Announcing my forthcoming book: Hack The Experience: Tools for Artists from Cognitive Science

I'm pleased to announce my new book published by Punctum Books. It's a book for artists, architects, curators, and other people who work with spatial design, multi-sensory design, or emotional design. Here's a sneak peek of the front cover:

from the Punctum website:

Hack The Experience will reframe your perspective on how your audience engages your work. This will happen as you learn how to control attention through spatial and time-based techniques that you can harness as you build immersive installations or as you think about how to best arrange your work in an exhibition. You’ll learn things about the senses and how they interface with attention so that you can build in visceral forms of interactivity, engage people’s empathetic responses, and frame their moods. This book is a dense bouillon-cube of techniques that you can adapt and apply to your personal practice, and it’s a book that will walk you step-by-step through skill sets from ethnography, cognitive science, and multi-modal metaphors.

The core argument of this book is that art is a form of cognitive engineering and that the physical environment (or objects in the physical environment) can be shaped to maximize emotional and sensory experience. Many types of art will benefit from this handbook (because cognition is pervasive in our experience of art), but it is particularly relevant to immersive experiential works such as installations, participatory/interactive environments, performance art, curatorial practice, architecture and landscape architecture, complex durational works, and works requiring new models of documentation. These types of work benefit from the empirical findings of cognitive science because intentionally leveraging basic human cognition in artworks can give participants new ways of seeing the world that are cognitively relevant. This leveraging process provides a new layer in the construction of conceptually grounded works.

Summary of the experiences addressed:

  • sensory experiences (haptic, visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory)
  • emotional cueing through materials and environments
  • performance and durational works
  • cross-modal/cross-sensory experiences (artificial synesthesia)
  • path-based experiences, belief, and narrative design
  • transformational experiences and socially engaged practice
  • rhetorical disorientation, remoteness, oceanic feeling
  • environmental works

This is a book for artists, but it is also for curators, art school faculty, landscape architects, gallerists, archivists, post-disciplinary multi-hyphenates, museum program staff, and anyone who wants to know about the ways art and cognitive science come together to engage an audience.

About the Author

Ryan Dewey does post-disciplinary translational research that crosses borders between expanded media, cognitive science, and socially-engaged environmental practice. His work typically focuses on the formal connections between supply chains and geologic forces, and he uses empathy and ritual to think through climate change and land use in the anthropocene. Dewey is founder and principal of Geologic Cognition Society, an experience design collaborative conducting research and creating site-specific experiences, workshops, and installations that push people’s buttons to get fresh emotional responses to the natural world. He has published in KERB, MONU, and Archinect on topics of urban design, remoteness, landscape design, and spatial-emotional design. Dewey holds an MA in Cognitive Linguistics from Case Western Reserve University, where he served two appointments as visiting researcher, focused on design cognition, ethnography, human attention, visual rhetoric and spatial cognition. Dewey also consults on spatial, multi-sensory, emotional & attention design strategies for museums, art schools, festivals, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, design firms, and community organizations at a reasonable fee. Find out more at

If you're interested in this book, leave a comment below, or comment on the Punctum site. I'd also appreciate any love you want to give by sharing this on social media. If you're a bookseller, get in touch for the bookseller rate. Visit the official page on


95% of ocean pollution is plastics, but we still market 3D printing pens to children. Geologists discovered plastiglomerate in the sedimentary profiles of the beaches in Hawai'i, it was from ocean trash and beach plastic that melted in beach fires and filled the vesicles of basalt lava. This is an irony because volcanoes are the original 3D printer, printing landforms like the Hawai'ian Islands.

In response to this absurdity, I purchased a 3D printing pen in 2014 and drew out this maquette:

Here is the profile view of the maquette:

3D printing is mimetic of the volcanic process. In fact, you can see that the layers of plastic in this piece even resemble the lapping texture of pahoehoe lava. 3D printing is geomimicry.

Additive manufacturing is a layering process. On the reverse side of the maquette these layers are visible. Some people critique 3D printing pens and argue that they are nothing more than sophisticated glue guns, and that true 3D printing requires a CNC control to print with precision on the XYZ axes. But the idea with a 3D printing pen is to make it possible to use plastic as a drawing tool, and hand-to-eye coordination and the arm of the person using the drawing tool is the control mechanism. It is sloppy. It is not as precise as a computerized 3D printer, and these facts are why I chose to use it. The sloppiness is what gives it the oozing texture of lava, the lack of precision is what makes it a drawing tool and the reduction in cost in the process of turning 3D printing into a "toy" is what makes 3D printing pens a contributor to the production of worthless plastic crap.

For the larger version of this sculpture I printed more precise letters by first printing out the text in a large font, and then extruding plastic directly onto the paper. I was able to peel away the paper afterwards and came up with these sentences:

At this stage, the larger scale sculpture is taking shape. I broke three 3D printing pens and consumed multiple spools of ABS plastic filament, totally over $600 in material resources. 

Here is the piece hanging on a wall in an unfinished state:

A detail of the solidified lava:

A detail of the flying lava:

Here is the maquette next to the larger work. I painted the background in this mock-up to see what it would look like, but in the final piece I'll forego painting - I think it looks terrible. I'm filling in the black, leaving the top raw red, and extending the crest and cascade of the lava wave. Part of me thinks I should keep the work at maquette size and scrap the larger piece, but I'm not so sure yet.

Here is my source image, a USGS image of a lava fountain on a Hawai'ian shield volcano that I overlaid with a blocky text:


What does participatory urbanism mean for your design practice?

A few years ago I published this piece in MONU (Magazine ON Urbanism) about geographic urbanism as a form of participatory theater between places and the people that live in those places. I was recently corresponding with Bernd Upmeyer, editor-in-chief of MONU, and he thought I might be interested in their current issue on Participatory Urbanism. He was right. It’s all about participatory design practices and it got me thinking about what participatory urbanism means for my consulting practice and I wanted to reflect a bit on how the ideas of participatory urbanism presented in MONU #23 help designers deal with ambiguity, authenticity, and the temporality that comes with continually shifting user populations.

(Cover Image: Rhythm 0, performance, from Marina Abramovic’s contribution on page 82. Location: Studio Morra Naples, 1974, Photo: Donatelli Sbarra. ©Marina Abramovic. Image is courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives)

(Cover Image: Rhythm 0, performance, from Marina Abramovic’s contribution on page 82. Location: Studio Morra Naples, 1974, Photo: Donatelli Sbarra. ©Marina Abramovic. Image is courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives)

Participatory Urbanism wants you to give up control

MONU #23 opens with Distributing Power, an interview with Jeremy Till, in which Till immediately addresses “fake participation” where architects pretend to involve people while retaining control over the product. Till argues that the only way to prevent design from becoming a “politically required token of democratic involvement” is to be radically committed to giving up control. But architects, planners, and designers have a hard time giving up control because they use expertise as a mode of control. Their professional knowledge is enough to let them know how people want. This reminds me of the adage that people don’t know what they want until you give it to them.

One solution might be relying on professional knowledge to act as guide in participatory design. For instance, instead of using expertise as a tool of power, architects can use professional knowledge to assist participants through the design process. Goodwin’s (1994) notion of “professional vision” highlights the benefit of expertise by showing that the professional has the ability to see nuances of a scene that are invisible to the untrained eye simply because of their expertise and knowledge acquired through experience. Trained designers have a special kind of vision when it comes to solving design problems, and Till acknowledges this by charging designers to use their skill to empower people in “new forms of social constructions” (p.9). According to Till, professionals have an obligation to empower non-professionals - to help users engage in designing and to relinquish control over the process, even though it poses “a real challenge to professional values” (p8).

Participatory Urbanism reframes “expert”

In traditional ethnographic practices, an ethnographer spends time conducting something called participant observation which helps the ethnographer understand a cultural group from an insider’s point of view. Design ethnography is no different, and it is something that is necessary if professional designers are going to successfully engage in participatory urbanism.

Ethnography takes as a basic principle that the people are experts on their culture. With design, can we say that users are experts on the needs they experience? It would be interesting to do some discourse analysis to dissect the scene of participatory design settings to see where power-relations and conversational turn-taking establish or regain control in arguments. Do the architects listen, or do they wait to shoot down an idea? When users talk about design issues in their own language, can the professional work in that language or do they have to impose their professional terminology?

Till is one step ahead, because he already sees participatory design as participation of experts, where the “experts” are users, despite the users speaking a different design language than the architect. Serafina Amoroso discusses this notion of expert user (expert-citizen in her terms) in her article Participatory Urbanism: New Learning-scapes in Contemporary Cities when she says that “highly trained architects need the knowledge of the user (as expert-citizen)” and that “knowledge is not a content (of facts, concepts, and theoretical principles) to be transmitted and learnt: it requires a deeper understanding in terms of experience and empathy” (p102). Only the people who use the space have the knowledge of what that space means to them. These user-experts have knowledge that is relevant to the design process and product, and the goal must be to translate between the expert knowledge of the user and the expert knowledge of the architect. Is it all in the framing of the problem?

Clearly this situation smacks of Rittel & Weber’s 1973 notion of “wicked problems in design”,  particularly the notions that there is no stopping rule to determine whether the design operation should stop or continue, that solutions are not right or wrong, only good or bad, that every wicked problem can be considered the symptom of another problem, (basically, sets of what archeologist Ian Hodder calls entanglements - networks of dependences and dependencies that bind together the domains of everyday life with the structures that support and enable a way of life to continue). It is the framing of the problem that helps designers and participants identify a potential solution, but designers and participants often think about the problem with entirely different frameworks so aligning those different framings and the expectations they entail is necessary if anything is to move forward.

Even when participant-driven design works and the result is a design that fits the users and the context, that design has a shelf-life until the next set of users come along or the budget changes or environmental conditions shift or the occupancy determines a new set of goals for the space. Design practices that favor participatory urbanism by including participants in the process have to relinquish control in an on-going manner. It is truly a situation in which the designer has to roll with the punches, those punches being shifting needs, shifting populations, shifting goals. Rittel & Weber tell us “there is no definitive formulation of a problem” because the problem is always shifting, and so the answer needs to always be shifting as well. I think we can theoretically accept these ideas as ideals, but practicing them proves more difficult.

Participatory Urbanism hits one moving target, while creating another one

Part of why a wicked problem is so wicked is that it continually works to undermine the solution. The final characteristic of the wicked problem, that the social planner has no right to be wrong, makes it really hard for the designer to practice the most important skill in participatory design: trust. The drive to control authoritatively starts to undermine any progress toward participation as trust of the participation process gives way to mistrust of the agent/actors engaged in participation.

Going back just a bit, I think this is why Till says “In participation, you have to relinquish that control and become a different kind of professional. You have to acknowledge that your expertise is as good as the expertise of others, but different. However the relinquishing of control is a real challenge to professional values.” [p8]

To have participatory urbanism do we need to embrace a post-disciplinary design practice? Do we need to acknowledge the user as a “professional user” and invite them to the design process both at the site and at the planning table? Who really has user-expertise?

Till goes on to argue for architects to use their forms of social knowledge to empower people to participate in social forms of design. This resonates with what Gonzalo J López says about on expertise and open source urbanism in his chapter Towards a New Urbanism: Emergent Strategies. He says that the role of the expert should change to become an open network of experts where “each component shares its specific input” (p22). This is more than just a specialist-generalist debate because it argues for distribution of expertise across a network. Obviously approaching design in this manner will result in confrontation, but Till warns architects to realize that “participation is a process of confrontation” (p11). Confrontation is an act of negotiation if the parties involved don’t give up prematurely and walk away from the table. Is participatory urbanism about endurance? Is it about tolerance?

Participatory Urbanism is messy & confusing, but worth it, because it creates wholeness

Maybe successful participatory design is about being able to live with ambiguity. Planners and architects don’t deal well with sustained ambiguity and that’s a problem when it comes to participatory design in part because insurance brokers, construction crews, inspectors, and license boards don’t deal well with ambiguity. But living with ambiguity is an essential practice that social designers need to develop because ambiguity pervades in participatory urbanism. Participatory design gives agency to non-formal designers, and that is problematic to controlled design because it doesn’t retain control.

Removal (as we read in Tom Marble’s The Interactionist City) is often painful for the city, and in Luis Eduardo González’s piece Citizen Participation in Chilean Urban Micro-Strategies the “I love my neighborhood” program is one example of the way that people tie their emotions to the places they inhabit because they love those places. Loss is painful in a place that you love, but can participation and user-driven removal turn the feeling of loss into tangible value for a neighborhood?

This past January I participated with a team from the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) in a submission to Tearing Buildings Down, a design competition held by The Storefront for Art and Architecture. We proposed a participatory design strategy for the removal of C-grade buildings in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood to create new pathways, viewsheds, and olfactory paths through the neighborhood through a partial carving (a sort of reference to the work of Gordon Matta-Clark). In 2015 a survey of all buildings in Cleveland ranked them as A to F, and the buildings that were ranked as C-grade were marginal and presented a tipping point for Cleveland. We wanted to obtain what Christopher Alexander describes in A New Theory of Urban Design as “wholeness” (1987), a principle of design that obligates new construction to create a “continuous structure of wholes around it”, but instead of applying the rules of wholeness to construction, our proposal applied it to the removal process - to restore wholeness through strategic removal. A central aspect of our proposal was to involve non-formal designers into the process as “removal agents” to help achieve Alexander’s “piecemeal growth” of a “positive urban space” by growing larger wholes in the neighborhood. Removal agents included architects and city departments, but importantly, also residents and industrial corporations, while recognizing the ecological role played by non-traditional design agents like arsonists and scrappers in the process of removal throughout the last hundred years in the neighborhood. Our design was to make use of a diversified and informed and intimately invested agency so that blocks, and then neighborhoods, and then cities could guide their own change.  

Creating value through removal provides a ready testbed to develop authentic and meaningful participatory urbanism because removal is tied so tightly to emotional responses of the community (the true user base for a neighborhood), and users are motivated to participate when they have strong feelings about it. That’s called ownership and ownership works at all scales. Going back to Amoroso’s article, it’s worth noting that she points out how the tactical urbanism projects she cites all share a common feature: the absence of authorship because all of the work is co-produced (p106); it is owned by the group, not by an individual.

Participatory Urbanism can be incremental

López talks about participation on multiple scales, moving from small scale to large scale, to multi-scale, to the collective scale and he argues for participation in appropriate measures along the spectrum. The idea of scaling up the process of participation necessarily pushes it beyond the piecemeal and ad hoc urban decisions of the architect and into the holistic and integrated design process of cities. And it seems to me that participation should be able to scale because the user bases scale and participatory urbanism at it’s core is a user-involved practice. But there is that nagging problem of the shifting needs and populations. In a few years, the user base has moved on and the designed space is inhabited by a different group of users, should they adapt their use to the old space? It gets very sticky very fast. López does not believe the expert should be demised, so he retains a sense of expert-driven design through different scales, while aiming for participation in the execution of the design. How does that play out in tactical urbanism?

The system doesn’t stop participatory urbanism from popping up, and that’s a good thing since tactical urbanism produces smaller scaled interventions that make users aware of the spaces they inhabit toward the goal of enduring long-term change. Amoroso points out (in a quote that I’m reproducing in full), that “Experiments in niche spaces may not constitute a threat to the system of power, in the same way that small scale interventions or micro-urban actions that exploit the gaps in regulations may not challenge property values and the speculative manipulations of urban realm, but, in spite of that, they are capable of activating processes of change and editing urban spaces that are perceived as edges and boundaries, thus influencing the emotions, the behaviours and the psychological well-being of users and inhabitants” (p106).  

This ecological approach to participatory urbanism is very much focused on doing what’s best for the user and empowering the user to assist in Alexander’s notion of the “piecemeal growth” of the larger whole. Participatory urbanism is incremental, but at it’s core is holistic - a kind of design strategy that emphasizes part-whole relations and the inter-connectedness of users by prioritizing their voice in the design process.

After reading MONU #23, I come away with the sense that participatory urbanism is an issue that every designer needs to think about, and quickly as we continually move toward post-disciplinary design that increasingly design with citizen-experts at the table. MONU #23 is a good field guide to some of those issues.


This video was one of the works in UNDERNEATH IS BEFORE at SPACES Gallery in Cleveland Ohio, January 29th - March 25th. UNDERNEATH IS BEFORE was a site-specific installation with Geologic Cognition Society which explored the salt deposit in the Great Lakes region by creating an immersive salt chamber (among other elements).

The video moves through three sequences of wave sets solidifying into stratified salt deposits, these thumbnails are from the first sequence.

The video moves through three sequences of wave sets solidifying into stratified salt deposits, these thumbnails are from the first sequence.

This video was looped and projected on a twenty foot wall as part of a multi-sensory experience that recreated the sensory conditions of the Silurian sea that covered the region over 300 million years ago. In three iterations this video moves from active ocean to static body of salt, much the same way that the salt deposit was formed through successive periods of evaporation and sedimentation.

UNDERNEATH IS BEFORE was made possible with generous support from the Ohio Arts Council through special project funding, and through sponsorship from Cargill Deicing Technology, Cleveland Mine.


For the last couple of months I've been building Japanese soil in Ohio by exploiting supply chains. As part of my ongoing exploration of how supply chains act as geologic forces (see Improbable Oceans; West Africa Becomes Here; and Core Samples), I've found another way to turn this abstract idea into a concrete object.

Batch #1 (left) & Batch #2 (right), Batch #3 not shown

Batch #1 (left) & Batch #2 (right), Batch #3 not shown

Here's the basic idea:

I am harvesting "Japanese" soil from the supply chain by small-batch compositing single origin, first-flush gyokuro tea grown in Yame in the Fukuoka Prefecture of Japan. Production takes place inside sealed anaerobic compositing units to preserve the integrity of the chemical composition of the parent material in the resultant soil. Once the composting process is completed, the conjured soil should have nearly identical chemical composition as Japanese soil, and be the closest thing to Japanese soil that I can obtain in Ohio. I will then take that soil and use it to grow Japanese moss from spores purchased from Japan, producing an object of contemplation on the way that little bits of Japan travels across the globe whenever Japanese green tea is exported for trade. Obviously this holds for any agricultural produce from any location, but Japanese tea lends itself to demonstrating this fact because of the Japanese practices of mimetic landscaping through suiseki (水石), bonkei (盆景), and bonsai (盆栽) which are representational landscapes used as miniature objects of contemplation which allow people to think about larger geographic landscapes.

Batch #1 (left), Batch #2 (right), Batch #3 not shown

Batch #1 (left), Batch #2 (right), Batch #3 not shown

I am bringing Japan to me by conjuring soil from pre-soil botanical materials which were grown in Japan in the geographically veridical Japanese soil.  Like all other forms of import and export, the geologic consequences of the tea trade results in the shuffling and transplantation of agricultural materials with the chemical composition of the soil of their country of origin into the soil profile of the host country purchasing that agricultural material.

Gyokuro production accounts for less than 1% of all green tea production in Japan. Overall production of green tea is close to 100,000 metric tons, with only around 3% of that making it to the export market. The scarcity of this tea compared to the total volume of tea shuffled around the supply chain from all tea growing markets does not diminish the argument that supply chains shuffle places around the planet. As a single agricultural commodity, tea alone can produce massive amounts of soil through composting and considering potential soil production by all of the other agricultural products shuffled through the supply chain moves us towards a future of soil homogenization at a larger scale and at an even faster pace.

Dry Yame gyokuro leaves

Dry Yame gyokuro leaves

“Place” is a fluid notion. There are entire systems built on the shuffling of the fruits and substances of places. You can go to the grocery store right now and buy green tea from Japan and when you discard the spent tea leaves and eliminate the waste of drinking that tea you engage in a practice of soil building that transforms imported agricultural material into local soil, and soil is the substance of place. Agriculture depends on place in ways that other industries do not, primarily because of geography, or the container of place. This shows up in food language such as goût de terroir (French for the taste of place). Intimate connections exist between place and soil and food. But a condition of our supply-chain optimized world is that we engage in terra-forming each time we import an onion instead of harvesting it from our gardens. Decaying produce builds soil, and what does decaying imported produce build? Potential new batches of places like Japan can emerge wherever the supply chain delivers green tea grown in Japan. The export-import paths of agricultural migration produce an infrastructural expression of “place” that is continuously distributed to countless locations, a non-stop shuffling of geologic materials.

Can I grow Japanese moss from Japanese moss spores in Japanese soil built only from composted Japanese green tea purchased in Ohio? Will this be a Ohio moss or a Japanese moss?
The answer is rooted in whether we conceive of “place” as substance (the soil) or container (the geographic region).
Batch #1 - begun December 31, 2015 - smells of dry mildew

Batch #1 - begun December 31, 2015 - smells of dry mildew

Like all other agricultural products in the import/export chain, gyokuro tea leaves from Yame, Japan decompose wherever they happen to be discarded and they become soil components wherever they happen to be discarded. Bringing Japan To Me isolates the process and accelerates the transmutation from tea to soil which completes the cycle of pedogenesis for this fictive geography. The tea leaves are organic matter that is parent material for the formation of soil, the soil is made using only the Japanese tea leaves.

Over the course of the composting process, the tea in the composting unit emits a range of odors that move from bright smelling cup of tea to a pungently ripe smelling cup of tea and then on to overwhelmingly fecal odors as the digestive power of the anaerobic bacteria produces methane in the composting unit. The smell 6-8 weeks into the process begins to smell like dead fish.

It takes three to four weeks for me to consume 100 grams of gyokuro and each successive deposit of spent tea leaves into the composting unit brings with it a shifting and ripening olfactory experience. The fruity scent of the dry tea leaves as I prepare to brew them, the grassy brightness of the tea during steeping, the odor of the composting unit as I discard the spent tea leaves, and the pleasant taste and odor concentrated in the cup as I drink the syrupy liquor of my gyokuro each provide a contrasting olfactory layer to the process of drinking tea.

Everything leading up to the purchase of the tea is a process of turning soil into tea.
Everything after the purchase of the tea is a process of turning tea into soil.
Batch #2 - Begun February 1, 2016 - smells of rotten fish carcasses

Batch #2 - Begun February 1, 2016 - smells of rotten fish carcasses

I am building soil with single origin materials. Soil that has the same chemical traces of the growth conditions of the plant that the sourced tea leaves grew on because the tea leaves extracted nutrients from the Japanese soil they grew in in Japan, so it is reasonable to say that my compost is Japanese soil because it was formed 100% from single a origin Japanese product grown in Japanese soil. The soil structure of the tea plantation in Japan nourished the tea plants that grew the tea that I purchased and drank, and that soil structure affected the flavor profile of the tea.

The composting unit and the resultant conjured soil both act as objects for contemplation about the fluidity of place that results when supply chains shuffle botanical matter (pre-soil) around the globe as food items. Using the conjured soil to cultivate the spores of a Japanese moss (Kyoto Moss), I will produce a bonkei or tray garden which acts as a portal to contemplation about the relationship humans have to the natural world. Bonkei, like bonsai and suiseki are representational symbols of large landscapes and act as portals to transport viewers into the serenity of the scenes depicted in these miniature landscape forms. In the same way, the cultivated Japanese moss grown in the cultivated Japanese soil will provide an object which provides access to a conjured geography of Japan, in effect bringing Japan to me.


Today is a happy day. I've just received the first image of one of my stickers in the wild. If you spot one of my stickers, let me know where you've spotted it, tag it #underutilizedsticker and add me to the post (Twitter: @RyanDewey Instagram: @GeoCog).

here's my sticker in Honolulu...

here's my sticker in Honolulu...

Get a sticker:


Whenever you see a blank space that has unrealized potential as a location for somebody to display a message, you might want to slap one of these stickers on it. When people read the message they will experience gratitude for your defense of capitalistic noise. I'll send you five stickers for $3.50 which just barely covers the postage (~$0.71), the envelope ($~0.20) and the stickers at the printing cost I pay per sticker ($0.50 each).

Add To Cart


For my recent exhibition UNDERNEATH IS BEFORE I was able to obtain a massive salt rock to place outside the gallery. Here are some photos from the move and the subsequent weathering the block has undergone since placement.

I moved a 300 million year old salt block onto this plinth at SPACES gallery in Cleveland, in essence partially replicating a work completed by Brinsley Tyrrell in 1996. Pictured is Brandon Barski (right) of Great Escapes Landscaping who helped me transport and place the block.

I moved a 300 million year old salt block onto this plinth at SPACES gallery in Cleveland, in essence partially replicating a work completed by Brinsley Tyrrell in 1996. Pictured is Brandon Barski (right) of Great Escapes Landscaping who helped me transport and place the block.

I spent the day with Brinsley Tyrrell at his studio where he showed me a number of salt blocks that he acquired from the Lake Erie mines.

I spent the day with Brinsley Tyrrell at his studio where he showed me a number of salt blocks that he acquired from the Lake Erie mines.

Salt crystals find a substrate to grow on, it's a vein of pyroclastic ash.

Salt crystals find a substrate to grow on, it's a vein of pyroclastic ash.

Moving the block proved incredibly difficult and we worked into the night.

Moving the block proved incredibly difficult and we worked into the night.

The next morning I worked with Brandon to place the block on the plinth, we discovered that the block was actually in two pieces and we were able to roll them separately onto the plinth.

The next morning I worked with Brandon to place the block on the plinth, we discovered that the block was actually in two pieces and we were able to roll them separately onto the plinth.

After a few weeks of rain and snow the vein of pyroclastic ash is softening and turning to mud.

After a few weeks of rain and snow the vein of pyroclastic ash is softening and turning to mud.

The vein of pyroclastic ash separates one layer of salt from another.

The vein of pyroclastic ash separates one layer of salt from another.

As the weather dissolves the vein of pyroclastic ash the salt block calves a slab of salt onto the ground below - note the absence of snow around the fragment, this is an ancient ocean that has been reactivated to melt the surrounding snow pack. I gathered some of this slush around the salt and measured the salinity: 5.6%.

As the weather dissolves the vein of pyroclastic ash the salt block calves a slab of salt onto the ground below - note the absence of snow around the fragment, this is an ancient ocean that has been reactivated to melt the surrounding snow pack. I gathered some of this slush around the salt and measured the salinity: 5.6%.


In October I led a trip with Geologic Cognition Society into the salt mines almost 2000 feet under Lake Erie. This was in preparation for our exhibit at SPACES gallery in Cleveland Ohio which opened on January 29th. Details about the show are here.

This deposit is over 300 million years old from when the Great Lakes region and much of upper North America were covered in the shallows of a Silurian tropical sea. The coral reefs at the floor of this shallow sea fossilized and turned to limestone which formed a solid basin for the salt deposit to form over time as the waters evaporated. Time passed, glaciers came and went, and the salt deposit was covered with glacial till and rock. Here are some study shots I took of the salt deposit inside the mine. I used these during the production of the salt chamber that we installed in the vault at SPACES. Take a peek:

If you're in Cleveland between now and March 25th (2016), be sure to stop by SPACES, it's open to the public and is free to see the show. 

Inside the immersive salt chamber installed at SPACES gallery in Cleveland Ohio. Read about the exhibit in the gallery archive.

Inside the immersive salt chamber installed at SPACES gallery in Cleveland Ohio. Read about the exhibit in the gallery archive.


I just finished an intro clip that I made for Geologic Cognition Society. It's a short 15 second animation using the lithologic symbols outlined by the USGS in their standard on cartographic representation of geologic/geographic elements. I did the title and image sequencing and John Daniel (Forest Management) designed the audio. Take a peek:

Visiting My Cousins Uzura & Imori Gakure (cycle 2, parts 1 - 4)

Every year I take a trip to a particular abandoned limestone quarry on Kelley's Island, a tiny island in Lake Erie. I go visit a particular rock and I note the changes to the rock over the past year and I try to learn things about being a rock by spending time mimicking the rock. This is a meditative practice that allows me to engage stillness in ways that I do not find possible in my day-to-day life and it grounds my creative practice to spend time learning how to be a rock. I've documented this process the past two years and here is the footage from this year's visit.

Division & Boundary (2015) - Category Structures and the Semantics of Soil

Check out my new short film that explores categorization and delineates the semantics of soil. What distinguishes dirt from soil from ground from land? And what size constraints do the terms place upon their referent? Do scale and granularity contribute to the categorization schema? What does an object oriented ontology suggest about the category structure?

SOIL - Division & Boundary (2015) Ryan Dewey

Every language and culture have their own categorization schema for landscape ontology. This project explored some of those sensibilities in English, but could easily be extended to other languages. Folk categorization and expert knowledge do not necessarily need to align in order for them to hold as mutually correct forms of categorization. Context, scope, and belief weigh in heavily in the organization of knowledge about the world.

stills from Division & Boundary (2015) - 00:05:20:00

stills from Division & Boundary (2015) - 00:05:20:00

Note the asterisk that precedes some of the terms in this partial typology. This is a borrow from linguistics where the notation indicates that something isn't quite right about the linguistic form. In this case, there is a bit of awkwardness about using the marked term for the referent image/object. It's not a standard label in "standard" English (at least not in my regional variant). It might be perfectly acceptable to call something "land" when it sits in a field, but picking up a piece of that "land" turns the "land" into "dirt". Putting a piece of that "land" on a piece of paper and rubbing it into the paper makes the paper "dirty" not "landy"; you would be reticent to call dirt on paper "land" in the veridical sense. These are the relationships I negotiation in the film.

Landscape ontology has vast consequences for land use, policy formation, heritage rights, place names, mapping, geographic information systems, mineral rights, tourism, indigenous ownership, land dispute settlements, legal boundaries and borders, trade agreements, wars, national identity, personal affinities, memories, pride, and cognition in general. The old saying is that nobody argues about where the top of the mountain is. All of that doesn't even touch on psychogeography, geologic cognition, and terroir.

In this next year I'll be showing more of my art that deals specifically with the conceptualization of place and how that converges with emotions and the taste of place. In the meantime, enjoy the video below:

The implicit body of the photographer: a record of embodiment and viewpoint

Memory is capriciously selective, it is only slivers of a scene that are remembered, and these are often brief visual captures of seemingly meaningless detail. During a remembered moment in your kitchen you might remember the counter top and the material it was made of, but forget entirely what was resting on that counter during the memory scene.  Dreams are similar, seemingly insignificant details become focal points within the dream structuring the narrative of the dream when in waking life these details may of little consequence.  The subconscious works to tell it’s tale with these glance-like details as the visual scenery.  If a glance is already a part of remembering and dreaming, both natural processes, there is a validation for pursuing a disciplined approach to capturing glances photographically.

Photography is always a selection of views, tightly editing out what is not selected. This selection is so dominant in photography as a practice that it also limits extra unlikely information that a photo could convey. For example, traditional practices in photography do not reveal much about the posture of the photographer. Photography has always been oriented on the subject, less so on the agent capturing the subject on film. Photography is often thought of as being primarily visual and primarily about the photograph, it is less about the process of capturing the photograph (perhaps with the exception of miksang and photojournalism). But exploring the body of the photographer through the data captured in the photograph might be a fruitful inquiry into the body and it's connection with perception.

If you sign up for my email (below) I'll send you the link to read my 32 guidelines for taking photographs that tap into glances and memory through your implicit presence as the photographer.

What's your name? *
What's your name?

Handbook for the Anthropocene, Volume 1: What Kind of Rock Is This?

I recently put together a small guidebook (16 pages) to identifying the various types of anthropogenic rocks that litter industrial and post-industrial cities in the Great Lakes region. The guidebook comes with 8 specimens of these artificial rocks in an industrial cardboard tube. This is part of my ongoing exploration of petromimicry (rock mimicry). The booklet describes the rocks, the type of natural rock they look like, the processes which generate the rocks (as by-products), and the types of locations where the rocks occur.  Here are some images of the specimens and a few page spreads from the booklet.

specimen #3 Tap Hole Slag: by-product of the iron & steel industry

specimen #3 Tap Hole Slag: by-product of the iron & steel industry

specimen #4 Clinker Slag: by-product of the iron & steel industry

specimen #4 Clinker Slag: by-product of the iron & steel industry

specimen #2 Bitumenous Breccia: by-product of open lake dumping of asphalt and paving materials

specimen #2 Bitumenous Breccia: by-product of open lake dumping of asphalt and paving materials

specimen #1 - Beach Breccia: by-product of open lake dumping of cement building products

specimen #1 - Beach Breccia: by-product of open lake dumping of cement building products

specimen #8 - Injection Purge: by-product of plastic molding (recovered from lake dumping)

specimen #8 - Injection Purge: by-product of plastic molding (recovered from lake dumping)

cover page of full color identification booklet

cover page of full color identification booklet

two page spread of a description and a specimen image

two page spread of a description and a specimen image

anthropogenic rock collections at SPACES gallery (image courtesy of SPACES)

anthropogenic rock collections at SPACES gallery (image courtesy of SPACES)

These anthropogenic rock collections are on offer at SPACES gallery in Cleveland until January 15 for $50/each. Additional specimens can be purchased from my petromimcry mailing list which you can subscribe to here. Once the gallery show ends I will also make the 16 page booklets (without the specimens) available for a nominal fee.

Handbook for the Anthropocene, Volume 2 - Displaced Places: West Africa Becomes Here (at SPACES gallery)

SPACES gallery in Cleveland is currently showing the People's Museum of Revisionist Natural Itstory (PMRNI), a mini-museum in the encyclopedic fashion as a critique of the traditional natural history museums of the last century. I've got a few items on offer at the gallery including these vaccuum-wrapped clay bodies (description below) in an edition of 18. 

The label description reads:

"You are holding in your hands a chunk of the earth from a place that is nowhere near where you are standing now. This is a piece of clay from an attapulgite quarry near Thiès, Senegal, West Africa. The supply chain has enabled this chunk of place to be in your present location. In this way, the supply chain is kind of like a geologic force, but it is stronger than nature because no natural forces could have moved this clay as far and as fast as has the supply chain. The owner of the clay quarry where this chunk of earth came from decided that a real place could become dislocated from it’s geographic context, turned into a product (in this case, absorbant (sic) cat litter), and then shipped to wholesalers and manufacturers on another continent. Ultimately, when this chunk of clay is discarded, it will enter the geologic context of wherever it is dumped, immigrating, and over time assimilating, to the geography of its new found home. This displaced place can be replaced in your own backyard or kept on a shelf as a reminder of the mobility of land and “place” in our present time."

These clay blocks will be available for $200/each at SPACES until January 15 2016.

My Research-Based Practice Workshop for the Cleveland Institute of Art

Today I ran a day-long workshop for the Cleveland Institute of Art as part of Kevin Kautenburger's class Environment, Art and Engaged Practice, a partnership with the Cleveland Metroparks. The idea for the class is to provide a platform for students to respond to the environment and produce experimental works that engage real world environmental problems. I helped out in this class last year during the critiques and this year Kevin asked me to contribute again. We originally planned for me to run a sediment clay workshop, but it turned out to be focused more on developing a research-based creative practice and we had a fun day tromping around the Chagrin Valley.


I started off the workshop with a simple activity: I asked students to write out a simple single sentence description of the work that they were producing. I wanted to know what question they felt their work was answering. I didn't tell them what I was going to do with it, but I had them hand in the slips of papers and then we started our day hiking through the valley learning along the way.

I'll spare the details of what we covered in the workshop, but toward the end of the day I wanted to engage the students with an activity that would help them develop and cement their project ideas with another simple activity. 

We had hiked to this cliff with an exposed clay deposit that was calving huge slabs of a dusty grey clay (it turns out that it fires to a buff orange at cone 6 and has 50% shrinkage, pretty interesting stuff). When I saw this clay deposit and the cliff I knew we had to spend some time contemplating it as an element of the site.


I gathered everyone on the shore, a sandy bar on the depositional side of the river, and gave them this simple assignment: Write out the first 100 questions that come to mind about the site, the clay, and your work. Don't edit yourself, write down every question that comes to mind no matter how simple, and don't try to answer your questions.

They went to work and forty minutes later I pulled everyone back together and we talked about how to look for major themes in the list of questions. Usually when I do this activity in my own practice, I come up with 3-5 themes. Remember that simple single sentence description I had students write? I gave that back to them and asked them to compare the description of their work with the major themes they found in their list of 100 questions. Were there any overlaps in ideas? Using these two tools helps build cohesion into a student's work with the questions they are actually asking themselves which in the long-run keeps people passionate and doing work they find engaging.

Kevin mentioned to me that this was really going to help solidify the direction that students were taking in their projects and invited me back for the critique. All in all, it was a great day and a fun time spent working and learning together. I'm grateful to Kevin Kautenburger for the invitation, and to both the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Metroparks for their generosity in providing me this opportunity. (oh yeah, my students we're pretty great too!)

Want me to run a workshop for your organization?

who are you? *
who are you?

Coming to terms with my glacial now

Glaciers scour the earth as they slowly advance and retreat often leaving behind deep glacial grooves. 

In this project I embody a glacier to scribe a single line into a slab of quartz limestone using a hand-tool and a process that resembles handwork in carpentry. I performed the outdoor series on Ohio State Route 20, a long linear place formed by a glacier that pushed a clay called glacial till into a ridge that runs across the top of Ohio. 

image by Kristen Penner /

image by Kristen Penner /

The pictures in this post are from the second cycle, but here's a video from the third cycle in which the grinding sound of granite, ice, and limestone resonate and increase in volume and intensity as the ice block melts under pressure and fiction. The force and weight of the moving body translate into the groove marked by the cutting tool much in the same way that line weight of a pencil line is determined by the pressure and force of the hand making the mark.

Cycle III takes place at a site of ancient glacial activity, an abandoned limestone quarry on a tiny island in Lake Erie, a quarry that destroyed most of the 40,000 year old glacial grooves that ran through the area. I performed this third cycle atop the edge of a massive quarry step, and in the same orientation as the direction of travel for the Wisconsin glacial sheet that advanced and retreated, scouring the limestone bedrock with Canadian granite.

The block of ice is a consumable cutting tool and each block takes 20 minutes of non-stop motion to use up before a new block is fitted into the tool. Three chunks of granite and gneiss are embedded into the ice much the same way that glaciers would pick up boulders which became cutting tools during their back and forth advance and retreat.

image by Kristen Penner /

image by Kristen Penner /

image by Kristen Penner /

image by Kristen Penner /

image by Kristen Penner /

image by Kristen Penner /

image by Kristen Penner /

image by Kristen Penner /


This project looks at things that appear to be rocks but which are not rocks. It is a multi-sensory, participatory experience in which the rocks themselves become implements for mark-making - reflecting on the fact that the rocks themselves are traces of human activity. Participants are drawn to inquiry as they engage with the texture, smell, and sound of the rocks. 

Petromimicry (cycle 1). clay, chalk, wax, paper, iron, salt, cedar, foam (dimensions variable), 2014

Petromimicry (cycle 1). clay, chalk, wax, paper, iron, salt, cedar, foam (dimensions variable), 2014

A concise model for Infrastructure Landscape Design (Part 1)

note: This is a three-part post. The first two posts describe my own infrastructure landscape design (ILD) projects and the third post will outline a methodology for ILD as a practice. 

Infrastructure is a kind of landscape.

In Forman's Land Mosaics, he defines landscapes as having repeated similarities over large distances. He writes, "Within a landscape several attributes tend to be similar and repeated across the whole area, including geologic land forms, soil types, vegetation types, local faunas, natural disturbance regimes, land uses, and human aggregation patterns. Thus a repeated cluster of spatial elements characterizes landscapes. (13, Forman 1995)"

The systematization and standardization of infrastructure imposes a sort of spatial organization into the designed world and the natural world. Some of those infrastructures are more visible to the public than others (e.g., road works & interstate highways), while others are less visible (e.g., supply chains). But infrastructure is pervasive in our world and it repeats itself over large stretches of land, at a granularity that ranges from fine to coarse as it moves between the visible and the invisible spheres. 

I gave a talk at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in April about the ways that supply chains are a type of infrastructure and I made the argument that as a type of landscape, infrastructure offers designers an opportunity to "landscape the infrastructure". 

I made a series of core samples to index the anthropogenic shuffling of geologic sediments and to demonstrate how 5 test sites distributed across the continental US had the same geologic profiles. 

These five test sites were chosen because they each occurred along the long arms of the supply chain at discrete nodes of a retail network. Each site was a store from the same big-box discount retailer and I sampled a set of specific commodities in each of the stores: fuller's earth clay (found in cat litter), steel (found in steel wool), pumice (found in cosmetic tools), plastic and carbon (found in aquarium filters), and salt (found in food products). I then created six foot long core samples of speculative sedimentary horizons from the commodity sediments I collected.

The main idea behind this was that these commodities at some point come out of the ground somewhere, even the plastic originates from petroleum which, if you don't know, is a resource that comes from deep underground. Basically, these commodities used to belong to a place before they became a product. Let's look at the cat litter for a moment. It's a sediment clay that moves from the quarry to processing to distribution to retail to cat litter box to municipal dump. As a mineral in the ground it is part of a place (where that quarry is), when it becomes a product, the place is liberated and given a limited freedom of movement. When that product is used and discarded, it enters the geologic profile of a new place (whatever city it happens to be discarded in). 

The US clay industry is scattered across the continent because clay is a typical geologic stratum, but, while pervasive, clay substrates are not homogenous. Clusters of clay types emerge to reflect deposits that are known or have been discovered and exploited. 

But the two types of clay used in cat litter production are bentonite clay and fuller's earth, and this map marks out the dominant producing areas:

Bentonite and fuller's earth are used for a number of industries including petroleum production (clay is mixed into a slurry for drilling mud to be used in hydraulic fracturing and other techniques), binders for pelletized iron ore (taconite), fillers in animal feed (a kind of cattle geophagy), cosmetics, wine making, and absorbents with pet absorbents being a leader. The bulk of bentonite is used for other purposes with cat litter being only a small percentage of use, whereas the bulk of fuller's earth is used for cat litter. 

The core sample form was chosen because it references the practice that geologists and geographers use to quantify the stratigraphic profile and sedimentary structure of a site. All of the materials (clay, steel, pumice, plastic, carbon, salt) were available at each of the five sample sites (California, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Florida), the idea that the sediments were part of the speculative profile of the test sites comes out when the sediments are viewed as speculative core samples.

Places become products and ultimately join new places. They move from the quarry to the landfill  and do a lot of traveling in between. These five sites reveal the homogenizing force of the supply chain. Homogenized retail means distributed access to off the shelf "places". The relationship of source geography to destination geography is not a one-to-one relationship. The cat litter used in this project is sourced from a single manufacturer operating two quarries. As these five core samples show, a common source geography is distributed geographically as the supply chain distributes the clay to retailers. In fact this is a one-to-many relationship between source geography and destination geographies.

Sparing some of the details of my talk, the point is that the force of the supply chain reorganizes geography faster than nature does. It is kind of unnatural that clay from a Georgia clay pit ends up in a California landfill. The same is true for all of the sediments in these core samples and for any sediment commodified into a product. And the product cycle is months, not the millennia of slow geologic shift. When a source geography becomes part of a destination geography it becomes part of the record of that new location. The designation geography is forced to adopt the immigrating sediment commodity into the geologic profile. That's just the way we have organized our world. And just like human immigration over time produces a new type of local citizen as generations root and anchor themselves to a new place, so too these sediments establish themselves as new local sediments. A new type of "local" emerges.

In the next post I'll describe the second half of my talk which focused on the convergence of sea water components in grocery stores, and then in part three I'll outline a model for an infrastructure landscape design practice.