The unsettled planet

This is a project funded by the Brigstow Institute, that will bring together a diverse group of researchers from the arts, humanities, and science – addressing the Brigstow theme of ‘living well with uncertainty’.  Michael Kendall will be working with Shirley Pegna, whose artistic research and practice is concerned with sound as material, as well as Tamsin Badcoe (Department of English), Daniel Haines (Department of Historical Studies) and Lucy Donkin (History / History of Art).

The study of seismology reveals the activity of the Earth on all length and time scales: the ground outside our front doors, as well as the ground beneath the farthest reaches of the globe, but also the ground throughout Earth’s geologic history. Normally, these ground motions are only perceived using sensitive instruments (seismometers are planetary stethoscopes), but occasionally we hear, and feel, their full roar. As we rely on keeping our feet firmly on the ground, both metaphorically and physically, the impact of such ground shaking events can be unsettling and even catastrophic. How one lives with such uncertainty varies with context, personal experience and public understanding.

Seth Kim-Cohen (2009) describes sound and place as being intrinsically linked; these thoughts, where the ability of people to ‘site’ themselves in their place by listening-in to its sound, feature in this project as a starting point. Central to this, is appreciating the magnitude of the planet from a local perspective. We will explore: How can artistic research bring new insights into the human perception of our unsettled planet?

With all its beauty, the ‘blue planet’ with its extraordinary bell like sonority offers us the complete breadth of its productive and destructive capabilities. We will initiate conversations around living with such uncertainty, questioning ideas of a stable planet. Collaborating with those who study literature, the environment, art, history and engineering, we will explore questions about uncertainties and existential threat. This includes questions around mortality, the distinctions that separate cultural from natural, the nature of knowledge and the rationality of belief. How might bringing together artists, scientists and researchers in the humanities with shared interests, generate insights into a shared language for research and creative practice? We will focus on: What is certainty? How can we better communicate risk levels associated with ground movement?

In times of great upheaval there has been a scrutiny of our existence. After experiencing the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire’s writing challenged the ideas that there could be a beneficent God. This triggered a more scientific study of earthquakes and their cause. Working in Japan over 100 years ago, the UK engineer John Milne developed new instruments for measuring Earth movement and resurrected old ideas about building codes. Indigenous people, philosophers, historians, geographers, geologists, religious commentators and artists have all struggled to understand our unstable Earth – often without the insight of science. We will ask: Where has disruption and instability in the world encouraged a shift of ideas, solutions and connections? What are the political, environmental and cultural consequences of ground motion – and how do these scale with intensity?


In the blink of an Ear: toward a Non-chochiea Sonic Art by Kim-Cohen,S. (2009), New York: Continuum international Publishing Group, p. xvi.