In 2018 I tested out the presentation of a performative lecture called “Dead or Alive” at ONCA Gallery in Brighton. Ever since then I have been meaning to update and refine the presentation and had planned to do so during my Open Studio this year, but Covid-19 and the need for self-isolation has put paid to that. As a result I’ve decided to present the talk as a piece of illustrated writing in several short parts that will appear here over the coming weeks.
To start with it seemed to me that in this complex world, my rock was literally a solid base on which I could anchor my thoughts – as Richard Dawkins says: “In the beginning was simplicity”; before anything else existed on planet earth, there was rock. But now of course I realise that is just too simple. Yes, of course, rock existed before life, but life has gone on to make rock. Everything in the world is inter-connected. Now I understand that before my flint was a rock, it was alive…
“Flints were formed during a complex chemical process which began in the chalk seas millions of years ago when silica from the decomposing skeletons of sea creatures became incorporated in the accumulating chalk sediment. Under certain conditions the silica reacted slowly with oxygen in the water and hydrogen sulphide from decomposing organic material to form a precipitate which collected in the burrows and tunnels made by sea creatures.”*
And don’t forget Stromatolites.
“Stromatolites are rock-like structures formed by cyanobacteria and single-celled algae. The mucus secreted by the bacteria collects grains of sediment which become stuck together with calcium carbonate, also from the bacteria. This builds up into the structures seen in certain sea-shore bays. Cyanobacteria and algae can photosynthesise and the real significance of these microbes is that they are thought to be the first known organisms to photosynthesise and produce free oxygen and so were largely responsible for increasing the amount of oxygen in the primeval Earth’s atmosphere. After about a billion years, the effect of this, called the Great Oxygenation Event, actually killed off many organisms which could not live in oxygen, and led to the kind of environments we know today, where most organisms use and need oxygen.”**
NOW scientists and engineers are developing self-healing concrete, incorporating bacteria into the concrete mix along with a form of starch which acts as food. The bacteria lie dormant in the concrete unless a crack forms, allowing air and water to penetrate, then the bacteria are activated and start to metabolise the starch. They grow and reproduce and excrete a mineral form of calcium carbonate which bonds to the concrete and seals the crack.
Click on the image below to view a short GIF slideshow or view the full version of A Brief History of Rock at https://vimeo.com/255278513.
“Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a spirit or soul. Believers in animism potentially perceive all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork and perhaps even words—as animated and alive.” It is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples’ spiritual or supernatural perspectives. There are many anthropological theories about animist cultures, but what seems indisputable is that animism promotes an active and respectful relationship between humans and their environment. For our early ancestors, all matter was alive.”*
maybe this stone just needs awakening, activating in some way… maybe it already is active but just very… very… slow
“For a long time researchers have tried to demystify “living stones” capable of autonomous movement. A lot of different accounts have emerged and one even states that Trovants are a silicon form of life. It is also possible that they are conscious. Some scientists even claim that Trovants are capable of breathing – of course, very slowly – a single breath lasts from three days to two weeks. The “living stones” even have some kind of pulse, but it can be detected only with super-sensitive equipment. It turns out that these odd stones are able to move, even though only about 2.5 mm in two weeks.
A whole “village” of Trovants was found in Romania. They all have a circular, rounded shape. Locals claim that the “living stones” are even capable of reproduction. In the beginning, a small outgrowth appears on the surface of the stone. It grows and grows until it falls off from the “mother” stone. The new stone is completely detached and starts to grow faster. The active growth is more visible right after rain.”
If we are able to confirm that Trovants are able to breathe and reproduce, then we should really start considering them as living beings.” **
NEXT – A Brief History of Rock and self-healing concrete
So I freely admit, I seemed to have become a bit fixated on my rock for all those years. I had clung to it through thick and thin, couldn’t seem to get it out of my mind. It had become … all of those clichés – an old friend, unfinished business, a bit of an obsession. I hade fed and watered, nurtured and, yes, you’re right, maybe I took things a little too far.
I continued with my efforts to liberate the latent life in my stone.
The Organic Bridge
“The principle of the organic bridge can be reduced to these simple rules. If you want to transfer the energies of life into an inanimate object, you need a go-between that contains matter which is or was alive, such as wood, leather, fur, feathers or shells; that is shaped like a living thing; or that has been given the name of something or someone alive. For a mind bent on magic or influence of any kind, these provide a handle or a focal point, a bridge or fulcrum, for the release and transfer of the necessary energy. It need not be a conscious process. In fact the evidence suggests that it is often better left to operate at unconscious levels through superstition, ritual, incantation or scientific protocol.”*
* Lyall Watson, The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects
NEXT: Animism and Trovants
“Chemists have tried to imitate the chemical conditions of the young earth. They have put these simple substances in a flask (water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen) and supplied a source of energy such as ultraviolet light or electric sparks. After a few weeks of this, something interesting is usually found inside the flask: a weak brown soup containing a large number of molecules more complex than the ones originally put in. In particular amino acids are found – the building blocks of proteins, one of the two great biological molecules.”
CLICK. I flick the switch and the UV light flickers to life, buzzing loudly casting its blue glow across the watermarked white walls and lighting up the diagrams which are plastered across them. I fill the tank with the foaming solution which glows a little as it effervesces. The pump is connected and the plastic pipe is lowered into the now gently fizzing fluid.
Gloved hands carry the foil wrapped parcel from its glass chamber, carefully unwrap the foil, lift the rock and lower it into the glowing liquid, resting it on the plastic tube as it sits on the bottom of the tank. Bubbles escape around the rock, massaging its smooth grey surface as if in a foaming hot tub.
Now to add the organic compounds, sprinkling the granules on the surface of the churning fluid, watching as they are sucked down, spinning in the spiralling liquid. I leave the process to take its course and write up my report, the first of many, as I watch each day for signs of life and carefully record any changes, however tiny, that might occur in the apparently dormant stone.
 Quoted from The Selfish Gene. Wikipedia says “The Miller–Urey experiment was a chemical experiment that simulated the conditions thought at the time (1952) to be present on the early Earth and tested the chemical origin of life under those conditions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller%E2%80%93Urey_experiment
NEXT: THE ORGANIC BRIDGE
Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene describes how he thinks life began on earth:
“In the beginning was simplicity… Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is satisfying because it shows us a way in which simplicity could change into complexity, how unordered atoms could group themselves into ever more complex patterns until they ended up manufacturing people”
Starting with Survival of the stable: “A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough to deserve a name”… it’s why bubbles are round “because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas” and salt crystals are cubes “because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride ions together”
“The earliest form of natural selection was simply a selection of stable forms and a rejection of unstable ones.” – if a cluster of molecules wasn’t stable, then after a short time it would simply cease to exist.
But this still doesn’t explain why some stable groups of molecules became “life” while others didn’t – though I am beginning to understand now that maybe there were thousands, even millions of potential opportunities for life to become established but they just didn’t pass the stability test.
NOW scientists like John Craig Venter experiment with DNA to create new lifeforms through synthetic biology
John Craig Venter is an American, biochemist, geneticist, biotechnologist and businessman. He is known for being involved with sequencing the second human genome and assembled the first team to transfect a cell with a synthetic chromosome. In 2010, New Statesman magazine listed Craig Venter at 14th in the list of “The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures.
(Image from a collaboration with photographer Vicki Painting)
[A voice from the future says: “Can you believe that once upon a time people used to leave reproduction to chance – without any planning or thought for how to make a better offspring. How irresponsible”]
NEXT – The Miller-Urey Experiment
 The Selfish Gene (pp12-13-14)