Karin Ruggaber Lecturer in Sculpture at the UCL Slade School of Fine Art, founded the Rock Room Project in 2013 in collaboration with the Department of Earth Sciences and UCL Museums and Collections. Curator of the geological collections, Nick Booth, has been an important link in facilitating this project since its initiation.
This year’s Rock Room Project manifests as room-scale installation in the postgraduate painting studios in the Slade’s premises on Woburn Square and incorporates a mural as well as a series of prints inspired by materials donated by UCL Earth Sciences and tours of research laboratories in the Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences. Working with Karin, Slade School postgraduate students Katie Anstaett-Hubbell, Olivia Bax, Iain Ball, Rory Biddulph, Anna Cheung, Stuart Doncaster, Michael Dryden, Fred Duffield, Jacob Farrell, Orly Hummel, Suzie Osborn, Eiko Soga, Vasilina Svoronou, Tessa Tapscott and Renate Werberberger have all contributed to this astonishing piece of collaborative work.
Karin (left) and her students have visited the UCL Earth Sciences collections in the Rock Room and have taken tours of the laboratories where experimental research is undertaken in rock and mineral physics. In these facilities, ice and rock can be deformed under variable temperatures and pressures, providing us with knowledge of the mechanisms of deformation of the Earth’s crust. The students also visited the Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory (MSSL), part of UCL’s Department of Space and Climate Physics, which develops and engineers instruments for the observation and measurement of space. Another trip took in an anechoic chamber, a room engineered to absorb sound. The silence of space. Space really is the final frontier for off-Earth scientists, and a visit to the Regional Planetary Image Facility (RPIF) brought the students to images of the surfaces of other planets and moons in our Solar System captured by photography and radar. The latter technique records the relative roughness or smoothness of the extra-terrestrial topographies, and these textures became an important aspect of the resulting installation.
Unlabeled and no longer useful material from the Earth Sciences collections were donated to the project. A box of fossil nautiloids and ammonoids (some plastic models for teaching), slabs of migmatite with ptygmatic veins, brittle-ductile deformed chevron-folded slates, septarian nodules and slices of core mounted on plastic, replete with saw-cuts and palaeomagnetists’ drill holes. All divorced from their labels and therefore their contexts. Ornamental, but no use to scientists. And files and piles of paper. Technical drawings and maps for journal articles on draft film, old-skool black-and-white seismic reflection profiles, teaching handouts from Exploration Geophysics (… or was it Geophysical Exploration?). A lagerstätten of dated technology, painstakingly created, photocopied, reduced, enlarged, explained and then discarded in favour of newer technology.
This project was never intended to be a direct translation of knowledge acquired or observed on these field trips into practice. Although the intended outcome was to produce an exhibition, the process of creating this came through flights of imagination and indeed, a sometimes fantastical interaction with these materials and laboratories. The final installation is an attempt to crystallise these experiences, translated from observation, touch and texture via colour, pigment, media and sand. Prints were made using tennis balls, brooms, fingers, rollers, spoons; scored surfaces, shredded draft film, deconsecrated maps. Slabs of rock were inked-up and printed on newsprint or directly onto the discarded maps and charts. Dendritic rivers of organic inks flow across these surfaces, mud-flows obscure charts, lava-hued inks obliterate and image. Coffee-stain and turpentine disrupt textures and colours. In the study of the geology of the Earth and other planets, scale is everything and these images are reminiscent of the images of planetary surfaces observed from space or maybe petrographic thin sections viewed using a polarised light microscope … but scale is no longer matters.
My favourite pieces are those where colour and texture are layered over seismic profiles and teaching handouts using printing inks and geological found materials such as sand and mud. The brightly coloured, printing inks are in orange, coral, pink, deep purple, blue, pigmented by industrially made organic chemical compounds. It may seem that there is little of the earth in these materials, but they are manufactured from chemicals extracted from hydrocarbons, so somehow this is fitting.
Seismic surveys are constructed using explosive charges dropped at close and regular intervals, the shock waves penetrating the Earth’s crust and reflecting back the layers of rocks beneath, revealing faults, folds, stratigraphy and salt domes. Typically they are used to explore for potential hydrocarbon reserves in the otherwise inaccessible sea-floor. Today the practice of acquisition is the same but the resulting product is a multi-coloured, three-dimensional, computer generated model. Gone are the days of those long, long, long scrolls of gray-scale wiggly lines. As an undergraduate, these would be laid out along a long laboratory bench, we would be give a segment each to interpret. We learned to look at the seismic profiles at a somewhat oblique angle, squinting, until the stratigraphy became coherent and then, using coloured pencils, we would mark on the sequence boundaries and structures and decide as a group where we would sink our oil well. (tip: always go for the structural highs – antiformal closures and salt domes!). This was hard work, difficult and time consuming, you was never quite sure if your interpretation was correct, what was real and what was a ‘multiple’, a artefact of the data acquisition which erroneously repeats strata. Part of me feels warm inside to see these things destroyed and given a new life.
Jacob Farrell’s mural covers three of the 4 m high walls of one of the Woburn Square painting studios and resembles a chaotic, or indeed inchoate, paint formation, reminiscent of a macro-detail from one of John Martin’s catastrophes, reproduced on a mega-scale. Jacob used discarded printing inks, rescued from a school cupboard and reconstituted them, mixing in graphite powder, which produced unexpected changes in colour. The paint is thick and gloopy whilst retaining a transparency and luminosity despite a rough and earthy texture. The effect is sublime turmoil; a magma chamber, a womb or whatever else is conjured in the imagination.
After the print fair, the Woburn Square studio will be restored to their white, safe space. The boxes of rocks and fossil will be taken away, the prints removed and filed somewhere and the scaffold deconstructed. Thick layers of white emulsion will be pasted over Jacob’s mural until all traces of it are smoothed away. This process must have happened many times in this space, preserving a stratigraphy of paintings interspersed with impermeable layers of titanium dioxide white emulsion. The Rock Room Project mural will become buried under this overburden as the most recently fossilised strata sealed in these walls.
The prints are being sold for £10 each. If you are interested, please contact the Slade School of Fine Art. All money goes towards the Slade Scholarship Fund.
#RockRoom Project #SladePrintFair
More images on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1yk3Zb8
 Karin Ruggaber: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/people/academic/profile/KRUGG33
 The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Martin_-_Sodom_and_Gomorrah.jpg
©Ruth Siddall 2015