Cetacean Surroundsound

I was thinking about this whale song bunker idea the other week after reading about the potential for whale song to be used as a form of deep-sea seismic sensing. That original project—with no actual connection to the following news story—proposed using a derelict submarine surveillance station on the coast of Scotland as a site for eavesdropping on the songs of whales.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image of whales, courtesy Public Domain Review.]

In a paper published in Science last month, researchers found that “fin whale songs can also be used as a seismic source for determining crustal structure. Fin whale vocalizations can be as loud as large ships and occur at frequencies useful for traveling through the ocean floor. These properties allow fin whale songs to be used for mapping out the density of ocean crust, a vital part of exploring the seafloor.”

The team noticed not only that these whale songs could be picked up on deep-sea seismometers, but that “the song recordings also contain signals reflected and refracted from crustal interfaces beneath the stations.” It could be a comic book: marine geologists teaming up with animal familiars to map undiscovered faults through tectonic sound recordings of the sea.

There’s something incredibly beautiful about the prospect of fin whales swimming around together through the darkness of the sea, following geological structures, perhaps clued in to emerging tectonic features—giant, immersive ambient soundscapes—playfully enjoying the distorted reflections of each other’s songs as they echo back off buried mineral forms in the mud below.

I’m reminded of seemingly prescient lyrics from Coil’s song “The Sea Priestess”: “I was woken three times in the night / and asked to watch whales listen for earthquakes in the sea / I had never seen such a strange sight before.”

Someday, perhaps, long after the pandemic has passed, we’ll gather together in derelict bunkers on the ocean shore to tune into the sounds of whales mapping submerged faults, a cross-species geological survey in which songs serve as seismic media.

Planetary Supercinema

[Image: Courtesy Capella Space.]

The Geocinema group is hosting a six-week class this spring called Signals and Storms, a kind of planetary-scale media studies workshop. Participants will research and critique what they describe as an emerging super-system of always-on recording technologies, from “geosensors” and street-level surveillance cameras up to weather satellites—tools that suggest a future possible medium for “largely distributed infrastructures of filmmaking.”

The image above, meanwhile, comes courtesy of Capella Space and depicts a new satellite design—as of January 2020—that allows the company to produce “on-demand observations of anywhere on Earth” (what they have elsewhere called “persistent monitoring from space”).

These sorts of technologies—though currently out of reach for the typical budgets of a film studio, let alone an arts group—are part of an increasingly omnipresent media-production infrastructure, one that continuously records the surface of the Earth in real time and in great detail, or where Geocinema gets its name in the first place.

Read more over at Signals and Storms.

(Spotted via @wmmna.)

The Magnetic Depths

The emerging sub-genre of public service announcements about geological surveys—apparently offered not just due to FAA regulations, but to quell the growth of potential conspiracy theories—continues with this heads-up about a “low-flying airplane” over parts of Virginia and North Carolina.

[Image: USGS map of eastern Virginia, altered by BLDGBLOG.]

Of course, beyond the idea of simply preempting the development of new conspiracy theories, the work being done by the project is fascinating in and of itself: “Instruments on the airplane will measure variations in the Earth’s magnetic field and natural low-level radiation created by different rock types near and up to several miles beneath the surface. This information will help researchers develop geologic maps of the area that will be used to better understand sand resources and underground faults in the region.”

While we’re on the topic of the Virginia/North Carolina border region, I’m reminded of why there’s a strange “notch” in the state line, a story “that mostly involves collecting taxes and avoiding swamps”: “The rough and rowdy inhabitants living close to the border told North Carolina tax collectors they lived in Virginia, [Gates County historian Linda Hofler] said. When the Virginia tax man came, they said North Carolina was their home.”

In any case, check out the USGS for more on the low-flying geomagnetic airplane and The Virginian-Pilot for more on VA/NC border history.

(Related: Geomedia, or What Lies Below.)

Antarktikos

[Image: How do you resist a map with features like Labyrinth, the Asgard Range, and Inland Forts?! (via).]

A new magazine called Antarktikos has launched with an open call for papers on the theme of “Mapping Nature.”

For the inaugural issue, they’re seeking “any kind of research, story, or visualization related to the mapping of Antarctica. From ice cores containing the information trapped in 20,000-year-old air bubbles, to the architectural drawing of research stations, to imaginary maps of Antarctica in the year 3000.”

Click through for more info.

Geomedia, or What Lies Below

[Image: Courtesy USGS.]

I love the fact that the U.S. Geological Survey had to put out a press release explaining what some people in rural Wisconsin might see in the first few weeks of January: a government helicopter flying “in a grid pattern relatively low to the ground, hundreds of feet above the surface. A sensor that resembles a large hula-hoop will be towed beneath the helicopter,” the USGS explains—but it’s not some conspiratorial super-tool, silently flipping the results of voting machines. It’s simply measuring “tiny electromagnetic signals that can be used to map features below Earth’s surface,” including “shallow bedrock and glacial sediments” in the region.

Of course, the fictional possibilities are nevertheless intriguing: government geologists looking for something buried in the agricultural muds of eastern Wisconsin, part Michael Crichton, part Stephen King; or CIA contractors, masquerading as geologists, mapping unexplained radio signals emanating from a grid of points somewhere inland from Lake Michigan; or a rogue team of federal archaeologists searching for some Lovecraftian ruin, a lost city scraped down to its foundations by the last Ice Age, etc. etc.

In any case, the use of remote-sensing tools such as these—scanning the Earth to reveal electromagnetic, gravitational, and chemical signatures indicative of mineral deposits or, as it happens, architectural ruins—is the subject of a Graham Foundation grant I received earlier this autumn. That’s a project I will be exploring and updating over the next 10 months, combining lifelong obsessions with archaeology and ruins (specifically, in this case, the art history of how we depict destroyed works of architecture) with an interest in geophysical prospecting tools borrowed from the extraction industry.

In other words, the same remote-sensing tools that allow geological prospecting crews to locate subterranean mineral deposits are increasingly being used by archaeologists today to map underground architectural ruins. Empty fields mask otherwise invisible cities. How will these technologies change the way we define and represent architectural history?

[Image: Collage, Geoff Manaugh, for “Invisible Cities: Architecture’s Geophysical Turn,” Graham Foundation 2020/2021; based on “Forum Romano, Rome, Italy,” photochrom print, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.]

For now, I’ll just note another recent USGS press release, this one touting the agency’s year-end “Mineral Resources Program Highlights.”

Included in the tally is the “Earth MRI” initiative—which, despite the apt medical-imaging metaphor, actually stands for the “Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.” From the USGS: “When learning more about ancient rocks buried deep beneath the surface of the Earth, it may seem surprising to use futuristic technologies flown hundreds of feet in the air, but that has been central to the USGS Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.”

[Image: A geophysical survey of northwestern Arkansas, courtesy USGS.]

What lies below, whether it is mineral or architectural, is becoming accessible to surface view through advanced technical means. These new tools often reveal that, beneath even the most featureless landscapes, immensely interesting forms and structures can be hidden. Ostensibly boring mud plains can hide the eroded roots of ancient mountain chains, just as endless fields of wheat or barley can stand atop forgotten towns or lost cities without any hint of the walls and streets beneath.

The surface of the Earth is an intermediary—it is media—between us and what it disguises.

(See also, Detection Landscapes and Lost Roads of Monticello.)

Underground Cathedrals of Radiation and Zones of Irreversible Strain

[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]

There’s a great line in Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World where he describes the after-effects of underground nuclear tests. Zoellner writes that, during these tests, “a nuclear bomb buried in a deep shaft underneath a mountain would vaporize the surrounding rock and make a huge cathedral-like space inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity.”

I thought of Zoellner’s vision of a “huge cathedral-like space inside the earth” recently while reading a paper by Colin N. Waters et al., called “Recognising anthropogenic modification of the subsurface in the geological record.” Among other things, the authors describe the long-term “structural effects of subsurface weapon detonations.”

[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]

They suggest that these detonations produce spaces—such as collapse cones and debris fields—that have “no direct natural analogue,” although they do helpfully contrast weapon-test craters with meteor-impact sites. (The authors also break underground nuclear test sites down into “zones,” which include a “zone of irreversible strain,” which is an amazing phrase.)

The larger purpose of their paper, though, is to look at long-term “signatures” that humans might leave behind in our underground activity, from nuclear tests to mineralogical carbon-capture to deep boreholes to coal mines. Will these signatures still be legible or detectible for humans of the far future? On the whole, their conclusion is not optimistic, suggesting instead that even vast subterranean mines and sites of underground nuclear weapons tests will fade from the terrestrial archive.

“Many of the physical and chemical products of human subsurface intrusion either do not extend far from the source of intrusion, lack long-term persistence as a signal or are not sufficiently distinctive from the products of natural processes to make them uniquely recognisable as of anthropogenic origin,” they write. “But the scope and complexity of the signals have increased greatly over recent decades, both in areal extent and with increasing depths, and seem set to be a fundamental component of our technological expansion. There will be some clues to the geologist of the far-future, when historical knowledge records may not be preserved, that will help resolve the origin.”

[Image: Nevada test site craters, courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library.]

Nevertheless, it is totally fascinating to imagine what future archaeologists might make of Zoellner’s “huge cathedral-like space[s] inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity,” long after they’ve collapsed, and where sand has been fused into unnatural glass and anomalous traces of radiation can still be found with no reasonable explanation for how they got there.

Could future archaeologists deduce the existence of nuclear weapons from such a landscape? And, if so, would such a suggestion—ancient weapons modeled on the physics of stars—sound rational or vaguely insane?

(Vaguely related: “fossil reactors” underground in Gabon.)

PoMo- Mytho- Geo-

[Image: “Model of an Earth Fastener on the Delphi Fault (Temple of Apollo)” (2019) by Kylie White; photo courtesy Moskowitz Bayse.]

Artist Kylie White has two new pieces up in a group show here in Los Angeles, called Grammars of Creation, on display at Moskowitz Bayse till March 16th, which I will return to in a second.

White had a great solo show at the same gallery almost exactly a year ago, featuring a series of geological faults modeled in richly veined, colored marble Most also incorporated brass details, acting as so-called “Earth fasteners.”

[Images: From Six Significant Landscapes by Kylie White; photos courtesy Moskowitz Bayse.]

Gallery text explained at the time that White’s works “are at once sculptures, scale models, geologic diagrams, and proposals; each depicts an active fault line, a place of displaced terrain due to tectonic movement.”

The “proposal” in each work, of course, would be the fasteners: metal implants of a sort meant to span the rift of an open fault.

[Image: “Model of Earth Fastener on a Transform Fault; 1”=10” (2017) by Kylie White; note that this piece was not featured in Six Significant Landscapes. Photo courtesy Moskowitz Bayse.]

White’s fasteners seemed to suggest at least two things simultaneously: that perhaps we could fix the Earth’s surface in place, if only we had the means to stop faults from breaking open, but also that human interventions such as these, in otherwise colossal planetary landscapes, would be trivial at best, more sculptural than scientific, just temporary installations not permanent features of a changing continent.

[Image: From Six Significant Landscapes by Kylie White; photo courtesy Moskowitz Bayse.]

As I struggled to explain to my friends, however, while describing White’s work, the visual effect was strangely postmodern, almost tongue-in-cheek, as if her sculptures—all green marble blocks and inlaid brass—could have passed for avant-garde luxury furniture items from the 1980s (and, to be clear, I mean this in a good way: imagine scientific models masquerading as luxury goods).

[Images: Details from Six Significant Landscapes by Kylie White; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

All of which means I sort of laughed when I saw these more recent works that seem to take this postmodern aesthetic to a new height, complete with two fault models mounted atop faux-Greek columns.

[Image: “Model of an Earth Fastener on the Hierapolis Fault (Plutonion)” (2019) by Kylie White; photo courtesy Moskowitz Bayse.]

It’s like plate tectonics meets Learning From Las Vegas, by way of Greek mythology.

Because the columns are also a fitting reference to the pieces’ own subject matter: one, seen at the top of this post, is called “Model of an Earth Fastener on the Delphi Fault (Temple of Apollo)” and the other, immediately above, is “Model of an Earth Fastener on the Hierapolis Fault (Plutonion).” They perhaps suggest an entirely new approach to natural history museum displays—boldly gridded rooms filled with heroic blocks of the Earth’s surface, bathed in neon. Pomotectonics.

In any case, more information about the show is available at Moskowitz Bayse. It closes on March 16th, 2020, although White apparently has another, currently untitled solo show coming up in 2021.

The Deep

[Image: Binnewater Kilns, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

While I was over in New York State last fall, reporting both the “witch houses” piece for The New Yorker and the Middletown High School piece for The Guardian, I stopped off in the town of Rosendale, enticed there by several things I noticed on Google Maps.

[Image: The Rosendale Trestle, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

First was what turned out to be a satirical reference to something called the Geo Refrigeration Crevice, which, even on its own, sounded worth a side-trip. But, in the exact same area, there were also photos of an incredible-looking railway bridge converted to a hiking path that I wanted to walk across; there were these gorgeous, ruined kilns built into the hillside; and there were supposedly huge caves.

How on Earth could I drive past all that without stopping?

[Image: Caves everywhere! Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Being—perhaps to my Instagram followers’ frustration—an avid hiker, I spent far more time there than I should have, mostly looking down into jagged crevasses that extended past the roots of trees, carpeted in fallen leaves, often hidden beneath great, shipwrecked jumbles of boulders slick with the waters of temporary streams.

I crossed the bridge and was ready to hit the road again, when I saw another site of interest on the map. I decided to walk all the way down and around to something called the Widow Jane Mine.

Having visited many mines in my life, I was expecting something like a small arched hole in the side of a hill, probably guarded with a locked gate. Instead, hiking into the woods past some sort of private home/closed mining museum, the ground still damp from rain, I found myself stunned by the unexpected appearance of these huge, moaning, jaw-like holes blasted into the Earth.

[Image: An entrance to the Widow Jane Mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

I walked inside and immediately saw the space was huge: a massive artificial cavern extending far back into the hillside. Excuse my terribly lit iPhone photos here, but these images should give you at least a cursory sense of the mine’s scale.

[Image: Inside the Widow Jane Mine; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Several things gradually became clear as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.

One, I was totally alone in there and had no artificial illumination beyond my phone, whose light was useless. Two, a great deal of the mine was flooded, meaning that the true extent of its subterranean workings was impossible to gauge; I began fantasizing about returning someday with a canoe and seeing how far back it all really goes.

[Image: Flooding inside the Widow Jane Mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

Three, there were plastic lawn chairs everywhere. And they were facing the water.

While the actual explanation for this would later turn out to be both entirely sensible and somewhat anticlimactic—the mine, it turns out, is occasionally used as a performance venue for unusual concerts and events—it was impossible not to fall into a more Lovecraftian fantasy, of people coming here to sit together in the darkness, waiting patiently for something to emerge from the smooth black waters of a flooded mine, perhaps something they themselves have invited to the surface…

[Image: Lawn chairs facing the black waters of a flooded mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

In any case, at that point I couldn’t be stopped. While trying to figure out where in the world I had left my rental car, I noticed something else in Google’s satellite view of the area—some sort of abandoned factory complex in the woods—so I headed out to find it.

On the way there, still totally alone and not hiking past a single other person, there was some sort of Blair Witch house set back in the trees, collapsing under vegetation and water damage, with black yawning windows and graffiti everywhere. I believe it is this structure in the satellite pic.

[Image: A creepy, ruined house in the woods, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

Onward I continued, walking till I made it, finally, to this sprawling cement plant facility of some sort just standing there in a clearing.

[Image: Cement world; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

I wandered into the silos, looking at other people’s graffiti…

[Image: “Born to Die”—it’s hard to argue with that, although when I texted this photo to a friend he thought it said “Born to Pie,” which I suppose is even better. Photo by BLDGBLOG.]

…before continuing on again to find my car.

Then, though, one more crazy thing popped up, sort of hidden behind those kilns in the opening photo of this post.

There was a door in the middle of the forest! With a surveillance camera!

[Image: Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

It turns out this door leads down into the massive document-storage caverns of Iron Mountain located nearby, a company whose subterranean archive fever was documented in The New Yorker several years ago (albeit referring to a slightly different location of the firm). I would guess that this is the approximate location of that door.

This was confirmed for me by a man sitting alone in a public works truck back at the Binnewater Kilns parking lot, near my rental car. He was smoking a cigar and listening to the radio with his window rolled down when I walked up to the side of his truck and said, “Hey, man, what’s that door in the woods?”

Class Action

[Image: Still from the end of Garbage, Gangsters and Greed.]

I have a long new feature up at The Guardian this weekend that tells the story of an English teacher at Middletown High School, in upstate New York, named Fred Isseks. In the early 1990s, Isseks was given the task of instructing teenage students at the school in how to use a bunch of new video cameras the school had acquired.

To the school’s surprise—and to some administrators’ long-term political frustration—Isseks’s students quickly formed an investigative journalism unit, taking on local politicians and the New York Mafia, and producing a feature-length documentary about the illegal dumping of toxic waste in local landfills.

The resulting film, called Garbage, Gangsters and Greed, made it as far as the Clinton White House, helped turn public opinion against the landfills, leading to their closure, and helped to reinvigorate official New York State hearings, run by Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey, on the subject of organized crime families and the illegal hauling of toxic waste.

The story of the students is pretty incredible—involving death threats, threats of arrest, trespassing onto contaminated land, and more—and I was thrilled to be able to meet or speak with several of them, even to tour the old high school with Fred Isseks in tow. It is not an exaggeration to say that Isseks’s class changed the direction of those students’ lives, as many now work in environmental law or film and television. (One former student, Rachel Raimist, even has a media center named after her at the University of Minnesota.)

The whole thing really pivots on Isseks’s belief that teenagers need to be given projects of true meaning and significance, not simply assigned more tests to take. Indeed, Isseks himself later went on—while still teaching at the high school but after a final cut of the landfill documentary had been completed—to earn a Ph.D. at the European Graduate School, studying under Wolfgang Schirmacher.

His thesis would later be published under the name Media Courage: Impossible Pedagogy in an Artificial Community, and it includes a chapter that, as I describe it in the Guardian piece, advocates for “the philosophical potential of the American high school system. [Isseks’s] belief that teenagers need to be given work with genuine meaning and consequence in the world would shape his entire teaching career and, in the process, change his students’ lives.”

Of course, the rabbit hole of Mob connections to toxic waste in the United States is bottomless, and the true consequences of illegal disposal—particularly, the long-term medical and environmental effects—are yet to be fully accounted for.

I will undoubtedly come back to this topic, but, for now, check out the Guardian piece online (or in this weekend’s print edition), watch the students’ film in its entirety over at YouTube, and click through to Fred Isseks’s blog, where I first read about all of this. His long post putting the landfills into a deeper historical and geological context is superb.

(A brief note from the small-world files: my awareness of Fred Isseks came entirely through a friendly tip from my friend, Ed Keller, who had read an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG called “Terrestrial Warfare, Drowned Lands.” The “Drowned Lands” are not only the area of New York State where Ed Keller lives, but are the same region where the toxic landfills explored by Isseks and his students are all located. I owe a huge thanks to Ed for the heads up!)

Geoarchitecture

[Image: “Dolmen du Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

I’ve been enjoying looking at these photos of ancient dolmens in the French countryside, taken by Eugène Trutat, after reading about them as part of a forthcoming exhibition here in L.A. called Rude Forms Among Us.

[Image: “Dolmen de Cap del Pouech,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

“Over a span of several decades, the 19th-century photographer Eugène Trutat documented the Dolmen de Vaour,” the show’s curator, architect Anna Neimark, writes. “Three stones form the perimeter of a nearly rectangular interior; they are called orthostates. One orthostate is long, presenting a sort-of wall, while the other two are chunky and can be read as truncated columns. All three are set in from the perimeter, allowing a rather peculiar capstone to appear to float above them.”

Geology rearranged becomes architecture; the built environment is just the surface of the Earth, spatially amplified.

[Image: “Dolmen de Brillant, Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

There is an opening reception and event with Neimark tomorrow night—Friday, January 31, at 7pm—for those of you near Los Angeles.

Brainglass

Given the right geological circumstances, brains can become glass. During the 1st-century eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, for example, one fleeing victim’s brain was allegedly vitrified, its soft, thinking tissues transformed into “small, glassy black fragments that were just attached inside the skull,” the Washington Post reports, like shards of a broken window.

[Image: Brainglass, via the Washington Post.]

These reflective fragments—little black mirrors—“contained proteins common in brain tissue, researchers found, and had undergone vitrification and transformed into glass.” That made this “the first time brains from any human or animal have been found fossilized as glass.” This, of course, could be because we haven’t been looking: what other deposits of obsidian lying around on the Earth’s surface are actually fossilized animal brains? Vitrified neurology.

In any case, I was reminded of an exhibition last summer at the Getty Villa here in Los Angeles called Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri. Among the artifacts on display were these incredible “carbonized papyri,” or scrolls—ancient books—that had been turned into seemingly useless lumps of charcoal.

[Image: Carbonized papyrii on display at Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

The amazing thing was that, by using advanced medical imaging equipment to peer inside the lumps, researchers discovered that these previously illegible objects could be made readable again, virtually unrolled using X-ray tomography and character-recognition algorithms, to reconstruct the scrolls’ lost content. They were “able to use the medical imaging technology, which is usually used to examine soft human tissues, to detect the tiny bump of ink on the surface of a scroll without damaging the fragile artifact.”

To be honest, this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen—the “noninvasive digital restoration of ancient texts… hidden inside artifacts.” Otherwise mute objects given technical legibility. (A similar technique inspired one of the greatest New York Times headlines of the past few years: “Scanning an Ancient Biblical Text That Humans Fear to Open,” combining, at a stroke, H.P. Lovecraft, X-ray imaging technology, and possible Christian apocrypha.)

Stepping away from realistic technical applications for just a moment into the world of pure science fiction, it is fascinating to imagine a team of future researchers using 21st-century medical imaging techniques to scan, Jurassic Park-style, for lost thoughts lodged inside pieces of obsidian, black glass fossils of animal brain tissue, almost like the reader of unicorn skulls in Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

The idea that some of the rocks around us might, in fact, be glass brains—brainglass, a new mineral—neurological apocrypha awaiting decipherment, suggests a thousand new novels and storylines. Neurogeonomicon.

Black and ancient brains dreaming inside what humans mistook for geology.