The Viscous Shape
geo-sensitive exploration, film and research
Skaftfell Center for Visual Art, George Walker Geology Center, East Iceland, 2016
with Hermione Spriggs
It takes more than guts to peer into an erupting volcano... Or to stand beside a river of lava moving at 40mph... Or to gaze at a cloud of tephra larger than any skyscraper. It could even be said that in doing these things it's not just the earth's stomach that you witness but also your own insides, your human guts and sense of scale. During the later years of his life, George P.L Walker turned to investigating active volcanoes as a way to perpetuate and develop the then little-known science of rheology (the study of fluid dynamics). Walker used cinema to record his rigorous explorations of lava flow during the 50's and 60's, and only now have his films been rediscovered and preserved for the public to share in his life's work. With an eye for the unlikely and ineffable, artists Curtis Tamm (USA) and Hermione Spriggs (UK) reopen the unseen cinematic and textual archives of George Walker through a multi-faceted research project entitled Viscous Shape. Through a collaboration with Breiðdalssetur, a geology center in East Iceland, the artists work with Walker's archive as a way to engage the literal and metaphysical implications raised by the groundbreaking work of this scarcely known geologist.
As collaborators our ongoing work involves a search for this space wherein science itself “drips” into other belief systems, becoming inversely proportional to the calcified stereotype of objectified progress and colonial discovery. Our fingernails grow at the same rate that the earth’s plates move during continental drift. Where and in what is this pattern uncovered? Can we find ourselves revealed in the layers of our geo-sophic making?
The Destruction of Royal Gardens (198?)
16mm footage taken by George Patrick Leonard Walker (1926 - 2005)
For fifteen years in the 1970s and ‘80s GPL Walker worked as Chair of the Volcanology Department at the University of Hawaii, where he intimately studied and photographed the pahoehoe and a’a lava flows incessantly overtaking the local roads and coral reefs of Maui. Our second short film resulting from the work at Breiddalsettur Geology Center in East Iceland features a 16mm time lapse taken by Walker of one such flow destroying an inhabited area known as “Royal Gardens” over the course of an entire day. The almost invisible movements of the molten rock and lava are rendered lifelike and viscous in his time-condensed footage.
For this piece we intercut an animation created from thousands of diagrams and drawings produced by George for an unfinished manuscript, a project he was unable to complete before his death in 2005.
Known only as “The Book” in his archives, the writings feature ten chapters rigorously describing different types of flow which emanate from volcanic action; from tephra clouds, falling deposits, and underwater landslides, to a’a rubble and pahoehoe lava rivers. We were privileged to gain unexpected access to Walker’s unpublished manuscript which clearly constitutes a key textbook on geological rheology. This film work pulls from Walker’s text to appropriate the flow-dynamics of lava itself as a “sorting mechanism” and filmic treatment of the archival material.
Produced by Breidalssetur Geology Center (Christa and Martin Feucht)
Original Music by Hermione Spriggs & Curtis Tamm
Animation by HS
Sound Design & Editing by CT
Where does “hard” science (in this case the geological study of rocks and their formation) collide with a “runnier” pre-scientific understanding of the world as animate, imbued with agency and soul? What personal, corporeal compulsions drive scientific research, beneath the visible crust of objective knowledge production?
George Walker was a British volcanologist who helped to popularize the worldview of Plate Tectonics through a seminal study he conducted with Icelandic lava flows. His films and manuscript, known as the “The Viscous Shape”, are filled with intimate perceptions and encounters with geology: listening to the sound lava makes while cooling, descriptions of its transient color and even its smell. For Walker, the lava-flows of Eastern Iceland were embedded with a pattern, which he called the “language of stone”, that when decoded, “reveal the record of their making”. Walker referred to all lava as having but a single shape-shifting form, illusory and inversely proportional to its current trajectory.