EVENT: Geometry of Knowing: Poetry of Knowing: How Do We Know What We Know?

Polly Gibbons | June 4, 2015

This question was explored in a variety of ways in the four-part exhibition Geometry of Knowing, which was presented at Simon Fraser University’s SFU Gallery and Audain Gallery, from January 15 through May 15, 2015. Geometry of Knowing elucidated the multiplicity of ways that we produce knowledge and featured artists who incorporated fieldwork, embodiment and materiality in their practice.

I was particularly intrigued by Kika Thorne’s artwork, The Question of a Hunch (2015), which was installed in part three at SFU Gallery. The work is a sculptural and moving image installation that invites viewers to consider the propositions of tension, geometry, the electromagnetic spectrum and visualizing the unseeable. The sculptural component consists of an octahedron with eight triangular planes of Flash Gro mylar attached to the walls, floor and ceiling with elastic cords. The octahedron is the shape associated with air in Platonic geometry, which relates to Thorne’s hunch about a possible solution to accumulating greenhouse gases. The elastic cords are pulled taught and practically vibrate with potential energy. A video representation of an oscillating electron is projected onto the mylar which interacts with the moving image and casts a changing array of patterns onto the floors, walls and ceiling of the gallery. One has to climb over and between the elastic cords to see inside the octahedron and if one happens to accidentally pull against one of the cords, the potential energy converts into kinetic energy as it vibrates like a plucked bass string. Photographs can’t capture what being in this installation feels like, especially when one looks into the mylar and sees oneself reflected and implicated within the work.

For part three’s opening event, Thorne convened a panel of experts to discuss the possibility of using resonance frequencies to break apart carbon dioxide molecules and ameliorate their effect on climate change. Thorne expresses her intention more poetically when she asks: If we sing the song of carbon dioxide back to itself, will it break apart?

This idea of a solution that leads to a breaking apart is echoed in Rita Dove’s poem:


I prove a theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open

And above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they’ve intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.[i]

Dove’s poem encapsulates the joy of discovery one experiences when one solves a difficult problem, be it in mathematics, the sciences or the arts. The last line of this poem is especially resonant for me, as it expresses the notion that some types of knowledge exist without having to be proven.

To address the problem at hand, Thorne brought together physicist Steve Dodge, organic chemist Vance Williams, and philosopher Am Johal to discuss the possibility of breaking apart carbon and oxygen in the atmosphere and neutralizing the heat trapping effect of carbon dioxide. Dodge confirmed that Thorne’s hunch was correct – that resonance frequencies can break apart carbon dioxide molecules but the energy required to do so makes it prohibitive. He also talked about the role of intuition in his research, what he refers to as “a sense in your bones of what is happening.” Through a diagrammatic representation he demonstrated the interplay between physics, math and “bones” that takes place in his research. I thought this was an interesting connection between Thorne’s “hunch” and Dodge’s “bones” showing that intuition can play an important role in both art and scientific research. After the talk, Dodge carried out demonstrations with frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice) that made materially manifest the song of carbon dioxide and its heat trapping capacity.

During Johal’s talk he briefly discussed the Anthropocene Era. Many scientists place the start of this era at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Others place it as far back as when humans transitioned from hunter-gatherer to an agrarian way of life. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, western industrial capitalist nations began burning fossil fuels at such a furious rate that it has had disastrous climatic implications. Johal mentioned Ralph Keeling who has carried on the work of his father, Dave Keeling, in measuring the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Current measurements are around 400 parts per million which is double the level of around 200 parts per million that it had been for the 800,000 years prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Williams explained why carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide absorbs and holds infrared light from the sun, which warms the earth’s atmosphere.  Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps too much heat and raises the temperature on our planet. The greenhouse effect allows life to exist on our planet, and had been in balance for nearly one million years prior to the Industrial Revolution. Williams noted that plants naturally remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. He suggested that a chemical model of photosynthesis could be developed that would be even more effective in neutralizing carbon dioxide than plant life. However, he acknowledged that the best way to get rid of carbon dioxide is to not make it in the first place.

While no resolutions emerged from the panel discussion, it was thought provoking. As an audience member I came away with a deeper appreciation of the problem at hand and a reaffirmed sense that human behaviour needs to be modified on a giant scale. I appreciate how Kika Thorne is engaging with complicated issues through her research and as she mentioned during the panel discussion she is working to “poeticize reality in representations.” I see this as a strategy to engage the viewer and involve them in the conversation her work initiates with the hope to effect meaningful change in the way we think and act in the world.

[i] Rita Dove, “Geometry,” The Yellow House on the Corner (Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1980). Printed with permission of the author.

For more on Geometry of Knowing click here.

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