Towards the Essence of Matter: Russell A. Beard MFA Art, Space & Nature

July 2018

With a background in ecological science, speculative realism and documentary storytelling Russell Beard, (MFA Art Space &Nature) presents a body of art work that is the result of an on-going exploration at the intersection of Heideggerian philosophy, dark ecology, and quantum mechanics.

Using video installation, printmaking and sculpture (incorporating both found objects and recycled materials as well as and digital fabrication and computer modelling), Beard attempts to communicate truthfully what is not immediately perceptible at our human spatio–temporal scale.

By combining what we know to be true about the structure of space and time – the essence of matter at the finest scale, with an interest in how language and stories are central to our identity and shared sense of place, the artist unites our current theories about the fundamental nature of things, with our lived experience of the world.

From the Arctic-Circle to the Amazon, the high Andes to the Himalayas, Beard has spent the last ten years at the frontlines of climate change as producer and presenter of ‘Earthrise’ -Al Jazeera’s multi award winning environmental TV series created by Neil Cairns. By highlighting the positive work of progressive governments, grassroots community groups, innovators & activists who are rising the the environmental challenges that we are facing, Russell’s reports cover the most significant ecological and socio-economic threats to our civilisation such as rapid deforestation, air pollution, food security and ecosystem collapse.

In troubled times such as these such a shift in focus from reporting on the way things are – to re-imagining who and what we are may be understood as a natural response to fully apprehending the scale and severity of the environmental catastrophe which is currently unfolding. Perhaps during the sixth mass extinction, it is natural to turn to thoughts of the sacred and examine the invisible power of story – the intangible frameworks of perception which constitute our shared consensus reality. Like the agar jelly in a lab-experiment, ‘story’ is our growth media, the translucent stuff that feeds our slime-mould civilisation, firing our imagination, motivations, purposes and passions. Stories are the scaffolding of our homes and the mortar and the flagpoles onto which we tie our identities.

But our old story is broken, no longer “fit for purpose” … Things are changing so rapidly that we are in desperate need of a new set of concepts to bridge the nature-culture gap and address the mass cognitive dissonance brought about by trying to live as ‘business as usual’ despite the apparent consequences of overpopulation and unfettered capitalism.

Inspired by a close reading of Soil and Soul, (McIntosh 2004) 2017 saw the successful amalgamation of Russell’s environmental journalism and desire to make ecological art.

The book uses a case study of a proposal to establish a massive super-quarry in the pristine landscapes of southern Harris in the Scottish Hebrides and details the islanders’ resistance and eventual success in halting the project after a thirteen year public enquiry, known as The Battle for Roineabhal).

In response Russell produced a series of sculptures that recognised the mountain as a geo-socio catalyst in a body of work entitled “Solte Teine: Seeds of fire and the Mythopoesis of a Mountain”.


With the help of ASCUS art and science lab, he began working with the vibrant materiality of mineral crystallisation as a visual metaphor for the constellatory power of making and telling stories to form resilient global networks of grassroots resistance.

The recurring theme of identifying new frameworks of thinking about our selves and our relationships to each other and the planet was evident in another show at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI)

Using salvaged steel and found objects “CONATUS”, “CONSILIENCE” and “AFTER THE STORM” – (All 2016) are each concerned with material truths about the nature of growth, change and impact of human species on the earth’s natural systems.

“HYPEROBJECTS: REPRESENTED IN 21 CUBES” relates to the writings of Timothy Morton and a group of philosophers known as “Speculative Realists”. These thinkers work at the intersection of object-orientated thought and ecological studies to advance Heidegger’s anthropocentric subject / object “Correlationism”. They draw on scientific advances and new technology to pioneer new ways of perceiving the world outside of the human perspective.

A series of cubes were arranged outside and left to decompose for several weeks leaving smaller cubes peppered around the grounds referencing the “non local”, “viscous”, “inter-objective” nature of Morton’s “Hyper Objects” those entities such as Climate and radioactive waste that profoundly impact our lives and the more-than-human world in which we live and yet are so massively distributed in space and time as to be imperceptible directly by humans. (Morton 2013)


With “CONNATUS” or “THE NEXUS OF HUMAN AMBITION AND THE EARTHS CAPACITY TO SUSTAIN IT”: a sequence of “Necker Cubes” act as an optical illusion appearing to change orientation every 3 seconds. They create a sense of the uncanny that references instability in the “Anthropocene” in which climate change could be seen as a symptom of capitalism and human population growth, the resulting environmental impacts of which now threaten to undermine the earth’s natural systems on which we rely.

The series of Interconnected cubes increase in size, expanding with the “golden” ratio of 1.618 – precariously resting on the corner of what appears to be a massive submerged cube – referencing tipping points, melting ice-caps, rising sea levels and titanic hazards that are not fully understood. This the spatio / temporal gap between event Vs perceived impact also picks up on the Merkwelt / Wirkwelt concept of Barbara Adam’s ‘Timescapes of Modernity’ which talks of a “horizon of events” that is indirect, non-proportional, nonlinear and non local (B Adam 1998)


In his third piece “CONSILIENCE” : A series of steel bars twisted by hand to form a mutually supporting interdependent framework could be seen as representing a unity or “jumping together” of knowledge, a “federation of actants” (Bennett 2010) or one of Debhora Bird-Rose’s “multi species knots of ethical time” (Rose 2012)- i.e the interactions and textures in a self willed landscape that make you feel “part of the feast” (Plumwood, n.d.) Alternatively it could be read as a heuristic model of model of matter at the subatomic scale in which the actual structure is a covariant ‘field’ of discretely quantised particles.

after the storm

With “AFTER THE STORM” or “THE GREAT ACCELERATION AS SYMBOLISED IN A FOUND OBJECT” Russell presents a meter-long iron fencepost found entangled in the roots of a Scots Pine tree blown down in a recent storm.

The piece mirrors the “hockey-stick” graphs of 24 global indicators (i.e atmospheric CO2 concentration, deforestation, ocean acidification as well as storm frequency) that chart the “Great Acceleration” which began around the 1950s when our human socio-economic impact on the planet began to grow at exponential rates.

Physical chemical and biological processes are decomposing the artefact and returning the iron to the soil connecting us to geological time and inviting us to contemplate its simple, imperfect beauty and the perpetually transient nature of existence.

The desire to make some ‘thing’ that somehow truthfully represents reality which is in constant flux was evident in a solo show in 2016 entitled “KAINOS FE2O3 Explorations in Entropy” in which Beard, drawing on Barbara Adam’s notions of Natura Naturata /Natura Naturens (i.e concepts of nature manifest as physical stuff Vs nature as a force of perpetual becoming) (Barbara Adam 2004; Barbara Adam 1998) And referencing William Cronon’s insights into the “illusion of wilderness” (Cronon 1995) By engaging the dynamic chemical process of oxidisation and decomposition of iron, Beard uses rust to remind us that even something so seemingly fixed and permanent is in the process of change thereby highlighting the tension between the universal entropic tendency towards dispersal and life’s capacity to create order and beauty from chaos In a ‘negentropic’ “localised reversal of the arrow of time” (B. Adam 2006)

With Mark I A series of hand prints created in rust in reference Mans territorial urge to mark his environment . “Mark III: That Which Remains” is a print, of the artists naked body held in the ‘survival’ or ‘recovery position’ – (in which one is placed when sick or unconscious and at risk of asphyxiation). Created by repeated laying down on steel coated in a reagent to speed up the rusting process leaving the impression of a figure laying prostrate and fossil-like In a darkened space.


Part mausoleum, part archaeological dig the steel, is illuminated by a single angle-poise lamp lamp – easily anthropomorphised and appearing perhaps as a member of some future civilisation examining the traces of what remains of this thing called man. Blood red with the same compounds used to create the oldest known cave paintings and redolent of an iron-pan layer of ferrous leachate in waterlogged soil or the toxic lasagne of black-carbon, plastics and radioactive particulates that signify the new geological epoch known as the “Anthropocene”, this haunting work is a reminder that whether we like it or not we are all collectively leaving a mark which will remain identifiable for millennia to come.

In time of the Anthropocene, amid sea-level rise and mass extinction, making art – perhaps creativity of any kind – is a hopeful act. With Beard’s recent shift in focus from bio-chemical to quantum scale engagement with materiality he has embarked on a Jules Vernian quest for solid truth in the time of uncertainty. Tunnelling through the political and down beneath the biological and the chemical to the underlying physical level of reality in order to explore that strange world of electrons and quarks is perhaps a natural response to apprehending the scale of the ecological devastation which is underway. One can imagine how a shift in perspective to a worldview in which every-thing is essentially made up of the same stuff could make the current mass extinction somehow less horrifying.

In the final one of the series of MFA solo exhibitions in ASN’s Tent Gallery, Russell presented “Fieldworks”, a selection of intaglio prints and sculptures, in a minimal and poetic use of the space. Based on a close reading of the current theories of loop quantum gravity (Rovelli 2016; Rovelli 2004)(Baas Von Fraasen, Michel Bitbol)

fieldworks tent

By attempting to reveal or represent what we know to be true at the very most fundamental scale of reality Russell Beard’s recent work explores the intuitively familiar principals of Quantum Field Theory with its granularity, rationality and indeterminism and contributes to what Jane Bennet calls a “contemporary cultural landscape that is capable of inspiring wonder, even an energetic love of the world.” (Bennett 2001)

Produced by applying pigment to paper at high pressure with chemically etched metal plates – each print appears as continuous colour field but on closer inspection they separate into discretely quantized lattices creating a heuristic representation of the quantum gravitational field.

Emerging from the mesh of spectral lines and particles, one can detect highly complex patterns generated by a four-way symmetry that speaks to the perennial human urge to produce some kind of order from chaos. This geometry conveys a sense of the sacred, similar to a mandala or other form of religio-spiritual symbolism, that hints at the similarities between Buddhist and the quantum-mechanical world-view (the equations of which predict the contents of the periodic table of elements and provide compelling scientific proof that the nature of reality is indeed a constant flux of interacting fields of energy, suggesting a profoundly relational underlying unity of all things.)


alethia bright

The use of Ultra violet and far-red colours at the opposite limits of visible frequency relates to that which is beyond our ability to perceive directly – referencing Heidiggerian ontological philosophical ideas on truth or ‘Alethia’ (the paradoxical light that also conceals) (Heidegger 1996) While the act of applying pigment and then removing it prior to printing leaves layers of information and also produces patterns created by the absence of pigment that points to the “Negative Dialectics” of Theodor Adorno who, attempts to draw attention to that which is unknowable with his theories of ‘non-identity’… “objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder” (Adorno 1975; Bennett 2010)

fieldworks 2


these prints seem to reveal a clear progression from Beard’s earlier video work that resulted from a journey to the Hebridean island of Harris and Lewis which utilised the same four-way symmetry. Played along with an excerpt from Dolmen Music by Merredith Monk, “ORIGINS” (2016) is 4 minutes 44 seconds and consists simply of a mirrored moving image of the cascading interference patterns created in water, sand and sunlight at the shoreline where a river meets the sea.


Alternatively it could be read as a time-piece, concerning the origins of our own vital materiality and how certain properties emerge from complex chaotic systems amid the on-going oscillations between the creative generative forces of life’s perpetual becoming and the dissipative cosmic processes of entropy and decay.

Origins streetview

Beards final project for the ECA Degree Show 2018 ‘Towards the Essence of Matter’ is the latest in a series of artistic investigations into various aspects our vibrant materiality – and an attempt at not simply representing the nature of reality at the finest granular scale but (as with the so called “redox reaction” central to the etching process (which sees an exchange of electrons from copper sulphate and zinc) it is an engagement with materiality at the quantum level.

The first of three works is a re-presentation of the so called ‘Standard model’ – a kind of pictographic periodic table of each of the seventeen fundamental quantum particles that (as far as we know) make up everything of substance in our universe (aside from gravity and dark matter).


17 boxes, screen printed glass, laser cut birch plywood, LED and battery pack. (17X) 10.5 x 10.5 x 10.5cm


Inspired by old scientific ‘magic lantern’ slides, the boxes display a series of Pictographs (pictures which resemble what they signify) ‘painted’ in photons. By speaking the names of the particles into a custom-made oscilloscope, energy from sound vibrations oscillate a laser beam via a mirrored membrane resulting in a signature unique to each particle name. These so called lisajous curves were then photographed with a long exposure and screen-printed onto seventeen glass plates.

The set of lacquered light-boxes reference Max plank’s “black box” thought experiment (which gave rise to the first quantum theory and lead Albert Einsteine to devise the first quantum-mechanical equations that proved the strange wave-particle duality of light) and in a sense creates a new logographical system of writing for that which is inaccessible though our five senses “It is in language alone that like knows like” (Adorno 1975) One is reminded of the wonderful ‘Landmarks’ by Robert Mcfarlane – the lyrical and eloquent love letter to language In which he explains how when we loose the words to describe something we often loose the ability to perceive it… “words act as compasses; place-speech serves literally to en-chant the land – to sing it back into being and to sing ones being back into it” (Macfarlane 2015).

By literally inspiring or breathing life into these particle names Russell succeeds in somehow  reanimating or  transmuting the words from nouns that are little more than arbitrary, albeit useful short-hand for a set of physical properties into living verbs that manifest as vibrant evocative images with the power to illuminate the imagination by pointing to the perpetual happening which is the very essence of matter –  and if “physical appearance, activities and meanings are the raw materials of the identity of places…” (Relph 1976) perhaps each of these images represent not just a quantum particle-field existing in abstract space but a discrete fundamental unit or quanta of place?


The second piece is based on a Victorian animation device known as a Praxinoscope or “action viewer”. It was a invented in France around the time that Max Plank and Albert Einstein first theorised that light was made up of fundamental particles or ‘Photons’ that “fall on us like a gentle hail shower” (Rovelli 2016) ushering in a new paradigm of particle physics known as Quantum Field Theory


Various Victorian furniture components, glass mirror, copper tape, lead solder, steel bearing 60cm x 60cm x 80cm


The Praxinoscope was the successor to the zoetrope but instead of a strip of images held inside a vertical drum the pictures sit on a horizontal plane . Beard has built this device using wood from various pieces of Victorian furniture and created three interchangeable image plates.

time pieces

 Copper Sulphate etched Zinc plates , (3X) 60cm dia

The images etched into zinc plates are representations of fundamental particles. Each plate corresponds to a different particle and starts with an atomic (‘Indivisible’) point that splits into orbital-like – lisajous curves before returning to the single point. Divided into twelve segments each plate references clock time – but instead of numbers positioned around the periphery the characters emerge from the center in a spiral – pointing to the scientific truth that Time is an emergent property -useful to measure movement or change between two or more variables but no longer useful to think of as some kind of Newtonian “cosmic cloak” under which we all sit (Rovelli 2016)


Using the same oscilloscope to give a physical form to the particle names each image can be read as a  phonetic unit of the word. Unlike logograms (used by quarter of the worlds population) – these don’t have word meanings but represent sounds – (as in phonetic or orthographical writing like Korean Hangul) – when phonograms are combined they create multi syllabic meaning and phrases.

When the praxinoscope is spun the phonograms appear in the mirrors to meld into one animated pictograph which resembles, signifies and represents a quantum field.

This project continues In the tradition of the pioneering photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge who saw himself as an explorer using art and photography “in the spirit of scientific enquiry”.( using his ‘Zoopraxiscope’ and animated sequence of a galloping horse he was credited with creating the first moving images to allow viewers to access a keener understanding of aspects of physical reality beyond the threshold of human perception.


By manifesting works of art, that illustrates, represents or even transcends  scientific or mathematical worldview is an iterative process. Much like our understanding of ecology that evolved from ideas of linear succession to a more dynamical moving tapestry “a patchwork quilt of living things, changing continually through time and space… the stitches in that quilt never hold for long” (Worster 1989)” We are in a state of perpetual becoming, of creating and recreating our understanding of the world and it is the task of poets, artists & philosophers to “cease being the handmaidens of science” (Rovelli 2018) but to trust in the power of poetics, creativity and intuition and strive for epistemological and inspirational symbiosis. In the words of Mauro Durato “radical change in our physical worldview is not just due to the invention of a mathematical formalism or to new empirical information coming from novel experiments, but it also implies a thorough modification of the fundamental concepts with which we interpret the world of our experience”. (Dorato 2016)


The third and final piece is a visual timeline of the discoveries of subatomic particles presented as an abstract film projected at the end of a blacked out tunnel in to which the viewer is invited to peer.

quantum cave

 Video, glass, birch plywood, 5.1 surround-sound speakers

Beginning with a single point of light of the ancient Greek atomistic world view – Beard “en-chants” the particles (Abram 2012) – using the words to split the atomic point of light into different orbits “Strange Quarks” and “Higgs Bosons”… the sound-waves oscillate a beam of photons via a mirrored membrane resulting in abstract patterns resembling particle-field orbitals which are recorded in ultra slow motion and played back at speeds corresponding to the year of their discovery.

New orbitals appear layering of one on top of the other, building in complexity creating a swarm of particles that appear to act and interact like a field and display a strange symmetrical quality. The unsettling low-frequency echoes are infact ultra high-speed recordings of the seventeen fundamental particles being spoken in the order in which they were identified. The howling cavernous noises are coupled with the surround-sound of a crackling fire coming from behind the viewer in a clear reference to ‘Plato’s Cave’ – a reminder that our understanding of the nature of matter and the fundamental constituents of “reality” is always partial and in a state of constant flux . While we may be calling back into the cave to Lucretius and the natural philosophers of ancient Greece telling them of quarks and electrons – in a sense we are still in the cave – straining to hear the echoes of our future-selves calling back to us perhaps sharing their secrets of ‘dark matter’ and maybe even the quantum-granular nature of spacetime.

The oscilloscope membrane itself could be seen as a metaphor for the scientific endeavour – like the permeable membrane that exists between the ideal platonic noumena – and the phenomenal “real world” of things. Perhaps it is the responsibility of the artists, scientists and shamans the “boundary crawlers” (Bennett 2001) to straddle this liminal terrain in order to reach into in the world of visions, intuitions and imaginations – and to return bearing gifts.

But why try to make art that explores this field which most of us have practically zero chance of actually understanding – either in the pure-mathematical sense or apprehending directly?

It’s about wonder. By drawing on the power of enchantment as an active agent Russell A. Beard is attempting to excite the ecological imagination with “ambitious naiveté” (Bennett 2010) In the hope of stimulating a higher level of consciousness grounded in scientific truth in an attempt to foster a sense of generosity, openness and reverence for the earth and all the other human and non human expressions of life with which we are intimately connected. In the words of Martha Rosler : to “rupture the false boundaries between ways of thinking about art and ways of actively changing the world.”

“nature-art creates machines that change attitudes, paradoxical devices that upgrade human consciousness changing peoples relations with one another and with non humans… we need art that does not make people think (we have quite enough environmental art that does that) but rather that walks them though an inner space that is hard to traverse” (Morton 2013)



Abram, David. 2012. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Adam, B. 1998. “Timescapes of Modernity: The Environment and Invisible Hazards.” In , 3–19.

Adam, B. 2006. “Time.” Theory, Culture & Society 23 (2-3): 119–26. doi:10.1177/0263276406063779.

Adam, Barbara. 1998. Timescapes of Modernity the Environment and Invisible Hazards. Global Environmental Change Series. London ; New York: Routledge.

———. 2004. Time. Key Concepts (Polity Press). Cambridge, UK ; Malden, Mass.: Polity.

Adorno, Theodor W. 1975. Negative Dialects. Negative Dialects. Vol. 72. doi:10.2307/2024861.

Bennett, Jane. 2001. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton University Press.

———. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, [N.C.]: Duke University Press.

Cronon, William. 1995. “The Trouble with Wilderness; Or, Getting back to the Wrong Nature.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Edinburgh University/Topics in Environmental Humanities ARCH11246/Cronon69_ARCH11246.pdf.

Dorato, Mauro. 2016. “Rovelli’s Relational Quantum Mechanics, Anti-Monism, and Quantum Becoming.” The Metaphysics of Relations, 1–27. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198735878.001.0001.

Heidegger, Martin. 1996. Being and Time: A Translation of Sein Und Zeit. SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy.

Macfarlane, R. 2015. Landmarks. Penguin Books Limited.

McIntosh, A. 2004. Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power. Aurum Press.

Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Posthumanities ; 27.

Plumwood, Val. n.d. “Part of the Feast”: The Life and Work of Val Plumwood. National Museum of Australia.

Relph, Edward. 1976. Place and Placelessness. Research in Planning and Design ; 1. London: Pion.

Rose, Deborah Bird. 2012. “Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time.” Environmental Philosophy 9 (1): 127–40.

Rovelli, Carlo. 2004. Quantum Gravity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511755804.

———. 2016. Reality Is Not What It Seems. Penguin UK.

Worster, Donald. 1989. “The Ecology of Order and Chaos.” Environmental History Review, Vol. 14, (No. 1/2).




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