Article categories: Issue 79
April 19th, 2012

Since the development of civilisation, humans have been feeling, recording and studying earthquake phenomena. The US Geological Survey (USGS) currently estimates that several million earthquakes occur in the world each year.(1)

Early seismology began in 1880, when Englishman John Milne developed the first known horizontal pendulum seismograph, and in doing so founded the Seismological Society of Japan. In 1956, in the remote outback of South Australia near Maralinga, the Australian seismologist Bruce A. Bolt collected data from ten seismograms recording four nuclear explosions code-named Operation Buffalo.(2) These controversial British atomic tests resulted in the field of seismology becoming recognised as a valid science. Forensic seismology is now a principal monitoring technique used to enforce the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.(3)

Shake Table at dusk, lit by flourescent lights installed under the table in addition to a high-powered, hand-held flashlight. Photo: Scott Haefner – USGS

Before the 1970s, seismologists determined the location of seismic events by analyzing analog records in the form of paper seismographic charts, an often error-prone and time-consuming task. As communication technologies transitioned from the analogue to the digital in the late 1980s, seismology began to embrace the digital age. In the 21st century, the earth sciences are now critically dependent on web-based digital resources for disseminating seismic data collected at hundreds of observatories world-wide. Data from seismic monitoring networks are fundamental to a better understanding of earthquake occurrence and effects of the processes that cause volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

Seismic monitoring systems record any disturbances that generate seismic waves. These waves propagate through the Earth and produce vibration or shaking of the ground at the Earth’s surface. The general term ‘seismic event’ is used to indicate any of the following disturbances: earthquakes; volcanic eruptions; quarry blasts; sonic booms; mine collapses; meteorite impacts, and; underground nuclear testing. In simple terms, seismic monitoring requires (A) a sensor (seismometer) that converts vibratory ground motion into an electric signal; (B) a local recorder or a communication network that transmits this signal to a data center, and; (C) analysis that combines the signals from many seismometers to determine a location, magnitude, peak acceleration and other parameters that characterise seismic events detected.(4)

The earth sciences collect and process more data than any other computational field. The dissemination and subsequent re-appropriation of seismic data is an emerging suite of new tools in a relatively unexplored medium. In her essay, The Spectacle of Seismicity: Making Art from Earthquakes,(5) Ella Mudie details a collection of seminal contemporary data-driven and interpretive seismic art works. Mudie discusses late 20th century examples including Natalie Jeremijenko’s Trigger, the Loma Prieta Pony (1995), and Ken Goldberg’s Mori: An Internet-Based Earthwork’ (1999).(6)

Photo taken from a kite-lofted camera, showing the shake table, control bunker and earthwork in context of the small town of Parkfield, CA.

In 2008, at the field research home of the USGS-inspired Parkfield Earthquake Experiment(7) located on the centre of the San Andreas Fault in Central California, the part machine, part earthwork, part performance known as the Parkfield Interventional EQ Fieldwork (PIEQF) occurred. This seismic machine earthwork was influenced by, and expanded on, the late 1960s and early 1970s American Earth Art Movement.(8)

The installation of PIEQF involved excavating 150 cubic tons of earth and installing a re-engineered, hydraulically-actuated earthquake ‘shake table’ in a crudely landscaped 8ft x 30ft x 50ft trench. Custom software triggered the shake table into life by reflecting all seismic events, from magnitude 0.1 Mw and above, which occurred throughout the state of California during the 91-day period of the intervention. The conceptual premise behind this was to bring all California seismic events to the surface of the earth, and to a hypothetical epicenter at the centre of the shake table.

Vertical displacement sensors (geophones) were installed in the landscape of PIEQF to enable visitors to interactively engage with the installation, becoming seismic events themselves by jumping and stomping. When near-realtime seismic events were reported via the USGS network, the P-Wave (horizontal) motion of the earthquake shake table was actuated under full power. This movement created a feedback loop with the sensors buried within the site, resulting in S-Wave (vertical) actuation and displacement of the shake table. Magnitude determined duration, and the larger the magnitude of reported seismic event, the longer the shake table would function.

Attached to the shake table, an array of steel rods kinetically resonated during the operational hours of the installation. The perpetual asymmetric and irregular oscillations of these rods were constant, and the mechanical vibration never static. Their kinetic, seismic articulation resonated constantly, representing the frequency of seismic energy physically travelling through and over the surface of the earth. Throughout the 91-day duration of the PIEQF installation, it was triggered by approximately 4000-4500 California-only seismic events.(9)

Computational algorithmic control of multiple networked connections by means of data interpretation is where the art-sciences are at today. It is a creative necessity to represent the interconnectivity of information and the true nature of data. Physically responsive manufactured environments, kinetically engineered architecture, auditory landscapes, lighting system connectivity and water flow control design, all reflecting ecological and geological conditions, are at the frontier of contemporary expression and social interaction. Artistic research exploring this area by creating new modes of representation using seismic data can be seen as a Trojan horse leading the way.

D.V. Rogers
An Australian-based New Zealander, D.V. Rogers is an installation-focused, performance artist/engineer working between the fields of geophysics, conceptual cultural theory, activism, performance, systems engineering, and social commentary. Rogers is currently artist-in-residence at the AlloSphere Research Facility, UC Santa Barbara collaborating with computer scientists, musicians and geophysicists developing Inner Earth Interpreter. This research can be viewed at



(1) USGS Earthquake Facts and Statistics

(2) Bruce Bolt and Atomic Testing in Australia

(3) Commission for the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization

(4) USGS – Requirement for an Advanced National Seismic System

(5) The Spectacle of Seismicity: Making Art from Earthquake – Ella Mudie

(6) Mori: An Internet-Based Earthwork

(7) The Parkfield, California, Earthquake Experiment

(8) Monumental Land Art of the United States

(9) Parkfield Interventional EQ Fieldwork

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