Twelve Earths

VandenBrooks Lab

At his research lab in Glendale, Ariz., John VandenBrooks studies how varying amounts of atmospheric oxygen over geologic time influenced the physiology, development, and evolution of animals. In March, Michael Jones McKean and Fathomers went to visit.

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VandenBrooks is consulting on McKean’s Atmosphere, which involves replicating an ancient atmosphere within an enclosed environment.

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VandenBrooks manipulates the atmospheric composition in controlled chambers by varying the amounts of oxygen, nitrogen, and/or carbon dioxide released into the chamber by individual gas tanks.  

A four-channel gas regulator monitors and controls the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere. Sensors within the chamber detect gas levels in real time, enabling the regulator to automatically make slight adjustments as needed to maintain a constant atmosphere.

The atmosphere in this chamber contains 21 percent oxygen, simulating present-day Earth. Cockroaches live on the top shelf; fruit flies live in the vials below.

Other environments in VandenBrooks’ lab contain 31 percent oxygen — akin to the Permo-Carboniferous Period, about 300 million years ago — and 12 percent oxygen, the lowest level present on Earth’s surface since the evolution of vertebrate life.

Cockroaches born and raised in chambers that contain 31 percent oxygen can be seen to increase in size by 20 percent in one generation. (VandenBrooks: "They don't bite!")

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A concurrent project is underway in VandenBrooks’ lab to investigate the emerging role of the brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus) as a vector for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever transmission. Tick samples are geo-coordinated with a map (shown here) of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. 

Supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, Atmosphere is currently imagined as one of a dozen sites in McKean’s long-term, planetary artwork, Twelve Earths.

To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit


NEA Grant for Twelve Earths

Michael Jones McKean Studio, digital rendering of "Atmosphere,"  Twelve Earths , 2018.

Michael Jones McKean Studio, digital rendering of "Atmosphere," Twelve Earths, 2018.

The National Endowment for the Arts has approved an Art Works grant of $25,000 to Fathomers for the development of artist Michael Jones McKean’s “Atmosphere,” one of a dozen sites in a long-term, planetary artwork called Twelve Earths.

"Atmosphere" is imagined as a shelter out of time: a simple house, a vernacular structure, compatible with the surrounding landscape — but a house that slips invisibly into difference. In its interior, the shelter will contain a precise atmospheric composition describing a time before us. Entering this space, we slip backwards into air before humans, before ant colonies, before animals that live among us, before plants we might recognize. We commune with other ages; we travel in time, enveloped in a shroud of atmosphere hundreds of millions of years old. 

Co-developed with scientists and to be complemented by a robust program of conversations and performances, the work seeks to contribute to public dialogue about long-term thinking and ecological stewardship by offering a visceral, transportive experience across an otherwise unfathomable timescale.

"We hope to design 'Atmosphere' as a semi-permanent installation," says Stacy Switzer, Fathomers' curator and executive director, "to be maintained and open to the public for a minimum of one year. Ultimately, though, the goal is to survive much longer: to exist as time outside of time; a space of mysterious origin and quality to be discovered by adventuring tourists and art pilgrims alike; a breath that pre-dates the human, and suggests what we might return to again." 

more about this:

In December 2017, we presented "Ancient Atmosphere," a conversation with artist Michael Jones McKean, paleophysiologist John VandenBrooks, and curator Stacy Switzer on the challenges and poetics of replicating an ancient Earth atmosphere within a residential domicile. You can listen to that here!


On Dec. 6, 2017, Fathomers presented a conversation among artist Michael Jones McKean; paleophysiologist John VandenBrooks; and Stacy Switzer, Fathomers’ curator and executive director, on McKean’s effort to replicate a 300-million-year-old atmosphere within a simple residential house — one of a dozen sites around the world that make up Twelve Earths, the project-in-progress launched by McKean and Fathomers to unfurl over the next decade.

"Atmosphere is the thing that we're living in.

It's the thing that literally shrouds our bodies, the thing that seeps into our clothes, the thing that we breathe inside of our bodies momentarily, and extract something, and then exhale certain exhaust out.

It's the thing that we kind of take for granted every single second of our life.

As an artist, trying to think about a project that considers the earth itself as a total object, it felt essential to consider this invisible force field that is gluing us all together in the room -- that is at one with us right now."

-- Michael Jones McKean


Michael Jones McKean (b. 1976, Micronesia) is an associate professor of sculpture and extended media at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he has taught since 2006, and the co-director of ASMBLY, in New York. He has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Nancy Graves Foundation Award, an Artadia Award, and fellowships and residencies from the Core Program (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), the International Studio and Curatorial Program (New York), the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program (New York), the MacDowell Colony, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts — where he devised and employed a large-scale self-contained water harvesting and storage system to produce a simple but phenomenal visual event: a rainbow in the sky.

John VandenBrooks, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of physiology at Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz.. His research focuses on how varying amounts of atmospheric oxygen over geologic time influenced the physiology, development and evolution of animals. He has consulted on and appeared in television and radio programs from National Geographic, the Science Channel, the History Channel and the BBC, and has been awarded grants and fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the American Museum of Natural History, and the American Philosophical Society, among many others. VandenBrooks received his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics from Yale University in 2007 .


(LOS ANGELES - AUG. 23, 2017) — Fathomers is pleased to announce the launch of Twelve Earths, an extended collaboration with Michael Jones McKean, in which the artist asserts a contemporary mythos considering the earth as a single, unified body of parallel, crisscrossing narratives; a sculptural poem on time, being, becoming, and re-becoming. In its transcendence of boundary lines — both terrestrial and extraterrestrial, physical and nonphysical — the work encourages the earth to grow as a container of more infinite, robust, and wanton histories and realities. In totality, Twelve Earths will emerge as a sculpture scaled to the planet itself, revealing ambitions geologic, archaeologic, ecologic, folkloric, and humanistic.

Designed to unfurl over the course of a decade, the project takes the form of a terrestrial loop around the globe, a 25,000-mile great circle unifying 12 precisely geo-coordinated locations that embody and reflect the broadest spectrum of possibility: mineral deposits and nuclear fallout, alchemy and science, continents and continental drift, cities and primeval forests, architecture and geology, water birth clinics and animal sanctuaries. By building a dense meshwork of contact points with people, places, processes, objects, and events — establishing brief and long-form encounters where time/space distances can swirl, collapse, and dissolve — these sites aim to stimulate the recombinatory, transmutational, co-occurring realities ever-present within the world.

Twelve Earths  geolocation research material, 2017. 

Twelve Earths geolocation research material, 2017. 


Twelve Earths is a project born of deep, abiding curiosity about the full range of possible experience on this planet,” says Stacy Switzer, curator and executive director of Fathomers. “It insists that we think beyond ourselves and outside the myopia of the present to consider the past and future as tangible, affecting frames of reference.

“As an organization, Fathomers exists to carve space for the unfathomable, and to propose and test new models of earnest and generative collaboration between artists, scientists, institutions, and the public,” Switzer says. “We are incredibly fortunate to be working with Michael, whose vision for Twelve Earths is as generous as it is demanding in terms of re-thinking scope, scale, and support structures for artist-led projects.”

  Teignmouth Electron,  2017. (photo: All in Favor Productions)

 Teignmouth Electron, 2017. (photo: All in Favor Productions)


Twelve Earths’ opening stanza involves the Teignmouth Electron, an infamous sailing vessel commissioned for a solo attempt in the late 1960s to circle the earth without stopping; its journey ended in tragic failure for the amateur yachtsman at its helm. Beached for decades on the remote Caribbean island of Cayman Brac, the decaying trimaran has long been a muse of artists, inspiring literature, artworks, plays, performances, photographs, folklore, films, songs, and journalistic accounts. For McKean, who purchased the boat ten years ago, the vessel operates as a siren-like talisman — a ruin now morphed into relic.

“The designed purpose of this boat was to traverse the earth and to understand it — not in the abstract, as a map or data set, but as a complex, four-dimensional object,” says artist Michael Jones McKean. “The boat feels like a logical entry point, then, in imagining an artwork that considers the earth as a total object, its stories and intensities.”

In March 2017, McKean, Fathomers, and a team of researchers traveled to Cayman Brac to create an archaeological record of the Electron, an effort that culminated in the selection of a single wood fragment from the wreckage site. That fragment will next undergo a hyper-rapid aging process, racing through millions of years of molecular time in a matter of weeks to emerge as a fossil — one that maintains an anthro-record of contemporary existence, yet is encoded with all the markers of an object that has endured epochs. On a site identified by a titanium marker, this new fossil will be inserted deep in the earth’s geologic record, a small portal between timelines and realities, to serve as the first of 12 beacons in Twelve Earths.

Teignmouth Electron , 2017.

Teignmouth Electron, 2017.


The coordinates to come (an ordinary house harboring a 300-million-year-old atmosphere; a newly engineered tree species; an F1 engine grown in bone …) will be revealed as they manifest over time, encouraging a more empathic relationship to materials and bodies in the fullest, most speculative sense. In their extremeness, these loci build out a weird humanism composed of energies, evolutions, speeds, spaces, universes, planets, extinction, and regeneration — the very motions of life at all registers. As a linked set, they compress a physical narrative that can be understood in pieces and fragments, yet also endure as a single, cohesive unit.

An artwork framed within the here-and-now, Twelve Earths attempts to tell us about ourselves, within a structure that nods to a long history of humans attempting to understand our world. Within the project’s conceptual and material DNA, though, is a desire to commune with unknown and distant futures, with obscene geologic timescales — worlds remote and without us. As the project arcs toward completion, its earthbound circuit will be retraced from above by a satellite, circumnavigating the ring in concentric orbit from the void of space.


As Twelve Earths seeks to link locations, so it does people and stories, expertise and experience, the sum total of which will define the limits of the project. Fathomers and McKean are pleased to be working with an extended team of scientists, technologists, engineers, and thinkers. A series of public programs beginning in October 2017 will in part facilitate early- and mid-stage collaborative research, informing and extending the technical and communicative possibilities of the project.

The collaboration also involves the production of a porous project website, where back-end activity — conversations, documentation, mock-ups, links, musings, and tangents — will be freely available to access and engage, to explore development of thought and depth of action in unusually permeable ways.


Michael Jones McKean (b. 1976, Micronesia, lives / works New York City) is the recipient of numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Nancy Graves Foundation Award and an Artadia Award. McKean has been awarded fellowships and residencies at the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; MacDowell Colony; International Studio and Curatorial Program, New York; Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center; Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts; and Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, New York.

McKean’s work has been exhibited extensively nationally and internationally. Recent exhibitions include the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA; Parc Saint Leger Centre d’art Contemporain, Nevers, France; Horton Gallery, New York, NY; Quebec Biennale, Quebec City; Gentili Apri, Berlin; the Art Foundation, Athens, Greece; Inman Gallery, Houston, TX; Parisian Laundry, Montreal; Project Gentili, Prato, Italy; Shenkar University, Tel Aviv; the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, NC; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among many others.

McKean is currently an Associate Professor in the Sculpture + Extended Media Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he has taught since 2006, and co-director of ASMBLY, based in New York.


Twelve Earths is co-developed and produced by Fathomers, a creative research institute in Los Angeles dedicated to producing transformative sites and encounters at the intersections of science, technology, and contemporary art.

As the successor to Grand Arts — the influential project space in Kansas City, Mo., that operated from 1995 to 2015 — we commit to implausible sets of ideas shaped by urgent conditions and proceed with open minds, engaging expansive thinkers to resolve complex problems and documenting our experiments along the way. We do this because we value discoveries made absent predetermined outcomes, and we believe in the power of the realized dream as a test site and model for visionary change.