SSG (Site/Seal/Gesture) is an ongoing collaboration between Lia Wei and Rupert Griffiths, one of whom is an archaeologist, one a cultural geographer and both artists with an architectural background. We treat our SSG work as a speculative genre or speculative tunnelling, using our creative practice to dig beneath the ground between disciplines. Working together as artists gives us a common ‘undisciplined’ ground through which to engage with our own and each others academic disciplines. Equally, it allows us to be attentive to landscape in unfamiliar ways, to become strangers in our own land. Thus SSG is a creative, speculative space that takes our respective disciplines as a palette or toolbox of ideas through which to create in the undisciplined ground of creative practice. Undisciplined because we consider it unconstrained by disciplinary discourse. This has become fertile ground for thinking about the value and difficulties of cross-disciplinary collaboration and how it can be used to investigate and challenge the methodological and epistemic intentions of archaeological and geographic fieldwork, and ask questions about its audiences and its outputs.
excerpt from ‘Reverse Archaeology: Experiments in Carving and Casting Space"‘. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2017.
Our collaborative work over the past three years has engaged with architectural ruins in rural margins, specifically abandoned military sites in the UK and rock-cut burial sites in China. The sequence of images we have selected retraces our collaboration. We begin with long-distance conversations, sketch dialogues, and exchanges about our respective academic fieldwork in London’s periphery and second century rock-cut sites on the Upper Yangzi River, Southwest China. We move to abandoned military defences and sound mirrors along the south east coast of the UK, and then onto the creation of artefacts, cast or carved, which made links between sites and continents. We then travel to Chongqing, Southwest China, bringing SSG into direct contact with archaeological fieldwork, in parallel to an exercise in experimental archaeology. Here we created two replicas of second century rock-cut tombs in a heritage park, working with a duo of stonemasons and local cultural authorities. Returning to the UK, SSG reinterpreted the experiment, creating a short-lived ruin of full-size fragments of a recessed entrance in chalk boulders that had fallen from the white cliffs of Broadstairs on the Kent coast.
Our sites are best described not as places but as architectures distributed across extensive landscapes – rock-cut burial sites along the Upper Yangzi and military ruins along the south east coast of England. They mark extended linear thresholds, the high-tide marks of civilisations rising up at a cusp between cultural legacy and the immediacy of lived experience. These persistent material forms share a number of features such as their location in rural margins, their rectilinear architecture, and functional apertures with recessed openings. Both are pragmatic architectures, responding to social, cultural, religious, and economic necessity, and doing so with minimal pretence. We approach them through the simple affordances that they offer, primarily of making a strong physical and ontological distinctions between interiority and exteriority. The bodies, living or dead, that they once contained have left no trace. There are no artefacts, few traces of use, simply an empty shell. In this way they evoke extremes of presence and absence, the material persistence of ruins and the impermanence of the human body.
The formal vocabulary of both the bunker and the tomb divides the world into an inside and an outside, and a thin film in between. These two are impressions of one another, pressed against concrete or stone. What strikes us about this splitting is that the substrate, the rock or concrete, shares its surface between multiple scales of time and space. This surface between daily life and historical time forms a threshold between our respective academic research – Rupert’s work on margins and Lia’s rock-cut burial sites.
This threshold found expression in our collaboration through a number of signs, one of which was the recessed door. Recessed doorways are often found at the entrance of the rock-cut tombs. This pattern is also often found around the apertures of bunkers. In bunkers, their purpose is to increas the visibility of the surveyed landscape whilst maintaining structural strength, and to deflect and absorb the energy of incoming projectiles. In tombs, their function is unknown, perhaps a combination of factors – to enhance their visible presence in the landscape, to mitigate against water ingress, a recess for a door, or a surface for ornament. This feature became a shared sign between tombs and bunkers that we sought to translate back into our material language through processes of casting and carving.
The hermetic volumes and rectilinear shapes of tombs and bunkers contrast with the gentle curves and shells of sound mirrors, another military architecture we encountered on the south east coast of England. These concrete artefacts had a brief life, from the early 1900s to the mid-1930s, first responding to the militarisation of the air and then becoming obsolete with the development of radar. Like the lens of a telescope, the sound mirrors collect and focus waves, gathering distant phenomena and bringing them close to the body. They represent a moment in history when the force of mechanisation and technology were defended against not in kind but by a quiet attentiveness to distant murmurs. Sound mirrors, like optics, are not black boxes that translate and transform phenomena from one medium into another and back again. Instead, they simply focus. With the optical telescope, light remains light; with the sound mirror, sound remains sound. The sound mirror thus tensions the sensing body with the rise of speed and mobility. It draws a quiet line between the body and technology, an ear that listened out from an old world for the advance of a new one.
Inhabiting these environments, we found that we were constantly referring experience back and forth between our sketch dialogues. The top of Figure 11 for example, shows red prints on small plaster tablets of each of the nine sound mirrors we visited. The surface of the sound mirrors acted, as with the bunkers, as a thin membrane connecting the living body to multiple spatial and temporal scales. The associations and affordances that these sites brought forth collapsed distinctions between the material, the imagined, and memory.
We made sound recordings from the centre of these mirrors, capturing birdsong, the hum of cars, and waves crashing in the distance. We later processed these electronically, turning them into spectrograms, visual representations of frequency against time. We thereby attempted to capture a synaesthetic experience, translating sound into image such that time no longer unfolded in a linear fashion but could be surveyed all-at-once (Figure 11 bottom). The material forms of the sound mirrors suggest not just listening but performing. Standing in the sound mirrors whistling simple tones, the mirror became a transmitter, sending signals out over the sea. As dusk fell, we returned to the mirror in Hythe, and spent the night huddled around a fire in the cracked concrete shell. Illuminated by fire and torch light and beneath a clear sky, the mirror became a simulacrum of the moon.
The form and function of the mirrors brought the nested solids of Pythagoras and the harmony of the spheres into our sketch dialogues. These concrete forms resolved into ancient observatories, not simply for looking to the sky but serving cosmologies that correlate geometry to sound. Later, we visited the large concrete dish perched at Abbots Cliffe, looking out over the sea. The mirror was specked with graffiti, the most obvious of which was three parallel lines (Figure 13). This was one of the signs that we had been working with, introduced into our dialogues through Lia’s seal making practice and a shared interest in the Yi Jing. The Yi Jing is a binary system of divination that employs eight pairs of trigrams to create sixty-four hexagrams. Each makes correlations between situations and processes, images and words, daily life and cosmological cycles, through chance and encounter. The graffiti we encountered, daubed on the surface of the sound mirror, suddenly synchronized our abstract dialogues to the field.