Elizabeth McTernan

The Coastline Paradox: Measuring a Nameless Island

The amphibious, impossible-to-catch border between land and sea: According to Lewis Fry Richardson’s coastline paradox, one could wind a ruler around every single pebble and grain of sand on an island’s perimeter so thoroughly that its seemingly finite length actually unfurls into millions of kilometers. For my project The Coastline Paradox: Measuring a Nameless Island, I made onsite 1:1 measurements of a whole island – in particular, a nameless island in Odense Fjord in Denmark that recently emerged from the sea and may soon disappear again – with rope, thumbs, hands, arm’s lengths, etc. Meanwhile, my team and I were relentlessly foiled by the fickle shoreline, its tiny, vulnerable perimeter made dramatically dynamic by the tides, waves, and rotting seaweed. Here, the fieldwork, on one hand, fell apart as science and, on the other hand, emerged as ontological situation, framing paradoxes of empiricism and imperialism: Cartography’s gridded legacy of human empire and knowledge was momentarily dissolved in the relationship of body to shore, in a collapse between map and territory. What can dry measurements of our world tell us about the lush human condition? Does stubborn precision affirm our existence or lead us further into unearthly abstraction? Can one reconcile the fugitive sublime with the subjective-temporal conditions that pitch our visions in the dirt?