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.)

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.)

Acoustic Archaeology

In her new book, The Bird Way, Jennifer Ackerman describes Australian lyrebirds as audio archaeologists, birds capable of keeping lost songs and soundscapes alive across multiple generations even as local ecologies change.

She describes a group of lyrebirds captured in one part of Australia and later released in Tasmania. “The birds continued mimicking birdcalls from their old landscape for many years,” Ackerman writes. “Thirty years after they were released, their descendants were said to be imitating birds never present on the island, such as pilotbirds and whipbirds,” thus offering what Ackerman calls “compelling proof of cultural transmission, one generation passing on knowledge to the next.”

For Ana Dalziell, a lyrebird-expert Ackerman meets out in the field, this makes lyrebirds “archivists of soundscapes.”

[Image: Painting of a lyrebird by John Gould, courtesy archive.org.]

The idea that the acoustics of no-longer-existing landscapes are being passed down socially through generations of songbirds is incredible, as well as suggestive of a possible tool by which landscape historians could attempt the sonic reconstructing lost environments.

The sounds of old elevators or HVAC systems in a now-destroyed building—perhaps even a demolished work by a globally renowned architect, her building now known only through acoustic after-effects, its buzzes and whirs still passed tree to tree—still being imitated by local songbirds; or the sounds of wind passing through now-extinct trees, or trees lost to recent wildfires, still being reproduced by local songbirds; or the sounds of ground-dwelling predators who are not extinct, but have nevertheless moved on to other parts of Australia, still popping up as acoustic imitations: an audio archaeology based entirely in the communal surround-sound of social singers.

You want to hear the sounds of lost buildings or extinct landscapes, and merely need to head deep into the trees, listening to lyrebirds along the way.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for giving me The Bird Way!)

Men in Space

[Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (c. 1818).]

[NOTE: I have dozens of posts—from book reviews to news items—sitting in my drafts folder that I never published for some reason. In re-reading this, from summer 2019, I thought I’d publish it.]

The tone of a new piece by Matthew Walther in The Week hits just shy of satire, but it makes an interesting—and, I would suggest, valid—point about the Apollo moon landing as more of an art historical event, a direct extension of European Romanticism, than it was a scientific one.

“What Goethe began at Weimar in 1789 ended on August 15, 1969,” Walther writes. “Apollo 11 was the culmination of the Romantic cult of the sublime prefigured in the speculations of Burke and Kant, an artistic juxtaposition of man against a brutal environment upon which he could project his fears, his sympathies, his feelings of transcendence.” Note the use of the word man.

The primarily aesthetic nature of the first Apollo mission becomes clearer when one considers it from the perspective of both the participants and the spectators. The lunar landing was not a scientific announcement or a political press conference; it was a performance, a literal space opera, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that brought together the efforts of more than 400,000 people, performed before an audience of some 650 million.

I’m reminded of Kathleen Jamie’s critique of Robert Macfarlane’s work, published in the London Review of Books several years ago. There, Jamie mocked the current state of nature writing as a genre of the “lone enraptured male,” in her words, who she instead portrays as a figure of mythic delusion seeking self-aggrandizing solitude amongst inhuman things.

“What’s that coming over the hill?” Jamie asks. “A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.” Of course, to boldly go is clearly a sarcastic reference to a particular kind of explorer’s impulse “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

In this context, consider Walther’s own comment that much of modern expeditionary literature—such as Antarctic diaries or the records of long ship journeys—was often written by “hard men” who “put their will in the service of a literary mania for feelings of remoteness, hugeness, and brooding oceanic emptiness. What a shame that we have been able to produce no great lunar literature to succeed the writings by Byron, the Shelleys, Tennyson, and Melville that both immortalized and inspired the great hypothermic pioneers.”

Men sending themselves to the moon, men climbing mountains, men staring down glacial landscapes alone or moving into mountain huts and man-caves.

I remember waking up from a dream once, maybe ten or twelve years ago*, in which I had been the author of a novel called Space. In that dream, my (purely imaginary) novel was about a man who abandons his family—leaving his wife and kids without notice—to find “space” for himself elsewhere, an ill-considered quest for solitude that was emotionally and financially devastating for the people he left behind, but a feeling of “space” he valued so much that he could not bring himself to worry about the pain it might cause to others. In other words, it was space refigured as a kind of masculine cruelty, a weapon for solitude-seeking men who can afford to walk away—space as freedom from consequences masquerading as self-sufficiency. (I wrote a description of the dream down the next morning and thus still remember it.)

In any case, I will say—perhaps because I am blinded by my own demography—that the idea of expeditionary solitude as a kind of landscape project, something that can lure hikers into remote national forests or pull unaccompanied astronauts into deep valleys on the dark sides of distant worlds, needn’t necessarily be gendered and needn’t necessarily have any scientific value at all. Humans alone in an experience of awe, surrounded by geology, can have nothing more than aesthetic value—of course, whether it’s $152 billion worth of aesthetic value is another question entirely.

*UPDATE: Looking back at my notes, I actually had this dream in September 2014.

The Glacial Gothic, or the Cathedral as an “Avalanche on Pause”

[Image: Diagram from The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin.]

There are at least two interesting moments in John Ruskin’s book The Stones of Venice.

One is his description of buttresses.

Buttresses, Ruskin writes, are structures against pressure: a cathedral’s walls want to fall outward, for example, pushed aside by the relentless weight of the roof. But this gravitational pressure can be stabilized by an exoskeleton: a sequence of buttresses that will prevent those walls from collapsing outward.

However, Ruskin points out, there is a similar kind of pressure from the waves of the sea. Think of the curved hull of a ship, he writes, which is internally buttressed against the “crushing force” of the ocean around it. It is a kind of inside-out cathedral.

Consider other high-pressure environments where architecture can thrive—resting in the benthic abyss or twirling through the vacuum of outer space, where offworld stations rotate and spin through exotic gravitational scenarios—and you’ve perhaps envisioned what John Ruskin would be writing about today. Ship-buildings, buttressed against the void.

In any case, for Ruskin, buttresses perform a kind of gravitational judo: he describes “buttresses of peculiar forms, cunning buttresses, which do not attempt to sustain the weight, but parry it, and throw it off in directions clear of the wall.” They shed the load, so to speak, flipping it elsewhere, as if taking advantage of an opponent’s slow and graceless momentum.

…as science advances, the weight to be borne is designedly and decisively thrown upon certain points; the direction and degree of the forces which are then received are exactly calculated, and met by conducting buttresses of the smallest possible dimensions; themselves, in their turn, supported by vertical buttresses acting by weight, and these perhaps, in their turn, by another set of conducting buttresses: so that, in the best examples of such arrangements, the weight to be borne may be considered as the shock of an electric fluid, which, by a hundred different rods and channels, is divided and carried away into the ground.

It’s buttresses buttressing buttresses—or buttresses all the way down.

Ruskin reminds his readers, however, that a buttress’s function can even be seen outdoors, where he specifically cites Swiss landscape defenses. There, Ruskin writes, horizontal buttresses like defensive walls “are often built round churches, heading up hill, to divide and throw off the avalanches.” Again, it’s a question of parrying an oppositional force, deflecting it elsewhere.

[Image: “Profile of a buttress with vertical internal line, when the line of thrust coincides with the axis of the buttress,” taken from a paper called “Milankovitch’s Theorie der Druckkurven: Good mechanics for masonry architecture” by Federico Foce, in Nexus Network Journal.]

From an architectural point of view, you might say that a landscape is stationary until it buckles, shudders, or moves, becoming oceanic, heaving like the sea.

Or, to be pretentious and quote myself from an op-ed in the New York Times, “the ground itself is a kind of ocean in waiting. We might say that [the Earth] is a marine landscape, not a terrestrial one, a slow ocean buffeted by underground waves occasionally strong enough to flatten whole cities. We do not, in fact, live on solid ground: We are mariners, rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate. This is both deeply vertiginous and oddly invigorating.”

For Ruskin, the buttress is an architectural technology—a spatial tool—that can be built to anticipate this act of marine transformation, a device that can prepare our buildings and cities to resist violent events in the landscape they are built upon.

With this in mind, it’s worth recalling a recent experiment that showed buildings can be partially shielded from the effects of earthquakes. An “invisibility cloak,” as researchers somewhat hyperbolically described it back in 2013, would use a “regular grid of cylindrical and empty boreholes” drilled into the earth to absorb and deflect seismic waves and thus protect certain structures from damage.

They would “parry it,” as Ruskin once wrote, “and throw it off in directions clear” of the city. In Ruskin’s terms, in other words, they would be buttresses: empty void-silos in the earth that nevertheless function like the exoskeletal cage of a cathedral or the internal ribs of a ship at sea.

[Image: Glacial logics diagrammed in The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin.]

The second interesting thing from The Stones of Venice—among many others, to be sure, but I will only focus on two here—is that, amazingly, for a book published back in 1853, Ruskin scales his analysis up to the point of suggesting that glaciers should be considered as complex architectural objects.

Ruskin describes “a curve about three quarters of a mile long,” for example, “formed by the surface of a small glacier of the second order.” This curve, he writes, is “the most beautiful simple curve I have ever seen in my life.” So, he wonders, how could it be applied to architecture? How could we learn from glaciers?

At this point, Ruskin draws a diagram—the one I’ve scanned, above—to highlight a variety of nested curves that he believes are hiding inside a particular glacier. These are organizational systems that extend for many miles at a time through the ice and that allegedly entail geometric lessons for architects.

The idea here—that Ruskin was trying to extract architectural lessons from glaciers nearly two centuries ago—is incredible to me.

After all, if the Gothic is an architectural language that, as writers such as Lars Spuybroek have compellingly shown, draws from the natural vocabulary of leaves, plants, tree roots, and so on, then this means that Ruskin is suggesting—in 1853!—a kind of Glacial Gothic, an architectural lesson drawn from continent-spanning masses of ice.

[Image: “A Crack in an Antarctic Ice Shelf Is 8 Miles From Creating an Iceberg the Size of Delaware”; image via Ohio State University.]

I’m reminded of an old t-shirt produced by the band Godflesh that described their music as an “Avalanche On Pause.”

This is a very Ruskinian description, we might say in the present context.

An avalanche on pause brings together Ruskin’s interests in landscape-scale structural events—such as glaciers and landslides—with his attention to the mechanics of cathedrals built to resist such imposing pressures. To freeze them in place. To press pause.

(Thanks to Marc Weidenbaum for reminding me of that Godflesh shirt many years ago.)

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.)

Tax Incentives and the Human Imagination

[Image: Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1818).]

It would be interesting to look at locations of the American popular imagination, as seen in movies and TV, mapped against regional tax breaks for the film industry.

There was a brief span of time, for example, when rural Pennsylvania stood in for authentic Americana, a kind of Rust Belt imaginary, all pick-up trucks and hard-drinking younger brothers, stories framed against the hulking ruins of industrial landscapes—I’m thinking of Out Of The Furnace or Prisoners, both released in 2013, or even 2010’s Unstoppable. Whereas, today, Georgia seems to have stepped into that niche, between The Outsider and, say, Mindhunter (season two), let alone Atlanta, no doubt precisely because Georgia has well-known tax incentives in place for filming.

My point is that an entire generation of people—not just Americans, but film viewers and coronavirus quarantine streamers and TV binge-watchers around the world—might have their imaginative landscapes shaped not by immaterial forces, by symbolic archetypes or universal rules bubbling up from the high-pressure depths of human psychology, but instead by tax breaks offered in particular U.S. states at particular moments in American history.

You grow up thinking about Gothic pine forests, or you fall asleep at night with visions of rain-soaked Georgia parking lots crowding your head, but it’s not just because of the aesthetic or atmospheric appeal of those landscapes; it’s because those landscapes are, in effect, receiving imaginative subsidies from local business bureaus. You’re dreaming of them for a reason.

Your mind is not immaterial, in other words, some angelic force waltzing across the surface of the world, stopping now and again to dwell on universal imagery, but something deeply mundane, something sculpted by ridiculous things, like whether or not camera crews in a given state get hotel room discounts for productions lasting more than two weeks.

Of course, you could extend a similar kind of analysis way back into art history and look at, say, the opening of particular landscapes in western Europe, after decades of war, suddenly made safe for cultured travelers such as Caspar David Friedrich, whose paintings later came to define an entire era of European and European-descended male imaginations. That wanderer over a sea of fog, in other words, was wandering through a very specific landscape during a very particular window of European political accessibility. Had things been different, had history taken a slightly different path, Friedrich might have been stuck in his parents’ house, painting still-lives and weed-choked alleyways, and who knows what images today’s solo hikers might be daydreaming about instead.

[Image: From The Outsider, courtesy HBO; I should mention that The Outsider was set and filmed primarily in Georgia, a departure from Stephen King’s novel, which was primarily set in Oklahoma.]

In any case, the humid forests of rural America, the looming water towers and abandoned industrial facilities, the kudzu-covered strip malls and furloughed police stations—picture the Louisianan expanses of True Detective (season one)—have come to represent the dark narrative potential of the contemporary world. But what if, say, North Dakota or Manitoba (where, for example, The Grudge was recently filmed) had offered better tax breaks?

My own childhood imagination was a world of sunlit suburbs, detached single-family homes, and long-shadowed neighborhood secrets, but, as to my larger point here, I also grew up watching movies like E.T., Poltergeist, Fright Night, and Blue Velvet—so, in a sense, of course I would think that’s what the world looked like.

[Image: From David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), specifically via the site Velvet Eyes.]

So, again, it would be interesting to explore how one’s vision of the world—your most fundamental imagination of the cosmos—is being shaped for you by tax breaks, film incentives, and other, utterly trivial local concerns, like whether or not out-of-state catering companies can get refunds on expenditures over a certain amount or where actors can write off per diems as gifts, not income, affecting whether crime films or horror stories will be shot there, and thus where an entire generation’s future nightmares might be set.

Or, for that matter, you could look at when particular colors, paints, and pigments became affordable for artists of a certain era, resulting in all those dark and moody images you love to stare at in the local museum—e.g. the old joke that, at some point, Rembrandt simply bought too much purple. It wasn’t promethean inspiration; it was material surplus.

We see things for a reason, yet, over and over again, mistake our dreams for signs of the cosmic. Or, to put this another way, we are not surrounded by mythology; we are surrounded by economics. The latter is a superb and confusing mimic.

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.

Forest Accumulator

Ten years ago, this would have been a speculative design project by Sascha Pohflepp: “hyper-accumulating” plants are being used to concentrate, and thus “mine,” valuable metals from soil.

[Image: Nickel-rich sap; photo by Antony van der Ent, courtesy New York Times.]

“With roots that act practically like magnets, these organisms—about 700 are known—flourish in metal-rich soils that make hundreds of thousands of other plant species flee or die,” the New York Times reported last week. “Slicing open one of these trees or running the leaves of its bush cousin through a peanut press produces a sap that oozes a neon blue-green. This ‘juice’ is actually one-quarter nickel, far more concentrated than the ore feeding the world’s nickel smelters.”

A while back, I went on a road-trip with Edible Geography to visit some maple syrup farms north of where we lived at the time, in New York City. The woods all around us were tubed together in a huge, tree-spanning network—“forest hydraulics,” as Edible Geography phrased it at the time—as the trees’ valuable liquid slowly flowed toward a pumping station in the center of the forest.

It was part labyrinth, part spiderweb, a kind of semi-automated tree-machine at odds with the image of nature with which most maple syrup is sold.

[Images: Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Imagining a similar landscape, but one designed as a kind of botanical mine—a forest accumulator, metallurgical druidry—is incredible.

And it’s not even a modern idea, as the New York Times points out. For all its apparent, 21st-century sci-fi, the idea of harvesting metal from plants is at least half a millennium old: “The father of modern mineral smelting, Georgius Agricola, saw this potential 500 years ago. He smelted plants in his free time. If you knew what to look for in a leaf, he wrote in the 16th century, you could deduce which metals lay in the ground below.”

This brings to mind an older post here about detection landscapes, or landscapes—yards, meadows, gardens, forests—deliberately planted with species that can indicate what is in the soil beneath them.

In the specific case of that post, this had archaeological value, allowing researchers to find abandoned Viking settlements in Greenland based on slight chemical changes that have affected which plants are able to thrive. Certain patches of flower, for example, act as archaeological indicator species, marking the locations of lost settlements.

In any case, my point is simply that vegetation can be read, or treated as a sign to be interpreted, whether by indicating the presence of archaeological ruins or by revealing the potential market-value of a site’s subterranean metal content.

Indeed, we read, “This vegetation could be the world’s most efficient, solar-powered mineral smelters,” with “the additional value of enabling areas with toxic soils to be made productive. Smallholding farmers could grow on metal-rich soils, and mining companies might use these plants to clean up their former mines and waste and even collect some revenue.” That is, you could filter and clean contaminated soils by drawing heavy-metal pollutants out of the ground, producing saps that are later harvested.

Fast-forward ten years: it’s 2030 and landscape architecture studios around the world are filled with speculative metal-harvesting plant designs—contaminated landscapes laced with gardens of hardy, sap-producing trees—even as industrial behemoths, like Rio Tinto and Barrick Gold, are breeding proprietary tree species in top-secret labs, genetically modifying them to maximize metal uptake.

Weird saps accumulate in iridescent lagoons. Autumn leaves glint, literally metallic, in the sun. Tiny metal capillaries weave up the trunks of black-wooded trees, in filigrees of gold and silver. The occasional forest fire smells not of smoke, but of copper and tin. Reclaimed timber, with knots and veins partially metallized, is used as luxury flooring in suburban homes.

Read more at the New York Times.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the tip!)

Geometries of Sovereignty

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº3, Area: 100 m², Border: square, 10m side, defined with rope tied to pickaxes around a square of crushed rye, Population: 1 inhabitant, Location: 41.298691º, -3.400101º, Start: July 30, 2015, 19:15, End: July 31, 2015, 11:38,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Minimal Republics is an interesting and wonderfully titled project by artist Rubén Martín de Lucas. As Sophie Wright explains in a feature for LensCulture, each “republic” follows the same set of basic instructions: “appropriate 100 square metres of space, outline a border, and inhabit it for no more than 24 hours. From parking lots to empty agricultural crops, anonymous segments of land are transformed by these actions into what the artist describes as ‘ephemeral micro-states.’”

These minimal republics are exactly that, in other words, just geometric forms marked in some fashion on the surface of the Earth, temporarily patrolled and inhabited by a lone individual, a series of micronations that then disappear from history.

(This also raises the question of what an archaeology of performance art might look like—whether projects such as this leave permanent historical traces in the landscape. Will the location of a Martín de Lucas republic ever be archaeologically discernible in the future? If so, will whatever once happened there make any spatial or political sense?)

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº2, Area: 100 m², Population: 1 inhabitant, Border: equilateral triangle, side 15.19 m made of wooden slats assembled, Location: 40.039637º, -5.1146942º, Start: July 23, 2015, 12:21, End: July 23, 2015, 21:48,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Minimal Republics falls somewhere between theatrical performance, video installation, landscape photography, and instructional art, suggesting a kind of pop-up sovereignty available to all, given sufficient fidelity to a set of artistic-political specifications.

Like a territorial algorithm or even like a magic spell, the project promises that, if only you can follow these three simple steps, remaining inside your sovereign sigil, new political worlds can be conjured into ephemeral life.

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº8, Area: 100 m2, Border: circle of 5.64 m radius of stacked stubble, Population: 1 inhabitant, Location: 41.4152292, -3.3632866, Start: September 8, 2017, 18:41, End: September 9, 2017, 18:40,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Of course, Wright is also quick to emphasize that the project’s sense of the absurd is very deliberate: “Searching for locations with little appeal or resources, these ‘minimal republics’ are unlikely spots for a new nation, amping up the nonsensical gesture of Martín de Lucas’ temporary occupation.”

There are many more examples from the project over at LensCulture, as well as a longer write-up.

(Related: “The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations: An Interview with Simon Sellars.”)

The Spatial Politics of Geofencing

[Image: From Code of Conscience.]

Another project I meant to write about ages ago is Code of Conscience, developed by AKQA. It is “an open source software update that restricts the use of heavy-duty vehicles in protected land areas,” or what they call “a cyber shield around natural reserves.”

The basic idea is to install geofencing limits on heavy construction and logging equipment, based on “data from the United Nations’ World Database on Protected Areas, constantly updated by NGOs, governments and local communities. Using vehicle on-board GPS, the code detects when a protected area has been breached. When a machine enters a protected area, the system automatically restricts its use.”

There’s a bit more to read about the project over at AKQA, including the group’s strategy for getting the software out to global construction firms, from John Deere to Caterpillar, but one of the most interesting points of conversation for me here is simply the very idea of geofencing used as a political solution for problems that seem to exceed the capabilities of legislation. And, of course, how geofencing could be used to develop positive new tools for landscape conservation—as we see here—or much darker, nefarious techniques for political domination in the near-future.

You can easily imagine, for example, a dystopian scenario in which geofenced medical prostheses cease to operate when they cross an invisible GPS boundary into an unserviced region—perhaps as a way to protect the host company from the illegal installation of black-market, security-compromised firmware updates, but with immediate and perhaps fatal health effects on the user. Or, say, regions of a metropolis—perhaps near centers of governance or military installations—where civilian vehicles or unregistered photographic equipment of a particular resolution can no longer physically function.

Just as easily, you could imagine something like the spatial opposite of Code of Conscience, where, for example, future GPS-tagged hunting rifles only work when they are located inside permitted wilderness areas. The instant you step outside the field or forest, your gun goes dead.

In any case, you could no doubt write an entire book of short stories that consist only and entirely of such scenarios—the geofenced future of legal probation and house-arrest, for example, or dating apps that only work inside particular rooms or buildings. But one of of the most interesting things about Code of Conscience is simply how it attempts to imagine geofencing as a positive political tool, a new technique for landscape and cultural preservation both, and how the project thus joins a larger, ongoing conversation today about political geography seen through a new, technical lens.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The Electromagnetic Fortification of the Suburbs and Geofencing and Investigatory Watersheds.)