Photographer Blake Gordon has been documenting the geometric effects of light pollution in Austin, Texas, capturing thinly defined shapes in the clouds, projected upward from the tops of buildings.
It’s an accidental ornamentation of the city sky – or what Gordon calls Cloud Projections.
“I captured defined patterns of light above the city when atmospheric conditions were right,” he explained in an email. This is part of a larger interest in seeing “the clouds as a surface.” For instance, Gordon mentioned that he had also produced “rough images from a plane flight in Minnesota where I saw the reverse: low winter clouds gave light pollution a medium to mark upon, and towns broadcast their cluster signals to those above.”
About these “broadcasts,” Gordon asks: “Some of them were so precise that it’s hard to conceive that they are just afterthoughts of a lighting design. Would it still be called light pollution?”
While I’m instantly reminded of Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema – where Virilio memorably describes the Nazi use of searchlights as a form of temporary light-architecture, creating a “space” of monumental vaults and upward-projected walls to help define their night rallies – I’m also struck by at least two possibilities here:
1) Airplanes could project downward onto the cloud canopy, showing anything from television shows to the latest Hollywood blockbuster to local weather and temperature information. The audience? The people in that particular aircraft. Like some strange technological implementation of Jacques Lacan, you’d be moving forward into a world defined by your own projections. Imagine, though, looking out across the city at other airplanes stuck in holding patterns, projecting films down onto the clouds of their respective flight paths. You glimpse scenes from The Dark Knight, Valkyrie, and The Wrestler. Or perhaps planes could project images in all directions, forming cylinders of imagery. An IMAX of the sky. Whenever you encounter clouds, your flight crew switches on the outside projectors… and everyone gazes out at that ghostly presence, a dream-cloud of film passing hundreds of miles per hour through the inner atmosphere.
2) Buildings could project films upward onto the cloud canopy. For your next corporate party you hire SkyTV: a patented, cinematic approach to urban cloud cover. Drive-in cinemas would no longer exist; high-rises would, instead, have installed bleachers on their roofs, like those old tiered seats you find atop houses near Wrigley Field, put there so you can see the game without an official ticket. Only, here, those bleachers are tilted back like planetarium seats – and everyone is watching the sky.
a) Even without shining films into the sky, this would be an amazing idea: turning the whole city into a planetarium. Perhaps astronomers should be asking: Why aren’t there sky-bleachers on every roof? You’re out on a date some night and you’re invited to stop by a friend’s party – but everyone seems to be heading up onto the roof. You both follow, drinks in hand – and soon you’re out on the roofscape, nervous amidst bleachers, gigantic hulking silhouettes against the night sky. And there are dozens and dozens of people up there, reclined in near-silence, watching the constellations. There are thousands of buildings around the city like this, you’re told. No one stays inside anymore.
b) Perhaps it’s time to rethink movie theater design. Perhaps the coolest architecture studio you could take right now would be one in which you rethink the contemporary cinema. Perhaps the outdoor cinemas of the future use clouds as their surface, and rooftops as their arena. AMC might even offer corporate sponsorship. From GPSFILM to CINEMA41, ideas for redesigning the cinematic experience are already out there – so how might they be tweaked to involve the sky?
c) It’s the summer of 2011 – a Friday night – and you’re out for drinks in Manhattan with friends. But then all the lights in midtown begin to switch off, and weird glowing shapes appear in the sky. There are noises. You think it’s some kind of cheesy night club opening up downtown, or perhaps the Mayan apocalypse a year early. But then: Ghostbusters III, projected from some kind of mega-projector, appears above you in the clouds. It’s the world’s most talked-about film premiere: ghosts in the sky and a million unticketed viewers, in a kind of vertical philanthropy of the moving image.
3) Like something out of Archigram, you develop a stationary airship that passes up through the clouds each night to project films back down; for the audience below, it’s as if a talking hologram has settled into the sky above the city. The people who control the ship are dream technicians. But then the airship is hijacked by a 15-year old, who flies it above remote stretches of the Amazon, terrifying uncontacted native tribes. Steven Spielberg soon makes a movie about him, produced by Werner Herzog.
4) BLDGBLOG here proposes FogFilms, a new project for my fellow San Franciscans. When the fog gets bad, the films get going.
In any case, it seems worth asking if we could transform light pollution from its current status as a kind of abstract blur, somewhere between orange and white, into something worth watching – if we could focus it, concentrate it, or, more accurately, give it content.
After all, there would seem to be serious architectural possibilities here. On foggy nights, or humid nights, or cloudy nights, you transform the sky into a trompe l’oeil painting, a cinematic oculus, a new ceiling, a kind of dream-valve above the city.