This article was written on 04 Mar 2016, and is filled under New Ecologies.

An Anthropocene Observatory

Performers in David Buuck's Buried Treasure Island: A Tour and Workshop

Buried Treasure Island: A Tour and Workshop, facilitated by David Buuck (2013).

I. The Geology of San Francisco

During the summer of 2015 NASA made a startling announcement: Pluto has geology. Images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft indicated the presence of active geological processes on this dwarf planet. Besides being a novel discovery, to my ears this was also a novel expression: geology as something that a planet can or cannot have, like biology.

At this time I was participating in an Urban Fellow Residency in the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, as part of the museum’s Environmental Initiative that includes writers, environmental scientists, urban planners, physicists, coders, data visualizers, botanical illustrators, and exhibit designers. My intersection with the museum first occurred two years earlier, obliquely and off-site, on a multi-day walk that led from the Embarcadero to Mt. Diablo and whose attendant conversations revealed a number of shared interests in language, landscape, and the challenge of articulating what Tim Robinson in The Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage calls “the adequate step”:

our craggy, boggy, overgrown and overbuilt terrain, on which every step carries us across geologies, biologies, myths, histories, politics, etcetera [sic], and trips us with […] personal associations. To forget these dimensions of the step is to forgo our honour as human beings, but an awareness of them equal to the involuted complexities under foot at any given moment would be a crushing backload to have to carry.

Two year later, following an invitation by curator Susan Schwartzenberg, the Bay Observatory provided an ideal setting to consider the “involuted complexities underfoot”: the maps, atlases, regional history books, and geologic guides of the Observatory Library (curated by the amazing Prelinger Library) set against the backdrop of the craggy, boggy, overgrown and overbuilt terrain of San Francisco, and in particular an area (the Embarcadero) reclaimed from the Bay with dredged sand and mud, waste rock and debris, the quarried face of Telegraph Hill, as well as hundreds of Gold Rush-era scuttled ships–and all of this resting on the mountains of bulldozed hash” (John McPhee) that occupied the place of any bedrock. Reflecting on this unsettled ground (doubly so because of the city’s current eviction rate) and with the unsettling news that Pluto has geology ringing in my ear I began to speculate on the questions that occupied my residency: Can a city have geology? How would this recognition disturb a sense of place? How could this recognition alter the dimensions of a step and the attendant poetics of walking? 

While browsing the Observatory Library I had come across a number of geologic guides, from Clyde Wahrhaftig’s legendary Streetcar to Subduction to Doris Sloan’s The Geology of the San Francisco Bay Region. These guides detail the notoriously unsettled lithosphere beneath the city rather than the effects of the built environment on that lithosphere. But in a moment of lexical astigmatism I (mis)read the preposition “of” in “the geology of San Francisco” and took the phrase to refer to the city—its inhabitants, its developers, its agencies, its structures and its infrastructures—as an active geological process.

Just as a Freudian slip can give insight into the working of the unconscious, a misconstrued preposition might offer a glimpse into an emerging state of affairs on a planet with seven billion inhabitants concentrated in metropolitan spaces. Are there urban landforms, are there anthropogenic strata that could be construed as a geology? Other volumes in the library, such as Shifting Shoals and Shattered Rocks—How Man Has Transformed the Floor of West-Central San Francisco Bay, offer some positive indications.

Further evidence has been marshaled from an increasingly vocal contingent of geologists and atmospheric scientists who contend that humanity now constitutes a geological agency, and moreover that we have mined, eroded, burned, and bombed our way out of the Holocene and into a new epoch that has been given the epithet of the Anthropocene. While a working group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy deliberates this new geological epoch, artists and writers are already contending, both playfully and critically, with the idea that humanity has geology. Perhaps with a more discerning eye we can also say that cities have geologies.

II. A Peripatetic Reference Library

While the ultimate material signature of this new epoch might be unseen—heavy metals in ice cores, radioactive nucleotides in sediment cores, elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, worldwide networks of subterranean infrastructures—I began to speculate on how we might nevertheless imagine and perceive the city as a geological actor. One aspect of the problem, as Rob Nixon succinctly writes, is that

we’re simply not accustomed—maybe even equipped—to conceive of human consequences across such a vastly expanded temporal stage. How can we begin to internalize our role as Anthropocene actors, to inhabit that role feelingly?

To find at least a measure of the magnitude of this task would be a start. A first step, so to speak, might take the form of observing the asymmetry of a footstep’s dimensions today, the growing lack of equivalence between a stride and the stratigraphy it traverses, the (un)conformity between the human and the geological, the utter derangement of scale that even an ordinary walk can initiate in an age of planetary anthroturbation. In One Step, Travel From The Age Of Reptiles To The Age Of Mammals. An interpretive panel that I stumbled across at the base of Mt. Diablo suggested to me that the perhaps impossible task of inhabiting the role of an Anthropocene actor might be undertaken on foot.


The question, now, is how to negotiate an emergent boundary with wildly fluctuating feet. In On Step, Travel From the Age of Mammals to the Age of Plantations. Consider consumption footprints, carbon footprints, water footprints, and trash footprints: the human foot bears the mark of a planetary Oedipus, in that the average ecological footprint in the U.S. has swollen to an estimated 9.4 global hectares, or roughly a million square feet, according to the WWF. Per pair of feet.

Drawing on my interest in walking as a form of knowing (and not-knowing), I began to collect volumes for a Peripatetic Reference Library that would indicate various pedestrian tactics for inhabiting, perceiving, or otherwise observing the landscapes transformed by anpthropogeomorphology and anthroturbation. The latter term, elaborated in 1999 by artist John Roloff in “Holocene Terrace,”

 describes the disturbance, dislocation and restructuring of geologic formations and materials by human agencies into new forms. These processes have analogies in the natural world, such as: mining as erosion, transport as flow and construction as sedimentation. Likewise, the built topography of a city can be understood in geomorphic terms: streets as canyons, buildings as plateaus, sewers as caves and plazas as playas.

A starting point was offered by A Walker’s Guide to the Geology of San Francisco (A Special Supplement to the Mineral Information Service, Volume 19, Number 11, 1966) and its ten guided walks, especially “A Petrographic Nature Walk through the Financial District.” (Perhaps the most compelling evidence for considering San Francisco as a geologic force would be the absence of almost all of the buildings and ornamental features described in this walk.)


Smudge Studio’s delightful Geologic City: a Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York (2011), which playfully draws connections between urban phenomena and geologic forces and formations, bookended the collection. Presented as a field guide and showcasing 20 sites to “sense the geologic pulse of New York City,” this book is the kind of speculative tool that speaks to the itinerant patrons of the Peripatetic Reference Library. I’ve thought about adapting the guide to San Francisco under the title San Francisco is a Geologic Farce.

In addition to providing shelter for intellectual vagabonds, in what other ways might the Observatory offer insight into a new geological epoch in which the distinction between the built environment and its lithic substrate, between the local and planet, has become blurred? In what ways might it serve as an Anthropocene Observatory? If our species has unintentionally “stumbled” into a new geological epoch, to use Dipesh Chakrabarty’s term, it is appropriate that the Observatory’s curators seem to have somewhat inadvertently  brought together a set of objects and instruments into a constellation that is deserving such a momentous title.  (In fact, I recently stumbled across a compelling film project by Armin Linke, Territorial Agency (John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog), and Anselm Franke called “Anthropocene Observatory.”)

Just as 19th century museums of natural history played an instrumental role in reconstructing the history of the earth, so too are contemporary museums emerging as key sites for inquiry into the volatile present and future of the planet. While proposals for monumental climate-change museums receive (and warrant) extensive media coverage, it seems to me that an equal or greater amount of attention should be focused on the re-purposing and re-functioning of existing museums’ collections around questions of climate and the socio-political forces shaping it. (Here the interventions undertaken by The Natural History Museum deserve special mention.)  And here the Observatory also seems uniquely poised to lead this inquiry.

III. A Step Back: Genealogies of Geological Observation

The more time that I spent time in the Observatory, the more I began to understand how this space both commemorates and is haunted by geologic landforms that have served as key sites of observation in the history of geology. Before determining its capacity to serve as an observatory for an emerging terrestrial stratum, I want to linger on a few of that genealogies of geological observation that inform this space.

1. Observatory as Underland

Photo by Bruce Damonte.

Bay Observatory. Photo by Bruce Damonte.

First, you might imagine the glass encasement of the Bay Area Observatory as a subterranean space. Despite the Observatory’s minimal interface between interior and exterior, over the summer I came to think of this glass enclosure as a pseudo-karst topography. In such a cave-like landscape we’re appropriately situated to contemplate the deep time of life. As Rosalind Williams shows in Notes on the Underground, in the 19th c., the underground facilitated both geologic observation and poetic inspiration unlike any other site. It was in these underground spaces that some of the most significant discoveries of fossils were made—discoveries that led to the discovery of geologic time beyond human history—such as the bone cavern at Gaylenreuth in Germany, explored and depicted by English geologist William Buckland (1784-1856), who held these fossils to be evidence of antediluvian life.


Section of the bone cavern at Gaylenreuth, Franconia, Germany. Printed in: The Wonders of Geology, Gideon Algernon Mantell, (1838).

However, the relics housed in the Exploratorium’s cavernous Observatory—in particular artifacts from scuttled Gold Rush-era ships—are not of prehistory but rather of recent human history. In this way these objects might serves as props in a pre-enactment (David Buuck) of a future diluvial event, where we are invited to imagine ourselves somewhere in the deep future looking back at relics of a common calamity from the deep past, namely the current inundation of the city by melting polar glaciers. (In fact, a slow flood event is currently modeled in the new Changing Shorelines exhibit, which spans the last post-glacial maximum 18,000 years ago to the year 2100.) Against the backdrop of San Francisco becoming inundated by rising seas, the relics from 19th century shipwrecks suggest those of the 21st.  This anachronism is in fact the same move made by a key text of modernism, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, in which he advocates a dialectical thinking that would recognize “the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.”

2. Observatory as Cliff

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Caspar David Freidrich, “Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer” (1818). Exploratorium redux.

Second, the Observatory resembles a cliff, not only in the vertical perspective it offers of the Bay, but also in the way that it promotes cartographic vision and stratigraphic thinking. Starting around 1800 a new spatial awareness, encompassing the spatialization of time—“deep time”—and the temporalization of nature—“natural history”—begins to emerge from the vertical perspective afforded by the sheer granite mountains and cliffs in Germany and which form a primary topos in the emerging Romantic movement and the nascent earth sciences alike. The vertical perspective of the cliff, developed in conjunction with a concerted study of stratigraphy, informs many exhibitions in the Observatory, from the USGS sediment samples of San Francisco Bay mud to the NASA satellite images that cascade across the video wall.

3. Observatory as Erratic

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Julius Schoppe, “Abbildung des großen Markgrafen Steins auf den Rauenschen Bergen bei Fürstenwalde” (1827).

Third, the Observatory resembles an erratic both institutionally and architecturally–as a foreign object deposited onto the original museum–but also as an object that furthers our understanding of deep time and glacial theory, as did the classic erratic blocks of Northern Europe. The large granite boulders that came to be classified and known as glacial erratics, as they had been picked up by expanding glacier and continental ice sheets and then deposited in foreign ground when those glaciers retreated, were some of the more crucial pieces of evidence both in reconstructing the planet’s climatic fluctuations and in anticipating that climate’s future volatility. Careful observation of these blocks, especially the depth and orientation of the grooves on their surface, led to the so-called glacial theory and the discovery of former ice ages. As the focus of the Observatory increasingly compasses climate change, it too offers a vantage point for understanding the startling volatility of the planet’s climactic system.

IV. An Anthropocene Observatory or A Cabinet of Anthropocenic Curiosities?

If the jumbled strata of the earth are a museum, as Robert Smithson writes, could we also consider the jumbled museum as a stratum of the earth? Just as the jumbled collection of objects found in Renaissance Cabinet of Curiosities were attempts to organize the organic and inorganic worlds in the absence of reliable taxonomies, so too does the array of geological objects and instruments in the Observatory testify to the inadequacy of existing taxonomies that distinguish all too rigidly between the cultural and the geological. What follows are some objects and instruments, drawn with one exception from the Observatory’s exhibits, for either an Anthropocene Observatory or a provisional Cabinet of Anthropocenic Curiosities.  Like the misreading of a preposition, the aspect of these objects that interest me typically came from acts of reading, listening, and observing gone awry.

Seep City

Detail from Seep City.

A featured map in the Observatory, Joel Pomerantz’s Seep City, charts the waterscape of San Francisco, but the contour lines at five foot intervals also register an infrastructural footprint in the topography itself. Streets, highways, reservoirs and railroad grades interrupt the rolling contours with a deranged geometry of polygons and ziggurats, as though the landscape were in the process of crystallizing. At this level of detail the “anthropogeomorphology” of the city, glossed as “the study of landscape altered by humans” by Matthew Coolidge of The Center for Land Use Interpretation, begins to emerge.


Photomontage courtesy of Bryan Connell.

Bryan Connell, Photomontage from the Geotechture Observation Station.

A deeper dive into the city’s geotechture—a portmanteau of “geology” and “architecture” and “technics”—is afforded by Bryan Connell’s touch screen survey instrument for observing the brick warehouses of San Francisco’s Northeast Waterfront Historic District. Reading the buildings as a form of “human-mediated sedimentary layering” amidst the “biogenic urban geology of the neighborhood,” Connell’s geotechture observation station also contains a photomontage of these buildings and the shale quarry landscape where they originated across the Bay. Rather than an act of artistic caprice, this photomontage rehearses the space-time compression characteristic of Anthropocene geographies in a time where transoceanic and transcontinental transportation systems have stitched together a global supercontinent that geographer Alfred Crosby calls “the reconstitution of Pangaea.”

Financial District as Minescape

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If the Geotechture Observation Station invites us to rethink urban architecture as geology, it also invites us to think of the quarries and mines that furnish the city’s building materials as part of its geotectural legacy. As art historian Lucy Lippard writes in her recent Undermining, “The gravel pit, like other mining holes, is the reverse image of the cityscape it creates—extraction in the aid of erection.” The image of the mine as inverted city can be traced back to San Francisco and more specifically to Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. Brechin argues that we should look to Sierra mines for the financial and architectural origins of the city, and to this I would only add that we should look to these holes and pits for the geotechtural legacy of the city as well.

The Bay as Minescape

The two USGS sediment core samples exhibited in the Observatory attest to yet other minescapes being reconstituted throughout the region. Equal in length, but taken from different locations in the Bay, one mud core contains sediments deposited over several thousand years, while the other sample contains sediments only deposited since 1870. One reason for the disparity can be attributed to the massive erosion resulting from hydraulic gold mining in the Sierra starting during the 1850s. The resulting sediment flows significantly altered the topography of the Bay, in some cases drastically, as well as various hydrological systems.

Protogaea Civica

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John Roloff, Protogaea Civica I (Franciscan Formation/San Francisco, CA). Flag Sequence from Top: Reinforced Concrete; Ferruginous Radiolarian Chert; Meta-basalt/Greenstone; Graywacke/Metagraywacke Sandstone; Shale Matrix Melange/Shear Zone; Serpentinite.

Like “free-standing core samples,” John Roloff’s Geologic Flagsonce arrayed at points around the city, contributed in no small measure both to the possibility and impossibility of articulating the adequate step. Indicating lateral changes in the geologic information below them, the flags also register the anthropogenic strata directly underfoot, in this case reinforced concrete. While the flags might perturb patriots –Should I pledge allegiance to the Pleistocene or the Holocene?—ultimately they might facilitate a much-needed recalibration of our sense of place.

New Landmasses


If a planet can have geology, and if a metropolis can have geology, can I have geology? Yes, according to Exploratorium Artist-in-Residence Ilana Halperin, who is currently developing a project with the working title of a “Library of Earth Anatomy.” I first encountered in Halperin’s work in 2012 at the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité. The focal point of the exhibition STEINE was a collection of body stones, and mounted on the main wall were hundreds of gall stones, bladder stones, and kidney stones that had been gathered and curated from the museum’s archives. “We all form geology,” announced the exhibition boldly, and these and other “new landmasses” point toward a rapprochement between the human and its lithic counterparts. At the individual scale, Ilana Halperin’s work observing, documenting, and participating in the formation of new landmasses helps us to understand our own minerality, our need to recalibrate our sense of time and place in the city, and our deep response-ability for the planet. This, it seems to me, is the task of an Anthropocene Observatory.

If my residency largely took the form of walks–through the city, through time, through the museum–those conversations and and in landscape continue in writing. “I am astounded,” writes W.G. Sebald of the log books in Southwold’s Sailors Reading Room in his fictional travelogue The Rings of Saturn, “that a trail that has long since vanished from the air or the water remains visible here on the paper.” The constellations of books and objects that formed over the summer may have been as evanescent as the ominous contrail at the outset of The Rings of Saturn, but like that trail they might also mark “the beginning of a fissure” and moreover the beginning of a new geological boundary, a new dimension to the step, a new way to see, to approach, and to traverse, the museum.

 Thanks to the Observatory curator Susan Schwarztenberg and the members of the Environmental Initiative for hosting me, thanks to the SEED fund for financial support, and thanks to my other interlocutors and co-conspirators: Marina McDougall, Kirstin Bach, Matthew Booker, Jane Wolff, John Gillis, Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough, Trina Noval, Bryan Connell, Ilana Halperin, Gaily Ezer, John Roloff, Michael Swaine, Chris Sollars, Ignacio Valero, Sara Dean, Lynn Marie Kirby, Seth Denizen, and many others.

Updated 14. March. 2016.


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