Alien Geology, Dreamed By Machines

[Image: Synthetic volcanoes modeled by Jeff Clune, from “Plug & Play Generative Networks,” via Nature].

Various teams of astronomers have been using “deep-learning neural networks” to generate realistic images of hypothetical stars and galaxies—but their work also implies that these same tools could work to model the surfaces of unknown planets. Alien geology as dreamed by machines.

The Square Kilometer Array in South Africa, for example, “will produce such vast amounts of data that its images will need to be compressed into low-noise but patchy data.” Compressing this data into readable imagery opens space for artificial intelligence to work: “Generative AI models will help to reconstruct and fill in blank parts of those data, producing the images of the sky that astronomers will examine.”

The results are thus not photographs, in other words; they are computer-generated models nonetheless considered scientifically valid for their potential insights into how regions of space are structured.

What interests me about this, though, is the fact that one of the scientists involved, Jeff Clune, uses these same algorithmic processes to generate believable imagery of terrestrial landscape features, such as volcanoes. These could then be used to model the topography of other planets, producing informed visual guesstimates of mountain ranges, ancient ocean basins, vast plains, valleys, even landscape features we might not yet have words to describe.

The notion that we would thus be seeing what AI thinks other worlds should look like—that, to view this in terms of art history, we are looking at the projective landscape paintings of machine intelligence—is a haunting one, as if discovering images of alien worlds in the daydreams of desktop computers.

(Spotted via Sean Lally; vaguely related, “We don’t have an algorithm for this”).

Glitch City

oil[Images: Via Wired UK].

Sites of urban infrastructure and other industrial facilities integral to municipal management, from fire stations to fuel depots, appear to be the target of deliberate erasure in Baidu’s street maps.

As photographer Jonathan Browning—who noticed odd moments of incomplete blurring, cloning, and other visual camouflage a few years ago—explains to Wired, “I don’t know who does it, if it’s an algorithm that gets GPS co-ordinates for each place and then somehow wipes it, or if an actual person goes to each one and cleans it with Photoshop.”

Either way, he adds, “It would be great to meet these people and see what they think about it. If they wanted to do it, why didn’t they do it properly?”

oil[Images: Via Wired UK].

The effects are, in their own way, actually quite interesting, as if some sort of representational glitch has slipped into the world by way of sites of Chinese infrastructure—a scrambling algorithm crawling out of the depths of digital compression to target all these marginal, back-stage spaces that help a 21st-century city operate.

A wildly applied cloning tool in the top set of images for example, actually creates what appear to be reeds, an emergent landscape of the New Aesthetic breaking through the cracks between pixels.

Read more over at Wired UK.

(Spotted via @samanthaculp and @larsonchristina. Vaguely related: The Hit List).

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).

Transecting Amsterdam

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

Here’s an old project by Dutch graphic designer Frank Dresmé. Called Project 360º, it used the idea of the “transect” as a way to map and graphically depict pedestrian movement through urban space.

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

As Dresmé explains, he found existing maps of Amsterdam both navigationally inadequate and conceptually boring, so he sought to find a new way to represent how the city really feels as a sequence of spatial opportunities and physical obstacles.

This meant, among other things, focusing on and highlighting the signs, paths, turns, landmarks, and other bits of the city that stand out to someone intent on moving through it.

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

The results was “four psychogeographical maps,” as he described them, that unpeeled and restitched Amsterdam back together again.

“These maps are the routes between personal destinations in Amsterdam,” he explained. “Every destination in a different wind direction; north /east /south /west back to the north.”

While the final images are perhaps not navigationally useful for other pedestrians, they are certainly visually striking; what is more important, in any case, would not be the use-value you can extract from Dresmé’s project, but the methods and techniques it suggests for breaking down and understanding your own use of the city.

[Image: Exhibiting Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

Given all of the spatial data now available about ourselves, whether we want it to be or not, it seems particularly timely to imagine new ways of engaging with, mapping, and representing that geographic information.

Part trail map, part daily diary, Dresmé’s transect offers as good an option as any. Download a PDF of the project over at his site.

[Note: Brent Milligan of Free Association Design used these and other graphic representations of urban space as a launching point for a long post back in 2009].

Composite Archaeology

[Image: A laser scan of the Pantheon, courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC; view larger!].

ScanLAB Projects, focus of a long article on Wired last month, are back in the news with a BBC documentary exploring the infrastructure of ancient Rome.

The show “explores Roman infrastructure and ingenuity, all below ground level”:

We journeyed via the icy, crystal clear waters of subterranean aqueducts that feed the Trevi fountain and two thousand year old sewers which still function beneath the Roman Forum today, to decadent, labyrinthine catacombs. Our laser scans map these hidden treasures, revealing for the first time the complex network of tunnels, chambers and passageways without which Rome could not have survived as a city of a million people.

The results, as usual, are both breathtaking and bizarre.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

The surface of the city is scraped away, a kind of archaeological dermabrasion, to reveal sprawling networks of knotted masonry and old corridors spliced together in a translucent labyrinth less below than somehow in the city.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

One of the most interesting points made in Mary-Ann Ray’s excellent Pamphlet Architecture installment—1997’s Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets—is when she describes her use of composite photography as a way to experiment with new forms of archaeological documentation.

Indeed, the pamphlet itself is as much architecture as it is archaeology—perhaps even suggesting a new series of historical site documents someone should produce called Pamphlet Archaeology—looking at wells, baths, cisterns, and spherical refrigeration chambers, in various states of ruin.

All of these are representationally difficult spaces, Ray explains, either curving away from the viewer in a manner that is nearly impossible to photograph or presenting constrictions of perspective that make even wide-angle photographs inadequate.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

Ray writes that the spatial complexity of the buildings, quarries, basements, and other excavations that she explores are, in a sense, an entirely different kind of space: knotty, interconnected, unstable. “They were also spaces,” she writes, “which seemed to have the ability to ‘flip-flop’ in and out of multiple spatial or constructional readings.”

What appears to be near is revealed to be far; what seems far away is suddenly adjacent.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC; view larger!].

Ray uses the metaphor of a “hyper-camera” here in order to draw comparisons between her composite photography and what she calls “a kind of cubist multiple view,” one where “the frame might succumb to the taper of perspective into deep space, or it may counter it, or build it into something else altogether.”

“In these composite views,” she adds, “the photograph can record the enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body.”

While Ray’s photographic approach is technologically, materially, and even visually very different from the work of ScanLAB, the two projects share a great deal, conceptually and methodologically. In fact, if many of the above quotations were applied, instead, to the images seen in the present post, they would seem to be the appropriate descriptions.

[Image: In the ruined basements of architectural simultaneity; ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

ScanLAB’s laser work seems to fulfill many of the promises of Ray’s composite photography, offering multiple, overlapping perspectives simultaneously whilst also eliminating the problem of the horizon or ground plane: you can thus look straight-on into the basement of an ancient structure without losing sight of the upper floors or chambers.

The city is split in two, made into an architectural section of itself that is then animated, made volumetric, turned into Ray’s “enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body.”

The show airs tonight on the BBC. Check out ScanLAB’s website for more info, and definitely consider picking up a copy of Mary-Ann Ray’s book; it remains one of my favorites and has actually become more, not less, topical since its original publication.

Urban CAT Scan

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

The London-based ScanLab Projects, featured here many times before, have completed a new commission, this time from the British Postal Museum & Archive, to document the so-called “Mail Rail,” a network of underground tunnels that opened back in 1927.

As Subterranea Britannica explains, the tunnels were initially conceived as a system of pneumatic package-delivery tubes, an “atmospheric railway,” as it was rather fantastically described at the time, “by which a stationary steam engine would drive a large fan which could suck air out of an air tight tube and draw the vehicle towards it or blow air to push them away.”

That “vehicle” would have been a semi-autonomous wheeled cart bearing parcels for residents of Greater London.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Alas, but unsurprisingly, this vision of an air-powered subterranean communication system for a vast metropolis of many millions of residents was replaced by a rail-based one, with narrow, packed-heavy cars running a system of tracks beneath the London streets.

Thus the Mail Rail system was born.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

While the story of the system itself is fascinating, it has also been told elsewhere.

The aforementioned Subterranea Britannica is a perfect place to start, but urban explorers have also gained entrance for narrative purposes of their own, including the long write-up over at Placehacking.

That link includes the incredible detail that, “on Halloween night 2010, ravers took over a massive derelict Post Office building in the city and threw an illegal party of epic proportions. When pictures from the party emerged, we were astonished to find that a few of them looked to be of a tiny rail system somehow accessed from the building.”

Surely, this should be the setting for a new novel: some huge and illegal party in an abandoned building at an otherwise undisclosed location in the city results in people breaking into or discovering an otherwise forgotten, literally underground network, alcohol-blurred photographs of which are later recognized as having unique urban importance.

Something is down there, the hungover viewers of these photographs quickly realize, something vague and hazily glimpsed in the unlit background of some selfies snapped at a rave.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

This would all be part of the general mysticism of infrastructure that I hinted at in an earlier post, the idea that the peripheral networks through which the city actually functions lie in wait, secretly connecting things from below or wrapping, Ouroborus-like, around us on the edges of things.

These systems are the Matrix, we might say in modern mythological terms, or the room where Zeus moves statues of us all around on chessboards: an invisible realm of tacit control and influence that we’ve come to know unimaginatively as nothing but infrastructure. But infrastructure is now the backstage pass, the esoteric world behind the curtain.

In any case, with this handful of party pictures in hand, a group of London explorers tried to infiltrate the system.

After hours of exploration, we finally found what we thought might be a freshly bricked up wall into the mythical Mail Rail the partygoers had inadvertently found… We went back to the car and discussed the possibility of chiselling the brick out. We decided that, given how soon it was after the party, the place was too hot to do that just now and we walked away, vowing to try again in a couple of months.

It took some time—but, eventually, it worked.

They found the tunnels.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

The complete write-up over at Placehacking is worth the read for the rest of that particular story.

But ScanLab now enter the frame as documentarians of a different sort, with a laser-assisted glimpse of this underground space down to millimetric details.

Their 3D point clouds afford a whole new form of representation, a kind of volumetric photography that cuts through streets and walls to reveal the full spatial nature of the places on display.

The incredible teaser video, pieced together from 223 different laser scanning sessions, reveals this with dramatic effect, featuring a virtual camera that smoothly passes beneath the street like a swimmer through the waves of the ocean.



As the British Postal Museum & Archive explains, the goal of getting ScanLab Projects down into their tunnels was “to form a digital model from which any number of future interactive, visual, animated and immersive experiences can be created.”

In other words, it was a museological project: the digital preservation of an urban underworld that few people—Placehacking‘s write-up aside—have actually seen.

For example, the Museum writes, the resulting laser-generated 3D point clouds might “enable a full 3D walkthrough of hidden parts of the network or an app that enables layers to be peeled away to see the original industrial detail beneath.”

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Unpeeling the urban onion has never been so gorgeous as we leap through walls, peer upward through semi-transparent streets, and see signs hanging in mid-air from both sides simultaneously.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Tunnels become weird ropey knots like smoke rings looped beneath the city as the facades of houses take on the appearance of old ghosts, remnants of another era gazing down at the flickering of other dimensions previously lost in the darkness below.

(Thanks again to the British Postal Museum & Archive for permission to post the images).

Romanticism of the Scanning Error

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

(A different version of this post previously appeared on Gizmodo).

Matthew Shaw and William Trossell, the London-based duo known as ScanLAB Projects, continue to push the envelope of laser-scanning technology, producing visually stunning and conceptually intricate work that falls somewhere between art and practical surveying.

Their work also bears an unexpected yet increasingly pronounced political dimension, as they have scanned concentration camp sites, designed insurgent objects for thwarting police laser scanners, and even point-mapped melting ice floes in the Arctic as part of a larger study of climate change. The results are astonishingly, almost hypnotically detailed, as in this cinematic fly-through of an outdoor festival, where we pass through tent walls and very nearly see recognizable expressions on participants’ faces. It’s as if the future of the motion picture might really be narrative holograms.

Last week, Shaw and Trossell premiered a new project at London’s Surface Gallery, exploring where laser scanners glitch, skip, artifact, and scatter. Called Noise: Error in the Void, the show utilizes scanning data taken from two locations in Berlin, but—as the show’s title implies—it actually foregrounds all the errors, where the equipment went wrong: a world of “mistaken measurements, confused surfaces and misplaced three-dimensional reflections.”

The tics and hiccups of a scanner gone off the mark thus result in these oddly beautiful, almost Romantic depictions of the world, like some lunatic, lo-fi cosmology filtered through machines.

Frozen datascapes appear like digital mist settling down over empty fields—or perhaps they’re parking lots—a virtual Antarctica appearing in the middle of the city.

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

Huge domes of white light burn like spherical flames above a central point that remains both mysterious and unidentified, resembling the halos of nuclear explosions or the birth of stars.

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

Spectacular bursts of color then suggest the presence of some new stratosphere, where black airplanes roam the edge of space and clouds are nothing but processing errors in a blurred celestial rendering. Perhaps we could call it expressionist scanning.

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

In Shaw’s and Trossell’s own words, “Using terrestrial LIDAR technology it is now possible to capture the world in three dimensions. This technology can create near perfect digital 3D replicas of buildings, landscapes, objects and events. But these digital replicas are always an illusion of perfection. Noise: Error in the Void explores the inherent mistakes made by modern technologies of vision. Here we see the unedited view of the world as seen through the eyes of the LIDAR machine. Reality is shrouded in a cloud of mistaken measurements, confused surfaces and misplaced three-dimensional reflections.”

A short film—more like a dark ambient music video—shows some of the images in action.

In all honesty, many of the images are colored in a way that looks a bit more like a Pink Floyd laser show than the almost melancholy landscapes I like so much above, and I even made a few of these greyscale to see if, stripped of color, they could still repeat the lonely, wanderer-above-a-sea-of-fog feeling that the other images have, the benthic void of miscalculated data that nonetheless results in new worlds. But then I figured I shouldn’t mess with ScanLAB’s work and I left them as is.

[Images: ScanLAB Projects].

But, even here, blinded by the colors of a rave, throbbing architectural shapes rotate and spin, as if parts of London are stuttering in and out of sync with themselves, a whole city rumbling through a shockwave of digital reverb, blinking gyroscopically out of control.

[Images: ScanLAB Projects].

If you’re lucky enough to be in London in the next few weeks, check out their exhibition at Surface Gallery—and, even better, if you’re an architecture student, you can actually take a class with these guys. Check out their teaching work here.

(Read an earlier version of this post at Gizmodo).

Captive America: An Interview with Alyse Emdur

[Image: Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur].

Earlier this year, Venue published an interview with Los Angeles-based photographer Alyse Emdur discussing her project Prison Landscapes. I thought Emdur’s work—a look at the unexpected landscape paintings used as photographic backdrops in prison waiting rooms throughout the United States—deserved a second look, so I am re-posting the interview here.

Venue, of course, is a joint project between BLDGBLOG and Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography, and it is supported by the Nevada Museum of Art‘s Center for Art + Environment.

The full interview, along with its original introduction, appears below.

[Image: Prison Landscapes, published January 2013 by Four Corners Books].

Some of the most unsettling examples of contemporary landscape painting in the United States are to be found in its prison visiting rooms, where they function as visual backdrops for family photographs.

[Image: James Bowlin, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur. Note the fake trout].

Ranging in subject matter from picturesque waterfalls to urban streetscapes, and from ski resorts to medieval castles, these large-format paintings serve a dual purpose: for the authorities, they help to restrict photography of sensitive prison facilities; for the prisoners and their families, they are an escapist fiction, constructing an alternate reality for later display on fridge doors and mantlepieces.

With nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison today—an astonishing one out of every hundred adults in the United States, according to a 2008 Pew study (PDF)—this school of landscape art is critically overlooked but has a mass-market penetration comparable to the work of Thomas Kinkade. And, like Kinkade’s work, these backdrops—which are usually painted by talented, self-taught inmates—are simultaneously photo-realistic and highly idealized. Cumulatively, they represent a catalog of imagined utopias: scenes from an abstracted and perfect elsewhere, painted from behind bars.

[Image: Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur. Unlike the family portraits, Emdur’s own large-format photographs deliberately show the prison context that surrounds the backdrop landscape, for an unsettling contrast].

Several years ago, artist Alyse Emdur was looking through a family album when she came across a photo of herself as a little girl, posing in front of a tropical beach scene while visiting her elder brother in prison. She spent the next few years exploring this surprising body of vernacular landscape imagery, tracking down examples across the United States.

[Image: Emdur family photo in front of prison visiting room backdrop; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

At first, she wrote to prison administrators to ask permission to photograph the backdrops herself—a request that was inevitably firmly denied. Instead, she joined prisoner pen-pal sites, asking inmates to send her pictures of themselves posed in front of their prison’s backdrops; through this method, Emdur eventually assembling several hundred photos and more than sixteen binders full of correspondence. Finally, in summer 2011, she gained permission to visit and photograph several prison visiting room backdrops herself.

[Image: Michael Parker and Geoff Manaugh looking at Alyse Emdur‘s correspondence and work in Emdur’s studio space; photograph by Venue].

Venue visited Emdur’s studio in downtown Los Angeles in the summer of 2012, as she was collecting all this material for a book, Prison Landscapes, published in January 2013 by Four Corners Books. After a studio tour conducted by her partner, artist Michael Parker, we followed up with Emdur by phone: the edited transcript of our conversation follows.

• • •

[Image: Alyse Emdur‘s large-format photographs of prison visiting room backdrops on her studio walls; photograph by Venue].

Nicola Twilley: From the hundreds of photographs that prisoners sent you, as well as the ten or so backdrops that you were able to photograph yourself, it seems as though there is almost a set list of subject matter: glittering cityscapes, scenes of natural landscapes, like beaches and sunsets, and then historical or fantasy architecture, such as medieval castles. Did you notice any patterns or geographic specificity to these variations in subject matter?

Alyse Emdur: You do see some regional realism—so, prisons in Washington State will have evergreen trees in their backdrops, prisons in Florida will have white sand beaches, and prisons in Louisiana will have New Orleans French Quarter-style features. There’s also the question of where the prisoners are from: one thing that I’ve observed is that in upstate New York, for example, many of the prisoners are actually from New York City, so many of the backdrops in upstate New York prisons show New York City skylines.

Fantastical scenes are actually much less common—from what I gather from my correspondence, realism is like gold in prison. That’s the form of artistic expression that’s most appreciated and most respected, so that’s often the goal for the backdrop painter.

[Image: Brandon Jones, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

Twilley: Do you have a sense of how you get to be a backdrop painter—do inmates chose amongst themselves or do the prison authorities just make a selection? And, on a similar note, how much artistic freedom does the backdrop painter actually have, in terms of needing approval of his or her subject matter from fellow inmates or the authorities?

Emdur: That’s one of the questions that I’ve asked of all the backdrop painters who I’ve been in touch with over the years. The answer is always that if you are a “good artist” in prison, then you’re very well-respected within the prison—people in the prison all know you. You’ll be making greeting cards for people or you’ll be doing hand calligraphy for love letters for friends in prison—you’ll be known for your skills. The prison administration is already aware of the respected artists, because they shine within the culture, and so they are usually the ones that are chosen. And when you’re chosen, it’s a huge honor.

[Image: Genesis Asiatic, Powhatan Correctional Center, Statefarm, Virginia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

Something to keep in mind, though, is that backdrops do get painted over. In some prisons, the backdrop can change a few times a year.

One of the artists I’ve kept in touch with is Darrell Van Mastrigt—I interviewed him for the book, and he painted a backdrop for me that was in my thesis show. In the prison that he’s in, the portrait studios are organized by the NAACP. He said that the NAACP had seen his paintings in the past, and when they selected him, they gave him creative control over what sort of landscape he chose to paint.

Obviously, there are some rules. The main restriction is that you can’t use certain colors that are affiliated with gangs. So, for instance, Darrell painted a mural with two cars and they had to be green and purple—they couldn’t be red or blue. But, from what Darrell has told me and from what I understand from other painters, they don’t get much input from other prisoners. At the same time, they’re very conscious of wanting to please people and maintain their status within the prison, of course, and they get a lot of pleasure out of doing something positive for families in the visiting room.

One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue].

Another interesting thing a painter told me was that she was very conscious of not wanting to do a specific, recognizable cityscape, because she knew that not everyone in the prison was from the city. So she deliberately tried to paint a more abstract landscape that she thought anyone could relate to. And a lot of imagery they work from is from books in the prison library, rather than just their memories.

Twilley: In some of the photographs you were sent, the prisoners are in front of off-the-shelf printed backdrops—some offering multiple pull-down choices—rather than hand-painted ones. Are these standardized commercial backdrops gradually replacing the inmate-produced landscapes?

Emdur: The backdrop-painting tradition is definitely still vibrant and strong, but my sense is that these store-bought backdrops are becoming more and more common.

For one thing, the hand-painted backdrops are not always as realistic as a photograph, and, often, the prisoners and their families are looking to create the illusion that they really are somewhere else. So, the more realistic, the better. When I went to photograph a backdrop in one New York State prison, I found an amazing hand-painted mural of a New York City skyscraper with a cartoon-like Statue of Liberty in front—she almost looked alive. But it had been completely covered up by a pull-down, store-bought, photographic backdrop of the New York City skyline. I tried to photograph the backdrop in Fort Dix Federal Prison in New Jersey and they told me that they had just painted over the hand-painted backdrop and replaced it with a commercial photography backdrop.

[Image: Small prints of Emdur‘s backdrop photographs on her studio wall, alongside a few examples of her extensive collection of self-help books; photograph by Venue. Note the hand-painted cityscape featuring the Statue of Liberty on the left].

Of course, another thing is that it’s easier to buy a backdrop than it is to engage with a prisoner, you know? And attitudes vary from prison to prison. In some prisons, you’ll find murals throughout the facility, not just in the visiting rooms. I went on a tour of a privately-operated women’s prison in Florida, for instance, that lasted four hours because there were paintings everywhere—in all the hallways, dorm rooms, and offices. The PR person who assisted me on that tour explained that having prisoners paint murals is really a way to keep them busy and out of trouble, so they saw it as a really positive activity.

Of course, I see these paintings as a way for people in prison to temporarily escape the architecture and culture of confinement, and that’s what makes them so important for me.

[Image: Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

Twilley: There’s an uncomfortable overlap between the escapism of the landscapes and then the other purpose of the backdrops, which is to not allow photographs of the prison interior to get out.

Emdur: Yes—I found that really concerning. The prison administration either thinks that photographs of the interior of the prison could help inmates escape or, at the very least, the administrators are trying to control the imagery of the prison that reaches the outside world.

During my research, I’ve been trying to figure out how long these kinds of backdrops have been used. From prison administrators to PR people to wardens and prisoners, everyone told me they don’t even remember—these kinds of painted backdrops have been used in visiting rooms for as long as they can remember. I’ve spoken to a sixty-five-year-old warden who just said, “You know, they’ve been here longer than I have.”

[Image: Robert RuffBey, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

I do know that at some point in the last twenty years, companies came along that would charge inmates to substitute in a different backdrop. If you’re a prisoner and you have a photograph of yourself or yourself and your kids in front of the painted backdrop in the visiting room, then you could send your photograph to one of these companies and they would take out the painting and then put in a Photoshop background. That’s not very common at all, but it’s pretty bizarre—one fake landscape being replaced by another.

Going along with that is the replacement of Polaroid with digital photography. All these portraits were Polaroid up until the last five to ten years, I would say. Some prisons still use Polaroids, but from what I gather, it’s basically all digital now.

[Image: One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue].

One thing to remember is that all the prisons have slightly different rules and they all organize their prison portrait programs differently. In most state and federal prisons in America, the only place where a prisoner can be photographed is in front of these backdrops, and the only time they can be photographed in front of the backdrops is when they have a visitor—but, then, there are all these exceptions.

At some prisons, for instance, you can get your picture taken at special events, like graduations or holiday parties. Then, some prisons have murals elsewhere in the prison, not in the visiting room, that you can sign up once a month or something to have your picture taken in front of.

[Image: Kimberly Buntyn, Valley State Prison for Women, Chowchilla, California; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

This question of the kinds of images of prisons that are allowed out is quite interesting. In fact, I’m working with a photographer who’s been in prison for almost 30 years in Michigan, on what I think will be my next book. In the 1970s and 80s, he ran the photo lab in Jackson Prison, and he was in charge of developing and printing all the inmates’ photographs. At that time, the rules of photography were very different in prison—there just weren’t as many rules, basically. This guy has hundreds of photographs from all over Jackson State Prison.

It’s just fascinating to see the differences between these very staged and framed visiting room portraits and the reality of the prison as seen through this guy’s eyes—through an insider’s eyes. I think his situation was extremely rare when it happened, but today it’s totally unheard of. The majority of photographs that come out of prisons today are these visiting room portraits. I suppose some prisoners are smuggling cell phones with cameras into prison, but those images aren’t easy to find!

[Images: Sixteen binders’ worth of letters and prisoner portraits have been mailed to Emdur over the course of her project; photographs by Venue. Several of Emdur‘s pen-pals adopted the so-called “prison pose“—a low crouch—while others incorporated props or flexed their muscles].

Geoff Manaugh: Both Nicky and I were amazed by the amount of correspondence you’ve gathered in the process of researching these backdrops—binder after binder organized and shelved in your studio—but I can’t imagine that it’s been easy to edit it all down into a book, or to get releases from all the prisoners, for example. How has that process worked?

Emdur: It’s been really tough. With 2.3 million Americans in prison today, just think how many of these portrait studio photographs there are circulating in family albums and frames all across the country. A big part of me wants to document more and more and more. But, for a book, I figured it was really important to step back a little bit and not go crazy, and instead try to focus and pull out the different genres of backdrops and the different poses and the stories.

In terms of the process of getting releases, that was a huge effort. As you know, I collected the images through contacting prisoners on pen-pal websites. I sent out something like 300 letters and about 150 inmates responded really quickly with photographs of themselves in front of these backdrops.

A lot of prisoners are looking for engagement with the outside world, so it was very easy to collect the images. The challenging thing was getting releases for publication. Tracking down people who’d been released was one thing. For minors, we wanted to get our release approvals from both the incarcerated parents and also from the non-incarcerated parents, and that really was challenging.

[Image: A binder of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue].

But, really, the most difficult thing for me about this project is just how emotionally challenging it is—how draining it is—to correspond with hundreds of people who have a very different reality than I have and live a very different life than I do and who don’t have the privileges that I would normally take for granted.

The relationship between the incarcerated and the free is a very complex relationship, and that’s something that I’m interested in showing in the book, and that I hope comes out in the correspondence.

• • •

For more Venue interviews, focusing on human interactions with the built, natural, and virtual environments, check out the Venue website in full.

Meanwhile, Michael Parker—the artist who showed us around the studio space he shares with Alyse Emdur—has some projects of his own worth checking out, in particular, his work Lineman, which documents, in film, photographs, and interviews, “an electrical lineman class at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College” where adult students learn “how to become power-pole technicians.”

Stealth Objects and Scanning Mist

The London-based architectural group ScanLAB—founded by Matthew Shaw and William Trossell—has been doing some fascinating work with laser scanners.

Here are three of their recent projects.

1) Scanning Mist. Shaw and Trossell “thought it might be interesting to see if the scanner could detect smoke and mist. It did and here are the remarkable results!

[Images: From Scanning the Mist by ScanLAB].

In a way, I’m reminded of photographs by Alexey Titarenko.

2) Scanning an Artificial Weather System. For this project, ScanLAB wanted to “draw attention to the magical properties of weather events.” They thus installed a network of what they call “pressure vessels linked to an array of humidity tanks” in the middle of England’s Kielder Forest.

[Image: From Slow Becoming Delightful by ScanLAB].

These “humidity tanks” then, at certain atmospherically appropriate moments, dispersed a fine mist, deploying an artificial cloud or fog bank into the woods.

[Image: From Slow Becoming Delightful by ScanLAB].

Then, of course, Shaw and Trossell laser-scanned it.

3) Subverting Urban-Scanning Projects through “Stealth Objects.” The architectural potential of this final project blows me away. Basically, Shaw and Trossell have been looking at “the subversion of city scale 3D scanning in London.” As they explain it, “the project uses hypothetical devices which are installed across the city and which edit the way the city is scanned and recorded.”

Tools include the “stealth drill” which dissolves scan data in the surrounding area, creating voids and new openings in the scanned urban landscape, and “boundary miscommunication devices” which offset, relocate and invent spatial data such as paths, boundaries, tunnels and walls.

The spatial and counter-spatial possibilities of this are extraordinary. Imagine whole new classes of architectural ornament (ornament as digital camouflage that scans in precise and strange ways), entirely new kinds of building facades (augmented reality meets LiDAR), and, of course, the creation of a kind of shadow-architecture, invisible to the naked eye, that only pops up on laser scanners at various points around the city.

[Images: From Subverting the LiDAR Landscape by ScanLAB].

ScanLAB refers to this as “the deployment of flash architecture”—flash streets, flash statues, flash doors, instancing gates—like something from a short story by China Miéville. The narrative and/or cinematic possibilities of these “stealth objects” are seemingly limitless, let alone their architectural or ornamental use.

Imagine stealth statuary dotting the streetscape, for instance, or other anomalous spatial entities that become an accepted part of the urban fabric. They exist only as representational effects on the technologies through which we view the landscape—but they eventually become landmarks, nonetheless.

For now, Shaw and Trossell explain that they are experimenting with “speculative LiDAR blooms, blockages, holes and drains. These are the result of strategically deployed devices which offset, copy, paste, erase and tangle LiDAR data around them.”

[Images: From Subverting the LiDAR Landscape by ScanLAB].

Here is one such “stealth object,” pictured below, designed to be “undetected” by laser-scanning equipment.

Of course, it is not hard to imagine the military being interested in this research, creating stealth body armor, stealth ground vehicles, even stealth forward-operating bases, all of which would be geometrically invisible to radar and/or scanning equipment.

In fact, one could easily imagine a kind of weapon with no moving parts, consisting entirely of radar- and LiDAR-jamming geometries; you would thus simply plant this thing, like some sort of medieval totem pole, in the streets of Mogadishu—or ring hundreds of them in a necklace around Washington D.C.—thus precluding enemy attempts to visualize your movements.

[Images: A hypothetical “stealth object,” resistant to laser-scanning, by ScanLAB].

Briefly, ScanLAB’s “stealth object” reminds me of an idea bandied about by the U.S. Department of Energy, suggesting that future nuclear-waste entombment sites should be liberally peppered with misleading “radar reflectors” buried in the surface of the earth.

The D.O.E.’s “trihedral” objects would produce “distinctive anomalous magnetic and radar-reflective signatures” for anyone using ground-scanning equipment above. In other words, they would create deliberate false clues, leading potential future excavators to think that they were digging in the wrong place. They would “subvert” the scanning process.

In any case, read more at ScanLAB’s website.

The Inevitability Of Prophecy Among Models Of New York

[Image: From Prototype, courtesy of Activision].

[Note: This is a guest post by Jim Rossignol].

The parallels and disparities between videogames and movies are endlessly debated, but there’s one certainty: they both return, routinely, to the architecture of New York City. The most frequently filmed city in the world is also the most frequently modeled.

The canyons of New York are as useful for game designers as they are for film directors. If the decision is arbitrary, then New York represents a kind of go-to alpha city: the logical choice if you need a city at all. For film directors it’s a grand and familiar backdrop, and the same bold geometry is relatively straightforward for game technologies to render. The grid-like topology, an added bonus, is easy for gamers to understand and navigate, too.

Models of the city exist, at many different levels of fidelity, for many different gaming scenarios. From the crude polygonal outlines of early iterations of Microsoft Flight Sim, to the normal-mapped biomorphic horrors of last year’s ultraviolent brawler, Prototype, Manhattan’s skyline and the districts beyond are etched into virtuality, over and over. These models exist on countless DVDs and hard-discs across the world, in ten of thousands of memory-states within the architecture of game consoles and PCs that are modeling the city right now, in real time. It might be impossible to say how many different (or identical) instances of New York are stored, digitally, within the city itself. It seems likely that a model of New York sits just an arm-length away from every Xbox-inhabited TV stand in the greater metropolitan area.

[Image: From True Crime: New York City, courtesy of Activision].

There have been dozens of instances of New York remade for the escape-hatch sub-realities of gaming in studios around the world. In just the past decade we could name Alone In The Dark, True Crime, The Hulk, World In Conflict, Forza 2, Project Gotham, 50 Cent, Max Payne 1 & 2, Gran Turismo 3, and Def Jam Vendetta. This number spills into scores more across the previous decades, and it’s a figure which becomes hazier still when mods, expansions, analogues, and cancelled or lost projects are counted in the mix.

[Image: From Max Payne, courtesy of Rockstar Games].

This reliance on New York isn’t simply about providing a visually interesting backdrop, of course, because it has also provided some of the strongest connections to character. When the noir ultraviolence of Max Payne was moved to Sao Paulo for Max Payne 3, there was uproar. If you took Max out of the tenements of New York, was he really Max at all? What was the New York cop without his delirious nightmare of New York’s criminal innards? Similarly, when it was announced that Crysis 2 would be moving from its technologically impressive jungle-island home to the exploding streets of Manhattan, no one really thought to comment. Of course it would be set in New York. Indeed, if they really wanted to see/destroy it all, where else would the aliens want to go next?

[Image: From Crysis 2, courtesy of Electronic Arts].

Crysis 2‘s ash-hazed avenues are impeccably damaged, while surly pedestrians in any sandbox city are happy to pick a fight if you don’t look where you’re going. These models new look increasingly like New York City, and more often behave like it, too. As the complexity of games increases, it seems that we are speeding towards a completionist model of the city—one that whirs and hums and yells like the real thing. As the models made by game studios march toward reality, they march towards Manhattan.

Yet realism is not a goal that games should really be striving for. Leave that to the CAD programs and the satellite maps. Instead games should explore the aspects of Manhattan that make less sense, like its dreams, or the models of the city that represent it not as it is, but as we are able to explore it, thanks to the mutational potentials of digital simulation. Examine those aspects of the city and perhaps the issue becomes less about New York as a fabulous piece of set design, and more about New York as a vital raw material for the business of fantasy.

This is a relationship that has moved on from simply being a straightforward practical connection to something that is embroiled in deeper meaning. New York city has become gaming’s ideal and idealized urban environment, and it has done so by becoming refictionalized and reimagined. The finest example of a city yet given to gaming, that of Grand Theft Auto IV, isn’t really New York at all, and yet it is more like New York than ever before. It’s the essence of New York—a distillation that is only possible thanks to the unique way in which games are able to make the figurative and the abstract resonate with us even more profoundly than the infinite detail of the everyday.

[Image: From Grand Theft Auto IV, courtesy of Rockstar Games].

It’s worth noting that the superficial New Yorkness of other, real cities often counts in their favor when it comes to making movies. At the end of American Psycho, for instance, Toronto’s TD Centre convincingly stands in for the fictional Patrick Bateman’s office in the real-world Seagram Building—both buildings by Mies van der Rohe, but the latter is in Manhattan. The TD Centre thus becomes an architectural stunt double—or perhaps a sinewy body double helping the real New York look good. Not only that, but Pinewood Toronto Studios recently announced that they will be investing further in their home city to create lived-in, urban areas that look like residences in New York, Chicago and London—real districts of a city that are permanently and deliberately cast as a “living movie set.”

[Image: From Deus Ex, courtesy of Eidos Interactive].

Where games are concerned, New York, and the modeling thereof, is a primary conduit for things that cannot happen, or things that need to happen over and over in a slightly different way each time. Not just a conveniently located backdrop, but a thing that can be toyed with digitally, again and again, first by the game developers and then by the gamers themselves. Occasionally, even, the simulations might accidentally model things that have yet to happen. Conspiratorial cyber-fantasy Deus Ex was awash with its own ideas about the sinister possibilities of our politico-military techno-future, but what was the meaning behind the twin towers missing from its future skyline? A year before the towers were destroyed? The silent bells of paranoia began to ring.

In truth the skyline had been cheaply mirrored to reduce the game’s memory footprint, and the Twin Towers portion had simply been left out to make the game run more smoothly. It was nothing more than a technical conceit of the kind games are riddled with, one of the limiting factors of memory or processing that makes the computerized cities so much less than their real counterparts. But it was also a manifestation of something that became inevitable as New York was modeled over and over—as speculation mingled with outright fantasy—the inevitability that games could become a form of architectural prophecy.

• • •

Jim Rossignol is a games critic, blogger, occasional guest writer on BLDGBLOG, and author of the excellent This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities, published by the University of Michigan Press. He is @jimrossignol on Twitter.

Buy a Map

[Image: Photo by Barney Peterson, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle].

Something I meant to post three few weeks ago, before October became the Great Lost Month of constant busyness and over-commitment, is the story of a 70-ton relief map of California, unseen by the public for half a century, that has been re-discovered in San Francisco, sitting in “an undisclosed location on the city’s waterfront.”

[Image: Photo by Barney Peterson, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle].

In its time, the map was considered far too marvelous for simply cutting up and storing—but that’s exactly what’s happened to it.

It was as long as two football fields and showed California in all its splendor, from Oregon to Mexico, with snow-capped mountains, national parks, redwood forests, a glorious coastline, orchards and miniature cities basking in the sun. It was made of plaster, wire, paint, and bits of rock and sand. In the summer of 1924, Scientific American magazine said it was the largest map in the world.

However, we read, “The problem with the map is simple: it is huge and would cost a lot of money to move, restore and display it. The last estimate was in the range of $500,000. And that was 30 years ago. It is a classic white elephant, too valuable to scrap, but too expensive to keep.”

And, today, it’s not going anywhere: “The Port of San Francisco has no plans to be anything but stewards of its storage, and no one else has come forward in half a century to rescue the map.” If you have half-a-million dollars or so, and heavy moving equipment at your disposal, then perhaps it could soon be yours.

(Thanks to Steve Silberman for the link. In the archives: San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model; Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church, and Buy a Silk Mill].