the coastline paradox
measuring a nameless island

a nameless island, Odense Fjord, Denmark
actions / field studies
2013

Can one reconcile the fugitive sublime with the subjective-temporal conditions that pitch our visions in the dirt? Does the possession of huge quantities of information and representations bring us closer to our world or lead us further into unearthly abstraction?

According to Lewis Fry Richardson’s coastline paradox, one could wind a ruler around every single pebble and grain of sand on an island’s perimeter so thoroughly that its seemingly finite length could actually unfurl into millions upon millions of kilometer. Our small, isolated world could, in fact, go on forever. Onsite measurements of a single island – in particular, a nameless island in Odense Fjord that recently emerged from the sea and may soon disappear again – were made with rope, thumbs, hands, arm’s lengths, etc.

Meanwhile, my team and I were relentlessly foiled by the fickle shoreline, its tiny, vulnerable perimeter made dramatically dynamic by the tides, waves, and rotting seaweed. Here, the fieldwork, on one hand, fell apart as science and, on the other hand, emerged as ontological situation, framing paradoxes of empiricism and imperialism: Cartography's legacy of human empire and knowledge was momentarily dissolved in the relationship of body to shore, in a collapse between map and territory.

In this sense, the action was less about attaining stable measurements and more about chasing and catching a coastline that would disappear as quickly as it arrived. The only way to make it through the measurements was to let go of the coastline that we had just pinned down, that was already behind us, and focus on the coastline of the now, the one that was under our feet or hands in the perpetually regenerative present moment.

The measurement of a landscape can only ever approach our desire to grasp its absolute magnitude. Often, the more exacting we are, the further we drift from true knowing.

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