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BY Alexander Slotnick
The darkest room in the house where I grew up — a stately, white-brick cluster of columns and gray angles of roof, curtained in lush Virginia trees — was the bathroom between my bedroom and playroom. This bathroom had two doors but, significantly, no windows through which sunshine could intrude. If the switches were off and doors closed, only the slimmest fault of light could punch in along the doorframe.
My mom taught me this fact, the room’s potential for darkness, when I was four or five years old. She’d bought me a pack of the glow-in-the-dark sticker stars so many kids used to spangle their room in the early 1990s. To see the stars’ at their brightest, we needed the darkest space available, in spirit of contrast. With the lights on, we arranged a portion on the bathroom wall; they were a dull, flat cream in the light, nearly invisible on the white paint. My mom flicked the switch, and a supernatural constellation, scattered like a dalmatian hide, popped to life, while the rest of the room settled into blackness.
Image by author.
Thirty years later, this past winter, Andrea from Studio davidpompa talked me through this exhibition and the studio’s conceptualization around the work, and their investigation into the nature and meaning of “archives,” and I was reminded of this memory, how it taught me the power of coded information. Our discussion of the studio’s featured material, cantera, revolved around a consideration of how the stone is created. Specifically, we talked about how cantera’s form is, by definition, a snapshot of the past: As a volcanic toba, its existence is the result of the rapid cooling of lava discharged from a volcano, its final color and details a combination of the exact currents of air and impurities it encounters in those formative moments. Varied levels of pH encode within cantera its color, like a block of DNA. Pink indicates it’s rich in iron; green is evidence of oxidation. The oblong shapes of its constitutional sediments and dust are frozen inside while remaining visible to the naked eye, and the shaded craters pocking its face are a memory of the speed and energy behind the volcanic activity that was its genesis, sending the cantera on its chaotic way before it solidified mid-flight.

We spoke too about the Geological Institute in Mexico, which Studio davidpompa visited during their research, and how that experience entangled the idea of an archive with their vision for this very exhibit. Cantera, just like any mineral, is an elegant and inviting archive in itself, as the stone has sealed and conserved a record of its own private, explosive past, if you know how to read it. Cantera’s preservation within the Geological Institute is a conceptual echo, a reverberation. The Institute is a man-made archive that safekeeps far more ancient archives, formulated by nature.

As the memory involving the glowing stars resurfaced for me in the days after we spoke, I recognized that it had introduced me to two important ideas, now central to my understanding of Studio davidpompa’s work. The first: The way coded information can shift between being alternatively hidden and then brilliantly revealed, merely by changing one’s way of looking — in the case of the stars, the literal provision or deprivation of light. What is at one moment a nearly imperceptible swirling on the wall becomes a vivid pattern. And second: The revelation one actually feels when discovering that coded information. As a child, I interpreted the knowledge of the room’s potential for darkness as a privileged insight, a bonafide secret. To any adult, that concept would have seemed obvious, not worthy of consideration or comment, but to a four-yearold, what is plain about the world is not always clear. Later in life, the first receipt of even a simple fact can linger in the memory as the profound moment when one’s private universe permanently shifted, even if only by a degree.

A few years later, I had a corollary experience in another room, across the hall, this one with broad, generous windows, overlooking the forest that wound downhill to the marsh that lapped at the edge of our yard. This one is simpler to explain: My dad, a geneticist, brought home a microscope and a cardboard box of sample slides, lined up on their edges, fit perfectly to the box’s dimensions. A shred of tissue, a dab of water, a plucked hair, contained without exception a cosmic, dynastic architecture, often with its own minuscule, autonomous moving bodies, with life, entirely alien and yet, even to a child, instinctually, more disturbingly real than any invention from a movie.
Algae conjugate, Rozzychan. Public domain.
Intestinal villi through microscope , Jamil Baza. https: // Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
Here, with my father’s microscope, light still played a role, though rather than an intruder to be avoided it was harnessed, powered and projected across the instrument’s stage. In the most blunt terms, this microscope and its samples underscored for me the idea that within every object, every centimeter of space, there could exist concentrated and complex information: an archive.

This is a theme that has helped the development of virtually every scientific discipline: improve our way of looking and richness awaits. Chemistry has given us the elements and their interactions, biology the exotic zoos of our cells, geology the mythic historical saga of our planet, like sparkling tree rings running through our mountain ranges, and physics the quanta of gravity and space. In each case, the evidence supporting these observations has always been around us, readily available; the greatest breakthroughs in scientific history have not come from unearthing some new elixir, but from our development of new ways to look more clearly, more deeply at what has always been around us. Each step in our improved understanding has come from an innovation in how we look.

In the case of cantera, a stone employed in architecture all over the world, at once both common and clearly replete with archival density, our history and evolution of looking has been partially shaped by the man Antonio del Castillo Patiño; a 19th century geologist, he was responsible for founding the Geological Institute in Mexico and imparting to the national discipline of geology standards and character apart from its utility in mining. In other words, he established the formal archival institution that assisted Studio davidpompa in seeing and appreciating the archival nature of the stone itself, a character of the stone that goes far beyond its obvious qualities, like hue, sturdiness, texture.

Among the most interesting aspects of Patiño’s biography is the fact that his exact birthdate is unknown, or was unknown for many years, due to a fire around the year 1860 at the archives of the church of Cutzamala, a fire whose own origins remain in dispute. In reading about Patiño and his Institute, I also came across the story of Parícutin — not a man, but a cinder cone volcano, several hundred kilometers beyond CDMX. Parícutin earned itself reasonable fame in the 1940s, when it first emerged from the cornfield of farmer Dionisio Pulido, allowing its geological development to be fully observed, to be looked at, a novel scientific opportunity that naturally caught the attention of the Institute that Patiño had founded.
Left image: Image use courtesy of the Geological Institute of Mexico. Right image: Ordonez, Ezequiel (1943). Parícutin [Birth certificate of the Parícutin volcano] [Photograph]. Historical Collection of the Institute of Geology, UNAM.
That novelty eventually earned Parícutin distinction as one of “the seven natural wonders of the world,” and during its activity over nearly a decade, it forced the evacuation of all residents of the two towns upon which its lava encroached. Today, the church San Juan Parangaricutiro, half-encased in igneous remnants, once blazing liquid fire but now hardened black stone, remains evidence and memory of Parícutin. In reading about the man and the volcano, I came across photographs of a document that Patiño’s Institute of Geology issued to certify and memorialize Parícutin when it appeared in 1943, nearly half a century after Patiño’s death, with references to these papers, appropriately, one thinks, as a “birth certificate.”

It is therefore correct to say that the man who had no birth certificate, thanks to a fire at a church in Michoacán, established the institution later responsible for the birth certificate of Parícutin the volcano — a volcano that very well could produce cantera, a volcanic toba — which announced itself and earned its lasting notoriety by consuming a different Michoacán church in lava.

History amasses itself in layers. But it is dependent upon us to look for it.


As we consider Studio davidpompa’s work and its resonance with the meaning of “archives,” we should finally take a moment to consider exactly not the cantera. Consider, instead, the light itself. When it comes to the question of archives and preservation of the past, where we come from and how all those intervening moments have unfolded, stone, it turns out, is not the enduring substance we’re so tempted to believe it to be.

Instead, as modern physics has taught us, light is the most lasting means for preservation, bypassing all friction and decay, with the power to show us a dimension of history beyond any other record. Stone always, eventually, will turn to dust. Light and time, however, have a different relationship: Last year, the first photographs from the James Webb Space Telescope showed us that light has no destiny to expire. In the Webb’s deep field image, published July 12, 2022, the telescope observed light over 13 billion years old, the most ancient evidence of our universe’s existence, cementing light’s role as the truest archival substance. The photo, as it is, is the closest document to a birth certificate for the formation of the universe as is currently in human hands.
Cantera texture, Michoacán, Mexico, 2023.
“Webb’s First Deep Field,” captured by the James Webb Space Telescope and released by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute into the public domain on July 12, 2022.
In the case of these cantera light sculptures, Studio davidpompa has taken something utterly solid, embedded with memory, and married it to a source of light, something fleeting and intangible. The stone draws our attention and demands that we acknowledge its power as an archive, so we imagine the past. But the light itself may ultimately be the element responsible for preserving the phenomenon of “now” for some distant, searching future. There’s some comfort in that fact, I think, like a secret of the room where one lives, understood for the first time.

Alex Slotnick
Washington, D.C.
February 26, 2023
Alexander Slotnick is from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and now lives in Washington, D.C. His fiction, essays, and interviews have previously appeared in The Sewanee Review, The White Review, Meridian, and The Distance, among others.

In writing about this exhibition and the volcanic toba, I found myself unable to resist trying to unweave the rich, coiled strands of meaning that Studio davidpompa has so masterfully concentrated into these objects of design — ideas and observations, manifest as physical expressions. Through unweaving, the essay’s aim is not to dispel the mystery of the designs and the nature of the cantera, but to use language and story to give each of us, the viewers, new tools for furthering the contemplation that the studio’s work has brilliantly begun.