Confluence - Forming Sense
March 2017
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How amazing that simple images can be so resonant. At the California Academy of Sciences library, I hold up a page of Sterling Bunnel's field notes from 1903. There is a compelling mix of care and ease expressed in the format, paper and handwriting. His observations hint at a practiced eye for animal behavior. The date, penmanship and quality of the ink place the work in a particular era of study, and the ecological conditions he describes are far from my own: I am in an archive, a hundred-something years later, looking through field notes for circumstances where text and image together form descriptions, and proportions and protocols are as meaningful as data.
I have been working on ways to communicate water processes and stream science through words. Words are subtle, acting in the shadowy transit between familiar conventions and the new arrangements we make of them.

Writing is designed around linear grids. Each letter, plotted in rows,  is clustered into words and set in lines and paragraphs that build images and ideas as we read: a skein in which thoughts are held and registered. Pages of images layer into stories, guiding imagination in structured patterns: tales of challenges overcome, instructions for use, descriptions of place. The text itself softens into an armature, like canvas behind painted images, or the painted images themselves behind the impressions they leave in us.
An exhibition of eighteen drawings I've made while working on the Confluence projects just opened at the Marin Headlands National Park Service Visitors' Center.  The work will be there through May 15th - please stop by if you are able. Among the pieces selected from the last several years' work, several were done at SNARL, Valentine Camp and Sagehen Creek field stations. Some were made with charcoal from forest-thinning burn piles that I collected at Valentine Camp in 2014.
One group of drawings with letters in grids presents statements about stream dynamics. While I draw (or write?), I'm almost reversing how meanings form in writing, breaking apart lettering that's meant to flow together. The format has precedents in Greek and early Common Era writing where punctuation and spaces had not yet come into use. These drawings also return to a personal childhood, when letters and words were awkward shapes with obscure meanings. The drawings ask viewers to piece meaning together from individual letters just as researchers take whole landscapes into parts for study, then reassemble connections through careful analysis. Despite all its fancy word use and technology, there is childlike openness in science too, where questions emerge from a combination of wonder and urgency to connect.
Like ecosystems, language requires both cohesion and fluidity between multiple levels of meaning. In good writing and healthy ecosystems. underlying structures (spelling and grammar, landscape connectivity), and particular expressions (sentences, organisms), play together across multiple functional levels. By examining particular expressions one can discover underlying principles, and fundamental principles suggest a viability and range of possible expressions. The photo above is Gansevoort Street in Manhattan, during a visit to the Whitney Museum of American Art.
While at Sagehen Creek field station last August, I met Ken-ichi Ueda, one of the inventors of iNaturalist, a popular website for sharing observations of the natural world. I asked him if he felt a tension between the tactile world of nature and its digital representation. He responded that the act of recording his observations sometimes takes him away and sometimes brings him closer to his experiences, through sharing them with others. Closer and further, self and sharing, poles of experience. Possible expressions unfold endlessly, and every step from experience to communication also become components of the system.
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All images are by Todd Gilens unless noted otherwise.

Copyright © 2017 Todd Gilens, All rights reserved.

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