Lines of Descent

Lines of Descent by Ryan Dewey: The Great Lakes region had already been covered with 600 meters of glacial clay when the remains of the Laurentide Ice Sheet made a final retreat and melted into a puddle that amounts to 21% of the world’s available fresh water. It’s a flat region, with some of the only exposed rock faces peeking out along the shorelines of the lakes and on the limestone islands that dot the edges of the lakes. Some of these islands have glacial grooves that were carved as the ice sheet carried granite boulders south from Canada into the northern United States.

Glacial Grooves on Kelley’s Island, Lake Erie

I’ve been visiting these grooves since childhood, and once while lying in the groove I imagined the weight of the glacier pushing down on granite to carve these flutes into the limestone. I began to empathize with the glacier and felt I needed to try to replicate the motion at human scale to better understand the process. This led to the construction of a glacial hand tool, a block of ice with three granite stones frozen in place which I grind back and forth on a slab of limestone to scribe a line until the ice melts and the hand tool falls apart. I’ve performed this work at several sites of glacial significance in the northern United States.

Glacial Hand Tool (photo by Kristen Penner)
Glacial Hand Tool in Motion (photo by Jeremy Bolen)

One of those sites is the driftless region, an isolated spot where the Laurentide Ice Sheet did not scour the landscape. While I was exploring the area I came across a historic rural cemetery. I began to think about what this cemetery would look like if a glacier moved across the field in the future, grabbing tombstones and carrying them like boulders to grind away the ground. I made my first model landscape that day with wooden tombstones, slabs of clay, and field measurements taken with knots on a ball of string.

Clay Model Cemetery

Around that same time, it became apparent to me that the repetitive back and forth motion of the hand held glacial tool was reminiscent of using a carpenter’s hand plane. So I began to think about the types of blades and styles of hand planes that are found in a carpenter’s workshop. While on residency in a tiny mountain village in Switzerland, I met a carpenter who taught me the names of the different hand planes he used and I started to think more about the way that combinations of different hand planes could produce the complex grooving patterns of decorative architectural moulding which is made in both wood and plaster. And further, I began to explore how hand planes could combine to produce moldings with sections that matched the contours of glacial grooves.

Hand Planes in Swiss Carpentry Studio

When a glacier picks up a granite boulder it pushes that boulder through the ground which wears away both the substrate and the cutting tool. The variation in the groove patterns reflects the variation in cutting materials and the rate of consumption of the granite boulders since mass is lost during transport. This presents an opportunity for landscape design. At the scale of landscape, it should be possible to place stones in a particular sequence and allow a glacier to grab those stones and carve a somewhat predictable pattern based on the array and sequence of the stones. These “implements for future glacial scouring” are one of the ways that I collaborate with geologic forces of the next ice age. As part of my speculative practice I place latent objects in various sites and abandon them to the deep future.

Sequences of Stones and Groove Models

At some point I made the connection that cemeteries already prime landscapes for future glacial scouring in a highly formalized way. The arrays of granite memorial stones provide a ready field of cutting tools for the next ice age (if it ever comes).

A Cemetery

As a species, our first tools were made of stone and we thrived because of this lithic technological advancement, so it is ironic that our contemporary tools, modes of production, and manufacturing processes have accelerated our move toward extinction as a species. We cannot deny that we are at the mercy of climate change and the planet is sweating us out in a hot fever.

In the deep past, glaciers moved granite boulders across the ground, scouring and marking the terrain before depositing these boulders erratically in the landscape. These glacial erratics dot the landscape and stand as markers of past geologic activity, similar to the way we use granite tombstones to mark the past activity of a human life. But for the glacier, granite erratics are much more than mere markers; these stones are also the mark makers, the very tool used by a glacier to shape the landscape in the process of moving the stone.

Glacial Activity Sketches

As I contextualized these thoughts with my glacial hand tool and the clay model of the cemetery, I wondered if these thoughts about glacial erratics could be adapted to our conception of tombstones as latent objects with terraforming potential. Tombstones are potential mark making tools for glaciers in the deep future, and by framing it this way, tombstones can be seen as our final stone tools, bookmarking the lifespan of our species.

Looking at the arrays of tombstones in cemetery fields, we should be able to predict what future landscape patterns might be left behind by our tombstone-erratics after the next ice age (should the planet be so lucky). The slow advancing and retreating motion of a glacier grinds grooves into bedrock much like the use of a carpenter’s hand plane to flatten and flute details in wood. For Lines of Descent, I took this idea and iterated to develop of a series of progressively complex hand planes with strange granite blades fashioned in the shape of common tombstone profiles and I used them to produce a series of landscape models to help visualize a future terrain that will be formed by the memorial stones we leave behind. The tombstone markers of familial lines meet the iterative lines of drift in the developmental process of tool-making to predict what new lines our memorials will leave in the landscape after the descent of humanity in the deep future.

Lines of Descent Installation View (photo by Jacob Koestler)
Floor Diagram – Tombstones Pushed Through Clay (photo by Jacob Koestler)

Exhibition Information:
Ryan Dewey’s solo exhibition Lines of Descent was generously supported by an emergency grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and presented at The Sculpture Center (Cleveland Ohio) from 25 January to 15 March, 2019.

Ryan Dewey‘s work is a kind of ecological dreaming that takes shape as installation, performance, research, workshops, and land art to highlight the entanglements between people, places, and land use. He has been a resident at ACRE (Chicago), the Alps Art Academy (Switzerland), and the Montello Foundation (Nevada), as well as a visiting researcher in the department of Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland) where he wrote the open access book Hack the Experience: New Tools for Artists from Cognitive Science (Punctum Books, 2018). He operates across disciplines, seeking holism through art, anthropology, business, psychology, and the geosciences to unpack the interconnectedness of people, places, and planetary change. Besides traditional galleries, his work often pops up in unexpected venues including the British Society for Geomorphology, the American Association of Geographers, Kickstarter, the University of Bern, Concordia University (Montreal), the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, the Annenberg School for Communication (Philadelphia), Progressive Insurance (Cleveland), SLA (Copenhagen), KERB (Melbourne), MONU (Rotterdam), and others.