Continuous Topography creates an image of what Holdsworth calls a “future archaeology”, in which our own temporal horizons are thrown into relief. The works invite us to imaginatively inhabit what initially appears to be an almost entirely abstract and immaterial, or virtual space. In fact, these are entirely new kinds of landscape imagery. Each work was produced through extensive fieldwork in the Vallée de Joux, in the Jura mountain range on the French-Swiss borders.
Continuous Topography examines the unique formation of limestone strata in the valley beneath the Jura mountains: this limestone range is a geological feature wholly particular to the Jura and one which forced early scientists to rethink their chronology of the earth’s development. To be exact, the significance of this landscape for us in imagining the earth’s deep past can be seen in the fact that the Jura are the source of the well-known term ‘Jurassic’ (‘Jura’ translates as “forest mountains”). The mountain range gave their name to an entire geological epoch, one that reordered the timeframes by which we know the planet’s development. It is just over 220 years since Alexander von Humboldt, an advocate both of romantic philosophy, and an early pioneer of systematic geophysical measurements, coined this term, ‘Jurassic’. Humboldt could not assimilate these rocks to the ‘stratigraphic’ schemes predecessors have conceptualised to explain the earth’s long chronology.
Von Humboldt’s scientific methods and his romanticism might be thought to have a second life in Holdsworth’s new work – albeit in quite unexpected ways. Continuous Topography presents us with new types of pictures of the world beneath us – and requires us to imagine new types of world-picture. Appropriately enough then, given Holdsworth’s ambition for this work, it was Von Humboldt who introduced the ancient Greek term ‘cosmos’ into modern use, in the 1840s, through his multi-volume treatise Kosmos. This was an attempt to view the world anew, in scientific terms, as a single interacting entity. Von Humboldt is one forefather of modern physical geography and biogeography: since his time, scientific efforts have been oriented towards ensuring that the discipline of science, the totality of ‘nature’, and human activity within it, can be imagined as parts of a unified system within which all elements interact dynamically.
We might imagine Continuous Topography as a twenty-first century rethinking of the ambitions of Von Humboldt’s epic, five-volume treatise about science and planetary development, Kosmos. Holdsworth’s method certainly alerts us to the subtitle of Kosmos, namely A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. Continuous Topography does indeed offers kinds of ‘sketches’ – but only in the sense that they are artistic interpretations made from scientific observations. On the contrary, few projects either artistic or scientific could conjure more wonder from greater precision than Holdsworth’s recent works. That is in part because it is the most recent outcome of a three-year research project into how we can visualise that we which we know exists, but are unable to grasp or fully imagine. Holdsworth’s project has been created in collaboration with research geologist Mark Allan: together, they have also surveyed glaciers around Mont Blanc including the Argentiere, Mer de Glace, Pre de Bar, Bionnassay, Bossons, and Miage. Continuous Topography is, then, an audacious artistic, scientific, and technological experiment alike. It is one whose results have been achieved only with the latest photogrammetry and geomapping technologies as well through interdisciplinary working. In other parallel works, Holdsworth has gathered information about sites necessarily using drones and helicopters, surveying vistas from a non-human perspective. For Continuous Topography, Jura, an in-depth survey was also undertaken at ground level.
The extraordinary three-dimensional models we encounter are photographic in origin: they relate closely to Holdsworth’s body of research to date whilst marking a distinct departure. Each image is created through a lengthy process of correlating several hundred photographs of a landscape with GPS recordings to begin to build an intensely detailed virtual model of its morphology. We can follow every inch of its contours in a way that could never have been possible until twenty-first century modelling and photographic technologies. Continuous Topography, however, should best be seen as a philosophical project: one concerned with the nature of imaging technology, of photography, of the ideas of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, and of the limits of our knowledge of the world before and after our own time. As Jean-Francois Lyotard made clear thirty years ago, today, the “artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher” in “presenting the unpresentable” (Lyotard 1984: 81). This short formulation accurately describes Holdsworth’s position and the basis of his project.
Through Continuous Topography, we are able, for the first time in history, to plot every crack and contour of rock formations originating some 150 million years ago. Every detail of their surfaces are available for our inspection and scrutiny. The sites are presented as ‘sculptural’ objects in ways both Robert Smithson, and a pre-Raphaelite painter like John Everett Millais or his mentor John Ruskin would each have understood. We might even say that Continuous Topography partakes of the ethos of each artist, or is an improbable missing link between the two.
What we see ‘at first glance’ are fragments of the Jura, or what Holdsworth aptly calls “extractions” from the rocky terrain. He sees each work as “an infrastructure of complex geometries and points: a codified representation of geological time at the interface of the virtual”. This testimony condenses three complex aims that require unpacking, and touches upon the three interrelated intellectual aims of the work. As the media theorist McKenzie Wark also puts it, the challenge for philosophers and for artists is to imagine a new “media theory for the Anthropocene” able to “connect the fast calculations of digital time to the deepest of temporalites, that of the earth itself” and able to throw light on our futures by doing so (Wark 2015 n.p.) This ambition might be the simplest characterisation of Holdsworth’s triple ambitions in Continuous Topography. Holdsworth gives us access to a new realm of knowledge, through a new virtual realm, and invites us to imaginatively inhabit “geological time”, through his new moving and still image works.