Avalonia, a place that conceals under its canopy the remains of a sandstone quarry, beckons for a closer look into its depths. How can this existing capitalist ruin help us transform a solely human value into an intrinsic value of things, of stone? This essay intends to be a physical endeavour as much as a thought experiment, a journey into proximity with the layered history of Avalonia. Aided by the perspective of the rock we will slowly descend from the outer-space satellites we have become, down towards the shared plane where Avalonia dwells. By using the act of rock climbing as a heuristic1 device, an activity that intermingles the optical with the haptic, we will conceive a new form of coming into contact with these more-than-human bodies. Coming from a discipline that manifests itself on surfaces- stone, paper, screen- as a Graphic Designer I’m posed with an intriguing challenge: one which is not to mark or embed further linear and extant relationships, but to build connection by reinscribing the body within the conventional histories of statistics. It is to puzzle together, borrowing Silvia Federici’s words “the image of a body that reunites what capitalism has divided”.2 When immersing ourselves in the choreography of the rock, realities previously unseen or unimagined are uncovered, even across this seemingly ‘exhausted’ ground.
(…)I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I don’t seek refuge for eternity.
I’m not unhappy.
I’m not homeless.
My world is worth returning to.
I’ll enter and exit empty-handed.
And my proof I was there will be only words, which no one will believe.”
“You shall not enter,” says the stone.
“You lack the sense of taking part.
No other sense can make up for your missing sense of taking part.
Even sight heightened to become all-seeing will do you no good without a sense of taking part.
You shall not enter, you have only a sense of what that sense should be,
only its seed, imagination.”(…)
—Szymborska, ‘Conversation with a Stone’, 1998.
It was said that along the Ruhr a strange phenomena had taken place, an old sand-stone quarry had turned into a local climbing crag1. The possibility of rock only three hours away was enough of an incentive for me, together with a team of three, to go investigate. With a vague notion of coordinates given by word of mouth, we left behind the monotonous terrain of The Netherlands and into the undulating landscape of Germany. After driving past colossal open pits of coal extraction and the big smoky factories so typical of this industrialised area, we arrived with the last lights of the day to the small town of Herdecke. A blocking sign on the road made us do the last pitch to our destination by foot. Along the river we quietly observed the reserved fisherman in their patient game, an almost dystopian scene if you were to pay attention to the Baden Verboden1 warning signs along the path, that indicated the risk of pollutants in the water.
In the dimming light of a retreating sun we discerned a small indication of a trail into the forest. And so up we went. In the seclusion of the trees and bushes, the darkness became deeper and the road noises dimmer as we slowly ascended. With every step our breath grew heavier and our eyes squinted in an attempt to adjust to the play of shadows. Like an apparition, we suddenly were in the presence of the cliff’s face. The sight guided our vision from our feet to its heights which, magnified by the night, didn't give any vestiges of an end. Framed by a low dry-stone wall it felt like we had arrived at an altar. We all gasped, unable to articulate with words what this discovery meant. Incredulous, we approached and laid our hands on the rocky surface. The coldness was a refreshing affirmation in the summer air. Little did we know that underneath was lying the dormant spirit of a deep time story. This is the beginning of our lithical conversation.
Surrounded by two highways and a power plant that runs as far back as the early 20th century (the TPP Herdecke H6), Avalonia's wild existence is an island apart from continental frameworks of value. Since it was part of an important mining area in the industrial era of Friedrich Harkort, the excavations in search of mineral resources are still evident where the bare skin of the land bursts open. These traces of human impact have given way to ‘holes’ carved into the hillside where now Katla and Avalonia cave stand. As if in mid-swing, the place was abandoned after most probably other quarries offered more and better profit. Left to the mercy of the elements, different species began to reclaim their place. With an increasing population and the arrival of more industries, it become indispensable to have natural buffer zones in the region to counteract air pollution and provide an escape to the neighbouring inhabitants from their busy urban contexts. This drove the government to declare Avalonia a Natural Reserve.
Working its strange magnetism, Avalonia drew the attention of an on-growing popular activity: that of rock climbing. This activity proposes a different way of reading the stone, where the features of its surface determine a certain sequence of movement to complete the climb. One could say that the role of the climber is to translate the visible and tactile characteristics of the logos of the stone into corporeal arrangements, where gravity determines the success or failure of the conversation. A lithic dancer himself, Daniel Pohl was among one of the earliest visitors, establishing routes and scouting the possibility of developing the ‘crag’. As he immersed himself in the activity, Daniel began envisioning the place as something more than just a recreational area, but an amphitheatre where the rock was the main spectacle. Along with the artist group of stone sculptors called Feinhieb, a series of ‘terraces and platforms’ were erected with the scattered slabs.This land-art-work acts as a base, a framework where the prominence of the natural rock is made evident, but also accessible for interaction. A bridge between the human and the non-human. An invitation.
Avalonia is a crossroad, where the borders between human and natural, fictional and real blur. If one is to observe the interventions in the space, Daniel Pohl was successful in evoking an almost fantastical world, the gestures of his paths and towers functioning as triggers to the imagination for whoever found themselves navigating the forest. Turning ruins into playgrounds. His envisioned wonderland shares some qualities with Aldous Huxley’s utopian Island of Pala1. How much shall we give the rock credit for these narratives, this irresistible provocation they represent to the human mind in the craft of stories? Could it be perhaps that we see and hear the echo of epochs long extinguished that bid us to apprehend the world in more-than-human terms?
Curiously, Avalonia happens to share names with a drifting microcontinent from the Paleozonic era. Perhaps in the shelter of its many caves, the land has started to dream itself anew, making its nomadic character stir once again. Avalonia, in its multifaceted nature, poses as a case of resistance towards what Bayo Akomolafe refers as “the modern experiment of planting anthropocentric settlements and converting the commons into resources.”2 When the stone is rendered as a mere mineral, it becomes subjected to mining and extraction. Perhaps it is the rock’s durability, the fact it prevails through time that has always drawn humans to a relentless attempt to master this noble material. Be it as tools and weapons –mortars, arrows and spearheads–, as a basic material for the construction of settlements, and also as a canvas for art expression –from the first cave paintings, to the carving of sculptures, to the beginnings of the written alphabet. The cradle of our civilizations was made of rock-hard stone. After centuries of manipulation and defiguration, can we look at its bare skin and read beyond its ‘usability’?
Island is Huxley’s utopian counterpart to his most famous work, the 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World.↩︎
Translation to english: 'Swimming forbidden'.↩︎
A crag is a small rock climbing area, typically defined physically by the dominant rock feature (like a buttress or cliff face).↩︎
An approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be rational, but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate approximation.↩︎
Silvia Federici, Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism (PM Press, 2020), pp.45-46.↩︎
“In the beginning was rock and out of rock came rock, the beginning was rock slow light, light sinking into rock, heat, and the beginning was rock and out of rock came rock, a rock slowly spinning in space, heat, where you burn a rock makes life (…) In the beginning there was rock and rock was rock and out of rock came rock, the beginning was rock in the beginning weeping water, rock and water fusing sky out of space, rock bleeding fire, rock forging chains, molecule to molecule(…)”
—Scranton, We’re Doomed, Now What?, 2018.
“Viewing a thing from the outside, considering its relations of action and reaction with other things, it appears as matter. Viewing it from the inside, looking at its immediate character as feeling, it appears as consciousness.”
—Pierce, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volumes I and II: Principles of Philosophy and Elements of Logic, 1932
“This is the golden treasure of the Ruhr area.” When introducing Avalonia the boulder club Ruhrtal 1 tries endowing the place with different immeasurable values. By presenting the rocky walls as a ‘mystical legacy of the industrial revolution’, what is honoured in truth is the efforts of the quarrymen’s labour that entailed digging out the rocky skeleton of the land; and the countless hours invested later on by the artists who patiently reassemble its scattered pieces in the fashion of terraces and short walls. But what calls for attention is the following mention: “Alongside these modern values there is something that is often forgotten, namely, a natural value that cannot be measured in hours worked or money - and that value is priceless. How shall we express in monetary terms the value of the owl that breeds in a nearby forest area and that sees Avalonia as a hunting ground?”
To begin the story of Avalonia from the moment of its excavation would be like telling the story of The Americas from the moment Christopher Columbus arrived on its shores. Avalonia rested on these coordinates way before any human ran across it or even managed standing on their two feet. Against the immobility we can so easily assign to the atemporality of stones, this place holds within its name the keys to begin deconstructing certain anthropocentric suppositions. As mentioned before, Avalonia happens to be also the name given to a drifting microcontinent in the Paleozonic era. On its journey from the northern margin of Gondwana, the Rheic Ocean formed behind it, and the Iapetus Ocean shrank in front. It collided with the continents Baltica, then Laurentia, and finally with Gondwana, ending up in the interior of Pangea. When Pangea broke up, Avalonia´s remains were divided by the rift which became the Atlantic ocean, and many of its fragments are dispersed throughout Europe. 1
Based on this notion one could speculate that what miners came in contact with in the outskirts of Herdecke was possibly a fragment of Avalonia, one of its many changing faces. Jan Zalasiewicz reflects upon the notion of a similar encounter with this ‘land-that-once-was’ on a pebble at the southern coast of Poland: “Landscapes are transient. This is a concept that does not come easily to us. In our brief lifetimes we see the Earth’s landmasses as things of massive permanence, the bedrock of passing civilizations.”1 Rocks move in non-human times. As a witness of epochs long extinguished Avalonia bid us to apprehend the world in other-than-human terms.
In Symbiotic Planet Lynn Margulis points out “One widely held unstated assumption is the great chain of being. It defines the venerable position of humans as the exact centre of the universe in the middle of the chain of being below God and above rock. This anthropocenic idea dominates religious thought, even that of those who claim to reject religion and to replace it with a scientific worldview.”2 This paradigm becomes dubious when we are faced by a Nature that is, in the words of Bruno Latour, “no longer outside us but under our feet, and it shakes the ground. Climate mutation means that the question of the land on which we all stand has come back into focus”.3
Despite being excavated out of the ground, Avalonia is still buried under these human projections that prevent us from looking directly at its face. During the early 1900’s, Edmund Husserl founded a new philosophical study, Phenomenology. This study aimed not to explain the world, but describe it as it manifested and made itself evident to our awareness. It is by writing from the perspective of the experiencing body that Husserl can argue that it is only through our living spatial experience within earth that we can even perceive space. And it is only by means of our bodily perception of motion and rest that these actions have meaning and can be translated or recognized in other celestial bodies.4 Aided by the perspective of the rock we will slowly descend from the hierarchical structures privileged by a post industrialised capitalism, into the shared plane where Avalonia dwells: at ground zero.
“We are growing increasingly accustomed to what used to be called a God’s-eye view.”5 When looking down at our screens in search of directions, we can barely discern Avalonia in the pale simulacra of pixels provided by our Google maps interface.The world seems to fit in the palm of our hands, and yet we can only be passive spectators to this stage that hosts our existences. This perception of the world witnessed from the outside, provided by satellite lenses, has been prepared by the quantifiable narratives asserted by Galileo Galilei, separating the objective from the subjective. Designed and trained by systems of ‘categorization’ and ‘recognition’ means that only a specific set of objects has been annotated and segmented while everything else has been deemed irrelevant. Therefore, each dataset can also be defined by its incompleteness. Avalonia, in all its complexity, is reduced to a set of coordinates: ‘51.402237, 7.408983’.
If we are to follow the pull of gravity, the next great rocky body where to land would be that of the mountain’s peak. One of many that decorate the surface of the Earth. The lack of oxygen is a ticking clock, we are only visitors on these hostile peaks.The reward of an ‘elevated’ sight provided by mountain tops has brought ‘clarity’ to many minds. That, after the bodily trials they entailed, were granted with an extended vision; the gift of perspective. Such was the case of Alex von Humbolt, who conceived the ecosystem theory on top of Chimborazo mountain, during his excursion in 1802. As he climbed up, Humbolt associated vegetation zones according to their altitude. “No one had ever come this high before, and no one had ever breathed such thin air. As he stood at the top of the world, looking down upon the mountain ranges folded beneath him, Humboldt began to see the world differently. He saw the earth as one great living organism where everything was connected, conceiving a bold new vision of nature that still influences the way that we understand the natural world.”6 When seeing the world as a web of life no single fact can be considered in isolation: if one thread is jeopardised all others will become affected.
We may now see Avalonia by also acknowledging the surrounding hills and the Ruhr River whose very presence gives this place contour.Avalonia is not just a fixed point in space, but bleeds out to the other surrounding bodies. It is in constant exchange, like the raindrop that drips from its slopes and becomes infused with minerals, that then nurtures the river. The way of perceiving our surroundings as a network of relationships has been present in countless cosmologies for millennia. The main difference being that there is no discrimination between ‘things’ and ‘beings’. All matter is endowed with agency, animated. Incan cosmology views the land as the result of an intercourse of horizontal planes of affinities and vertical planes of hierarchy. The ‘vertical’ representing mountains and ‘masculine energies’, and ‘horizontal’ symbolising valleys and ‘feminine energies’, with the rivers as the glue binding both together.7 By attributing living faculties to natural phenomena, cosmologies are successful in making evident the indivisible roles of each agent in an ecosystem. A narrative of bodies intertwining, engulfing, crushing and embracing each other. The forces that create the organic: rocks, winds, and water are as integral as those which grow from the soil and drink from the stream. When we recognize these attributes in the ‘other’, a certain affinity takes place and our daily interactions become exchanges.
J. B Murphy; S. A. Pisarevsky; R. D Nance; J. D. Keppie, Animated history of Avalonia in Neoproterozoic - Early Proterozoic. General Contributions. Journal of the Virtual Explorer. 2001, pp. 45–58. ↩︎
Jan Zalasiewicz, The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey Into Earth’s Deep History, Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 38.↩︎
Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. New York: Basic Books, 1999, p. 04.↩︎
Bruno Latour, “We don’t seem to live on the same planet…”. Different Futures, edited by Kathryn B. Hiesinger & Michelle Millar, Philadelphia Museum of Art & The Art History Chicago (initially given as the Loeb Lecture, Harvard, GSD) 2019, pp. 193-199.↩︎
E. Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An introduction to Phenomenology. Dorion Cairns. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. 1960.↩︎
Hito Steyerl, In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective. e-Flux (Journal #24). 2011↩︎
Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature the Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science. London: John Murray, 2016, p. 22.↩︎
Explained by Dr. Barros in the exhibition Lithium at the Het Nieu Institut. 2020.↩︎
“The fundamental event of the Modern Age is the conquest of the world as picture.”
—Heidegger, The Age of the World Picture, 1938
“Maps obscure more than they reveal because their flatness is contrary to the layers experience of living. Maps are representational, but life is lived in the body, is dimensional, has voice and history…. The body, my body, is a stacked atlas of memory”.
—Borich, Body Geographic, 2013
Concealed in the depth of the forest, Avalonia’s evasive face forces us to meet it on its own ground. The steep path climatises our head as we make our way by foot. Our senses attune to the rhythms of birds chirping, of mice’s furtive steps, to the way the breeze makes the leaves dance. Now and then the sound of the railroad intrudes the place, and one can almost never escape the gaze of the colossal ivory chimney of the neighbouring power plant that rises above the wooden pillars of the trees. We turn a corner of piled rock and are suddenly greeted by the open mouth of the Avalonia cave. Engulfed by its dimension we almost can’t evoke its weight back when it was a simple drop pin on the palm of our hand. Being two-dimensional, the scalability of aerial overviews seem to eclipse the actual bodily processes of measurement and fieldwork which presuppose their production. Now that we have come closer, immersing ourselves under the canopy of trees, Avalonia reveals a depth we had lacked before.
Nevertheless to stay in the visual realm is to stay from a safe distance. Our fingers itch to grab the phone and snap a picture. Oh to immortalise this encounter, to commodify it and have it easily accessible in the back of our pocket. In her work How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File Hito Steyerl’s examines the politics of visibility and the means for opting out of being represented in the digital age. In her video piece Steyerl warns us of the risks of being captured by the camera’s lens. “The use of smartphones to document ourselves and others is implicitly aiding and abetting to monitoring systems through a regime of (mutual) self-control and visual self-disciplining, we feel the pressure to represent and be represented.” The digital networks that visualise the world today serve to exploit the masses in the name of control, power, and profit.1 The Information Age is making us very good at symbolization, at the expense of bringing us into contact with that which we do not know and for which we have no categorization. The optical makes us perceive the stone in all its composition in the same way we would savour any painting or architecture. Again a relationship of subject-object. We cannot help but cast Medusa’s curse, rendering it a mere sculpture. To look into Avalonia cave is to stare back at an allegory. One of man crawling out of its depth after the promise of truer forms, towards the abstract realm of ideas: accessible for our minds but exclusionary towards our breathing bodies. But to enter this carnal cavern is to move away from a narrative of transcendence, and instead explore the condition of immanence that is to dwell entirely within another body. We step in.
Within the shade our pupils expand, bringing the stone surface into sharp focus. The patterns and veins made by the layering of matter pressed on to matter, or the fusions and fissures caused by the pressures of volcanic temperatures, may pass as some kind of writing. In the eyes of geologists these scribbles do transcribe events from millions of years ago. However landscapes do not only move in time, but also through our perceptions as we move through them. “Perception is a fold in the flesh of the world”. Before his death in 1961 Maurice Merleau-Ponty was working on the notion of collective ‘Flesh’.2 He calls attention to the obvious but overlooked fact that my hand is able to touch things only because my hand is itself a touchable thing, and thus is entirely a part of the tactile world that it explores. So how to engage with the landscape beyond merely observing it? We look down at our hands, and we notice them for the first time in this whole journey. Too busy looking at our phone, the very hands holding them acted as mere supports for this technology, unnoticed tripods. What happens when we give room for them to explore along our eyes? When laying our hands on the porous skin of the cave a whole new terrain starts unfolding beyond our eyes.
In his book The Senses of Touch Mark Patterson puts into evidence the enduring cultural assumption, present in Plato and compounded in the Enlightenment, of the primacy of vision:
"In Aristotle’s famous hierarchy of the five senses in De Anima of c.350 BC, sight is the superior sense while touch is relegated to the lowest, basest position. Yet touch is crucial to embodied existence.(…) Being a singular sense that corresponds to no single organ, physiologically, touch is a modality resulting from the combined information of innumerable receptors and nerve endings concerned with pressure, temperature, pain and movement.But there is more to touch. (…)The immediacy of sensation is affirmatory and comforting, involving a mutual co-implication of one’s own body and another’s presence. On the other hand, touch can cement an empathic or affective bond, opening an entirely new channel of communication." 3
With his essay Patterson calls for a remembering of the body. By exploring the rock with our touch we are rediscovering our own bodies. The sandy texture makes evident the softness of my palm, testing the strength of my muscles as this other surface becomes resistant to my push. Our touch makes the rock feel highly responsive and animated.
To rediscover the sensorial attributes that we naturally inherit is to summon a renewed attentiveness to this perceptual dimension that underlines all our logics. Is to establish a sensorial empathy with the living that sustains us. In this manner, the void that gives shape to this cave is evidence of displaced and dismembered parts of the land, muted and spectral presences of a history of sharp picks and crumbling stones. A hundred years later we still encounter within the vicinity of Avalonia magnified cases where the plundering and despoilment across the face of the earth is perpetuated. The Tagebau Hambach, merely an hour away, is known for being the biggest coal extraction area in Europe. Lying on the site of the ancient Hambach Forest, in merely forty four years only 10% of its surface persists.4 What are we imminently losing when we destroy the integrity of these non-human bodies that physically sustain our experience, in pursuit of monetary interests? When we begin to experience within our own lifetime the disappearance of places that took millions of years to manifest, it’s no surprise that many techno-optimists invest in technologies that could perhaps allow (a selected) fragment of humanity to escape to some other distant celestial body such as Mars. In the dark, a glimmer in the firmament will be the only reminder of this failed colony, Earth. A sterile museum archiving in its geology the wrongs of humankind. Unless…
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen proposes the concept of ‘Geophilia’ which entails discovering through science and through art, the continuities between humans and stones, their congruence and co-inhabitance.5 In her Study of Traces, Wiktoria Wojciechowska creates imprints of natural elements on the body, ephemeral sculptures on the skin, coming from branches, leaves or grass, symbols of an entanglement with nature. The project Imprint - Sculptures uses stones collected in nature, as a catalyst for experiences; a project born from the cultural meanings and values of stones, the belief in their supernatural property, drawn on the geological transformations that bear witness to the Earth’s history. They match parts of the body, but remain raw enough not to impose themselves as a representation of the human body. By playing with relief, carving and polishing, these forms can be intuitively identified. The sculptures exist only through a physical interaction. They mobilise the passer-by, inviting them to do their own performance, like a ritual act that would cure them of their own ‘amnesia of nature’.6
Our thoughts are suddenly interrupted by a thrilled scream. Nearby we notice a group of people cheering after a guy as he attempts to move his way up the face of the cave. Contorning his body to keep himself close to the rock he laboriously advances. Breathing heavy he attempts his next move and is suddenly spitted out. He falls but the raised hands of his fellow companions guide him safely to a crush pad that swallows the impact. A few minutes later he is back at it. This time advancing a bit further. The others join him and jump from serious expression while exchanging beta7 for resolving the crux,8 to bursts of joy when one of them makes it to a certain point in this seemingly invisible route they follow. Curious, we approach, tempted by the ecstatic expression this activity draws on their faces. And so we begin a different kind of journey across Avalonia, one in close contact to its porous skin.
Hito Steyerl, “How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File”, True Fake: Troubling the Real in Artists’ Films. Video & Film - e-Flux. 2021↩︎
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, III: Northwest Press, 1968).↩︎
Mark Patterson, The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies. Berg. 2007, p. 1.↩︎
Michelle Z. Donahue, Ancient Forest Home of Squatter Communities Is Doomed by Coal. National Geographic. 2018-04-13.↩︎
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 2015, p. 63.↩︎
Climbing beta is information on the moves, sequence, or holds on a climb. If someone asks you for the beta on a climb they want to know how you did it. It could be something as simple as the general type of holds, like “it’s all slopers” or just the type of rock and length.↩︎
The toughest move or sequence of moves on a climb.↩︎
“In view of the deep state of fragmentation the planet finds itself in, they are asking: how should we remember it, that is, put back together its different parts, reassemble it and reconstitute it as an integrated system in which humans and non-humans, physical, chemical and biological components, oceans, atmosphere and land-surface are all interlinked in a grand gesture of mutuality?”
—Mbembe, Bodies as Borders, 2019
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
—Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1977
Rock climbing intermingles in its act the optical with the haptic. As an embodying practice it literally adds the concrete experience of hands and feet to the abstracted reading of the rock’s surface. As we run our fingers, we hold on to the small cracks and indentations. Once we secure them, we engage our muscles and we take off from the ground. The pull of gravity propels us back to our bodies, senses are sharpened, and we suddenly become aware of every feature and every lichen clinging like us to the porous surface. The morphology of the rocks becomes a manual for the body. An upside-down grip suggests an under-cling, a small hole is a perfect pocket rest, etc. The stone takes us by the hand and teaches us to walk again in this new plane. Before we know it, we are dancing the choreography of the rock. If we are to look at the traces of chalk on the wall we may appreciate a new story about the relationship between hand and stone, one of mobility and mutual effect. My hand is not only leaving its imprint on the rock but if you look at my own hand’s calluses the rock has left its marks on me.
A very particular phenomena happens when people interact with rock, a playfulness innate in all of us is triggered. When creating stages for climbers to learn and connect with nature Daniel Pohl claims: “That’s what is important about bouldering1,that we teach the adults how to be kids again.”2When climbing we, for a moment, allow ourselves to be guided by the rules predetermined by the stone’s morphology. Countless are the ways of climbing the face of a rock, as ‘knowing another is endless’3, for such is the nature of imagination. The multitude of ways range in difficulty, each demanding a higher or lower level of performance. We accept the physical challenge of this other body, and after each failed attempt we start archiving a muscle memory of the way the stone ‘wants’ to be touched. In this activity reaching the ‘heights’ is not entirely the goal, but managing to perform the many ‘ways’ of doing so. In his Homo ludens research, Johan Huizinga, poses the key function of playing in culture, as a characteristic feature of humans:4
“(…)In this intensity, this absorption, this power of maddening, lies the very essence, the primordial quality of play. Nature, so our reasoning mind tells us, could just as easily have given her children all those useful functions of discharging superabundant energy, of relaxing after exertion, of training for the demands of life, of compensating for unfulfilled longings, etc., in the form of purely mechanical exercises and reactions. But no, she gave us play, with its tension, its mirth, and its fun.”
David Abram points out in his book The Spell of the Sensuous that through its classification logic and quantifiable formulas science has a lot of time “ended destroying the integrity of their study subject, far from coming to know it completely, it has simply wrecked any possibility of coming to know it further, having traded the relationship between oneself and the subject for a collection of fragments.” 5In a time in which our current living patterns are reaching their limits, more than ever we must attend to the astonishing dissociation. Play coming from an irrational impulse, an activity that infuses us with joy, allows us to break away from modernity’s disenchantment. What would happen if we allow our instincts to become restorative passions? If we could turn this burst of joy stirred by other non-human bodies into creative practices that could parallely reconstruct and enhance the healing of landscapes? This natural instinct we conceal, may help us wake up from our paralysis and stir our involvement.
During October of 2021 I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop of Mexican artist Amanda Piña6. As a feminine and decolonial ecosomatic proposal, this workshop/laboratory proposes the practice and reappearance of dance structures of Masewal origin that facilitate the action of becoming a mountain, as well as the application of practises of somatic origin that facilitate the transformation of the body in movement. The work proposes understanding and experiencing the body as an earth place, relational on multiple scales, from the micro to the macro. A body that is part of other bodies: city, sea, mountain, glacier, lake, river, estuary, continental, planetary and cosmic body. A body made up in turn by other bodies: anatomical structures, bodies that make up the microbiota (bacteria, viruses and microbes), cellular, atomic, subatomic, subtle and immaterial bodies. Dance is here not understood only as a form of expression but as an ancient way of knowing through identification, in this sense all practices shared in the workshop have the aim at establishing a close relation with other living beings as bodies, bodies of mountains, glaciers, water and earth.
This manner of heightening our senses and opening ourselves to these other non-human voices is mentioned by Simon O’Sullivan in his essay The Aesthetics of Affect, in which he refers to the nature of ‘affect’ as “that which connects us to the world. It is the matter in us responding and resonating with the matter around us.”7 In this manner the function of art is reinterpreted not as a way of representation but as a ‘portal’, it seeks to “place us in a space at the limits of the sacred, and asks us not to contemplate images but to communicate with beings.”When we come into contact and climb we are lending our bodies for the rock to articulate. In this “Avalonian piece”, the stone becomes the orchestrator, us the players, our bodies the instruments and the route the score that sets the music in motion. As J.F. Lyotard highlights in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge: “Art is less involved in making sense of the world and more involved in exploring the possibilities of being, of becoming, in the world. Less involved in knowledge and more involved in experience, in pushing forward the boundaries of what can be experienced. Finally, less involved in shielding us from death, but indeed precisely involved in actualising the possibilities of life.”8
Another word for climbing, particularly without a rope.↩︎
Cheyne Lempe and Mikey Schaefer; directors. Stone Locals: Rediscovering the soul of climbing. Patagonia Films. 2020. 71 minutes.↩︎
Nan Shepherd and Robert Macfarlane, The Living Mountain. Canongate Books. 2011 (first published in 1977).↩︎
Being not only applicable to humans alone but shared with other animal life.↩︎
David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage Books, 1996, p. 51.↩︎
Amanda Piña, Climatic Dances -Endangered Human Movements. Nadaproductions. 2021.↩︎
Simon O’Sullivan, The Aesthetics of Affect. ANGELAKI Journal of the Theoretical Humanities Volume 6, 2001.↩︎
J.F Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester UP, 1984.↩︎
We have reached Nadir, the lowest point. In these depths, we have been rewarded not by a golden treasure, but by an uncanny gift of perspective. The land rests under our feet, around and above our heads: our sense of proportion, restored yet deepened. As we made our way here, the stone allowed us to see past the veil of exceptionalism, inviting us to explore the technologies of our senses, repainting the blueprint of our planet into an Earth far richer in details and colours. As designers and creators, we are posed with the challenge of devising new metaphors to face and navigate through these unique exceptional situations caused by a mutating climate, to comprehend the world on its dynamic becoming.
In order to escape the monocular stare where the viewer experiences an apparent mastery of the visible world, rock climbing offers a close interaction and a phenomenological and memory-based perception of space. By tuning the instrument of our senses into the finer details of these lithic song lines, we encounter what David Abram beautifully refers to as “an inexhaustible depth of forms composed of layers upon layers of earlier rhythms.” (Abram, 1996, pp. 64) By engaging our bodies we ‘vocalise’ a (temporary) fragment of these narratives The unfolding agency of this activity turns it into a potential tool of mapping, a means to make evident these more-than-human relationships and encounters, the correlations, networks and crossroads. The output becomes an ever-changing process of building and growing, instead of a universalised representation of a fixed reality. To climb is to construct a collective imagery of a place, one conceived by the ability to ‘actuate territories’,1 a process of bringing space into being.
Encompassed by its porous body, Avalonia’s spirit permeates. As our own bodies traverse the rock we learn to love the particularities of each corrugation, the strangeness so distinct to this sandy surface, so different yet so irresistible to our tender skin. Each sector in Avalonia is incomparable in its uniqueness, its precious and inimitable place in the world. We are inscribing in our muscle memory the memory of the stone. We have been taught how to move in its ways and cling on to its matter, and we cannot help but be changed in the process of interacting. Climbing allows us to bend our perception, making us able to empathise with that which is ‘other’, such as the body of rocks. When we trust our bodies and the rock to take us through this process of oscillation, between pulling away and coming closer again, we are capable of becoming an object with and for the world, and return to being a subject in the world. This makes stone, in all its metamorphic states and scales not only a passive canvas foreshadowing the insatiable human passion for meaning and recording, but an active agent with its tectonic-like rhythms that challenges our very feet and senses into a different dance with the cosmos.
Term borrowed from ‘Stalker’, a collective of architects and researchers who in 2002, founded the research network Osservatorio Nomade (ON).↩︎
—Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage Books, 1996, p. 51.
—Akomolafe, Bayo. The Allegory of the Pit: Or the Irony of Victory, Writings – Bayo Akomolafe.” Bayoakomolafe.net. www.bayoakomolafe.net Consulted on February 04, 2022.
—Borich, Barrie Jean. Body Geographic. Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2013, p.7.
—Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.
—Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 2015, p. 63.
—Donahue, Michelle Z. Ancient Forest Home of Squatter Communities Is Doomed by Coal. National Geographic. 2018-04-13. Archived from the original on 2019-09-14. web.archive.org Consulted February 25, 2022.
—Federici, Silvia. Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism. PM Press, 2020, pp.45-46.
—Heidegger, Martin, and Marjorie Grene. “The Age of the World View.” Boundary 2 4, no. 2. 1976: 341–55. class="uri">doi.org Consulted March 3,2022.
—Hollman, Ina, Project lead & production. Lithium. Het Nieuwe Instituut, 2020. lithium.hetnieuweinstituut.nl Consulted January 16, 2022.
—Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Beacon Press, 1971, pp. 13-14.
—Husserl, E. Cartesian Meditations: An introduction to Phenomenology. Dorion Cairs. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1960.
—Latour, Bruno. “We don’t seem to live on the same planet…” Different Futures, edited by Kathryn B. Hiesinger; Michelle Millar, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Art History Chicago (initially given as the Loeb Lecture, Harvard, GSD) 2019, pp. 193-199.
—Lempe,Cheyne; Schaefer, Mikey; directors. Stone Locals: Rediscovering the soul of climbing. Patagonia Films, 2020. 71 minutes.
—Lyotard, J.F. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester UP, 1984.
—Margulis, Lynn. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. New York: Basic Books, 1999, p. 04.
—Mbembe, Achille. Bodies as Borders. European South Journal, vol. 4, 2019, pp. 5–18.
—Murphy, J. B.; Pisarevsky, S. A.; Nance, R. D.; Keppie, J. D. Jessell, M. J. (ed.). Animated history of Avalonia in Neoproterozoic - Early Proterozoic. General Contributions. Journal of the Virtual Explorer. 2001, pp. 45–58.
—O’Sullivan, Simon. The Aesthetics of Affect. ANGELAKI journal of the theoretical humanities volume 6, 2001.
—Patterson, Mark. The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies. Berg. 2007, p. 1.
—Pierce, C. S. Collected papers of Charles Sanders Pierce (Vol. 1-6 eds. C. Hartshorne and P. Weiss; Vol. 7 and 8 ed. A. Burks). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932.
—Piña, Amanda. “Climatic Dances”, Endangered Human Movements Vol. 5 . Nadaproductions. August 2, 2021. nadaproductions.at Consulted February 12, 2022.
—Ruhrtal, Boulderclub. Avalonia boulderclub-ruhrtal.de Consulted March 02, 2022.
—Scranton, Roy. We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change. Soho Press, 2018, p. 95.
—Shepherd, Nan and Macfarlane, Robert. The Living Mountain. Canongate Books, 2011 (first published in 1977).
—Steyerl, Hito. In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective. e-Flux (Journal #24), 2011.
—Steyerl, Hito. “How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File”, True Fake: Troubling the Real in Artists’ Films. Video & Film - e-Flux, 2021 www.e-flux.com Consulted March 15, 2022.
—Szymborska, Wislawa. Poems, New and Collected, 1957– 1997. Trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. New York: Harcourt, 1998, pp.62– 64.
—Wojciechowska, Wiktoria. The Study of Traces. wiktoriawojciechowska.com ConsultedMarch 16, 2022.
—Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature the Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science. London: John Murray, 2016, p. 22.
—Zalasiewicz, J. A. The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History. Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 38.
—Meijer, Floris. Analogue Pictures Avalonia. During our first trip and encounter with Avalonia, 2020.
—Pohl, Daniel, Illustration from Avalonia Topo Guide, 2011.
—National Park Service, Six Grandfathers, 1905.
—Lewis, Frederic, Mount Rushmore. Getty Images. 1930.
—Apollo 17 crew; (taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans), The Blue Marble, NASA, 1972.
—Corner James; MacLean, Alex S. Taking Measures Across the American Landscape. 1996.
—Humboldt, Alexander von (Hrsg.), Geographie der Pflanzen in den Tropen-Ländern (cropped), Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde, Leipzig, 1807.
—Barros Alfonso V.; Pimentel, Gonzalo G., The Atacama Lines, Atacama Desert Foundation | Royal College of Art, London. 2019.
—E. L. Rabben, Fundamentals of photo interpretation, in R. M. Colwell, American Society of Photogrammetry (Eds), Manual of Photographic Interpretation, Washington, 1960, 140.
—Steyerl, Hito, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (still), 2013.
—Hutton, James, Theory of the Earth. Plate I, gutenberg.org 1795.
—Google Earth Images, Aerial view of Hambach Pit, 2019.
—Chebez, Camila. Cueva de las Manos. 2020.