Thomasson and Keenan: 3300 Years: Visualising human non-human interactions

6000 Years: Visualising Human Non-human Interactions

Timothy Thomasson and Benjamin Keenan
[ Canada ]

The lowland Maya adapted to their changing environment in different ways, and are thought to have abandoned their cities in response to a devastating drought around 730-900 CE. This project converts real geochemical data alongside the archaeological site of Itzan into a high fidelity visualization representing the changing population, vegetation, and climate of the ancient Maya population over 3300 years. The project moves beyond conventional data visualization to create an affectual experience that enables new ways for spectators to understand complex patterns found in scientific data. 

The journey of these data began in the muddy wet Maya lowland where, plagued by insects and the blazing tropical sun, sediment cores were retrieved on a bobbing mish mash of planks buoyed up by empty plastic drums. From there the cores, encompassing 3300 years of sediment accumulation, were transported to sleety chic Montréal where they were laboriously worked on by extracting organic molecules known as lipids found within through different ratios of organic solvents. These molecules with obscure names like stanols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and plant wax alkanes were analysed and quantified. From the abandoned archaeological site of Itzan these molecules have been brought to life again, and inscribed scientific data becomes a springboard to imagine the possible stories of past, present and future. These stories bridge the themes of human and non-human, and the changing natural environments that set the stage for history, and the scene for contemporary and future society, particularly with the issue of climate change. 

The site of Itzan has been mapped with elevation data and archaeological findings, these are used to create a virtual representation of the real space. The data becomes both representational and affectual, as the spectator witnesses thousands of years shifting before them; with day and night cycles, rain, wind, population, and vegetation all being simulated in real-time. Because of the work’s vast timescale and carefully crafted imagery and simulation, the project moves far beyond a simple didactic representation of data toward something more obscure—where spectators are left to contemplate their relationship to the broader histories and possibilities of a past, present, and future earth. Here, the work begins to fill imaginative gaps—exploring the possibilities of narrative that stretch deep into that past. The possibilities afforded by computer graphics technology allows a timescale which exists outside an individual’s biological time to be perceived and imagined. The ability to place oneself in timescales leaning towards the geological invites reflection upon our  relationship to the earth, the earth as a home, and of the queerness of being.

  • Medium: Real-time computer graphics
  • Year Produced: 2022

Timothy Thomasson

Concordia University

Timothy Thomasson is a digital artist based in Montreal. He primarily works with computer animation, and utilizes real-time technologies in many of his works to create continually generative environments and systems. Thomasson holds a BFA and MDes (2022) from Concordia University, where he is working as an instructor in the department of Design and Computation Arts. His work has been presented in various galleries and festivals in Montreal including during Nuit Blanche (2018), Montréal arts interculturels [MAI] (2018), MUTEK_IMG at Center Phi (2018), Société des arts tech-nologiques [SAT] (2019), Anteism (2021), Eastern Bloc Sight and Sound (2021), MUTEK (2021), ELEKTRA (2022), as well as at the Toronto Animation Society (2021), and The International Art Exhibition for New Technology [NTAA] (2022) in Ghent, Belgium.

Timothy Thomasson’s website:

Benjamin Keenan

McGill University

Benjamin Keenan is a biogeochemist using a combination of geochemical proxies applied to lake sediment cores to reconstruct changing climate, population, vegetation, and fire use over 3300 years around the ancient Maya population centre of Itzan, in the southwest Maya lowlands in the department of Petén, Guatemala. Benjamin is interested in the interaction between humans and their environment, migration as an adaptive response to climate change, and how perspectives from the past can inform responses to anthropogenic climate change. Benjamin’s work has been covered by CBC, Radio Canada, Global News, CTV, Haaretz, Daily Mail, El Mundo, Archaeology Magazine, DW, Numerama, RT, El Ciudadano and Le Climatoscope.