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Between the Sand

Between the Sand

[photo of a close-up of the pathways formed in the work "Between the Sand"
Owen Fernley

 A close-up of the pathways formed in the work "Between the Sand."


Cole Van De Ven never expected his work to appear in an art gallery. That’s quite reasonable, as he’s a PhD student in Civil Engineering, and his research is on contaminant hydrogeology.

But last year, his PhD supervisor, Kevin Mumford, invited the organization Art the Science into his Environmental Engineering lab in the Department of Civil Engineering to do a residency to help translate some of his research group’s work for a new audience.

And so, in March, Mr. Van De Ven saw his research, both literally and figuratively, on the walls of the Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre in Kingston.

Artist’s statement

We are all living on the surface of a permeable planet. What goes up must come down, but perhaps ore disconcerting is what goes in.

When chemicals like gasoline, creosote and PCBs are improperly disposed of or spilled, they leach into the ground and contaminate our soil and groundwater, spreading out below us in unseen ways. Pollution does not simply flow through the ground the way it does on the surface. It is under pressure, and moves through very small spaces. Understanding this movement can be challenging and it leads to an important series of experiments designed to inform how we might model this movement in the future.

When sand is compressed between two panes of glass, intricate maze-like pathways are formed between each grain. This is the space between the sand. The resulting sections are only 14 grains deep, yet gases, fluids and pollutants move through them in many surprising and beautiful ways. Observing this movement provides scientists and engineers with the data they need to predict and prevent the spread of underground contamination, as well as develop technologies to clean it up.

Between the Sand is an interactive computer program that invites us to explore how our actions affect the ground beneath our feet. It builds a maze of pathways between grains of virtually generated sand. Initiated by the viewer, the maze is “solved” using Invasion Percolation, an algorithm used by Dr. Mumford’s research group for following predetermined pathways. In Between the Sand, this algorithm is used to present a relationship between direct human action and our unseen subterranean environment. And with that,we can observe the unobservable.

Owen Fernley, Sc’01
Artist and creative coder, Art the Science


Visit the interactive artwork online.

[cover image of the Queen's Alumni Review issue 2, 2019, showing the 'Together' message in Mitchell Hall]