The Obvious

telephone-box

“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?”
― Isaac Asimov, I, Robot

Pic: Bill E. Lytton, Red Telephone Box, from the series London Tourism, 2012. Created by layering thousands of tourist photos of typical London sites.

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Around The Sun

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“I myself have dreamed up a structure intermediate between Dyson spheres and planets. Build a ring 93 million miles in radius – one Earth orbit – around the sun. If we have the mass of Jupiter to work with, and if we make it a thousand miles wide, we get a thickness of about a thousand feet for the base. And it has advantages. The Ringworld will be much sturdier than a Dyson sphere. We can spin it on its axis for gravity. A rotation speed of 770 m/s will give us a gravity of one Earth normal. We wouldn’t even need to roof it over. Place walls one thousand miles high at each edge, facing the sun. Very little air will leak over the edges. Lord knows the thing is roomy enough. With three million times the surface area of the Earth, it will be some time before anyone complains of the crowding.”
Text: Larry Niven, Ringworld.
Pics: Aydin Buyuktas, Flatland.

Saturated In Neon

“Can there be a science fiction photography? This is not a question critics working in the field of the fantastic have ever asked, as far as I’m aware, even though the conception of the visual cultures of sf has been continually expanding, through comics, cinema, animation, and computer gaming. There has been some attention paid to painterly modes of fantasy, the kitsch art of the sf pulps, and the vernacular modes of futuristic architecture (from New York skyscrapers to streamline deco to space age design) , but I have found virtually no commentary on the relations of sf and photography…

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“The most science fictional of […] photographers, in my view, is the British artist Dan Holdsworth. Holdsworth openly deploys the traditional iconography of the sublime. The World in Itself is a series of images of the glacial landscapes of Iceland, territories of ice and rock that are aeons older than the first human settlements on Iceland and which come closest to alien landscapes on earth. Holdsworth has talked about these landscapes in the same sort of multi-temporal terms I’ve been outlining here: these images, he suggests, explore “the nature of the archaic in contemporary society and how that manifests itself” . But more typically, Holdsworth investigates the frontiers where the natural and the technological force a reconfiguring of the sublime. In one of the images for A Machine for Living, Holdsworth invokes the classic iconography of the sublime cliff, but replaces the lone Caspar David Friedrich figure at the summit with an electricity pylon, the power lines containing the chasm beneath. Elsewhere, in a series called At the Edge of Space, Holdsworth explored the strange territories of the European Space Station in French Guyana. He has also documented closed scientific environments that are baffled against the intrusion of sound and abolish echo. His most emblematic series, though, are the images he takes at night of human developments on the edges of cities. A Machine for Living includes night-time images of the empty networks of car-parks and roadways, saturated in neon. Megalith, an iconic Holdsworth image, is a long night-time exposure of a motorway advertising gantry – yet the title suggests some gnomic object of an advanced civilisation from a tale by Arthur C. Clarke. It stands over the terrain like a Wellsian tripod. Holdsworth never works inside cities, but at the suburban edges where develop- ments run into older, natural landscapes and create odd hybrid territories which feel deeply uncanny. He never photographs human beings in these images, and it is as if, at night, and through the magic of long exposures that reveal more than the unaided human eye, these new terrains reveal their truly alien nature.

“Given Holdsworth’s 1998 series Autopia, night scenes of empty motorway architectures, it is unsurprising to find critics reaching for J. G. Ballard’s title, Myths of the Near Future, when trying to explain the weirdness of these images. “The transformative mechanism of the camera allows Holdsworth to project those imprints into the near future, to the edges of our aspiration and into our unconscious ‘inner space”‘ . Ballard’s iconography is full of striking images of future ruins, rusting space technologies, and poisoned nuclear test grounds. Angus Carlyle has argued that Holdsworth is using the iconography of the sublime to photograph a second nature, places that are “dizzying grey zones [where] uncertainty opens up, the ideas of nature and culture find themselves suddenly stuck by provisionalising apostrophes” (43). We might also reach for Bruno La tour’s language of tangled objects or provisional assemblages to describe this sublime second nature.”

Text: Roger Luckhurst, “Contemporary Photography and the Technological Sublime, or, Can There Be a Science Fiction Photography?” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. Pocatello: 2008. Vol. 19, Iss. 2; pg. 181.

Image: Dan Holdsworth, Autopia 01, 1996. C-type print, 121×101 cm

Dead Eyes Open

“One of Jules Verne’s later Voyages Extraordinaires titled Les Freres Kip (The Kip Brothers, 1902) features in its conclusion a somewhat curious scientific concept-yet one which was quite popular during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth: the notion that the image of the last thing seen at the moment of death remains imprinted upon the retina of the eye.

“The fictional setting in Verne’s novel where this theory comes into play is as follows:

“A certain Captain Harry Gibson of the English freighter James Cook has been stabbed to death. On the strength of circumstantial evidence, two brothers named Karl and Pieter Kip are promptly arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Photos of the dead body are taken; in particular, snapshots of the victim’s head (with eyes open). An acquaintance of the victim asks the photographer for an enlargement of the head photo as a memento of his dead friend. The photographer agrees and makes several copies of the portrait, giving one to the victim’s family as well. Upon seeing the enlarged photo of his slain father, the young Nat Gibson is seized with grief and bends over to kiss it-and suddenly discerns two small points of light in the eyes of the photo. He examines these with a strong magnifyingglass and discovers therein the faces of the real murderers:two villainous sailors from the James Cook whom the police had initially suspected but against whom no hard evidence could be found. The real culprits are now arrested and condemned; the Kip brothers are vindicated; and the novel concludes with Justice served and the status quo happily reestablished.

“In his final chapter, Verne (always the pedagogue) explains to the reader the “scientific”basis for this pivotal discovery:

“For some time now it has been known-as a result of various interesting ophthalmologic experiments done by certain ingenious scientists,authoritative observers that they are- that the image of exterior objects imprinted upon the retina of the eye are conserved there indefinitely. The organ of vision contains a particular substancer, retinal purple,on which is imprinted in their exact form these images.They have even been perfectly reconstituted when the eye, after death, is removed and soaked in an alum bath.”

“It is likely that Verne gleaned this tidbit of ocular physiology from any one of the various newspapers, scientific journals, or encylopedias available to him in fin-de-siecle France-like the Gazette Medicale, for example, or the L’Encyclopedie franchise d’ophtalmologie by Lagrange and Valude-which offer detailed descriptions of this phenomenon (the latter of which, in particular,bears some resemblance to Verne’s own)…

“Undoubtedly, the rapidtechnological advancesmade in (and the growing popularity of) photography throughout this period also served to highlight these discoveries and to introduce them into public awareness. After all, the lesson seemed simple and very straight forward: the retina functioned like the photographic plate of a camera, therefore the final image viewed before death should remain fixed forever-like a photo-within the dead person’s eyes. It also came to be believed (as a logical extension of this hypothesis) that if death were to occur at a moment when the pupils of the eyes were hugely dilated-e.g., because of fear, surprise, anger or some other strong emotion-the retinal optograms of the deceased would be even clearer,more detailed, and easier to “develop.”

“Popular belief in these “facts” became so widespread during the final decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth that some police departmentsbegan to take close-up photographsof the eyes of murder victims in the hope of identifying their murderers. The most cel- ebrated of such cases involvedScotland Yard’sinvestigationof the infamous Jack-the-Ripper murders in Whitehall, London in 1888. One historian, in describing these events, notes:

In an attempt to be scientific,the police pried open Annie Chapman’s dead eyes and photographed them,in the hope that the retinas had retained an image of the last thing shesaw.But no images were found. (Stewart-Gordon121).

Text: Arthur B. Evans, “Optograms and Fiction: Photo in a Dead Man’s Eye, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Nov., 1993), pp. 341-361.

Image: New York City crime scene, 1914-1918, New York City Municipal Archive.

Memory City

“One also wonders what Sontag, or indeed Baudelaire, would have made of Sohei Nishino, a young Japanese photographer whose work goes on show for the first time in Britain at the Michael Hoppen gallery next week. Like Winogrand, Nishino is an obsessive, one who relentlessly pounds the streets with a camera. Yet unlike Winogrand, and every other photographer mentioned above, Nishino does not go in search of the city’s dark seamy corners or neglected populations. What he does is photograph the city in detail, and then construct a composite map from the thousands of detailed images he has amassed on his wanderings. Thus far, he has recreated 10 cities, including Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul and New York. The end results, which he calls “diorama maps”, are both breathtaking in their ambition and disorienting in their oddness.

“Last year, Nishino spent a month walking the streets of London – which, come to think of it, does not seem that long a time for the task in hand. He took over 10,000 photographs, which, on his return to Tokyo, he edited down to 4,000. Then the real work began. Having hand-printed the photographs in his own darkroom, Nishino then set about cutting them up and piecing them together – slowly and meticulously – into a giant composite photographic map of the city of London. It measures 7.5ft x 4ft, and will be shown at Michael Hoppen alongside his other diorama maps.

“In the meticulous assembling of these photomaps, Nishino creates epic artworks that, despite depicting many familiar icons of modernity and post-modernity – the Empire State building, the Gherkin, the Pompidou Centre – look oddly old-fashioned. He creates what look like medieval or renaissance maps of modern cities. In them, everything is familiar yet oddly disjointed, nothing seems quite in scale and, here and there, whole areas are missing or seem crushed or out-of-proportion. Some of his photographs are taken from above, some from far below. Buildings loom and tilt, as does the terrain, and sometimes a segment of put-together sky appears.

“For Nishino, it would seem, the process is the thing. He has paid homage to the great 18th-century Japanese cartographer, Ino Tadataka, who spent 17 years surveying and mapping the coastline of Japan. (The mammoth project was completed by his surveying team after his death.) But Nishino’s obsessive cartography is of a different order: fantastical rather than scientific; imaginative rather than literal. “His images are true to form in a sense, and yet incorrect”, notes Seiji Komatsu, director of the Emon Photography gallery in Tokyo. “In other words, he is trying to depict an image that comes from within the memory.”

Unreal cities: Sohei Nishino’s magical photographic maps of London, Tokyo and utopia, The Guardian, February 24, 2011.

Image: Diorama Map Night (2009-10) … Nishino’s cities are ‘familiar yet oddly disjointed’. Photograph: Sohei Nishino/Michael Hoppen Contemporary/Emon Photo Gallery

To anticipate and elaborate

“Science fiction is marked by contrasts between the quotidian and the fantastic and images that depict such moments abound in the works of numerous contemporary artists in the ‘21st Century: Art in the First Decade exhibition. Mitra Tabrizian’s City, London 2008 could well be a scene from a science fiction film, its group of men in an office atrium mill about in aimless contemplation, an ambiguous narrative suspended in time. As Kobena Mercer points out in the exhibition catalogue, “…in the corporate minimalism of their architectural surroundings, the men’s dark suits draw attention to similarities of gender and age. Variations of race and ethnicity are apparent as white faces are in the minority, but sameness makes an odd return in the look-alike indeterminacy of the majority…” Like the film Gattaca, with its narrative of genetic manipulation and the domination of commercial imperatives, and its highly stylised art direction of office atria and suited men and women, individual identity in both film and photograph is besieged by the technological-real.”

“There are numerous other works that engage with the aesthetics of science fiction in ‘21st Century exhibition. The decolonizing.ps project The Book of Migration 2009 which depicts a contested site in Israel/Palestine, and Bill Henson’s Untitled 2008-09 which quotes Arnold Böcklin Island of the dead 1880, propose connective lines between art, science fiction and the cinema – films such as La jetée and The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009) anticipate and elaborate on these depictions of the unease we feel in the contested spaces of the city, and by contrast, in the Romantic wilderness after the fall of civilisation. Perhaps the two most astonishing examples of the way contemporary art engages with SF can be found in two video works. SUPERFLEX’s Flooded McDonalds 2009 is exactly as the title describes; a McDonalds slowly fills with water, the detritus of wrappers and packaging and a plastic statue of the corporation’s mascot rising up to the ceiling. Aernout Mik’s Pulverous 2003 is a three-screen video of a supermarket being torn apart by a seemingly-bland collection of middle class types. This scene replicates an almost identical sequence in Blindness where the citizens of an unnamed city, stricken by a blindness-inducing disease, negotiate the darkened interior of a supermarket in a frenzy brought on by hunger and desperation. Although science fiction purports to depict moments that have not yet occurred, the relationship between art, cinema and the aesthetics of science fiction demonstrates that these are acute moments of contemporaneity sublimated and turned into an allegorical representations of our deepest anxieties. Moreover, the aesthetic of the science fictional are felt well beyond the borders of strict genre. Perhaps this says something about the way the popular imagination is manifested in cultural objects, but what it is certain is that the technological-real is inextricably linked to the way we perceive the world.”

Andrew Frost, “The Look of The Future”, 21st Century Blog: Art in The First Decade, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art.

Image: Mitra Tabrizian, City, London 2008, Type C photograph.

Infinitely extending lines

“For mathematicians, the parallel is defined by lines extending to infinity without intersecting. Gursky invites us to imagine that his lines not only go on forever, but that they are everywhere, underlying not only the disciplined orderings of culture but the unconscious life of nature. His parallels suggest a forever beyond the photograph, a forever of lines extending beyond the frames of each image and, more frighteningly, entirely beyond reason, representation, and calculation. Despite the formal harmonies of these photographs, then, Gursky’s infinitely extending lines evoke the sublime. Thus with their beauty comes a kind of terror…

“Of course, postmodernity has encountered and embraced the sublime before, as theorized in what are now its most classic articulations. Jean-François Lyotard famously pits the postmodern sublime against the eclecticism of “anything goes.” A genuine postmodernism, refusing to value art according to its profits, launches an enthusiastic defiance of conventional forms and expectations, the desire to “put forward… the unpresentable in presentation itself”. If for Lyotard this sublime can happen in Montaigne as well as in Mille Plateaux, Fredric Jameson argues for a sublime particular to the emergence of the vast, decentered complexity of multinational capitalism. Jameson’s sublime, like Lyotard’s, reveals the limits of figuration, but it results specifically from the attempt to grasp the “impossible totality of the contemporary world system”

While Lyotard’s sublime is evoked by unprofitable novelty and Jameson’s sublime emerges from the endless surfaces of a world overtaken by commodification, Andreas Gursky’s parallels seem to offer something older, something more metaphysical. In their extension from frame to frame the lines imply a constant, a depth beneath the surface, an underlying pattern or structure. As if Gursky was a faithful reader of Kant, his work appears to present something like an enactment of the Critique of Judgment: his lines offer a formal harmony and also, in their infinite extension, they rupture that harmony; they frame the world and they also break that frame. Thus unlike Jameson’s bewildering postmodern architecture, which dislocates and disorients, Gursky’s photographs embrace an order that is disordered only by the fact that the same forms eerily spread from one photograph to the next. In his allegiance to a venerable formalism, Gursky also seems to invoke an older philosophical paradigm. Indeed, his loving references to Romantic painters reinforce the notion of a sublime that belongs to the late eighteenth century. We see echoes of Caspar David Friedrich in “Seilbahn, Dolomiten” (1987), and we find J. M. W. Turner’s mysterious and illegible landscapes neatly framed by parallel lines in “Turner Collection” (1995)…”

Review of: Andreas Gursky. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 4 March – 15 May 2001.
Peter Galassi. Andreas Gursky. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2001.

Image: Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent Store, 1999.