12.28.2010, 2:07 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

oldest living things: la llareta #0308-23b26 (up to 3,000 years old, atacama desert, chile) © rachel sussman

Rachel Sussman is a Brooklyn-based artist who has been photographing organisms around the world that have been continuously alive a minimum of 2,000 years.

FOP had the opportunity to talk with Rachel in New York in early December. We discussed how the ‘Oldest Living Things in the World’ (OLTW) project has changed her relationship with time, how process factors into the project, the growing sense that more contemporary artists are taking up “the geologic” in their work, and how such aesthetic practices might boost human evolutionary capacities for sensing geologic time.

Rachel recently presented at TEDGlobal and the Long Now Foundation. She has also received grants from AOL Artists and the West Collection, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, and is fiscally sponsored by Brooklyn Arts Council.



FOP: With FOP, we work with very long spans of time, attempting to help audiences project their imaginations into a span of time starting at least 10,000 years ago. Some people have argued that humans are cognitively incapable of grasping geologic time.  The spans of time that you deal with include shorter time frames, starting at 2000 years, but you also include much longer time spans, up to 600,000 years. After working on the OLTW project over the last several years, what are your thoughts on humans being capable of sensing geologic time?

RS: I think this is such an interesting question, and is definitely one that I’ve thought a lot about. I have read that as well, that it is neuroscientifically hard for humans to hold on to [immense expanses of time]. One of the things I’m trying to do with this work is to create a personal connection. There is a certain amount of anthropomorphizing that happens, especially with the old trees, but if there is a way to touch it or to tap into it, you can come back to it. My feeling is that if you make a personal connection there’s more of a chance that you can internalize it and it will have some meaningful resonance. Otherwise, the years just become numbers. What happened 10,000 years ago? It’s just a number. But when you consider an individual organism that’s been there 10,000 years, I think there’s a chance you can “get” that this thing has been growing for that span of time.


FOP: As you’ve worked on the project, have you photographed or related to your subjects differently based on the spans of time they have been alive? 2,000 years versus 10,000 years for example?

oldest living things: box huckleberry 0906-0103 (13,000 + years old; perry co, pennsylvania) © rachel sussman

RS: One thing I’ve learned is to not have too many preconceived notions of what these things are going to be like once I get there. In a way, I spend a lot of time researching, talking to scientists, and then I arrive and it’s a 3000-year-old lichen. It looks like any other lichen you could find in Central Park. In some ways, it’s those things that I find the most moving, in their diminutiveness. Such as the 13,000 year old Box Huckleberry in somebody’s yard in Pennsylvania. I had no notion of what it would be like, and it turns out it has these tiny little leaves, it’s under brush and dead leaves, and you could see he’s been driving across it. It’s a completely different feeling than what you get walking though the forest of Giant Sequoias, which are substantially younger. They have very different physical presences.

By doing this research, I’ve gained a different perception – a lot of the oldest things are actually quite small. They are employing these really slow and steady growth patterns, not expending a lot of energy and living in extreme climates (very cold, high elevations). They are slowly doing their thing off to the side where no one is noticing. With a lot of them, you wouldn’t know they were so old, unless you already  “knew”. There isn’t this natural sense of awe like standing amongst the Sequoias.


FOP: Your project is interesting to us because it makes long spans of time “gettable” to audiences. Your subject matter is “living”, so people can relate more directly to it, much more so than a seemingly inert pile of geology. We sense an affinity with the OLTW, because to us it appears to be part of a broader effort to communicate to the public that we exist within the context of ongoing change, and co-existing with dynamic geologic forces.

RS: It makes me think of times that I’ve felt a “geologic connection” myself. For instance when I was in Namibia, I could clearly see the geologic strata. At such times, you get a sense of the earth as being in a continuum, not as a static thing. We get so surprised if there’s an earthquake or if a volcano erupts. We don’t typically relate to the earth as having force over an immense period of time or as constantly shifting. So, I think it’s a question of how do we connect with that? I’m attempting to create something out of this passing feeling, and hold on to it long enough to make something out of it as a means for offering people the experience, even if they don’t have an opportunity to physically experience in at the place itself.

oldest living things: jomon sugi japanese cedar #0507- 02 (2,180 – 7,000 years old, yaku shima, japan) © rachel sussman

FOP:  Do you sense audiences are interested or “get” the geologic aspect of your work- or do they tend to gravitate to the inherent, and perhaps more accessible, environmental issues surrounding the protection and literal preservation of your subjects?

RS:  There has been a really diverse response, which is great because there are so many different ways to look at the project. I definitely do have people say, “I get it”, especially when I remind people why I chose the 2000 years as my minimum age (thinking of the idea of year zero and working back from that). This resonates with people. But people approach it, of course, given whatever their interests are. Some people are drawn to the environmental message; some are much more interested in the science behind it, which I’m interested in as well, especially since there isn’t an area of study that looks at these things collectively. Other people have more of the philosophic mind and tend to ask questions about the time frame. The best might be when people see it across multiple viewpoints, or if they connect to the idea in a way that they hadn’t before. That is a success, to me, too. People have also responded to the idea of these things growing very slowly. They get this sense of time, and connect it to the natural sublime, when they look at something so small that has been alive for so long.

oldest living things: clonal quaking aspens #0906-4711 (80,000 years old, fish lake, UT) © rachel sussman

FOP: To experience the OLTW across these multiple readings, you have to get your head around larger spans of time and almost recalibrate your brain to reconsider what  “speed” and “growth” mean. It puts such terms in stark relief. Perhaps part of imagining deep time includes rethinking them.

RS: It does create perspective. You guys work with 10,000 years, the Long Now Foundation talks about the, “5 minutes ago, 5 minutes from now” and how that’s so compressed. Once you start thinking about the larger timescale it changes. For me, it’s given some relief and perspective within the everyday, in terms of, “oh, what am I doing next?”


FOP: So, your own, personal experience of time, or sense of time, in daily life has changed through working on this project?

RS: I would like to say it has changed more than it has, but it has been a touchstone that I keep coming back to. Because I am researching this all the time, it has been a bit of an anchor. I keep checking back with my idea of time and it is this philosophical question that I return to. I wouldn’t have been interested enough to keep doing the project if I didn’t feel this connection. I’ve always been interested in the natural sublime in particular, longevity, and how time plays into it. But, this doesn’t mean I don’t check my email all the time.


FOP: Elaborate processes are embedded in the story of your photos.  Earthly processes, years of endurance for the subjects to still be alive today, and also your own research and travel to locate them and photograph them. Is “process” a big part of the project for you, or do you see this as separate from the “things” (photos) that have become the face of the project? Are you documenting the process component of the project anywhere?

oldest living things: spruce gran picea #0909-6B37 (9,550 years old; fulufjället, sweden) © rachel sussman

RS: That’s a good question, and it is something that I do write about. Some of it ends up on my blog and some of it just ends up in notebooks. There are a couple of people I’m talking to about doing filming. I went to Africa in 2007 and wanted to bring a filmmaker, but could barely afford to get myself there. So, a lot of it has been practical. Coming from a fine arts background, I was just making photographs. I don’t discount all the other stuff, the process, the journeys; it’s what I’m trying to figure out now because it’s part of the work. I don’t want to leave it on the cutting room floor. It’s a story that I need to figure out how to tell.


FOP: It can get philosophical quickly, but yes, so many art practices are process-based. It is a real challenge to find ways to share such work with people or have it be accepted “as art.” It’s important though, because it opens conversations in contemporary art about what constitutes “the aesthetic.”

RS: It is an interesting and precarious moment for practice-based research in the fine arts. It’s absolutely of its time, but also runs this risk of being overly institutionalized. As artwork becomes more transdisciplinary, which we’re slowing returning to, (art used to be very richly connected to philosophy and the sciences – in fact I can’t help but recommend Jonah Lehrer’s book “Proust was a Neuroscientist,” which illustrates some modern, if not contemporary, contributions that arts have made to other fields.) Personally, I’ve noticed some push back from the fine arts community. There is a bit of a barrier when one starts making work that has its foot in other disciplines, either as a source, or even making valid advances and connections outside of ones area of expertise. It seems to make some people nervous. But that’s precisely what makes this such an interesting moment for this approach to art-making. We’ve become so compartmentalized we run the risk of missing the bigger picture. This is one of the biggest functions of artists: being able to bridge those gaps and make those connections that would basically otherwise not be allowed in academia or the sciences. It’s exciting.


FOP: We’re sensing that there are many contemporary artists who are taking up the geologic in their work, not the static stuff of rock kits or charts of epochs and eras, but the geologic as a condition of life. One of the definitions of contemporary art practice is that which is made under the conditions of contemporaniety.  We think the geologic is starting to be sensed by human beings, writ large, as reshaping contemporary life in dramatic ways, and having real, material consequence for the life right now (such as volcanoes erupting and unleashing chaos for international travel, the “big one” that’s overdue in California, or Katrina). We see artists as working right at this edge and offering back material responses to the broader public of this sensation. Do you sense this yourself?

oldest living things: armillaria ostoyae # 0907-03 (2,400 + years old; malhuer national forest, OR) © rachel sussman

RS: Yes, in a way, it’s back to your first question about the physiological constraints humans have. It’s time we begin to evolve. It is something that we are more aware of and something people are more interested in. With global warming and environmental problems, people are actually starting to look at what would the earth normally be doing over this period of time. The general public is starting to think about this, even though in order to do so, you have to think outside of the everyday, such as the temperature fluctuations in recorded history – we only have 100 years of recorded history- it’s nothing! So, yes, I think artists are at the forefront of this because there is so much room for exploration.

In regard to my own work, I think by creating a personal connection, whatever this means for individual people, is one way to overcome the physiological constraints. It might become possible for people to eventually evolve and have a deeper comprehension. It’s interesting, this is happening in direct relation to what is happening culturally and technologically. It makes me think of Kevin Kelly’s ideas about a “kingdom of technology” (which he calls the “Technium,” which you can read about in his book “What Technology Wants”) and that technology is causing evolutionary changes. It’s a pretty provocative theory, but a lot of it rings true.


FOP: Yes, it is likely that we can actually adapt rather quickly.  If you find yourself being able to connect with something 2000 years old, and hadn’t imagined that possible before, this could be the beginning of evolutionary change. We have been adapting to our environment as a species for tens of thousands of years, and at this point in time, relating to geologic time could be seen as a skill necessary for survival.

We read that the Long Now Foundation is interested in hosting an event including all the scientists you’ve worked with throughout the project once it is complete. At the event there would be a roundtable discussion regarding the new knowledge that has been generated as a result. It’s exciting to hear that aesthetic work can be the catalyst for such events. Do you have other dreams or intentions about the project generating new knowledge such as this?

RS: It’s funny; before this year the project had been so insular. I’m just coming to realize that the best thing I can do now is put it out into the world and see what other people bring to it. There’s way too much work, and so much research that hasn’t been done before. I recently had this moment of realization that other people might be interested in taking this on and running with it in new directions. It’s great to think that the Long Now might do this. I would love it. I could also see putting together an environmental organization to work towards UNESCO protection for each of the organisms. I could see someone doing that as a standalone project.

There was also an important moment when I realized that I can’t answer for all of this. I realized that I’m an artist who did this project based on a hunch there was something here to be brought together. I try to be as accurate as possible, but sometimes I get grilled on what kind of carbon dating was used. I have to admit that I don’t know and that’s precisely not the point of the project. Someone could do a dissertation on that detail. It was a little scary at first putting out the work and getting people who say, “okay, defend it”. I don’t get too much of that, but I also now feel content saying that’s not the spirit of the project and invite people to do the research themselves, or call the scientist who did the research that I used.


FOP: It’s exciting to sense that artists can initiate these conversations and then let the institution or whomever else take it up, and take it elsewhere. Perhaps the knowledge that is most needed right now is inspirational data, not knowledge for “mastery” of subject matter. This kind of aesthetic “data” can fill what has previously fallen between the gaps of disciplines. Artists have the ability to present this information and then let audiences respond.

RS: I couldn’t agree more. I realized that if I ask one question and then ten more get asked because of it, that’s a good thing. The reason why it’s so interesting to be looking back is because we’re so seriously looking forward as well. We’re looking at this expanse and realizing that the systems we have in place, like academia, are failing us. They have stopped evolving.  Silos of information might have been useful when they were created, and it’s not to say specialized research isn’t important, but it’s not the only way. That’s why this work is so important right now.

5 Comments so far
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“Friends of the Pleistocene” appears to have borrowed its name from a pre-existing group, which has been organizing field trips for over 60 years (and which readily shows up in Google searches). While your project is commendable, I recommend brainstorming names that aren’t already taken and in longstanding use (maybe “Friends of the Quaternary?”).

Comment by Jacquelyn Gill

Hello Jacquelyn,

Thank you for your comment.

We are indeed aware of the long standing and well loved Friends of the Pleistocene geology group. We have been in contact with them since we started our project, and you are invited to read our interview with geologist Marith Reheis, long time participant in the geologist’s group Friends of the Pleistocene (

Our project is focused on the Pleistocene, but unlike geologists, our work is rooted in aesthetic practice (we are artist-educators). We have recently worked with artists and museum educators who have been pioneering collaborations among artists and scientists (maybe you know about the Nevada Museum of Art’s conferences on “Art + Environment?”).

In the interview with Marith, we discuss our shared interests and the differences as well as the connections between our approaches to the Pleistocene. And we look forward to going on a field trip with the geologist Friends sometime in the future.

Finally, on our blog, we link to American Quaternary Association’s Friends of the Pleistocene … and do not claim to be them. (

Anyone looking for the geologists’ Friends of the Pleistocene groups via Google should have no trouble discerning the difference between our project and theirs. We believe the Pleistocene would welcome (and, in fact, needs) all sorts of friends.

We hope this addresses your concerns.

Comment by FOP

I did some cursory searches on your website, and missed the clarification, so I appreciate your response. I do still think that it’s unfortunate that you chose a pre-existing name – it causes confusion, if nothing else (there are also several FOP chapters and no central authority to request permission from, which complicates the issue).

I would also like to add that I’m not a geologist (nor are many people who research the Pleistocene) – I’m an ecologist and geographer, which I think is a distinction worth making!

Having said that, I would like to stress that I’m very happy to have come across this project, and I look forward to keeping up with your future work and blog posts.

Comment by Jacquelyn Gill

Hello Jacquelyn,

Thanks for your interest in our work. The transdisciplinary conversations that are growing around geology+geography+land use+ecology+art/design/media are incredibly exciting. We’re honored to be a part of them.

We came up with FOP as a name for our project independently, and before we knew of the geologists’ FOP chapters. (Maybe “friends of the Pleistocene’ is poised to become a cultural meme?). After email exchanges with several geologist FOP chapter members, we felt assured that our use of the name wouldn’t be seen as an encroachment.

We hope any confusion that might result is a productive confusion–creating unexpected encounters across art, geography, ecology, geology.

Good luck with your work!

Comment by FOP

Have to agree with Jacquelyn. It is never good practice to use a single name to identify two entirely different things. The original FOP does have precedence on this point. I am a geologist and I do know Marith; she is pretty easy-going but a lot of us Quaternary geologists are more contentious. A point you should consider is that the glacial landscape that interests you was formed during the Wisconsinan glaciation (Pinedale in the western US), which is mostly younger than about 100,000 Ma. The bulk of the Pleistocene older than Wisconsinan is recorded geologically mainly as buried tills and loess deposits. How about coming up with a name that emphasizes the Wisconsinan? Why don’t you guys do a project on the channeled scablands?

Comment by Dennis O'Leary

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