1,500 KM | 15 ARTISTS | A REMEASURING OF SPACE, PLACE AND SELF
CURRENT EARTH RADIUS ESTIMATE: 6368.62 KM
PROVISIONAL 'METRE' LENGTH: 100.038 CM
IN JUNE 1792, NAPOLEON TASKED TWO FRENCH ASTRONOMERS WITH AN AMBITIONS TASK: TO TRAVERSE AN ARC INSCRIBED ON THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH AND DETERMINE A NEW 'UNIVERSAL' STANDARD — LE MÈTRE-ÉTALON; THE METRE.
The pair, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain, travelled the length of the Meridian arc from Dunkerque to Barcelona; surveying both the land beneath and sky above in order to measure the curvature of the Earth. They used this data to define the metre as a ‘natural’ standard: one-ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator. This was a new kind of metric; borne neither of politics, nor the aristocracy, it was instead drawn from the Earth itself.
While a trace of their seven year journey remains — etched into the fibres of the modern metric — its history has long faded from view. Through proliferation and daily use, the metre now embodies its original goals: it is a standard measure; definitive, authoritative and canonical — a petrified and solidified object, distinct and distanced from its origins and the physicality that defined it.
In its scientific and societal use, the metre has been galvanised — forming an objective and systematic entity cleaved from our corporeal connection to it. Yet however obscured its provenance may become, the metre remains inexorably bound to the Earth; a self-reflexive gesture through which we measure space, place, and self against the scale of our own domain. The metre is bound to the Earth, and through our use of it so are we.
In Summer / Fall of 2018, I will attempt to honour le mètre-étalon by staging a performative walk along la Méridienne de France. The walk, entitled étalon (from the French term meaning both standard of measurement and stallion) will traverse the distance between Dunkerque and Barcelona, seeking to recapture the tactility associated with the metre’s original definition. The journey will span over 1,500 km and require approximately 100 days of walking, surveying and scientific measurement to complete. This act of homage, endurance and absurdity is a study of both the length and the lengths taken by science in order to establish a standard and how these standards can be examined and eschewed in the pursuit of art.
Walking, by design, infers time and motion as experienced on a human scale. It can reduce a formidable task [such as crossing a country or contemplating a metric] to the simplest of human gestures: the positing of one foot in front of the other. Through this act, I intend to embody the metre, [slowly — thoughtfully — introspectively], allowing the imperceptible arc of the Earth to curve beneath my feet.
Embracing the experimental structure this work presents, I have invited a series of scientific, artistic and cultural creatives to accompany me in the performance. Each will undertake a week-long section of the overall journey – collectively enacting a 'relay' in support of my ongoing endeavour. As we walk, we shall measure, conducting a repeated set of ‘experiments’ designed to calculate the landscape’s unseen curvature. We will employ a combination of GPS computations and surveying observations to measure the distance travelled with respect to the stars. In collaboration with Darren Engwirda (Columbia University / NASA-GISS) this dataset will be analysed to derive an estimate for the Earth’s curvature and, subsequently, the length of a new ‘metre’ to be forged from our own physical labour.
Étalon is devised as an encounter with the metre as a physical, emotional and conceptual postulate, experienced over an expansive terrain. Each step is an act of (re)evaluation and (re)consideration — examining the lived action of measurement and scientific exploration through the female gaze. That the term for a standard of measurement — an étalon — also denotes a stallion [a male-exemplar; a breeding horse] betrays a remarkable etymological tension; underscoring the overtly masculine framework entrenched within scientific discourse. This female-led expedition is intended to serve as a much needed countermeasure; privileging a perspective distinctly lacking within the historical narrative.
This new ‘mètre-étalon’ will be formed by a collective of voices — brought together to expand upon existent forms of knowledge and to focus on a mode of production [as much as that which is produced]. Here, the new 'standard' is something more than a fixed and immutable construct — it is a shared phenomenological encounter; an assemblage of time passed and distance travelled; a measuring of self against the the limits of our own domain.