where the human and the geologic spill into one another
05.08.2010, 2:36 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Gerald Herbert’s Associated Press image of Deepwater Horizon framed within FOP’s Geologic Time Viewer, 2010

For days now, massive quantities of oil have been pouring out of the earth and onto the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico. The spill is growing more expansive each day and there is no end in sight.  The cause of the leak is the now well known story of the fire aboard and the subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon.

“The Deepwater Horizon was an ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned, semi-submersible drilling rig (oil rig) built in 2001. The purpose of this rig was to drill oil wells deep underwater, moving from location to location, as needed. Once the drilling was complete, pumping production was handled by other equipment. Deepwater Horizon was owned by Transocean and leased to BP through September 2013. In September 2009, she drilled the deepest oil well in history (the Tiber oilfield, with a vertical depth of 35,050 feet). Deepwater Horizon sank on April 22, 2010, as the result of an explosion two days earlier.” – wikipedia

Daily updates on the effects and spreading of the “Deepwater Horizon incident” can be found on the NOAA site.

The origin of the growing oil slick (gushing out a remarkable 210,000 gallons of oil per day) can be traced to Mississippi Canyon Block 252, also referred to as the Macondo prospect. It was here that the Deepwater Horizon was positioned on April 20, 2010. The depth of the water at this site is around 5,000 ft., but the oil well extends over 18,000 feet further into the earth, to reach an oil reservoir located below the ocean floor.

Here at FOP, we see the oil well at the Macondo prospect as an incredibly long extension of the human hand reaching deep into geologic time. At over 20,000 ft. under the ocean floor, we wonder:  Where are we humans “in time” at that depth?

Turns out, when an oil well goes as deep as the Deepwater Horizon did, it is often to tap a lower tertiary reservoir:

“The lower tertiary is an informal designation for a layer of the earth’s crust deposited during the Paleogene period, between 65 and 23 million years ago. In the oil exploration industry, the Lower Tertiary is usually shorthand for deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico that reaches down to the “lower tertiary” region of the earth’s crust, much deeper than traditional offshore drilling, which reaches only to younger (and closer to the surface) miocene period rocks. While onshore drilling often reaches down to the lower tertiary, it was only in 2006 that companies were able to drill down to this level offshore.” -wikinvest

The oil rising from the ocean floor is liquid geologic time, millions of years in the making – a signal from a former world. It now flows uncontrollably into our world, with immense ecological and economic consequence. It gives pause to think of the immense spans of time it took for this oil to form, to make it’s way to the bottom of the ocean floor. It’s startling to consider how quickly it becomes something else: a “product,” “black gold,” “energy,” “national security,” “poison,” “pollution,” or “waste,” depending on how and when humans bring it into our time.

At what point will we know that we have reached too far or too deep?

For now, it’s clear that humans hadn’t prepared for this scenario and presently have no ability to respond effectively.  Unlike the Icelandic volcano last month, this time we are unprepared to respond to something that we ourselves designed and built. But, as it often is when designing and building in relation to geologic force, there is a point where humans inevitably reach the limits of their knowledge – and abilities.

For several months FOP has been working on project called the Geologic Time Viewer.  It’s a creative response to the precarious intersection of the human and geologic. The Viewer attempts to visualize how geologic time has been taken up by humans, put to use, and encultured for our purposes.  The Viewer examines the reality that the Earth is entering a new geologic epoch–one marked by new geologic strata that is human-made.

Our Geologic Time Viewer offers an alternative to the Geological Society of America’s 1989 Geologic Time Scale.  Through a window cut in the middle of a geologic time scale, users view their surroundings as the present geologic era– the Anthropocene.  Unlike all geologic strata that came before, the Anthropocene’s strata will include a distinct layer of sediment containing elements unique because of their human design (ie nuclear fallout and plastic). This includes bio and geo traces of massive oil spills.

Unlike the official Geologic Time Scale—our Viewer does not end with the present as culmination. Instead, we locate the present as the middle of geologic time.  Neither beginning nor end, the present is where geologic and human forces are in the midst of unfolding and enfolding. In many ways, it is from here, in the present, that the shape of  both human and geologic pasts, presents and futures will be determined.

The Viewer’s text and graphic design assert:  “All geologic time is contemporary; the materialities of every previous geologic epoch flow into the present-as-middle and give form to our daily lives.  Here, these materials are continuously remixed by geologic forces and enculturated by human design as products, limits and affordances.”

one view into the Anthropocene, the Bingham Copper Pit, through the middle of FOP’s Geologic TIme Viewer

the left side of FOP’s Viewer, geologic time read through the present

the right side, the last 4.6 billion years visualized


When we learned that the oil under the Gulf of Mexico is lower tertiary, we put our Viewer to the test. What was happening in the Tertiary? What was the Earth like back then?

from FOP’s Geologic Time Viewer, 2010

And, in addition to the recently spilt oil, where else can we find the Tertiary today?

from FOP’s Geologic Time Viewer, 2010

The recent events in the Gulf of Mexico underscore the fact that the geologic materials that fuel and give form to our lifestyles are the products of monumentally long, slow, and powerful earth forces.  They have created the materialities of our bodies, landscapes, and cultures.  When we extract them, we reach back into deep time and fold them into the present, often setting the stage for deep futures, and all humans to come.

We designed the Viewer to not treat geologic time as past, inert or inaccessible. We instead attempted to design a speculative tool for humans to recalibrate their senses of place and time in relation to geo-forces. We hope it invites  users to design and act in accord with deep time- AND to imagine how forces and materialities of the Anthropocene might shape deep geologic futures.
A beta-test of our Geologic Time Viewer is going to be installed at the Humanities + Digital visual interpretations conference May 20-22, 2010 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The call for proposals for the conference was the following:

“How do visual representations of complex data help humanities scholars ask new questions? How does visual rhetoric shape the way we relate to documents and artifacts? And, can we recompose the field of digital humanities to integrate more dynamic analytical methods into humanities research? HyperStudio’s Visual Interpretations conference will bring digital practitioners and humanities scholars together with experts in art and design to consider the past, present, and future of visual epistemology in digital humanities. The goal is to get beyond the notion that information exists independently of visual presentation, and to rethink visualization as an integrated analytical method in humanities scholarship. By fostering dialogue and critical engagement, this conference aims to explore new ways to design data and metadata structures so that their visual embodiments function as “humanities tools in digital environments.” – Johanna Drucker, from the MIT HyperStudio website
Our Geologic Time Viewer, when installed, will run over 10 feet long and address the last 4.6 billion years of geologic history. It will also offer a unique MIT site-responsive Anthropocene view in the middle. The conference is free, but you have to register by May 10th if you plan to attend.

You can see the entire Viewer on our site here, where additional documentation of the installation will be posted in early June.

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