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mmersed into the realms of the desktop screen of an unknown figure, “As If Sand Were Stone,” a 35 minute essay documentary directed by Professor Ben Mendelsohn, carries us through the many sedimentary systems of New York’s coastal edges, shifting between scales, perspectives and narratives, to re-tell the life of a city through its mediated materiality.
On board the Apache Drill Boat in the murky emerald waters of Staten Island, we see sand gripped between the steel hands of grand machinery, as sediment dredged from the seabed is prepared for a new life elsewhere. Dredging, as we learn through landscape architect Gena Wirth, is done for several reasons: harbour deepening, channel maintenance, material acquisition or ecological restoration. These are practices which take place across the planet and bespeak the unfolding geological moment marked by the forces of humankind – otherwise known as the Anthropocene. Though deeply, and rightly, contested for its apolitical tendencies and limited capacity to recognise differentiated responsibilities, the Anthropocene marks itself as a prolific “charismatic mega-concept” (Reddy 2014) that traverses through and beyond the academy.
Indeed, through a short but powerful narrative of the Anthropocene from geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, the film tells us that humans are now directly shifting more rock and sediment than natural forces combined – be that through river flow, soil creep or rock falls. This provides an important subtext to the film, pointing to the grand scale at which humans are continuously working to reshape their environments. The transformative power of humans, however, soon erodes as the film progresses.
Via the “entangled” earth moving stories of an expanding New York Harbour, a deepening Panama Canal, and a restored sandy marshland in Jamaica Bay, we reach Long Beach, New York. Here, the words of coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey emerge like a warning. Speaking of the barrier island system of Long Beach, Orrin recounts the vast volumes of sand that inundated the land during superstorm Sandy. Effectively shifting the island, the storm made clear that while houses roads might give the impression of stability, the ground upon which they sit remains a dynamic, shifting system, subject to migrations over time. It is in the midst of this sedimentary story that Orrin asks us to think and live differently among our coastal edges, cautioning: “Human beings weren’t meant to live inflexible in a very a dynamic environment.”
Under these words, the power of machinery begins to crumble. The geo-engineering dreams of the “good Anthropocene” (Hamilton 2015) start to dissolve and we are left with something else: that any hope of building liveable coastal cities will need to imagine themselves as part of a shifting sedimentary system. A socio-natural space, which moves with both space and time to bring ecological justice to all of its inhabitants. Such a sentiment reverberates throughout Gena Wirth’s ending echoing question, “how do we develop more intelligent choreographies of dredge and sediment?"
Choreography also defines the aesthetic performativity of the film. Appearing in part like a desktop documentary, but drawing also from original footage, the film plays on the notion of sedimentary movement. Sand, rocks, sediment routinely fill the screen, moving as they do through the machinery which grips and grabs them, and the multiple moving windows which reveal ongoing moments of material drift. These are enhanced with a set of reverberating sandscapes, combining machinic groans, sedimentary wallows and watery gushes, to deliver a visceral experience of New York’s coastal landscapes in-the-making. In a post-viewing conversation, I speak with Ben, who enlivens the desktop technique even further, pointing to one of its many intentions as an attempt to animate “sedimentary metaphors” – emphasising the accumulation and layering of research strata. In the end though, Ben announces that “it’s open and exploratory” and invites reckonings with the disorientation of sedimentary movements and mediations.
Ben also tells of his influences, including the observational landscape cinema of James Benning and Deborah Stratman. We also see a nod to Robert Smithson’s iconic “Spiral Jetty” – an earthworks artist who is increasingly featured in questions of geoaesthetics and the Anthropocene (Ballard and Linden 2019). As we unpack the core underpinnings of the work, Ben explains the position of the film within his wider research agenda, detailing the sedimentary links across space and time that connect this piece with his work on the “geosocial” making of the Lagosian coast (Mendelsohn, 2018) – together, forming a framework for the city that places it in dialogue with a postcolonial urbanism.
“As If Sand Were Stone” reaches well beyond New York and Lagos, speaking to coastal urbanism more broadly – a condition of planetary prominence and one under increasing threat from sea level rise, storm surges and subsidence. There are lessons we can take with us. To return to the resounding to the admonition of Orrin Pilkey, cities must shift with the sands: unlearning themselves as stable stoneworks and seeing themselves instead as sedimentary systems to be cared for. Any hope of continuing urban life within the dynamism of Earth’s coastal edges, should build cities As If Stone Were Sand.
Hamilton, Clive. 2016. “The Theodicy of the “Good Anthropocene.”” Environmental Humanities 7, no 1: 233-238.
Mendelsohn, Ben. 2018 “Making the Urban Coast: A Geosocial Reading of Land, Sand and Water in Lagos, Nigeria.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, 3: 455-472.
Reddy, Elizabeth. 2014. “What Does it Mean to do Anthropology in the Anthropocene?” Platypus: The castac blog (blog), April 8. Accessed here, June 2021.
Dr Kate Dawson is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Kate works on questions of socio-natural politics, extraction and urbanisation. She is currently producing a podcast and documentary on the relationships between cities and sand.