Geology as counter revolution or revolt; subversion or nihilism; resignation or renewal? Portrait of a Leeds ambience...


All sciences ought to be dragged into a confrontation with capitalism: the big question is why they aren't seeing how, with increasing frequency, they come so close. Geology is no exception though it is far more likely to be true in the case of a zoologist, a botanist or a lepidopterist. One would have thought the slow time of geology would have rendered it completely impervious to a critique of capitalism. But not so though I need to read Richard Fortey's 'The Earth' to get an idea of the lie of the land.

     And so to 'Rock School' (Dec 31st 2005 The Guardian). The article is about a paleoclimatologist Jane Francis, a lecturer employed by Leeds University. Unfortunately the cheery face in the accompanying photograph also suggests the sun always shines on Jane Francis and her dire, incontrovertible, prognostications staggeringly at one remove from her own life. What she learns does not devastate her and one is forced to ask at what point does scientific objectivity become academic indifference?

     She had studied geology in Southampton in the 70s.On graduation work was hard to find so she opted for post graduate studies eventually joining the British Antarctica survey. For years Antarctica has been the preserve of geologists and explorers. Recently it has become clear that the continent is fundamentally responsible for the way the world is today: it may even have played a part in the route of homo sapiens to the top of the eco system. 40 million years ago it was a green house world with high atmospheric C02 . Antarctica had already drifted to its present position when, for reasons that are still not clear, ice began to form in the Antarctica.

     Her vision of a transformed world (actually a 'scientific' proxy for revolutionary revenge on the folly of building large cities on flood plains) alarmingly accepts the melting of the ice caps and the rise in sea levels as probably inevitable: 'She thinks we live in ridiculous places. Something like 65 metres of potential sea level rise is trapped in the ice so London is gone and Cambridge will follow. Leeds is OK but Florida goes as do Bangladesh, the Pacific Islands and Holland. She has just been to Shanghai and saw it had been built on the Yangtze delta. She thought: 'well how long is that going to be there''

     This apocalyptic fatalism is a consequence of the resigned conformity of her life, broadly faithful to the only moral that can be drawn from geology - that of  the vast span of geological time  which subducts historical time in a comparative instant, barely leaving a trace. Such a schema saves her from having to take a truly radical stance. Nothing can be done even though part of her knows very well this is no longer just a matter of nature's way: 'We fiddle too much with natural systems. The point is the earth takes care of itself.' though a major part of her analysis suggests otherwise but remains prudently hidden, like the bulk of an iceberg, through fear of what all most certainly would happen if she was too outspoken. Jane Francis is one of those who have identified, documented, read the book of nature correctly only to close it at the final chapter on homo sapiens. Too much is at stake, not least her job, and the myth that nothing can be done certainly makes for a more comfortable life in the short term. So there will be no rock-fall of critique crushing all before it. And we may as well accept  in a few million years mankind will be preserved as 'a little black line of carbon. If that. We wont leave much record in the rock sequence'. And so life goes on, the life of academic respectability. She proudly displays her Polar Medal. She was only the fourth woman to be awarded it.

      As she crossed Millennium Square in Leeds she briefly stopped to look at 'The Earth from Space' photographic exhibition. 'To Francis it demonstrates the new cooperation between science and art she has long been pushing for. She has been working with musicians who are composing pieces using rocks that sing. 'My arty friends on Portland wanted to know why some stones made a note of such a perfect pitch when you hit them'. This new type of scientist appearing after the late sixties is a sucker for installation art and tends to press the feminist angle but cannot begin to critique either.

      Geologists also have a vested interest in the use of stone in construction. It makes daily life more interesting, and walking more of an adventure: 'Walking back to the station through Victoria Quarter, she can tell the origin of every surface. 'Look at those ripples in a piece of sandstone, probably local, formed in  a river about 300 million years ago. I hate it when people grind rocks up and put them on a road, I don`t mind if you make buildings out of them, slabs tiles anything that enhances beauty. But grinding them up to make to make tarmac or cement? That's an abuse'. Geology came of age at the very moment when artificial building materials began to increasingly dominate cityscapes. This desire to return to building materials whose origins are recognisable, around which we can weave a fascinating history, has the potential to transform cities. And by becoming aware of more radical traditions which arrived at similar conclusions though from a very different starting point, a dialogue with radical critiques of art becomes possible. The contemporary cult of art and the artist no matter how formally 'radical' they might appear to be, such as making music out of stone, ultimately seeks to suppress all knowledge of these radical origins, despite being entirely, though contradictorily, dependant upon them as source material. However such spurious radicalism is by now so run of the mill that even a vague acquaintance with the actual sources is becoming a rarity, such is the growing ignorance of history.

        There is an accompanying map of the perambulation around Leeds beginning at Millennium Square where the 'Earth from the Air' exhibition was showing. Next step on the map was the Civic Centre where Francis 'enthused about the fusion of science and art while analysing the lime deposits'. The third stop was at her laboratory in Leeds University where 'she unveils a future map of the world, sinking as the ice cap melts'. And finally onto Victoria Quarter where she marvels at the ripples in a piece of sandstone. One cannot fail to be reminded of the situationist map of Paris though it is unlikely that either the reporter or the geologist knew of its existence or iconic importance. For icons like these, though more influential than ever, have lost their meaning and value as the beginnings of a critique of urbanism that subsequently lost its way. The derive has become an aesthetic perambulation linked to rising property values, a mere avant-garde gloss on the traditional estate agents description or, as in this instance, an extra curricula scientific derive in an artistic wrapping which coyly flirts with radicalism (the false and unimaginative reinvention of cities through natural disasters such as happened to New Orleans in 2005). Given that Leeds is now the UK's second city, a city that over the past 25 years has totally remade itself as a financial centre second only to  the City of London, it should come as no surprise. The Leeds Festival in the summer of 2005 featured an installation artist who between announcements giving the time of arrivals and departures  from Leeds City Station reproduced the sound of the river Aire as it passed beneath the station fifty feet below. The Arches was always a thrilling dark place and a Piranesi-like gallery ran alongside the tunnel through which the pent up river surged.  First there were the boutiques and now this to seal off the tunnel from real adventure. And don't go down the mines Daddy, for there's an avant-garde artist at the bottom of the lift shaft. During the summer of 2005, Leeds Radio ran a short piece on another installation artist, a former member of the Pogues, no less, who was making music out of the sound of dripping water in an abandoned mine close to Leeds. This water music is the opposite of music to the ears, more an advertisement of self in the hope of grabbing sponsorship from willing corporate bodies increasingly in that canned subversion tradition of Banksy and acolytes eager to tap into that huge floating wall of money which present day capitalism has at its disposal providing there is an art gallery displaying vacuous though costly product at the end of the process.

     This hasn't happened out of the blue in Leeds as over the past few decades there's been a slow build-up. A background of playing with the limits of artistic form, though only occasionally grasping the nettle, was probably given the initial push way back in the early 1960s when a pronounced surrealist influence made an entrance guided by the figures of Patrick Hugues, Eric Thacker and Antony Earnshaw. The latter two in particular revived somewhat the radical departures of the surrealists initiating random walks and train rides throughout West Yorkshire seeking encounter, interesting objects and locations. Following quickly on their heels, Happening and Installation ensconced themselves on the fringes of the local cultural establishment through Robin Page and Terry Atkinson followed by a watered down theoretical edge in the shape of ex-situationist, Tim Clark, with books like The Image of the People - about Eduard Manet - and The Absolute Bourgeois - about Gustave Courbet. (More recently the guy has tried somewhat lamely to recover his initial radicalism through publication of the undoubtedly good Afflicted Powers book around the 9/11 catastrophe in New York). Most of these individuals in one way or another taught full or part time at the university or local colleges and art schools. Nonetheless these moments of adaptation, compromise and recuperation possibly helped spur into existence more genuine currents like Infantile Disorders in the 1970s out of which sprang The Gang of Four and Mekons punk bands ( and much to the disgust of the original ID protagonists), the Armley Surrealists and especially the now defunct loose grouping around the magazine Here & Now. These currents set in motion a more radical critique especially re-evaluation of the modern day urban geography of Leeds; how it could be thrown and disrupted in imaginative ways thus putting space into the orbit of other radical, more human uses.

    Remember as previously mentioned, Leeds is the second UK city and the second financial centre. A reinvented artistic makeover and ambience parralels this rise as a world stock market player at the same time as the critique of culture has also somewhat slipped the leach encompassing subversion and practical activity. Alas what was liberating in these experiments never fulfilled their promise or aquired a hard edge. Increasingly a dark night closed in. What is left are fuzzy memories and pale shadows, yet it is this ambience that forms the background to the geological derive of Jane Francis and her cohorts.


                                             DW & SW (January 2006)