Tinguely (1925–1991) was a Swiss artist best known for his sculptural machines he called ‘Metamechanics’. His position in art history came after the dada movement to make pioneering moving sculptures in a modernist arena. Though his works were deliberately useless his free wheeling innovations inspired many artists to come.
Arthur Ganson (b.1955) was one of those inspired by Tinguely to make complex and refined yet ambiguous mechanical sculptures.
Michael Landy (b.1963) upon visiting a Tinguely exhibition in London whilst still a teenager inspired a career making art. He later produced a book of drawings of Tinguely’s sculptures, a testimony to his appreciation of the mechanics and forms.
It’s proven that many animals possess a sense that make them aware of the earths magnetic field, mice, rats, flies, bees, birds, whales, dolphins, turtles, dogs, deer, cows, snails, foxes, bats, eels and so on, have all been scientifically proven to have ‘magnetoreception’. This magneto sense is a precision instrument like hearing or eyesight and is sensitive to minute variations in magnetism which is why many animals have been shown to be affected by man made magnetism, namely electricity. As Michael Faraday showed us 200 years ago, magnetism is an integral part of electricity. Cows naturally align themselves along the north-south magnetic field as do Roe Deer but both display random alignment when in the vicinity of electricity cables carried by pylons across fields (Burda et al., 2009) see article.
In red foxes it has been proven that interference with the natural magnetic field by humans via electric cables can have a detrimental effect on it’s hunting behaviour. Red fox align themselves in a particular direction before pouncing on rodents underground, they are more successful in a north east direction (Cˇ erveny ́ et al., 2011).
It has also been demonstrated that the reason dogs often spin in circles whilst trying to defecate is because they may not get a good sense the earths natural magnetic field, perhaps because of electromagnetism produced in underground cables. (article)
Radar, has proliferated the natural environment across the globe which produces electromagnetic magnetic waves travelling long distances through the earth, the sea and air. Radar is used in ship navigation, mobile phone, radio and tv, air traffic control, weather monitoring and satellite technology. There are WHO guidelines for it’s safe use in humans (article) but we are less sensitive than birds for example where it has been shown that radar does affect migratory behaviour (article).
The question that arises is to what degree are animals with magneto reception, in the air, on the ground and in the sea, being affected by the electromagnetic noise we humans emit all over the earth? Just because we humans have an almost extinct magneto sense should we not be protecting the depleting wild biomass left on the earth ? (article)
Burda, H., Begall, S., Cˇ erveny ́, J., Neef, J., & Neˇmec, P. (2009). Extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields disrupt magnetic alignment of ruminants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106, 5708–5713.
Cˇ erveny ́, J., Begall, S., Koubek, P., Nova ́kova ́, P., & Burda, H. (2011). Directional prefer- ence may enhance hunting accuracy in foraging foxes. Biology Letters, 7, 355–357. Cook, C. M., Thomas, A. W., & Prato, F. S. (2002). Human electrophysiological and cognitive effects of exposure to ELF magnetic and ELF modulated RF and microwave fields: a review of recent studies. Bioelectromagnetics, 23, 144–157.
Eleanor Sheridan, Jacquelyn Randolet, Travis Lee DeVault, Thomas Walter Seamans, Bradley Fields Blackwell, & Esteban Fernández-Juricic. (2015). The effects of radar on avian behavior: Implications for wildlife management at airports. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 171, 241–252. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2015.08.001.
Dr. Robin Baker in the late 1970’s conducted a series of experiments based at Manchester University to find out whether or not human beings possess the physical capacity to detect the earths magnetic field. His finding were published in the New Scientist in 1980 (article). Unfortunately, peer reviews later discredited his findings when the repeated experiments were found to be inconclusive.
Yet more recent scientific studies have used more controlled environments and sophisticated Electroencephalography (EEG) techniques to suggest there may be a ‘lost’ sixth sense or a ‘primal sense’ as geophysicist Joe Kirschvink presented at the Royal Institute of Navigation in London in 2016, that some people may be able to tap into better than others. Yet in 2019, Kirschvink et al, conducted a larger more in depth experiment concluding that humans don’t in fact have a magnetic-receptive sense which is connected to consciousness; we have definitely lost our sense of direction.
In the vast majority of the animals that have been studied, from fruit flies to whales, evidence of magneto-reception has been found, it is therefore puzzling how humans lost, evolutionary speaking, a sense of the earths magnetic field. One reason for this may be an evolutionary deselection of this sense in favour of the remaining 5 senses as we moved from hunting and gathering on migratory routes to a settled farming life 10,000 years ago.
It’s clear from human explorations over the centuries that we need to navigate using a compass, the sun or the stars. A study by Jan Souman showed in 2007, concluding that a “drift in the subjective straight ahead [direction] may be the result of accumulating noise in all components of the sensorimotor system”. Here are some GPS recorded routes of participants in the experiment.
This study clearly shows how bad our magneto-reception can be later confirmed by Joe Kirschvinks et al in 2019.
Perhaps some anthropological findings can point to evidence that suggests some cultures can rely more on an ‘intuitive’ sense of direction. Polynesian sailors, known as masters of navigation have been known to travel for 1000’s of miles in the Pacific ocean without sight of land though day and night, and in thick fog without rest and sill maintain a true direction. It was proposed that they may have a magneto receptive sense but more recently they have demonstrated a detailed knowledge of wind, smell, swell and sea currents in conjunction with the sun & stars whilst navigating on the sea. He recorded many interviews with Pacific inlanders and recounts that many of those interviewed talked of extreme situations where “they suddenly calmed down and intuitively knew the right course” [Finney, B. 1995].
Stick Charts, (rudimentary maps,) which would also have helped identify landmarks when they came into view and therefore re-setting their intuitive compass.
So it seems, in light of more recent evidence, the pursuit of magneto-reception in humans may be more a romantic notion than science, we have literally and metaphorically lost our sense of direction.
I’m fascinated by this subject. For hundreds of years humans have known of animal migration, at least seasonally animals appeared and disappeared, the mechanics of which have been a mystery until recently. Science has discovered that most animals have a sense which can detect the earths magnetic field, in short they instinctively know which way is north and south. This is a young area of science and we are still finding out to what degree this sense plays a part in the migration patterns of animals.
The animals which have been studied and proven to have a magnetic sense are: pigeons, salmon, trout, dolphins, whales, squid, octopus, fruit flies (of course), mice (of course), moles, bats, red fox, roe deer, red deer, eels, robins, turtles, dogs, geese, in fact most migratory birds – and the list goes on. However, it is apparently a difficult sense to study compared to the other senses which is why we don’t have a comprehensive list. Humans on the other hand don’t seem to demonstrate a clear magnetic sense at all, although there have been studies which claim to show that we do have this magneto-receptive ability.
Here Joe Kirschvink (Human Frontier Science Program, California) wearing an EEG monitor inside a faraday cage (which neutralises the earths magnetic field and induces a new field in any direction). Kirschvink, a respected geophysicist, suggests that human Magnetoreception is a primal sense which we may have lost but is still doing experimental work in this area with colleges in Japan.
This of raises the question as to whether Humans have lost their sense of direction both literally but also metaphorically when we consider the state of the planet in ecological terms and socio equality. If we have lost this Magnetoreception then when in our evolutionary history did it become genetically deselected and why? Could it have been as a result of our move from hunting & gathering to farming when we first put down roots as a species around 10,000 years ago?
The Tempest Prognosticator (above) integrates the notion magneto-reception as a metaphor click to find out more about this project.
The earliest basic magnetic compass, like many of humanity’s important technological breakthroughs, owes its development to the necessities brought on by warfare. Emperor Hoang-ti (2700 B.C.) used a magical stone hung on horse drawn wagons in pursuit of his enemies giving a tactical advantage.
Lodestone is the name given to this iron rich mineral magnetite which became magnetised by high voltage lightning strikes  orientated itself along the magnetic field lines. As a consequence of its seemingly magical property became highly prized and worth its equivalent weight in silver. The magnetic stone was either suspended by a thread or placed on a piece of floating wood (sometimes sculpted into the shape of a boat) on the surface of a bowl of water and by eliminating friction the stone naturally oriented itself along the North & South poles.
Later the Chinese found that they could magnetise an iron wire (or needle) by touching it to a lodestone. The needle would then become magnetised for a short time and could be stuck in a piece of straw or cork to float and likewise orientate North & South. To maintain the magnetism of this early compass it was necessary to frequently slide the stone along the needle, a process known as “feeding the needle.”
Sailors in Europe became aware of this crude compass via the Arabs around 1000 A.D. and began developing it for use in Maritime exploration.
However, floating a magnetized needle on a liquid surface was not easy, especially in a rolling sea, so a pivot pin was developed onto which the magnetised needle could be mounted to rotate freely. This technological innovation was followed by the introduction of a compass “card,” which later became the “compass rose” showing North, South, East & West, and subdivided into 32 points. North was traditionally indicated on the card by a fleur-de-lis, probably because of the early use of marine compasses by the seamen from the ancient Aquitaine region of France, (according to Norie & Wilson in 1889 ).
Over the ensuing 1000 years the compass as we know it today has changed very little but was used during that time to generate increasingly accurate maps that enabled a cumulative knowledge of the physical world.
The maps became a precious resource for explorers, merchants, politicians and their Navy’s. Maps represented a tool for power and expansion, without the compass may not have been possible. The compass was without doubt a key technology that shaped the world we live in today. For hundreds of years the compass and the exploration it honed has been a fascination for many artists, perhaps because of the horizon of possibilities it represents.
For Vermeer it was something of an obsession. Next I’ll look at more contemporary artists who have used the compass, maps or navigation as a means to produce artwork.
Without the magnetic field generated by the earths liquid iron core two thousand miles beneath our feet we wouldn’t have the spectacle of the Northern Lights.
This is a phenomena whereby the magnetic field producing the North and South Poles at either end of the earth have the strongest magnetic pull. Charged particles emitted from the sun during increased sunspot activity, also known as coronal mass ejections, create radiation also known as ‘solar wind’ which is dragged toward the North and South poles.
The magnetosphere is a magnetic shield that protects us from the majority of this solar radiation but the charged particles which do get though do so during increased activity during the suns 11 year cycle.
Here’s a video I posted on Vimeo showing the magnetic field lines of the Sun observed over a 4 year period. The different colours correspond to the distance the field lines travel away from the surface.
The bright colours are generated when the charged electrons and protons collide with the gases in the earths atmosphere and are converted into photon energy that lucky observers can see when near the poles at night during increased sun spot activity. Oxygen in the upper atmosphere emits green or orange-red, depending on the amount of energy absorbed. Nitrogen emits blue or red; blue if the atom regains an electron after it has been ionized, red if returning to ground state from an excited state.
Scientists have discovered how the Earth’s magnetic field fluctuates, but also weakens and reverses dramatically every 200,000 years or more. The next flip is overdue and scientists have observed significant weakening of the magnetic field over the last 100 years decreasing in strength about 5 percent per decade and some believe this is the beginning of a polarity reversal. During this event the earth’s magnetic shield is reduced and the charged particles would hit the earth everywhere on the side facing the sun, creating an Aurora spectacle for everyone to see. The downside is that there would be a corresponding increase in cancer rates as we are bombarded with harmful radiation we are currently protected from by our magnetic field.
This image shows a computer generated model of the Earth’s fluctuating magnetic field thousands of years ago based on data from lava samples which have fixed the earths magnetic field in the rock as they cooled down.
In the piecing together of the moving magnetic field over 100’s, 1000′ s and millions of years brings together unlikely disciplines analysing navigational maritime charts, ancient pottery and geo magnetic core samples.
Ganson is a wonderful artist who, for one reason or another, hasn’t been fully recognised by the art world despite the many exhibitions and articles written about his work. Gansons artwork may not lend itself to todays social media (one image per second) platforms, but given a little more time I think these intricate and witty mechanical gestures have a lot to offer.
Each of the works made over the last 40 years or so have a contained purpose, a beautiful economy of mechanical movement which isn’t hidden away but is intentionally on view as part of the sculpture. Each of the works retain an open ended interpretation, despite their precise engineering, so they can be viewed again and again with new eyes.
Ganson’s work has been an inspiration to my ventures making mechanical artworks which is why I wanted to share some of my favourites here. The following film shows four different artworks :
1. ‘Thinking Chair’ – a chair goes for stroll
2. “Machine with oil” – a machine that bathes itself in oil
3. “Machine with Chair” – a chair doing cartwheels
4. “Machine with Concrete” – reduction gears that will take millions of years to move the concrete block
Many are familiar with the idea of magnetic poles flipping every 200,000 years or more. Evidence for this was found in the 1960’s when scans by aircraft looking for submarines showed some strange anomalies in the strength of the magnetic field at different locations. It was later realised that basalt, a volcanic rock containing magnetite, fixes the current magnetic orientation of the earth’s magnetic field as it cools down. The younger the rock the closer it aligns to the current magnetic north, older basalt rock shows evidence of previous magnetic fields and that the magnetic poles flip so north becomes south. This can be seen when taking magnetic readings of the basalt rock emanating from the mid Atlantic ridge where the tectonic plates are being forced apart as volcanic rock pushes up from the upper mantle. The process of millions of years of new rock being pushed out, like the rings of a cut tree, show lines indicating different polarities of earths history. The image below shows the magnetic striping of the sea bed of the mid Atlantic ridge, the darker tone, the closer it is to out current North / South orientation, the lighter tone shows the opposite polarity. In effect the sea bed is like a tape recording of the earths magnetic past, as the theory was accepted a new area of plate tectonics was born called Magnetostratigraphy.
different magnetic fields emanating from the mid Atlantic ridge
Further anomaly’s have since been mapped by NOAA, this image shows more subtle variations in the earths magnetic field strength.