Wood Grain Cosmogram

The previous post, looking at the possibility of an object that could be carved, whittled, and reduced infinitely, each section revealing new, fractal details, reminded me of two short films we showed several years ago at the Silver Lake Film Festival, both by architect Bradford Watson.

An over-literal description doesn't really do Watson's work justice. In the first one, embedded below, you are looking at nothing more complicated than a series of 768 sectional cuts taken through a 96-inch 2x4, after which the resulting wooden blocks were used to make black & white prints, and the prints were then played in sequence, like a flipbook. In the second film, you're watching something even more straight-forward, which is a "matched pair" of 2x4s that have been cut down, photographed, and filmed in order until there is no more 2x4 left to cut through.

And that's it.



But they're both well worth watching, if for no other reason than the sensation they give, in the first video's case, of flying forward through space, complete with weird astronomical bursts of energy shooting diagonally and comet-like across the wood grain (for example, the moment captured at 00:09-00:10).

In the second video, below, the wood seems to mimic the rings of Saturn, a planetary concentricity occasionally crossed and streaked by foreign objects (for example, see the event at 00:18-00:19 or rewatch the weird knotted prominence, like a solar storm in wood, that appears at 00:51-00:59).



It's as if the wood itself all along had been filming the sun somehow, capturing that solar exposure in wood and documenting the star whose radiation and light had helped it to grow in the first place—as if, when you slice down into something as simple as a 2x4 normally used to construct suburban houses, you can find films of the universe, weird short loops of the skies exploding, splintered by comets and solar storms.

In fact, I'm reminded of a quotation I've always liked, from a book called Earth's Magnetism in the Age of Sail by A.R.T. Jonkers: "In 1904 a young American named Andrew Ellicott Douglass started to collect tree specimens. He was not seeking a pastime to fill his hours of leisure; his motivation was purely professional. Yet he was not employed by any forestry department or timber company, and he was neither a gardener not a botanist. For decades he continued to amass chunks of wood, all because of a lingering suspicion that a tree's bark was shielding more than sap and cellulose. He was not interested in termites, or fungal parasites, or extracting new medicine from plants. Douglass was an astronomer, and he was searching for evidence of sunspots."

The idea that an astronomer seeking to study the sun would proceed by making incisions into trees, as if looking for solar fossils there—an astral forensics of the forest—is mind-bogglingly beautiful and seems also to form the poetic subtext that makes Bradford Watson's short films so captivating.

[Image: From The Fountain, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

A few years ago in Wired, meanwhile, veteran science journalist Steve Silberman wrote about the special effects created for Darren Aronofsky's film The Fountain. Aronofsky, Silberman explained, stumbled across the photographic work of Peter Parks, "a marine biologist and photographer who lives in a 400-year-old cowshed west of London":
Parks and his son run a home f/x shop based on a device they call the microzoom optical bench. Bristling with digital and film cameras, lenses, and Victorian prisms, their contraption can magnify a microliter of water up to 500,000 times or fill an Imax screen with the period at the end of this sentence. Into water they sprinkle yeast, dyes, solvents, and baby oil, along with other ingredients they decline to divulge. The secret of Parks' technique is an odd law of fluid dynamics: The less fluid you have, the more it behaves like a solid. The upshot is that Parks can make a dash of curry powder cascading toward the lens look like an onslaught of flaming meteorites. "When these images are projected on a big screen, you feel like you're looking at infinity," he says. "That's because the same forces at work in the water—gravitational effects, settlement, refractive indices—are happening in outer space."
I mention this simply because it would be interesting to experiment with ultra-low-budget 2001-like astral effects using nothing but sequential shots of wood grain, with its stuttering bursts of spatial events constantly branching out from within.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Tulse said...

This story (and amazing photo) seems related to your meditation on wood reflecting larger events: Chernobyl's legacy recorded in trees.

August 12, 2013 4:44 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Thanks, Tulse!

August 12, 2013 10:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It reminds me of a cloud chamber. GlenH

August 13, 2013 2:50 AM  
Anonymous The World Archive said...

Interesting. Could also be seen as just two graphic representations of temporal signatures together. Is the digital film timer measuring the tree or is the tree measuring the digital timer?

The timer moves through stopped time. A pause in the video shows the same time.

August 13, 2013 9:25 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow this is beautiful, and pretty much exactly the concept and aesthetic of an (animated) version of Seasons of the Void. We were specifically thinking of tree rings as cosmograms (!) and if we ever make an animated version (which we will) this work by Watson will become a major point of reference.

September 22, 2013 7:30 PM  
Anonymous EricaW said...

What I'm finding most disturbing is that these animations - which reveal a 'liveliness' in normally static objects of milled lumber, were created by the near-total destruction of the entire substance of that lumber. These are recordings of the tree's life events, the record of in the rings and periodic (spring) bursts of branches, dimples of vestigial branches and scars long-since outgrown ... but that life, which we are only now made aware of, was terminated for the purpose of sawn lumber. Then these particular boards of lumber are terminated without use (there are no nail or screw scars), instead reduced to sawdust for the purposes of an ephemeral digital record.
At least in the case of trees, sawdust tends to help grow more trees ... but how much do you want to bet that the sawdust produced by this process will be bagged a long time before it ever sees a forest again?
Profoundly disturbing .... a natural process revealed in vibrant life and chronology, and simultaneously utterly destroyed as a physical living thing to become completely, ephemerally abstract.
I wonder if my reaction would change if it were a complete log round instead of lumber?

March 16, 2014 5:55 AM  

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