Between a Rock and a Hard Place

 

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Geological Illustration from Catastrophism to the Anthropocene

An Exhibition at the Vassar College Art Library

October 5 to December 20, 2018

Our exhibit begins with the 1697 English edition of Thomas Burnet’s Theory of the Earth, opened to an engraved image of a view of the Earth at the receding of the waters of the great Deluge described in Genesis 6-9, showing a tiny Noah’s Ark grounded on Mount Ararat at the center, and, according to the author’s theory, Earth’s newly formed continents and mountain chains just visible under the waves.  As an example of illustration we would consider the image today to be more fanciful than scientific, based on scriptural sources, since we believe today that most familiar landforms developed through time very gradually and not by catastrophes and cataclysms, divinely caused or natural, such as floods and volcanoes. The image, however, is emblematic of a number of natural histories illustrated by contemporary interpreters of the science and history of our planet, including the artists whose works appear elsewhere in this exhibit.

Detail of an illustration concerning the composition of the crust in the Paris’ basin, from Cuvier’s and Brongniart’s study.

Noah’s Ark, whose etymology (Old English ærc, from Latin arca, chest) describes a closed box or tabernacle (as in the Ark of the Covenant), denotes as well a box for keeping records. It is related to our word “archive,” and is symbolic of the impulse toward archivism that characterizes so many of the books displayed here. George Cuvier, the founder of paleontology, for instance, in his own Theory of the Earth (1818) presents the Earth itself as an archive of ancient activity as well as of living and extinct life forms, organized temporally in layered strata, which binds geologic science through the fossil record to biological history.

Eurypterus (sea scorpion) fossil. Courtesy Scott Warthin Museum of Geology and Natural History, Vassar College

The ark of the Earth itself therefore transports and discloses to us across great spans of time information about events and species that time and the Earth have both swallowed up, including, as Darwin would eventually surmise, our own ancestry.

The close alliance between artistic illustration and geologic theory and documentation examined in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center exhibition Past Time: Geology in European and American Art, which this exhibit accompanies, was facilitated from the middle of the Nineteenth Century, as was all scientific recording, with the invention of photography and the adoption of the photographic document.  George Shattuck, a Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at Vassar College at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, bolstered his own geologic exploration and teaching by becoming an early adept and proponent of this medium, deployed here for educational purposes in his photographic guide, Geological Rambles Near Vassar College, (1907). Besides his use of photography as an archival medium, Shattuck’s descriptive rambles signal another feature embodied in Burnet’s account of Noah’s Ark, that of the “story” in “natural history,” or the use of narrative for recording past events. Most of the remaining artists’ books in our own “ark” (our Art Library exhibit case was originally designed for displaying scientific specimens) investigate both types of documentary media: storytelling and the photograph.

 

Most prominent here for examples of itinerant narrative and photography both are the publications of the British artist Richard Long, whose work is comprised of photographic and sculptural records of his own rambles across landscapes and his interventions therein. Eight of his books are exhibited here along the bottom of the exhibit case (1984-2001).

Long is keenly interested in the role of human activity on the memorial record of the Earth, and he may be viewed as an early interpreter of the concept of a new era characterized by human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, designated popularly as the Anthropocene.  

 

Other artists here whose works examine the tools of narrative and photographic documentation include Swiss-born Jelena Martinovic’s historically-inclined tribute to mountaineers, Bold Climbers (2016),

Belfast-born Maria Fusco’s myth-tinged book documenting the building of the Cruachan Power Station, Master Rock (2015),

Michelle Stuart’s fanciful history of a California inhabited only by women, The Fall (1976),

and the Norwegian artist Kurt Johannessen’s talismanic and anthropomorphizing Steiner (2002), who recites stories not about rocks but to rocks.

Like Johannessen’s Steiner, Luke Stettner’s artist’s book History Database (2016) is an archive that blurs the distinction between the living or once-living, and non-living aspects of the geologic record. Like Martinovic, Fusco, and Stuart, Stettner employs archival photographs and illustrations, along with new photography, drawings, pictograms and photocopies to tell a larger story about mortality, documentation, and deep time.

Most interesting in her exploration of the Earth, archives, narrative, and photography, in her work Duskdust (2016), the Berlin-born artist Susanne Kriemann creates documents from the material of the Earth itself in the stark light of what is sometimes referred to as the “bunker archaeology” of the Anthropocene.  Her silk screens incorporate paper made from ground limestone from the abandoned quarry on the Swedish island of Gotland she investigates, while her photographs capture the natural light of the quarry at various times of day, relating these by association to narrative texts and archival materials, including old photographs.

Not all of our contemporary illustrative interpreters of the Earth are photographers.  The graphic (from the Greek graphos, to write, carve, or dig) artist Rodger Binyone’s colorful artist’s book MAGMA:  Dynamo Conflagration No. 10 (2015), is a fanciful narrative based loosely on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (very loosely), about a Canadian volcanist and her assistant’s quest, aided by a mole rat, into the Earth’s core in search of a special neon-red Icelandic magma.

Brooklyn-based Sibba Hartunian’s books Volcanoes and Mountains are colorful multiples issued and sold inexpensively in small numbers, produced through environmentally-friendly risograph printing (employing a soy-based gelatin), enlisting the artist’s process in limiting the disruption done to the Earth by human intervention.

Also addressing the damaging effects of humanity on the Earth characteristic of the Anthropocene is Etienne Turpin’s An Anarchist Introduction to the Anthropocene (2015), which brings to bear a narrative asserting the “centrality of militant labor as a force capable of transforming the nature of cities, the culture of America, and the geologic deep-time marked by the Anthropocene.”

Positive approaches to our relationship with the Earth are also apparent in certain institutional or governmental competitive projects that meld earth science and art.  These are represented here by the NOAAs (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Western Regional Center at Sand Point, Washington in the land art featured in Five Artists at NOAA: A Casebook on Art in Public Places (1985);

and EOS (Earth Observatory Singapore: Art Projects 2010-2013: Six Projects Inspired by Earth Science (2014).

Finally, in her acclaimed Queens Museum exhibition of last year, Wandering Lake (2017), documented in her artist book of the same name, Patty Chang offers a geologic, archival, and photographic meditation on the loss of her father and the birth of her son.  Her thoughts are interwoven with a narrative inspired by the Swedish geographer and travel writer Sven Hedin, who tells a story about a migrating lake in the Gobi desert.  A story of powerlessness, Chang’s statement has more to do with the function of art as a vehicle for mourning the present than its imagined role in making things better in the future.  As a counterpart to the image we opened with of Noah’s Ark grounded upon the rock of Mount Ararat, the exhibit ends with the hard place of an emblematic photograph by Chang of another beached boat as she hopelessly scrubs its barnacled hull.

Checklist
Books in the Exhibition arranged by publication year:

Burnett, Thomas. The Theory of the Earth: containing an account of the original of the Earth, and of all the general changes which it hath already undergone or is to undergo till the Consummation of all things. Third Edition. – London: R.N., 1697. Loaned from the collection of Prof. Jill Schneiderman.

Cuvier, Jean Leopold Nicholas Frederick Cuvier, Baron. Essay on the Theory of the Earth with Mineralogical Notes and an Account of Cuvier’s Geological Discoveries by Professor Jameson, to added Observations on the Geology of North America. Illustrated by Samuel L. Mitchell. – New York: Kirk & Mercein, 1818. Loaned from the collection of Prof. Jill Schneiderman.

Shattuck, GeorgeBurbank. Geological Rambles Near Vassar College. -Poughkeepsie: The Vassar College Press, 1907. Loaned from the collection of Prof. Jill Schneiderman.

Stuart, Michelle. The Fall. – New York: Printed Matter, 1976.

Long, Richard. Aggie Weston’s. No. 16. – London: Coracle Press, 1979.

Long, Richard. Richard Long. – Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, 1979.

Long, Richard. Postcards 1968-1982. — Paris: Union à Paris, 1984.

Long, Richard. Richard Long. – Fonds Regional d’Art Contemporain Aquitaine, 1985.

United States. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Five Artists at NOAA: A Casebook on Art in Public Places.— Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1985.

Long, Richard. Neanderthal Line, White Water Circle. — Dusseldorf: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1994.

Long, Richard. Richard Long. — Dusseldorf: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1994.

Long, Richard. Mountains and Waters. – New York: Braziller, 2001.

Johannessen, Kurt. Steinar. — Bergen: Zeth Forlag, 2002.

Turpin, Etienne. An Anarchist Introduction to the Anthropocene. – Brooklyn: Etienne Turpin, 2013.

EOS Earth Observatory Singapore. ART Projects 2010-2013: Six Art Projects Inspired by Earth Science. — Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2014.

Binyone, Rodger. MAGMA: Dynamo Conflagration No. 10. – Philadelphia, 2015.

Fusco, Maria. Master Rock. – London: Artangel, 2015.

Hartunian, Sibba. Mountains. – Sibba Hartunian, 2016.

Hartunian, Sibba. Volcanoes. – Sibba Hartunian, 2016.

Kriemann, Susanne. Duskdust. – Berling: Sternberg Press, 2016.

Martinovic, Jelena. Bold Climbers. – Lausanne: Cordyceps Press, 2016.

Stettner, Luke. History Database. – SPBH Editions, 2016.

Chang, Patty. Wandering Lake. – New York: Queens Museum, 2017.

Curated by Thomas E. Hill, Art Librarian

Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 2018.

A new look for our website

We’re changing our website.

After many years and good times with our old site, we’re saying goodbye to our blue and yellow look, our many links, and our “looks great on a big screen!” site in favor of a smaller, more nimble, Vassar-themed, and responsive (read: you can use it on your phone and your big screen!) site.  

View a preview of the site here: https://libguides.vassar.edu/newsite/

We developed our new site after many conversations, an environmental scan of similarly sized institutions, and an exploration of the variety of search techniques and interfaces that were on the horizon for libraries. We asked ourselves what you needed right away (spoiler alert: it wasn’t a big list of services) and why some areas were underutilized. While we had some idea of where our site was going right and going wrong, we needed your feedback.

(And have you ever noticed that our current site doesn’t have a feedback button? We’ve remedied that in the new one.)

Over the course of eight months, we conducted focus groups with current students. We explored how students found the materials and people they needed at the libraries, where frustrations and pain points were, and where success stories might be found. We asked basic questions of the site like, “How would I find the contact information for someone who works here?” and “Can I talk to a research librarian in my subject area?” We also asked participants to draw their ideal library website.

For even more patron input, we conducted a card sort. A card sort takes navigation elements from across a website and asks users to sort them into categories — a “what goes with what?” activity that helps eliminate jargon and internally focused labels. After users sort the cards into piles, we ask them to name each pile with a heading that categorizes the items.

A section of the card sort analysis showing the color-coding of items into broad categories.

A section of the card sort analysis showing the color-coding of items into broad categories.

The results were extraordinary in their consistency and call to action. Some highlights:

  • From the card sort, it became clear almost immediately that students felt that the most important thing that a library site should do is to help them FIND — resources, people, services, etc. Our current site did this, but separated out people and resources. It also moved specialized “finding” needs (like items on reserve or interlibrary loan) into a “services” category. This fractured the relationship between research needs and the people who could help facilitate inquiry at the libraries.
  • From the focus groups, we learned that students rely on website FAQs for a variety of different types of information. Why didn’t we have one? we were asked. Well, the short answer is that we do — but it’s quite hidden. We found that students were overwhelmingly in favor of an FAQ model for many of their information needs.
  • Students, faculty, and the Vassar community have told us that our collections stand out in their minds, and we added a special “Collections” section to the site to provide highlights.
  • We added an Events Calendar to showcase the many things happening here!
  • Perhaps most importantly, our Discover service tested very positively. Students were thrilled with the variety of resources available in one place, the ability to search books and articles at the same time, and the options to limit (“facets”). After such a positive response, we decided to default to this search on our home page.
  • Finally, we confirmed perhaps what we already knew: most of us use Google to start their research. How could we ameliorate this? All of our pages are as search-engine-friendly as possible so that finding resources at Vassar should be easier, no matter where you start your search.

And we’ve added a Feedback form to our site! We’re excited to learn more about what you need and what you think of our work thus far. Please go to https://libguides.vassar.edu/feedback/ to tell us more.

The new site will be replace our old site at the start of the Fall 2018 semester. Until then, both sites will be available for you to use.

Thank you to the many students, faculty, committees, and more that made this site possible.

Media Studies Installations in the Art Library

Sofía Benitez. Still from the video “Stand By Me”.

On the evening of May 4, 2018 a group of five graduating seniors under the advisorships of Professors Heesok Chang and Molly Nesbit in Vassar’s Media Studies Program presented multimedia installations as part of their theses requirements in Van Ingen Hall: in the Art Library Stacks and the  former Visual Resources Library.  Projects were presented by Sophia Benitez, Delphine Douglas, Lena Redford, Joseph Simon and Sixing Xu.  These multimedia micro-utopias variously consisted of sounds, still and moving projections onto flat surfaces and objects, screen images, and texts, intentionally contextualized by the physical spaces in which they were exhibited such as the Art Library study carrels.  Visitors were presented with a map locating each installation, and the presenters were available at their installations for comments and questions.  A lively audience consisted of curious students, faculty, and people who had come to campus especially to see the exhibition/happening.  The projects were co-investigative: where media were deployed as self-interrogating research-objects to examine concepts of subjectivity and interactivity in a fluid universe shaped by digital experiences. Collective areas of inquiry included the impact of the digital image on art and life, time and history, friendship and relationships, embodiment and gender, space and boundaries. Drawing energy from their surroundings, the projects were activated by the space of the library, and in turn activated the library space in a charged circuit of meaningful, self-reflective, and creative harmonies, resonating with one another in a  collective effort where the the library was shown to offer new and progressive possibilities of embodiment and habitation.

Images

Heesok Chang, Molly Nesbit, and exhibit visitors viewing a video by Joseph Simon

Joseph Simon, Sixing Xu, Delphine Douglas and Sofía Beritez view Sixing Xu’s installation in Carrel 17 of Stack III of the Art Library

Still from Delphine Douglas’s video “Beyond the Speculum” installed in Carrel 29 of Stack II of the Art Library

Art Librarian Thomas Hill visiting Sixing Xu’s Installation in Stack III of the Art Library

Projections from Sixing Xu’s installation in Stack III of the Art Library

VIdeo Still from “Movement Three” by Sophía Beritez

Artist Antoine Robinson experiencing Sixing Xu’s installation in Stack III of the Art Library

Videos

—  Video of visitors to Sixing Xu’s installation in Stack III of the Art Library

 

—  Video from Delphine Douglas’s installation

 

—  Video of combined projects by Joseph Simon, Sophía Beritez, and Lena Redford installed in the Screening Room of the old Visual Resources Library in Taylor Hall