In a town where one of the most risky things you can do is ride a log flume on a Grade-II listed pier, Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt are an anomaly. The Brighton duo known as Semiconductor have been to the real ends of the Earth to source material for their art.
A new show at FACT is the product of three weeks on the Galapagos Islands and a month in the shadows of volcanic Ecuador. Some of the most otherworldly footage the pair have brought back shows the rarely-visited sulphur mines on Isla Isabella.
“The whole trip was treacherous,” says Jarman. “It had been raining very heavily, so it was very muddy and we weren’t used to riding horses.”
There are, it seems, few health and safety rules on remote archipelagos.
“In any kind of Western country you probably wouldn’t have been able to get as close to the sulphur mines as we actually did there, because it was just us and the guide and it was the first time he’d ever taken anybody,” she adds.
In addition to bemused guides, the pair worked with geologists in the National Park as well as capital Quito to understand their methods. Volcanology is, for obvious reasons, another distant concern in UK coastal towns.
“A lot of scientists don’t specifically engage with people outside their field,” says Gerhardt. “It’s not like being an artist; they don’t need to find an audience. They just need to find a peer reviewer.
“It takes us a while to gain their confidence,” he adds. One can see how his studious mien together with his partner’s affability could work like a charm.
But volcanologists beware. The 25-minute video piece Worlds in the Making features interviews which, says Jarman, “kind of suggest the scientists are telling you what’s happening, but we’ve kind of slightly edited so it’s slightly nonsensical”.
Gerhardt sees this as a reaction to conventional science documentaries: “It’s very taboo to play with the format, because in a way it’s supposed to be factual and reveal things as they are.
“Really of course there’s as much fiction in telling a story as there is in a lot of fictional programmes. We’re interested in deconstructing that kind of genre.”
So the hard science found in the show’s central video installation is interspersed with sinister animations. These purport to show mineral formation and a sea of prehistoric chaos, but probably do not.
“We’ve got a generative computer script working with the seismic data and will make these landscapes of crystals and minerals,” explains Gerhardt.
He goes on to point out that rocks, while appearing still, are awash with chemical processes. “So we’re trying to bring that to life, to animate things that you don’t normally think of as moving,” he says. “Time, you know, that becomes a kind of plastic form we can play with.”
Jarman explains the sonic data is thought to come from lava moving beneath volcanoes, only too slow for the human ear. “I think what we really like about the sounds is they become really tangible,” she says.
“You feel like you’re listening to rocks scraping and crunching underneath the earth. You start associating things with your imagination.”
This plays out against an atmospheric guitar track by Oren Ambarchi from the band Sunn O))), in the show’s surround-sound three-channel installation.
Semiconductor’s first major solo exhibition also features a second piece comprised of archive footage found at the Smithsonian Mineral Sciences Lab in Washington DC. A third work of animations based on the sound of melting ice rounds out the display.
“You do get the sense in these places of the landscapes being very powerful and very humbling,” says Jarman of their recent voyage.
And Gerhardt points out: “It’s actually the very dawn of the landscape, so it is literally at the edge of the land.”
That does sound like a long way from a café in Brighton. It’s a tough gig, but someone has to go there.