Plastic Surgery Disasters

September 10, 2023

The evolution of my face, over several days, under the influence of many dozens (possibly hundreds) of Simuliidae bites. I reckon I got off lucky, insofar as these creatures can kill horses and, I shit you not, mules.

What I ordinarily look like, for reference:

Under the Volcano (Exhumation #5)

July 25, 2023

Totum nasum. Zoom in.

All the way under. No snorkel.

Inhumation, exhumation, and documentation by Deb Chachra.

Under the Volcano (inhumation #4)

July 15, 2023

Inhumation, exhumation, and documentation by Harriet Hawkins.

La Tomba di Virgilio

June 30, 2023

Whether the ancient columbarium, with its opus reticulatum and tripodal brazier dedicated to Apollo, perched eyrie-like above the eastern maw of the Crypta Neapolitana – a tunnel approximately six meters high, three meters wide, and seven hundred meters long that Cocceius Auctus engineered, at the behest of Agrippa, through the Posillipo tuff in order to connect conurbations by the bay with the Campi Flegrei; and used subsequently by inhabitants for pedestrian traffic between the city and its neighboring super-volcano into the 20th century – is actually the tomb of Publius Vergilius Maro, as has been the tradition here since the poet, dying at Brindisi (nineteen years before the renewal of that magnus ordo saeclorum he, ventriloquizing Deiphobe at Cumae, anticipated in his fourth eclogue), asked that his ashes be communicated back to Naples for interment and was afforded a hero’s rites in Piedigrotta by Augustus before commencing a second career, in the medieval Neapolitan folk imagination, as Virgilio Mago, a sorcerer who supposedly founded Naples, personally erected its walls, and then fortified it still further by his bright arts – either by hiding a magical egg in the foundations of Castel dell’Ovo that must not be found lest ruin be general; or else, with a delicate scale model of the city, minutely detailed, he had assembled inside a glass vessel with a narrow neck: undamaged, this palladium enabled the Neapolitans to repulse any siege, but someone – whoopsie – cracked it just as the forces of H.R.E. Henry VI were massing at the gates in 1191 – as well as contriving a variety of other ingenuities, including – palimpsesting Cocceius, or perhaps actually merging with him – the Crypta Neapolitana itself, which he is supposed to have dug in a single night with daemonic assistants à la Solomon (not the only curious, and curiously distinct, echo among the tales of Virgilio Mago and those another Neapolitan literary transplant, Sir Richard Francis Burton, who lived in Chiaia as an unruly teenager, would, centuries afterward, be the first to translate into English in a complete and unexpurgated form as The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night); and then a third career, mingling the previous two, as the eidolon who guides Dante to the threshold of the salvation he himself prophesied but, born too early, has no part of, by way of damnation and purgation, after leading them into a cave mouth in a dark forest (of Quercus ilex) that Cocceius – by different order of Agrippa – clearcut in 37-36 BC while constructing the Portus Iulius – now drowned by Bradyseism – within the huge crater complex lying on the other side of the passage he cut through the peninsula, is beside the point. It might as well be there. Or there. Or there. Through convections of geology and history, Virgil – ashes and otherwise – has long since been absorbed into the fabric of the city. All Naples is his tomb.

Inhumation #3: toward a seismic Mendieta

June 29, 2023

Inside the volcano, fishing for earthquakes with my body as a lure. Documentation, inhumation, and exhumation by the painter Eric Sweet.

Katabasis is anabasis.

June 9, 2023

The Old Blind Sun

May 14, 2023

“Place is, at a basic level, space invested with meaning in the context of power.” – Tim Cresswell

The newest mountain in Europe – unimaginatively named Monte Nuovo – is a 132-meter-tall cinder cone on the shore of Lake Avernus in the Phlegraean Fields caldera complex west of the urban core of Naples, Italy. According to Mauro di Vito, et al., who reconstructed the event “through geological, volcanological and petrological investigations, and analyses of historical documents,” Monte Nuovo began to erupt from a vent in the ground around 7 pm on September 29th, 1538. The first day of the eruption, its main phase, included a twelve hour period in which the volcano exploded continuously. For several days afterward, it was nearly quiescent. Then a second series of explosions (lower energy and discontinuous) began in the late afternoon of October 3rd and continued into the early evening of October 4th, after which the volcano again went quiet. A last, violent explosion on October 6th surprised twenty-four intrepid locals hiking up to the rim for a better look at the action – assimilating them into the lithic fabric of the crater, along with the whole medieval village of Tripergole, Cicero’s famously opulent Academia villa, and, very possibly, if Strabo and his source Ephorus can be believed, the archaeological remains of a troglodytic community of ‘Cimmerians’ whose sibyl predated the Cumaean one.

There is a whole PhD to be written (by me) about how this space has historically been invested with meaning. Here on my sickbed, however, I want to spare a very brief moment to consider the “context of power” in which that investment has taken (and continues to take) place – from the standpoint of geophysics, not politics.

The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) is a relative measurement of volcanic eruptions based on their volumes of ejecta. Monte Nuovo is estimated to have been a VEI 2. Per a years-old suggestion on the Earth Science Stack Exchange, it may be possible to (very, very roughly) estimate the total energy released for a given VEI class as E = 10^(aM+c), where E is the total energy released in joules, a ≈ 0.79, M is the VEI of the eruption, and c = 14.

In this case, E = 10^((0.79*2)+14)) or 10^15.3 Joules. That is, 3,801,893,963,205,613 joules or so.

Now, energy isn’t power of course. As with so many other things, translating energy into the terms of power requires time.

The watt, an SI unit of power, is equivalent to 1 joule per second. In addition to the twelve hours of continuous high-energy explosions between September 29-30, let’s throw in another eight hours of discontinuous ones during that first day. And perhaps seven total hours of discontinuous eruptions during the twenty-four hours between October 3-4; and then a last three hours on October 6th. For the sake of simplicity, let’s not bother ourselves with trying to estimate the difference between and high- and low-energy explosions in the three phases of explosivity. Rather, let’s just say that there were ~30 explosion-hours during the course of that fateful week.

30 hours = 108,000 seconds. 3,801,893,963,205,613 joules / 108,000 seconds = ~35,202,721,882 watts (or 35,203 megawatts or 35 gigawatts) of power – all vented through a hole in ground (well, three of them, actually) encompassed by a crater that’s eighty meters deep and four hundred meters in diameter. I mean, just look. It’s the maw of a titan, roaring up from hell.

Gaia (in the sense that James Lovelock meant it, and that of the primordial being impregnated by Tartarus who gave birth to huge fiery monsters) is poised between two suns. From above, one of them contributes ~170 petawatts of heat flux that powers the oceans, atmosphere, and much of the biosphere; the other, the earth’s core (hotter than the solar surface), contributes only a tiny fraction of that from below – something more on the order of 47 terawatts – but with it maintains the planetary magnetic field, drives mantle convection (and plate tectonics thereby), and so powers earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

And, depending on your conception of history (and/or epistemology), much besides. As Michel Serres explained to Bruno Latour in 1991 (or professed to; slippery as he was, one can’t ever know for certain what Serres meant, much less what he intended):

“In [the history of science] one is forced to connect the sciences to one another, and to other cultural formations. Let’s give Husserl his due – his Krisis invents precisely this notion of cultural formation. In his description of the crisis of western science he wonders if this original formation that we call science is independent of the others. The word formation, as he uses it, signifies something like a layer of the earth, geologically formed and deformed by and through the earth’s evolution.”


“It seemed to me that [Husserl] applied an authentic structuralism to the humanities, to religious history — a discipline that has always fascinated me, since I am still convinced that it forms the deepest plate in the history of cultures. By plate I mean what earth scientists mean by this word — thus continuing the image Husserl used when he spoke of ‘formation’. A plate that is deeply submerged. Buried, often opaque and dark, that transforms itself with infinite slowness but which explains very well the discontinuous changes and perceptible ruptures that take place above. Indeed, in comparison to religious history, that of the sciences seems superficial, recent — like a surface landscape, quite visible and shimmering. What’s more, when you study religious history in detail, that of the sciences seems to imitate or repeat it!”


“The regime of revolutions is no doubt only apparent. What if, behind them and beneath these schisms, flowed (or percolated) slow and viscous fluxes? Do you recall the geological theory of plate tectonics? Intermittent earthquakes result in sudden breaks not far from known faults, like the San Andreas fault in California. But underneath, continuous and extraordinarily slow movements explain these sudden breaks where the quakes occur. And even further below these continuous movements that pull, tranquilly but inexorably, is a core of heat that maintains or propels the moving crust. And what is the inner sun of these mechanisms? Our old hot planet, which is cooling. Earth is that very sun. (emphasis mine)

Are the breaks in history similarly brought about from below by an extraordinarily slow movement that puts us in communication with the past, but at immense depths? The surface gives the impression of totally discontinuous ruptures. Earthquakes — in this case, quakes of history or of mobs, sometimes — whose brief violence destroys cities and remodels landscapes but which, at a very deep level, continue an extraordinarily regular movement, barely perceptible, on an entirely different scale of time. 

May I say that in this we can glimpse the history of religions, for example, which forms the lowest plate — the deepest, the most buried, almost invisible, and surely the slowest moving. But what I would like to catch a glimpse of, beyond that, and deeper yet, is the furnace-like interior, so hidden, that blindly moves us.”

Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time: Michel Serres with Bruno Latour

By comparison, the Archiflegrean eruption 40,000 years ago – which created the vast caldera complex in which Monte Nuovo subsequently emerged – is estimated to have been a VEI 7 or 8. That is, among the most powerful volcanic events in Earth history for which there is a material record, during which something like 10^19.53 to 10^20.32 joules of energy were released. Can you imagine being a Neanderthal, hearing something inexplicable – and horrifyingly loud – in the distance, and then looking up to see that in the night sky?

Recollecting the future.

April 13, 2023

Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water – i.e., John Keats. Snapped in 2019, shortly before an aborted flight home in which an engine of the Norwegian Air 787 exploded, raining fiery metal down through houses and cars in Isola Sacra before we got out to sea, dumped our remaining fuel, turned back inland, and hit the ground at Fiumicino hard enough to blow out the front wheels. For my part, I can now say with certainty what I would do if my plane had to make an emergency landing: as the Italians around me performed their fear, I read Goethe.

Anyway, when I shared the photo with my friend Matt Johnson, he replied with a line from Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry: “The mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.”

What a strange, magnificent idea! Even just working out the physics of it is challenging. Is poetry a mirror that reflects shadows cast from the future back onto their source?

I love the thought that the subject of a poem is backlit not just in space, by the sun, but in time — by a solar deity like Apollo, perhaps, from whom all poetry and prophesy radiates. The god inhabits a future tense and communicates back to the present indirectly, via shadows cast by intervening events, to his oracles and poets (“the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration”), whose task it becomes – in some sense, as though Plato’s cave were turned inside out – to remember clearly what has not yet taken place.

e.g., from 25 years ago…

Happy birthday to me.

March 21, 2023

Turned 50 today. As the Poet once wrote (in Kenneth Rexroth’s translation), “Life whirls by like drunken wildfire.”

A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife

February 24, 2023

In January, I flew to New Zealand, where Myles Sutherland, the CEO of GeoCam, and I rendezvoused with Luke Reid, the Chief Technology Officer, at their office in Dunedin for in-depth conversations about the basic science of their work (now and in the future) and my various practice ideas, as well as the opportunity to observe their 3D cameras being invented, machined, assembled, and repaired. We also discussed the logistics of an artwork I would later title A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife.

Its premise: that I would be buried alive in a suit of elf armor from The Lord of the Rings, and then 3D visualized using ground penetrating radar. I wanted to work, deliberately, in a xenophenomenological medium for the first time – and had decided to make it easier for the radar to see me by wrapping my water-filled body with a more reflective material that had the additional benefit of making it easier to breathe with the equivalent weight of four or five large men made of dirt stacked on top of me, while also playing with the idea of place sensitivity, insofar as New Zealand has become conflated (uncomfortably so, to some) in the popular imagination with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And while radar has been previously used for archaeological surveys of grave sites, to find illegal burials, even to try to locate people buried alive, I would almost certainly be the first person to have ever laid still belowground for a portrait done with it.

Luke helped me to make a DIY chicken-wire haubergeon as a radar-reflective fallback, but through his personal connections, Sir Richard Taylor – the founder of the Wētā Workshop, which did the special effects, props, and costumes for the Lord of the Rings films – became aware of the project and authorized my use of a suit of plate mail belonging to him personally. A few days later, Myles and I flew to Wellington to meet the CEO of Reveal, Sam Wiffen, en route to collecting the armor.  

Before I travelled to New Zealand, Sam had offered me temporary use of a push-cart ground penetrating radar for the piece, as well as resources afterward to help interpret and visualize the data. After I arrived, he generously also arranged for the use of a property under development in the vicinity of Ōtaki, a full-size digger operated by J.P. Pritchard (one of the developers, who also piloted a quadrotor drone to help document the work), the services of an expert radar surveyor named Alex Fersterer who works for Reveal, and volunteered himself as a safety officer. 

While J.P. dug the grave and Myles got the GeoCam camera ready for the first of multiple ground-level 3D surveys he would conduct, Alex and Sam, acting as squires, helped me get into the armor. Rather than fiddle with all of the tiny leather ties, we used gaffer tape – figuring it would be a lot more efficient to get on and off, wasn’t going to show up on the radar, and wouldn’t even be visible in photographs after wrapping the armor in black garbage bags to protect it from dirt and moisture. 

Because elements of it didn’t fit properly, didn’t articulate the way they would have historically, and/or were attached with tape, the armor was challenging to walk in. And it was pretty much impossible to do anything else. I couldn’t sit down, or lean over, or even bend my knees. Actually, I couldn’t even walk so much as rigidly Frankenstein forward. As I awkwardly crested the lip of the hole shouting, “I’m an all-terrain knight!”, I was lucky not to have toppled over backward. Myles filmed my 4WD moment, barking with laughter, believing it was a real, and potentially hilarious, possibility. 

Inside the hole, Sam and Alex lowered me onto my back like a trust exercise. I was then inhumed – first, with the digger dropping dirt on me from a height; then, having paused briefly to reflect on the wisdom of that approach, by hand, with shovels, as the digger helped push dirt into the void from all around. 

We did two radar scans. Initially – out of consideration for my well-being, and that of the borrowed armor – they buried me in too shallow a grave. Alex got his push-cart stuck in the V-shaped fill repeatedly. I could feel him pressing down on top of me, even when he wasn’t rolling the wheels back and forth across my face. In the end, Sam declared that the radargram would probably “look like dogs’ balls” (a term of art, presumably).

I said I could handle more weight, so they doubled the overburden – to a depth of roughly half a meter. Sam thought this would be necessary to get an image that wasn’t completely “blown out” – i.e., rendered illegible by too much reflectivity. It was definitely heavier. Pieces of the armor gouged into me. The compression around my ribs was increased and made breathing more laborious. Eventually, they shoveled in enough dirt to flatten the grave, and spray painted a proper set of gridded survey lines on it. I was hardly able to feel them walking on top of me. The dirt was now piled too high for them to roll the cart over my face, however. We considered burying my head inside the helmet, but it would have required more care than we had time for (and probably a snorkel). So they left my face partially exposed, put the helmet on top, and crimped a dirt piecrust around it.  

After completing the second radar scan, everyone helped exhume me. As at other stages of the process, there was a lot of physical intimacy: in the armor, I was something between a person and an object. And the less I spoke, especially when my head was covered with the helmet, the more I was handled like material. After one of my long silences, Myles joked, “Guys, we’re presuming he’s still alive.” 

As they jawed about the upcoming Rugby World Cup, I was slowly, carefully, revealed. They dug me out with shovels first, and then by hand (as in archaeology or paleontology); then pulled me free from the dirt, limb by limb. Finally, Sam and Myles lifted me up from behind like a block, as if raising a monolith or totem pole, and Myles, not trusting my balance, held me upright until they could get the armor off. In the photos Alex snapped of us – because of a fisheye filter, the perspective, the fact that we stood at different levels, and that he is significantly taller than I am – Myles looks like a giant, and/or I a dwarf. We had accidently re-created an in-camera trick Peter Jackson used for Gimli and the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. More “place sensitivity,” I suppose.

Nothing looked scratched or dented. The tape came off without leaving any marks. I wriggled out of my carapace and got it stacked up in the crate, still wearing my indestructible Esri hoodie, black leather pants I’d bought at a secondhand women’s clothing store the day before, and a big shit-eating grin. That night, after dinner in a neighboring town, I cleaned the armor in a garage with an air compressor, CRC oil, a rough scour, and cotton rags. Then returned it to Wētā Workshop, to their complete satisfaction, the following day.

As a parting gift, Sam gave me a MALÅ Easy Locator Core ground penetrating radar. I had initially piqued his interest in a collaboration with the idea of fooling a radar into seeing something that isn’t there: a spoofed hole in the ground (e.g., a recreation of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in specific electromagnetic wavelengths, or an illusory pit of Tartarus detectable below the Campi Flegrei). This was his way of encouraging me to get after it. What we didn’t realize at the time is that – for reasons neither I nor the geophysicists at Reveal can make sense of – the radar had not seen something it should have: the armor. Our 3D radargram didn’t come out. 

Despite certain companies making irresponsible claims to the contrary, detecting living bodies underground with radar is difficult to do. Hence the idea of encasing myself in metal. It’s inexplicable to me that the armor, made as it was of steel and aluminum, and buried as I was under dry soil, wasn’t detected by a functioning radar operated by a qualified surveyor. But there it is. I am making experimental art, after all. And my practice – like all practices – involves trial, error, learning, iteration, and, occasionally, irritation. Is the radargram what A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife was actually “about”? Not exactly, no. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try it again. Next time, equipped with a SCUBA tank.