The Arts
April 26-May 2, 2006

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Traces of Presence

What's unseen delights at new SCM exhibit

By Gretchen Giles

The subject is earthquakes, and the Sonoma County Museum is in ruins. At least, that's how it appeared last week, a few days before the SCM's "Force of Nature" exhibition opened, as workman swarmed the area. Two nude cardboard columns, as yet unadorned by San Francisco artist John Roloff, stood floor-to-ceiling at either end of the main gallery, representing the east and west poles of the San Andreas fault. Within a day, they were covered with elongated photographic stylizations of the area's geography. Mimicking the miles-long core plugs that geologists take of the earth's crust to study sedimentary history, these stratographic columns imbue a blur of human structures with the recurring motifs of rock in part to reflect the staggering width of geologic time.

Outside, Roloff has hung flags that, to the briefest glance, appear merely colorful and boast unique repeating shapes, perhaps like those found on nice pieces of imported batik. But in fact, their symbolic design is based exclusively on the professional geological shorthand used to denote the alluvial rock formations that underlie the Santa Rosa Plain, the Sonoma Volcanics area and the 100-million-year-old Franciscan Formation.

All of which is to say that the "Force of Nature" visitor who quickly tires of the few drab historical artifacts on display, passes by the emergency kit items tacked askew to one wall, stops only briefly before the hum of the science-fair-style computer area and feels that the exhibit's been experienced has actually missed the most exciting parts of what's going on.

Standing amid the ruins before the exhibition's opening, Paula Levine--a conceptual artist interested in the tender explosion of the narrative structure--is quietly overseeing electricians as they install a hearing station snaking down from the ceiling.

Levine's contribution to "Force" is located in the museum's contemporary art space, that anteroom near the building's former vault. Working with programmer Alex Killough, Levine, a professor at San Francisco State, has created a work called Signature for the exhibit.

Complex to the extreme, the simple summation of Signature is that it combines seismic charting with human storytelling with geological sound tracers with global positioning systems with computer programming with turn-of-the-century photography with satellite tracking.

Levine is deeply involved in teasing apart the endless entangled strands found in any narration, seeing it, she says, as being "embedded with experience--the telling of something and the vision of something." To that end, she and Killough have taken several strands of the story of the 1906 earthquake and teased them most thoroughly apart.

Using seismic maps of the earthquake taken from the Lawson Report as well as from records made by seismology stations in Puerto Rico and Sweden, Levine and Killough created an audio representation of the event. The actual earthquake took a full 22 minutes from beginning to end, and had it been audible to human ears, would have made a sound composed mostly of pops and groans. Working with geologists, Killough determined what would be a pop and what a groan, sped the sequence up and raised the audibility, creating a sound signature of that April day in 1906.

Levine meanwhile compiled an audio montage of 1906 survivors recounting their tales for a 1985 history project, their babble also a signature keyed to the sound of the earthquake. This is the deeply personal strand of the narrative. Seismic charts ring the walls of the Project Space. A video screen flashes images of the time.

Here's where it gets complicated. After dispassionately studying the 1906 event, Levine and Killough deepened their narrative in two important ways: they focused on the Rodgers Fault that runs directly through downtown Santa Rosa, and they introduced the marvel of GPS. Using GPS, they exactly marked the location of the Sonoma County Museum. Using the resulting marker, Killough created a computer program charting the roughly 10,000 satellites that pass over the museum daily. Using ordinary USGS maps, the two projected Santa Rosa's city footprint onto a wall.

Now here's where it gets super complicated, because the dispassion of history is no longer the steward; human capriciousness instead rules. The computer program tracking the satellites triggers the "audio image" of the 1906 earthquake, that sped-up 22 minutes of pops and groans, each time a satellite passes overhead. At the same time, the computer prompts the survivor's narration to play. At the same time, the computer triggers an explosion--of an earthquake not yet known--from the Rodger's Fault, which spreads across the entirety of Santa Rosa, slamming shock waves into the bedrock of the surrounding mountains in rebound until a new satellite crosses the computer program triggering another Rodgers explosion, prompting the survivors to speak and the waves to streak, rebounding with insane speed right back. Again and again and again.

Levine works to describe what she and Killough have wrought, so much of which has to do with nature's absolute indifference to anything the ego can devise. "It's like choreographing a space. It's not literal, it's not allegory, it's not symbolic," she says, searching. "It's an interplay of forces and prisms that are both visible and invisible in a way that began to speak about their interconnectedness."She smiles. "We're on the edge of an epic narrative that hasn't quite happened yet."

'Force of Nature' runs through July 9. Roloff, Levine and Killough appear June 10. Sonoma County Museum, 425 Seventh St., Santa Rosa. $2-$5. 707.579.1500.

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