The Unsettled Planet

Earth C

Mundus Subterraneus
Joannem Janssonium & Elizeum Weeyerstraten 1664

This is an interdisciplinary project funded by the Brigstow Institute’s Seedcorn funding. Those involved include the head of the project Michael Kendall BGS Professor of Geophysics, myself -artist Shirley Pegna, whose artistic research and practice is concerned with sound as material, together with Tamsin Badcoe (Department of English), Daniel Haines (Department of Historical Studies) and Lucy Donkin (History / History of Art).

We have met up and worked on interdisciplinary ways of thinking about cultural and historical responses to earthquakes. We have been generating insights into a shared language for research and creative practice in communicating the workings of the planet to a general audience.

We noted that using seismology, we can observe signals on all length and time scales be they micro vibrations generated by everyday activity around us or large earthquakes in the far reaches of the globe or seismic events throughout Earth’s geologic history. These seismic signals are often imperceptible but occasionally we hear and feel their full roar in ground shaking events that can be unsettling and even catastrophic.

Our discussions have explored ideas concerning time and human experience in addition to scale and vibration. We discussed our different interests in earthquake activities, and have been interested to bring about a situation where we could create an experience of the understanding of the earth’s noisy seismic activities on our doorstep in Bristol and on the University Campus.


The Tower and Bell
We decided to instrument the Great George bell in the Wills Memorial Building in Bristol University with a seismometer and data logger. The bell recorded cultural noise in Bristol, but also distant earthquakes from as far away as Fiji and other seismic active regions, but with regular punctuation from its own bell clapper. The tower itself is a cultural icon from last centaury, built in the 1920s but in a Victorian Gothic style to reflect the ideas of its funders in terms of promoting the gravitas of the institution – the University of Bristol.

The seismometer and data logger sensing and recording the vibrations in the tower

As a sensitive instrument it was able to sense the bell’s impact and vibration in the tower and the impact of the cities traffic on the roads around the tower cause the tower to vibrate. We were surprised at how much vibration there was from these sources. In addition to this, here were identifiable micro vibrations from long distance seismic activity recorded over the months. We have recorded the behaviour of the Towers reaction to the planet.

Thanks here goes to members of the Geophysics department for their fantastic advice and help, Anna Horleston, James Wookey, and to Ophelia George of course for keeping up monitoring checks, installing solar power and downloading the hard drive from the recorder to further the research into the recordings.

Fiji September 6th, 2018 Mag 7.9 Earthquake

Film – The Bell – a day in the life of Great George
On the University’s charter Day day 23rd May 2018 with equipment and expertise from artist Rod Maclachlan, we captured on film a stop frame complete day and night cycle in the tower featuring Great George the 9.5ton bell.

The tower reminds us of the passing of time, majestic in its architectural splendour as well as showing us its fragility as a mere man made construction trembling from the vibration of the planet. The film captures the peeling of the bell by the volunteers for the Charter Day celebrations.

View from the top of the tower

Special collections
We were granted in 6th June 2018 permission to visit and benefit from university’s Special Collections. We were able to see historical illustrations and writings and as a ‘scoping exercise’ for resources, images, texts that gave rise to discussion where the past relates to the present.

On the 19th June 2018 we organised a workshop where experts were invited to speak on their research. Thanks goes to Sarah Lawrence for organising the day with refreshments and lunch.

The planned workshop would bring to the fore ideas we had been discussing and those attending and particularly specialists would further the thoughts and ideas and questions of the project.
Our Questions:
How can artistic research bring new insights into the human perception of our unsettled planet?
How might bringing together artists, scientists and researchers in the humanities with shared interests, generate insights into a shared language for research and creative practice? We will focus on: What is certainty? How can we better communicate risk levels associated with ground movement?
Where has disruption and instability in the world encouraged a shift of ideas, solutions and connections? What are the political, environmental and cultural consequences of ground motion – and how do these scale with intensity.

After an introduction to the project by Michael Kendal, members of our group presented their papers and invited experts gave talks on seismic research. Recordings from the data collected from the seismometer in the tower were heard amplified on a large sub woofer. Time was taken to show the visitors and speakers the seismometer in the tower, and experience in an installation in a car the vibration amplified from in the street outside the university. Discussion occurred at lunch and the end of the day between those attending and were far ranging and of great benefit to the project.

Michael Kendall – Introduction to seismology and the project
Shirley Pegna – Shirley and George (a day in the life of a bell)
Lucy Donkin – Ruined buildings and unstable ground in early modern Italy
Tamsin Badcoe – ‘Steadfast Globes’ and ‘Unsettled Planets’: Earthquakes in Early Modern England
Stephen Vaughan – ‘Zassho-Cascadia: seismic histories and rupture probabilities in Japan and America’
Paula Koelemeijer, Oxford University – Picking up good vibrations: Feeling the beat through the elephants’s feet
Paul Denton, British Geological Survey – Man-made seismic signals, from Madness to Messi
Ophelia George – a poster with information about the data captured on the seismometer in the tower.

An artwork will be made for the completion of the project along with an on line article in The Conversation. This work will take the form of an installation that will enable these inaudible sounds to be felt and sensed through vibration and stone. A rock disc will have grooves mastered within it, which will replay audible and inaudible vibration collected from the seismometer in the Wills Tower. These will be heard and felt via headphones and vibrating speaker box/s. In being made from stone, this ‘rock record’ will have a lifetime beyond our human span, and thus communicates the fragility of our (human) presence in geographical time.


Clay Record Workshop


Clay disc mastered with sound

As a spherical disc shaped slab of clay turns on a turntable. In the clip below you can see a vibrating hand-held speaker with an attached pointed sharp tool, making marks in the disc as it turns.

The marks in the disc are the result of the vibration of the sound from the speaker. When fired the solid disc with marks in it could theoretically be played like a record, and play back the sounds marked in it.

DJs and Sound Artists Sonny Lee Lightfoot, Issac Stacey – known as Copper Sounds and ceramicist Milly Hardy, ran a workshop on 31st March 2018 at the Brunswick Club in Bristol that I attended.
Here’s a more recent workshop Copper Sounds has organised at the Arnolfini Bristol.
The ceramic studio is here:

I have been speaking with the artists about the ideas around making a disc out of stone instead of clay. We discussed various ways this could be done with diamond cutting equipment or lasers and types of stone or other materials that could be used. The stone samples we are going to try out first are alabaster, soap stone, blue lias, marble and obsidian.

Also at the workshop was sound artist and DJ Graham Dunning. Dunning is known for his Mechanical Techno constructions and performances. It was great to construct with his help a near instant version of his ideas using a tier of discs that when played created repeated rhythms. Here’s my own creation made in the workshop that day in the clip below.