Introduced by Charles Stankievech
UHD near infrared video, stereo sound, 10 minutes
Matthew C. Wilson’s Geological Evidences melds together several contrasting forces: documentary vs. science-fiction genres, pre-human vs. post-human, and deep time vs. the contemporary. Filmed in infrared and at the doubled site of an archeological dig and coal mine, the video creates a meditative and sensory experience of a post-apocalyptic scene as witnessed from a future observer. The following five questions dive into the complexities of temporality as played out in the thought-provoking work.
Charles Stankievech: Geological Evidences starts with what feels like a fly over of an alien landscape. Eventually, we land on the surface, but the searching continues. It reminds me of the early science fiction story “The Black Destroyer” written by the Canadian A.E. Van Vogt in 1939 (which became the blueprint for the Alien film series). In the novella, humans have landed on an alien world only to discover a ruined civilization. Like your film where you connect coal mining and archeology, their mission is to extract metallurgical resources, but they first conduct some archaeological investigations. The surprise occurs not in what they discover archaeologically but that another alien—not indigenous to the planet—has already arrived and drained its resources. It’s the inaugural sci-fi narrative where two colonizers collide on a foreign world. Can you talk a little bit about your connection between the archeological, which is a technique of looking backward in time, and the genre of sci-fi, which is a technique that typically looks forward in time?
Matthew C. Wilson: Both archeology and science fiction produce speculations, scenarios, and ultimately stories. In both cases their stories have to cohere into a believable world. Each tells us as much or more about the present—its ideologies and technologies, for example—than about distant moments in time. The archeologist assembles and arranges evidence into a plausible scenario; the parameters of the story are set by available methods of producing evidence and prevailing biases. The sci-fi storyteller sources their evidence from the present and extrapolates toward yet-to-be-formed strata of time; although fiction writers have more latitude to selectively amplify particularities for their stories, they face the constraints of the audience’s desires, fears, and credulity.
When I was filming Geological Evidences, I could never separate the pre-Homo sapiens hominin archaeology site from the future that flashed into my imagination upon seeing the coal mine surrounding the site. I wanted viewers to share this Janus-like position of simultaneously looking backward and forward in time. The corollary of a vast expanse of time preceding us is that there is a vast expanse of time ahead, regardless of whether it includes “us.”
Similar to the “archeologist from Mars” thought experiment, I imagined searching for traces of industrialized human society in the distant future. I concluded one primary archeological site of Modernity which will be analyzed would not be below, but rather above: earth’s ruined atmosphere.
Returning to “The Black Destroyer,” though, it is worth mentioning that the site of Geological Evidences is also one of a spatial convergence of resource extractors at different moments in time. The pre-Homo sapiens hominins who hunted at the site once extracted an energy-dense fuel: bone marrow. The archeologists who studied the arrangement of the hominins' 300,000+ year-old wooden spears and the horse bones they scattered—smashed to extract the calorie-rich marrow—make a case for the emergence of complex social behavior at an early moment in hominin evolutionary history.
It can be argued that this feedback loop between the evolutionary expansion of the hominin brain, the energy-dense bone marrow, and increasingly complex social interactions helped form Homo sapiens. In developing the film, I reflected on the possibility that humans inherited a drive for energy-dense fuels and that this drive later shifted scale from bodily metabolism to social metabolism, the energy processes of a society. A metabolic rift, as Karl Marx called it, arises when energy demands outpace natural cycles and human societies become alienated from nature. The open cut mine is a literal image of a rift; like a giant marrow-filled bone, the earth has been smashed open to extract another energy-dense fuel: brown lignite coal. For me, the coal mine and other features of the landscape surrounding the archeology site point to the uncertain future of the Earth and uncertain fate of the last surviving members of the genus Homo. I began to associate my time at the site with my larger feeling that once implausible, distant science-fiction scenarios seem increasingly close at hand.
CS: The strongest aesthetic choice in this work is the use of infrared vision—seeing beyond the visible light spectrum and towards the heat end of the electromagnetic. British astronomer William Herschel discovered these calorific heat rays in 1800 and since then they have always had a connection to outer space. More contemporary research in physics has established heat as the foundation for the existence of time, or in other words, time can only move in one direction because of the statistical flow of energy from a hot object to a cooler one. Video as a time-based medium par excellence folds fractally with your use of the infrared. While the military has used it to see through camouflage and astronomers to see black holes, what does infrared allow you to see?
MCW: Filming with an infrared sensitive camera and infrared transmitting filter produced footage combining light from the edge of human vision with light/energy just beyond human vision. This allowed me to image the twin extractions of archeology site and coal mine in a manner that more closely approximated the feelings and associations they evoked for me.
The sci-fi, post-apocalyptic character of the infrared-infused image is quite obvious, but it also carries, as you point out, the less obvious but crucial idea of heat. The calorific rays allow me to visualize the relationship between the ancient drive for calories and the metabolic rift I mentioned. The image suggests heat relations across scales: of bodies and the earth, and of greenhouses and energy trapped by greenhouse gases. At the bodily scale, organisms produce waste heat during their metabolic processes. At the planetary scale, the earth radiates back the heat it has absorbed from the sun. At the archeology site work is conducted inside hothouse-like structures, creating tropical microclimates; these structures are bodily-scale models of the greenhouse effect produced by Earth's atmosphere. Ultimately, the infrared conjures both the landscape of Mars/an exoplanet as well as a “hothouse Earth,” produced by the amplification of the greenhouse effect by fossil fuel emissions.
CS: One could argue that humanity’s first conceptions of time were cyclical, based on circadian and seasonal rhythms. Then Judeo-Christian culture introduced “The Event” that created a linear temporality extrapolating from creation through Incarnation to the apocalypse. In post-apocalyptic scenarios, it feels like we experience a world where temporality becomes stuck: either like the loop at the end of a vinyl record or a wash of white noise communicating the stasis of an ecosystem that has reached an entropic steady state. As a self-professed post-apocalyptic work, do you feel your narrative fits into either of these two endgame modes of temporality?
MCW: Perhaps anthropogenic climate change will produce an eschatological break from an otherwise eternal return. Such a break, even if it lasts tens of thousands of years, is of course still a temporary hic-up at the scale of geology and cosmology. Everything will be digested by time. If there’s an endgame, it’s still the Earth’s game in the end. I think of the Great Oxidation Event 2.4 billion years ago, for example, when almost all life went extinct as a result of an accumulation of this crazy toxic substance, oxygen. It was apocalyptic in scale. Things didn’t get stuck, though. The post- part of this apocalyptic event was the eventual emergence of oxygen-fueled multicellular life. Something like climate change that seems horrible now to us still has an unknown outcome in the long game of deep time. (Just to be clear, though, I am neither an accelerationist nor nihilist. Nor am I an apologist for the violence that a group of humans have been carrying out on the planet and its inhabitants through colonialism, imperialism, industrialism, and capitalism.)
I find both cyclical and quasi-Biblical temporalities in the film. They intermingle in an unclear and, at times, unreal relation to time which I feel pervades the present. These come together to form a surreal temporality in the film. Geology is a bit surreal already: the mechanisms of deep time re-organize strata, bringing disparate times and materials into “chance meetings.” It is exactly the chance meetings of different kinds of rock, in “unconformities,” that helped James Hutton become aware of and articulate the geological processes and postulate deep time at the end of the 18th century. (Coincidently, he does so at the same moment that the Industrial Revolution revs up.) The Great Acceleration adjusts the speed of geology's logic to real-time. Scale shifts, both spatial and temporal, are inherently surreal.
CS: Geological Evidences ends abruptly with the image of a satellite dish pointing to the heavens placing it in the genre of science fiction imagining the fallouts of first contact with aliens (such as the classics of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel” or Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco). With all your macro images of bugs it’s hard not to think of the recent Chinese science fiction trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Liu Cixin, where first contact results in the aliens calling earthlings “bugs.” In Liu’s middle book, The Dark Forest, he suggests the basic axioms of a populated cosmos are: first, civilizations have an inherent drive to expand, and second, the universe only has limited resources. Given enough time passing, the outcome is a dark Hobbesian social theory that makes initiating first contact a dangerous step to welcoming a violent invasion—that is if a civilization doesn’t first destroy itself from within. Again, with your work, I’m intrigued by the ambiguity of the scenario: is the dead civilization we are looking at a result of self-destruction or was it the result of an alien encounter?
MCW: Those radio dishes are near the archeology site and coal mine (you can still see the coal-burning power plant's chimney in the background). I’m told their original use was for eavesdropping on communication across the former East-West border in Germany, beyond the Iron Curtain. Although Geological Evidences re-signifies the radio dishes as pointers to the extraterrestrial, they are also relics of terrestrial otherness—of civilizations pitted against one another in mutually assured destruction.
The scenario in Geological Evidences is ultimately ambiguous, though, even for me. I don’t know what happened/will happen exactly, or when, or if the sequence of the film is actually chronological or not. If the film is viewed as an experimental documentary whose footage is comprised of something like found field notes or video logs, another ambiguity emerges: who is watching this video? And when are they watching it?
Certain films seem to have the potential to summon a fictional viewer within an actual viewer’s consciousness. It is incredibly unlikely that hominins living hundreds of thousands of years ago would have imagined their traces being examined by a species (of humans) that did not yet exist, but we do this kind of thing. As your initial question points out already, science fiction is rife with archaeologists. It is not so difficult for us to imagine future humans (or even other species) examining our traces. I use the film to invite this future viewer, making viewing itself a form of archeological experience in which evidence is assembled into scenarios, stories, and theories.
CS: What I love about your work is the epic sense of time one can simply feel observing the landscapes. One cannot help but think of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker when watching this work—the sepia color pallet, the dripping electronic reverb, the abandoned industrial landscape that has become overgrown—we’ve definitely entered “The Zone.” How do you see your work related to this historical film and what are you hoping it does in the contemporary moment obsessed with our ecological future?
MCW: We began by talking about how archeology and science fiction can be connected through extraction and storytelling. There is an irony separating them, though, which I think Stalker reveals. The archeologist tries to tell a true story, but they can never know if they are right. The science fiction story-teller spins a fiction which may later come to pass. In the case of Stalker, it is often said the film foretells the Chernobyl disaster. Stories sometimes have a way of making themselves real.
What stands out for me in Stalker is the unseen agency of “something” seemingly beyond the immediate social, political, economic, and ecological realities of the characters’ lives. It is unclear whether it is an unfamiliar physical force, an alien force, a metaphysical force, or a psychological force. Maybe these categories don’t even apply. In any case, neither science (typified in the film’s Professor character) nor poetry (as exemplified by the Writer) have made this “something” sufficiently intelligible yet. It’s easy to shrug off the use of ambiguity as a device to create an atmosphere of mystery. Yet, if we as viewers accept that we share the reality of the film (recalling its becoming “real” in the Chernobyl disaster) we must conclude there are forces and phenomena that have appeared—or that may appear—and which have not yet been measured or articulated. The character of the Stalker attempts to engage with these forces. Can we try to engage them? Should we?
It would be hubris to believe we understand all the complex processes in which humans or the anthroposphere are entangled. While Geological Evidences invokes familiar discourses, I hope the film drags those discourses off their comfortable place on the bookshelf, through a mud of ambiguity, and into a place of experience. If my film, or the larger oeuvre of which it is a part, can do anything in this contemporary moment, I hope it first invites renewed curiosity and wonder in the face of all that is uncertain and unpredictable.
I am not overly optimistic that industrialized humans will slow or stop the ills inflicted by Modernity on the biosphere. As the Earth enters a phase never before witnessed by humans or their ancestors, subtle aspects of the geosphere’s systems are becoming more visible, novel phenomena are appearing, and with them unfamiliar and synthetic forms of agency are emerging. Meanwhile, it appears the reins of the anthroposphere are slipping from human hands. Something is happening. Even as we face the suffocation of so many things that Earth has known, loved, and made familiar to humans in our anthropoid adolescence, I hope the film can ultimately keep open a small space where the unfamiliar can breath. Once upon a time, everything that exists was unfamiliar.
Filmed in Schöningen, Germany in and around the Schöningen spears pre-Homo sapiens hominid archaeology site and Schöningen open pit coal mine
Produced with the support of the European Commission / NEARCH fellowship and the Jan van Eyck Academie
Sound in collaboration with Francesco Cimino
Made possible with the generous assistance of Schöningen site director Jordi Serangeli (University of Tübingen / Senckenberg HEP), Thijs van Kolfschoten (Leiden University), Wolfgang Mertens (University of Tübingen), Andre Ramcharan (Leiden University), and Ivo Verheijen (PhD candidate, University of Tübingen); as well as the Schöningen excavation team; the 2016 and 2017 field school-team from Leiden University; paläon – Research and Experience Centre Schöningen Spears; Leiden University Faculty of Archeology; and Monique van den Dries (Leiden University).
Additional thanks to Lex ter Braak, Huib Haye van der Werf, and Tim Rutten