Grid Corrections

[Image: From “Grid Corrections” by Gerco de Ruijter, courtesy of the Ulrich Museum of Art].

In case this is of interest, I’ve got a new article up over at Travel + Leisure about photographer Gerco de Ruijter. De Ruijter recently undertook an exploration of sites in the North American landscape where the Jeffersonian road grid is forced to go askew in order to account for the curvature of the Earth.

[Image: From “Grid Corrections” by Gerco de Ruijter, courtesy of the Ulrich Museum of Art].

De Ruijter is already widely known for his work documenting grids and other signs of human-induced geometry in the landscape, from Dutch tree farms to pivot irrigation systems, which gives this new focus an interestingly ironic air.

[Image: From “Grid Corrections” by Gerco de Ruijter, courtesy of the Ulrich Museum of Art].

In other words, these are places where a vision of geometric perfection—a seemingly infinite grid, dividing equal plots of land for everyone, extending sea to shining sea—collides with the reality of a spherical planet and must undergo internal deviations.

Those are the “grid corrections” of de Ruijter’s title, and they take the form of otherwise inexplicable T-intersections and zigzag turns in the middle of nowhere.

[Image: From “Grid Corrections” by Gerco de Ruijter, courtesy of the Ulrich Museum of Art].

The project includes a series of spherical panoramas de Ruijter made using kite photography at specific corrective intersections outside Wichita, in effect distorting the distortions, a kind of topographical reverb.

[Images: From “Grid Corrections” by Gerco de Ruijter, courtesy of the Ulrich Museum of Art].

And there is also a further sub-series of satellite images—all taken from Google Earth—stitched together to show intersections where grid corrections occur.

[Image: “Canada/USA 2015 Grid Correction Leota Minnesota,” from “Grid Corrections” by Gerco de Ruijter, courtesy of the Ulrich Museum of Art].

The actual article explains in more detail what these grid corrections are, why they exist in the first place, and how often they appear, including references to James Corner’s Taking Measures Across the American Landscape and to a 2007 post on Alexander Trevi’s blog, Pruned.

[Image: From “Grid Corrections” by Gerco de Ruijter, courtesy of the Ulrich Museum of Art].

For more, then, not only check out the Travel + Leisure piece, but click around on de Ruijter’s own website—and, if you’re in The Netherlands, stop by the Van Kranendonk Gallery in The Hague tomorrow, Saturday, December 12th, to see a few examples from “Grid Corrections” on display.

When those who it was built for are not present

[Image: Photo by Kai Caemmerer].

I’ve got a new article up over at New Scientist looking at the so-called “ghost cities” of China, and where exactly they can be found. This is not as straightforward as it might seem:

It seems hard to lose track of an entire city. But that appears to be what’s taken place—and not just once, but over and over again. The infamous “ghost cities” of China have become a favorite internet meme of the past half-decade. These ghost cities are meant to be sprawling wastelands of empty streets and uninhabited megastructures, without a human being in sight. But for all the discussion, do these places really exist?

The rest of the piece looks at various strategies put to use not only for quantifying but for simply locating these developments in the first place. This includes data analysis and satellite photography—but, just as compellingly, on-the-ground firsthand exploration.

[Image: Photo by Kai Caemmerer].

Here, I talked to photographer Kai Caemmerer who has recently undertaken a series of photos exploring what he calls “unborn cities,” or cities not dead and expired—that is, not ghost cities—but cities that are incomplete and still awaiting their future populations.

“Unlike many Western cities that begin as small developments and grow in accordance with local industries, gathering community and history as they age,” Caemmerer explains, “these areas are built to the point of near completion before introducing people.”

Because of this, there is an interim period between the final phases of development and when the areas become noticeably populated, when many of the buildings stand empty, occasionally still cloaked in scrim. During this phase of development, sensationalist Western media often describe them as defunct “ghost cities,” which fails to recognize that they are built on an urban model, timeline, and scale that is simply unfamiliar to the methods of Western urbanization.

Caemmerer continued, pointing out that his interest in ostensibly empty urban environments is not about shaming China, or implying that unused architectural space is somehow only a non-Western problem. In fact, in another series—a few example of which I hope to post here in the near-future—Caemmerer turns his lens on his own home city of Chicago.

“I’m interested in what happens to the urban landscape when those who it was built for are not present,” he explained to me. “More specifically, I’m interested in what can be revealed by the architecture when it appears vacant.
”

Read more over at New Scientist.

(Thanks to Richard Mosse for putting me in touch with Caemmerer).

Extract

[Image: By Spiros Hadjidjanos, via Contemporary Art Daily].

Artist Spiros Hadjidjanos has been using an interesting technique in his recent work, where he scans old photographs, turns their color or shading intensity into depth information, and then 3D-prints objects extracted from this. The effect is like pulling objects out of wormholes.

[Image: By Spiros Hadjidjanos, via Contemporary Art Daily].

His experiments appear to have begun with a project focused specifically on Karl Blossfeldt’s classic book Urformen der Kunst; there, Blossfeldt published beautifully realized botanical photographs that fell somewhere between scientific taxonomy and human portraiture.

[Image: By Spiros Hadjidjanos, via Stylemag].

As Hi-Fructose explained earlier this summer, Hadjidjanos’s approach was to scan Blossfeldt’s images, then, “using complex information algorithms to add depth, [they] were printed as objects composed of hundreds of sharp needle-like aluminum-nylon points. Despite their space-age methods, the plants appear fossilized. Each node and vein is perfectly preserved for posterity.”

[Image: Via Spiros Hadjidjanos’s Instagram feed].

The results are pretty awesome—but I was especially drawn to this when I saw, on Hadjidjanos’s Instagram feed, that he had started to apply this to architectural motifs.

2D architectural images—scanned and translated into operable depth information—can then be realized as blurred and imperfect 3D objects, spectral secondary reproductions that are almost like digitally compressed, 3D versions of the original photograph.

[Image: Via Spiros Hadjidjanos’s Instagram feed].

It’s a deliberately lo-fi, representationally imperfect way of bringing architectural fragments back to life, as if unpeeling partial buildings from the crumbling pages of a library, a digital wizardry of extracting space from surface.

[Image: Via Spiros Hadjidjanos’s Instagram feed].

There are many, many interesting things to discuss here—including three-dimensional data loss, object translations, and emerging aesthetics unique to scanning technology—but what particularly stands out to me is the implication that this is, in effect, photography pursued by other means.

In other words, through a combination of digital scanning and 3D-printing, these strange metallized nylon hybrids, depicting plinths, entablatures, finials, and other spatial details, are just a kind of depth photography, object-photographs that, when hung on a wall, become functionally indistinct from architecture.

This Is Only A Test

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

Photographer Daniel Stier has a new book out, and an accompanying exhibition on display at the kulturreich gallery, called Ways of Knowing.

Skier’s photos depict human subjects immersed in, or even at the mercy of, spatial instrumentation: strange devices conducting experiments that function at the scale of architecture but whose purpose remains unidentified.

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

In Stier’s words, the overall series is “a personal project exploring the real world of scientific research. Not the stainless steel surfaces bathed in purple light, but real people in their basements working on selfbuilt contraptions. All shot in state of the art research institutions across Europe and the US, showing experiments with human subjects. Portrayed are the people conducting the experiments—students, doctorands and professors.”

In recent interviews discussing the book, Stier has pointed out what he calls “similarities between artistic and scientific work,” with an emphasis on the craft that goes into designing and executing these devices.

However, there is also a performative or aesthetic aspect to many of these that hints at resonances beyond the world of applied science—a person staring into multicolored constellations painted on the inside of an inverted bowl, for example.

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

Ostensibly an ophthalmic device of some kind, it could just as easily be an amateur’s attempt at OpArt.

In a sense, these are not just one-off scientific experiments but spatial prototypes: rigorous attempts at building and establishing a very particular kind of environment—a carefully calibrated and tuned zone of parameters, forces, and influences—then exposing people to those worlds as a means of testing for their effects.

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

In any case, here are a few more images to pique your curiosity, but many, many more photos are available in Stier’s book, which just began shipping this month, and, of course, over at Stier’s website.

[Images: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

(Originally spotted via New Scientist).

American Mine

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 2, 2007)” by David Maisel].

The following essay was previously published under the title “Infinite Exchange” in Black Maps by David Maisel (Steidl), as well as in Cabinet Magazine #50.

1.
In a 2011 paper on the medical effects of scurvy, author Jason C. Anthony offers a remarkable detail about human bodies and the long-term presence of wounds.

“Without vitamin C,” Anthony writes, “we cannot produce collagen, an essential component of bones, cartilage, tendons and other connective tissues. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is replaced continually throughout our lives. Thus in advanced scurvy”—reached when the body has gone too long without vitamin C—“old wounds long thought healed will magically, painfully reappear.”

In a sense, there is no such thing as healing. From paper cuts to surgical scars, our bodies are catalogues of wounds: imperfectly locked doors quietly waiting, sooner or later, to spring back open.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 5, 2007)” by David Maisel].

2.
The Carlin Trend was discovered in north-central Nevada, near the town of Elko, in 1962. Some fifty years later, at this time of writing, it remains one of the world’s largest actively mined deposits of gold ore. In fact, the region has become something of a category-maker in the gold industry today, which describes analogous landscapes and ore bodies as “Carlin-type” deposits. The Carlin Trend is a standard, in other words: a referent against which others are both literally and rhetorically measured.

The trend’s discovery and subsequent exploitation—and the extraordinary negative landforms that have resulted from its exhumation—has been a story of nineteenth-century U.S. mining laws, legally dubious provisions governing public land, extraction industry multinationals, advanced geological modeling software, specialty equipment few people can name let alone operate, and genetically modified bacteria mixed into vats of gold-harvesting slurry.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 1, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Writing in 1989, John Seabrook of The New Yorker pointed out that, in the previous eight years alone, more gold had been mined from the Carlin Trend “than came out of any of the bonanzas that feature so prominently in our national mythology, including the California bonanza of 1849.” That’s because gold in the region is all but ubiquitous, peppered and snaked throughout Nevada:

There is gold in the Battle Mountain Formation, the range that runs southeast of town; gold in the alluvium to the west; gold in the Black Rock Desert to the northwest; gold in the Sheep Creek Range and in the Tuscarora Mountains to the northeast. The Tuscaroras are especially rich. Along the Carlin Trend, a forty-mile stretch of this range, are twelve deposits. Some people believe that a much richer swatch of ore, a deposit to rival South Africa’s Gold Reef, runs unbroken under the Carlin Trend, perhaps three thousand feet down—more than three times as deep as the deepest mines there now go.

“Some people believe”: more is hidden in the apparent neutrality of Seabrook’s phrase than we might at first suspect. Mining for gold—the actual, violent excision of waste rock from the earth, searching for ore—is never a question of finding a perfect, shiny lump of solid metal and carefully, surgically removing it from the planet. Gold is diffuse. It is now more often mined as particles, not blocks or even nuggets. Like glitter, it is scattered throughout the rocks around it.

In fact, the presence of gold, in many cases, can only be inferred. The angle at which local rock strata dip back into the planet, the direction water flows through the landscape, or the complex of other minerals and crystals locked in the rocks underground: these all, to varying degrees, act as telltale signatures for the famously coy king of metals.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 18, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Looking for these signatures entails a peculiar mix of local folklore and verified science, and the hunt—sometimes life-consuming, sometimes maddening—for signs is exhaustively documented by what Seabrook calls “prospecting paraphernalia: geological reports, assay figures, maps, contracts, aerial photographs, electromagnetic surveys, gravitometer readings, lawsuits, letters from people who think they have gold on their property, letters from people who know people who have gold on their property.”

Gold is less discovered, we might say, than interpreted.

The Carlin Trend has thus served as a test site, now in its fifty-first year, for various interpretive techniques, both scientific and superstitious. Specialty journals refer to the region’s “geochemical patterns”—only fragments of which are available to them to analyze for “the characteristics, signatures, and genesis of Nevada’s world-class gold systems”—the idea being that these might be found again elsewhere and thus be more instantly recognizable. Geologists track concentrations, contours, “metal zones,” and mineralized fractures; they build models of “stacked geochemical anomalies” in the earth below, hoping to piece together an accurate model of the gold ore’s location.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 8, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Where the gold came from in the first place is yet another interpretive preoccupation. A paper—forthrightly titled “Is the Ancestral Yellowstone Hotspot Responsible for the Tertiary ‘Carlin’ Mineralization in the Great Basin of Nevada?”—suggests that the gold of the Carlin Trend is actually a thermal after-effect, or geochemical ghost, of the still-nomadic Yellowstone hotspot that once pulsed and geysered beneath Nevada.

The language used to describe these deposits is often extraordinary. We read, for instance, that discontinuous ore bodies apparently produced at different “stages of mineralization” in the earth’s history might, in fact, be “part of a single event that evolved chemically through time.” That is, one state-sized geological event—with titanic embryos merging and splitting inside the earth—delicately infused into the landscape from below as slow pulses of mineral-rich magmatic fluid freeze into spidery veins of precious metal. Or we read about “anomaly-related mineral assemblages,” millions of years’ worth of “mineralizing events,” and “geochemical halos in this part of the Carlin Trend.” Industrial descriptions of the earth’s interior lend an unexpected poetry to the act of mining.

Another way of saying all this is that mind-bogglingly large terrestrial events, occurring invisibly below ground in rock formations we can only measure indirectly—scanning the earth for hidden signatures—produce ore bodies, the excavation, dismemberment, and eventual global distribution of which shapes human economic history in turn.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 10, 2007)” by David Maisel].

In any case, the form of a gold deposit itself must be mapped and clarified before excavation can begin. The shape of the ensuing pit is not the result of frantic, directionless digging, but of a carefully controlled design process. The word “design” is used deliberately here, even if the shape of the pit is orchestrated not by aesthetics but by the needs of financial rationality. Using proprietary graphics software—similar in function to visual effects programs used in film, gaming, and architecture—the ore body is predictively 3D-modeled.

Mining, at this point, becomes less an act of extraction than of physical verification: machines and their profit-minded operators pursue the outlines of a virtual form by gradually expanding the mine’s target zones, in effect checking to see if the geologists’ models were right.

As architect Liam Young suggested in a recent interview, conducted after he returned from leading a group of design students on a research trip to the gold mines of Western Australia,

mining engineers are basically designers. They develop all these fragmentary data into models, which become the design of the pit itself. … But then what happens is, based on gold prices, the pit model changes. In other words, if the gold price or the mineral price is higher, then the pit gets wider as it becomes cost-effective to mine areas of lower concentration. This happens nearly in real time—the speed of the machines digging the pit can change over the course of the day based on the price of gold, so the geometry of the pit is utterly parametric, modeling these distant financial calculations.

In essence, Young suggests, mining engineers produce and explore speculative models of gold distribution in the rocks below ground. Using surprisingly low-res data taken from seismic tests and weighing that data against equipment availability, labor costs, and, most importantly, the internationally recognized price of gold, the extraordinary ballet of machines can begin.

This then becomes predictive on a much larger scale, as well. By constantly refining their models of how exactly gold forms in the first place, and where and how it can be mined most effectively, geologists can understand where—and, to some extent, predict when—future ore bodies might accumulate. Interestingly, these future deposits will appear on a timescale that far exceeds human civilization—so, while human miners most likely won’t be around to exploit them, it’s nonetheless intriguing to know that serpent-like veins of precious metal are incubating in the darkness beneath us.

[Images: (top) “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 12, 2007)“; (bottom) “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 13, 2007),” by David Maisel].

Here we return to Seabrook, who warns that “there is a good deal of poetry in these figures,” of ounces mined and subterranean veins discovered. “They are based on statistical models, a kind of three-dimensional game of connect the dots played by a computer.”

These are then treated explicitly and formally as works of art: Seabrook points out “a computer-generated three-dimensional picture of the ore body, dry-mounted and framed,” hanging on a geologist’s office wall. Call it the new Subterranean Romantic:

Mining people have a habit of stretching the metaphor when they talk about their ore bodies. They say how beautiful, how satisfying, how tantalizing their ore body is, they make hourglass shapes with their hands, knead with their fingers, smooth with their palms as they talk.

These gorgeous bodies, removed from the earth, leave scars: precisely designed but roughly implemented holes—exit wounds of temporally contingent value—clearly and deliriously visible from above.

[Images: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 12, 2007)” by David Maisel].

3.
The very idea that gold has value is a funny thing. Aside from a few basic industrial uses, gold’s value is almost entirely ornamental—that is, it is agreed upon by financial traders and metals futures markets, even if no actual gold changes hands. Gold comes out of one, very carefully designed hole in the ground—whether in Nevada, South Africa, or Western Australia—only, most likely, to be interred again in another part of the world in a bank vault or federal reserve, where it is precisely gold’s removal from direct exchange that augments its value and its mystery.

Mystery is not used lightly. In his odd but insightful study of the various symbolic entanglements between gold, cocaine, violence, and colonial labor in South America, anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, with suitably mythic overtones: “How perfect is gold, the great shape-changer, the liquid metal, the formless form.”

This “formless form,” however, undergoes a strange—we might say alchemical—transformation, from shining metal to the rarefied super-object known as money. In a long description based on a memoir by Captain Amasa Delano, Taussig recounts the nineteenth-century process of minting coins from gold bullion:

The gold ore was wetted and kneaded by blacks treading on it with their feet on a paved brick surface after which they put mercury on it so as to separate out the gold. Then the metal was heated, becoming red as blood. To get the liquid metal to run from its crucible, the spout was touched with a stick with a piece of cloth around it. When this stick made contact, there was a flash and the metal began to run in a stream not much thicker than a pipe stem. The bars of gold formed were subsequently squeezed flat by rollers until the thickness of a dollar or doubloon, by which time the bars had become sheets four feet long. A powerful press cut coins out from these thin sheets like a cookie cutter, and the pieces were turned to receive a milled edge. Then came the weighing.

For Taussig, this process reveals the machinations “both mysterious and everyday” by which a mineral becomes money—that is, how “gold and silver coins become enchanted, material things, aglow with a power emanating from deep within.” This base matter has been transformed, given exchange-value through formal regularity and sent off to participate in a global system of monetary transactions.

Gold coins are thus but one of the “minutiae in which the supernatural is secularized”: a haunted mineral is pulled from the earth and given an uncanny second life elsewhere.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 22, 2007)” by David Maisel].

The spectral mathematics that can turn reserves of gold into abstract instruments of monetary exchange—into financial products and debt instruments, derivatives and funds—operates through a barely comprehensible carnival of surrogates flashing back and forth through the global marketplace. Until the end of the Bretton Woods system in August 1971, when the US dollar was unilaterally decoupled from the international gold standard, gold served as a reliable, universally recognized equivalent for economic exchange.

Gold, in the words of Jean-Joseph Goux, himself citing Marx, had value precisely because it could so effectively disappear into the “circulation of substitutes.” This is a logic of exchange by which Object A can be traded for Object B, as long as we agree that Object B also refers, off-stage, to something else entirely: some standard or reserve for which it acts as a practical surrogate.

Before 1971, that off-stage presence—that silent original, sleeping in a state of eternal reservation—was gold.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 20, 2007)” by David Maisel].

To say, then, that there is an “economy” is thus to use shorthand for what Goux describes as “a regulated process of equivalents and substitutions,” whereby stand-ins, equivalents, and acceptable replacements all interact in occulted reference to an absentee original. The natural hard matter of gold, artificially extracted from the earth, thus becomes caught up in a supernatural system of objects: coins, bills, and derivatives—future duplicates and doubles.

In this context, the ongoing attempts to return the United States to the gold standard—by, for instance, perennial Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul—can be seen as an almost folkloristic attempt to put the genie of infinite derivative exchange back in the bottle.

Sites like Nevada’s Carlin Trend thus serve as base points for this process, emitting endless phantasms in an economic fiction of equivalents—derivative products that refer to one another in a superstition of indirect exchange referred to as the economy—to such an extent that we might say these mines can never be refilled. Or, more accurately, they can only be overfilled, stuffed beyond capacity with the carnival of substitutes their hollowing-out has, however inadvertently, unleashed.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 7, 2007)” by David Maisel].

4.
In 2007, David Maisel began work on a group of photographs called “American Mine,” part of a larger and older series known as “The Mining Project.” These images document, in extraordinary abstract swaths of color, the emergent geometries of mines along the Carlin Trend.

Scattered across Maisel’s images is a forensic survey of cuts and incisions—wounds that will outlive us, scars that won’t go away—older surgeries through which modernity has, in effect, been created. The mines of the Carlin Trend remain unhealed—in fact, year on year, they are growing—a raw scurvy of rocks exposed on a scale so monumental that geologists estimate mines, not cities, will be the final trace of humanity left visible in a hundred million years’ time.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 17, 2007)” by David Maisel].

Vast terraced bowls step down—and down and, impossibly, further down—tracking dead faults and mineralization fronts on a scale only made clear when we notice 16-ton trucks like specks of dust on canyon walls. Discolored oceans of chemical runoff wash across vehicle tracks with acid tides. Retaining walls and stabilized slopes loom over assembled superscapes of mine detritus, abandoned shells of industrial insects dwarfed by the world they’ve helped create.

In these scenes, geotextile mats have all but replaced the earth’s surface, offering instead a deathless, replicant topography. Artificial hills, each uncannily and exactly like its neighbor, roll from one side of the frame to the other, shifting in tandem with commodities prices, their malleable geography thus forever resistant to mapping. The mines grow and metastasize as voids: storm fronts of negative space exploding with their own slow thunder into the planet.

[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 14, 2007)” by David Maisel].

What is of particular interest in Maisel’s “American Mine” series is its revelation of the injuries at the start of the commodity chain: planetary wounds, seemingly beyond the breadth of nature, out of which commodities have been extracted for later exchange.

The production of economically recognizable objects can thus be seen as a kind of terrestrial focusing: out of the chaos of the mine site, with great lakes clouded by geochemical effluent and abstract landforms like ritual mounds from human prehistory, pristine products eventually emerge, assembled from these heavy elements torn so roughly from the ground. Out of the carcinogenic discord of rock dust, circuit boards appear.

In a sense, it is surprising that the computers, phones, batteries, television sets, and other mundane electronics that fill the markets of the world are so free of this fallout, so astringently cleansed of the geological evidence of their own creation. Or perhaps we might say that it is precisely this stripping-away of a product’s elemental birth that gives it its later value and utility. Such products are ironically de-terrestrialized: washed of the very planet from which they came.

• • • 

I owe a huge thank you to David Maisel and editor Alan Rapp for inviting me to participate in the Black Maps book, which is an absolutely gorgeous compendium of Maisel’s work, as well as to Sina Najafi for his editorial feedback before this essay ran in Cabinet Magazine. You can see some photos of Black Maps over at the publisher’s website.

For those of you in Los Angeles, meanwhile, Maisel has a new show opening this spring—on March 26th, 2015—at the Mark Moore Gallery. Check back at this link in the weeks to come for more information.

Finally, if you would like to read some previous posts here on BLDGBLOG about Maisel’s work, don’t miss “The Fall” or “Library of Dust,” among many other short posts; and be sure to read the interview with David Maisel published in The BLDGBLOG Book.

The Conqueror Worm

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

A group of friends, their faces rigorously hidden from public view, find a huge borehole leading down into some tunnels beneath the city.

Not content to just lie there, straining to see more than 260 feet into the deep and merely wondering what might be down there, they do what any enterprising team of explorers would do.

They don mountaineering gear and descend into the pit.

[Images: Photos by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

It’s like scaling Mt. Everest in reverse—“descending black ropes,” in their words—swinging ever closer to the entrance to the tunnels, their headlamps and cameras at the ready.

Plus, some weird new myths have been circulating around town: that there’s a monolithic machine down there, something massive and temporarily abandoned beneath the city. It is “the toughest of all the machines. A dormant juggernaut that lies underground.”

They want to find it, to see if the rumors are true—and, who knows, to discover if the machine might still be operational. Imagine what you could do with a discarded tunneling machine seemingly forgotten in the deepest basement of the metropolis. Imagine if you could bring it back to life.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

Thus begins the next phase of their subterranean quest to find the so-called “Worm Maiden,” this conquering machine-animal lying dormant in its lair somewhere under the streets.

“Hitting our helmets and our backpacks on almost everything we found on the way,” they inched forward on foot.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

They soon drop their ropes and progress through a series of excavated tunnels and industrial caves, as if puzzling some new route into a pharaoh’s tomb—an Egyptology of urban infrastructure with its own secret chambers and traps.

And, incredibly, they actually do it: they actually find the machine, realizing that the rumors were both true and strangely inaccurate.

That is, the machine is even larger and more extraordinary than they’d been led to believe. It is a sprawling and tentacular presence that blocks the tunnel with the dark bulk of its old valves and pipework, like some ancient engine that wanted to hide itself in a cocoon of its own making.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

“Walking through the sleeping beauty, through her corridors amongst rust and spiderwebs,” we read, “she looked much bigger than we could have imagined. She didn’t seem to have an end. Eventually we reached a point where we couldn’t go any further, it was full of pipes and unknown mechanisms but the end was intuited.”

The machine was so complex, in other words, that they couldn’t find the other end of it, having to negotiate their way through all its internal doors and control panels.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

It could be the ultimate joyride—Grand Theft TBM—driving a stolen machine literally through the foundations of the city, carving your own maze through bedrock.

But a way forward was eventually found, and the Kubrickian monolith of this now-stationary drill head was revealed up ahead like some Mayan sculpture in the darkness. Abandoned for now and just lying there: a machine-ruin rusting away in the underground world it had made for itself. The conqueror worm.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

“It was much better than I had imagined,” we read. The text is like an archaeological report made possible by climbing gear and GoPros. “A twelve meter diameter of pure love just in front of us, was bestial. I couldn’t stop staring at HER. I could see the strain on her, the hard work she had done. The dirt in every part of the face. Pure beauty. All the space around her was filled by a foot of dirty water. A mixture of sand, dirt, water and oil. This mantle of fluids that covered everything was perfect, the vapors fogged my camera lens but the effect was delightfully dramatic. Go and use a filter to look like this. I can see the new Instagram filter now… TBM vapors effect!”

But that’s literally only half the journey. They’ve mountaineered into the planet, like reverse-Alpinists of the inferno—and they go so far as to discover an artificial lake beneath the city, a brackish reservoir that “shone under the light of our torches”—but now they have to get back out, which is not nearly as easy as it had seemed.

There are dozens of other photographs over at Trackrunners, and a much longer version of how everything happened that day; go check it out (and don’t miss their other stories, such as the disused stations beneath Barcelona).

(Thanks to Charles Bronson for the tip.)

The Civic Minimum

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

Gravesend is a suburb east of London, hosting on its own eastern edge something of a secondary suburb: a mysterious town on the edge of town that turns out not to be a town at all.

It is a simulated English village built in 2003 by the Metropolitan Police working with Equion Facilities Management and a firm called Advanced Interactive Systems (AIS).

The barren streets and hollow buildings of this militarized non-place were designed for use as an immersive staging ground for police-training exercises, fighting staged riots, burglaries, bank robberies, and other crimes.

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

Facades with no buildings behind them line the empty streets; in some cases, it is only through the aerial views afforded by a service like Google Maps that this reality is made clear.

Imitation bus stops, make-believe banks, and an oddly whimsical Pizzaland—like an end-times chain restaurant from Shaun of the Dead—sustain the illusion on the ground.

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

Somewhat incongruously, an airplane fuselage also now rests beside a chainlink fence near the roadway, giving officers an opportunity to prepare for airplane hijackings.

There are even empty Tube carriages parked outside town for improvisatory police raids.

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

According to AIS, their consultant-designers kitted out the site’s “live-fire ranges with internal ballistic and anti-ricochet finishes, simulation and targetry equipment, and range sound systems,” a complete multimedia package that would soon also include HD video projectors and even “laser-based 3D virtual training environments.”

Architectural simulations embedded with high-tech, upgradeable media technology thus supply the necessary level of detail for repeating crimes, on demand, like strange social rituals.

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

The photos seen here were all take by designer and photographer Chris Clarke, whose Flickr set of the series, including a dozen or so further images, is worth a look.

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

For Clarke, the “facsimile” urbanism of this site at the end of Gravesend is actually something of “a warning—a prophecy of society’s potential to alienate itself from itself.” He suggests that these surreal scenes threaten to become indistinguishable from everyday life, our cities and streets stripped down to the civic minimum, used as nothing more than bleak stomping grounds for futuristic security forces armed with military-grade tools.

“We have estates, parks, nightclubs, tube stations,” Clarke writes, “but is the community missing from Gravesend significantly more present in our inhabited cities and towns?” His own answer remains unspoken but obvious.

[Images: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

Writing about this same site back in 2008, Brian Finoki of Subtopia called it a “new theater of the absurd.”

It is, he wrote, “a city standing on the planet for one purpose: to be rioted, hijacked, trashed, held hostage, sacked, and overrun by thousands of chaotic scenarios, only so that it can be reclaimed, retaken, re-propped in circuitous loops of more dazzling proto-militant exercise, stormed by a thousand coordinated boots for eternity, targeted by hundreds of synchronized crosshairs of both lethal and non-lethal weapons.”

[Image: From Gravesend—The Death of Community by Chris Clarke].

Check out more photos at Chris Clarke’s Flickr page.

(Related: In the Box: A Tour Through the Simulated Battlefields of the U.S. National Training Center).

Through the Cracks Between Stars

[Image: Trevor Paglen, “PAN (Unknown; USA-207),” from The Other Night Sky].

I had the pleasure last winter of attending a lecture by Trevor Paglen in Amsterdam, where he spoke about a project of his called The Last Pictures. As Paglen describes it, “Humanity’s longest lasting remnants are found among the stars.”

Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization’s most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.

Paglen ended his lecture with an amazing anecdote worth repeating here. Expanding on this notion—that humanity’s longest-lasting ruins will not be cities, cathedrals, or even mines, but rather geostationary satellites orbiting the Earth, surviving for literally billions of years beyond anything we might build on the planet’s surface—Paglen tried to conjure up what this could look like for other species in the far future.

Billions of years from now, he began to narrate, long after city lights and the humans who made them have disappeared from the Earth, other intelligent species might eventually begin to see traces of humanity’s long-since erased presence on the planet.

Consider deep-sea squid, Paglen suggested, who would have billions of years to continue developing and perfecting their incredible eyesight, a sensory skill perfect for peering through the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the oceans—yet also an eyesight that could let them gaze out at the stars in deep space.

Perhaps, Paglen speculated, these future deep-sea squid with their extraordinary powers of sight honed precisely for focusing on tiny points of light in the darkness might drift up to the surface of the ocean on calm nights to look upward at the stars, viewing a scene that will have rearranged into whole new constellations since the last time humans walked the Earth.

And, there, the squid might notice something.

High above, seeming to move against the tides of distant planets and stars, would be tiny reflective points that never stray from their locations. They are there every night; they are more eternal than even the largest and most impressive constellations in the sky sliding nightly around them.

Seeming to look back at the squid like the eyes of patient gods, permanent and unchanging in these places reserved for them there in the firmament, those points would be nothing other than the geostationary satellites Paglen made reference to.

This would be the only real evidence, he suggested, to any terrestrial lifeforms in the distant future that humans had ever existed: strange ruins stuck there in the night, passively reflecting the sun, never falling, angelic and undisturbed, peering back through the veil of stars.

[Image: Star trails, seen from space, via Wikimedia].

Aside from the awesome, Lovecraftian poetry of this image—of tentacular creatures emerging from the benthic deep to gaze upward with eyes the size of automobiles at satellites far older than even continents and mountain ranges—the actual moment of seeing these machines for ourselves is equally shocking.

By now, for example, we have all seen so-called “star trail” photos, where the Earth’s rotation stretches every point of starlight into long, perfect curves through the night sky. These are gorgeous, if somewhat clichéd, images, and they tend to evoke an almost psychedelic state of cosmic wonder, very nearly the opposite of anything sinister or disturbing.

[Image: More star trails from space, via Wikipedia].

Yet in Paglen’s photo “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)”—part of another project of his called The Other Night Sky— something incredible and haunting occurs.

Amidst all those moving stars blurred across the sky like ribbons, tiny points of reflected light burn through—and they are not moving at all. There is something else up there, this image makes clear, something utterly, unnaturally still, something frozen there amidst the whirl of space, looking back down at us as if through cracks between the stars.

[Image: Cropping in to highlight the geostationary satellites—the unblurred dots between the star trails—in “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)” by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

The Other Night Sky, Paglen explains, “is a project to track and photograph classified American satellites, space debris, and other obscure objects in Earth orbit.”

To do so, he uses “observational data produced by an international network of amateur satellite observers to calculate the position and timing of overhead transits which are photographed with telescopes and large-format cameras and other imaging devices.”

The image that opens this post “depicts an array of spacecraft in geostationary orbit at 34.5 degrees east, a position over central Kenya. In the lower right of the image is a cluster of four spacecraft. The second from the left is known as ‘PAN.'”

What is PAN? Well, the interesting thing is that not many people actually know. Its initials stand for “Palladium At Night,” but “this is one mysterious bird,” satellite watchers have claimed; it is a “mystery satellite” with “an unusual history of frequent relocations,” although it is to be found in the eastern hemisphere, stationed far above the Indian Ocean (Paglen took this photograph from South Africa).

As Paglen writes, “PAN is unique among classified American satellites because it is not publically claimed by any intelligence of military agency. Space analysts have speculated that PAN may be operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.” Paglen and others have speculated about other possible meanings of the name PAN—check out his website for more on that—but what strikes me here is less the political backstory behind the satellites than the visceral effect such an otherwise abstract photograph can have.

In other words, we don’t actually need Paglen’s deep-sea squid of the far future with their extraordinary eyesight to make the point for us that there are now uncanny constellations around the earth, sinister patterns visible against the backdrop of natural motion that weaves the sky into such an inspiring sight.

These fixed points peer back at us through the cracks, an unnatural astronomy installed there in secret by someone or something capable of resisting the normal movements of the universe, never announcing themselves while watching anonymously from space.

[Image: Cropping further into “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)” by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

For more on Trevor Paglen’s work, including both The Last Pictures and The Other Night Sky, check out his website.

The Fall

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

At the end of 2013, photographer David Maisel was commissioned to photograph the city of Toledo, Spain, as part of a group exhibition called ToledoContemporánea, timed for a wider celebration of the 400th birthday of the painter El Greco.

Maisel’s photos offered a kind of aerial portraiture of the city, including its labyrinthine knots of rooftops. But the core of the project consists of disorientingly off-kilter, almost axonometric shots of the city’s historic architecture.

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

On wider flights beyond the edge of the city, modern swirls of highways are seen coiling through the landscape, like snakes preparing for arrival; in a sense, their geometry mimics—or perhaps mocks—the bewildering whorls of tiny streets and passages seen in the city’s core.

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

While he was in the country, however, Maisel took advantage of some extra time and access to a helicopter to explore the landscape between Toledo and Madrid, a short stretch of infrastructural connections, agricultural hinterlands, abandoned suburban developments, and arid hills.

The result was a new series of photos called The Fall.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

As Maisel writes, The Fall suggests a genre in which “the worlds of painting and photography have merged together,” creating an ironically abstract form of landscape documentation.

This is most evident in the photos from an area called Vicalvaro on the outskirts of Madrid. As Maisel explains, this is “where construction was halted after the economic collapse of 2008. The abandoned zones appear like the surreal aftermath of a bombed out city or an alien landing field.”

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

But, as seen in Maisel’s photos, they could also just as easily be extreme close-ups of minimalist oil paintings, nearly microscopic zooms into the texture of another method of representation to reveal a different kind of landscape there, one created by pigments and dyes.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

This is an interrupted landscape, a geography elaborately and expensively prepared for something that has yet to arrive.

However, the dead abstractions of Vicalvaro were only one part of the “three different areas of the Spanish landscape” that Maisel says he set out to see.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

Another landscape type—true to form, considering Maisel’s pre-existing focus on landscapes of industrial use—are borax extraction sites.

These are “strange, ashen landscapes,” he writes, seen “in a mining and agricultural region of La Mancha. The soil is laden with the mineral borax, which gives a surreal, ashen quality; the landscape shines, almost like a grey sea in a desert.”

They’re like windowpanes—or mercury lakes—reflecting the afternoon light.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

The surface of the earth becomes weirdly metallic in these shots, just a thin surface scraped away to reveal something seemingly utterly unnatural beneath, as if some divine force has begun etching the earth, scratching and engraving incomprehensible shapes into the planet.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

In many cases, amidst these grooved and metallized landscapes, gridded blooms of plant life have been introduced both to visually interrupt and physically contain the landscape.

Among other things, their roots help to secure disturbed dirt and soil from blowing away in heavy winds—but they also act to recuperate the terrain aesthetically, as if seeing these robotic fields the color of gunmetal was so philosophically unsettling for local residents that plants had to be brought in to make things seem earthly once again.

What we’re seeing is thus not really arboriculture, but a kind of existential stagecraft, a rigorously constructed landscape whose ironic purpose is to shield us from the true artificiality of our surroundings.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

In fact, these bring us around nicely to the third landscape type Maisel says he was exploring with these photographs, joining the abandoned developments and borax sites that we’ve already seen, above.

This is Fuensalida, or a region of “croplands in the La Mancha region” that have been “gridded, crosshatched, and abstracted.”

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

Like the exquisite tree farms documented by Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter, these rob viewers of any real sense of scale.

What are, in fact, trees appear instead to be small tufts of fabric pushing up through a needlepointing mesh. It could be a carpet interrupted mid-weave, or it could be some worn patch of clothing rubbed raw to reveal the underlying pattern for all to see.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

But it’s just landscape: the earth reformatted again, made artifactual and strange, carefully touched up for human culture.

This is just a selection of images, however; click through to Maisel’s website to see the full series.

(All images by David Maisel, used with permission. If you like the look of Maisel’s work, considering picking up a copy of The BLDGBLOG Book to read an interview with the photographer).

A Pyramid in the Middle of Nowhere Built to Track the End of the World

[Image: Photo by Benjamin Halpern, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

The Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex in Cavalier County, North Dakota, is the focus of an amazing set of images hosted by the U.S. Library of Congress, showing this squat and evocative megastructure in various states of construction and completion.

It’s a huge pyramid in the middle of nowhere tracking the end of the world on radar, an abstract geometric shape beneath the sky without a human being in sight, or it could even be the opening scene of an apocalyptic science fiction film—but it’s just the U.S. military going about its business, building vast and other-worldly architectural structures that the civilian world only rarely sees.

[Images: Photos by Benjamin Halpern, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

As Pruned described these structures back in 2008, it was a “mastaba-shaped radar facility reminiscent of the work of architect Étienne-Louis Boullée.”

As such, Pruned suggests, it offers convincing architectural evidence that we should consider “the “U.S. anti-ballistic landscape as a subset of Land Art”—as lonely pieces of abandoned infrastructure isolated amidst sublime and almost unreachably remote locations.

[Images: Photos by Benjamin Halpern, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

The photos seen here, taken for the U.S. government by photographer Benjamin Halpern, show the central pyramid—pyramid, monument, modular obelisk: whatever you want to call it—that served as the site’s missile-tracking station. Its omnidirectional all-seeing white circles stared endlessly at invisible airborne objects moving beyond the horizon.

The Library of Congress gives the pyramid’s location somewhat absurdly as “Northeast of Tactical Road; southeast of Tactical Road South.” In other words, it’s ensconced somewhere in a maze of self-reference and tautology, perhaps deliberately obscuring exactly how you’re meant to arrive at this place.

[Image: Photo by Benjamin Halpern, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

Yet the pyramid has become something of a roadtripper’s delight in the last decade or two. When I initially published a slightly different version of this post on Gizmodo, commenters from around the world jumped in with their own photos and memories of driving hours out of their way to find these military ruins looming spookily on the horizon.

Most if not all of them then discovered that it was as easy as simply saying hello to the guard, walking unencumbered through the front gate, and then hanging out for hours, running up the side of the pyramid, taking pictures against the North Dakota sky, and enjoying this American Giza as a peculiarly avant-garde site for an afternoon picnic.

You can even see the structures, arranged like some ritual sequence of spatial objects—a chapel of radar aligned with war—on Google Street View.

[Image: The pyramid, seen somewhat jarringly in full color, via Google Street View].

One thing I like so much about these shots is how they resemble early expeditionary photos of the hulking Mayan ruins found at Chichén Itzá.

Check out these comparative shots, for example, where the latter image was taken by photographer Henry Sweet during a 19th-century archaeological journey led by Alfred P. Maudslay. The photo was featured as part of an exhibition at the University of North Carolina back in 2007.

[Images: (top) Photo by Benjamin Halpern, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress; (bottom) photo by Henry Sweet, courtesy of the UNC-Chapel Hill].

Of course, there is nothing really to compare outside of their same overall geometry—yet it’s striking to consider the functional, if obviously metaphoric, similarities here as well. 

One structure was built as part of a kind of analogue system for tracking divine events and celestial calendars, as dark constellations of gods spun across the sky; the other was a temple to mathematics built for guiding and pinging missiles as they streaked horizon to horizon, a site of early warning against the apocalypse, as a new zodiac of nuclear warheads would burst open to shine their world-blinding light on the obliterated landscapes below. 

Trajectories, paths, horizons: both pyramids, in a sense, were architectural monuments for navigation of different kinds. Both timeless, strange, and seemingly inhuman: spatial artifacts of lost civilizations.

[Image: Photo by Benjamin Halpern, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

In any case, the original photos on the Library of Congress website are heavily specked with dust and some lens artifacts, but I’ve cleaned up my favorites and posted some of them here. 

[Images: Photos by Benjamin Halpern, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

This is how modern-day pyramids are made: huge budgets and ziggurats of rebar, as tiny figures wearing hardhats scramble around amidst gargantuan geometric forms, checking diagrams against reality and trying not to think of the nuclear war this structure was being built to track.

[Images: Photos by Benjamin Halpern, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

(An earlier version of this post previously appeared on Gizmodo).