Geologic Cognition Society, exploring the anthropocene with art & science

I founded Geologic Cognition Society as a work group of artists and scientists so that we could collaborate, build installations, and conduct research on how to compress large-scale geologic issues into human-scale experiences and stories. We've done a few projects, and now we're in the process of formalizing a lot of our work, but we have several projects in various stages of completion at the moment. If you haven't seen our snazzy one-page site, I encourage you to read it now: (maybe even say hi through the web form).

Virtual Places: Core Logging the Anthropocene in Real-Time

I'll be presenting at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in April 2015 on my project that reveals traces of the anthropocene in local neighborhoods. The presentation is the documentation of a performance work that explores speculative core samples of the ad hoc geology of retail shelves. Here's the abstract and a picture of my initial test cores, although for this project I'll produce an entirely new cycle.


Supply chains have broken the first law of geography by creating localized convergences of materials gathered over massive distances. Through mines and quarries, minerals become commoditized “sediments” and experience speeds and distances of travel that surpass those otherwise possible through natural means in the same amount of time. Erosion, sedimentation, and deposition are no match for the intermodal logistician. Supply chains are geologic forces whose movement is visible in the stratigraphy of sediments on the shelves of discount department and home improvement stores. The movement of these anthropogenic patterns of geologic flow can bring together bentonite clay from Wyoming with fuller’s earth from Florida and Pacific sea salt with salt mined in Ohio all under the same roof.

This convergence of geologic materials from multiple disparate places creates a new category of local “place” that is otherwise geophysically improbable without the help of supply chains and retail shelves. This project presents a series of core samples of these displaced convergences of materials as evidence of the geography of these ad hoc virtual places. 

By recasting retail shelves as stratigraphic layers of some infrastructural landscape, core samples of this condition reveal a new sort of geologic time: the real-time accumulation of distributed-on-demand geologic components. This renders sediments as both discrete objects in packages waiting for purchase, and also as potential new elements of sedimentary deposition in the substrate of whatever town to which the logistician determined they should go.



core samples of the anthropocene

Two Models for Path Design

In 2012 I did some research on the way that people draw on visual resources and sense memories to comprehend an experience. I looked at what factors influence a particular type of cognitive simulation (or mental imagery) called fictive motion. This experiment was conducted in an immersive forest setting along the green trail on this map:

I learned from this research that when a person can take a spectator view of an experience that they are participating in that they are more likely to use fictive motion in their descriptions of the experience. This suggests some things about the way people engage in online processing of experience, and it suggests a lot about how to better design experience to evoke these kinds of cognitive simulation during those experiences.

Kerb 22 Remoteness & Emotional Hacking

I won't give away the secret just yet, you can read about it in my article that is featured in the August 2014 issue of the landscape architecture journal KERB. What I will say now is that this research is useful for path design of any sort, whether it is a path through a room, a market, a gallery, a building, a city, a landscape, it works to compress large-scale experience spaces into human scale experiences (which is also the tack that I am taking with Geologic Cognition Society to compress geologic-scale issues into something humans can comprehend). 

Here are two models of possible paths through natural landscapes that might evoke experiences of cognitive simulation (along with some other really fascinating effects). If you want to know why and how, pick up a copy of KERB 22 in August (start at page 24), it will be an excellent issue full of ways to implement empirically validated techniques into your design practice.

nested containers
sequenced containers

Creating Experiences of Remoteness in Landscapes & Geographies

I've just written an article about the idea of remoteness for KERB (the Landscape Architecture publication from RMIT, Melbourne). Remoteness is hard to come by because everything we do is so proximal and interconnected. Learning to design spaces and paths that evoke notions of remoteness is an important task for helping people encounter a world that lacks the moments of refuge that spatial remoteness provides.

My article outlines an initial remoteness typology, describes cognition research that seems to support the value of remoteness in types of cognitive simulation and mental imagery, describes the rhetorical use of disorientation as a tool for crafting an artificial remoteness, and sets out a series of methods that landscape architects and urban planners can use to design and build remoteness into the built environment. 

I think there are two basic types of remoteness: negative (where remoteness = isolation) and positive (where remoteness = refuge). Both types entail a series of design requirements that shape the experience.

Here's how this fits with some of my other projects (like Geologic Cognition Society): I feel that remoteness should be a heritage resource that people have access to because it is brings the larger oceanic sensations of our experience of the size of the earth to the foreground of our attention. It gives us a tool that lets us see ourselves in scale with the earth, an important process in this time of the Internet of Things, the felt effects of the Anthropocene.

It is important to see our smallness with respect to the largeness of the earth. and the disjunction in people's minds between experienced local climate conditions and global climate conditions is a clear example of the fact that we don't comprehend the geologic scale of the earth as a system. 

The issue comes out in August, and I'll be posting more about the topic of Remoteness as time goes by. I'll post a link to the issue when it publishes. 

Geographical Urbanism - How Landscapes and Geography Contribute to Experience of the Built Environment

Cover: ©MONU.  Image on Cover: “AMARC#3; Tucson, Arizona, USA, 2006” from Edward Burtynsky’s contribution “Seduction and Fear”. Photo ©Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London.

Cover: ©MONU.  Image on Cover: “AMARC#3; Tucson, Arizona, USA, 2006” from Edward Burtynsky’s contribution “Seduction and Fear”. Photo ©Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London.

My article "Agency and the Multifaceted Stories of Hybrid Places" appears in MONU #20 Geographical Urbanism (April 2014).  The final draft ended up describing my old neighborhood in Honolulu and also a little about Paris. I compared and contrasted a range of topics showing how a large part of culture is shaped by landscape and also looking at the ways landscape interfaces with cognition. 

Here is the original abstract to the article: 

Cities and landscapes tell a multifaceted story that invites us to participate and observe - a story of relationship and a story of agency, where mountains and valleys and rivers act like characters in the same way that buildings and streets and neighborhoods have a life of their own. Both cities and the geographies that support them converge in a story of identity and imageability, making geographical-urbanism a sort of autobiographical tale of this hybrid place. 

Consider the type of language we use to describe landforms and urban forms, it is a dynamic language giving mountains and Main Street the muscles to move. Landforms can do all sorts of things: run, rise, plunge, extend, descend, meet, leap, twist, turn, spring, jut, meander, wind, or zigzag. Consider “The ravine runs along the edge of the city” or “Corcovado rises above Rio De Janeiro and looks down onto Sugar Loaf Mountain” or “The peninsula springs out into the ocean nearly a mile before coming to an abrupt stop”. Architecture and the built environment also come alive in order to: overlooktower, to line up, to face each other, to cluster together; cities grow and expand, sometimes they shrink and occasionally they die. This is more than figurative language - it is a type of cognitive simulation called fictive motion, a sort of mental imagery that helps us reason about the organization of the space around us. In a way, this motion language turns static scenes into dynamic stories and otherwise inanimate objects come alive like characters on the screen. What other stories unfold at the confluence of city and geography?

We might say that a timeline of some sticky plot develops into a nonlinear narrative as geologic time and civic time mingle and juxtapose. Neighborhoods inhabit the heights and hills while urban rivers (the Thames, the Seine, the Chicago) meander through architectural canyons; at every moment the urban dweller has one foot in the present and one foot in the past. Cities like barnacles and lichens cover the natural form, two timescales coexist, coextending side-by-side in cultures of urban adaptation and geologic adoption. The narrative of culture flows from the structure of landscape - in fact, cognitive ethnography has shown how conceptual structure and cultural networks sometimes mimic surrounding geographical structure. Geographical urbanism develops as an entanglement of relationships to gain critical mass and form an identity unique to that particular locational marriage of space and structure. What moral will this story offer?

Narratives become tools to make sense of details, and as the details of the city uniquely blend with the details of the landscape, the story is more of an autobiography of a hybrid place, and the narrative weaves itself through the life of the location. This article uses tools from cognitive science to give a simple and accessible reading of the story of hybrid geographical urbanism, exploring how people think about their environment and providing a cognitive basis for the relevance of geography to urban experience.

You can buy MONU #20 at select bookshops, order an issue online, gain digital access through the MONU app, or browse the issue on YouTube.

A Granular Wash of Disorientation

Viewpoint has an influence on orientation and modulating viewpoint can produce interesting experiences for people as they loose and gain orientation in the event. My research looks at the ways viewpoint affects cognitive simulation and I'm interested in ways to create disorientation as a rhetorical tool. My recent installation of the immersive pod with Geologic Cognition Society is an example of how space and time can be used to create a moment of disorientation. Here is the video that was played on the textured ceiling of the pod - it loses some of the effect when viewed on a screen rather than being "tented" under the image while laying down. The idea was to have a granular blur wash over the viewer. You will be able to see how the motion lingers after the film ends, I wanted this constant pushing of the image to work with saccades to control the eye. Participants in the experience reported varying experiences of time, some felt time speed up and others felt it slow down. We ran this project as a way to think about how to play with people's sense of time and space as we keep working on our larger geologic deep time piece. Anyway, you can read more about it in the earlier posts.

Spring Therapy: a Prototype Immersive Experience Pod


I recently prototyped an immersive experience pod for Geologic Cognition Society that we used in our booth at the Cleveland Mini Maker Faire held at the Cleveland Public Library in March. The structure was cobbled together from honeycomb walled cardboard, EPS foam, and nuts and bolts and a lot of hot-melt glue. John Daniel (Geologic Cognition Society's electronic musician) wrote a quick track for the pod and I quickly paired it with some iPhone captured video. We didn't have a lot of time from start to finish, but we pulled it off and people had a great time. This project was my first attempt to design and build a pod for GCS, and we'll be working out the details of materials and production for GCS's Geologic Deep Time pod described here. Check back later this week for more information about the immersive content presented in this installation.

Designing Immersive Experiences of Geologic Deep Time

experiencing geologic deep time

I'm working to design an immersive experience with Geologic Cognition Society. It is a project that explores how to tell the story of geologic deep time using ambient sensory structures (like video and music) with content that has been empirically linked to conceptual structures in broader cross-cultural cognitive science research.  These conceptual structures are image schematic and overlap with the schematic structures of some of the most basic events in geochronological mappings of the sedimentary history of our planet. I'm currently mapping between the conceptual structures and the geologic events and creating a set of primitives that will be used to build out the experience. Using these structures, a multimedia experience will take listeners along a journey through deep time, compressing time-scales and unpacking sedimentary history in the process. The immersive experience will be presented in natural history museums and art galleries, where participants will sit in individual enclosures (immersive pods) which deprive the listener of other sensory distractions. Visualizations are projected onto screens within the pods, and participants are plunged into time in ways that Jules Verne would covet.  

Geologic Agency and Geographical Urbanism

The Ko‘olau Range intermingles with neighborhoods of Honolulu. [Image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Frame: 2109” [aerial photograph]. Scale ~1in:1km. Flight line No: 018. 16/5/00. Downloaded from on 15/2/14. ]

The Ko‘olau Range intermingles with neighborhoods of Honolulu. [Image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Frame: 2109” [aerial photograph]. Scale ~1in:1km. Flight line No: 018. 16/5/00. Downloaded from on 15/2/14. ]

If you read MONU Magazine, you're familiar with their approach to content: every issue takes the term "Urbanism" paired with a descriptor that focuses on some theme at the forefront of urban theory.  This next issue is MONU #20 Geographical Urbanism (releasing in April), and I have an article in it titled: Agency and the Multifaceted Stories of Hybrid Places. The article explores how a variety of dimensions of hybrid places and our interactions with those places work to animate landscape and to help us understand civic time with respect to geologic time.  I'll post a link to the issue when it publishes.

Human Attention and Film Syntax

All artists engage in directing attention. I'm always asking the questions "what makes something stand out?" and "what makes something meaningful right now?" Asking these questions brings scientific knowledge to design tasks where directing and harmonizing attention is an essential goal. 

Caleb Brown (Philosophy In Motion) and I have just presented some of our research on film syntax and attention at CamraPenn's Screening Scholarship Media Fesitival (SSMF) at the Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia. We took apart several scenes from Hal Ashby's film Being There (1979) to show how directors can use basic patterns in human attention to create meaning and to heighten attention. We looked at the way that eye contact is used to negotiate meaning in conversation and we looked at the ways joint attention can be established through careful editing and shot framing. It seems that a lot of the communicative power of film can be traced back to basic attention patterns that viewers identify with as they watch film

You'll notice in the images below that several visual elements (e.g., the rule of thirds, lead room violations, mise-en-scène) work to establish points of salience. These work together with the editing techniques and the framing of the shots to reify joint attention as we move from attention contact in the wide shot to attention following with the two shot.