PopTech interview: An obsession with the past projects Friends of the Pleistocene into the future


In our hectic lives, days pass into weeks into years. But how often are we confronted with evidence of a world from thousands of years prior, when glaciers covered the earth and we were evolving into what we’ve become today? Actually, much more often than we think. Evidence of the most recent geologic epoch preceding the current era we’re in – from 2,588,000 to 12,000 years BP and known as the Pleistocene – is all around us. Its omnipresence forces us to reconsider how we move through time and space.

Organizations such as the Long Now Foundation, which fosters long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10 thousand years, and The Mannahatta Project, which illustrates the original ecology of Manhattan prior to its metamorphosis by European settlers, help widen our purview. And a project called Friends of the Pleistocene (FOP), run by artists and graphic designers Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth, aims to bring greater awareness of the materials and landscapes that originated during the Pleistocene, which we encounter every day. In addition to helping us rethink how we travel through the world and evoking a sense of mystery to our often overlooked environment, their projects move us to consider the evidence we’ll be leaving behind for the next epoch.

PopTech: The FOP website states that the project explores the “conjuncture between landscape and contemporary human activity at sites shaped by the geologic epoch of the Pleistocene.” Could you elaborate further?
Jamie Kruse: We’re interested in how humans have evolved in response to landscape over the past ten thousand years. We started thinking about the Pleistocene during research trips as artists in the American West. We were encountering landscapes where you could still see the effects of the geologic era of the Pleistocene on the surface of the earth primarily in the form of ancient lake beds, which have been used a lot for runways and bombing ranges. We started to realize that geologic landscapes have been put to use in very different ways by contemporary humans than they were used in the past so that’s where we started with FOP.

So we’re living among and upon visible remnants of another epoch. How does that understanding direct your work?
Elizabeth Ellsworth: We’re interested in how those Pleistocene-shaped landforms become infrastructure for contemporary human land use and activity.

There are these lake benches that have been carved into the mountains around Salt Lake City. They’ve created gorgeous perches for suburban developments to have these amazing views.

JK: We did a project for three weeks last year where we traced the edges of [the prehistoric lake] Lake Bonneville. We actually went out looking for the edges of this lake that dried up 10 thousand years ago.

The Pleistocene is different from other epochs; it’s still visible on the surface in the way that so many others are just too far away. The Pleistocene is actually quite recent.

We’re interested in how those Pleistocene-shaped landforms become infrastructure for contemporary human land use and activity.

In addition to FOP, one of Smudge’s projects is Geologic City, A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York, which comes out in the fall. How did this project come about?
JK: New York is a place where people think very quickly and actions take place in minutes or hours yet the materiality that gave form to this City in the buildings and in the infrastructure that we use come from much deeper time spans and material forces that took time to form. The idea was to trace those sites and then make a field guide so that people can actually move through the City and be surprised about what they’re encountering. It gives an otherworldly sense to what looks familiar, like realizing that Rockefeller Center is made of stone that’s 300 million years old.

The Pleistocene is different from other epochs; it’s still visible on the surface in the way that so many others are just too far away.

It re-frames space and time and the way we maneuver around the city.
EE: It does. There’s a work in progress for Geologic City that looks at the stairway that’s carved into exposed bedrock in Central Park. The area was scoured to bedrock by the last glaciation that moved through New York City and so the fact that that bedrock was exposed beautifully in Central Park invited Olmsted to imagine creating a stairway. We have a photograph [and accompanying blog post] that documents the stairway today that’s a re-photograph of Robert Smithson’s snapshot of it in the 1970s because he was fascinated with the way that a Pleistocene-shaped landscape in Central Park had gotten transformed into infrastructure for picnics and strolling.

Examples like the stone from Rockefeller Center and the stairs in Central Park are equally disorienting and thrilling. So bringing these types of structures to people’s attention is this project’s primary aim?
JK: Geologic City started out focused on iconic architecture and infrastructure and it’s really turned into a story about geologic flow and materialities. One example of that flow is road salt. For years walking around New York I’ve encountered this crunchy stuff on the sidewalk in the winter and wondered where it came from. After spending a lot of time doing research and emailing the City and the Commissioner of Sanitation, we found out that the salt we spread on the sidewalks and on the streets comes from the Atacama Desert. We were able to get access to see a giant pile of it under the Manhattan Bridge. It’s 8 million years old and in one blizzard it’s dispersed throughout the city and dissolves down the sewer drains.

It’s this really amazing flow that’s traveled so many thousands of miles to come here and takes 8 million years to form. The time is so asynchronous with our human scale that it’s just been fascinating to trace something back to its roots and see how quickly it transforms.

Besides the Geologic City Field Guide, how has your work manifested itself?
EE: We’re really curious about what it is that an aesthetic experience can bring to this huge task of imagining new ways of being on a planet.

We did a project last year for MIT’s Digital Humanities group. We took this old geologic time scale that you see in every geology text books and rethought it from this contemporary moment. We tried to turn it into a viewing device for looking at the contemporary landscape in a way that makes the point that all geologic time is contemporary, that we are living in all the epochs at once because we are surrounded by the materialities, forces, and elements of those epochs every day in daily life. We created a linear time scale and called it a Geologic Time Viewer.

How is current human activity playing a role in the future of geologic epochs?
EE: In geologic history, it’s been meteors, glaciers, climate change, these huge events that have altered the surface of the Earth in really dramatic ways. Just in the last, arguably, 100 years, humans have come close to matching that force and scale of change through extraction, through carbon dioxide, through the production of nuclear waste. We’re going to leave our own trace. As geologic strata piles up into the future there will be a specific line in the geologic rock record that’s a complete representation of our existence. So many human made and human-inflected changes will be recorded.

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