Sunday, 7 July 2013

shuttle 21: (in place of an) ending


'It's interesting to think of the great blaze of heaven that we winnow down to animal shapes and kitchen tools' (Don DeLillo, Underworld, London: Picador, 1998, 82) 
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Jean Baudrillard: - 'I went in search of astral America, not social and cultural America, but the America of the empty, absolute freedom of the freeways, not the deep America of mores and mentalities, but the America of desert speed, of motels and mineral surfaces. I looked for it in the speed of the screenplay, in the indifferent reflex of television, in the film of days and nights projected across an empty space, in the marvellously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts on the road; looked for what was nearest to the nuclear and enucleated universe, a universe which is virtually our own ...

I sought the finished form of the future catastrophe of the social in geology, in that upturning of depth that can be seen in the straited spaces, the reliefs of salt and stone, the canyons where the fossil river flows down, the immemorial abyss of slowness that shows itself in erosion and geology. I even looked for it in the verticality of the great cities ...

Here in the transversality of the desert and the irony of geology, the transpolitical finds its generic, mental space. The inhumanity of our ulterior, asocial, superficial world immediately finds its aesthetic form here, its ecstatic form. For the desert is simply that: an ecstatic critique of culture, an ecstatic form of disappearance.

The grandeur of the deserts derives from their being, in their aridity, the negative of the earth's surface and of our civilised humours.  They are places where humours and fluids become rarefied, where the air is so pure that the influence of the stars descends direct from the constellations. And, with the extermination of the desert Indians, an even earlier stage than that of anthropology became visible: a mineralogy, a geology, a sidereality, an inhuman facticity, an aridity that drives out the artificial scruples of culture, a silence that exists nowhere else.

The silence of the desert is a visual thing, too. A product of the gaze that stares out and finds nothing to reflect it. There can be no silence up in the mountains, since their very contours roar. And for there to be silence, time itself has to attain a sort of horizontality; there has to be no echo of time in the future, but simply a sliding of geological strata one upon the other giving out nothing more than a fossil murmur.

Desert: luminous, fossilised network of an inhuman intelligence, of a radical indifference - the indifference not merely of the sky, but of the geological undulations, where the metaphysical passions of space and time alone crystallise. Here the terms of desire are turned upside down each day, and night annihilates them. But wait for the dawn to rise, with the awakening of the fossil sounds, the animal silence ...

The form that dominates the American West, and doubtless all of American culture, is a seismic form: a fractal, interstitial culture, born of a rift with the Old World, a tactile, fragile, mobile, superficial culture - you have to follow its own rules to grasp how it works: seismic shifting, soft technologies.

The only question in this journey is: how far can we go in the extermination of meaning, how far can we go in the non-referential desert form without cracking up and, of course, still keep alive the esoteric charm of disappearance? A theoretical question here materialised in the objective conditions of a journey which is no longer a journey and therefore carries with it a fundamental rule: aim for the point of no return. This is the key. And the crucial moment is that brutal instant which reveals that the journey has no end, that there is no longer any reason for it to come to an end.

Beyond a certain point, it is movement itself that changes. Movement which moves through space of its own volition changes into an absorption by space itself - end of resistance, end of the scene of the journey as such (exactly as the jet engine is no longer an energy of space-penetration, but propels itself by creating a vacuum in front of it that sucks it forward, instead of supporting itself, as in the traditional model, upon the air's resistance). In this way, the centrifugal, eccentric point is reached where the movement produces the vacuum that sucks you in.

This moment of vertigo is also the moment of potential collapse. Not so much from the tiredness generated by the distance and the heat, as from the ireversible advance into the desert of time'.

Extract from Jean Baudrillard, America, London: Verso, 1988, 5-6, 11
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Hello Mick, and Beth,

I'm ending with Baudrillard, not because I necessarily agree with everything he proposes, but because his rhetorical postcards from the road remain provocative for me in terms of driving, the cinematic, the seismic drama of geology, time, 'silence'.

In assembling these virtual fragments over the past three weeks, a kind of ad hoc - and unfinishable - reading companion for your journey, I have often tried to imagine where you are. And I realise I've entirely elided my own embodied movements during that time, a shuttle rhythm of to-ing and fro-ing between work in London and England's (much milder, greener) 'Southwest'.

I have passed Stonehenge six times in different light, and on each occasion have hollered greetings to the pigs on the other side of the road. I've been dazzled by a billowing field of scarlet poppies in bloom. I've watched tiny swallows being fed by their hyperactive parents in their mud-spit nest above a doorway, and cried quietly during episodes of 24 Hours in A&E. And, in the gaps, I've been transfixed by events in Egypt, as well as by the river, the swifts, the bees, the clouds and the sky.

Wishes, to you and the shuttle crew,
 for the journeys home and to come, 
elsew/here ...

Photos: Richard Misrach, drive-in cinema, Las Vegas, 1987; (bottom) William Egglestone

Unhurried departure music: Jem Finer's Longplayer - time lapse film of a live performance at the Roundhouse, London, 12.9.2009 (1,000 minutes in 1,000 seconds). For the Longplayer website, and a live stream link to this ongoing musical composition (currently 13.5 years into its 1,000 year duration), see here

Saturday, 6 July 2013

shuttle 20: singing (faith & peaches)


'A song ain't nothin' in the world but a story just wrote with music to it' (Hank Williams, 1952)
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Rebecca Solnit: - ' ... there is no adequate response in our vernacular to this landscape, nothing can touch the authenticity around it - thus the neon of Vegas, the motels of Flagstaff, the diners of Elko, the pink flamingos on the banks of a river named after a German who never saw it [the Humboldt].

At the most breathtaking landscapes of the West, people usually say something profoundly banal or trivial, not so much because they are not impressed, but because they know their words can't measure up to it, and it is more respectful not to try. In some way, banality becomes a refuge from fear of the sublime, overwhelming scale of the land.

Only the splenetics of country music seems to describe it: The eternal story of country songs is about someone who took refuge in the house of love, only the house fell apart, and so the singer is lost in the vastness again, and alone. Never mind their obsessive boy-girl front - they're songs about the pain of freedom, the loneliness of independence, about aftermath, irretrievable loss, fall from grace. If you don't believe the lyrics, the violins and guitars will tell you so.

Like pastoral poetry, country music (before positive thinking ruined it in recent years) is usually about the past, though the past seen more through bitterness than pastoral nostalgia. The singer is leaving, being left, or looking back, and the lyrics are full of midnight trains and lost highways, rambling men, walking after midnight, coming back to see their sweetheart wed another. A passionate love for geography is buried in all this bile, so that the songs of loss are rich too, rich in place names, travels, and atmospheres ...

The basic gesture of American society is a kind of atomisation, an expansion into what was always imagined as an expanding universe. That expansion was tragic in all Old World narratives, and America was settled by outcasts for whom tragedy became opportunity. Even framed as 'progress' and 'manifest destiny', that gesture is one of loneliness, and of conflict resolved by space rather than society - room to swing your arm. Tragedy, our ability to fall out of society and into the landscape, has been the content of American optimism'.

Extract from Rebecca Solnit, 'The Name of the Snake', in Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 199, 184-5
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For today's driving music, the  14-minute looping heartbeat and visionary minimalism of Gillian Welch's 'I Dream A Highway' (from Time: The Revelator), listen here. For lyrics, see here

Gillian Welch: - 'Our palette is so minimal. We have four microphones, two voices and two guitars. That's how we make records and it freaks people out. I've come to believe that there's this other element, which is the sum of its parts - things like the air, the room, the atmosphere. These things enable us to make these little landscapes and soundscapes, which is interesting to us. Once your frame of reference adjusts to the fact that there's so little going on, the music can become very rich and panoramic, at least that's the hope'.

On driving across the USA: 'We were watching the road signs go by, which is a beautiful lesson in American poetry. You forget how beautiful the place names and the words are that you see when you're driving around. It's a great crash course in language'.

On her diverse audience: 'Those guys [hippies, country folk, hardcore rock & punk enthusiasts] say ours is the only folk music because they see the kind of gnarly, dark shit in there ... We sent the lyrics for this record [The Harrow and the Harvest] to the artist who did the cover - he's a metal artist, quite well known, and his covers usually have decomposing skulls and stuff, and he was like, "Man, this shit is dark!"'
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Photographs below: William Egglestone

Friday, 5 July 2013

shuttle 19: naming

‘The desert could not be claimed or owned – it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before’ 

(Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, London: Picador, 1992) 
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North American deserts  (north to south)
Carcross, Fraser, Thompson Country, Nk’mip; Channeled Scablands, Snake River, Craters of the Moon, Red, Owyhee, Yp, Alvord, Oregon High; Great Basin (Black Rock, Forty Mile, Smoke Creek, Great Salt, San Raphael, Sevier, Escalante, Bisti Badlands, Painted); Mojave (Death Valley, Amargosa); Sonoran (Colorado, Yuha, Yuma, Lechuguilla, Tule, Gran Desertio de Altar, Baja, Vizcaino); Chihuahuan (Trans-Pecos, White Sands)

Some American winds 
Auger (dust devil, sometimes stationary, in California), Black Roller (dust storm), Cat’s Paw (strong enough to ripple a pool), Chinook (a foehn wind also known as 'the snow eater'), Chocolatero, Chubasco, Collada, Cordonazo (‘the lash of St Francis’), Coromell, Diablo, Duster, Kabeyun (‘the father of winds’, Algonquin), Kibibonokka (‘the fierce one’, Algonquin), Maria (fictional), Mato Wamniyomni (‘whirlwind’, Dakota), Mono, Norte, Norther, Papagayos, Pruga, Santa Ana, Shawondasee (‘the lazy wind’, Algonquin), Sonora, Stikine, Sundowner, Surazo, Taku, Tapayagua, Ta Te Kata (chinook, Sioux), Tehuantepecer, Tezcatlipoca (‘the divine wind’, Aztec), Tornado, Virazon, Wabun (‘the morning bringer', Algonquin), Williwaw, Witch, Zonda 

Aeolian processes
- abrasion: the process of physical weathering
- deflation: a process in which the finer grained material is removed, and the level of the land surface is lowered
- desert pavement: forms when wind removes all of the fine-grained sand from a system, leaving only the coarser gravel behind
- desert varnish: the patina of iron and manganese oxides left on rocks after they have undergone long periods of chemical weathering in the desert
- ventifacts - stones that have been sculpted by the wind 

Sonoran Desert plants & animals
Flora: cave primrose, desert Christmas cactus, desert lupine, desert willow, devil’s claw, fairy duster, ghost flower, hedgehog cactus, jimson weed, night blooming cereus, prickly pear cactus, saguaro cactus, showy four o’ clock (Mirabilis multiflora), tumble weed, western wildflower

Fauna: Allen’s big-eared bat, Arizona pocket mouse, Bezy’s night lizard, black-tailed jackrabbit, cactus mouse, California leaf-nosed bat, Chihuahuan striped whiptail lizard, Chuckwalla lizard, common desert centipede, desert bighorn sheep, desert box turtle, desert pupfish, desert recluse spider, desert spiny lizard, desert tortoise, desert woodrat, flat-tail horned lizard, fringe-toed lizard, Gila monster, golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), horned lizard, kangaroo rat, lesser long-nosed bat, little striped whiptail, long-tailed brush lizard, Mearns coyote, Merriam’s kangaroo rat, Mesquite mouse, Mexican grey wolf (el lobo), mountain king snake, mountain lion (cougar or puma), Mexican big-eared bat, Mexican black king snake, Mexican long-tongued bat, Mexican jumping beans (frijoles saltarines), Mexican tree frog, Pacific burrowing wasp, pallid bat, Pinacate beetle, rattlesnakes (genus Crotalus), ring-tailed cat, round-tailed ground squirrel, Sonoran desert toad, Sonoran shovelnose snake, Sonoran sidewinder, spotted bat, tiger centipede, Trans-Pecos striped whiptail lizard, western pipistrelle, white-throated woodrat, Yuma myotis vesper bat, zebra-tailed lizard
Birds: Abert’s towhee, Anna’s hummingbird, Bell’s vireo, Bendire’s thrasher, black-chinned hummingbird, black-chinned sparrow, black rail, black-tailed gnatcatcher, black-throated sparrow, brown-crested flycatcher, burrowing owl, canyon wren, Cassin’s vireo, Chihuahuan raven, collared peccary, Costa’s hummingbird, Crissal thrasher, curve-billd thrasher, desert cardinal, Ferruginous pygmy owl, Gambel’s quail, Gila woodpecker, gilded flicker, greater roadrunner, great horned owl (Bubo virinus), lark bunting, Lawrence’s goldfinch, Le Conte’s thrasher, Lucy’s warbler, mountain plover, mourning dove, phainopepla, Plumbeous vireo, sage sparrow, spotted owl, vermilion flycatcher, yellow-headed blackbird
__________________________

Rebecca Solnit: - 

'Naming is a form of claiming. Parents name their children, priests baptise their flock, husbands confer their names upon their wives, explorers name what they come across - whether it's Fremont naming the Humboldt River after another explorer or Martin Heinrich Klaproth naming the element uranium after the god of the underworld. To name a thing is to assert that a new identity has begun ...

In Genesis, Adam wants a helpmeet, but God instead brings forth all the animals for him to name, and only after the fowl of the air and the beasts of the field are named does his Creator get around to making woman out of his rib. According to Robert Graves and Raphael Patai's Hebrew Myths, naming is a euphemism or substitute activity. In the original version Adam couples with all the creatures in quest of a satisfactory mate, and when his experiments with the animals prove unsatisfying Eve arrives for his use ...

The scattering of names across the land is a cipher of its history. As Utah is sprinkled with the Old Testament names that gave resonance to the Mormon emigration there, so California is overlaid with the sanctifying names of the Spanish missionaries, from the sacrament itself in the state's capital to the list of saints trailing down the coast. Other Spanish names are descriptive: Mariposa for the butterflies that menaced Moraga's expedition, the Sierra Nevada for their snow ... The names of the peaks in a western mountain range often sound like the roster of a board of directors. Josiah Whitney, director of the state's Geological Survey, named the tallest peak yet found by his men in the Sierra after himself, then hastened to transfer his name to the taller mountain that turned up afterward, the current Mount Whitney ...

Had the old names been kept, the newcomers would have been emigrants, not discoverers. The great charm of the Belgian gold miner Jean-Nicholas Perlot is that he came to the Sierra foothills as to a foreign country rather than a manifest destiny, came to it as a place in the middle of a story rather than waiting for one to begin, without the sense of himself as a new Adam or the Indians as obstacles to a new Eden. As befits an immigrant, he learned the languages, English, Spanish, and Miwok. Changing the names is a symbolic substitute for wiping out the people, and in looking at the language of the newcomers, particularly in Yosemite, the constant conjunction of the words extermination and aboriginal captures this. Exterminate comes from terminate, to end, ab-original means from the beginning, and so the phrase means to terminate the originals, end the beginning, and begin again in the middle, making Adams out of Europeans in an Eden wrested from some people who didn't fit into the new story'.

Extract from Rebecca Solnit, 'The Name of the Snake', in Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999
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Photos (from top): Jan Janssonius, anemographic chart, 1650; USA wind map; Steve Evans - desert cactus flower, Arizona; rattlesnake rattle; Matt - Saguaro cactus; desert cacti, Chelsea Flower Show, London, 2013

For driving music,  'I've been everywhere', performed by Willie Nelson & Hank Snow, listen here
 
For further details of Jean-Nicholas Perlot (and his canine companion Miraud), see his Gold Seeker: Adventures of a Belgian Argonaut during the Gold Rush Years, ed. Howard R Lamar, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985

For a wonderful book about winds - with chapters on wind and earth, time, life, body and mind, and a 'dictionary of winds' - see Lyall Watson, Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind, London: Hodder & Staughton, 1984 

Thursday, 4 July 2013

shuttle 18: zoning

'When there is enough out-of-placeness in the world, nothing is out of place' (Don DeLillo, Mao II)

'Physical space is vital to the type of testing and training [required by a hi-tech military force]. A single open-air test range requires nearly two million acres of open land. The Southwest is the only region of the country that offers land of this size, as well as air and sea space needed for other kinds of testing. The Southwest offers over 335 million acres of federally owned land. Over 490 thousand square miles of airspace is available in the Southwest, and 484 thousand square miles of sea are open for training activities. This land can be used without the interference from civilians or substantial electromagnetic interference - both of which are a problem in the rest of the country' ('Southwest Range Complex', GlobalSecurity.org)
__________________________

The Zone

'Tremors from the future can be felt throughout Stalker. In less than a decade Professor's summary of how the Zone came into existence had taken on the aura of a premonition fulfilled, and Stalker acquired yet another dimension of suggestiveness: in its foreshadowing of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, in Ukraine. Tarkovsky was not only a visionary, poet and mystic - he was also a prophet (of a future that now lies in the past).

The damaged reactor and much of the radioactive material were sealed in a huge concrete 'sarcophagus'. Nearby towns such as Pripyat were evacuated and a thirty-kilometre zone of exclusion was established around the plant. Like Stalker's child ... large numbers of the children of parents who lived near Chernobyl had birth defects.

After the evacuation the Zone of Exclusion was littered with the rusting remains of vehicles that had been used as part of the emergency clean-up. Plants stitched the empty roads and cracked concrete. Trees thrust through the warped floors of derelict buildings. Leaves changed shape. Vegetation clambered up the crumbling walls of abandoned homes.

Photographs taken by Robert Polidori of Pripyat and Chernobyl in 2001 (and collected in his book Zones of Exclusion) look like stills from a retrospective location shoot from the set of Stalker (1). Except it might not be quite as simple as Polidori and others documenting a world which had come to resemble a film made thirty years earlier. It could be that the photographers' aesthetic - their tacit sense of what they were looking for - was partly formed by Stalker, so that the film had helped generate and shape the observed reality that succeeded it.

Rumours began to circulate that within the Zone there was another place (in any magical realm there is always a deeper recess or chamber of more powerful magic) where your wishes could come true. There you have it. In the most concise form imaginable, Professor has outlined the birth of a myth and religion: a place where something may or may not have happened; a place with a power that was intensified - possibly even created - by being forbidden.

That's certainly the view of another professor, good old Slavoj Zizek, who reckons that the cordoning off is the defining aspect of the Zone: "What confers on it the aura of mystery is the Limit itself, i.e. the fact that the Zone is designated as inaccessible, as prohibited". In a classic Zizekian bit of reverse dialectics, "the Zone is not prohibited because it has certain properties which are 'too strong' for our everyday sense of reality; it displays these properties because it is posited as prohibited. What comes first is the formal gesture of excluding a part of the real from our everyday reality and of proclaiming it the prohibited Zone"'.
------------------------------------------------

(1) (footnote): 'Rather different but even more extraordinary documentary corroboration of the existence of some kind of Zone is provided by Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen in his book Satellites (2006), particularly the images from the so-called spacecraft crash zone in Kazakhstan and just across the border in the Altai Republic of Russia. The debris that regularly came crashing from space gave rise to a thriving unofficial business here - in spite of the risks - in scrap and salvage. Bendiksen's most famous - and beautiful - photograph shows two villagers atop the dented remains of a spacecraft or satellite in the midst of an idyllic green landscape and blue sky, all snow-blurred by the wings of thousands of white butterflies'.

Extract from Geoff Dyer's recent book about Tarkovsky's film Stalker - Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room, Edinburgh & London: Canongate, 2012, 74-77
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Photos (from the top): Nellis Air Force Base perimeter signs, Nevada; Robert Polidori, 'Unit 4 control room, Chernobyl', 2001; Jonas Bendiksen, 'Spaceship Junkyard', Altai Territory, Russia, 2000; declassified photograph of remnants of a crashed titanium A-12 spy plane from Groom Lake/Area 51, Nevada, scattered on the ground near Wendover, Utah, 1963

For the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) website and database, an invaluable resource 'dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about how the nation's lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived', see here

For an earlier post about Nevada nuclear tests in the late 1950s, Elvis, Las Vegas etc, see 'Plumbbob' here

For an earlier post about Chernobyl & Pripyat, nuclear waste, 'toxic tourism' etc, see 'A new fire (unknown fields)' here

For a sequence of three earlier posts about waste, see 'Underhistory' here, here and here

For cheerfully apocalyptic driving music, 'The man comes around' by Johnny Cash, listen here

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

shuttle 17: rocking (in time)

'It was the high point of his morning. Change the canaries. Feed the mule. Stand transfixed for half an hour' 

(Sam Shepard, Motel Chronicles & Hawk Moon, London: Faber, 1982)
_________________________

'"The blur of technology, this is where the oracles plot their wars. Because now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question? Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field" ... 

Every lost moment is the life. It's unknowable except to us, each of us inexpressibly, this man, that woman. Childhood is lost life reclaimed every second, he said. Two infants alone in a room, in dimmest light, twins, laughing. Thirty years later, one in Chicago, one in Hong Kong, they are the issue of that moment. 

A moment, a thought, here and gone, each of us, on a street somewhere, and this is everything. I wondered what he meant by everything. It's what we call self, the true life, he said, the essential being. It's self in the soft wallow of what it knows, and what it knows is that it will not live forever ...

The landscape began to seem normal, distance was normal, heat was weather and weather was heat. I began to understand what he meant when he said that time is blind here. Beyond the local shrubs and cactus, only waves of space, occasional far thunder, the wait for rain, the gaze across the hills to a mountain range that was there yesterday, lost today in lifeless skies'. 

(Don DeLillo, Point Omega, London: Picador, 2010)
_________________________ 

Bill Viola - ‘In 1981, I made a videotape in Japan, Hatsu Yume ('First Dream'), in which there is one sequence where a fixed camera views a rock on a mountainside over a long period of time. When it comes on the screen, the images are moving 20 times normal speed, and gradually, in a series of stages, it slows down to real-time, and eventually to extreme slow-motion.

People usually describe that scene by saying, “ … the part where the people are all slowed down while moving round the rock”. What I looked at in that scene is the rock, not so much the people. I thought it would be interesting to show a rock in slow motion. All that is really happening is that the rock’s time, its rate of change, exceeds the sampling rate (the recording time of the video), whereas the people are within that range. So the rock just sits there, high speed, slow speed … it doesn’t matter.

I think about time in that way. There are windows or wavelengths of perception. They are simultaneous and interwoven at any one moment, but we are tuned only to a certain frequency range. This is directly related to scale changes in space or sound, proportion in architecture and music. A fly lives for a week or two, and a rock exists for thousands or millions of years’.

From Bill Viola (1995), Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994, London: Thames & Hudson / Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 151
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'Hatsu yume' is a Japanese term for the first prophetic dream in the new year. Viola: 'I was thinking about light and its relation to water and to life, and also its opposite - darkness or the night and death. Video treats light like water; it becomes fluid on the video tube. Water supports the fish like light supports man. Land is the death of the fish; darkness is the death of man'.

Photo at top: Ansel Adams, 'Rock and Cloud, King's River Canyon' (California), 1936. 


Left: Glen Baxter drawing
“I was thinking about light and its relation to water and to life, and also its opposite — darkness or the night and death. Video treats light like water — it becomes fluid on the video tube. Water supports the fish like light supports man. Land is the death of the fish — darkness is the death of man.” - See more at: http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/artwork/9443-hatsu-yume-first-dream#sthash.UnxqBMN7.dpuf
“I was thinking about light and its relation to water and to life, and also its opposite — darkness or the night and death. Video treats light like water — it becomes fluid on the video tube. Water supports the fish like light supports man. Land is the death of the fish — darkness is the death of man.” - See more at: http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/artwork/9443-hatsu-yume-first-dream#sthash.UnxqBMN7.dpuf
“I was thinking about light and its relation to water and to life, and also its opposite — darkness or the night and death. Video treats light like water — it becomes fluid on the video tube. Water supports the fish like light supports man. Land is the death of the fish — darkness is the death of man.” - See more at: http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/artwork/9443-hatsu-yume-first-dream#sthash.UnxqBMN7.dpuf

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

shuttle 16: drawing

'Drawing figures, is figured.
Drawing pulls, pushes, tugs, drags.
Drawing is friction, gravity.
Earth draws, is drawn, draws maps.
Sun draws, draws shadows, photos.
Moon draws tides'
(From Roberto Chabet's exhibition Lines on Drawing, 1999)

'A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see' (John Berger, 'Life Drawing', in Jim Savage (ed.), Berger on Drawing, Cork: Occasional Press, 2007)
_________________________

'On an ancient lake bed located on the western side of Death Valley National Park, boulders that weigh up to 700 pounds sail across the almost perfectly flat terrain, leaving grooved trails in their wake ... Each of these furrows chronicles a rock’s journey, ranging from a mere few inches to nearly 3,000 feet. Some tracks manifest in straight bold lines, while others coil back on themselves in sinuous arcs.

Despite a century of scientific investigation, this curious phenomenon has confounded the geological community and park visitors alike. To this day, no one has ever seen the rocks move. But in lieu of eyewitnesses, countless theories have been put forward over the years in an effort to explain the reasons behind the migrations.

One early suggestion was that the rocks were driven by gravity, sliding down a gradual slope over a long period of time. But this theory was discounted when it was revealed that the northern end of the playa is actually several centimeters higher than the southern end and that most of the rocks were in fact traveling uphill.

Though no one has yet been able to conclusively identify just what makes the rocks move, one woman is coming closer to solving the mystery. For the past ten years, Dr. Paula Messina, Professor of Geology at San Jose State University in California, has made it her quest to understand what has bewildered geologists for decades. “It’s interesting that no one has seen them move, so I am kind of sleuthing to see what’s really going on here,” says Dr. Messina.

Many scientists had dedicated much of their careers to the racing rocks, but the remoteness of the area kept their research limited in scope. No one had been able to map the complete set of trails before the advent of a quick, portable method known as global positioning. Dr. Messina was the first to have the luxury of this high technology at her fingertips.

In 1996, armed with a hand-held GPS unit, she digitally mapped the location of each of the 162 rocks scattered over the playa. “I’m very fortunate that this technology was available at about the same time the Racetrack captured my interest,” she says. “It took only ten days to map the entire network — a total of about 60 miles.” Since then, she has continued to chart the movements of each rock within a centimeter of accuracy. Walking the length of a trail, she collects the longitude and latitude points of each, which snap into a line. She then takes her data back to the lab where she is able to analyze changes in the rocks’ positions since her last visit.

She has found that two components are essential to their movement: wind and water. The fierce winter storms that sweep down from the surrounding mountains carry plenty of both.

The playa surface is made up of very fine clay sediments that become extremely slick when wet. “When you have pliable, wet, frictionless sediments and intense winds blowing through,” offers Dr. Messina, “I think you have the elements to make the rocks move.”

At an elevation of 3,700 feet, strong winds can rake the playa at 70 miles per hour. But Dr. Messina is quick to point out that sometimes even smaller gusts can set the rocks in motion. The explanation for this lies in her theory, which links wind and water with yet another element: bacteria.

After periods of rain, bacteria lying dormant on the playa begin to “come to.” As they grow, long, hair-like filaments develop and cause a slippery film to form on the surface. “Very rough surfaces would require great forces to move the lightest-weight rocks,” she says. “But if the surface is exceptionally smooth, as would be expected from a bio-geologic film, even the heaviest rocks could be propelled by a small shove of the wind. I think of the Racetrack as being coated by Teflon, under those special conditions.”

In science, hypotheses are often based on logic. But over the years, Dr. Messina has discovered that on the Racetrack, logic itself must often be tossed to the wind. “Some of the rocks have done some very unusual things,” she says. In her initial analysis she hypothesized that given their weight, larger rocks would travel shorter distances and smaller, lighter rocks would sail on further, producing longer trails. It also seemed reasonable that the heavier, angular rocks would leave straighter trails and rounder rocks would move more erratically. What she discovered surprised her. “I was crunching numbers and found that there was absolutely no correlation between the size and shape of the rocks and their trails. There was no smoking gun, so this was one of the big mysteries to me.”

What appears as a very flat, uniform terrain is in fact a mosaic of micro-climates. In the southeastern part of the playa, wind is channeled through a low pass in the mountains, forming a natural wind tunnel. This is where the longest, straightest trails are concentrated. In the central part of the playa, two natural wind tunnels converge from different directions, creating turbulence. It’s in this area that the rock trails are the most convoluted. “What I think is happening,” proposes Dr. Messina, “is the surrounding topography is actually what is guiding the rocks and telling them where to go.”

Some people have suggested attaching radio transmitters to the rocks or erecting cameras to catch them “in the act” in order to put an end to the speculation. But as Death Valley National Park is 95 percent designated wilderness, all research in the park must be non-invasive. It is forbidden to erect any permanent structures or instrumentation. Further, no one is permitted on the playa when it is wet because each footprint would leave an indelible scar.

As for Dr. Messina, she is content in the sleuthing. “People frequently ask me if I want to see the rocks in action and I can honestly answer that I do not,” she says. “Science is all about the quest for knowledge, and not necessarily knowing all the answers. Part of the lure of this place is its mystery. It’s fine with me if it remains that way.”

From 'Life in Death Valley: The Mystery of the Racing Rocks', Nature
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For a Wikipedia entry on the 'sailing stones' of Death Valley, see here. 'In a study published in 2011 it is postulated that small rafts of ice form around the rocks and when the local water level rises, the rocks are buoyantly floated off the soft bed, thus reducing the reaction and friction forces at the bed. Since this effect depends on reducing friction, and not on increasing the wind drag, these ice cakes need not have a particularly large surface area if the ice is adequately thick, as the minimal friction allows the rocks to be moved by arbitrarily light winds'.

shuttle 16:2: tracking

Photos by David Mcnew, David Roossien, Alberto Arzoz, Richard Misrach; tracks by animals including kangaroo rats, a desert tortoise, various insects, and vehicles; marks made in the Mojave, Imperial Dunes, Black Rock, Tenere/Sahara and Namibian deserts, and on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah

Monday, 1 July 2013

shuttle 15: colouring

'"Transparency, ah, there's the miracle". Transparency, the legacy of the desert where there is no colour, but where the light is large, open, with a transparent quality in which all colours are present at the same time, as possibility. In the desert, Edmond Jabès says to Serge Faucherau, "nothing is there as simply blue, but as a possibility of blue". And just as piling on colour leads to transparency, so "we pile up images and images of images until the last, which is blank, and on which we all agree"' (Rosmarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès, Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002, 99)

'The wonder of the heat is metaphysical. The very colours - pastel blue, mauve, lilac - are the products of a slow, geological, timeless combustion. The mineral quality of the earth breaks through the surface in the crystalline flora. All the natural elements here have known their ordeal by fire. The desert is no longer a landscape, it is a pure form produced by the abstraction of all others' (Jean Baudrillard, America, London: Verso, 1988, 137)
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'The plane drones away. Closing the hood of her car after putting in the water, Daria looks up, squinting, then drives off toward some purple-mountained majesty - a majesty that Antonioni, at one point, had thought to change. Production designer Dean Tavoularis was in Barstow with his painter, Roger Dietz, engaged by the filmmaker in conversation about those distant 'lavender grey' mountains.

"Can you make those red, from there ... to there?" Antonioni asked.

Tavoularis said to Dietz, "What about a crop-duster?"

Tavoularis: "I checked around and there was a bi-plane, kind of à la North by Northwest. And I said: 'Get as much red powder sent from LA, from Hollywood, as you can', and Roger put the red powder in the big bins for the chemicals they would normally use, and I instructed the pilot. 

Watching through binoculars, from where the camera would be, as the plane made several passes over the mountains, I noticed no particular change. 'Do it again', I said. Again, no change. Then, 'What about liquid? Can we get another plane that has a liquid system instead of powder? And can you get red dye instead of red powder? Rust red dye?' So we did that with another plane. I watched again with the binoculars ... 

I did try. I made a valiant effort. I explained to Michelangelo, and I had a couple of photographs to prove it. I don't think he expected that the mountains would ever change. Just wanted to see somebody step up, wanted to see somebody try. That was the important thing. That's what a master is. Life isn't about winning, it's about trying"'.  

Extract from Murray Pomerance, 'Zabriskie Point', in Michelangelo Red Antonioni Blue: Eight Reflections on Cinema, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011, 163-4
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Images from the making of Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970); at the bottom, a still from the end sequence

For artist Juli Kearns' detailed three-part descriptive synopsis of Zabriskie Point, with numerous stills and assorted clips, see her Idyllopus Press site here

For an earlier post about Los Angeles, 'Let it shine', see here. For an earlier post about light and the colour blue ('Light'), originally written for Forced Entertainment's Marathon Lexicon, see here