind and so I was able to fly my drone around the cliffs and rocky bays. I am still terrified of disaster every time I take it out, compounded by almost getting caught out by the incoming tide but I did get some useful footage for my ‘Belly of a Rock’ video sculpture I am working on.

When night falls after a warm day at certain times of year bioluminescence can be experienced at high tide in Hartland Quay. A young woman, and her mother (who swims across the bay at night here regularly) invited us into the pitch darkness to see the green sparks fly as we splashed in the rising water. It was incredible to witness. Swimming in the water limbs are coated in a luminescent glow. I tried to film the flashes on my phone and thought I had been unsuccessful as what I captured appeared totally dark. However, back at home I tried pulling out what information there was on each frame and managed to get a film sequence that might not show exactly what I saw but has an essence of the experience.

Visit to The King’s Observatory built by George III for the purpose of observing the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769. This observation allowed measurement of the distance from Earth to the sun, later named as the astronomical unit at around 150 million kilometres (8.3 light minutes).

It is now a family home and so the decor although representative of Georgian taste does not reflect the working laboratory that it once was.

Fascinating to discover it was also the site of the meridian line marked true north-south by two obelisks either side of the west room which housed a tracking telescope. There is a third obelisk due south from the east room which housed a mural quadrant used to measure angles. It wasn’t possible to walk over to the obelisks as the Observatory is in the middle of a golf course now, but there is a path to them via the Old Deer Park which I will walk another day. An accurate clock here provided standard time to the government before the task was transferred to Greenwich Observatory.

In 1842 it was renamed Kew Observatory and taken over by The British Association for the Advancement of Science. The Meteorological Office was based here, making regular records of the weather from 1773 until 1980. It was also home to the National Physical Laboratory between 1900 and 1914 when scientific instruments were checked for accuracy and stamped with KO, a hallmark of excellence if they passed.

The two huts remaining in the grounds were used for meteorological and magnetic observations and are built with no nails which might interfere with the instruments used within.

Francis Ronalds, director at Kew Observatory from 1842, invented several camera designs subsequently used in both weather forecasting and in understanding the perennial perturbations in terrestrial magnetism. Photography was used early on in its development for use in scientific investigations. Ronalds’ first instrument captured observations from his atmospheric electricity apparatus. He went on to record atmospheric pressure and temperature using the same method and had soon extended his approach to geomagnetism. His magnetographs “established the standard technique employed for magnetic observatory recording worldwide for more than a century” – Encyclopedia of Geomagnetism and Paleomagnetism.

In 1908 the geomagnetic instruments were relocated to the magnetic observatory established at Eskdalemuir in Scotland to undertake magnetic work for which Kew was no longer suitable after the advent of electrification in London led to interference with their operations.

Ronalds had also established an atmospheric electricity observing system at Kew with a long copper rod protruding through the cupola dome of the observatory connected to electrometers and electrographs to manually record the data.

Lord Kelvin later installed an updated electrical observation system and CTR Wilson (the inventor of the cloud chamber) set up a secondary system using different principles which has been useful in historical air pollution research.

I am extremely grateful to Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford Peter Hore for spending time chatting on zoom with me about his fascinating research into the ability of birds to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field.  There is a link to a YouTube lecture by Peter on Radical pair mechanism of magnetoreception here.

Research confirms there is a chemical reaction in the bird’s eye sensitive to magnetic fields as weak as that of the Earth. This happens in an array of reactant molecules which can be changed into extremely short lived radical pairs which are magnetically sensitive. The reaction in the molecules to produce radical pairs is triggered by light from the sun or stars. It is thought that this chemical compass is sensitive to direction not intensity of the field and may use the energy from blue/green photons to power this reaction. During this reaction, as the bird changes direction, some radical pairs perform one way and others another creating difference across the array of molecules which is detected by the bird.

My question to Peter was to ask for his thoughts on whether a bird’s ability to ‘see’ the magnetic field manifests itself visually and if he has any understanding of what the bird experiences. He had to confess that how this sense is experienced by birds is not known but he had done some speculative modelling with a PhD student representing the field as fluctuating visual contour lines mapped over the landscape.

The birds eye is very complex and so there is still a lot to be learned about how this ability functions. Bird’s retinas have rods that are sensitive to light intensity and cones sensitive to red, blue and green wavelengths of light like us but they are also sensitive to ultra violet light. There are also double cones in the bird’s eye and their function is not clear, it could be that these are seconded for magnetic reception at night when they are not active.

Often birds fly high above the clouds when migrating and starlight appears to be enough to trigger the reaction in the molecules. In normal sight chemical messages are sent from the retina to visual processing centres within the central nervous system via ganglion cells. There are many of these ganglion cells in the birds eye and it may be they send the information bypassing any rods or cones. Studies on the retina show a reaction to the magnetic field when blue light is present but the activity has not been traced from the retina to a specific part of the brain yet which might determine if this sensitivity does manifest itself visually.

It is very difficult to imagine a sense we do not have.

Learning the migratory route and destination is vital to birds survival in many cases. Often the young bird will have to undertake the first migratory journey on its own, its parents having left earlier. These instinctive instructions for the journey are passed on from one generation to the next. The genetic instructions are quite broad, leading to a large designated destination zone which could be within a 200 mile radius. However, when returning, along with the hereditary instinct using the stars and sun to navigate the birds also have learnt the magnetic map and can return to the exact spot they left as a fledgling. Young birds in a planetarium will follow the stars if they are rotating correctly.

Peter is a chemist so his interest is in the chemical reactions of the radical pairs but he is part of a wider research group that also looks at this behaviour in bats and fish.

I also asked his thoughts on the human capacity to sense the magnetic field. Unfortunately, although we have cryptochromes in many of our cells we do not have the particular molecule Riboflavin which is the one activated by blue light to become magnetically sensitive. Whether we once had this molecule and lost it or birds evolved this molecule separate to our evolution is not understood but he did believe current research on human brain alpha wave activity in response to the magnetic field might throw up some interesting ideas to look at. A speculative approach to gaining sensitivity to the magnetic field may be by transplanting a tiny compass as used in a mobile phone onto the body, setting it to vibrate when pointing north. The body may ‘learn’ to recognise north in this way.

Listening to The Life Scientific with guest David Eagleman has shed further light on what might be possible as his research shows the human brain can be trained to receive input from alternative sources, for example learning to hear through the skin. He believes it will be perfectly possible for us to experience new senses in the future, including magnetoreception.

Work in Progress

I have been scouring the internet for tips on casting a concrete obelisk and getting an idea of the dimensions. I am thinking about using aerated concrete, for lightness but also to give an appearance of the texture of volcanic rock.

Chemical conversation tests for the video sculpture Belly of a Rock inspired by Italo Calvino The Spiral in The Complete Cosmicomics. “The water was a source of information, reliable and precise [ ] full of substances and sensations and stimuli”

I have been testing paper clay recipes and shapes for the video sculpture Belly of a Rock which will be somewhere between a rock and a mollusc.

Out of Studio

Visit to Richard Saltoun Gallery to see Haptic Vision a retrospective of artists Jo Bruton and Rosa Lee working in the 1980’s and 90’s creating paintings that encourage the eye to wander across a richly textured surface of optical illusions. “The necessity of ‘making’, of being within that space as a primary concern, where the Subject is nearby and woven into the repetitions and patterns of everyday life.” – Jo Bruton, 2022

Eternally Yours at Somerset House reflects upon the hope and healing which can be found in the memories and stories that everyday objects hold in our lives. The repair becomes a shared experience expanding the idea of bonding to include the emotional connection.

I really liked the DIY sensors and data gathering device created by Superflux. Re-imagining technology as a useful tool for communities to gather and share information on the environment, monitor local air pollution and be active in creating a just and equitable society.

New River Folk is the outcome of an Engine House Residency by Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe at the new Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration about to be developed at New River Head, Clerkenwell. This site was part of an artificial watercourse opened in 1613 to supply water to London at first through overground wooden pipes. When more pressure was needed a six-sail windmill pumped water from the site. After storm damage to the windmill in 1720 horses were harnessed to turn the wheel and power the pump. The round base of the windmill remains, and is the oldest construction of its kind in central London. The artists drew on local history around the site, creating an archeology expanding on the lives of Mole Catcher William ‘Mollitrappe’ Smythe, Well-Keeper Black Mary Woolaston and Tankard-Bearer Joan Starkey. They also collaborated with the river itself to create 16mm film imagery and recordings.

I was fascinated by the crystals that had formed on the bricks in the old windmill. The salt crystal growing experiment I set up while planning an exhibition proposal is still sitting in my studio – if it is still growing it is doing so very slowly, the initial growth was surprisingly fast.

Reimagining Joya is an exhibition at Thames-side Gallery inspired by the experiences and artistic responses of a group of artists who have all participated in Joya: Art + Ecology / AiR residency. The curators, Olga Suchanova, Tere Chad and Barbara Slavikova, have selected a body of works which explore the way we inhabit, survey, feel, and relate to the natural landscape and its living creatures.