A Window “Radically Different From All Previous Windows”

LIGO[Image: The corridors of LIGO, Louisiana, shaped like a “carpenter’s square”; via Google Earth].

It’s been really interesting for the last few weeks to watch as rumors and speculations about the first confirmed detection of gravitational waves have washed over the internet—primarily, at least from my perspective, because my wife, Nicola Twilley, who writes for The New Yorker, has been the only journalist given early access not just to the results but, more importantly, to the scientists behind the experiment, while writing an article that just went live over at The New Yorker.

It has been incredibly exciting to listen-in on partial conversations and snippets of overheard interviews in our home office here, as people like Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and David Reitze, among a dozen others, all explained to her exactly how the gravitational waves were first detected and what it means for our future ability to study and understand the cosmos.

All this gloating as a proud husband aside, however, it’s a truly fascinating story and well worth mentioning here.

LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—is a virtuoso act of precision construction: a pair of instruments, separated by thousands of miles, used to detect gravitational waves. They are shaped like “carpenter’s squares,” we read, and they stand in surreal, liminal landscapes: surrounded by water-logged swampland in Louisiana and “amid desert sagebrush, tumbleweed, and decommissioned reactors” in Hanford, Washington.

Ligo-Hanford [Image: LIGO, Hanford; via Google Earth].

Each consists of vast, seismically isolated corridors and finely calibrated super-mirrors between which lasers reflect in precise synchrony. These hallways are actually “so long—nearly two and a half miles—that they had to be raised a yard off the ground at each end, to keep them lying flat as Earth curved beneath them.”

To achieve the necessary precision of measurement, [Rainer Weiss, who first proposed the instrument’s construction] suggested using light as a ruler. He imagined putting a laser in the crook of the “L.” It would send a beam down the length of each tube, which a mirror at the other end would reflect back. The speed of light in a vacuum is constant, so as long as the tubes were cleared of air and other particles, the beams would recombine at the crook in synchrony—unless a gravitational wave happened to pass through. In that case, the distance between the mirrors and the laser would change slightly. Since one beam was now covering a shorter distance than its twin, they would no longer be in lockstep by the time they got back. The greater the mismatch, the stronger the wave. Such an instrument would need to be thousands of times more sensitive than any before it, and it would require delicate tuning, in order to extract a signal of vanishing weakness from the planet’s omnipresent din.

LIGO is the most sensitive instrument ever created by human beings, and its near-magical ability to pick up the tiniest tremor in the fabric of spacetime lends it a fantastical air that began to invade the team’s sleep. As Frederick Raab, director of the Hanford instrument, told Nicola, “When these people wake up in the middle of the night dreaming, they’re dreaming about the detector.”

Because of this hyper-sensitivity, its results need to be corrected against everything from minor earthquakes, windstorms, and passing truck traffic to “fluctuations in the power grid,” “distant lightning storms,” and even the howls of prowling wolves.

When the first positive signal came through, the team was actually worried it might not be a gravitational wave at all but “a very large lightning strike in Africa at about the same time.” (They checked; it wasn’t.)

Newton[Image: “Newton” (1795-c.1805) by William Blake, courtesy of the Tate].

The big deal amidst all this is that being able to study gravitational waves is very roughly analogous to the discovery of radio astronomy—where gravitational wave astronomy has the added benefit of opening up an entirely new spectrum of observation. Gravitational waves will let us “see” the fabric of spacetime in a way broadly similar to how we can “see” otherwise invisible radio emissions in deep space.

From The New Yorker:

Virtually all that is known about the universe has come to scientists by way of the electromagnetic spectrum. Four hundred years ago, Galileo began exploring the realm of visible light with his telescope. Since then, astronomers have pushed their instruments further. They have learned to see in radio waves and microwaves, in infrared and ultraviolet, in X-rays and gamma rays, revealing the birth of stars in the Carina Nebula and the eruption of geysers on Saturn’s eighth moon, pinpointing the center of the Milky Way and the locations of Earth-like planets around us. But more than ninety-five per cent of the universe remains imperceptible to traditional astronomy… “This is a completely new kind of telescope,” [David] Reitze said. “And that means we have an entirely new kind of astronomy to explore.”

Interestingly, in fact, my “seeing” metaphor, above, is misguided. As it happens, the gravitational waves studied by LIGO in its current state—ever-larger and more powerful new versions of the instrument are already being planned—“fall within the range of human hearing.”

If you want to hear spacetime, there is an embedded media player over at The New Yorker with a processed snippet of the “chirp” made by the incoming gravitational wave.

In any case, I’ve already gone on at great length, but the article ends with a truly fantastic quote from Kip Thorne. Thorne, of course, achieved minor celebrity last year when he consulted on the physics for Christopher Nolan’s relativistic time-travel film Interstellar, and he is not lacking for imagination.

Thorne compares LIGO to a window (and my inner H.P. Lovecraft reader shuddered at the ensuing metaphor):

“We are opening up a window on the universe so radically different from all previous windows that we are pretty ignorant about what’s going to come through,” Thorne said. “There are just bound to be big surprises.”

Go read the article in full!

Landscapes of Data Infection

seeds[Image: An otherwise unrelated seed x-ray from the Bulkley Valley Research Centre].

There’s a fascinating Q&A in a recent issue of New Scientist with doctor and genetic researcher Karin Ljubic Fister.

Fister studies “plant-based data storage,” which relies on a combination of artificially modified genes, bacteria, and “infected” tobacco plants.

Comparing genetic programming with binary code, Fister explains that, “First you need a coding system. A computer program is basically a sequence of 0s and 1s, so we transformed this into the four DNA ‘letters’—A, G, C and T—by turning 00 into A, 10 into C, 01 into G and 11 into T. Then we synthesised the resulting DNA sequence. We transferred this artificial DNA into a bacterium and infected the leaf of a tobacco plant with it. The bacterium transfers this artificial DNA into the plant.”

Even better, the resulting “infection” is heritable: “We took a cutting of the infected leaf, planted it, and grew a full tobacco plant from it. This is essentially cloning, so all the leaves of this new plant, and its seeds, contained the ‘Hello World’ program encoded in their DNA.” The plants thus constitute an archive of data.

In fact, Fister points out that “all of the archives in the world could be stored in one box of seeds.” Now put that box of seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, she suggests, and you could store all the world’s information for thousands of years. Seed drives, not hard drives.

It’s worth reading the Q&A in full, but she really goes for it at the end, pointing out at least two things worth highlighting here.

saguaros[Image: “Higashiyama III” (1989) by Kozo Miyoshi, courtesy University of Arizona Center for Creative Photography; via but does it float].

One is that specialized botanical equipment could be used as a technical interface to “read” the data stored in plants. The design possibilities here are mind-boggling—and, in fact, are reminiscent of the Landscape Futures exhibition—and they lead directly to Fister’s final, amazing point, which is that this would, of course, have landscape-scale implications.

After all, you could still actually sow these seeds, populating an entire ecosystem with data plants: archives in the form of forests.

“Imagine walking through a park that is actually a library,” she says, “every plant, flower and shrub full of archived information. You sit down on a bench, touch your handheld DNA reader to a leaf and listen to the Rolling Stones directly from it, or choose a novel or watch a documentary amid the greenery.” Information ecosystems, hiding in plain sight.

The Infrastructural Fever Dream

Streetcar[Image: Rendering by Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, via The New York Times].

Brooklyn might be getting a waterfront streetcar system. It would connect Sunset Park all the way to Astoria, Queens, offering “a 16-mile scenic ride” and becoming the de Blasio administration’s “most ambitious urban engineering project to date,” the New York Times reports.

The plan, to be unveiled on Thursday in the mayor’s State of the City speech, calls for a line that runs aboveground on rails embedded in public roadways and flows alongside automobile traffic—a sleeker and nimbler version of San Francisco’s trolleys.
By winding along the East River, the streetcars would vastly expand transportation access to a bustling stretch of the city that has undergone rapid development—from the industrial centers of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to the upper reaches of Astoria, Queens—but remains relatively isolated from the subway.

Not only is this a great idea—as it also would help to link the otherwise surprisingly insular neighborhood of Red Hook to the rest of the city through public transport—but also, entirely selfishly, because the proposed Hamilton Avenue stop would be about two blocks from my apartment.

BrooklynStreetcar[Image: Rendering by Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, via The New York Times].

It’s interesting to consider this plan in light of another public transportation tidbit that has been making the rounds in social media the past few days. That’s the 2009 map featuring “all of LA Metro’s currently unfunded projects.”

There are “Green Line extensions to Norwalk and San Pedro; Wilshire, Santa Monica and Sepulveda Pass subway lines; lots of rapid buses in the San Fernando Valley; high-speed elevated line to Santa Ana. Light rail tracks on Exposition, Crenshaw, Slauson, Sunset and Westwood.”

LAMap[Image: Map by Studio Complutense, via L.A. Metro Research Library and Archive].

At first glance, at least for this once and future Angeleno, that map is like some weird fever dream of possibility and connection, as incredible as any science fiction film. In fact, I still remember how many people in the Los Angeles cinema where I saw Spike Jonze’s film Her started laughing when Joaquin Phoenix rides the long-promised “subway to the sea.” Their laughter didn’t come only at the seeming absurdity of such a project ever being fully funded and built; it also came with a quiet air of astonishment and delight: imagine if such a thing were possible.

But it’s just infrastructure—and we can fund it—this sprawling mechanical fantasy through which we’ll get from A to B.

The Criminal Reawakening of Dormant Architectural Interiors

[Image: The monastery of Mont-Sainte-Odile; photo via Wikipedia].

I’ve got an article in the (apparently very delayed) “Summer 2015” issue of Cabinet Magazine, that only came out earlier this week, looking at rare-book theft and the architecture of burglary. The article is also a nice introduction to many of the themes in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, due out in April.

Called “Inside Jobs,” the essay looks at two rare-book thieves. One was an almost Jules Verne-like guy who broke into the monastery of Mont-Sainte-Odile in the mountains of eastern France after discovering an old floor plan of the place in an archive.

That document—and this sounds like something straight out of an Umberto Eco novel—revealed a secret passageway that twisted down from an attic to the monks’ library through the back of a cabinet, which, of course, became his preferred method of entry.

The other guy was one of the most prolific book thieves in U.S. history, whose escapades in the rare book collection of the University of Southern California occurred by means of the library’s old dumbwaiter system. Although the dumbwaiter itself was no longer in use, the shafts were still there, hidden inside the wall, connecting floor to floor. By crawling through the dumbwaiter, he basically brought those dead spaces back into use.

In both cases, I suggest, these men’s respective crimes were “made possible by the reawakening of a dormant interior, one disguised by and simultaneous with the buildings’ visible rooms. There was another building inside each building, we might say, a deeper interior within the interior. Their burglaries thus both depended on and operated through an act of spatial revelation: bringing to light illicit connections between two internal points previously seen as separate.”

Indeed, in both cases the actual theft of books seems strangely anti-climactic, even boring, merely a graduated form of shoplifting. Rather, it is the way these crimes were committed that bears such sustained consideration. The burglars’ rehabilitation of a quiescent architectural space brings with it a much broader and more troubling implication that we ourselves do not fully understand the extent of the rooms and corridors around us, that the walls we rely on for solidity might in fact be hollow, and that there are ways of moving through any building, passing from one floor to another, that are so architecturally unexpected as to bear comparison to animal life or even the supernatural. In the end, burglars—dark figures burrowing along the periphery of the world—need not steal a thing to accomplish their most unsettling revelation.

Check it out, if you get the chance, and consider pre-ordering a copy of A Burglar’s Guide to the City, if these sorts of things are of interest.

Christmas Tree Beach

fionacroall1[Image: “Discarded Christmas trees were used to help rebuild the sand dunes around three years ago,” writes photographer Fiona Croall on her Instagram feed. “Now you can hardly see them!”].

While discarded Christmas trees here in New York City simply piled up on the sidewalks for more than two weeks after the holidays, forming strange—if still somewhat sadly picturesque—felled forests on the margins of the city, it turns out there’s an altogether more useful fate for those trees over in England.

There, the eroding beaches at Formby, just north of Liverpool, have been partially stabilized through Christmas tree donations.

formby[Image: The Christmas trees at Formby; photo courtesy National Trust/Robert Matthews].

“Our Rangers are asking people to bring their used real Christmas trees down to Formby so they can be used to help protect our internationally important sand dunes,” the National Trust explains.

The trees “help to mitigate [wind and erosion] by mimicking the action of the Marram grass, catching the sand blown on to the dunes from the beach and also dissipating the power of the wind as it blows across the surface of the dunes. Over time the trees become buried which helps to build up the dunes and they also help to partly stabilise the surface of the dunes which often allows the Marram grass to take hold again naturally.”

Below the beach, trees.

FionaCroall2[Image: The artificially stabilized beaches at Formby, with no sign of the displaced forest lurking below; photo by Fiona Croall].

Compare this approach, for example, to the widespread use of massive, industrially produced tetrapods for coastal erosion management—or even to the endless expense of so-called “beach nourishment”—and the idea of rebuilding the landscape using nothing more than linked chains of dead Christmas trees seems both tactically brilliant and cost-effective.

Not to mention archaeologically intriguing: it doesn’t take much to wonder how geotechnical assemblages such as these—huge arboreal lumps without a nearby forest to explain them—might appear to some distant researcher hoping to make sense of the stratigraphic record.

Like evidence of an ancient tsunami, the buried woods of Formby could surely sustain many a strange landscape theory to come.

(Huge thanks to photographer Fiona Croall who tweeted about the Christmas trees late last month).

The Labyrinth of Night, The Polar Gothic, and a Golden Age for Landscape Studies

It’s hard to resist a place called the Noctis Labyrinthus, or “the Labyrinth of Night,” especially when it’s on Mars.

NoctisLabyrinthus[Image: Courtesy ESA/DLR/FU Berlin].

“This block of martian terrain, etched with an intricate pattern of landslides and wind-blown dunes, is a small segment of a vast labyrinth of valleys, fractures and plateaus,” the European Space Agency reported earlier this week.

“As the crust bulged in the Tharsis province it stretched apart the surrounding terrain, ripping fractures several kilometres deep and leaving blocks—graben—stranded within the resulting trenches,” the ESA adds. “The entire network of graben and fractures spans some 1200 km, about the equivalent length of the river Rhine from the Alps to the North Sea.”

In other words, it’s an absolutely massive expanse of desert canyons and landslides, stretching roughly the distance from Switzerland to Rotterdam—a “700-mile labyrinth of fractures and landslides,” in the words of the reliably interesting Corey Powell on Twitter.

Imagine hiking there.

NoctisLabyrinthusAerial[Image: Courtesy ESA/DLR/FU Berlin].

We are living in something of a golden age for landscape studies. Over a remarkably short span of time, for example, we’ve learned that there are sinkholes on comets—that is, that comets have undergrounds. They have pores, caves, and tunnels, with sinkholes explosively airing this subterranean world into outer space. These “mysterious, steep-sided pits—one up to 600 feet wide and 600 feet deep,” as National Geographic described them, indicate that “there must be gaps inside.” Picture caves and tunnels evaporating in the darkness, before collapsing in on themselves in a crystalline flash.

Meanwhile, I have always loved the fact that there is a mountain range on Mars named after dead American astronauts, as if the Red Planet is somehow haunted in advance of human arrival by the mythological figures of explorers who never made it there. But this is just one small example of how a radically unfamiliar environment can gradually become known through the process of naming.

2016-01-01 22.59.25[Image: From India’s Mars Orbiter, via @coreyspowell].

My wife, Nicola Twilley, was actually at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory for the recent Pluto flyby, covering it for The New Yorker; she wrote a great description of how the former planet became a true landscape:

As the scientists traced tendrils of reddish brown and speculated as to the rate of melt at the edge of a two-toned ice patch near Pluto’s equator, the impossibly distant world came to life. Fed up with referring to features as, for instance, “the black circle at two o’clock” and “the big white patch,” the team had started to give them names—first nicknames, such as “the heart” and “the whale,” and then unofficial but more formal names drawn from the mythology of the underworld. The whale became Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and a nearby dark smudge was christened Balrog, after the demons of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. An alien landscape had started to become a collection of places: knowable, if not yet known.

Interestingly, it seems that names come first, algorithms later.

In any case, while naming, of course, lends an air of familiarity to alien terrains—or knowability, we might say—the utterly bonkers nature of these landscapes remains extraordinary.

Nicky later revisited the subject, for example, writing that “the reddish patches” seen on Pluto might actually be “the organic material nicknamed ‘star tar,’ a precursor to life”—sludge awaiting sentience—and that “cryovolcanoes—volcanoes that spew slushy methane and nitrogen ice rather than molten rock,” might exist at the planet’s south pole.

There, this slow-moving matrix of frozen elements would circulate amongst other “exotic ices” in the distant cold, surely another kind of “labyrinth of night,” if there ever was one.

Think of what writer Victoria Nelson has called the “polar Gothic,” referring to an era of science-fictional representations of the Earth’s own polar regions as places of psychological menace and theological mystery; now picture weird slurries of nitrogen and star-tar sinkholes in a region named after Cthulhu, and it seems that perhaps the great age of landscape exploration has only now truly begun.

Consider, for example, this tweet by Rob Minchin, referring to the latest geological revelations coming from Pluto, a world of nitrogen glaciers and ice tectonics. “Water ice floats on nitrogen or CO ice,” he explains. This means, unbelievably, that “numerous mountains on Pluto appear to be floating.”

pluto[Image: Pluto, via @CoreySPowell].

Even within our own solar system, it seems, if you have an idea for a landscape so unreal it borders on pure fantasy, there is a planet, comet, or asteroid already exceeding it.

(In addition to @CoreySPowell, another good Twitter account for offworld landscape studies is @LoriKFenton, as the images seen at the link make clear).

The Mirror War and the Light Brigade

MirrorFire-sm[Image: A cosmetically touched-up view of villages being set alight by mirrors; view slightly larger. From Deliciae physico (1636) by Daniel Schwenter].

Perhaps you remember the Austrian village of Rattenberg, so thoroughly hidden in the mountain shadows every winter that it installed a huge system of mirrors to bring the sun back in. The town of Rjukan, Norway, recently experimented with the same thing.

“High on the mountain opposite,” the Guardian reported back in 2013, “450 metres above the town, three large, solar-powered, computer-controlled mirrors steadily track the movement of the sun across the sky, reflecting its rays down on to the square and bathing it in bright sunlight.”

A far more sinister version of this exact sort of system was illustrated in a German book called Deliciae physico, published back in 1636, by Daniel Schwenter.

There, a woodcut shows a kind of reflective super-weapon mounted atop pillars, made of concave mirrors and magnifying lenses, setting fire to two distant buildings simultaneously the way a bumbling child might torture ants.

MirrorFire-big[Image: The full original page; view larger. From Deliciae physico (1636) by Daniel Schwenter].

Interestingly, this Apollonian death ray—a frighteningly literal light brigade—is presented in the book’s much larger context of telescopes, astronomy, and other optical devices, including distorting mirrors and cameras obscura.

Check out all 650 pages of the book here, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress, including some very cool images.

(Originally spotted via the excellent Twitter feed, @HistAstro).

Wearable Furniture, Portable Rooms

archelis[Image: Archelis via the Tech Times].

“Japanese researchers have developed a wearable chair called Archelis that can help surgeons when they are performing long surgeries,” the Tech Times explains.

At first glance Archelis does not look like a chair at all. The wearable chair looks more like a leg brace. The wearer of Archelis will not get full comfort of sitting on a chair but the gadget actually wraps around the wearer’s buttocks and legs, providing support that effectively allows them to sit down wherever and whenever needed.
The developers of Archelis suggest that even though the chair is targeted for surgeons performing long surgeries, it can be used by anyone in fields that require a lot of standing. Moreover, the chair may also assist people who have to sit briefly after walking for a while.

Your leg braces, in other words, convert into furniture, as seen in the video below.

While this is already interesting, of course, the artistic and even architectural implications are pretty fascinating, with clear applications outside the realm of surgery. Crowds as coordinated super-furniture. A choreography of linked braces forming structural chains and portable rooms.

Give it a few years—and then why design and build certain types of furniture at all, when people can simply wear them? What would this do to how architects frame space?

Until that day, read more at the Tech Times.

(Spotted via @curiousoctopus).

Hot Rock, Lost Rock, Router

21012003800_7a51bd2882_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

This past summer, Aram Bartholl installed a project called Keepalive in the woods of Neuenkirchen, Germany. Keepalive was a hollow boulder that contained “a thermoelectric generator which converts heat directly into electricity.”

Visitors are invited to make a fire next to the boulder to power up the wifi router in the stone which then reveals a large collection of PDF survival guides. The piratebox.cc-inspired router which is NOT connected to the Internet offers the users [an opportunity] to download the guides and upload any content they like to the stone database. As long as the fire produces enough heat the router will stay switched on.

First, a chamber was cut into a large rock; the router was then installed inside it.

21189727272_1053f18340_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

Next, the chamber was sealed with a piece of metal, and the rock itself was strapped to a delivery truck, to be dropped off in its new home in a wooded meadow.

21173830066_8ef1158b1a_z21012179148_aa5be0090e_z[Images: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

Finally, a small campfire was started—and, lo and behold, the secret documents made their electromagnetic way to a nearby iPhone, as if conjured into digital existence through the most primitive means of a campfire.

It’s a kind of library in waiting.

21208073201_85db419959_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

While the actual, technical realization of the piece leaves something to be desired—by which I simply mean that there is just a large metal plate hiding the cavity inside of which the router is stored, which is visually disappointing—I love the idea that a better-hidden version of this might actually serve a real survivalist purpose someday.

Out on the remote periphery of the city, where you and your family agree to meet should there ever be an earthquake, a hurricane, or an act of terrorism or war, a cached collection of digital files waits utterly hidden from view, sealed inside a boulder with no visible exterior signs. When the Big One hits, out to your hot rock you go.

Of course, in real life, you’d doubtless lose track of the thing and spend two agonizing weeks lighting fire after fire after fire under every boulder in the region, desperately checking your dying phones to see if the digital documents appear… and they never do…

Think, for example, of the genuinely weird—and seemingly half-fictional—story of “Rocky II,” artist Ed Ruscha’s lost geological sculpture in the California desert.

As the Guardian explains, “Rocky II” is a “little-known and unexhibited work by the American artist Ed Ruscha: an artificial rock made out of resin and named ‘Rocky II’ after the Sylvester Stallone movie. A BBC crew filmed Ruscha during its creation for a 1980 documentary, which also captured him depositing the work somewhere in the Mojave desert, where it has apparently remained ever since, indistinguishable from all the other rocks around it.”

Ruscha’s rock is apparently more than just forgotten, it is seemingly nonexistent: “‘Rocky II’ is so mysterious it neither appears on the call for information about missing artworks listed on the artist’s website, nor in the catalogue listing all his known works—almost as if its existence has been intentionally obscured.”

21189756822_ca095d0c0d_z[Image: Keepalive by Aram Bartholl, from the artist’s Flickr page].

In any case, surely Bartholl’s Keepalive could also be used as an interesting geological tool for espionage, merely a different kind of spy rock, tucked away at a campsite somewhere, waiting for a foreign agent to come along and light a fire.

A few minutes later—invisibly, unexpectedly to anyone but the agent—a tiny router inside the rock whirs to life in the heat and an electromagnetic cache of classified files begins streaming.

(Originally spotted via @curiousoctopus).

Nocturnes

merrell4[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Filmmaker Alec Earnest—who we last saw here for his short film about the death of a mysterious map collector in Los Angeles—is back with a mini-documentary about landscape painter Eric Merrell.

Merrell, we read, “might be best known for his rigorous approach to landscape painting. For several years Merrell has been working on Nocturnes, a series of abstract desert works that he has painted all over Southern California, each solely by the light of the moon.”

merrell6[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Earnest’s film follows Merrell into Joshua Tree National Park, “where night falls and the desert takes on a surreal and mysterious beauty, where edges blur and shapes transform, and solitude takes on a whole new meaning.”

The small crew used a new Sony A7S camera “that basically allowed us to shoot completely in the dark,” Earnest explained to me over email.

The film is embedded, below:

Of course, as the video makes clear, this is a slight—but only slight—exaggeration, in that Merrell uses a headlamp and small clip lights on his painting box to help illuminate the scene.

merrell11merrell2[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

When those lights are switched off, however, the landscape takes on a silvered, almost semi-metallic lunar glow, as if bathed in ambient light.

merrell8merrell7[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Standing there in the darkness, Merrell comments on how working at night also comes with a peculiar kind of audio enhancement, with distant sounds riding the breeze with a peculiar clarity; and at one point a fortuitous lightning storm rolls by in the distance, as if to prove Merrell’s point with the atmospheric sonar of a thunder crash echoing over the otherworldly rocks of the National Park.

merrell12merrell13[Images: Paintings by Eric Merrell; screen grabs from Nocturnes].

Read a bit more at the L.A. Review of Books, and don’t miss Earnest’s earlier film here on BLDGBLOG.

(Related: In Search of Darkness: An Interview with Paul Bogard).