Beneath the earth and beyond the rocks
by: Siobhán McDonald, Artist in residence, in collaboration with Scientist Pr. Chris Bean
Beneath the earth and beyond the rocks is the working title for a project co-developed by the Irish artist Siobhán McDonald and the Irish scientist Professor Chris Bean. Together, they collaborate as part of the Studiotopia Art&Science Residence programme hosted by GLUON.
Their project was born from a mutual interest in a thin area between the soil and the rocks where all systems connect described as the Critical Zone; it seeks to explore how our human activities affect frequencies within this Zone, that then change the planet's fragile equilibrium.
Their collaboration started when Siobhán asked Chris to bring her on a fieldtrip to listen to the heartbeat of the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland. Since then the pair have talked about signals felt from the interface of land and deep oceans.
In a delicate enquiry using drawing, sound and film Siobhán is looking at processes in the earth, such as the melting of the glaciers into the water cycle – which we as humans accelerate through our existence on the planet.
“ Seismic waves and the unseen world of sound pulsing
beneath our feet has opened new avenues of visual language for me”
Exploring the borderless, invisible forces and ephemeral network of happenings underground; this project continues to evolve through the lens of earth systems. Posing questions such as how the earth can adapt to the rate of change in this unimaginable moment in time, where an infectious force has demanded that people question their existence. The project therefore opens a dialogue to multiple explorations of the slow workings of geological processes found deep in the Earth surface: soil, skin, minerals and sounds.
Image: Boglands of Ireland, Photo: Siobhán McDonald 2021
Siobhán is utilising Irish boglands as outdoor laboratories to pose questions: how will underground carbon stores impact the future of our air. A parallel investigation looks at Arctic permafrost and how it holds mostly the partially decayed remains of ancient plants. Both living and dead, the plants preserved in these depositories trace a history of evolution, charting histories of generations of plant species, systems and anatomy. Ice cores expose boglands and past secret worlds.
A new Skin
Siobhán is exploring our relation to ancient narratives of soil and skin in many mythologies. Through a dialogue with Chris she is making connections between ‘skin and resonance.’ Looking at how some of the earliest sounds were made through stretched skin, early drums etc.
I am thinking about how indigenous people were much more sensitive to the environment and how today we are disconnected from nature. Frequencies in the Critical Zone were more accessible to ancient peoples who interacted with the ground through skin; walking barefoot, or listening intuitively, aware of how linked their survival was to understanding the rhythms of nature.
“Consistently I consider the internal workings of the body in relation to the earth.
If you get a blocked artery in the body it has a knock-on effect elsewhere.
The same applies to earth systems”
Somehow along the way we seem to have lost our strong connection with, and deeper understanding of cultivating the ground we walk on. As we know, the brain and the gut are connected and this has become an interlinked chain in the work. Siobhán is exploring skin and resonance to attempt to carve out the frequency of the future; observing the skin of animal gut to see how it responds to certain frequencies.
Byzantine Manuscript illustrating the physics of a perfect vibrational frequency. It influenced Bach 400 years later
to create music for the Well-Tempered Clavier (Pythagorean and Meantone Tuning.) Siobhán is exploring this manuscript
with a composer to open up possibilities for the project.
Skin as a material was used for many years in the process of communicating and storing stories or histories – in the form of manuscripts. In reimagining this material for contemporary times it not only links the work to the idea of the intuitive resonances of the natural body, human and beyond, but also links it to the intellectual body of stored information and commonly shared cultural histories.
Weaved into this exploration of frequencies is also the inquiry of whether we can transplant these cadences from the Critical Zone across time.
Fragments of an unexplored consciousness
Silene Stenophylla came back to life from 32,000 year old seeds. Siobhán McDonald 2021
The oldest plant ever to be regenerated has been grown from 32,000-year-old seeds— Siobhán McDonald is working with an Austrian scientist to try to map the genomes of this age-old plant to determine how the seeds were able to survive for so long. A time capsule of the frequency of the earth 32,000 years ago, representing the imagined notion of a time we can’t go back to and coming into our present time. (The seeds were found covered in ice 124ft below the permafrost and regenerated in glass vials.)
Photo Credit: Erli Grünzweil for ZEITmagazin
Starting by drawing on massive sheets of paper, Siobhán is exploring these worlds of the past and future with lines traced between the geology of 32,000 years ago right into the present day. The Silene plant conjures a relationship between different spaces and different time scales: the distant past, the distant future, the present and what happens between these time scales.
Listening to the bogs breathing. Methane made into ink. Siobhán McDonald. Studio, 2021
“Experimentation is at the core of what I do.
A large part of my work is not really yet visible in this next stage of the project
where I am exploring the mystery around how an ancient plant
called Silene Stenophylla came back to life from 32,000-year-old seeds”
Fungi and ink drawing. Siobhán McDonald. Studio, 2021
• Arwyn Jones, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Italy. European Commission, Joint Research Centre Soil Series. Collaborator: Soil and permafrost in Arctic
• Dr Emily Shuckburgh, climate scientist, mathematician and science communicator. University of Cambridge’s climate change initiative. Collaborator: Arctic Ice cores and peatlands
• Christos S. Zerefos, Secretary General, Academy of Athens; Climate Envoy for Greece; Head, Research Centre for Atmospheric Physics and Climatology, Academy of Athens, Greece Collaborator and Mentor: Byzantine Manuscript illustrating the physics of a perfect vibrational frequency
• Professor Margit Laimer, Department of Biotechnology, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. Collaborator: Experiment with Silene plant
• Professor Jennifer Mc Elwain, Professor of Botany (1711), Botany, Trinity College Dublin. Collaborator: Atmosphere chambers exploring ancient atmospheres and experiment with Silene plant • Matthew Saunders, Professor in Plant Ecophysiology at Trinity College Dublin. Mentor: Boglands of Ireland
• Penelope J. Boston, NASA Ames Research Center, USA Mentor: Mineral caves and bacterial
• Teresa Lettieri European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Italy. European Commission, Joint Research Centre.
Find out more about Siobhán McDonald.
Read more about Professor Chris Bean.
Find out more about GLUON.
"Beneath the earth and beyond the rocks" hosted by GLUON is part of the STUDIOTOPIA project supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.