Uncanny Crops

Speaking of @wmmna, Régine Debatty—author of we make money not art—will be hosting a workshop next month on “plant geopolitics, phytoengineering, and uncanny crops.” Expect discussions of “plant neurobiology,” agricultural colonialism, space crops, hyperaccumulators, future foods, and much more.

Sign up over at the School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe.

(Related: Trees as radio antennas and plants as archaeological detectors.)

Planetary Supercinema

[Image: Courtesy Capella Space.]

The Geocinema group is hosting a six-week class this spring called Signals and Storms, a kind of planetary-scale media studies workshop. Participants will research and critique what they describe as an emerging super-system of always-on recording technologies, from “geosensors” and street-level surveillance cameras up to weather satellites—tools that suggest a future possible medium for “largely distributed infrastructures of filmmaking.”

The image above, meanwhile, comes courtesy of Capella Space and depicts a new satellite design—as of January 2020—that allows the company to produce “on-demand observations of anywhere on Earth” (what they have elsewhere called “persistent monitoring from space”).

These sorts of technologies—though currently out of reach for the typical budgets of a film studio, let alone an arts group—are part of an increasingly omnipresent media-production infrastructure, one that continuously records the surface of the Earth in real time and in great detail, or where Geocinema gets its name in the first place.

Read more over at Signals and Storms.

(Spotted via @wmmna.)

The Magnetic Depths

The emerging sub-genre of public service announcements about geological surveys—apparently offered not just due to FAA regulations, but to quell the growth of potential conspiracy theories—continues with this heads-up about a “low-flying airplane” over parts of Virginia and North Carolina.

[Image: USGS map of eastern Virginia, altered by BLDGBLOG.]

Of course, beyond the idea of simply preempting the development of new conspiracy theories, the work being done by the project is fascinating in and of itself: “Instruments on the airplane will measure variations in the Earth’s magnetic field and natural low-level radiation created by different rock types near and up to several miles beneath the surface. This information will help researchers develop geologic maps of the area that will be used to better understand sand resources and underground faults in the region.”

While we’re on the topic of the Virginia/North Carolina border region, I’m reminded of why there’s a strange “notch” in the state line, a story “that mostly involves collecting taxes and avoiding swamps”: “The rough and rowdy inhabitants living close to the border told North Carolina tax collectors they lived in Virginia, [Gates County historian Linda Hofler] said. When the Virginia tax man came, they said North Carolina was their home.”

In any case, check out the USGS for more on the low-flying geomagnetic airplane and The Virginian-Pilot for more on VA/NC border history.

(Related: Geomedia, or What Lies Below.)

Antarktikos

[Image: How do you resist a map with features like Labyrinth, the Asgard Range, and Inland Forts?! (via).]

A new magazine called Antarktikos has launched with an open call for papers on the theme of “Mapping Nature.”

For the inaugural issue, they’re seeking “any kind of research, story, or visualization related to the mapping of Antarctica. From ice cores containing the information trapped in 20,000-year-old air bubbles, to the architectural drawing of research stations, to imaginary maps of Antarctica in the year 3000.”

Click through for more info.

Geomedia, or What Lies Below

[Image: Courtesy USGS.]

I love the fact that the U.S. Geological Survey had to put out a press release explaining what some people in rural Wisconsin might see in the first few weeks of January: a government helicopter flying “in a grid pattern relatively low to the ground, hundreds of feet above the surface. A sensor that resembles a large hula-hoop will be towed beneath the helicopter,” the USGS explains—but it’s not some conspiratorial super-tool, silently flipping the results of voting machines. It’s simply measuring “tiny electromagnetic signals that can be used to map features below Earth’s surface,” including “shallow bedrock and glacial sediments” in the region.

Of course, the fictional possibilities are nevertheless intriguing: government geologists looking for something buried in the agricultural muds of eastern Wisconsin, part Michael Crichton, part Stephen King; or CIA contractors, masquerading as geologists, mapping unexplained radio signals emanating from a grid of points somewhere inland from Lake Michigan; or a rogue team of federal archaeologists searching for some Lovecraftian ruin, a lost city scraped down to its foundations by the last Ice Age, etc. etc.

In any case, the use of remote-sensing tools such as these—scanning the Earth to reveal electromagnetic, gravitational, and chemical signatures indicative of mineral deposits or, as it happens, architectural ruins—is the subject of a Graham Foundation grant I received earlier this autumn. That’s a project I will be exploring and updating over the next 10 months, combining lifelong obsessions with archaeology and ruins (specifically, in this case, the art history of how we depict destroyed works of architecture) with an interest in geophysical prospecting tools borrowed from the extraction industry.

In other words, the same remote-sensing tools that allow geological prospecting crews to locate subterranean mineral deposits are increasingly being used by archaeologists today to map underground architectural ruins. Empty fields mask otherwise invisible cities. How will these technologies change the way we define and represent architectural history?

[Image: Collage, Geoff Manaugh, for “Invisible Cities: Architecture’s Geophysical Turn,” Graham Foundation 2020/2021; based on “Forum Romano, Rome, Italy,” photochrom print, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.]

For now, I’ll just note another recent USGS press release, this one touting the agency’s year-end “Mineral Resources Program Highlights.”

Included in the tally is the “Earth MRI” initiative—which, despite the apt medical-imaging metaphor, actually stands for the “Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.” From the USGS: “When learning more about ancient rocks buried deep beneath the surface of the Earth, it may seem surprising to use futuristic technologies flown hundreds of feet in the air, but that has been central to the USGS Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.”

[Image: A geophysical survey of northwestern Arkansas, courtesy USGS.]

What lies below, whether it is mineral or architectural, is becoming accessible to surface view through advanced technical means. These new tools often reveal that, beneath even the most featureless landscapes, immensely interesting forms and structures can be hidden. Ostensibly boring mud plains can hide the eroded roots of ancient mountain chains, just as endless fields of wheat or barley can stand atop forgotten towns or lost cities without any hint of the walls and streets beneath.

The surface of the Earth is an intermediary—it is media—between us and what it disguises.

(See also, Detection Landscapes and Lost Roads of Monticello.)

Xolographic Biology

[Image: Plankton via the Seattle Aquarium.]

The description of this new 3D-printing technique, published in Nature, is immensely evocative. The process “relies on chemical reactions triggered by the intersection of two light beams,” using that light “to rapidly solidify an object in a volume of a liquid precursor.”

Its developers call it xolography “because it uses two crossing (x) light beams of different wavelengths to solidify a whole object (holos is the Greek word for whole).”

But the whole thing sounds like some weird new metaphor for the origins of biology: light shining into susceptible chemistries in a warm little pond somewhere, synthesizing into slowly-growing forms. From the Miller-Urey experiment to photosynthetic 3D printing.

The ensuing mechanics are hardly poetic, but are nevertheless worth reading:

A rectangular sheet of light with a set thickness is shone through a volume of a viscous resin. The wavelength of the light is chosen to excite molecules known as dual-colour photoinitiators (DCPIs) dissolved in the resin by cleaving a molecular ring in the backbone of the molecule; this reaction occurs only within the sheet of light.

A second beam of light projects an image of a slice of the 3D object to be printed into the plane of the light sheet. The wavelength of the second beam is different from that of the first and causes any excited DCPI molecules to initiate polymerization of the resin, solidifying the slice. The resin volume is then moved relative to the position of the light sheet, which is fixed. This changes the position of the light sheet in the resin, so the activation and initiation processes can begin again at a new position, thereby building up the object slice by slice.

Forms emerging as if from nowhere, out of intersecting planes of light—or beams passing through one another in the shallow waters of a sea, materializing into bodies. Tiny little plankton drifting in the sun.

Anyway, to use such an interesting process simply to 3D-print new children’s toys or architectural parts seems both anticlimactic and strangely on par with our world, which is already so good at hiding interesting metaphors in the everyday objects around us.

My True Love Gave to Me…

[Image: U.S. Army soldiers “provide security while clearing an underground complex during dense urban environment training,” photo by Captain Scott Kuhn.]

I had missed this “urban warfare Christmas wish list” posted back in 2018, complete with specific but speculative tools for intra-architectural combat. Who doesn’t think about urban warfare on Christmas?

The list suggests developing a military-grade “industrial foam thrower” (perhaps suggesting a future black-market for used rave equipment). “I want an industrial foam-throwing gun,” John Spencer writes, “that will seal each opening as I find and move past them. Foam is already used to lift concrete house foundations, streets, and sidewalks in the private sector. Adapting this tool to the needs of the urban warrior would pay huge dividends.”

Spencer’s wish list continues: “I would want a mining robot that could drill or punch holes in walls in advance of my movements. The robot would have the software, data, and sensing capability to know where to go through walls most easily and with the least amount of damage.”

In fact, this gives me the perfect excuse to post something I’ve had bookmarked for years: remote controlled demolition robots. Husqvarna, for example, makes “a small and very versatile demolition robot that can be transported inside a van.” Surely, a militarized line of portable, remotely controlled demolition robots is just one purchase-order away from becoming reality.

The list continues. Spencer calls for wheeled barriers, allowing “concrete walls to roll directly off of a flatbed truck into position”; giant, grenade-launcher-deployed curtains for blocking entire streets and buildings from view (what he has elsewhere referred to as “an invisibility kit for urban combat”); and, among other things, military-grade jumper cables for tapping into the batteries of ruined cars left junked out on the street in order to power a unit’s portable electronic gear.

[Image: From Tenet, courtesy Warner Brothers.]

Spencer also hosts a podcast called the “Urban Warfare Project,” one episode of which adds another, somewhat Tenet-like piece of gear to this list: air tanks for prolonged missions in underground spaces. (In Christopher Nolan’s recent film, Tenet, the characters need to wear air tanks so that they can breathe while moving back in time.)

In any case, as I write in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, one of the reasons for studying these sorts of tools—whether they are military or criminal, whether they are used by firefighters or by demolition crews—is to understand both how works of architecture are internally connected and how those same structures can be dismantled.

Indeed, nearly every tool on Spencer’s list would also be of use for a sufficiently ambitious burglary crew—firing curtains across the street to hide entry and exit points, using demolition machines to break into vaults—but whether you pay attention to this stuff purely as an academic exercise or as a spur toward designing works of architecture that can resist, confuse, or baffle such equipment is up to you.

Check out the rest of Spencer’s list over at the Modern War Institute.

(Very vaguely related: Nakatomi Space.)

Acoustic Archaeology

In her new book, The Bird Way, Jennifer Ackerman describes Australian lyrebirds as audio archaeologists, birds capable of keeping lost songs and soundscapes alive across multiple generations even as local ecologies change.

She describes a group of lyrebirds captured in one part of Australia and later released in Tasmania. “The birds continued mimicking birdcalls from their old landscape for many years,” Ackerman writes. “Thirty years after they were released, their descendants were said to be imitating birds never present on the island, such as pilotbirds and whipbirds,” thus offering what Ackerman calls “compelling proof of cultural transmission, one generation passing on knowledge to the next.”

For Ana Dalziell, a lyrebird-expert Ackerman meets out in the field, this makes lyrebirds “archivists of soundscapes.”

[Image: Painting of a lyrebird by John Gould, courtesy archive.org.]

The idea that the acoustics of no-longer-existing landscapes are being passed down socially through generations of songbirds is incredible, as well as suggestive of a possible tool by which landscape historians could attempt the sonic reconstructing lost environments.

The sounds of old elevators or HVAC systems in a now-destroyed building—perhaps even a demolished work by a globally renowned architect, her building now known only through acoustic after-effects, its buzzes and whirs still passed tree to tree—still being imitated by local songbirds; or the sounds of wind passing through now-extinct trees, or trees lost to recent wildfires, still being reproduced by local songbirds; or the sounds of ground-dwelling predators who are not extinct, but have nevertheless moved on to other parts of Australia, still popping up as acoustic imitations: an audio archaeology based entirely in the communal surround-sound of social singers.

You want to hear the sounds of lost buildings or extinct landscapes, and merely need to head deep into the trees, listening to lyrebirds along the way.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for giving me The Bird Way!)

The Gosling Effect

[Image: Curtains mistaken for Ryan Gosling; original image supplied by Jomppe Vaarakallio, courtesy PetaPixel; click through to PetaPixel to see the Gosling’d image.]

While processing an image using AI-assisted software, a photographer named Jomppe Vaarakallio unexpectedly found actor Ryan Gosling’s face in the resulting image file. The software apparently mistook some window curtains, featuring just the right geometry of shade and folding, for the Canadian actor and thus inserted his face.

According to PetaPixel, this “shows you what happens when computer vision gets tripped up by what looks like a blurry face”—but, of course, it is also what happens when we put too much faith in pattern recognition as a viable form of analysis, whether it’s visual, textual, or otherwise.

Like playing Led Zeppelin records backward in the 1970s and straining to hear subliminal messages pledging allegiance to Satan in the noise, we could feed all our photos through AI programs and see what secret scenes of celebrity rendezvouses they uncover—famous faces hidden in tree leaves, carpets, and window shades, in clothes hanging inside closets and in the fur of distant animals. Use it to generate scenes in films and novels, like Blow-Up or The Conversation for an age of post-human interpretation.

In fact, I’m sure we’ll see the rise and widespread use of authoritarian AI analytics, fed a constant stream of images and audio recordings, finding crimes that never happened in the blur of a street scene or hearing things were never said in a citywide wiretap—call it the Gosling Effect—resulting in people going to prison for the evidential equivalent of faces that were never really there.

(Spotted via @kottke.)

Men in Space

[Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (c. 1818).]

[NOTE: I have dozens of posts—from book reviews to news items—sitting in my drafts folder that I never published for some reason. In re-reading this, from summer 2019, I thought I’d publish it.]

The tone of a new piece by Matthew Walther in The Week hits just shy of satire, but it makes an interesting—and, I would suggest, valid—point about the Apollo moon landing as more of an art historical event, a direct extension of European Romanticism, than it was a scientific one.

“What Goethe began at Weimar in 1789 ended on August 15, 1969,” Walther writes. “Apollo 11 was the culmination of the Romantic cult of the sublime prefigured in the speculations of Burke and Kant, an artistic juxtaposition of man against a brutal environment upon which he could project his fears, his sympathies, his feelings of transcendence.” Note the use of the word man.

The primarily aesthetic nature of the first Apollo mission becomes clearer when one considers it from the perspective of both the participants and the spectators. The lunar landing was not a scientific announcement or a political press conference; it was a performance, a literal space opera, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that brought together the efforts of more than 400,000 people, performed before an audience of some 650 million.

I’m reminded of Kathleen Jamie’s critique of Robert Macfarlane’s work, published in the London Review of Books several years ago. There, Jamie mocked the current state of nature writing as a genre of the “lone enraptured male,” in her words, who she instead portrays as a figure of mythic delusion seeking self-aggrandizing solitude amongst inhuman things.

“What’s that coming over the hill?” Jamie asks. “A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.” Of course, to boldly go is clearly a sarcastic reference to a particular kind of explorer’s impulse “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

In this context, consider Walther’s own comment that much of modern expeditionary literature—such as Antarctic diaries or the records of long ship journeys—was often written by “hard men” who “put their will in the service of a literary mania for feelings of remoteness, hugeness, and brooding oceanic emptiness. What a shame that we have been able to produce no great lunar literature to succeed the writings by Byron, the Shelleys, Tennyson, and Melville that both immortalized and inspired the great hypothermic pioneers.”

Men sending themselves to the moon, men climbing mountains, men staring down glacial landscapes alone or moving into mountain huts and man-caves.

I remember waking up from a dream once, maybe ten or twelve years ago*, in which I had been the author of a novel called Space. In that dream, my (purely imaginary) novel was about a man who abandons his family—leaving his wife and kids without notice—to find “space” for himself elsewhere, an ill-considered quest for solitude that was emotionally and financially devastating for the people he left behind, but a feeling of “space” he valued so much that he could not bring himself to worry about the pain it might cause to others. In other words, it was space refigured as a kind of masculine cruelty, a weapon for solitude-seeking men who can afford to walk away—space as freedom from consequences masquerading as self-sufficiency. (I wrote a description of the dream down the next morning and thus still remember it.)

In any case, I will say—perhaps because I am blinded by my own demography—that the idea of expeditionary solitude as a kind of landscape project, something that can lure hikers into remote national forests or pull unaccompanied astronauts into deep valleys on the dark sides of distant worlds, needn’t necessarily be gendered and needn’t necessarily have any scientific value at all. Humans alone in an experience of awe, surrounded by geology, can have nothing more than aesthetic value—of course, whether it’s $152 billion worth of aesthetic value is another question entirely.

*UPDATE: Looking back at my notes, I actually had this dream in September 2014.