The story of Earth
The story of Earth
within your body
4 billion years
8 billion people
At the limit of comprehension, there is “world.” For humans, “world” is proxy for Earth: a beginning and a functional limit, a maximum unit. Earth’s energies—its forces, capacities, temporalities, and intensities—create the frame of possibility for our existence, our perceptions and reality. Yet even as we reach a horizon of globality, Earth remains wanton, escaping us through mysterious registries and vast scale.
This materially real and immanent complexity is the point of departure for Twelve Earths (2017-2029), a planetary sculpture scaled to Earth itself. Designed by Michael Jones McKean, with critical support from Fathomers, the project unfurls as a series of collaborations centered at twelve distinct sites—an impact crater, a nuclear testing ground, a primeval forest, a nearly submerged island, an open pit mine, and more—that together build a portrait of Earth, its converging timescales, and its interconnections. Improbably, these 12 sites are located along a single geographical ring: one unifying “great circle” stretching 25,000 miles around the planet.
Each site unveils a collection of panoptic realities that, through the lens of Twelve Earths, encourages an exploration of speculative inter-belonging with life, objects, time, processes, and events. By composing systems sensitized to place and elasticized to scale, McKean and collaborators forge surprising connections that remain responsive to criss-crossing vectors shaping a location’s reality—its histories, politics, languages, and customs, along with vast expanses of pre-human history. This practice of radical learning and engagement happens twelve different times as the project’s research platform develops and grows.
By building a dense meshwork of contact points, Twelve Earths establishes the possibility of brief and long-form encounters where time/space distances can swirl, collapse, and dissolve. It creates portals to contemplate birth, death, decay, transmutation, emergence, alchemy, architecture, flora, fauna, and geology, rendering distributed phenomena momentarily visible, knowable, and strange. A constellation reporting to us in our time and simultaneously extending a beacon to unknown and distant futures, Twelve Earths transcends boundaries to expand, deepen, and release our planetary imaginary.
What is Twelve Earths?
Twelve Earths [c. 2017-2029] is a planetary sculpture exploring radical interconnectivity along a 25,000-mile circular path, linking 12 diverse locations around the planet. Together, these locations form an emergent commons to practice creative intimacy, empathy, and communion with Earth—its matter, histories, temporalities, and life, manifold expressions interweaving us all.
Who is making Twelve Earths?
The project is led by artist Michael Jones McKean with critical, long-term support from Fathomers, a creative research institute based in Los Angeles, California, United States. Working alongside McKean are a number of international thinkers and practitioners from the sciences, arts, philosophy, government, history, business, technology, philanthropy, and more.
Who is the project for?
Twelve Earths is an artwork that operates at a planetary scale, forging hyper-local connections with partners and individuals at each of the 12 sites, while also building a decentralized audience—people interested in art, ecology, the sciences, geopoetics, and more—who might not be geographically near the ring.
A central value of Twelve Earths is to hold connections across disciplines, backgrounds, and borders, centering relationship-building as an organic process. As such, these connections might coalesce in myriad forms and scales: a simple conversation after an event, a group visiting a site, or a volunteer effort to remediate a grass plain. The project attempts to dissolve the theatrical distinction of "actor" and "audience," enfolding them as one.
Is Twelve Earths a sculpture?
Yes. Early on in the project's development, McKean, a sculptor by training, imagined Earth as a natural human threshold—a common plane of shared material existence that we ourselves are composed of and also bound within. This materiality, in all its recombinant potential, forms an alchemic foundry of Earthly possibility, acknowledging that all matter exists in a state of becoming. The project imagines sculpture as an expanded creative tool, one of deep learning tied to empathic rituals with people, matter, making, and transformation.
Why 12 sites?
Twelve Earths lives in communion with mythic, folkloric, and spiritual traditions that celebrate interconnectivity. The number 12 has held significance in cultures around the world, showing up in everything from timekeeping systems to musical notes, astrological houses, counting systems, magic symbolism, and much more.
How were the locations determined?
Determining 12 sites, each linked formally along a continuous path around the globe, required three years of research. The process began with the development of a coordinate database hosting thousands of global locations that each relayed different chapters of Earth’s larger story. An algorithm was then developed to sift through the database spatially, drawing millions of paths, or rings, around the Earth. Out of 67 million potential routes, a handful of rings emerged that, against geographic odds, connected a few locations in our database. These few dozen rings were studied by hand over many months to reveal four rings—each remarkable, strange, mysterious, and tonally idiosyncratic—that were then studied in more granular detail. By this thorough research, supported by conversations with partners around the world, Twelve Earths' ring path gradually and gracefully emerged.
When is it happening?
Currently. Initially developed in 2017, Twelve Earths will continue to unfold across 12 years until 2029. At this point, the project will then enfold over an additional 12 years, reaching its full articulation by the September equinox of 2040. By design, the work exists in different forms indefinitely, continuing to pose questions along deeper timelines in the future.
Why take so long to finish an artwork?
Twelve Earths takes cues from the natural speed of the planet. As a team, we are prioritizing building slow, respectful dialogue with local stakeholders at each site. Relationships take precedence over predetermined outcomes, allowing true conversations—and friendships—to blossom. We think of slowness not as an obstacle to surmount, but as a care practice that deepens engagement and helps us to be in right relationship with each other and the Earth.
When will the sites be revealed?
Though all twelve sites were determined in 2019, their announcements to the public will be staggered with locations being revealed in the years leading up to 2029. Two sites have been announced so far. The first location, announced on the equinox of September 22, 2022, is Cerros Pachón and Tololo. Located in the Coquimbo region of Chile’s Andes Mountains, this site houses a cluster of powerful telescopes destined to capture the most complete map of the universe ever created. The second site, announced one year later on the equinox of September 23, 2023, is Abrigo do Lagar Velho. This rock shelter, located in the Lapedo Valley of Portugal’s District of Leiria, contains the 29,000-year-old remains of a four-year-old child, remains which question our perceptions of what it means to be human. The third location announcement is forthcoming in March 2024.
How do I experience Twelve Earths?
Twelve Earths exists as 12 physical locations whose connections are being articulated sculpturally and poetically. While it is certainly possible—and would be rewarding—to visit each Twelve Earths location, the artwork can be experienced without any travel at all. Local and regional programming will be developed over the longer arc of the project. Participation, however one may define it, may encompass events hosted by affiliated institutions or virtual opportunities for engagement wherever you and your devices may be.
While Twelve Earths is deeply rooted in specific, singular places, it also exists through ideas, which allows it to be experienced from numerous vantage points. Twelve Earths by and large is a cognitive antenna that helps modulate concrete aspects of the Earth into signals—stories—that help re-mythologize place and re-world our conception of Earth.
Is there an archive?
Yes. The project's physical archive is currently housed at McKean's studio and will be relocated to the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art after the project's completion. The archive acts as a crumb trail to the project's origins, its methodologies, early and ongoing conversations, source materials, and library, as well as location research, history, geology, current events, and more. A curated archive will also exist and continue to be updated on the Twelve Earths website. At each site, a number of artworks are being developed, some with an eye toward long durations, in effect serving as an in situ planetary archive.
How is Twelve Earths being funded?
Twelve Earths has received critical support from Fathomers since 2017. The project has also received early generous support from a number of organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, Sable Systems, WeTransfer, Blueprint Pictures, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Twelve Earths’ unusual form, a large-scale artwork wedded to a planetary body and stretched out over non-traditional time horizons, creates funding challenges still to be solved.
How can I become involved?
In many cases, the best way to experience Twelve Earths is through deep and active involvement. An artwork at this scale and complexity requires the uplift and support of many voices and skill sets: engineering, material sciences, bio-sciences, geology, wayfinding, philanthropy, and so much more. If this sounds like you and you want to learn more about ways to contribute to the work itself, or if you would like to simply receive occasional updates and advance notice of public events and announcements, please be in touch at [email protected]. If you wish to explore ways to help lift the project through financial support, we are also eager to speak with you.