There is no there there

Matt Logue is a Los Angeles based artist, photographer and animator. After working for the Tippett Studio and spending three years in New Zealand on all three Lord of The Rings features, he returned to the US to persue more personal work. Logue’s Empty LA project is a stunning visualisation of a world emptied of people.

Science Fictional: In your Empty LA series you’re presenting a vision of a city that could never be fully experienced. What was your inspiration for the series?

Matt Logue: The inspiration for the series came, perhaps predictably, while on the freeway, driving to work. The thoughts that kept coming back was, “How did we get here? Why did we do it like this?” From there, I imagined an empty city, the sounds you would hear in the skyscraper canyons, the animals returning to make their homes in the shelters we’d built. After that, I simply had to see it, I couldn’t not do it, so after working out a technique to do it through trial and error, spend most of my free time for the past four years working on the images.

SF: Empty cities, ruins and vacant spaces seem very much in vogue at the moment, what with all the post apocalyptic movies and books like ‘The World Without Us’ – yet they also recall a Romantic vision of the Sublime landscape. What do you suppose the viewer feels when they look at these contemporary images?

ML: By far the most common response I’ve gotten from people is “That is so creepy/spooky/unsettling,” followed by “I wish I could experience that.” While seeing each image gradually emerge, I would experience a surprisingly intense feeling of what I can only describe as relief, finally getting to see the empty freeways and downtown. My favorite images from other artists always leave me making up stories in my head or asking questions about the work – not necessarily about the technique, but about the relationships depicted, the evolution of civilization that led to a particular image. The art that keeps me coming back leaves some room for the viewer to participate in it, and I think people feel that with these images. They’re visually striking and I think they also strike an emotional chord with people, especially citizens of L.A.

SF: How do you see your Empty LA work sitting with your other landscape work? The juxtaposition between natural landscapes and the artifice of the empty city work is startling.

ML: Empty LA was a departure from my other landscape work. For me, taking photos for the sole purpose of making a beautiful image is becoming more and more difficult – I keep wanting to place my images in the context of humanity and where we’re going or what our possible futures are. Lately I feel like making straight landscape images is like eating dessert three meals of the day – it can be fun, but becomes less and less fulfilling. Which is not to say that I don’t admire landscape photographers, far from it, but I think I trend more towards the school of thought of people like Richard Misrach and Robert Polidori, who make some absolutely stunning images while framing them in the context of the built world rather than just the strictly natural world. The other way Empty LA was different was that I had a relatively narrow project to work on and could really narrow down my thinking – my landscape work has been mainly done during stolen time when I’m travelling with my family or riding my bike around LA.

SF: What did you do with Tippett and Lord of The Rings? Did that experience cross over into your photography work?

ML: I started at Tippett as a kind of low-level technician, making mattes for the compositors. I actually applied as an animator, so I came in early every day and worked like a dog to get into the animation department, which finally happened after about a year there. I animated on a few shows and then my wife and I moved to New Zealand, where I was an animator on all three Lord of the Rings films. While working as an animator, we frequently have to make the best of poorly-shot background plates, while making pleasing compositions. I think that daily practice in composition really helps me in my photography, and my photography in turn helps my animation – because I know a lot about traditional and digital photography, I’ve often been called on to do jobs outside of animation at the companies I work for.

SF: The Empty LA images suggest a post apocalyptic scenario, a sci-fi narrative of some sort, yet at the same time there’s something oddly calming about them. Is there an element of wish fulfillment or fantasy in the images?

ML: The post-apocalyptic scenario is something I thought about a lot while working on it, but I left it intentionally vague – I didn’t want it to be too much of a narrative. This goes back to that “leaving space for the viewer” idea – I purposefully didn’t go into why or how humans had disappeared, only that they didn’t exist in this world anymore. Now what? What would happen to the city? For me, and for many other people, it’s very calming to imagine the planet continuing without us – the sun rises and sets, rain falls, animals live and die, all without our intervention. I, probably like many people, would be very interested to see how the world would develop in our absence. Many people have told me they wish they could experience that, to walk the highways from the sea into downtown, but what most interests me is imagining how the planet itself would develop without us. I don’t want to read too much into people’s responses, but I believe there’s another angle to this as well, given the current situation we’re in with the climate and environment. I think there’s an underlying sense of hopelessness in many people about what we as a species have done and are doing to the planet, and underneath that, a feeling of guilt. We’re so entrenched in our way of life that it feels impossible to do what needs to be done in time to keep massive climate change from happening, and seeing the world emptied of people, if only for a few minutes in a series of photographs, gives us a respite from that.

SF: Absence is very powerful – your removal of people, cars, aircraft also takes away the point of identification most viewers would have when looking at images of a city. In some ways these images are almost like those classical images of natural landscapes by Ansel Adams. Was that a part of your thinking?

ML: I purposefully decided on a more formal approach to this series, to try and stay as anonymous as possible in my viewpoint. I even went so far as to not caption or identify the images – aside from the copyright information and the title page, there’s no text in the book. It’s a way of treating the city that’s been built up over the years as a natural landscape, because in the absence of humans, that’s exactly what it would be. Freeways might become migration routes, office buildings might be enormous bird habitats, and so on. The formal aspect of it also provides a framework for people to hang their own narratives and questions on, as opposed to me dictating people’s individual experiences of the images.

SF: Without wanting to lift the veil too much on your process, could you tell us a little about the way the images were made? They seem, online at least, to almost seemless – was that the effect you wanted to achieve?

ML: Well, sadly it was never much of a veil – most of the images could only have been done digitally! It’s a curious situation – when people first see it, one of the first questions they ask is, “How did you do it?” To be completely honest, discussing my own techniques quickly becomes tiresome, as people ask what lenses or cameras I used, or what version of Photoshop, etc. Of course, I’d love to know that stuff about other photographers’ work, so I suppose I’m a bit of a hypocrite. The seamless effect was something I was going for, I wanted it to look and feel as natural as possible. In a nutshell, they’re mosaics of anywhere from thirty to well over one hundred images, all taken as close as possible to each other in time, and hand-blended in such a way as to remove the cars and people. I had to work backward from the framing and final print size I wanted and reverse-engineer how and when I was going to take the pictures. Google Street View helped immensely in scouting locations, usually overpasses and pedestrian walkways that didn’t have high protective barriers.

Matt Logue’s Empty LA can be purchased from

Beyond the edge

Some months back we posted an image by Ross Racine. After the artist got in touch to ask us to let readers know that he has new work available on his web site, we asked if he’d agree to a short email interview. Conducted over the last month or so, Ross offered some insights into his work:

Science Fictional: You’ve spoken before on the method you use to make your images, but could you briefly explain your combination of techniques?

Ross Racine: The note on my technical process, available on my site, gives an overview of how I proceed. In a nutshell, the process involves creating the artwork in two steps: the first and main one is drawing freehand directly with the computer, and the second one is printing the image on paper with an inkjet printer. The drawing phase involves working with Photoshop with a pen and a tablet, aside from some preparatory work in Illustrator. In Photoshop, I start from a blank ground and build up the image with a small set of basic tools, such as selection, painting and cloning tools, copying and pasting, layers, luminosity and contrast controls, grain and smoothness modifications, and automation. In short, the process is a combination of digitally drawn material and various transformations done to this material.

Ross Racine, New Foxtown and Westhaven Villas, 2008.

Digital drawing, 60x80cms.

RR: One of the main properties of digital drawing is a virtual, non-material working environment. The fact that the image is not bound to a physical base has several advantages. It allows various combinations of techniques and treatments, an ease in modifying the whole image at once, an ease in copying and cutting, moving and pasting parts of the work (within an image as well as between images), the blending of layers of variable translucency, and the creation of copies of the image in progress (to save steps in the generation of the work and to create different versions of a work). Working in the virtual world also means the image can be altered at any time, even after a final version is established, thus creating a new, different image from a “final” one. Another property of the medium is its very fast speed compared to most physical media. This allows a very short delay between intention and result, as little time is needed to try out various ideas.

SF: The result of your approach creates pictures that land somewhere between photography and drawing, and they have an almost hyper-real quality to them – is your intention that the viewer respond in a particular way?

RR: With the medium of digital drawing and my rather realistic treatment of the subject, my aim is to work in the gaps between photography and traditional, physical drawing. I am aware that many people who happen upon my prints think that they are photos, at least initially. Digital drawing is a relatively new medium among more established visual art mediums. There are few precedents to act as visual references to help viewers approach this type of drawing. But hopefully, a tradition will gradually emerge to make viewers, including myself, more familiar with this new domain of imagery. A precedent can be found in the last two decades in photography (in art, design, and other fields), as viewers have come to expect a measure of manipulation in any photograph, whether this manipulation is apparent or not, ranging from obvious color and shape distortion to very subtle and invisible detail correction. Viewers in front of the actual prints of my work (24 x 32″) are less likely to consider them photographs, as the drawing-like detail on the surface is more visible.

SF: The aerial view perspectives of your images suggest a disconnected point of view, one that isn’t necessarily experienced by many people, but are familiar from satellite imagery, weather maps, surveillance images – and seems to suggest a very eerie feeling of being watched, or targeted – is there an intention an explicit criticism of suburbia, of expansion in your work?

RR: I value the distant, aerial point of view as promoting an attitude of reflection about the world. The public in general has, in the last decade or so, experienced an increased familiarity with the aerial viewpoint, with the instant availability of satellite imagery on the Web. This type of image is quickly becoming as ubiquitous in daily experience as the map. The feeling of “being watched” you mention is not my intention, but nevertheless interesting. It depends on how much you identify with the residents of my suburbs. On the other hand, I acknowledge a feeling of “watching”, as the viewer of my prints is in the position of the all-seeing observer. The watcher knows some things that the inhabitants of these subdivisions do not. My viewpoint is also that of the planner: the all-over, top-down approach of the decision maker. There is an obvious criticism of suburbia in my images, mainly through the exaggeration of certain of its characteristics. The suburbs are the fastest growing part of the urban environment in the majority of nations. But beyond the suburban example, these digital drawings are a way of thinking about design, the city and society as a whole. I would like my prints to remain as open as possible, to be triggers for reflection through analogy with various aspects of the world.

SF: The way you use the imagery of suburbia seems to imply visual conundrums – it feels as if you’re being pulled into the detail of the work trying to sort out individual houses, drive ways… What’s happening there?

RR: I think the conundrum is due to the small size of the jpgs available on the Web. When in front of an actual 24 x 32″ print, the viewer has the liberty to look at it from a certain distance to take in the overall composition and then to come nearer to examine the details within each “property”, making the experience a more intimate one, almost like eavesdropping.

Ross Racine, Subdivision, Cedar Valley, 2006.

Digital drawing, 15 x 20 inches.

SF: By conundrum, I was suggesting that certain of your images, say for example the views of the housing estates as circles, some like question marks, many of them isolated like desert communities or clustered together in what appears to be empty space, have a very interesting visual play, like an Escher drawing or a jigsaw – were these the kinds of references you were looking at when began to create these drawings? Or was there some other inspiration?

RR: I am inspired by diagrams, by the means by which information can be represented in visual form. The vocabulary of diagrams can be very straightforward and powerful. I use it for composition and also to imply that the suburbs’ contents (material and human), seen from a high aerial viewpoint, may be also considered information. The word I use for my application of the idea of the diagram is structure.

A related concern is the conflation of the macroscopic and microscopic scales suggested by the concept of structure. The observable world has many examples of organizations that are similar at both scales, for example the concentric structure. I am also interested in the implications of living within a specific structure, for example the experience of living in an endless accumulation of haphazardly connected streets.

SF: The images imply a science fictional formulation of suburbia. Do you imagine that there is a particular scenario going on in these places?

RR: I am definitely open to a science fictional reading of my images and I leave the viewer to imagine possible narratives for an image, if a person is so inclined, but I wouldn’t encourage the formation of definite scenarios. This would limit the evocative potential of the image. After all, my prints remain first and foremost images, not descriptions of established stories.

G Mission

“When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, NASA’s plan was to continue manned lunar missions through Apollo 20. But history turned out differently. The last three missions, still in planning stages, were canceled. Hardware that would have flown to the moon ended up as museum exhibits. And scientists and space enthusiasts were left to contemplate what Apollos 18 through 20 might have accomplished.

“On January 4, 1970, less than six months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left humanity’s first lunar footprints, NASA announced Apollo 20’s cancellation. Eight months later, the agency announced the scrapping of Apollo 19 as well as the original mission slated for Apollo 15 (Apollo 16 was renumbered 15, thereby giving the remaining two missions numbers 16 and 17).

“The three missions were canceled two to three years before they would have flown, so plans were still fluid as to their landing sites, crew assignments and other features. Similar to Apollos 15 through 17, but aimed at more scientifically rewarding, albeit riskier, landing sites, they likely would have been what NASA called “J” missions, involving three-day stays on the moon and the use of rovers to expand the scope of exploration. Such missions allowed broader sampling than the earlier “H” missions. (Apollo 11 alone was a “G” mission, focused primarily on landing and return.)

“Various possible landing sites were discussed in early planning. Among these were Copernicus, Gassendi and Tycho, large impact craters containing central peaks that were thrust upward at the time of impact, bringing material from deep within the lunar crust to the surface. Such craters provide a record of the solar system’s early history; a similar record on Earth has long since been obscured by plate tectonics, erosion and other processes. “The moon,” Schmitt says, “is where we’re going to get the information ultimately on what kind of environment existed on Earth at a time when the precursors to life were actually forming.”

“For both Apollo 17 and the canceled missions, Schmitt pressed NASA officials to consider a particularly ambitious objective: the Tsiolkovsky crater, located on the moon’s far side. “None of the Apollo missions were planned to land on the far side, and that is an awfully large area to leave unexplored,” Schmitt says. His proposal, perceived as too costly and risky, made little headway. Among its requirements would have been placing a communication satellite beyond the moon to maintain a radio link with Earth…”

Kenneth Sibler, Down to Earth: The Apollo Moon Missions That Never Were, Scientific American, July 16th, 2009.

Total inversion

“Talk of the changing relationship between the speculative genres and the mainstream surely predated Bruce Sterling’s now-canonical 1989 essay on slipstream, but the past several years have seen an enormous proliferation of collections based on Sterling’s concept or a related one. What now seems most significant is that, two decades later, slipstream is finally selling. Of course, not everyone is sold on it, so to speak, and slipstream is surely selling rather modestly in comparison with “mainstream” SF and fantasy. Even so, the anthologies are steadily accumulating, and “slipstream” is beginning to lose its scare quotes, at least in some circles. Fans, editors, and even writers seem less afraid to apply the label or have the label applied to them. For instance, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s 2006 collection Feeling Very Strange soon lost its self-proclaimed title as “The Slipstream Anthology,” when not two years later Allen Ashley released Subtle Edens: An Anthology of Slipstream Fiction. (Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers’ Slipstreams, also 2006, seems to have kept a lower profile.) Many other anthologies and periodicals have tended to ignore the word “slipstream” even when voicing what are arguably similar ideas—and even when including many of the very same writers: a follow-up to Interfictions was released last fall, and ParaSpheres 2 is scheduled for release early this year.. They just keep coming!”

“Chabon’s earlier editorial work deserves our serious consideration now, not because it predated what may come to be known as “the slipstream boom” (or possibly “the slipstream bubble”), but because Chabon comes at the ongoing “slipstream” debates from a very different place and at a very different angle. If you’re at all interested or invested in these debates, his introduction to MECOAS may prove the most interesting part of the book. On the other hand, if you’re tired of the debates, skip Chabon’s intro and admire the selling point of another (possibly) slipstream anthology, Small Beer Press’s 2003 collection Trampoline: “does not contain a manifesto.”

“For those interested in the Great Debate, it’s worth looking at the concept behind MECOAS. Chabon makes the familiar gesture of locating the best contemporary fiction in a mutually fruitful synthesis of genre and mainstream: “it might be possible to argue… that our finest and most consistently interesting contemporary writers are those whose works seem to originate from both traditions”. Almost immediately, however, he shifts focus from a discussion of genre conventions and distinctions to the sheer pleasure of genre. One of the definitions usually proposed—and then dismissed—for slipstream is something like “science fiction with literary sensibilities,” but what Chabon seems to advocate here is the reestablishment of pulp sensibilities in any kind of fiction, whether genre or mainstream: suspense, heavy plotting, entertainment, and downright fun. Chabon’s introduction represents a total inversion of the way some science fiction writers and fans turn to concepts like “slipstream” out of some half-admitted desire to legitimize their endeavor. Chabon, without a doubt a mainstream figure, seems comfortable “legitimizing” the genres without appealing to any kind of literary sensibilities at all. In fact, he’s tired of literary sensibilities, because by now they’re just plain boring.”

A Look Back at a Tributary of the Slipstream Review of McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon, by T. S. Miller – Internet Review of Science Fiction, January 2010.

Image: Ed Valigursky, Amazing Stories May 1958, Brother Robot.

Vacant stare

“One of the odder, more complicated moments in the history of architectural symbolism will arrive Monday with the formal opening of the Burj Dubai skyscraper. At about 2,600 feet high — the official figure is still being kept secret by developer Emaar Properties — and 160 stories, the tower, set back half a mile or so from Dubai’s busy Sheikh Zayed Road, will officially take its place as the tallest building in the world.

“Designed by Adrian Smith, a former partner in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the Burj Dubai is an impossible-to-miss sign of the degree to which architectural ambition — at least the kind that can be measured in feet or number of stories — has migrated in recent years from North America and Europe to Asia and the Middle East. It is roughly as tall as the World Trade Center towers piled one atop the other. Its closest competition is Toronto’s CN Tower, which is not really a building at all, holding only satellites and observation decks, and is in any case nearly 900 feet shorter.

“Monday’s ribbon-cutting, though, could hardly come at a more awkward time. Dubai, the most populous member of the United Arab Emirates, continues to deal with a massive real estate collapse that has sent shock waves through financial markets around the world and forced the ambitious city-state, in a significant blow to its pride, to seek repeated billion-dollar bailouts from neighboring Abu Dhabi. Conceived at the height of local optimism about Dubai’s place in the region and the world, this seemingly endless bean-stock tower, which holds an Armani Hotel on its lower floors with apartments and offices above, has flooded Dubai with a good deal more residential and commercial space than the market can possibly bear.

“And so here is the Burj Dubai’s real symbolic importance: It is mostly empty, and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Though most of its 900 apartments have been sold, virtually all were bought three years ago — near the top of the market — and primarily as investments, not as places to live. (“A lot of those purchases were speculative,” Smith, in something of an understatement, told me in a phone interview.) And there’s virtually no demand in Dubai at the moment for office space. The Burj Dubai has 37 floors of office space.

At the same time, rising cultural worry about environmental disaster or some other end-of-days scenario has produced a recent stream of books, movies and photography imagining cities and pieces of architecture emptied of nearly all signs of human presence…

“Though Emaar is understandably reluctant to disclose how much of the tower is or will be occupied — it did not reply to e-mails sent this week on that score — it’s fair to assume that like many of Dubai’s new skyscrapers it is a long, long way from being full. In that sense the building is a powerful iconic presence in ways that have little directly to do with its record-breaking height. To a remarkable degree, the metaphors and symbols of the built environment have been dominated in recent months by images of unneeded, sealed-off, ruined, forlorn or forsaken buildings and cityscapes. The Burj Dubai is just the latest — and biggest — in this string of monuments to architectural vacancy.

“Though Emaar is understandably reluctant to disclose how much of the tower is or will be occupied — it did not reply to e-mails sent this week on that score — it’s fair to assume that like many of Dubai’s new skyscrapers it is a long, long way from being full. In that sense the building is a powerful iconic presence in ways that have little directly to do with its record-breaking height. To a remarkable degree, the metaphors and symbols of the built environment have been dominated in recent months by images of unneeded, sealed-off, ruined, forlorn or forsaken buildings and cityscapes. The Burj Dubai is just the latest — and biggest — in this string of monuments to architectural vacancy.

“The combination of overbuilding during the boom years, thanks to easy credit, and the sudden paralysis of the financial markets in the fall of 2008 has created an unprecedented supply of unwanted or under-occupied real estate around the world. At the same time, rising cultural worry about environmental disaster or some other end-of-days scenario has produced a recent stream of books, movies and photography imagining cities and pieces of architecture emptied of nearly all signs of human presence…”

LA Times: Culture Monster