Friday, February 15, 2008

Faraway (So Close)

Trevor Paglen, "Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground, Dugway UT", Distance 42 miles, 10:51 a.m. (Source: Trevor Paglen)

Trevor Paglen's photography is fascinating not only for its content but for its technique. As self-styled "experimental geographer", Paglen's work "deliberately blurs the lines between social science, contemporary art, and a host of even more obscure disciplines in order to construct unfamiliar, yet meticulously researched ways to interpret the world around us." This operation is evident in Paglen's use of limit-telephotography.

Limit-telephotography relies on astronomical equipment to capture subjects that are dozens of miles away. Large telescopes with focal lengths ranging from 1300 to 7000mm thus reveal aspects of the landscape not ordinarily seen with the naked eye. This constraint is quickly transformed into a rhetorical device: Paglen uses limit-telephotography to capture images of military installations that are otherwise inaccessible to the public. The same techniques used to photograph deep-space objects light years away are thus turned inward -- they become the preferred method of documenting military activity in the American landscape.

Paglen's photographs are taken from a variety of distances. A photograph of the barren landscape at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah (above) was taken from 42 miles away. The details are faint and grainy, giving the photograph an eerie Gerhard Richter-like quality. Blotches of vegetation resemble horizontal streaks, as if Paglen were photographing something that was moving quickly across the landscape. The photograph, though taken at a very high magnification, reveals nothing.

Trevor Paglen, "Illuminated Hangars, Tonopah Test Range, NV", Distance 18 miles, 9:08 p.m. (Source: Trevor Paglen)

The same could be said of his photograph of a set of illuminated hangars at Tonopah, Nevada. Although taken from a distance of 18 miles, this photograph reveals very little. Light pours out from two hangars, bathing the tarmac in an immediate and sterile glow. Foregrounded structures only register as mysterious black masses. As with the photograph of the chemical and radiological testing site at Dugway, this photograph also reveals nothing. Yet the absolute mystery that veils these photographs is admittedly tantalizing: you know something is going on there, but you just can't see it.

Trevor Paglen, "Morning Commute (Gold Coast Terminal), Las Vegas, NV", Distance 1 mile, 6:26 a.m. (Source: Trevor Paglen)

The photographs of unmarked passenger jets at the Las Vegas International Airport's Gold Coast Terminal are equally mysterious. These images, captured from a mile away, show the noses of 737 and 727 "Janet" aircraft. Although these aircraft are recognizable (all have white fuselages with a single red stripe along the windows), their purpose has been the topic of frequent internet chatter. Their flightpaths, destinations, and cargoes are unknown. The term "Janet" ("Just Another Non-Existent Terminal") thus alludes to the secrecy surrounding these aircraft, many which are seen flying over Groom Lake and other parts of the now-iconic Area 51.

Trevor Paglen, "Unmarked 737 at Gold Coast Terminal, Las Vegas, NV", Distance 1 mile, 10:44 p.m. (Source: Trevor Paglen)

Paglen's photographs of the Gold Coast Terminal are bathed in shadows and granular barium lighting. People wearing bullet-proof vests and knapsacks are seen entering the aircraft, but we can only see them from behind. Another photograph shows a 737 bathed in darkness. The forward fuselage door is open, and yet the interior is pitch-black.

There is an obvious irony at work here. The closer Paglen gets to his subjects, the more mysterious they become. The photographs thus provide a glimpse of secret activity, and yet the activity remains secret. At first, this may seem to only confirm limit-photography as technique, and nothing mote. Yet this inability to provide any additional meaning is important, as the act of taking these photographs is significant. This is a slight qualification on the concept of apparatus theory: although Paglen's use of technology is a vital part of his method for constructing and depicting subjects, the photographer's physical location is a major contributing factor. Thus Paglen's relentless documentation of distance away from the subject takes on a new significance as it points to a rare combination of scopic voyeurism and territorial trespass.

(For other posts on Paglen, check out Bryan Finoki's articles for Archinect and Subtopia)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Bligh Cosmos

Plan and Section of the H.M.S. Bounty's Stern (Source: Project Gutenberg)

Way back in the day, many careers ago, I actually studied maritime law. It was a specialization in the truest sense of the word: its tangled skein of laws and lore were esoteric enough to sustain my interest. It was a simple choice, really. Should I bog myself in the minutae of corporate and securities law, or should I read about naval battles, perilous salvage operations, sunken treasures, and hot pursuit across international waters?

I quickly learned that the field of admiralty had some very interesting peculiarities. For example, ships have juridical power in American maritime law. A sloop, steamer, tugboat, frigate is chattel that not only merits a special type of jurisdiction, but that also has "rights". In other words, a ship can have the same legal status as a person. A chance look at an admiralty docket thus reveals a type of poetry in which ships with wonderfully evocative names sue each other in Federal court.

It thus follows that as a piece of chattel, a vessel is subject to the same matrix of property laws that would extend to real estate. A ship was literally a floating piece of property, a mobile island, so to speak. These rights also extended to the arena of public international law, where a ship enjoyed a certain amount of territorial sovereignty. A ship was therefore governed by the laws of its flag of convenience. A ship flying an American flag was covered by U.S. Law, a French by French law, and so on.

Hans Hollein, Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape (1964) (Source: MoMA)

What my law professors failed to convey was that a ship was a place. A vessel's riggings, superstructures, et cetera all comprise a spatial configuration addressing a particular programmatic need. In other words, a ship can be thought of in architectural terms. It is no surprise that when the Austrian architect Hans Hollein declared that "Everything is Architecture", he chose to depict a gigantic nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the middle of a grassy landscape in service of his point.

The most eloquent statement of a ship's architectural-ness comes from the Australian historian Greg Dening. In his 1993 book, Mr. Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power, and Theatre on the Bounty, Dening provides an in-depth look at the events leading to Fletcher Christian's 1789 uprising aboard the H.M.S. Bounty. Dening rightly portrays the insurrection as one with a particularly spatial origin. On the Bounty's fateful expedition, its officers' compartments (see above) were fitted to carry breadfruit and other plants -- a situation that surely infuriated the Bounty's subordinate officers.

Dening captures the Bounty's significance as a space of habitation in the following passage:
Space and the language to describe it make a ship. Space was inseparable from the authority it displayed and the the relationships it enclosed. The 'quarterdeck' in naval parlance was a place -- the upper deck abaft of the mainmast. It was also a social group -- those who had the privilege of walking the quarterdeck and and using the space associated with it, usually the great cabin and the wardroom. From the earliest times the quarterdeck had been a sacred place for shrines of the gods of the sea ans seamen. By the eighteenth century, the quarterdeck was sacred to the presence of sovereign power in displays of etiquette and privilege. It was the captain's territory -- his to walk alone, his to speak from but not to be spoken to unless he wished it. But the captain himself also owed the quarterdeck a deference. He too saluted this shrine as a sign that he was subordinate to the power that others saluted in him. The quarterdeck embodied this commission from the King. It was the space of his sovereign's power, and all its trivial gestures and etiquette were its geography. The quarterdeck, for officers of a fighting ship, was a space for very deep plays. It was there that an officer was expected to stand exposed, shielded only by his honour, when others on the ship might fight with more protection. The dread possibility but also the hope that any officer might have of treading where captains trod touched even the most trivial gesture with solemnity (1992: 19-20).
The H.M.S. Bounty was Captain Bligh's literal and figurative cosmos. It was also an architectural object freighted with power. This view is not uncommon with Herman Melville's passages describing the Pequod as a maritime abbatoir, a seagoing slaughterhouse plowing the mains in search of more ambergris -- all in service of a captain's maddening quest.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Shameless Plug

If you are in Savannah, check out Molly's talk on Strategic Boredom at IxDA 08.

A Lazarus Taxon

Unnatural, divergent species: Borromini's Lantern at Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza (left) and Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (right)

Just a quick, speculative rumination. Can we think of the resuscitation of a particular architecture style as a lazarus taxon? The term (borrowed from the field of paleontology) describes an animal that disappears from the fossil record, only to reappear again. There are some well-known examples, such as the coelacanth and the ivory-billed woodpecker. These animals were thought extinct, but were subsequently discovered in their respective habitats. There is plenty of scholarship out there that considers how a lazarus taxon can appear to come back from the dead.

Can we apply such an idea, especially when writing and studying architecture history? The example that comes to mind is Reyner Banham's inclusion of Russian constructivism and Italian futurism in his important Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960). Prior works, such as Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (1936), and Henry Russell Hitchcock's Modern Architecture (also 1936) exclude Russian and Italian experiments in modernism from their own polemical narratives. Siegfried Giedion's Space, Time, and Architecture (1941) does mention Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, but placing an image of Tatlin's Tower next to the lantern of Francesco Borromini's Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza suggests an unnatural interregnum.

On the hand, part of the magic of Banham's Theory and Design is its restorative function. Banham comments on an issue of De Stijl that conflates elementarism and constructivism:
The conjunction of 'the mechanical aesthetic' with 'constructive sensibility' and of a 'new machine aesthetic' with a list of artists is symptomatic, if no more, of a growing feeling, which has much later been codified as a definite credo, that the art proper to a mechanical age is Russian Abstract art, loosely termed Constructivist (1960: 188).
For Banham, then, Russian Constructivism is a Lazarus Taxon: a species of architecture that though eradicated from previous historical records, reappears once again.