In the midst of a long New York Times article about the serial theft of offensive cyberweapons from the National Security Agency, there’s a brief but interesting image. “Much of [a core N.S.A. group’s] work is labeled E.C.I., for ‘exceptionally controlled information,’ material so sensitive it was initially stored only in safes,” the article explains. “When the cumulative weight of the safes threatened the integrity of N.S.A.’s engineering building a few years ago, one agency veteran said, the rules were changed to allow locked file cabinets.”
It’s like some undiscovered Italo Calvino short story: an agency physically deformed by the gravitational implications of its secrets, its buildings now bulbous and misshapen as the literal weight of its mission continues to grow.
As part of a package of shorter articles in the New York Times Magazine exploring the future implications of self-driving vehicles—how they will affect urban design, popular culture, and even illegal drug activity—writer Malia Wollan focuses on “the end of roadkill.”
Her premise is fascinating. Wollan suggests that the precision driving enabled by self-driving vehicle technology could put an end to vehicular wildlife fatalities. Bears, deer, raccoons, panthers, squirrels—even stray pets—might all remain safe from our weapons-on-wheels. In the process, self-driving cars would become an unexpected ally for wildlife preservation efforts, with animal life potentially experiencing dramatic rebounds along rural and suburban roads. This will be both good and bad. One possible outcome sounds like a tragicomic Coen Brothers film about apocalyptic animal warfare in the American suburbs:
Every year in the United States, there are an estimated 1.5 million deer-vehicle crashes. If self-driving cars manage to give deer safe passage, the fast-reproducing species would quickly grow beyond the ability of the vegetation to sustain them. “You’d get a lot of starvation and mass die-offs,” says Daniel J. Smith, a conservation biologist at the University of Central Florida who has been studying road ecology for nearly three decades… “There will be deer in people’s yards, and there will be snipers in towns killing them,” [wildlife researcher Patricia Cramer] says.
While these are already interesting points, Wollan explains that, for this to come to pass, we will need to do something very strange. We will need to teach self-driving cars how to recognize nature.
“Just how deferential [autonomous vehicles] are toward wildlife will depend on human choices and ingenuity. For now,” she adds, “the heterogeneity and unpredictability of nature tends to confound the algorithms. In Australia, hopping kangaroos jumbled a self-driving Volvo’s ability to measure distance. In Boston, autonomous-vehicle sensors identified a flock of sea gulls as a single form rather than a collection of individual birds. Still, even the tiniest creatures could benefit. ‘The car could know: “O.K., this is a hot spot for frogs. It’s spring. It’s been raining. All the frogs will be moving across the road to find a mate,”’ Smith says. The vehicles could reroute to avoid flattening amphibians on that critical day.”
One might imagine that, seen through the metaphoric eyes of a car’s LiDAR array, all those hopping kangaroos appeared to be a single super-body, a unified, moving wave of flesh that would have appeared monstrous, lumpy, even grotesque. Machine horror.
What interests me here is that, in Wollan’s formulation, “nature” is that which remains heterogeneous and unpredictable—that which remains resistant to traditional representation and modeling—yet this is exactly what self-driving car algorithms will have to contend with, and what they will need to recognize and correct for, if we want them to avoid colliding with a nonhuman species.
In particular, I love Wollan’s use of the word “deferential.” The idea of cars acting with deference to the natural world, or to nonhuman species in general, opens up a whole other philosophical conversation. For example, what is the difference between deference and reverence, and how we might teach our fellow human beings, let alone our machines, to defer to, even to revere, the natural world? Put another way, what does it mean for a machine to “encounter” the wild?
Briefly, Wollan’s piece reminded me of Robert MacFarlane’s excellent book The Wild Places for a number of reasons. Recall that book’s central premise: the idea that wilderness is always closer than it appears. Roadside weeds, overgrown lots, urban hikes, peripheral species, the ground beneath your feet, even the walls of the house around you: these all constitute “wilderness” at a variety of scales, if only we could learn to recognize them as such. Will self-driving cars spot “nature” or “wilderness” in sites where humans aren’t conceptually prepared to see it?
The challenge of teaching a car how to recognize nature thus takes on massive and thrilling complexity here, all wrapped up in the apparently simple goal of ending roadkill. It’s about where machines end and animals begin—or perhaps how technology might begin before the end of wilderness.
[Image: Wiring the ENIAC; via Wired]
One of many things I love about writing—that is, engaging in writing as an activity—is how it facilitates a discovery of connections between otherwise unrelated things. Writing reveals and even relies upon analogies, metaphors, and unexpected similarities: there is resonance between a story in the news and a medieval European folktale, say, or between a photo taken in a war-wrecked city and an 18th-century landscape painting. These sorts of relations might remain dormant or unnoticed until writing brings them to the foreground: previously unconnected topics and themes begin to interact, developing meanings not present in those original subjects on their own.
Wildfires burning in the Arctic might bring to mind infernal images from Paradise Lost or even intimations of an unwritten J.G. Ballard novel, pushing a simple tale of natural disaster to new symbolic heights, something mythic and larger than the story at hand. Learning that U.S. Naval researchers on the Gulf Coast have used the marine slime of a “300-million-year old creature” to develop 21st-century body armor might conjure images from classical mythology or even from H.P. Lovecraft: Neptunian biotech wed with Cthulhoid military terror.
In other words, writing means that one thing can be crosswired or brought into contrast with another for the specific purpose of fueling further imaginative connections, new themes to be pulled apart and lengthened, teased out to form plots, characters, and scenes.
In addition, a writer of fiction might stage an otherwise straightforward storyline in an unexpected setting, in order to reveal something new about both. It’s a hard-boiled detective thriller—set on an international space station. It’s a heist film—set at the bottom of the sea. It’s a procedural missing-person mystery—set on a remote military base in Afghanistan.
Thinking like a writer would mean asking why things have happened in this way and not another—in this place and not another—and to see what happens when you begin to switch things around. It’s about strategic recombination.
I mention all this after reading a new essay by artist and critic James Bridle about algorithmic content generation as seen in children’s videos on YouTube. The piece is worth reading for yourself, but I wanted to highlight a few things here.
[Image: Wiring the ENIAC; via Wired]
In brief, the essay suggests that an increasingly odd, even nonsensical subcategory of children’s video is emerging on YouTube. The content of these videos, Bridle writes, comes from what he calls “keyword/hashtag association.” That is, popular keyword searches have become a stimulus for producing new videos whose content is reverse-engineered from those searches.
To use an entirely fictional example of what this means, let’s imagine that, following a popular Saturday Night Live sketch, millions of people begin Googling “Pokémon Go Ewan McGregor.” In the emerging YouTube media ecology that Bridle documents, someone with an entrepreneurial spirit would immediately make a Pokémon Go video featuring Ewan McGregor both to satisfy this peculiar cultural urge and to profit from the anticipated traffic.
Content-generation through keyword mixing is “a whole dark art unto itself,” Bridle suggests. As a particular keyword or hashtag begins to trend, “content producers pile onto it, creating thousands and thousands more of these videos in every possible iteration.” Imagine Ewan McGregor playing Pokémon Go, forever.
What’s unusual here, however, and what Bridle specifically highlights in his essay, is that this creative process is becoming automated: machine-learning algorithms are taking note of trending keyword searches or popular hashtag combinations, then recommending the production of content to match those otherwise arbitrary sets. For Bridle, the results verge on the incomprehensible—less Big Data, say, than Big Dada.
This is by no means new. Recall the origin of House of Cards on Netflix. Netflix learned from its massive trove of consumer data that its customers liked, among other things, David Fincher films, political thrillers, and the actor Kevin Spacey. As David Carr explained for the New York Times back in 2013, this suggested the outline of a possible series: “With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.”
In other words, House of Cards was produced because it matched a data set, an example of “keyword/hashtag association” becoming video.
The question here would be: what if, instead of a human producer, a machine-learning algorithm had been tasked with analyzing Netflix consumer data and generating an idea for a new TV show? What if that recommendation algorithm didn’t quite understand which combinations would be good or worth watching? It’s not hard to imagine an unwatchably surreal, even uncanny television show resulting from this, something that seems to make more sense as a data-collection exercise than as a coherent plot—yet Bridle suggests that this is exactly what’s happening in the world of children’s videos online.
[Image: From Metropolis].
In some of these videos, Bridle explains, keyword-based programming might mean something as basic as altering a few words in a script, then having actors playfully act out those new scenarios. Actors might incorporate new toys, new types of candy, or even a particular child’s name: “Matt” on a “donkey” at “the zoo” becomes “Matt” on a “horse” at “the zoo” becomes “Carla” on a “horse” at “home.” Each variant keyword combination then results in its own short video, and each of these videos can be monetized. Future such recombinations are infinite.
In an age of easily produced digital animations, Bridle adds, these sorts of keyword micro-variants can be produced both extremely quickly and very nearly automatically. Some YouTube producers have even eliminated “human actors” altogether, he writes, “to create infinite reconfigurable versions of the same videos over and over again. What is occurring here is clearly automated. Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos.”
Bridle notes with worry that it is nearly impossible here “to parse out the gap between human and machine.”
Going further, he suggests that the automated production of new videos based on popular search terms has resulted in scenes so troubling that children should not be exposed to them—but, interestingly, Bridle’s reaction here seems to be based on those videos’ content. That is, the videos feature animated characters appearing without heads, or kids being buried alive in sandboxes, or even the painful sounds of babies crying.
What I think is unsettling here is slightly different, on the other hand. The content, in my opinion, is simply strange: a kind of low-rent surrealism for kids, David Lynch-lite for toddlers. For thousands of years, western folktales have featured cannibals, incest, haunted houses, even John Carpenter-like biological transformations, from woman to tree, or from man to pig and back again. Children burn to death on chariots in the sky or sons fall from atmospheric heights into the sea. These myths seem more nightmarish—on the level of content—than some of Bridle’s chosen YouTube videos.
Instead, I would argue, what’s disturbing here is what the content suggests about how things should be connected. The real risk would seem to be that children exposed to recommendation algorithms at an early age might begin to emulate them cognitively, learning how to think, reason, and associate based on inhuman leaps of machine logic.
Bridle’s inability “to parse out the gap between human and machine” might soon apply not just to these sorts of YouTube videos but to the children who grew up watching them.
[Image: Replicants in Blade Runner].
One of my favorite scenes in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is when a character named Jacopo Belbo describes different types of people. Everyone in the world, Belbo suggests, is one of only four types: there are “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.”
In the context of the present discussion, it is interesting to note that these categories are defined by modes of reasoning. For example, “Fools don’t claim that cats bark,” Belbo explains, “but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs.” They get their references wrong.
It is Eco’s “lunatic,” however, who offers a particularly interesting character type for us to consider: the lunatic, we read, is “a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his [own] thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration…”
It might soon be time to suggest a fifth category, something beyond the lunatic, where thinking like an algorithm becomes its own strange form of reasoning, an alien logic gradually accepted as human over two or three generations to come.
Assuming I have read Bridle’s essay correctly—and it is entirely possible I have not—he seems disturbed by the content of these videos. I think the more troubling aspect, however, is in how they suggest kids should think. They replace narrative reason with algorithmic recommendation, connecting events and objects in weird, illogical bursts lacking any semblance of internal coherence, where the sudden appearance of something completely irrelevant can nonetheless be explained because of its keyword-search frequency. Having a conversation with someone who thinks like this—who “thinks” like this—would be utterly alien, if not logically impossible.
So, to return to this post’s beginning, one of the thrills of thinking like a writer, so to speak, is precisely in how it encourages one to bring together things that might not otherwise belong on the same page, and to work toward understanding why these apparently unrelated subjects might secretly be connected.
But what is thinking like an algorithm?
It will be interesting to see if algorithmically assembled material can still offer the sort of interpretive challenge posed by narrative writing, or if the only appropriate response to the kinds of content Bridle describes will be passive resignation, indifference, knowing that a data set somewhere produced a series of keywords and that the story before you goes no deeper than that. So you simply watch the next video. And the next. And the next.
I’ve been remiss in posting about a graduate course I’ll be co-teaching with the brilliant Nicholas de Monchaux up at UC Berkeley for the 2018-2019 academic year. The application period is currently open through December 2017.
Called “Drawing Science/Drawing Fiction: The Future of Californian Ecology,” the year-long Master’s course will be a combination of architectural design, experimental drawing methods, and narrative speculation, exploring what de Monchaux calls a “new relationship between architecture, media, ecology, and craft.”
The idea is to look ahead, not just at the future of California, but at the future of what California represents: cutting-edge industrial design, the global cinematic imagination, unparalleled demographic integration, agricultural innovation, adaptive infrastructure, and, of course, the risks of climate change.
With the entire state of California at their disposal, students will be able to focus on everything from the U.S./Mexico border to the San Andreas Fault, from Silicon Valley and space tourism to the sci-fi productions of Hollywood. Agriculture, Artificial Intelligence, electric cars; species loss, wildfire, drought; policing, governance, human labor.
There are architectural scenarios to design and explore for all of these.
In an interview with Boom California published in 2014, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson—who was also interviewed here on BLDGBLOG way back in 2007—commented on the science-fictional appeal of California. By the time he went to college, he remarked, the landscape of the state had fundamentally changed; it was being terraformed for human habitation by the forces of industry and suburban development.
California, he realized, was itself a design project.
Robinson explained to Boom that, in the blink of an eye, California became a “completely different landscape. At that same time I started reading science fiction (…) and it struck me that it was an accurate literature, that it was what my life felt like; so I thought science fiction was the literature of California. I still think California is a science fictional place. The desert has been terraformed. The whole water system is unnatural and artificial. This place shouldn’t look like it looks, so it all comes together for me. I’m a science fiction person, and I’m a Californian.”
Science fiction is the literature of California.
[Image: Early rendering for Michael Maltzan’s Six Street Viaduct in Los Angeles].
Briefly, this theme was developed further by an essay by Michael Ziser published in the same issue of Boom. “Postwar science fiction is to a surprising degree a phenomenon of the western United States,” Ziser wrote. It was also quite specifically Californian.
“As the producers of Golden Age sci-fi were lured to the region by the new economic opportunities available to writers in the pulp, television, and film industries of Southern California,” Ziser continued, “they were also drawn into an imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty as a place sprung de novo from the plans of hydraulic engineers, road builders, and tract housing developers.”
Many of the major themes of science fiction in this period—the experience of living in an arid Martian colony, the palpable sense of depending in a very direct way on large technological systems, unease with the scope and direction of the military and aeronautics industries, the navigation of new social rules around gender and race—can be read as barely veiled references to everyday life in California. For sci-fi writers, teasing out the implications of an era in which entire new civilizations could be conjured almost from nothing through astonishing feats of engineering and capital was a form of realism. They were writing an eyewitness account of what was the most radical landscape-scale engineering project in the history of the world.
This idea of an “imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty” is something we will be exploring in architectural form throughout the Studio One experience. In the process, we will approach California itself as a subject of design and compare the state to other regions currently experiencing their own de novo re-inventions, whether it’s a thawing Arctic or China’s ongoing building boom.
[Image: Floating caisson during the construction of the original Bay Bridge; photo by Clyde Sunderland, courtesy Library of Congress].
To develop and articulate their visions, students will be pushed to experiment with new forms of architectural representation, modeling, and drawing—or, as de Monchaux writes, “Our chief medium will be drawing, but we will engage and embrace a world of devices and tools—from scripting through mapping and virtual reality-that are changing, and expanding, the capacity of architecture to influence the world.”
I will be up in the Bay Area multiple times for this throughout the academic year, although not on a full-time basis; if you’re a fan of de Monchaux’s work, of science fiction, of architecture, of design’s potential for conjuring radical visions of landscape futures, then please consider applying. You have roughly two more months to do so.
[Image: Farming California, via Google Maps].
More information is available over at UC Berkeley.
[Image: San Andreas Fault mechanics in Parkfield, California, visualized by Ricky Vega].
The course was organized around a few basic questions, such as: what does it mean to preserve a landscape that, by definition, is always changing, even poised on the cusp of severe internal disruption? Are there moral, even philosophical, issues involved in welcoming a site of natural violence and potential catastrophe into our nation’s historical narrative? Further, what kind of architecture is most appropriate for a Park founded to highlight seismic displacement?
One of the most interesting things to come out of the course was a set of digital models produced by a student named Ricky Vega (with assistance from other students in gathering the necessary data).
Vega’s images showed the San Andreas Fault not as a line across the landscape, but as a three-dimensional, volumetric form within the Earth. A spatial environment reminiscent of a sinuous building. A serpentine pavilion, to use a bad pun.
[Image: San Andreas Fault mechanics in San Bernardino, California, visualized by Ricky Vega].
The point I was hoping to make by assigning this to my students was that spatial scenarios found far outside of what is normally considered “architecture” can nonetheless pose an interesting challenge for architectural thinking and representation.
In other words, if you, as an architect, are adept at visually depicting complex spaces—through various output such as sections and axonometric diagrams—then what would happen if you were to apply those skills to geology or plate tectonics? The layered relationship of one part of the Earth to another is intensely spatial—it is an explicitly, if metaphorically, architectural one.
Indeed, images such as the one seen immediately below, taken from the California Division of Mines and Geology, would not be out of place in an architectural studio.
[Image: An otherwise unrelated diagram taken from the California Division of Mines and Geology].
So the question was: by using architectural techniques to explore complicated geological scenarios such as the San Andreas Fault, what can architects learn about the possibilities—or, for that matter, limitations—of their most basic representational techniques?
Further, what might the resulting images be able to teach geologists—if anything—about how they can better represent and depict their own objects of study? Perhaps architects and geologists should collaborate more often.
[Image: San Andreas Fault mechanics in Watsonville, California, visualized by Ricky Vega].
Each of Vega’s original models is huge and cuts a mesmerizing, even aquatic profile, with equal shades of Zaha Hadid and Peter Eisenman. If you could reach into the planet and extract an entire fault line, what would it look like? A spine or a wave? A fallen branch or a river? These images are at least one interesting attempt at an answer.
(If you want to read more about the course—a class I would absolutely love to teach again, especially now that I am living within easy driving distance of the San Andreas Fault—check out the original write-up.)
[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].
I got to hike with my friend Wayne last week through a place called the Devil’s Punchbowl, initially by way of a trail out and back from a very Caspar David Friedrich-ian overlook called the Devil’s Chair.
The Punchbowl more or less lies astride the San Andreas Fault, and the Devil’s Chair, in particular, surveils this violently serrated landscape, like gazing out across exposed rows of jagged teeth—terra dentata—or perhaps the angled waves of a frozen Hokusai painting. The entire place seems charged with the seismic potential energy of an impending earthquake.
[Image: It is difficult to get a sense of scale from this image, but this geological feature alone is at least 100 feet in height, and it is only one of hundreds; photo by BLDGBLOG].
The rocks themselves are enormous, splintered and looming sometimes hundreds of feet over your head, and in the heat-haze they almost seem buoyant, subtly bobbing up and down with your footsteps like the tips of drifting icebergs.
[Image: Looking out at the Devil’s Chair; photo by BLDGBLOG].
In fact, we spent the better part of an hour wondering aloud how geologists could someday cause massive underground rock formations such as these to rise to the surface of the Earth, like shipwrecks pulled from the bottom of the sea. Rather than go to the minerals, in other words, geologists could simply bring the minerals to them.
[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].
Because of the angles of the rocks, however, it’s remarkably easy to hike out amidst them, into open, valley-like groins that have been produced by tens of thousands of years’ worth of rainfall and erosion; once there, you can just scramble up the sides, skirting past serpentine pores and small caves that seem like perfect resting spaces for snakes, till you reach sheer drop-offs at the top.
There, views open up of more and more—and more—of these same tilted rocks, leading on along the fault, marking the dividing line between continental plates and tempting even the most exhausted hiker further into the landscape. The problem with these sorts of cresting views is that they become addictive.
[Image: Wayne, panoramically doubled; photo by BLDGBLOG].
At the end of the day, we swung by the monastic community at St. Andrew’s Abbey, which is located essentially in the middle of the San Andreas Fault. Those of you who have read David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground will recall the strange relationship Ulin explores connecting superstition, faith, folk science, and popular seismology amongst people living in an earthquake zone.
Even more specifically, you might recall a man Ulin mentions who once claimed that, hidden “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”
This is scientifically cringeworthy, to be sure, but it is nonetheless interesting in revealing how contemporary infrastructure can become wrapped up in emergent mythologies of how the world (supposedly) works.
The idea, then, of a rogue seismic abbey quietly established in a remote mountainous region of California “to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas Fault’”—which, to be clear, is not the professed purpose of St. Andrew’s Abbey—is an idea worth exploring in more detail, in another medium. Imagine monks, praying every night to keep the rocks below them still, titanic geological forces lulled into a state of quiescent slumber.
[Image: Vasquez Rocks at sunset; photo by BLDGBLOG].
In fact, I lied: at the actual end of the day, Wayne and I split up and I drove back to Los Angeles alone by way of a sunset hike at Vasquez Rocks, a place familiar to Star Trek fans, where rock formations nearly identical to—but also less impressive than—the Devil’s Punchbowl breach the surface of the Earth like dorsal fins. The views, as you’d expect, were spectacular.
Both parks—not to mention St. Andrew’s Abbey—are within easy driving distance of Los Angeles, and both are worth a visit.
I had a surprisingly interesting conversation with the guy cutting my hair the other day. It turned out he had studied dance in college, but, roughly fifteen years ago, had been forced to find other work as both age and a nagging injury took their toll.
He mentioned various forms of movement therapy that exist for coping with, and even reversing, these sorts of injuries, which led to a conversation about styles of dance that might have been specifically invented not as art but as medicine, as a means of physical convalescence for aging performers, even choreographic styles devised for performance by injured dancers.
My barber then referred to a particular type of movement—whose name I can’t remember—that was all about using the body’s skeleton, rather than its musculature, for standing up and down, as well as something about spreading energy into the floor, not resisting gravity, etc., but the way he described it reminded me of studies I had read that suggested drunk people are often less injured in car crashes than their sober counterparts because their bodies don’t resist the movement. They are simply flung along with the motion of the vehicle. Sober people should thus learn not to clench up and go rigid if they’re about to be in a car accident; they should instead loosen up and, in effect, go with the flow.
Note, of course, that this is not scientific advice; I was speculating with someone in a barber shop.
Nevertheless, we went on to discuss the fact that car accidents are so common in American culture today that it would not be out of the question to devise some sort of movement-preparation course for kids to study in gym class—like tai chi for car wrecks—to help them safely interact with crashing vehicles. A kind of preparatory crash ballet.
Would this be more interesting or fun than dodgeball, or floor hockey, or whatever else it is that kids do in gym class these days? Teach kids how to be flung through windshields, how to roll out of collapsing houses in an earthquake, how to jump from burning buildings, or other survival techniques for the everyday catastrophes that might exist for all of us, hiding just around the corner.
[Image: “The Sphere” by Oliver Tessman, Mark Fahlbusch, Klaus Bollinger, and Manfred Grohmann].
[Image: Matter Design’s La Voûte de LeFevre, Banvard Gallery (2012)].
More than 700 pages’ worth of technical experiments, speculative construction processes, new industrial tools, and one-off prototypes, the books are a gold mine for research and development.
[Image: Greg Lynn’s “Embryological House,” Venice Biennale (2002)].
3D printers, buoyant robots, multi-axis milling machines, directed insect-secretion, cellular automata, semi-autonomous bricklaying, self-assembling endoskeletons, drone weaving—it’s hard to go wrong with even the most cursory skimming of each volume, and that doesn’t even mention the essays and interviews.
[Image: “Custom forming tool mounted on the six-axis robotic arm,” via Fabricate 2014]
[Image: Empty homes in Picher, Oklahoma; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Picher is something like the Centralia of Oklahoma, where Centralia is the town in Pennsylvania that has been slowly abandoned over a generation due to coal mine fires burning away beneath its streets. In Picher, however, it’s not coal smoke but collapsing lead mines that have led to a forced buy-out and evacuation, a haunting process tragically assisted in 2008 when a massive tornado hit town, ripping apart many of its remaining houses and buildings.
Today, Picher is not entirely empty, but it has become more of a macabre curiosity on the state’s border with Kansas, its quiet streets overgrown and surrounded by looming piles of “chat,” or mine tailings, alpine forms that give the landscape its toxic profile.
[Image: Picher, surrounded by its toxic artificial landforms; via Google Maps].
The Washington Post visited the town back in 2007. “Signs of Picher’s impending death are everywhere,” they wrote at the time. “Many stores along Highway 69, the town’s main street, are empty, their windows coated with a layer of grime, virtually concealing the abandoned merchandise still on display. Trucks traveling along the highway are diverted around Picher for fear that the hollowed-out mines under the town would cause the streets to collapse under the weight of big rigs.” Note that this was written a year before the tornado.
Oklahoma native Allison Meier has written up Todd Stewart’s exhibition, including a longer, horrific backstory to the town, with red rivers of acidic water “belching” up from abandoned mines, kids playing in sandboxes of powdered lead, and horses poisoned by the runoff.
“The poisoning of Picher may seem like a local story,” Meier writes, “and, indeed, remains little known on a national level. Yet the state of Oklahoma continues to practice environmentally hazardous extraction, including fracking for gas. And in the United States, the promotion of toxic industry—even if it results in the destruction of the very place it is supporting—endures.”
[Image: Underground tennis courts in a limestone mine and refrigeration complex in Missouri].
It’s been a long month, but my wife and I have packed up and left New York, endlessly bubble-wrapping things while watching Midnight Run, Collateral, Chinatown, and other L.A.-themed movies on a laptop in an empty room, to head west again to Los Angeles, where we finally arrived today.
We visited the Cahokia Mounds, a heavily eroded indigenous North American city that, at its height, was larger than London, part of a Wisconsin-to-Louisiana band of settlements sculpted from mud and clay. The remains of history are not necessarily built with stone and timber—let alone steel and glass—but might exist in the form of oddly sloped hillsides or gardens long ago left untended.
[Image: Hiking around Cahokia Mounds].
Along the way, we managed to see the total eclipse in Missouri, sitting on a picnic blanket in a park south of St. Louis, people around us crying, yelling “Look at that!,” laughing, cheering like it was a football game, a day before driving further southwest to explore food-refrigeration caverns in active limestone mines for Nicky’s book.
That’s where we stumbled on the tennis courts pictured at the top of this post, at least seventy feet below ground, complete with a wall of framed photos showing previous champions of the underworld leagues, as we drove around for an hour or two through genuinely huge subterranean naves and corridors, with not-yet-renovated sections of the mine—millions of square feet—hidden behind titanic yellow curtains.
[Image: Behind these curtains are millions—of square-feet of void].
We listened to S-Town. We had breakfast in Oklahoma City. We made it to New Mexico to hike up a 10,000-year-old volcano with an ice cave frozen at a permanent 31º in one of its half-collapsed lava tubes where we met another couple who had driven up from Arizona “to get out of the heat.”
[Image: Bandera Volcano, New Mexico].
We then spent three days in Flagstaff to sleep, watch GLOW, and inadvertently off-road on our quest to do some hiking, up fire roads, up canyons behind Sedona, up hills in the rain, looking north toward the cinder cones of dead volcanoes that we visited a few years ago for Venue, where, in the 1960s, NASA recreated the surface of the moon using timed explosions.
[Image: Hiking outside Flagstaff].
In any case, we’re now back in Los Angeles, the greatest city in the United States, the one that most perversely fulfills whatever strange promises this country offers, and we’ll be here for the long haul. In fact, there’s no real reason to post this, other than: why not? But, if you live in L.A., or anywhere in California, perhaps we’ll cross paths soon.