Phase Change (The Glass Transition)
Reflections on boundaries and self-transformation
Welcome to this twelfth reflection on In Fragments — this week exploring Phase Change, a ritual to make glass using the cremated remains of my mother. You can view it here:
I recently connected with a few folks from the “Collective Presencing” movement who had seen In Fragments and felt that a Zoom call together could be fruitful. They’re planning to host an experimental gathering in Europe this summer, and one phrase in particular from their draft invitation caught my attention:
10 people. 10 days. 1 artist.
That evocative formulation seems to be at the heart of what they are seeking to do — to discover collective practices (or “social technologies”) to enable a group of sensitive people to “feel into what wants to come through,” beyond the perceptual abilities of any one individual.
Their work reminded me of the old parable of the blind men and the elephant — but unlike the parable, which speaks to the inevitability of perceiving only partial truths, these folks wanted to go a step further: to synthesize some kind of wholeness out of the various fragmented views (though their strategy for expressing that wholeness was undefined). As they described their experiments, I thought of the Very Large Array here in New Mexico — the network of twenty-seven satellite dishes mounted on railroad tracks and spaced out across the desert floor to simulate a much larger antenna, to listen for signals from deep outer space.
Much like psychedelics (as Terence McKenna often pointed out), the experiments in Collective Presencing are essentially about dissolving boundaries — so that the group becomes a kind of collective antenna, directly tuned into the Muse. A few years ago, I explored a similar practice called Conversation Club with some friends in Vermont, so part of me naturally resonated with their approach. But I also felt some resistance to the idea of “losing control” and “surrendering into the group” — recalling cautionary guidance about the importance of boundaries and “staying in your own lane” as the basis of personal sovereignty (and preventing the slippage into a cult).
When I asked about these tensions, my Zoom partners admitted that what they were creating was explicitly not a “safe space” — but a conscious embrace of pushed edges, blurred boundaries, and perhaps even a little danger. They wanted to explore a kind of “borderlands” into the unknown, much like a BDSM scene co-created by trusting companions who temporarily suspend the usual rules of decorum as a way of expanding their limits.
There is much to recommend this exploration of boundaries.
In ecology, the boundaries between ecosystems are the places of greatest biodiversity — the so-called “Edge Effect” of riverbanks, tree canopies, tidal pools, ocean floors, and the edges of forests and fields: places that provide a habitat for creatures not only from each of the neighboring ecosystems, but also at times for creatures that can only be found in that edge.
In architecture and urban planning, the boundary spaces between this and that are often the liveliest places — the sidewalk café or covered arcade between the street and the building, the stoop between the brownstone and the sidewalk, or the front porch between the house and the road. In his classic text, A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander describes a morphology he calls Mosaic of Subcultures for the ideal structure of a city: containing many discrete neighborhoods, each with a unique subculture of its own. The way to achieve this “mosaic of subcultures” is through the use of “fertile boundaries” like parks, walkways, and other public places — if the boundaries are too rigid, you end up with ghettos; if the boundaries are too diffuse, you end up with sprawl. The best boundaries are thick and permeable. They are spaces of their own. They accommodate life.
This “boundary” quality is fundamental to the enigma of glass, which occupies an in-between space that is both liquid and solid, without exactly being either.
Despite its ubiquity in human civilization, the physics of glass remains a mystery to material scientists. The so-called “glass transition” is the shift that occurs when a hard and brittle non-crystalline solid gradually becomes viscous, liquid-like, and “glassy” through a sustained increase in temperature. As this “glassy” material cools, it undergoes a process known as vitrification — retaining the amorphous molecular structure of a liquid while hardening into something that is effectively solid.
This paradoxical quality of being both a liquid and a solid at the same time is the hallmark of glass — itself a kind of fertile boundary.
From this potent in-between place, glass is able to accomplish myriad technical feats — we use it to make our cameras and eyeglasses, our phones and computers, our televisions and radios, our microscopes and telescopes, our watches and clocks. Its fiber-optic cables carry our Internet under the ocean, and its satellite mirrors send data back and forth from outer space to Earth. Its windows grace our cars, planes, trains, and homes, and its mirrors help us better see and understand ourselves. The miracles of glass are many.
The “glass transition” mentioned above is a one-way process. Once silica, potassium, and limestone have been fused together to form glass, there is no going back. It is a process where individual fragments surrender themselves in order to become a new kind of whole. Glass is therefore essentially about transformation.
In this twelfth ritual of In Fragments, I work with Ethan Bond-Watts to build a handmade clay-cob furnace in a sloping hillside at High Acres Farm.
We seek to use the furnace to transform the materials gathered in Apprenticeship into our own homemade glass — including the cremated remains of my mother.
We fire our furnace just before dawn on November 1, 2016 — the Day of the Dead.
We use an old leaf blower to accelerate the airflow into the fire chamber, helping the furnace reach the temperatures of around 2200° Fahrenheit that are required for the glass transition to occur. The furnace gains heat all day, and in the late afternoon, we add our ingredients into the crucible.
That night, we take turns sleeping in shifts on the hillside and feeding the fire, as the glass transition works its magic from within the heart of the furnace.
Around midnight, the fire is so thirsty for oxygen that its flames are shooting out of every available opening, including around the edges of the glass chamber door, and through the small circular hole in the center of that door. The wildly flapping flames form the shape of a firebird or a phoenix, waving its wings in the dark night, emerging precisely from the place where the ingredients are being fused into glass.
By morning, we have a new glass vessel — a magical tool to be used in future rituals, still yet to come.
The film that documents Phase Change has especially gorgeous original music by Julio Monterrey — perhaps my favorite of his music from all of In Fragments:
As we move through these times of pandemic, war, climate crisis, and the dawn of AI, it seems like humanity itself may be undergoing a kind of “phase change” — a transformation we’re all experiencing together within the “crucible” of civilization.
In this process of collective change, what is the right level of personal sovereignty for us each to preserve? To what extent do we remain individual fragments, and to what extent do we surrender to the larger whole that seems to be emerging?
On one level, this is the age-old debate between individuality and collectivism, as articulated by Adam Curtis in his BBC documentaries — it’s the tension of East vs. West, China vs. America, communism vs. capitalism. But perhaps this materialist and economic dichotomy is missing the point of what’s actually happening now.
Ancient Toltec prophecies speak of 6,000-year cycles called “Suns.” According to this system, last year we finally completed the Fifth Sun, a cycle defined by externals — of seeing the world as an objective reality apart from ourselves, giving birth to systems like materialist science. The Sixth Sun, which is now just beginning, is basically a cycle of internals — of realizing that in some sense, there are no externals: that everything we perceive “out there” is somehow connected with our inner state of mind, a view that resonates with the ancient Bodhisattva vow of Buddhism:
Sentient beings are countless — I vow to save them all.
From this paradoxical view, we can see the old dichotomy of “individual vs. collective” in a new light. Its apparent polarities are revealed as positions of Thesis and Antithesis awaiting a Synthesis — which arrives naturally from the realization that it’s neither about choosing one nor the other, but about seeing both as projections of Spirit. The individual is the collective. It’s all internal, for everyone. This strange realization is Alchemy’s lead into gold — or the glass transition itself.
May transformation be yours,
Thanks for reading Jonathan Jennings Harris. Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
Thank you, Jonathan!