Carl Olsson is a geographer and writer doing his PhD at Newcastle University in the context of human geography’s terrestrial turn. His research concerns whether it is possible to think of oneself as a rock, arguing that the answer can inform a naturalistic self-understanding in geography. His short fiction typically departs from the same line of inquiry. Olsson has recently contributed to the second cycle of ‘The Terraforming’ at Strelka Institute and has been a researcher at The New Centre for Research & Practice.
Title: Sandbox schematism
There is a lot of talk about geomorphic agency right now. We are supposedly geomorphic agents ourselves, from Lascaux to Bingham Canyon and from Kola to Kiruna (which honestly isn’t that far). But what is geomorphic agency – really? It may be that we don’t fully know what we talk about when we understand ourselves in geomorphic terms, and that such self-understandings remain an open arena for fun. Surely, the prospect goes far beyond the discourse on the Anthropocene as we know it.
One image that comes to mind is the sandbox. Yes, those in which children build their castles and play with their toys. Kids are agents who move quite a bit of earth, after all.
There is another sense of geomorphic agency present in the image of the sandbox too. Occasionally children draw self-portraits in the sand. When they do so they depict agency in the earth and turn the sandbox into a strange double image: an image of moving earth and an image of the mover drawn in the earth.
But what if this double image was always there? So that the sand is – irrespective of its received form – always an apt depiction of the kind of agency that is proper to thoughtful diggers in virtue of being, well, granular. The sandcastle, in this case, counts as a self-portrait as much as the picture of the child’s face. What would accepting this premise have us say about thought and its affinities? Is thought granular like sand or empty like a bore hole?
In any case, children are not alone to make self-portraits. We insist that the double image illustrated in and by the sandbox is a generally valid geomorphic schema of which there are numerous instantiations – all available for studious documentation. Mine shafts, rock art installations and concrete factories all count if properly demarcated.
In this project we will follow this slightly mad schema for recognizing depictions of geomorphic agency and look for, build, modify, and play with other double images of agency in soil, while closely documenting the journey. We think of this as a lighthearted process where we build and search for concrete instances of what is essentially premised on a delusional inflection to the effect that deliberately moved soil under certain constraints represents the agency that belongs to its mover. It’s delusional because we take it to be true by postulation, but we’ll bite the bullet to toy with the boundaries of what geomorphic agency can mean.
We hope to present our project as an illustrated short story that moves between plant pots, pit mines, 3D-printers and termite mounds. Perhaps we’ll invent a protagonist of the story: a down to earth philosopher or a highly dedicated proponent of ‘geopsychism’ or something like it.
With all this said here’s a provisional summary of the main schema we’ll follow to identify double images for the story:
The components: A box full of sand with a programmable robot arm or a child.
The stakes: The eyes of the human.
The apophanous premise: The sandbox and the child present a double image: 1) a depiction of geomorphic agency and 2) a geomorphic depiction of agency. It is a desert mind for a deserted planet.
The instructions: Seek images like the above; play with them, change the parameters according to your taste. Document the process.