Heavy Water

Disused Quarry


Victoria Lucas

Entangled Bodies, Pixellated Rocks

I use an instal­la­tion-based art prac­tice to explore what female sub­jec­tiv­i­ty is in the con­text of post-human­ism and the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis. With this research, I aim to test whether it is pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile the dis­lo­ca­tion between humans and nature, using geol­o­gy as a visu­al metaphor to play­ful­ly extract and recon­sti­tute organ­ic mat­ter as an artis­tic process. Can the desta­bil­i­sa­tion of earth­ly mat­ter, using dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, gen­er­ate new ways of think­ing about how we syn­the­sise with the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment in the con­text of cap­i­tal­ism and the result­ing cli­mate cri­sis? Using the lan­guage of extrac­tion and recla­ma­tion in the place of the dis­used quar­ry, I seek to reveal ways of sub­vert­ing harm­ful prac­tices, in order to fur­ther under­stand female sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in place. 

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As part of this research I under­took a series of field vis­its to a small quar­ry sit­u­at­ed on pri­vate land, devel­op­ing an embod­ied con­nec­tion with the site and its inhab­i­tants over a two year peri­od. Using pho­togram­me­try as a tech­no­log­i­cal method, a process devel­oped on-site, works to decon­struct and recon­sti­tute dig­i­tal images of the dis­used quar­ry in to a 3D vir­tu­al mod­el and, through exper­i­men­ta­tion, result­ing art­works. The mate­ri­al­i­ty of the rock and its inhab­i­tants are dig­i­tal­ly mined’ and recon­sti­tut­ed using 3D mod­el­ling soft­ware, form­ing a process of metaphor­i­cal desta­bil­i­sa­tion in order to con­struct a liq­uid, skin-like form that can then be vir­tu­al­ly tra­versed, per­me­at­ed and manip­u­lat­ed as an arte­fact. Play­ful exper­i­men­ta­tion has been cen­tral to these in-prac­tice meth­ods, and have involved lay­er­ing imagery with spo­ken word as part of an intu­itive, explorato­ry edit­ing process.

Using tech­nol­o­gy, the method seeks to mir­ror extrac­tive meth­ods as a way to decon­struct aspects of extrac­tive cap­i­tal­ism. A flu­id­i­ty of mat­ter is reformed to gen­er­ate new insights in rela­tion to how, as agents of change, the sub­jects in this prac­tice can be placed back in to the world as eth­i­cal­ly syn­the­sised, tech­no-organ­ic par­tic­i­pants. Build­ing upon Don­na Haraway’s posthu­man tech­no-body, which offers fem­i­nism an alter­na­tive to male-dom­i­nat­ed sys­tems… that are cen­tred upon tra­di­tions of cap­i­tal­ism… and… of the appro­pri­a­tion of nature as resource’ for the pro­duc­tion of cul­ture” 1, I con­struct a con­text in which to recon­nect human and non-human bod­i­ly mat­ter in a way that repo­si­tions the once sep­a­rate human sub­ject as part of a rhi­zomat­ic net­work of sym­bi­ot­ic organ­isms. This is sup­port­ed by eth­i­cal­ly focused tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments and cre­ative imag­i­na­tion. Cre­at­ing a vir­tu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion that is, through its con­struc­tion, topo­log­i­cal­ly bound to the quar­ry site I fre­quent and occu­py inti­mate­ly, gen­er­ates a para­dox — a vir­tu­al form ground­ed in the actu­al through the embod­ied expe­ri­ence of place and imag­i­na­tion. 2

Pri­mar­i­ly focus­ing on female sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, and how to nav­i­gate the com­plex­i­ties and prob­lems that this term opens, the metaphor­i­cal desta­bil­i­sa­tion of mate­r­i­al is used to recat­e­gorise notions of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty with­in a posthu­man con­text, as part of a wider dia­logue around iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics in the con­text of an eco­log­i­cal cri­sis. As a fem­i­nist, I have used this research method to locate a posi­tion through the aggre­gate of mate­r­i­al gath­ered and for­mu­lat­ed in prac­tice. Start­ing with the site and its car­to­graph­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions, I ini­tial­ly sought to under­stand the quarry’s ori­gins and how the land has been used over time, with an inten­tion of reclaim­ing the vio­lence of the land­scape, using that action as a metaphor for dig­ging through — de-struc­tur­ing or dis­man­tling — female suf­frage and the exploita­tion of human and non-human bod­ies under the forces of extrac­tive cap­i­tal­ism more broadly.

I researched his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary maps of the site, search­ing for clues regard­ing its his­to­ry, notic­ing how the quar­ry occu­pies its sur­round­ings as an absence. This becomes a process of re-map­ping as a form of de-map­ping, that is, un-rav­el­ling car­togra­phies and the inher­ent issues that come with it, in terms of their role in colonis­ing and pri­vatis­ing the com­mons. This land once formed part of Has­sop Hall Estate, and before that, Chatsworth Estate. The grit­stone that was extract­ed from the site is cat­e­gorised as Chatsworth Grit­stone, although it is not con­sid­ered high-qual­i­ty and was like­ly to have been quar­ried to con­struct local infra­struc­ture and farm build­ings. The land now belongs to pri­vate own­ers, a wedge of land flanked by Chatsworth Estate and the Peak Dis­trict Nation­al Park. The quar­ry is pro­tect­ed as a Site of Spe­cial Sci­en­tif­ic Interest.

My prac­tice-based research was strength­ened and ground­ed by repeat­ed site vis­its, which took place through­out the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic when lock­downs eased and I was per­mit­ted to trav­el. I vis­it­ed through dif­fer­ent sea­sons, which trans­formed the sur­face of the quar­ry bot­tom from a water­logged pool of engorged moss to a vibrant green springy mat of game­to­phytes that gen­tly sup­port­ed the weight of my body as I lay with them in the sun. I was shel­tered by the quar­ry, and held by a lin­ing of poly­trichum com­mune moss that had over time reclaimed the dis­turbed ground. It was womb-like in form, and I found myself becom­ing mate­ri­al­ly bound to it with each vis­it. It is sig­nif­i­cant to men­tion that I first encoun­tered the quar­ry when I was 8 months preg­nant. The pre­na­tal rela­tion I had with my daugh­ter — an iden­ti­ty-shift­ing liq­uid encounter with bod­i­ly enmesh­ment — ini­ti­at­ed a new under­stand­ing of entan­gled becom­ing. Thus, a research project that ini­tial­ly sought to clar­i­fy the female sub­ject posi­tion devel­oped in to an inves­ti­ga­tion of a posthu­man mul­ti­plic­i­ty of female sub­ject posi­tion-rela­tions, as explored through the narrative.

When trav­el restric­tions were imposed, I began vis­it­ing the site vir­tu­al­ly using Google Earth, cir­cling around the site like a bird and film­ing and edit­ing this vir­tu­al expe­ri­ence. I was cap­ti­vat­ed with this tech­no­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence, which enabled one to sink through the map and seem­ing­ly through the sur­face of the Earth weight­less­ly, described by Hito Stey­erl as a con­di­tion of ground­less­ness”.3 This loss of bound­aries cre­ates a space in which vir­tu­al bod­ies col­lide and becomes enmeshed with the imag­ined skin of the earth. This vir­tu­al­ly-led sen­sa­tion-by-proxy enabled me to mean­ing­ful­ly entan­gle a cog­ni­tive exten­sion of my human body with the dig­i­tal mate­ri­al­i­ty of nature — albeit the quar­ry as it was on the 28th Sep­tem­ber 2011, when the images were tak­en by a pass­ing satel­lite. Ren­dered ten years pri­or to the exis­tence of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of moss cov­er­ing the exposed rock, these ances­tral­ly charged pix­els sud­den­ly enabled a form of time trav­el. Like the light of an already dead star pierc­ing the night sky, this his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment of place became a mate­r­i­al archive of what once-was, that has result­ed in the what-is-now. This abil­i­ty to time trav­el is explored beau­ti­ful­ly in Isabel Waidner’s Ster­ling Karat Gold (2021), where her char­ac­ters move through space and time using Google Street View.4

I began stretch­ing and dis­tort­ing images of the quar­ry, cre­at­ing amor­phous forms that float­ed in a void of dig­i­tal space. This process was also tri­aled in ear­li­er test­ing, so that dis­tor­tions of my own body were super­im­posed in to desert land­scapes as a way to dis­rupt cul­tur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women — specif­i­cal­ly Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma — who used the deserts as a con­text to con­struct neg­a­tive and lim­it­ing tropes of wom­an­hood. The result­ing aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties were excit­ing — ani­mat­ed and oth­er­world­ly quar­ried land­scapes warped and mor­phed weight­less­ly. Yet the land­scape became an object that was fur­ther detached from the mate­r­i­al body, and became lim­it­ing as a form for think­ing through the expe­ri­ence and process of place-making.

Using pho­togram­me­try to dig­i­tal­ly extract mat­ter from the site became a key tool in devel­op­ing mate­r­i­al desta­bil­i­sa­tion as a method. With the sup­port and guid­ance of V21, a com­pa­ny that, ordi­nar­i­ly, spe­cialis­es in cap­tur­ing art exhi­bi­tions and objects to pro­duce 3D vir­tu­al tours, I explored ways of cre­at­ing a 3D vir­tu­al mod­el of the dis­used quar­ry. Cre­at­ing visu­al slip­pages between digi­tised mate­r­i­al beings using pho­togram­me­try ini­ti­at­ed a deep encounter with the quar­ried rock and the non-humans that have grown out of the absence, specif­i­cal­ly the moss and rock that I have touched, laid upon, inhaled. The result­ing vir­tu­al quar­ry is a dig­i­tal imprint of my direct, sen­su­al­ly ren­dered expe­ri­ences in place, so that my embod­ied encoun­ters are embed­ded in the pixel­lat­ed forms that shift, tum­ble, reorder and assem­ble on screen.

A high res­o­lu­tion DSLR cam­era was used to cap­ture every angle of mat­ter on site, so that 1000’s of images doc­u­ment every sur­face, undu­la­tion and tex­ture in detail. Tak­ing pho­tos as a process of min­ing data’ became sym­bol­ic, as par­al­lels between the pho­to­graph­ic process and the phys­i­cal labour that cre­at­ed the hol­low that the body now occu­pied became appar­ent. Rock faces were decon­struct­ed through a series of pho­to­graph­ic frames, the dig­i­tal eye work­ing sym­bi­ot­i­cal­ly with the human body to gen­er­ate a decon­struc­tion of land­scape. Like the tools used to break up the land to make walls, roads and farm build­ings, this pho­to­graph­ic method carved up the sur­face of the land­scape in to pix­els, so that the pix­els became metaphor­i­cal stones that could be extract­ed and used to con­struct and recon­sti­tute form.

This method of metaphor­i­cal decon­struc­tion became cen­tral to the research, in a way that exist­ing vir­tu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions, such as Google Earth, could not pro­vide. Each image formed a mir­ror reflect­ing the minu­tia of the site, a process that is rem­i­nis­cent of Robert Smithson’s notes on mir­ror-trav­el, or what O’Sullivan recasts in Deleuz­ian terms as trav­el into the vir­tu­al”.5 The data gleaned from every sur­face of the quar­ry was uploaded to a com­put­er back in the V21 office and run through Agisoft Metashape soft­ware, which sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly re-assem­bled the data as an aggre­gat­ed form that, in turn, mir­rored the whole site. This process of decon­struct­ing and recon­sti­tut­ing mat­ter in vir­tu­al space reformed not only mate­ri­als but also con­cepts. This is where my expe­ri­ences in the quar­ry — real and imag­ined — become part of the fab­ric of the land­scape, absorbed in to the mesh of pix­els to reform an under­stand­ing of place and how I exist with­in it as a part of it. Like Robert Smithson’s non­sites, the result­ing art objects func­tioned as abstract con­tain­ers that reflect­ed the site from which the mate­r­i­al has been col­lect­ed.6

Through an intu­itive process of explo­ration back in the stu­dio, I learned that I could turn this skin-like vir­tu­al reflec­tion of land­scape upside down, which meant that I could visu­alise being under­neath the sur­face of the quar­ry look­ing up at the bound­ary lay­er. Flip­ping the land­scape in this way enables one to see the sur­face from a dif­fer­ent mate­r­i­al per­spec­tive, and I spent time explor­ing the form as if part of the ancient grit­stone, or in the posi­tion of the watery moss inter­face. From this point, I sought to cre­ate an expe­ri­ence in which the view­er was guid­ed through the con­struc­tion of aggre­gat­ed mat­ter, through the pixel­lat­ed rocks and watery hues of veg­e­tal mat­ter towards a rad­i­cal con­nec­tion with the non-human. The con­trols used to nav­i­gate the mod­el were clunky to oper­ate, so with the sup­port of V21, a more flu­id way of doc­u­ment­ing the move­ment through the skin of the quar­ry was devel­oped using Blender. I com­bined these vir­tu­al man­i­fes­ta­tions with video footage I gath­ered at the site, as a way to insert nat­ur­al tex­tures, colours, and move­ment on top of and under­neath the pix­e­lat­ed forms. Com­bin­ing vir­tu­al aggre­gates with the actu­al’ result­ed in a com­plex slip­page of pix­els and watery mat­ter that pooled across the sur­face of the screen.

George Schenk writes about the con­ver­sa­tion’ between moss and rock being like an inter­face of immen­si­ty and minute­ness, of past and present, soft­ness and hard­ness, still­ness and vibran­cy”.7 Moss­es have the pow­er to trans­form mono­lith­ic stone back to their gran­u­lar ori­gins at the moment of their con­ver­gence, as sandy grains frag­ment and unrav­el the solid­i­ty of for­ma­tions like flu­id pix­els shift­ing across a mov­ing image. Moss lives at the bound­ary lay­er of the sur­face of this quar­ried rock, a sur­face cre­at­ed by man through a process of labo­ri­ous extrac­tion. In the vir­tu­al mod­el devel­oped, the bound­ary lay­er is visu­alised as a dig­i­tal skin… each pix­el a mark­er of where moss gen­tly unrav­els the cer­tain­ty of stone. This tech­nol­o­gy gen­er­ates a vir­tu­al inti­ma­cy with the con­tours and tex­tures of the moss’ sub­strate’ — visu­al­is­ing the point of liq­uid­i­ty between mate­r­i­al beings.

Entan­gle­ment, 2021. 9 Min Sin­gle-Chan­nel Video, Video Still.

Through this process, I began to for­mu­late a net­work of coa­les­cent dig­i­tal mate­r­i­al that describes an embod­ied and mate­ri­al­ly embed­ded process of re-becom­ing part of some­thing-big­ger-than the indi­vid­ual body, as expe­ri­enced in my pre/​post natal body-state. Lau­ra Green writes, preg­nan­cy is an exam­ple of where self and oth­er over­lap and become indis­tinct, and where inside and out­side are no longer delin­eat­ed; the self and the not-self coex­ist in the same bod­i­ly space”.8 Green describes an inter­twin­ing of self and oth­er that, for me, is more of a deep entan­gle­ment of mate­ri­al­i­ty, in which a sym­bi­ot­ic, cog­ni­tive know­ing is devel­oped inside the body that is spe­cif­ic to the expe­ri­ence of preg­nan­cy and birthing.

I have devel­oped the term sym-cog­ni­tive to describe this expe­ri­ence, which I, since giv­ing birth, have also felt in place through the method, with the moss colony that has reclaimed the quar­ry. This recon­nec­tion to the land and its inhab­i­tants is one of tac­it coa­les­cence, formed deep with­in our shared bod­i­ly tissue.

As Rosi Braidot­ti writes, the posthu­man sub­ject asserts the mate­r­i­al total­i­ty of and inter­con­nec­tion with all liv­ing things”.9 Human and non-human organ­ic bod­ies are mate­ri­al­ly con­nect­ed, despite diverse evo­lu­tion­ary path­ways and bod­i­ly oth­er­ness. This sym-cog­ni­tive net­work is one of care and reci­procity, of sym­bio­sis and shared mate­ri­al­i­ty. It is, through the method, a process of mak­ing con­tact with mat­ter”.1

The result­ing aggre­gat­ed clus­ter of pixel­lat­ed rock forms what Robert Smith­son terms anon­site 11 — an abstract rep­re­sen­ta­tion of place — in which flu­id post-anthro­pocen­tric sub­jec­tiv­i­ties can be explored through the vir­tu­al space of the art­work. The objects con­tain and abstract the open lim­its of the land­scape in a way that actu­alis­es the vir­tu­al­i­ties of the sym-cog­ni­tive expe­ri­ence depict­ed, enabling a posthu­man geo­graph­ic nar­ra­tive to emerge that refor­mu­lates an under­stand­ing of my entan­gled rela­tion­ship to earth­ly mat­ter as a birthing body who is liq­uid, tran­si­to­ry and con­nect­ed through fleshy materiality. 

This recla­ma­tion of the extrac­tive process, in con­junc­tion with my own embod­ied expe­ri­ence of this dis­turbed and pri­va­tised land­scape, acts as a coun­ter­point to the sys­temic cul­ture of exploita­tion. Through the method, nat­ur­al resources and organ­ic bod­ies are entan­gled in order to reveal sub­ver­sive and reac­tionary posi­tions of agency and kin­ship. Min­ing and quar­ry­ing ter­mi­nol­o­gy is used to describe the psy­cho­log­i­cal impacts of cap­i­tal­ism, and the visu­al meth­ods employed inves­ti­gate a posthu­man, sym­bi­ot­ic re-con­nec­tion with the organ­ic, util­is­ing tech­nol­o­gy away from the dom­i­nat­ing hold of extrac­tive capitalism.

Text and Images © Vic­to­ria Lucas

Text adapt­ed from Pixel­lat­ed Rocks: Sym­bol­ic Recla­ma­tion as Method, pre­sent­ed dig­i­tal­ly at the METHOD 2022 Con­fer­ence at Sheffield Hal­lam Uni­ver­si­ty on the 22nd Sep­tem­ber 2022.