Courtesy of Cornell University

The "Crystalline Basement" exhibition featured massive rocks surrounded by plants on the Engineering Quad, as well as an accompanying film shown in Klarman Hall.

November 19, 2018

Art Installation Depicts Possible Usage of ‘Crystalline Basement’ to Heat Dormitories

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Heating a dorm room with residual geothermal heat from 4,600 million years ago may soon be possible at Cornell, as illustrated by an art installation displayed on the Engineering Quad.

From Sept. 20 to Nov. 6, a sculptural installation commissioned for the Cornell Council of the Arts Biennial 2018 titled “Crystalline Basement” was displayed on the Engineering Quad. The film to accompany the art piece was shown in Klarman Hall.

A crystalline basement is a term used to define a portion of the “geological profile” of rock that dates back from the Precambrian Era, making it the oldest surviving material on Earth, according to the CCA website.

Preparations are in place for Cornell “scientists and facilities managers” to drill geothermal wells that may in the future provide heat to buildings on campus. The “crystalline basement” is where these wells will terminate.

The sculptors “moved over 2.5 tons of local soil material by hand to create a custom-poured earth mix” creating a cluster of massive rocks that formed the installation, according to the CCA website. The artists placed “ancient pteridophytes,” ancient plants, around the rocks that decomposed over the period of the installation.

The film accompanying the sculpture had a screen with two different panels depicting aspects of the project.

The project was made by Hans Baumann, Swiss-American artist and land-art practitioner, and Prof. Karen Pinkus, comparative literature, in coordination with the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the School of Engineering. Pinkus is also the chair of the Faculty Advisor Board of the Atkinson Center.

“The film is a vital component of understanding the project, not just the physical piece,” Baumann told The Sun. “When we talk about landscape it means a lot of different things to different people,” and “bringing humanities in to these discussions is important,” he continued.

“The Cornell Council for the Arts stimulated a lot of interesting and productive discussion,” he added.

When discussing the environmental project itself, Baumann described how we are “grappling with the scale of this unseen system.” He explained that “geothermal heat is not renewable. It’s bizarre that the remains of this heat are being used to heat dorm rooms. There’s something so spiritual about heating a dorm room with explosion from so many years ago.”

In describing his expectations about how people would react to the art piece, Baumann stated that he acknowledges that some people may not have noticed or interacted with the piece.

“I understand that people walked by it and didn’t notice it and didn’t interact with it, but I would like to think some people interacted with it and got a new understanding of energy use.” he said. “I hope they also found it aesthetically compelling. Something I love about the rock garden is it exists a little bit unseen, it doesn’t really draw attention to itself.”

According to Baumann, bringing art into “technical questions,” like ones about the environment, allows people “to think about them beyond the parameters that they’re being discussed” and to “negotiate these issues while thinking of all histories, not just the dominant Western one.”