Once upon a time, artist Anais Tondeur, in collaboration with Professor Jean-Marc Chomaz embarked on a research project to explore the fate of an island called Nuuk. Its disappearance beneath the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean in 2012 interestingly coincided with the meeting of the 34th Geological Congress to debate the use of the term ‘Anthropocene’ to describe the current era of unprecedented human modification of the Earth’s geology, biosphere and atmosphere. Together, they explored the fate of the island through observations and experimentation. The results were inconclusive as to whether Nuuk’s disappearance could be linked to human activities.
…But I hasten to add one important fact from the artist and scientist collaborators. “Nuuk Island occupied a fictional territory. It had been found by chance, in a reflection, in the middle of time.”
Lost in Fathoms, an exhibition at GV Art in London, presenting the work of Anais Tondeur in collaboration with physicist Jean-Marc Chomaz, investigates fall of the island of Nuuk. The exhibition comprises a series of Shadowgram images and installations. For over a year, the collaborators worked with historians and philosophers, the international community of oceanographers, geologists from the École Normal Superiéure (ENS) and physicists from the laboratories of the Ecole Polytechnique and Cambridge University.
Geological investigations explored the idea of whether tectonic forces may have resulted in the demise of the island, which lay at the boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates. Tondeur explored landscapes with similar characteristics of Nuuk. Bringing a sample of basalt back to back to the Geology Laboratory at the ENS in Paris, the rock was placed under pressure equivalent to that which would occur at a mid-ocean ridge several kilometres down. The sound of the rock fracturing was recorded. Other investigations included the effects of earthquakes upon the island. Working with geophysics and fluid dynamics PhD in students at the DAMTP Laboratory in Cambridge, they performed experiments to help recover the chain of geologic events that might have led to the island’s demise.
Oceanographic investigations explored whether Nuuk’s disappearance might have been tied to human activities, and whether its disappearance beneath the surface of the ocean might have disrupted ocean currents. Contributions of water from 21 oceanographers from Southampton, LOCEAN, the Alfred Wegner Institute and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute represented different locations and depths along the projected route of the wave, which might have inundated Nuuk. Representing the ‘memory of the ocean’, these samples elegantly displayed in the gallery all have different salinity characteristics. A fascinating projection of a gravity wave generated at the interface of a stratified fluid presented in a transparent tank, rendered visible through the shadowgraph technique.
Science has traditionally had an uneasy relationship with narrative, fiction, and semi-truth. The safest and most common vehicle linking science and narrative is science fiction to usually (though not exclusively) explore the societal ramifications of technology. Science and technology start as the premise from which the story evolves with character and narrative. Tondeur and Chomaz turn this premise on its head, starting with a narrative that they explore through science, using their scientific investigation of this fictional space as a mirror to reflect back on reality. Nuuk isn’t real, but it might as well be. The conclusions they reach are much like those of actual science—a bit inconclusive.
The concept of the Anthropocene is a frightening one, and an idea currently very much in the cultural zeitgeist. Although still an informal term (rather than an official international geologic designation), it acknowledges that humans have become a major force that are shaping the surface of the Earth to the extent that our activities might result in a recognisable stratum in the geologic record. However, unlike other geologic forces, such as wind or water, we have a choice as to what our permanent record might look like. There is an opportunity for critical engagement with the idea of a new anthropogenic geologic epoch—the way we respond to this idea may well prove more important than if it becomes official terminology.
Lost in Fathoms provides us with a vantage point from which to reflect on the Anthropocene. Tondeur and Chomaz present us with many reasons to think that Nuuk’s disappearance might be a physical manifestation of our changing planet. But the data need further analysis; correlation does not necessitate causation.
Lost in Fathoms is on display at GV Art, London until 29 November, 2014