Nomadic Landmass

Notes from an offsite CCA talk at The Hunterian Museum, part of Words and Things, curated by Francis Mckee
Glasgow, December 2001

A letter to Genya :
In case you get inspired on the train:


It is a staircase with tar running down it.
There are two versions of the experiment -
one has coins and bullets lodged in the pitch, one is just pitch.

Begun in 1887, it is the second longest running experiment.

It is demonstrating the qualities of the ether, which was thought to transmit light.

Simultaneous qualities of the ether which in Aristotle's time was also thought to transmit music from the far distant crystal spheres out in the atmosphere.

It is a substance which is both hard and fluid, like cobblers wax, which when poured and cooled into the shape of a tuning fork can vibrate or will shatter if you hit it hard against something - at the same time - if you laid it down on a table over a period of time it would melt - albeit very slowly and change shape.

The ether is in between everything, like material air.
The ether would have to be a completely insensible substance (can't touch it taste it smell it) where light could be transmitted through it, but for example, it wouldn't be so thick that people couldn't pass through it or it would be like trying to move through thickening concrete.

This is the experiment Mark Dion based his piece Deeptime Closet (for Lord Kelvin and Robert Smithson) on at the CCA.

This talk is not going to raise a series or questions which I will set out to answer,  what it will do is attempt to describe a series of associations, to try to decribe a feeling that ‘The Artificial Glacier’ sets off – how we can reconcile different kinds of time – geologic, personal, cultural and political. As I am a New Yorker, the ether in the city has changed, the physical landmass, as well as the more fluid energy running in between. Now there is a magma chamber burning underneath the tarmac. The skyline was supposed to change with the addition of a cultural institution, a new Guggenheim just a bit farther along the waterfront from the Trade Center.

In this talk I will tell you a lot of stories using the fluid quality of the ether as a model to hedge between the rubble of recent events.

Letter number two, an excerpt

The experiment itself is one thing, but before I had seen it in real life -
I had imagined (hearing that there was a staircase with tar running down it somewhere in the Hunterian for a very long time now) that there was a trapdoor, a hidden room, a staircase behind a locked door somewhere in the museum with a lava flow running down it.


Precisely between Pantelleria and Sciacca, on the trade route between Europe and Malta, a volcanic island sprouted in 1831, and from its birth to its disappearance it's development was followed and studied by the most illustrious scientists of the epoch.

On June 28 1831 there was a series of earthqaukes that caused lesions in many houses. The sea was violently shaken and on  July 4 the sulphur was in such quantity in the water that it blackened objects of silver. July 13 there was a column of smoke, and it was said The place becomes annoyed with sea. It was thought to be a steamboat on route; then with the persistence of smoke, to be a steamboat in flames.

Two days later sailors of Sciacca returned from fishing and from that point out in the sea noticed there were many fish afloat, some corpses, others senseless.  After a pair of days started the eruption of lapilli, of pumices, of tufi and of fiery cinders falling red-hot into the sea.

July 17 one islet grew quickly in dimensions and height. The sanitary Deputation of Sciacca sent a fishing boat to the place and commanded by Michael Florins, planted an oar on the strata of the dawning volcano, like first discoverers and then carried the news to the coast.

They gave the island seven names:
Sciacca, Nertita, Corrao, Hotham, Julia, Graham and Ferdinandea.

The Real Society and the Society of Geology from London adopted the name of Graham who was then a man of political importance and claimed the island by raising a flag.
The Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies planted a flag and named the island Ferdinandea, after King Ferdinand II.
The French Derussat, hoisted a flag on the taller part of the island, to which he gave the name of Julia, remembering the apparition of the island came in the month of July. He likened the recent eruption to a freshly uncorked bottle of champagne.

Within months the perimeter of the new island was decreasing rapidly and by December 17th two officers from the topographical Office in Naples found that the island was gone, slipping beneath the waves where it remains today as a constant hazard for shipping.

Diplomats said that the submerged island last featured in an international dispute in 1987, when a US warplane patrolling the area during a confrontation with Libya mistook the submerged tip of Graham Island for a Libyan submarine and dropped depth charges on it.

More recently, a man pursuaded Ferdinand's descendant, Prince Carlos of Calabria, to allow a marble plaque inscribed with the words This piece of land, once Ferdinandea, was and shall always belong to the Sicilian people to be placed 20meteres below the surface of the sea on the remains of the underwater island.

A medium sized earthquake hit Afghanistan on November 30, 2001, my mother's birthday. It measured 4.9 on the richter scale and fell on the Afghan/ Tajikistan border.

*this could have been cause by any number of things, but most likely by bombing.

October 28th, 2001 Earthquake hit Melton Mowbray, the town which is famous because of its pork pies, at 4:24 Greewich mean time. The magnitude of the event was 3.8 on the Richter scale.

Teresa Christian, whose chimney stack collapsed during the quake, said she initially feared that a plane had crashed into her street.

A story about Werner Herzog :
On hearing that his friend was dying in Paris, he decided to walk directly there from Munich. He felt he could keep his friend alive by walking. To wit :
If he went by plane he would die when he reached him.
If he went by foot he would die when he reached him.
I can understand this impulse. One person remarked this was an act of great self importance - thinking his journey could affect his friend's life span. I see how it could be perceived that way, but relate to it much more on the level of being an attempt to live through two time scales at once. To employ slow time, geological time through a direct engagement with it as a concrete act in the face of news which is beyond comprehension. An inexplicable drive to work against the velocity of impending mortality.

Robert Smithson
There are times when the great outdoors shrinks phenomenologically speaking to the scale of a prison, and times when the indoors expands to the scale of the universe. So it is with the Hall of the Late Dinosaurs. An interior immensity spreads throughout the Hall, transforming the lightbulbs into dying suns.

Adam's Stairs (an e-mail correspondence between Glasgow and New York regarding The Artificial Glacier)

Robert Smithson. Lava running down the side of a mountain.

Ectoplasm. A thick medium which has somehow been condensed from all the people who have ever walked down the flight of stairs.

A haunted house, ectoplasm dripping from walls, dripping from staircases -
actually emanating in a physical form it's own past lives. Maybe it is slowly changing into something else. The stairs are slowly being covered to form a roof for the basement while next to the chandelier a crack in the ceiling slowly widens.

An experiment, testing for something different. Maybe the man who spilled that tar was trying to nullify the effects of gravity or had a theory that the laws of physics are slightly re-arranged while walking up and down the stairs. Possibly, this man was searching for a scientific reason for his extreme sense of vertigo and unease when confronted with anything but the tight four walls of a room. The staircase became a well of paranoia and delirium and the danger of falling became too much to bear. Perhaps he hated angles that faced outward and felt the staircase was too sharp and caused too great a risk and was jealous of the tar for being able to press into all the tight corners and crevices.

Perhaps he was simply afraid of dying and was trying to make time stand still.

The Fossil Grove:
one tree has a prosthetic section – having lost part of its trunk during a bombing raid in WWII

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

My uncle went ahead, climbing nimbly. I followed him with a certain trepidation, for I had no head for height...As long as we were shut inside the interior staircase, all was well - but after 150 steps the air struck me in the face; we had reached the top of the tower. There the aerial stircase began, protected by a thin iron rail and with a narrowing steps which seemed to rise into infinite space.

I can't do it
I exclaimed

You aren't a coward are you? Come on!
replied the pitiless professor.

I had to follow him, clinging to the rail. The keen air made me dizzy; I could feel the spire swaying in every gust of wind; soon I was climbing on my knees, then on my belly. I shut my eyes, suffering from space-sickness.

At last, with my uncle dragging me up by my collar, I reached the ball at the top of the spire.

Look, he said, and look hard! You must take lessons in abysses.

Doug Aitken :
1997 Makes a film, ‘The Diamond Sea’, which takes place in a diamond mining region of Namibia which has been closed to outsiders since 1908. 1995 Makes a film, ‘Monsoon’, in the jungles of Guyana and in Jonestown – where the mass cult suicide took place. The film is over when a monsoon comes. 1998 Makes film ‘Eraser’, where he walks in a straight line across Montserrat, where a devastating volcanic eruption took place from 1996 –1997.

What does it mean? To go to the place of catastrophe after the catastrophe has passed?

The Iridium Project
(more precious than platinum/ the life span of satellites)

In the Spring I was in San Sebastian for this project which was looking at art/ science collaborations. The whole town is based around this amazing beach called La Concha because it is shaped like a conch shell. In the middle of the beach there are these rocks, totally upright, like lots of torn pages smashed together - vertical strata. I ask around and find out there are more rocks like them a few towns away - Zumaia, but that those rocks are even better because in one of the layers there is a high quantity of Iridium which is a trace element from when a meteorite hits the surface of the earth - and it is a famous place - because the high quantity of Iridium, and the age of the layer correlate with the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs - SO - this layer may prove that a massive meteorite may have hit the planet causing the end of the dinosaurs. A site of geological pilgrimage. There are a few other places in the world where you can see the Iridium layer, one is near Copenhagen, the other in Italy. I go to Zumaia and to Denmark. In between I try to find out as much as I can about the layer, but keep coming up instead with information about Iridium Satellites - so called because Motorola thought they would need 77 satellites for worldwide satellite communication coverage to be able to speak on a cell phone on a glacier or in the middle of the desert; and 77 is the number on the periodic table for Iridium. Iridium is more precious than platinum, the name means rainbow. It is perfect. Turns out they only need 66, which is a very unsexy element on the table, name means hard to get at. They decide to stick with Iridium. The Iridium Satellite division of Motorola goes bankrupt. They announce they are going to let the satellite constellation incinerate into the atmosphere unless someone buys them out immediately. The night they announce this two Icelandic adventure explorers are on their way to the North Pole. They will be the first people from Iceland to get there. They have brought an Iridium phone with them as their only form of contact.

On September 11th, a plane carrying 600 Iridium phones is on route to Florida - the towers are hit, all land and mobile lines go down in New York, and the plane turns around mid-air to deliver the phones to the site of the disaster.

I went to a site of geological pilgrimage, which may hold the trace of one moment of a catastrophe from millions of years ago, only to keep ending up in the strata of today.

The Illuminated Man (Ballard)

With a gesture, he led me down the nave to the open porch, and pointed up to the dome-shaped lattice of crystal beams which reached from the rim of the forest like the buttresses of an immense cuppola of diamond and glass. Embedded at various points were the almost motionless forms of birds with outstretched wings, golden orioles and scarlet macaws, shedding brilliant pools of light.The bands of liquid color rippled outstretched through the forest, the reflections of the melting plummage enveloping us in concentric patterns. The overlapping arcs hung in the air like the votive windows of a city of cathedrals. He took my arm, "Here in this forest everything is transfigured and illuminated, joined together in the last marriage of time and space."

Imagine yourself in Central Park one million years ago. You would be standing on a vast ice sheet, a 4,000 mile glacial wall as much as 2,000 feet thick. Alone on the vast glacier, you would not sense its slow crushing, scraping ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock and debris in its wake. Under the frozen depths, where the car park now stands, you would not notice the effect on the bedrock as the glacier dragged itslef along.

House of Leaves (Mark Danielewski)

In early June of 1990 the Navidsons flew to Seattle for a wedding. When they returned, something in the house had changed. Though they had only been away for four days, the change was enormous. It was not however, obvious - like for instance a fire, a robbery or an act of vandalism.Quite the contrary, the horror was atypical. Upstairs in the master bedroom, we discover along with Will and Karen a plain white door with a glass knob. It does not, however open into the children’s room but into a space resembling a walk in closet. However unlike other closets in the house, this one lacks outlets, sockets, switches, shelves, a rod on which to hang things, or even some decorative molding. Instaed the walls are perfectly smooth and almost pure black - almost because there is a slightly grey quality to the surface. Navidson immediately asks whether or not they overlooked the room. Karen, however manages to dig up some photos which clearly show a bedroom wall without a door... Something, in fact, is very wrong. The width of the house inside would appear to exceed the width of the house outside by 1/4 of an inch.

Back to the deeptime closet. Objects, bullets, coins are lodged in wax, moving over time as a glacier would, especially if we consider that polar drift - the crumb falling off the bread loaf - moves at a rate of two miles every 24 hours.

Arthur Gordon Pym, a romance by Edgar Allan Poe.
Dion has spoken about Poe, as well as Smithson - and this particular story has been used alot in reference to the current state of New York.

The whole ashy material fell now continually around us, and in vast quantities. The range of the vapour to the southward had arisen prodigiously in the horizon, and began to assume a more distinctness of form. I can liken it to nothing but a limitless cataract, rolling in from some immense and far distant rampart in the heaven. The gigantic curtain ranged along the whole extent of the southern horizon. It emitted no sound.

Back to the staircase: the aether has two simultaneous qualities, the ability to move around things slowly and the ability to act quickly, a springboard for the speed of light. It is as if the aether has become manifest, like a smog surrounding a city and at the same time, as an urgency...The need to find a way to transmit some other kind of dynamic, something which will refigure very quickly the kind of world we want and need - rewriting the towers of power and economy into another more fluid form that can slip between everything and be two things at once.


He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing dizzying
net of diverging, convergent and parallel times.This network of times that
approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilites of time. We do not exist in the majorities of these times. In some you exist, and not I, in others I and not you; in others, both of us