May 25, 2022

The City of Gold and the Art of New Futures

As new worlds emerge in the metaverse, Deborah Tchoudjinoff imagines a sustainable supercontinent
Credit: Deborah Tchoudjinoff, Baigala II, 2019. Courtesy of the artist
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The City of Gold and the Art of New Futures

My first conscious encounter with the Anthropocene as a geological epoch was on a visit to the Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park in 2008. The park is situated in the Arkhangai Province of northern Mongolia, where lies the extinct volcano of Khorgo Uul, dated by its lava formation to the late Cenozoic era.

Standing at the edge of Khorgo Uul, I observed the colors of the earth — hues of terracotta red and brick orange pulled into a pool of solidified lava, its smooth surface a perfect mirror of the aerial atmosphere. I was astounded by its pervading sense of preternatural time and scale, and by the pool of solid flux, whose composure was built on deep time.

But Khorgo Uul is more than mere geomorphology, it is also a container for an old world of folklore and imagination. What does the future hold for Mongolia, whose cultures once stretched fully East to West in years of empire? In anthropogenic discourse, Mongolia is weathered by climate change, its arid and uninhabitable deserts rendered even more unforgiving by the presence of private mining companies. In my practice, the Anthropocene has become a provocation and a space of imagination where I find my making voice. Khorgul Uul is where I depart in search of new futures. 

Deborah Tchoudjinoff, Imaginary waves, City of Gold, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

The following text maps together stratigraphic layers of coal, uranium, and rare earth — natural resources mined in Mongolia — to found a fictional city. Research regarding the history of supercontinents reminds us of how tectonic plates have dictated the flows of solid form — drifting, erupting, colliding, and emerging minerals that now shape our virtual space.

Digital worlds, as well as their physical pasts, now allow us to speculate on new supercontinental futures: Amasia, Aurica, Novopangea, and Pangea Ultima.¹ In Amasia, the tectonic plates will join to combine the present-day Americas, whose northward migration will merge Europe and Asia into a single land mass.

“The City of Gold” is a short fictional essay set in an imagined city in Amasia, on an earth depleted of resources. It moves Mongolia nearer to the ocean, whose effect would dramatically change the country’s geographical, as well as geopolitical, reality. Its terminologies are Mongolian, its images personal. 

Deborah Tchoudjinoff, Cliff, City of Gold, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

City of Gold; Mineral dated pre-Cambrian 

The view from the City of Gold looks over the Zayaat Ocean, stretching far into the horizon. The Zayaat Ocean is at times impassable, leaving anything on the continent completely landlocked. During the full moon, when the tide is at its highest, the water nearly reaches the top of the cliff. In violent storms the ocean crashes into the glistening cliffs while taking out parts in its retreat. The sound of the waves is deafening upon impact as it sprays its icy froth upwards. The ragged edges of the cliff are shaped by the mood of the ocean, a perilous place to perch when the ocean is at its worst. 

The sunsets are marvelous but still dangerous, the heat emitted even during dusk is humbling. The enormous sun hovers right above the vast ocean, changing all the hues of sky and water. It takes nearly six hours for the sun to sink into the horizon of the abyss of the Zayaat. Still, it is an incredible sight — fiery orange bursting into subdued blue bleeding into deep black. With the exception of the water, all is quiet, all is watching. 

Deborah Tchoudjinoff, Baigala II, 2019. Courtesy of the artist

When the tide is at its lowest you can walk out nearly one mile onto the ocean floor. The tide retreats at an immense speed, almost as if a hole in the earth opens up and pulls in all the ocean. There is a peculiarity to this place when the tide retreats. Millions of bright shimmering stones float in the ocean, making homes on the seabed when the currents carry them over. But this view is only a glimpse, for as fast as the tide recedes, it then advances with the same frightening speed.

If you dare venture down when the tide is low then the seabed is dark and unstable, in some areas almost quicksand. It is here that you encounter the shining pieces in all of their magnificence, sparkling in the water, reflecting the sun. This is the City of Gold. If you dare stay longer you will notice other things. Encased in the seabed are numerous bones of different shapes and sizes — some still attached to a larger skeletal structure and others pulled apart by brute force.

Deborah Tchoudjinoff, Ovoo, City of Gold, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

This city is dead and vacant, its inhabitants deceased many generations ago. The paths of the city are quiet and abandoned, its dwellings dilapidated or burnt down by the force of the sun. However, in many of the dwellings not yet disintegrated one comes across a net, whose elegant lines all share the same weave supported on thin, boney frames. From here in the city by the cliffs you can see the tide rush in, scattering all the shiny rock dust and engulfing it back into its depths. The bones of creatures tumble about in the soft seabed momentarily until they too are pulled back in. 

Perhaps the nets were used to catch the glimmer of treasures when the tide was low. Is it in this city and for this reason that the Zayaat Ocean tempts and takes away life?

Deborah Tchoudjinoff, Nets, City of Gold, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

There are few non-scientific texts available in English that address anthropogenic change in Mongolia, and fewer speculative writings that explore its future. But the formation of Mongolian territory during the time of empire and the collective knowledge of its moving, herding culture is rich terrain on which to build new futures.

Erecting a City of Gold on a future supercontinent allows one to imagine what present-day Mongolia might become as a larger land mass. It is an experiment in geologic expression, whose digital images — each born of its own energy and processing power — question the geological consequence of new virtual worlds. In this light, a written text is a way to envision alternative metaverses, to glimpse new worlds that do not exist, and to open up room to play. Is there space in the virtual sphere to imagine new futures rooted in real life

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Deborah Tchoudjinoff is a multidisciplinary artist based in London who works with objects and technology to explore alternative narratives. Her practice often draws on her own heritage, pulling from the past and into contemporary anthropogenic discourse. Her mixed media approach has seen the use of AR and VR combined with sculpture to explore the concepts and aesthetics of worldbuilding. Tchoudjinoff graduated from the Royal College of Art and is currently Lecturer in Emerging Technology at London College of Communication (LCC).

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¹ HS Davies, JA Mattias Green, and JC Duarte, “Back to the future: Testing different scenarios for the next Supercontinent gathering,” Global and Planetary Change, Vol. 169, 2018. 133-144.