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Photography - Issue #8

Naturalists of the Long Now

Words and artworks by Ian van Coller

Climate change has highlighted the human impact on geologic time scales, making it essential to find ways to conceptualise deep time. My project, Naturalists of the Long Now, seeks to make notions of deep time comprehensible through visual exploration of glacier ice, as well as other earthly archives. Initially inspired by the 10,000 Year Clock project of the Long Now Foundation, I have begun collaborating with scientists to make art that challenges viewers to think about the vast scales of geologic time - both past and future - that are recorded not only in the earth’s ice bodies, but in trees, sediments, corals and fossils.

In 2015, I was able to accompany a team of geoscientists who specialise in climate science related to Quelccaya Glacier in Peru. I was astonished at the endurance of these men and women. Every day they would climb to the summit of the glacier at 5,669m (18,600ft), and then work over 10 hours straight, drilling ice cores, digging snow pits, and collecting data. It would be exhausting work at sea level, let alone at altitude. I realised I really had a lack of understanding of what the scientists were trying to do. Where the symbolic conversations in my ice portraits ended, the deep knowledge of ice possessed by the scientists would sustain and expand it.

When I was a young person, I was fascinated by the annotated drawings and paintings of Victorian era naturalists, botanists and ornithologists. These brought together the two things I loved most in the world - art and nature. Since that expedition to Peru, I have started intimate collaborations with scientists by having them annotate directly onto my photographic prints, a contemporary taxonomy of ice and climate, reinventing a genre of naturalist imagery.

Naturalists of the Long Now breaks down barriers between art and science, and creates a dialogue between text and image, landscape and viewer, expert and novice, past, present and future. My intention is that Naturalists of the Long Now will encourage people to think in terms of longer spans of time, and consider what humanity will look like in 100 or even 10,000 years - instead of just considering our personal and immediate desires.

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