All Shook Up: Seismic Art

Interviews Aug 20, 2008 No Comments

From Carrie Miller

Too often issues of art and ethics get plugged into the broader moral panics that are endlessly swirled around by the cultural leaf blower we call the mass media – that noisy, pointless, impotent machine. While artists are first in line for a negative beat-up, the mainstream media shows little interest in another, more positive story about the ethics of art-making – those artistic projects conducted by largely unknown and unsupported artists whose passionate belief in their practice overcome incredible financial and logistical problems to achieve works of remarkable intergity.

D V Rogers is part of this rare breed – an independent artist, never represented by a commercial gallery, who is working to realize his long-held artistic dream of building and operating his “site-specific machine controlled earthwork” in the middle of the Californian desert. As Rogers’ wesbite explains the Parkfield Inertventional EQ Fieldwork (PIEQF)is a “site-specific machine installation […] located approximately 190 miles from San Francisco and 210 miles from Los Angeles” and is an “example of earthquake art [that] converges [a] near real time control of an earthquake simulator placed on site in Parkfield. This machine controlled earthwork is a feedback loop between the seismicity of California and the conceptual interpretation of these reported Californian seismic events by means of the earthquake simulator and a formation of high tensile steel rods, 110 lengths of 1/2 inch tensile steel bar at up to 12.0m in length will be fixed to the earthquake simulator. These steel rods will oscillate in synchronous motion and chaotic grandeur each time a Californian earthquake is reported.”

Stephen Oxenbury, a friend of Rogers, describes him as “probably the most driven person I know. Largely rejected by Australian government funding bodies, he definitely seems to have the balls to put himself right out there without any safety net. From what I gather he did have interest from the US Geological Survey who were going to give him some dollars but pulled out at the last minute, by which time his emotional trigger had been sprung and the train had no way of stopping. So he sent his shipping container over to San Francisco without having enough cash to pawn it out of the docks. He’s been winging it ever since. I even sent him over 100 bucks for burgers at one point.”

I was intrigued by Rogers’ ambitious work so I emailed him some questions about what the hell he was doing…

Parkfield Interventional Earthquake Fieldwork
3d Site Visualisation
© D.V.Rogers 2006

What inspired you to create PIEQF? Did the science come first or the art?

DV Rogers: The science and the art came together in conceiving and creating PIEQF. This planning behind this earthwork has considered almost every detail in referencing both seismology, land art and machine control principals. PIEQF is the result of ten years development and process. Directly I have spent the past two years working on planning and preparing for the installation here in Parkfield. The inspiration behind the PIEQF is drawn from various influences; geographical location and conceptual pinpointing. I had become aware of Parkfield around 2000 as the most seismologically monitored area on the planet. During the mid 1980’s the US Geological Survey (USGS) and affiliated institutes implemented the ‘Parkfield Earthquake Experiment’. Historically Parkfield has experienced a M6.0 or above earthquake event every 20 to 30 years, and driven by the USGS seismologists and geologists installed the largest array of monitoring instrumentation around Parkfield designed to capture data from a M6.0 earthquake as close as possible to the epicentre of an M6 event. On September 28th 2004 an M6.0 earthquake occurred, this earthquake has more data created as a result than any other earthquake ever recorded since the field of seismology began in the late 1800’s.

Parkfield is conceptually the purest site on this planet to install such a work. PIEQF is essentially an experiment.Parkfield is also basically the centre of the State of California and is located on the centre of the San Andreas Fault; the most hyped and publicised fault line on the planet. The Parkfield section of the San Andreas Fault is also known as ‘Creep Section’, because it’s always moving, creeping, crawling. The northern and southern ends of the San Andreas are what are known as ‘Locked Sections’. There is a theory that the Parkfield ‘Creep Sectiom’ section acts as a release point, like a kind of trigger stress point on the San Andreas Fault, though this theory is not quantified.

During late 2001 I got to know via email the USGS Seismologist, Andy Michael. Andy had written a piece of seismic music tiltled ‘Earthquake Quartet‘ and he allowed this musical piece to be performed at the opening of Seismonitor at Artspace in Wolloomooloo during early 2002. I continued to keep in touch with Andy and when I finally visited San Francisco in April 2006 for the 100th Anniversay of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake I visited the USGS Campus in Menlo Park and met Andy. We talked about where would be a good location to install such a work on the West Coast USA. Andy suggested Parkfield. It has turned out to be almost the perfect location.

PIEQF is part earthwork, part machine, part performance, part social experiment…

DVR: I have always been inspired by the late 1960’s and early 1970’s earth art / land art movement. Artists like Denis Oppenheim, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt and her partner Robert Smithson. The works and writings of Robert Smithson are very influential within PIEQF and issues of site and non-site, entropy, mapping and contextual displacement. I like to think if Smithson was still alive today he would be working in a similar way with his non-site theories in using data dissemination and communication technologies as a medium for mapping geographical location and entropy.

What are you hoping to achieve with the project from an artistic point of view?

DVR: PIEQF is a conceptual intervention within a geological time frame. I am interested in deep geological time and essentially PIEQF is an action and a system designed to intervene and introduce a humanistic time scale to the notion of deep time. In affect PIEQF is a blip on the geological radar! The earthquake shake table and formation of 5/8 (16mm) steel rods attached to the table acts as a physical and visual reflection of this seismic activity. On average 30-60 seismic events occur throughout CA daily, fortunately most of these events are micro earthquakes including artficial earthquakes as a result of quarry blasting. Essentially PIEQF is an interactive earthwork connecting, mapping and creating a mark, a temporary scar and a reference point within a geological time frame. The result; a NO trace, performance based, geological machine driven action in which the memory will remain well into the future after the intervention is finished but continue as a life as a series of documents and myth.

Can you explain simply how PIEQF works?

DVR: The PIEQF installation has two modes of conceptual and distinct system control – PIEQF is triggered by all micro seismic events that occur throughout the state of California. The conceptual basis behind this is to bring all seismic events that occur during the time of active intervention to a hypothetical epicentre. Each time a seismic event is reported the horizontal motion of the earthquake shake table is triggered. Surrounding the earthquake shake table and buried within the excavation is an array of vertical motion sensors called L10 Geophones. These Geophones are excited when walked over or jumped upon, triggering the vertical motion of the shake table. Visitors to the PIEQF can engage interactively with the PIEQF.

PIEQF sleeps at night between 9.30pm and 6.30am. The control system keeps running overnight collecting seismic events that occur then replays them at 6.30am every morning. After this morning replay sequence, PIEQF switches into live mode and is triggered by near-real time reported earthquakes (30sec – 3min after actual event occurs) and triggering of local Geophone sensors. Attached to the earthquake shake table is an array of 5/8 steel rods which resonate and deflect each time the shake table is triggered. At this point in time the PIEQF will run through until Sunday 16th November unless heavy rain falls or unforeseen mechanical problems occur.

Have you had much interest from the locals – either through helping you with the project or just wanting to have a look at the earthwork as art?

DVR: The locals have been fantastic and very supportive. The Parkfield Cafe feeds me when I want a hamburger (as good as they are, once or twice a week at the most), the manager of the Cafe Bonnie, a big hearted generous soul has loaned an old RV Trailer to me which is my temporary home behind the Parkfield Inn. The camp is set up under a couple of large trees. It’s cool and shady. Effectively I am now US Trailer trash! Burt and Pat my neighbors behind the inn, let me run power to my camp, invite me for meals and I am welcome to as many eggs as I can eat as they have 2 dozen chickens. Frank Parlet who has been around Parkfield for thirty years and owns a D4 bulldozer did the excavation and invited another contractor on the day, John Jamrog who brought his John Deere excavator. The trench took 7 hours to dig. John refused to take money from me, kept his excavator onsite and it was used to walk the eq table into the trench in one piece several weeks later after the excavation took place.

For the first four weeks of assemblage and installing I had these small teams drive down from San Francisco to help out on weekends. These are connections I have built over the last two years with individuals from Survival Research Laboratories and The Flaming Lotus Girls. El Fonzo and his El Fonzo junior, and daughter Erica, a local Mexican family helped with hand digging of trenches for cable to laid, fence post holes dug and some hand digging that was required in the trench. The great thing about El Fonzo and family was that they were the only people paid to help out. A nice play on the idea of Mexican cheap labour. They earned more than anyone else. Must admit I think they just thought I was just some crazy Gringo with a strange accent and they couldn’t understand why I would work for free.

“Parkfield Interventional Earthquake Fieldwork”
1:25 Scale Model
© D.V.Rogers 2006

Where did you acquire your obvious technical proficiency for such a project?

DVR: Interestingly I actually don’t feel I have any great technical proficiency. I am a boundary rider working on the edge and as I have learned over the years you need to have a range of diverse skills to survive on the fringe and within cracks. I completed a BFA at COFA in 1995, Major in Photography, then started working with Triclops International, a machine based arts unit that worked out of Leichhardt and around this time I started building film sets and some mech engineering in the Australian Film Industry. I stopped working in commercial film in 2004 but I did pick up alot of steel fabrication skills. Before leaving Australia to install PIEQF this May I had been installing medical imaging equipment like X-Ray and CT scanners on a casual contract basis. My skill base comes from applied application. You dont know if you can do, unless you try. I am more driven by focus and ambition to achieve tasks. So maybe where I am not blessed by skill I make up for it with drive and focus. Admittedly this comes with a price, I have had to let alot go to create the PIEQF. Essentially I am rough hacker who’s skill is best applied to re-appropriating tools and technology away from there original intentions of use. What skills I do have come from a very long period of time focused on learning and research and not being out in the public showing work. Through the late 90’s and early 00’s I declined numerous offers of collaboration and $$ to work in film. It took application to not be tempted to earn a buck.

What did “recommissioning” an earthquake simulator involve?

DVR: The earthquake shake table was a ‘Duchampian’ ready made that came from the former Earth Exchange Museum, The Rocks, Sydney. To recommission the shake table involved getting it out of the museum, this happened early 1996. The machine had to be chopped into pieces to get out of the museum. The old steel frame and hydraulics sat around in storage for several years and it was not until 1998 I started to begin the recommissioning. The first step I took was to get into using the Linux operating system, I became a big advocate of the open source software movement, I still am though not as hardcore as I once was. The reason for Linux was that I wanted the shake table to be controlled by a non-proprietory operating system and hardware. Around that time some machine automation projects were beginning to appear within the Linux community. I started to follow them and started planning and researching how I would implement Linux as the flavour of operating system for the shake table. It would have been a lot quicker to use a propriortory based system that ran on Windows, but ethically and morally I was against this idea. And for good reason. I was fortunate to get funding from the Australia Council in mid 2000 which enabled me to spend 18 months full time re-designing and re-engineering the new shake table frame. This new design enabled the table to be dismantled and more portable as far as 4.5 tons go. The shake table packs into a customised 20ft container, just! The recommissioning was completed mid/late 2001 and the results were presented as ‘Seismonitor‘ at Artspace.

How did you overcome the problem with not having enough money with retrieving your machine from the docks?

DVR: I actually had enough to get it off the docks in San Francisco and truck to Parkfield. But then I was going to run out of funds to install. I managed to raise 10k very quickly at the last minute before arriving in Parkfield to begin the installation period early May.

Is it true you tried to get all sorts of arts funding bodies to support the project? On what basis were you rejected?

DVR: I have applied for funding three times to the Australia Council for the Arts (OZCO) directly related to the PIEQF over the past 18 months. They have all been rejected. I did have a meeting with the head of Inter Arts mid last year as to why funding was not given for me to undertake a residency with the USGS late last year. [I went ahead and did the residency all the same]. The main reason being was that I new exactly what I was intending to do and they were interested in projects that had outcomes that were blurry and undefined. I even got the handshake with the following comment thrown in ” But the great thing about people like you is that you find ways to do it”! I just recently applied for funding to OZCO to produce a book and DVD about the PIEQF early next year. I dont hold hope. But I will find a way to produce the documents the project warrants. I dont really want to bash OZCO but it really got screwed by the Howard Government and may well never recover. It’s a global condition as well. Surviving in media-based arts is one of the most difficult fields to get financial support with and when you do it never is enough. It many ways it is even harder in the US. But it was disappointing after initially getting funding to develop my work with the machine and seismology from OZCO and not get continued support for presentation. It’s all about fashion and barbie dolls!

Is it true you had funding from the National Geological Society that fell through at the last minute?

DVR: Not quite true. A seismologist at the USGS who runs this funding program called CRADA which is funds given to the USGS by a large CA electrical supplier called PG&E. He really like the project and thought it deserved a shot at being funded. He worked with me on and off over several months re-drafting my proposal and then when it was finally submitted to the CRADA board for submission they got nervous and rejected on the grounds it was more art than science.

Where are you getting the money from to keep the project going now?

DVR: I am completely out. PIEQF is up but I literally have $50 in my pocket and $100 in the bank. Now that the PIEQF is up and running I will begin fund raising again to keep the project going. I will be focusing on US companies and philanthropists. I need 5K minimum but 10K would certainly make it more workable. So far the project has cost $20K to get this far including sea freight of the machine to the US.

If people donate to your project now what will it allow you to do?

DVR: Eat. Put gas in the car! But essentially I need to raise up to 10k to put another 60 rods on the shake table and have a budget to pull the machine out of the trench and dissassemble. Having funds for this will make it so much easier to pay for some good skilled labour to come and help if I have some funds. I need to have a bulldozer come back and fill the trench late November. I also need to keep paying for my Satellite Internet connection service. I also owe the V2 Institute in Holland a little money for Stock’s software development work.

Support David Rogers and his PIEQF project by donating money via his blog – any amount will help!

Carrie Miller

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