The Interior of a Sphere

Marc OilvierWahier — What was the last book you read?

Adam McEwen – Right now I’m reading The Inverted World by Christopher Priest, a sci-fi novel from the mid-70s. Its central plot device is that a city called Earth, post- some kind of apocalypse, must be hauled by ropes along tracks in order to keep as close as possible to the “Optimum,” a moving point which turns out to be a kind of analogy for the Present. It’s a very good metaphor for the way the present endlessly rolls over into the past, and the way we surf the roll.

Marc-Olivier Wahler – In this book, the gravity specific to the past and the future visually change the elements (the past compresses forms, the future stretches them). I’ve always thought that one of the differences between an artwork and a common object lies in the difference of gravity. When you see a pallet by Fischli and Weiss for example, it looks like an ordinary object but you can easily feel that the gravity is totally different. How does this story of The Inverted World affect you as an artist? How do you look at the past, could the past be affected by an artist’s gaze?

Adam McEwen — There is a density to great art works that seems to take them out of time, to make them look as if they’ve been around forever when they’re brand new and vice versa. It’s as if they’re able to hold a position of stillness. The visual conceit in The Inverted World, of the past physically compressing its inhabitants, is staggering; you first read it. The most affecting part of the book for me, though, is the sense of the city’s having to be in constant motion, of it endlessly having to pursue the future and escape the past, or face annihilation. That relates to art in the sense that art can be about pursuing a goal which is constantly moving. It’s uncatchable, which forces this relentless motion. But in terms of thinking about the past, for artists it’s exactly the opposite of that book’s compression: all of history is simultaneously present and available, and in some a sense, equal. There, is no time. History is the interior of a sphere, and for each artist sitting there thinking or daydreaming, their head is in the centre of that sphere.”

Text: ‘Adam McEwen in Conversation with Marc-Olivier Wahler’Palais, 13:10,2010. 6.

Image: Symmes’s Hole, via Museum of Hoaxes.

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The Flow

The Flow (short version) from MRK on Vimeo.

“The Flow looks at the supervening layers of reality that we can observe, from quarks to nucleons to atoms and beyond. The deeper we go into the foundations of reality the more it loses its form, eventually becoming a pure mathematical conception. Layer upon layer the flow builds new codes that create new codes, each version computing a new, more complex state based on the previous one.”

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 Blurb.com

Nothing here now but the recordings

Why closed-down stores?

The idea went back to 2005 when I drove weekly past a large closed supermarket on the North Side of Chicago. At night the space really transformed from one of neglect and misuse to something incredibly visual that described a Rothko-esque painting space divided in three parts (parking lot, building, and sky). I spent a few nights making some photographs to try and replicate what I saw. I had been working on a larger project dealing with American consumerism, and it was no surprise to me that these spaces would fail and dwindle as fast they arise. I was in the midst of a deeper project, photographing in thrift stores and recycling shops as part of my “Copia” series, so I shelved the idea.

At the end of 2007 with many rumblings of recession, I thought of those pictures and began the project in earnest in May of 2008. In many senses it was a vindication of what I had been talking about in my earlier work. How can an economy sustain a lifestyle based on exponential growth and the leisure and wealth to support it? It’s not rocket science to expect these kind of illusions to fail. What’s strange is how ingrained the brands and spaces are to us that so many were not only surprised to see major retailers and malls sink but were saddened. Many of these ideas were set in motion decades ago.

Many abandoned big-box stores are renovated into schools or churches. What do you think should be done with these empty buildings?

Some buildings can be repurposed but so many cannot. Retail design and use is not only based on the space itself but also location. When a few stores go down often many others in an area go with them—a retail ghost town if you will. Though one can repurpose one space it might sit in a vast area of blight. The problem lies not in what we should do with what we have already but it seems more important to get a lot stricter about what new retail spaces we allow into our communities. The promises are always jobs and tax revenue, but that won’t help in the long run if the store folds or relocates to the next township who offers an incentive.

It may seem cynical but I personally would like to see many of the spaces simply be turned back into fields, woods, and natural landscape, rather than trying to discover some profound solution. This is actually happening not so much by design in Detroit where entire neighborhoods are disappearing. Rather than design a new use for the space, many are arguing to leave it and let it be.

Ghosts of Shopping Past, Interview with Brain Ulrich, from The Morning News

Density tomorrow

“The density of human life in cities breeds what Fritz Lieber dubbed “megalopolisomancy,” or city magic. With so many lives interconnected by time and space in one small area, you’re bound to start seeing ghosts. There’s something dark and mystical about urban life, where possibility shades into probability without much warning. Spasms of weath generate surreal structures and events; vast communities of artists build imaginary worlds in the middle of the street. If mirrored buildings can disappear into clouds, and shop windows promise perfect bodies draped in gold, why can’t vampires lurk in alleys and mutants live in storm drains?” Welcome to the Future Metropolis, io9

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“Complexity Theory looks at how complex systems can generate simple outcomes. Consider the billions of cells that make up a person and yet they all manage to work together in such a way that the body works as a single unit. Our body works to keep us alive. We get hungry when we need food; we get thirsty when we need water. We can think and learn and we have a distinct personality. Something happens when large numbers of individual units come together and interact intensely with each other. New levels of operating just emerge through what is called self-organisation. By looking at a single human cell, you could not tell that it would be able to operate with other cells to form a human body.

“A city also has a large number of intensely interacting units. This time human beings form the units. Once again, we would not know from examining a single human being that they would gather together in the millions to form cities. It is an emergent property, so that a city takes on a life or a personality of its own, which has self organised out of the interactions of all the people who live in the city.We cannot predict what a complex system will evolve into. When we think about it, all life from the smallest cell to the largest animals are complex adaptive systems and life always provides us with a mystery.”

Complexity Pages

This and dat

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“One of the 8 works I created for the Data Art Show at the Pink Hobo Gallery in Minneapolis. All these pieces are a pun on the new craze for data visualization. The goals of data visualization as I understand them are to make complicated issues more understandable, to make obscured connections visible and to reveal hidden patterns in the data. After all these tasks have been solved ideally the result should be aesthetically pleasing as well. But when I look around what is being done in data visualization today I have the suspicion that in many cases the design is more important than the actual information and that the use of data is more an excuse to justify the use of aesthetics. Since I do not have a problem with aesthetics for their own sake in these pieces I deliberately took the opposite direction. Since I wanted to create something visually interesting I made up my own data which would give me the desired results. All these works are the result of generative algorithms, so all the elements and their connections are actually data and not something I assembled manually in Illustrator.”

Quasimondo, Dada Visualization 1, 2009. Via Flickr

Prospective Memory

“In 1934, the architect Albert Speer proposed “A Theory of Ruin Value”, on which Ruskin’s hopes and Hitler’s dreams could be based. Speer explained this theory in his memoirs:

The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that ‘bridge of tradition’ to future generations which Hitler was calling for. It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past. My ‘theory’ was intended to deal with this dilemma. By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models. To illustrate my ideas I had a romantic drawing prepared. It showed what the reviewing stand on the Zeppelin Field would look like after generations of neglect, overgrown with ivy, its columns fallen, the walls crumbling here and there, but the outlines still clearly recognizable. In Hitler’s entourage this drawing was regarded as blasphemous. That I could even conceive of a period of decline for the newly founded Reich destined to last a thousand years seemed outrageous to many of Hitler’s closest followers. But he himself accepted my ideas as logical and illuminating. He gave orders that in the future the important buildings of his Reich were to be erected in keeping with the principles of this ‘law of ruins’.” [1]

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“What Speer and Hitler proposed was to build monumental architecture in the present in a way so that the ruins of those buildings in a thousand or more years time would still be impressive and speak favourably about the time when they were built. Unlike the motivation behind the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt, it was not the preservation of monuments that was the ultimate aim of the builders, but their controlled decay. Whereas the architects of landscape parks of the 18th and 19th centuries built new ruins, those of Hitler’s Germany were asked to build new monuments which would, over the course of thousands of years, mutate into appealing ruins by themselves.

Although “it is probably impossible to build so as entirely to avoid the ultimate effects of pleasing decay”, the ‘theory of ruin-value’ requires that the aura and aesthetic appeal of the ruined building in the future would already be present in the mind of its architect. The prospective memory implied in such reasoning takes into account natural decay and cultural ignorance over very long time periods. Hitler and Speer drew the inspiration for the ‘theory of ruin-value’ mainly from the impressive ruins of Classical Antiquity in Greece and Italy. But as Speer’s colleague Friedrich Tamms knew, prehistoric megaliths are potentially no less admirable ruins. Applying the ‘theory of ruin-value’ to the origins of megaliths, it is an interesting thought to imagine that they, too, were built with a similar prospective memory. The builders of megaliths may have anticipated the natural and cultural forces which they would be exposed to in the centuries and millennia of their ‘life-histories’. Those megaliths which survived until the present-day have often lost their earthen body as well as much of their precious and sacred content; they are partly overgrown and their stone surfaces are weathered. But megaliths have also become striking monuments with a patina and a strong aura emanating from them. Friedrich Tamms argued that an incomplete and therefore unused building can be particular impressive, because any practical use of it stands in the way of an appreciation of its pure form.” [2]

A Theory of Ruin Value [1] | [2]

Image: Hisaharu Motoda, Neo-Ruins: Ameyoko, 2007. Via Pink Tentacle.