Miriam Sentler: Deep Time Agency

Miriam Sentler's recent project explores a quarry in Maastricht, and how this relates to the cement industry through layers of time.

Please tell us about your work

In my work, I emphasise the continuous changing of environments, be it through industry, politics or other human influences. My current projects focus on the cultural and environmental legacy of the oil, gas and coal industry. My ongoing interest in this topic is rooted in my family history: my grandparents were coal miners and environmental change has been a pressing issue throughout the lives of my ancestors.

I am fascinated by the role of myth and deep time in the industrial appropriation of places. My projects emphasise how industry turns fossils into resources and recontextualizes myths as branding tools. On a non-human plane, I am interested in how climate change itself evokes landscape alterations of mythical scale and how storytelling (visual and written) can be used as a method to give this thorough change of the world a place in our minds and hearts. I see my projects as concentrations of these bigger questions in particular contexts, serving as poetic case studies.

My projects often form themselves in chapters, so one project always feeds into the next one, and so on. In order to develop my work I go on residencies and conduct working periods. I don't go with a pre-set plan into a landscape, but I am rather concerned with a broader theoretical interest in a place and look for concrete phenomena and personal stories when I get there.I collaborate with other experts, inhabitants, or scientists researching the particular landscape during the process. Within my projects, I always learn new skills affiliated with the current field of research and landscape I am in. Lately, I have been making a botanical overview of fossilised plant seeds that have been found in the clay pits of Tegelen one hundred years ago.

What is Deep Time Agency?

I founded Deep Time Agency together with Berlin-based artist Wouter Osterholt (1979, NL) in 2020. We were sitting on a terrace in Rome where we were invited for a commission (Exploded View) at the time and found out that we were both finalising an application for the same industrial landscape in Germany back then. After merging our plans, which spanned the lignite industry, memories about my deceased grandfather, archeology, and activism, Deep Time Agency was founded.

DTA is designed as a multi-year research project that recontextualizes archaeological objects in industrially changed landscapes, in collaboration with local residents, stakeholders, and institutions. The initiative merges different historical time layers of places to form a material voice for the present and future of the disrupted landscapes, working in an activist and poetic manner with the symbolics of the objects. By highlighting objects exposed by industrial excavations, we seek to develop a sense of belonging in the disrupted landscapes themselves and on a larger scale in the Anthropocene era.

We do so because industrial landscapes are often completely transformed after resources are mined, developing them into new “natural areas”, wherein all traces and scars of the past are erased. This is often based on the desire to 'return' the used landscapes, thereby creating new recreational areas. Due to prevailing archiving methods, the archaeological objects found during the industrial process are often placed in national collections, and thus no longer maintain any relationship with the landscape where they were found. Local inhabitants lose their houses, nature and local culture, causing what Bruno Latour coins “groundlessness”. This in turn forms the origins of what ecosopher Glenn Albrecht named “solastalgia”.

It is our mission to bring back a form of memory to the “erased” landscapes by temporarily relocating the archaeological objects to their original finding locations. This results in absurd and poetic installations and performances, whereby objects are relocated in the air (Ancestors Rising 2022) or underwater (Descent into the Future 2020). By doing so, we expose the thorough changing of the original landscape and merge different historical layers. In our project, the archaeological objects are seen as New Materialist agents from deep time, whose meanings and symbolism provide important input to contemporary debates about climate change and dealing with post-industrial landscapes. DTA consists of several cases, which highlight a series of changing landscapes and brings them together in an overarching artistic project.

What is the ENCI quarry in Maastricht

The ENCI is the Eerste Nederlandse Cement Industrie - meaning the first dutch cement industry in the Netherlands. It has been around since the 1920s and humans mined marl in the area of South Limburg for 2500 years. I grew up in this area and studied here at the Maastricht Institute of Art, and so the ENCI has been an interesting site for my research in the past years. In 2020, the exploitation of limestone ceased in the ENCI quarry. In addition to its industrial purpose for the cement industry, the ENCI quarry was a special place for paleontological research. Fossils in this area are especially well preserved due to the soft limestone. The prehistoric sea that once stretched over this landscape was teeming with plants and animals such as fish, sea urchins, bryozoans, coral and shells. In the last century, three world-famous mosasaur skeletons were found in the Sint Pietersberg and the marl quarry. These rare finds made the ENCI a popular site for fossil collectors.

After the closure of the factory, the area is now supervised by the Society for Preservation of Nature Monuments (Vereniging Natuurmonumenten), which aims to break down the industrial buildings and redevelop the area into a nature preservation area. The transformation from a post-industrial area to the new nature reserve, with half of the quarry being flooded in order to create a new lake, sounds like a desirable development after so many years of industry. However, more than half of the post-industrial lakes in Europe are not viable due to unwanted chemical residues in the water, originating from the industrial past. The problem reflects the indirect impact on marine ecosystems worldwide, threatened with extinction by the significant CO2 emissions of companies such as the ENCI. The cement industry itself is responsible for 8 percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions; a significant percentage in daunting times of climate crisis. This complex issue raised the question of whether we could use the industrial and fossilised past of the site to benefit the (local) ecology, meanwhile highlighting the conflicts between different parties in the redevelopment phase.

In the spring of 2021, Deep Time Agency traveled to various archaeology museums in the Netherlands in order to retrace fossils that originate from the ENCI quarry. These were documented using drawings, which were then used to replicate the fossils, using cement from the ENCI factory. By doing so, we used the last bags of the ENCI cement from the quarry in Maastricht in a ceremonial way. During a workshop in the quarry, we involved students from the Maastricht Institute of Arts, whom we invited to help us in the production of the fossil replicas. The replicas were ultimately brought together in a sculpture. The construction is made from metal and concrete replicas and its form is inspired by a star constellation, referring to the name that the coral fossils from this area acquired during medieval times: star-stones. This name was derived from the surfaces of the fossils, which, according to some, resembled stars. At the bottom of the ENCI lake, the sculpture will function as an artificial reef, creating a new habitat and benefiting new lifeforms in the post-modern environment. Concrete structures provide hiding places for fish and snails, which will die eventually and sink to the bottom of the lake, after which they may become new fossils and resources again.

What have you learnt about concrete through the process of making Concrete Reef?

During the making process of Concrete Reef, we undertook all stages of an industrial making process: starting with harvesting marl ourselves from the caves in the area of Maastricht, sculpting it, and then making silicone molds and mixing and pouring concrete. Concrete is a cold, tough, and lifeless material: it is not changeable or particularly interesting to work with. Your fingers get very dry when working on it without gloves, it's not a pleasant experience at all. On the other hand, marl is a completely different story. It is full of tiny fossils, and its hardness, dryness, and colour differ so much from piece to piece. There are pieces of flintstone and shells in the marl, showing the maritime origins of this material very well.

We worked on the material during a workshop in the ENCI quarry, which we organised together with students of the Maastricht Institute of Arts. We went into the caves and they all got one piece of marl, which they carried themselves to the workshop place, about 6 kilometers. All of the students formed a bond with the particular stone they carried since it was a very exhausting walk to the medieval site of the quarry where our workshop was located. Here, we sculpted all day in this beautiful, cathedral-like old quarry. The marl that lies highest in the ENCI pit is actually of the best quality, hence the marl-workers in medieval times had the best type of marl to work with. It's white and very hard, you can really sculpt in it. The deeper into the earth you go, the more sand-like and yellow the marl gets, until it's crushed into powder. That's kind of the opposite of what one would expect. When working in the medieval part of the quarry, the physical result on the marl while sculpting looked exactly like the ceilings of the marl tunnels in which we were standing, just smaller. This was a very fascinating experience.

What did you enjoy about the riso process?

Riso is a printing technique that we used for the Concrete Reef publication. It was a fitting technique because it mimicked the powdery quality of the marl stones. It was also interesting to see how it continued our form-finding process which we undertook during the copying of the fossils from the ENCI site. We went into the museums where the fossils were located, drew them (using scientific illustration as a medium), and then used these drawings again to make a sculpture from marl, the local material, which we then made silicone malls of to pour the concrete. The original form gets a bit lost in this process and becomes modified and personalised, and that was what we desired to find in the process - the human influence, instead of producing a strict, cold replica. The riso-print with one colour (blue) really fed into this abstraction process and was highlighting the basic forms of the fossils, drawings, and replicas that we made in the process.

I love how your research manifests itself in constant learning, so that you are able to access knowledge in really interesting ways. You for instance, have been a hobby-ornithologist, learnt fishing, and even 'shark hunting'?! Please can you tell me about your approach to research?

My research is both theoretical and practical, in the sense that it uses site-specific experiences and then places them within a wider, anthropogenic context through artistic research, installations and texts. But the start of every project is very practical, yes! I believe that we connect to landscapes best through crafts and actions which have been performed in the landscape for thousands of years, and which feel natural to the place itself. Often, these are ways of entering a landscape invented by locals and generations before us. The particular actions reflect a historical dealing with the landscape and can be colonial and industrial (i.e. exploitative) but still give us a good feeling of the place and its characteristics. In order to understand which actions are “appropriate” for a landscape, I embark on residencies and get to know local inhabitants, read site-specific literature and get to know researchers concerned with the place.

An example here is the project Cairban (2021), where I explored the role of a 19th-century shark hunter through a 3-day touristic boat trip on the Atlantic Ocean together with environmental humanities researcher Sadie Hale. The sea is a timeless phenomenon - when on the boat, you get so much closer to both the animal you are interested in (i.e. the Basking shark) and to its hunters than you could ever when reading about it. When researching the auditive missing of bird songs in the village of Keyenberg in North-Rhine Westphalia in Germany, I worked with a hobby ornithologist to get to know the birds of the area. I then invited composer Drake Stoughton to go on a playful hunt for the birds, wherein he tried to "catch" the bird songs by mimicking their songs using a flute. He of course failed and this resulted in the audio installation of the Chase (2020). Another example is a procession which we undertook in the outskirts of Rome in Italy: Janus Walk (2019). Here, I went on long walks over the Via Appia Antica, an ancient pilgrimage road, of which the first few miles are no longer walked due to the over-trafficking of the city centre. All ways lead to Rome, but also all cars. I then organised a procession with a Janus sculpture, the protection god of the travellers, which I found on a bridge near the over-trafficked origin point of the road. All actions and hence mediums I use come from the places themselves and are thus intrinsic to them. This forms my working method.

What is a Material?

To me, a material is an entity that, when handled in the right way, teaches you something about a landscape. A fish fossil found in an excavation site can show you the transformation of a landscape throughout time (Descent into the Future, 2020) while a boat can teach you through motion sickness that you do not belong on the sea. I like to think about Tim Ingold´s notion of matter: as something that we can only learn about through activity, through making. He advocates a way of thinking through making in which sentient practitioners and active materials continually answer to, or 'correspond', with one another in the generation of form.

In my practice, I embark on this dialogue with humans and non-humans in order to learn something about a specific landscape.