Deep time

Barbara Boiocchi, Emma James, Valerie Furnham & Pia Galvez

Deep time – Walking between the second and the million

Sourdough (wheat flour, water, microorganisms, fermentation), soil, sprouts, glass
Site-specific installation
Variable dimensions


1. Process

Our site-specific collaborative project woul not have popped-up without the debates and bonds created through of the residency talks and exchanges or without the assumption of it as an immersive opportunity to cooperate with like-minded artists with different backgrounds.

The collaborative experience of artists working together echoes the approach required to conduct sustainable activities.
The very act of working together nurtures a mutual respect and perception of the other as equal to oneself and worthy of notice and consideration.
It is this attitude and appreciation of our surroundings, fellow man, activities and customs, that engenders sustainable situations. By considering how we choose to live, how we choose to act and the effect it has on everything living and existing around us it is possible to achieve balance.
Sustainability is all about balance, cause and effect and connecting these happenings.  The continuation of one side becoming dominant, by the very nature of imbalance the situation cannot last indefinitely. Unbalance is the direct result of one side becoming too dominant, and by its very nature, an unbalance situation is an unstable one and will not last indefinitely.

Long term inattention to sustainability as a life choice can result in the other side of the scale, that of living in a mindful sustainable manner, seeming to be small and insignificant and not worthy of notice. Everything that is done towards adressing this imbalance pushes the possibility of sustainability further forward.  The goal of sustainability often appears to be so large as to be unachievable and with this thought it is easy to decide it is impossible so not worth attempting. If each of us had started out at the beginning of the Residency knowing we had to achieve all we did achieve in the installation it could have seemed daunting and unachievable for one artist working alone.  Working in a collaboration made all we achieved easy and enjoyable and allowed us to each achieve more than we could have done separately, sharing information, ideas and enthusiasm in a sustainable manner and achieving a balance which would not have been possible alone.

During the Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) talk they mentioned that the three pillars of sustainable development reflecting the 80’s vision under the umbrella of the ‘Our Common Future’ (Brundtland et al.,1987) are being updated. Economic growth, social inclusion and environmental balance) are not enough in our times; the call nowadays is for the inclusion of culture as the 4th pillar of sustainability. Also ‘The Limits to Growth’ (Meadows et al.,1972) model is also being updated, what means a reconsideration about the global freshwater use and a need for a land system,….

Another important inspiration was the CamBake one. The Cambridge Community Bakery aim is to provide sourdough bread with locally-sourced flour. Their bread is leavened using naturally occurring yeasts within the flour.
A valuable discussion with researchers from the GSI revealed personal batles in people’s minds about who sustainability is for.
During a discussion with Davide Natalini and Julie-Anne Hogbin of the Cambridge Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) there appeared a battle within people’s personal thoughts as to who sustainability is for. Is it about making the earth sustainable in its own right and just to keep the conditions for diverse life or is sustainability for our own personal survival as humans. They are both interconnected we rely on the ecosystem the planet has to offer which is only possible with the fine balance of species in an environmental equilibrium. The conclusion of this debate though was that we are knowledgeable about this cause and effect. We know what we are doing to our own species and to the planet and because of this knowledge we have a choice. As Robin McKie writes in his review of ‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History’  by Elizabeth Kolbert;

‘the crucial point about the current extinction is that the agent involved is not an inanimate object or a geological force but a living creature, Homo sapiens.’

Art belongs to culture. Culture belongs to human beings. There exists a bread culture, it is a staple food for many cultures and civilizations. Bread is leavened by yeast.
In poetical terms, it could be said that art belongs to culture inasmuch as culture belongs to human beings. Expanding this poetic license, it could be said that there is also a ‘bread culture’, which has the double meaning of being both a staple food for many civilizations as well as a reference to yeast.

Other inputs appeared during the discussion and review with Sergio Fava were: water; involvement; audience as performer and not as an observer; giving something to people that involves time; yeast culture; duration; time as social convention versus natural time.

Our relationship with sustainability seems to be pinned on our relationship to the concept of time. What is the timeframe in which we are to be sustainable? What are we trying to sustain; the world? other species? the individual? the human race? politics and the economy? Sustainability of all these ecologies requires an engagement on very different time scales. The GSI works on sustainability within a time frame of 5 years, the time to which our politics works; and their responses are under the form of data (rational response), not art (emotional response).
This seemed, to a group of us, in contradiction to our experience of the landscape, a landscape that exists and develops in what is known as deep time, defined as:

‘the multimillion year time frame within which scientists believe the earth has existed, and which is supported by the observation of natural, mostly geological, phenomena.’

Deep time is a timeframe that extends beyond human history, making it a hard concept to comprehend. Yet to understand sustainability we must understand the timeframe in which the earth operates.
Can our understanding of time incorporate the magnitude of deep time? Ancient civilizations evolved around an understanding of deep time. From Stonehenge, the Inca temples, the Pyramids to a passage tomb in Newgrange, Ireland, humans have built structures that celebrate and connect with the planet’s timeframe but with the development of our clock we have structured time to a smaller scale, we are only reminded of the change of the seasons by the change from GMT to BST. We carry about with us an instrument to measure the passing second while ignoring the millions of years before and after. So what does time really mean for us? In ‘In Search of Time’ John Shea says that time is the: ‘Ability to perceive the future in terms of contingencies.’, in terms of ‘if this, then that will happen’.
Time is about cause and effect, our ability to predict. As the knowledge of our environment increases at an alarming rate, our ability to predict has taken us back to reconnect with the concept of deep time as we predict our own demise as a species, or use prediction as the ultimate sustainability tool.

During the weekend we found the book ‘Fungal biology in the Origin and emergence of Life’ (Moore, 2013) at the Cambridge University Press bookshop. Within the book was the relevant quotation:

‘The rhythm of life in Earth includes several strong themes contributed by kingdom Fungi. So why are fungi ignored when theorist ponder the origin of life?’

The book also mentioned some ideas that widen our approach, for example the kingdoms for the living organisms on earth are: animals, plants, bacteria, proteins & fungi, that the earth is 4,6 bilions years old, humans are 200.000 years old and fungi are 500.000.000 years old and that the yeast is an eukaryotic single celled fungi.

The knowledge of our environment and where it comes from seems an important factor in how we reconnect with deep time. When Bob Evans came in to talk to us about his research into soil he gave a glimpse towards his vision of a Utopian farming method. He spoke of man replacing the machine and offered the idea of a form of conscription, where everyone at the age of 18 would spend 1 year tending the land and gathering crops. This brought forward the idea of disconnection with our environment and reintroducting the cycles of the landscape, the seasons, the light, the weather and this concept seemed to underpin our collaborative group. This process seemed to align to the process we were taking to tend for our yeast, daily feeding and the right temperature. He also mentioned that the loss of soil has a big impact on crops, and he pointed out that when the soil is washed away every time it rains, the chemicals and fertilisers are also washed away, becoming a  major source of pollution (the most part of the pollution comes from them and it goes to the water each time it rains). The basis of his work is the observation and we commonly use that methodology.

Yeasts are fungi that can be at the origins of life. Yeast is a living and natural product and heritage. To make sourdough bread the yeast fermentates the flour. Flour comes from grain; we need a fertile soil to plant and cultivate a cereal with water and Sun.  The Sun is at the heart of our solar system, the macrocosm. The fungi, compared to the solar system could be considered, the microcosm.

2. Outcome
There are wild yeast spores floating in the air. Is it maybe a myth? If that is true we can have site-specific yeast depending on where we feed it.
We were feeding the yeast at the gallery. The center of the site-specific installation was a fishbowl filled with that yeast. The yeast was then on a plint, an altar and center of our cosmos. The fishbowl was a container that remembered the relationship with a pet (you have to feed your yeast) and a sphere that evoked the microcosm and macrocosm.
Recorded loops of the amplified sound of the sourdough living and growing, normally inaudible, that could be heard from hanging headphones around the fishbowl and the projections over it of about its fermentation were representing the microcosm. The macrocosm was represented by several hanging spheres orbiting around the fishbowl filled with soil containing sprouts from different cereals and yeast to enrich the soil.

To guarantee the audience as performer and not observer, we first walked around the city asking to the people in the streets of Cambridge what were their feelings and actions about Sustainability. Thinking – learning – feeling are actions that require the investment of a different time from the one we use to produce something material. These actions come from the answer to the suggestion: ’Give me three example of things you do in your daily life which are sustainable.’ These actions create another kind of deep time, which respects the natural pace of growth that each devotes to one’s own evolution. A time when the human is at the centre and pays attention to his feelings about contributing to the community and the surrounding environment. This actions grew out of the idea that time is money that can be exchanged for things: ‘Quid Pro Quo: Negotiating Futures’. Every person who answered spent time on the topic of sustainability, triggered an instantly thought that may be food for thought in the future.

Those 20 papers with handwritten answers on one side allowed us to cover 20 jars filled with the specially prepared yeast. We handwrote on the other side of the paper the instructions to look after the sourdough.

The jars were a present only available during the inauguration. To obtain the jars, people were asked to answer the same survey and signed a certificate of commitment to look after the sourdough. Thanks to them we started a chain with 20 new surveys, that are with us and available to do the same in the future.

To enable the viewer to become part of the artwork was one aim, but also by being involved in the experience of the installation the viewer became aware of the Sourdough Starter as a life form and a giver of life and sustenance.  The acceptance of the responsibility of nurturing a jar of the Sourdough Starter and the symbolic and actual signing of the book as recognition of that commitment to another life brought them into the circle of Sustainability and engendered a respect for this life and what it freely offers.

In the piece ‘Deep Time’ the process of nurturing for the yeast made the invisible of the air into a living, breathing tangible creature. The invisible became visible altering our idea of yeast away from an inanimate substance and making it into a living pet that each person when leaving the gallery were conscripted to take care of.

Time has become the common thread of our site-specific collaborative project site-specific activating a process of awareness and care in the audience.

Quid Pro Quo: Negotiating Futures
10 – 13 April
Changing Spaces (Cambridge, United Kingdom)

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