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Artist Notebook

Stone Alphabet

A field guide to reading and writing the stones of New York City.

Imagine yourself in Central Park one million years ago. You would be standing on a vast ice sheet, a 4,000-mile glacial wall, as much as 2,000 feet thick. Alone on the vast glacier, you would not sense its slow crushing, scraping, ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock debris in its wake. Under the frozen depths, where the carousel now stands, you would not notice the effect on the bedrock as the glacier dragged itself along.
—Robert Smithson, land artist, 19731

The world writes itself. It can read and be read.

This notebook is an attempt to journey through deep time during a typical day walking and working in Manhattan. It is an effort to read and write the stories inscribed in the city’s stones.

We can’t “see” time, but rock persists.

In looking more closely at the city’s skin, I see now that my bathroom sink looks uncannily as if it could have been quarried from Cassis, France, where I started my Stone Alphabet project in 2016. I look at the veined marble in my lobby; I see Triassic-Jurassic sandstone at my front door; then, on the façade of Rockefeller Center, Indiana limestone encrusted with 350-million-year-old bryozoan fossils; granite cobblestones harvested from Maine line the street outside my studio; on the exterior of the New York Public Library at Forty-Second Street, there is marble mined from mountains in Vermont; and in Central Park, I see an outcrop of 450-million-year-old Manhattan schist with steps carved into it by Frederick Law Olmsted.

The air is seething with messages, trees are dripping with secrets, stones store stories.

Language is an abbreviation for the world’s readability.


How can we access languages that are beyond-the-human?

As I look at the stone, it feels that the language itself is writing and I’m observing from the outside. But it’s a writing system made up of countless characters, an infinite alphabet. It doesn’t conform to the Roman A-to-Z. There’s no ABC. So one of my challenges is figuring out how to transcribe these characters and share the stone’s stories.


Where have we come from?

It can’t be a coincidence that the first forms of writing involved dust and stone. Archaeology reveals a history of dust and stone that leads us back to ancient dust boards and abacuses and the first stone writing tablets. These universal, timeless forms of communicating bear an uncanny resemblance to today’s digital writing tablets, which are themselves formed from minerals mined from the Earth.


What can the stones tell us?

In 1778 the French naturalist and mathematician Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrote that “the entire face of the Earth today bears the imprint of human power.” All this time, humans have been aware of the harm we’re causing planetary systems. But we have chosen to ignore it and live as though past and future are irrelevant, as though only the present matters. Our human, capitalist, society is based on ever-increasing growth, even though the laws of nature teach us that’s impossible. There can be no more talk of inexorable growth. We need to rethink everything.

This nonsensical language, this Stone Alphabet, helps me grapple with the complexity, with reading the landscape—reading the past, present, future—and with thinking beyond the human, thinking like a planet.


What happens if we ask questions from the perspective of the stone? Will we remember things long lost? Can the stones help us remember?

Language creates order. It allows us to enter real, distant, or nonexistent worlds. We need to remember ancient stories, uncover forgotten knowledge, create new narratives, write new creation stories. The memory of a rock is of a different temporal order from that of the human social one. While walking Manhattan, looking at the stones, I find myself slipping between past, present, and future.


What can the lines in the landscape tell us? Where are we going? What will we leave behind?

Rocks bear witness. All the lines, cracks, holes, marks, dots, wrinkles, and fossil traces that appear in stones over and over again, and on different scales, must be trying to tell us something about the life of the city, of the Earth; about the metabolism of the buildings, of the planet. Messages percolate from the past, up through cracks and scars in the metropolis’s skin. It can’t be a coincidence that the same patterns appear here and there all over the world, and at different scales. The underlying mathematics causing the lines, fractures, and faults create patterns that repeat. In looking closely at the stone at different scales—from fossils in my bathroom sink to veined marble in Fifth Avenue lobbies; from fossils embedded in Manhattan landmarks to larger glacial-strata lines on outcrops of Manhattan schist in Central Park—I attempt to read and write the city’s invisible stories. The materiality of the words is as important as the messages conveyed.

Drawing all the lines, cataloging every variation, maybe I can create a useful dictionary or encyclopedia. A Field Guide to Manhattan?

  1. 1

    Robert Smithson, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape.” Art Forum, February 1973.