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Inspiration for Earthworks came from a visit we made to La Planta, a Sorigué quarry situated
in Lleida, Spain. The landscape at Planta was formed by an old river bed; as the river shifted
across the landscape over centuries and millennia, it left behind deposits of sand and gravel
forming the distinctive sedimentary layers that can be seen in the quarry face today.
We researched the techniques and processes scientists use to create an understanding of
these layered formations and came across the technique of Geo-Modelling. It uses layers of
multi-coloured sand or other particles to represent landscape matter and applies pressure
and motion to simulate tectonic and seismic forces. As the layers become deformed they
reproduce, quite accu…ately, the generation and evolution of landscape in nature. The
resulting patterns of the coloured layers resemble complex marbled waveforms. We visited
the Analogue Modelling Laboratory at the University of Barcelona to learn about the
technique. We wanted to introduce time to these models to bring them to life and create an
experience of the phenomena of landscape formation through the tools that are used to
study it. We turned to thinking about the forces of nature that have gone towards making
these forms and researched accessing seismic data related to tectonic and land forming
activity, around the globe, with a view to using it to animate layered models and
simultaneously become the soundtrack.
We have previously worked with the Iris (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology)
network, an open source data archive, to access earthquake seismic data and we set about
seeing if we could find other types of seismic activity. It’s quite a laborious process which
involves randomly ploughing through many instrument’s archives, accessing data sets,
processing them, translating them to sound and listening to what you’ve got. We were keen
to find data sets which represented landscapes in a state of flux and we initially settled on
three different sources; glacial, earthquake and volcanic. Each data set was made up of
multiple sources accessed over a period of a few weeks.
We were also interested in representing the Anthropocene, a proposed geologic
chronological term for an epoch that begins when human activities have a significant impact
on the Earth. We proposed to install a seismometer at the La Planta site to collect the
seismic signature of man’s vibrations through the Earth, in this instance; machines working,
quarrying activity, construction and human movement. We subsequently worked with
Professor Dr. Albert Casas and Professor Dr. Manuel Viladevall Solé from the Faculty of
Geology at the University of Barcelona to install a seismometer at La Planta, and collect
seismic data; this became the fourth source of data we employed. We adopted the language of Geo-Modelling and worked with a programmer to construct a
software environment in Houdini, which allowed us to create a graphical layered landscape
in cross-section, made up of millions of particles, and then animate it according to
parameters we created; relating to laws of motion and forces of nature. It was a complex
involved process, building a tool from scratch, which took us 6 months of intensive
development and implementation. The seismic data is the key to driving the work. We converted the four sections of seismic
data into audio to form the soundtrack. We composed it to give it structure and rhythm and
developed a surround sound immersive listening experience. The seismic audio is rich, full of
the intricacies of the dynamics of our planet in motion, and provides an intimate
experience. The sounds are arresting and extremely evocative of how you would imagine
matter colliding, squeezing and in motion, to sound; it varies from booming, screeching and
shattering, to shuffling, squeezing and rippling.
We simultaneously used the data to create and control the animation of the layers, so that
the data as sound is directly sculpting the image, animating and forming the landscape. The
animation and sound are not just synchronised but physically interwoven, reflecting the
symbiotic relationships between landscape formation and seismic vibrations.
Seismic data is captured as a numerical data over a frequency of time. The data can be re-
plotted as a waveform and then translated directly into sound. We like working with
scientific data related to physical matter and trying to work with it in a raw form as possible,
so we can get as close to the original matter as possible without anthropomorphising it. We
embrace the human signature in the data as a way to question how science mediates
nature, but we don’t want to include aesthetic choices into the data. In this instance man’s
signature is the frequency of the waveform which is sped up to bring it into our audible
The finished work is installed as five channels with 4.1 surround sound. The original
composition is 9600 x 1080 pixels at 60p. The work is installed onto a zigzag of five large
screens, whose sculptural form reflects the waveforms in the landscape and data, becoming
a landscape in cross-section, or quarry face. The work is immersive in scale, so that the
viewer becomes part of the landscape. The sound is installed across 4 channels with
subwoofers, creating a surround sound work. It includes low frequency rumbles which can
be physically felt.
Earthworks is made up of four chapters; each chapter is one type of seismic data. The
coloured layers start off flat and gradually evolve throughout the entire work, becoming
complex marbled waveforms until the scene is far removed from when it started. Each
scene has a range of colours selected from scientific geological maps.
In our work we are interested in exploring the material nature of the physical world and
how we experience it through the lens of science and technology. With this work we want
to create an experience of the phenomena of landscape formation through the languages
that are made to study it. By using seismic data to control the Geo-Models we are not only
playing with the idea that it is these actions that have shaped landscapes, but also that
being an event that occurs beyond a human-time frame, landscape formation can only be
experienced through scientific technological mediation of nature. It produces information
about time, space and phenomena that no human consciousness could possibly have
witnessed. It is as if we are watching hundreds of thousands of years played out in front of
our eyes, revealing experiences beyond our everyday perceptions of the physical world.
On the one hand we want to celebrate the revelatory capacities of modern science and
technologies to create a kind of technological sublime, using these techniques and
processes to produce stunning animations, whilst simultaneously inviting viewers to
consider the philosophical problems posed by such technologically mediated observations
of suprasensible phenomena.
We are not trying to replicate the process of landscape formation accurately, but use the
framework of Geo-Modelling to develop a unique and striking animation technique which
simultaneously philosophically questions how science mediates our experiences of natural
phenomena through the tools and languages made to study it, positioning man as an
observer of the physical world.
The title Earthworks, acknowledges the history of the Land Art movement which used actual
landscapes as an artistic medium. With the advent of digital techniques and processes,
Semiconductor have expanded on this notion, making a name for themselves in sculpting
imperceptible physical landscapes, that exist on a massive scale. Read more...