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Semiconductor’s explosive Galapagos volcano residency

  • Date: 4 June 2010
  • Area: South East
Ashcloud in the Galapagos, Semiconductor, 2010

Ashcloud in the Galapagos, Semiconductor, 2010. Credit: Photos courtesy of Semiconductor

Iceland's recent volcanic eruption has served as a sharp reminder to all of us of the power of the natural environment and the impact it can have on our lives.

Much of what we accept as scientific fact about the natural world has been inherited from the father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, and his study of the Galapagos Islands.

With the help of Galapagos Conservation Trust and an Arts Council England Grants for the arts award of more than £30,000, two Brighton-based artists have recently returned from a study of live volcanoes on the Galapagos Islands.

The artists are Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt of Semiconductor who will use what they learned and the materials they gathered on the islands to inform what is sure to be a fascinating new body of work Worlds in the making.

Semiconductor create moving image works that reveal the physical world in flux, driven by a fascination with how we, as humans, understand the world through science. So the opportunity to study scientists at work in a unique natural environment proved to be an unmissable and exhilarating experience.

During January and February 2010, Ruth and Joe travelled to the islands to take part in the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation's Galapagos Artist Residency, which included spending three weeks on the Galapagos Islands, seven days at the Charles Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz Island and a trip to mainland Ecuador.  

'We wanted to visit the volcanically produced Galapagos Islands to provide us with a rich palette for a new body of work exploring volcanoes,' Ruth explains.

The initial stage in the trip involved an eight day boat trip touring the islands, chaperoned by a naturalist guide who explained what they were seeing in terms of the natural history and politics of the islands.

'It turned out to be quite literally an out of this world experience,' says Ruth.

'The laws of nature appeared to be different. We had time travelled to an era when animals had no fear of humans and the matter and processes that had gone into the initial forming of land dominated the scene. It suggested a formidable and alien world.'

The next part of their expedition was a physically gruelling week on Isabela Island, the largest in the Galapagos archipelago. Here, Ruth and Joe trekked on horseback, bike and on foot to document through image and sound some of its six volcanoes and lava strewn environments.

It was their time on mainland Ecuador however that allowed them their most 'explosive' filming conditions while staying at the foot of the Tungurahua volcano.

'Tungurahua was not erupting when we initially left for Ecuador so it was a twist of fate that we coincided with this exciting episode in its history,' Joe tells us.

'We spent about two weeks in Banos, returning a couple of times drawn in by the eruptions. It was such a physical experience. As the volcano violently exploded rocks and lava from its crater, a sonic wave would hit you followed closely by the most thunderous blast.

'It was so exhilarating that we spent two sleepless nights of volcano watching and filming.'

Since returning from their adventures, Ruth and Joe have been reflecting on their experiences and making plans to start bringing together their ideas and material to make their new moving image work. We wondered whether they have had any early thoughts about how this new body of work might take shape.

'We are creating a multi-screen installation work that is much more ambitious in length and scale than anything we have done before,' Ruth tells us.

'The work looks at how we make sense of the physical world; by exploring the volcanic mechanisms that create it and the processes we develop to understand it.'

To create the work, Ruth and Joe will be using the film footage they collected during their trip, applying their own custom animation techniques and using processes that they have learned from the volcanologists they met.

'We're interested in how we apply meaning to matter,' Ruth continues, 'and how these relate to our actual experiences of the perceivable world.'

Semiconductor's adventures in science and art do not stop there. As a result of their Galapagos residency, they have been awarded a Smithsonian Artists Fellowship.

Ruth explains: 'This is really exciting for us because it offers us an opportunity to continue to research we've been doing on the Galapagos Islands. We'll be spending three months in the mineral sciences department of the Smithsonian Natural History in Washington DC this August.'

Meanwhile, as opportunities to exhibit the new work Worlds in the making are explored teaser excerpts will be available to view at www.semiconductorfilms.com

You can also hear Ruth and Joe from Semiconductor talk about their work at Lighthouse's Monthly Talks Programme in July, August and September in Brighton.