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While staying in Moab, Utah, and after interviewing Vicki Webster of the U.S. National Park Service, Venue received a dinner invitation on Twitter from a small community arts organization called Epicenter, located just up the road in Green River.

Green River is both tiny and quite isolated; its population is less than 1,000 people and it seems only to be saved from complete obscurity by the 70 highway that cuts through town, putting it a mere five hours' drive west from Denver.

As it happened, however, we had already marked Green River on our maps, following a tip from Matt Coolidge at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, who told us about the town's open-air uranium containment cell. Eager to check out this radioactive landmark, as well as find out how the folks at Epicenter had managed to set up shop in so small a town in so remote an area, we hopped into our car and headed north out of Moab to meet them.

Over a burger at Ray's Tavern, the (more-or-less only) local hangout spot, we heard the Epicenter backstory. The self-described "rural and proud" community arts organization was founded in 2009 by Jack Forinash, Maria Sykes, and Rand Pinson, all graduates of the Rural Studio at Auburn University, which prides itself on its commitment to training architects to create work that responds to the needs of the community, from within the community’s own context, rather than from the outside.

The three designers first arrived in Green River as AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA) in 2008. It quickly became clear that the town was both in sore need of community resources, and small enough to allow for things to get done: "at city council meetings," Maria explained, "we can present our ideas, the five people there vote, and we have an answer—we're not dealing with some obscure bureaucracy."

In 2009, with the help of a United States Department of Agriculture Rural Business Enterprise Grant, Jack, Maria, and Rand purchased a former billiard room turned potato chip storage facility in downtown Green River, redesigned the space, and renovated the structure.

From there, Jack, Maria, and a growing team, augmented by visiting Fellows, run an expanding roster of programs and store all the equipment necessary to build a house. Over dinner and beers, they gave us a picture of the town, and their place within it.

"I'm the only 28-year-old in the entire town," said Maria. "We know all 957 people who live here by name," added Jack. Both agreed Green River's was a different kind of smallness compared to the small towns in the South in which they had worked while at college. We learned that are three melon families (growing 32 varieties at sufficient scale that the entire town is lightly melon-scented, come September), that the median income is $21,000, and that the most desired career in a 6th grade survey was that of a cashier—but we also discussed what it means to be rural now, in an era of urbanism.

Epicenter clearly spends plenty of time and energy learning and trying to respond to the particular needs and opportunities of its community, but beneath that lies a broader curiosity as to how rural might redefine itself, and its relationship with urban, to shift from a pervasive sense of decline (Green River's population has shrunk by half since the 1970s) toward empowerment.

After dinner, the team took us to visit their awesomely picturesque headquarters, from which Epicenter runs a range of programs, from painting a Habitat for Humanity house (seen in the photograph above) and fixing leaky roofs to designing a melon marketing campaign and running arts programs and workshops in local schools.

"We've been given both money and moral support locally, but we've also been called communists," said Maria, when we asked how Green River had responded to Epicenter's activities. "The single most successful thing we've done," Maria told us, "is our guide to what to do around here"—a gorgeous, single-edition "Green River Newspaper," created in collaboration with local high-schoolers.

Outside, we poked our heads in a "Caravan of Curiosities"—the taxidermy-filled trailer in which some of the various Fellows funded by Epicenter have stayed. Then we divided up into two vehicles and spun around town on a short mission to see as many Epicenter-instigated art installations as possible.

These were primarily the work of artist Richard Saxton, created during his residency as a Fellow, and took the form of posters tactically installed on or inside of small structures around town, including, in the images below, the old town jail, an absolutely minuscule hut that now serves as someone's lawn care storage garage.

It felt a bit like an Easter Egg hunt, driving around the small but nonetheless somewhat sprawling town to poke our heads into various out-buildings, gatehouses, and garages to see works of art posted up on the walls.

However, the most surreal part of the evening came about midway through the art tour when, at our request, we took a detour to the edge of town to visit Green River's uranium containment cell.

Pyramidal, internally radioactive, and surrounded by nothing but a dilapidated chain link fence, the dark mound of gravel feels disturbingly post-apocalyptic, a minimalist earthwork more temporally ambitious than anything designed by Robert Smithson. The Green River uranium disposal cell is one of more than thirty constructed by the U.S. Department of Energy over the last twenty-five years, to contain the low-level radioactive waste from processing and power plants.

The Green River uranium cell from above; image by CLUI.

As the Center for Land Use Interpretation describes it:

A disposal mound for radioactive tailings, located at the site of a former uranium mill. The mill was operated by Union Carbide from 1957 to 1961. The mill site was bought by the State of Utah in 1988, and the buildings remain, gutted and abandoned. The DOE took over the disposal operations, and built the mound in 1989. It contains tailings, as well as contaminated material from 17 other properties in the area. The mound is 450 feet by 530 feet, and 41 feet tall. It covers 6 acres, and is surrounded by a chain link fence, ringed by signs warning of radioactivity.

We hovered next to its chain-link fence for about twenty minutes admiring its clean geometry, its carefully engineered gravel exterior designed to shed rainwater and provide an inhospitable surface for plant growth. As we took photographs, we talked about the Great Pyramid of Giza and the absurdity of the Department of Energy's Legacy Management Office, whose responsibility these radioactive monuments are. A small, gravestone-like marker announced a radiation level of 30 Curies. We huddled back into our vehicles and returned to town to finish our tour.

As it happens, if you're interested in exploring (and contributing to) Green River yourself, Epicenter is currently looking for new Fellows.

You have until December 14, 2013, to apply.
Gated “Monaco” Lake Las Vegas Homesites Looking West on Grand Corniche Drive, Bankrupt MonteLago Village and Ponte Vecchio Bridge Beyond, Henderson, Nevada (2010)

Photographer Michael Light divides his time between San Francisco and a remote house hear Mono Lake, on the eastern flank—and in the shadow—of the Sierra Nevada. An artist widely known for his aerial work, Light flies the trip himself in a small airplane, usually departing very early in the morning, near dawn, before the turbulence builds up.

Michael Light preps his airplane for flight; photo by Venue.

Venue not only had the pleasure of flying around Mono Lake with Light, but of staying in his home for a few nights and learning more, over the course of several long conversations, about his work.

We took a nighttime hike and hunted for scorpions in the underbrush; we looked at aerial maps of the surrounding area—in fact, most of the U.S. Southwest—to discuss the invisible marbling of military & civilian airspace in the region; and we asked Light about his many projects, their different landscape emphases, the future of photography as a pursuit and profession, and what projects he might take on next.

Flying with Michael Light over Mono Lake; photos by Venue.

From SCUBA diving amidst the nuked ruins of WWII battleships in the most remote waters of the Pacific Ocean to spending years touching up and republishing photos of U.S. nuclear weapons tests for a spectacular and deeply unsettling book called 100 Suns, to his look at the Apollo program of the 1960s as an endeavor very much focused on the spatial experience of another landscape—the lunar surface—to his ongoing visual investigation of housing, urbanization, and rabid over-development in regions like Phoenix and Las Vegas, Light's own discussion of and perspective on his work was never less than compelling.

Thoughtful about the history of landscape representation and the place of his work within it, highly articulate—indeed, it's hard to forget such phrases as "the mine is a city reversed," or that the sunken ruins of WWII battleships "are dissolving like Alka-Seltzer" in the depths of the Pacific—and with an always caustic sense of humor, Light patiently answered our many questions about his work both above the ground and below sea level.

We discussed the overlapping physical pleasures of flying and SCUBA diving, how nuclear weapons have transformed the Western notion of the landscape sublime, what cameraphones are doing to the professional photographer, and what it means to transgress into today's corporate-controlled air spaces above vast mining and extraction sites in the West.

Shadow at 300’, 1300 hours, Deep Springs Valley, CA (2001)

Finally, for those of you in or around New York City this month, Light coincidentally has a new exhibition opening at the Danziger Gallery on October 30. Check back with the gallery's website for more information as the opening approaches.

• • •

Geoff Manaugh: I’d like to start by asking how the aerial view ties into the nature of your work in general. You’ve spoken to William L. Fox in an interview for the Some Dry Space exhibition about a feeling of spatial “delirium,” suggesting that the experience of moving through the sky is something viscerally attractive to you. I’m curious if you could talk about that, as a physical sensation, but also about the representational effects of the bird’s eye—or pilot’s eye—view and how it so thoroughly changes the appearance of a landscape.

Clouds Over the Jonah Natural Gas Field, Pinedale, WY (2007)

Michael Light: The short answer is that the aerial view affords a breadth of scale that offers direct access to many of the bigger, more “meta” themes that have always been of interest to me.

But let me take a few steps back and try to explain where all this came from. I got a B.A. in American Studies from Amherst many years ago, and I have since been an Americanist—not in the sense of being an apologist for America, but in the sense of someone trying to figure out what makes this country tick. It is a very, very vast country.

Sheep Hole Mountains at 400’, 0700 hours, Twentynine Palms, CA (2000)

I grew up on the end of Long Island, and I was always getting onto Highway 80 or onto more southerly interstates and heading west. The metaphor that always accompanied me, oddly enough, was one of falling into America rather than crossing it. I was falling into the vastness of America and the sheer scale of it.

Of course, after I moved to California in 1986, I caught myself coming back east quite a bit, for family or for work, and those commercial air flights across the nation, flying coast to coast, were formative and endlessly interesting to me. I don’t ever lower the window shade as requested. If the weather is clear, the odds are that what’s unfolding below, geologically, is the main attraction for me. I just found myself looking down—or looking into—America a lot, and that sense of falling into the country just grew and evolved.

I did a big piece back in the 1990s, when I was still in graduate school. It took a couple of years, but I figured out how to make pretty decent images from 30,000 feet, from the seat of a commercial airliner. For instance, you have to sit in front of the engine so that the heat doesn’t blow the picture; and it’s a contrast game, trying to get enough clarity through all the atmospheric haze and through two layers of plexiglass, and so on and so forth. That piece was based specifically on commercial flights and it was liberating for me in lots of ways.

While working on one of those images, in particular, I had something of an epiphany—I think it was somewhere over Arizona. It’s very spare, arid country, and the incursions of human settlement into it that you see from above look very much like a colony on Mars might look, or the proverbial lunar colony, and I thought “Ah ha! Look at that!” And I realized, at that moment, that maybe I could try to find or document something like a planetary landscape: the way humans live at a planetary scale and through planetary settlements.

Chidago Canyon at 500’, 1800 hours, Chalfant, CA (2001)

This was what got me, pretty soon thereafter, thinking above and beyond the earth: looking toward NASA, and their various programs over the past few decades, and that eventually became Full Moon.

FULL MOON: Composite of David Scott Seen Twice on Hadley Delta Mountain; Photographed by James Irwin, Apollo 15, 1971 (1999)

Manaugh: There’s an interesting book called Moondust by Andrew Smith, which began with Smith’s realization that we are soon approaching an historical moment when every human being who has walked on the moon will be dead. He set about trying to interview every living person—every American astronaut—who has set foot there. What makes it especially fascinating is that Smith portrays the entire Apollo program as a kind of vast landscape project, or act of landscape exploration, as if the whole thing had really just been at attempt at staging a real-life Caspar David Friedrich painting with seemingly endless Cold War funds to back it up. The place of Full Moon in your own work seems to echo that idea, of NASA lunar photography as something like the apotheosis of American natural landscape photography.

Light: The Apollo program was absolutely a landscape project—but also an extreme aerial project. And Full Moon, of course, was also driven by my own interest in the aerial view, or the aerial exterior. That project is nothing if not a really serious exploration of the aerial: that is, if you keep going up and up, the world becomes quite circular and alien. You see the world quite literally as a planet.

FULL MOON: The Ocean of Storms and the Known Sea; Photographed by Kenneth Mattingly, Apollo 16, April 16-27, 1972 (1999)

Anyway, for me, yes, the aerial view has an intense physicality. I’ve been flying planes since before I was driving. I soloed in gliders—engineless aircraft—by 14, and, by 16, I had a private pilot’s license. A glider offers a particularly intimate and very physical way of flying, because you have to work with thermals and updrafts. You don’t have an engine. You actually want it to be turbulent and bumpy up there, because that means that the air is unstable—that parts of the atmosphere are going up and other parts are going down—and, if you can stay in those up parts and find the updrafts, then you can ride it out for hours.

Also, I was lucky enough to start SCUBA diving at the age of 9.

Michael Light at 9 years old, Bimini, Bahamas (1972)

Flying and going underwater are completely connected, at least in my mind. The three-dimensionality of each of them is something I’ve experienced from a very early age, and it is one of my greatest ongoing pleasures. I would say that there’s a tremendous amount of physical pleasure in both—and that, occasionally, it would even be accurate to call it ecstasy.

It’s like skiing or long-distance running: everything’s in the groove, everything sort of falls into place, you’re flying really beautifully, or, oftentimes in my work, you’re transgressing over something, or you’ve got a very intense subject, and you are trying to figure something out as an artist or as a citizen.

Michael Light at 49 years old, Petaluma, CA (2012)

You mentioned delirium. There’s also a certain kind of delirium—a spatial delirium, sure—simply in the pleasure of learning something new and, for me, hopefully putting that 3-dimensional experience into 2-dimensional photographic form. And if it’s good—if the image is good—then hopefully other people can get some of what I got.

Manaugh: This reminds me of a conversation I had with a writer named Kitty Hauser about the history of aerial archaeology. To make a long story short, aerial archaeology, using photographs, was born from military reconnaissance flights over the European front in World War I. The pilots there began noticing that they could see features in the landscape—such as buried or ruined buildings—that were invisible from the ground. When that technique of viewing from above was later exported to England, particularly as the leisure classes and retired military types found the free time and the personal wealth to purchase private airplanes, aerial archaeology as a pursuit really took off, if you’ll excuse the pun. And these early pioneers began to realize that, for example, there are certain times of day when things are more clearly revealed by the angle of the sun, including shadows appearing in wheat and barley fields that, when seen from above, are revealed to be an archaeological site otherwise hidden beneath the plant life. I’m curious how coming back to the same locations at certain times of day, or in certain kinds of light, can make sites or landscapes into radically different photographic experiences—with different depths or different reliefs—and how you plan for that in your shots.

Light: If I go out on an expedition for weeks shooting with an assistant, I don’t immediately fall into that groove. A few days in, everything will align. It certainly is a kind of discipline. You’re flying and imaging and circling—again and again and again, around and around and around—because you can’t just move the camera two inches to the left, or wait 15 minutes. You’re moving along at 60 miles an hour through space. So you have to shoot it again and again and again, until, finally, you get to a point where your physical senses are moving faster than your mind, and you’ve made all the shots that you think you should make—which are generally the worst ones—and it’s at that point that you come up with something genuinely new.

Specifically, I tend to shoot early in the morning and then again in the evening, which is pretty much standard practice because, of course, the lower axial light gives that 3-dimensionality and creates a feeling of revelation. Every once in a while, though, I will shoot in the desert at midday, but it’s usually only when I’m specifically seeking a flat, blown out, almost stunning or hallucinatory light.

Deep Springs Valley at 500’, 1600 hours, Big Pine, CA (2001)

But, early in the morning, the sun seems to go off in the desert like a gun—and, of course, the sun is much softer in the evening, because there’s so much more dust in the air. You really have to get up early. I’ll shoot for an hour and a half, which is all I can really take with the doors off of the aircraft. It’s very windy. It’s very intense. The camera I use is about 20 pounds. So we’ll come back and we’ll have some breakfast—and I’m exhausted. I’ll probably nap around noon for an hour or two then, come 4:00pm or so, we gather our forces and go back up.

It’s always much more turbulent in the afternoon in summer. Summer is when I tend to fly, though, because, of course, in the colder months it’s just too cold. It’s also just a lot more dangerous to cross the mountains when there’s snow on them.

But, on summer afternoons, it can be a wild ride. You strap in there tight. My glider background is helpful here; I know the plane will continue to fly, for instance, and that there’s nothing to be super-scared of. I know I’m at the edges of my equipment’s performance. The specifications on the plane degrade measurably when you take the doors off, because you generate a tremendous amount of drag. In hot temperatures, the engine also tends to run hot and, the hotter the summer air is, the fewer molecules there are under the wings of the aircraft, the fewer molecules there are to combust with the engine fuel, the fewer molecules there are for the propeller to bite into, and you get much more turbulent air. Your aircraft performance falls off measurably.

Afternoon Thunderstorm Looking West, Near Rock Springs, WY (2007)

For example, I often fly from San Francisco over the Sierras to Mono Lake in the summer. The Sierras, on the west side, have a very gradual slope. But on the east side it’s a very dramatic, very steep escarpment. It’s a drop of 7,000 feet almost in a straight line. You have a very smooth, very fast trip up the western slope, but, when you get to the escarpment, you hit what’s called a “rotor.” That’s a very turbulent place where the usual land-to-airflow relationship completely falls apart, because the support has been taken away. For those five miles or so, going east, you’re in a tumbly, sometimes chaotic atmosphere and it can be extremely dangerous, depending on the speed of the wind.

When I hit the rotor, I just think of it in terms of river rafting: looking for eddies, back-flow currents, whirlpools, and so forth. Even though it’s invisible, I know where I’m going to hit turbulence. Even though I can’t see the air, I know, extrapolating from the way that water behaves, where the turbulence will be—like, beyond that rock mountain spire over there, it’s going to be gnarly.

City-Owned Motocross Park Looking North, I-70 Beyond, Lakewood, CO (2009)

To go back to your question: in the six, almost seven years I’ve been flying with engines, the landscape is so perceptually dependent on the type of light that’s illuminating it. You really do get radically different spaces in different kinds of light. A different kind of vibe. Seasons will also change the way a landscape looks—or, I should say, the light itself seasonally changes.

On an artistic level, the ever-changing nature of what I do and how I do it, and even the instability of my position in the sky over the landscape—it’s all part of my process and it’s something I enjoy.

Manaugh: Let’s go back to SCUBA diving. When we talked four or five years ago in Nevada, you were heading off to the Bikini Atoll, to dive amidst the ruins of U.S. warships, and I’d love to learn more about that project. How did it come about, what were you seeking to document, and what were the results? I’m also fascinated by analogy of being in the empty volume of the sky versus being buried in the very full volume of the ocean and how that affects the sense of space in your photography.

Light: The Bikini work grew out of my earlier involvement with imagery of nuclear detonations, which, as you know, was a project called 100 Suns. That was an archival endeavor that came out in 2003.

100 Suns (2003)

As a photographer or maker of images, I’m always as interested in trying to figure out the meaning of the trillions of photographs that have already been made as I am in making new ones of my own. And, culturally, I find it interesting to think about the meaning of photography, in the very large American contexts of Full Moon and 100 Suns. I think of both projects as landscape projects and, certainly, they are also investigations into American power and the peculiarities of American scale.

Nicola Twilley: As a side note, how does an archival project like 100 Suns work, technically, as far as reproducing the images goes?

Light: You scan them. You go in and you clean them up. You do whatever the approach of the hour is. You wind up almost lovingly inside each of the historical photographs. And you get very fond of them; you think of them almost as your own. Of course, they’re not—primarily because you haven’t had the experience of actually going to that space at that particular time and choosing how to make that image.

But I had a very strong desire to go—to make a pilgrimage—to, if not the Nevada Test Site, which I never could get into, then at least to the Pacific Proving Grounds, which I could get to. I tried to get into the Nevada Test Site. You can visit it, physically, but to get over it—in the air—and to make images is basically impossible. The last person to get permission to do that was Emmet Gowin, with his remarkable images. He got in in the 1990s. It took him a decade, and that was before 9/11. I tried again, and I was negotiating directly with the head of the site, but I just could never do it.

However, one can get out to Bikini, and the way one gets to Bikini hasn’t changed. At the time I went, there was a dive operation there run by the people of Bikini—who actually live 500 miles away, on a rather awful rock without a lagoon, in a place that they were moved to in 1945. They were basically booted off their atoll by the U.S. government. The people run this dive operation really for propaganda reasons, using it as a method to tell their story.

Bikini Island, Radioactively Uninhabitable Since 1954, Bikini Atoll (2003)

What one goes to dive for there are ships that were sunk in the Operation Crossroads tests of 1946.

At that point, the U.S. Navy—this was, of course, right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki—wanted to know if naval warfare was now utterly obsolete. Could a single bomb destroy an entire navy or a flotilla of ships?

100 SUNS: 058 BAKER/21 kilotons/Bikini Atoll/1946 (2003)

So they gathered almost 100 vessels for the tests, making all sorts of strange, mythic gestures. For instance, they brought the Nagato, which Admiral Yamamoto was on when he orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor. They brought that all the way from Tokyo. They brought out the Prinz Eugen from Germany, which was Germany’s most modern battleship. They brought the first American aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Saratoga, out.

The ships they chose were these giant wartime icons, and they were bombed both from the air, with the Able test, and from 90 feet underwater, by the Baker test. The Baker test gave us the most spectacularly iconic images of Bikini: a water column being blasted up into the sky with the Wilson bell cloud around it that we all know so well.

100 SUNS: 059 BAKER/21 kilotons/Bikini Atoll/1946 (2003)

Those ships are 180 feet down at the bottom of Bikini Lagoon, to this day. They were functional at the time, and they were fully loaded with weaponry and fuel. They were unpopulated, although there were farm animals chained to the decks of the ships. So it’s creepy.

Diving there is pretty hairy. It’s way beyond recreational safety diving limits. 180 feet is dark. 180 feet is cold. You take on a tremendous amount of nitrogen down there. It’s pretty technical. You have to do decompression diving, which is inherently dangerous—you have to breathe helium trimix at about thirty feet below the boat for nearly an hour after twenty minutes at depth, hoping that no tiger shark comes along to eat you, as you adjust.

Shark, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

Once you’re down there, you can penetrate the ships, which are dissolving like Alka-Seltzer. It’s very entropic. You’re suffering, at that depth, from nitrogen narcosis. It’s like having three martinis. You’re pretty zonked out.

I went twice: in 2003 and, again, in 2007. During those trips, I made images from the air, on the surface, and underwater. I dove Bikini Lagoon, down to those ships on the bottom, twice.

Diver descending to 180 feet, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

It was one of the most challenging landscapes I have ever worked in, because almost inconceivable violence occurred to these places—both to Bikini Atoll and to Enewetak Atoll. I only physically went to Bikini Atoll, although I did fly over Enewetak. But both atolls were subjected to human gestures that are, as I said, almost inconceivably violent. To try to represent that photographically is very, very difficult.

In fact, the radiological disaster that occurred in 1954 happened simply because the winds changed direction at the wrong time, blowing back over the atoll at Bikini. During the largest nuclear detonation the United States ever did out there, which was 15 megatons, the winds shifted and everything blew back over the islands. It’s the worst radiological disaster in U.S. history.

Manaugh: I don’t want to sound naïve, but is it safe even to be there? Can you walk around and swim in the water and not get radiation poisoning?

Light: Bikini Atoll is still radioactive and still uninhabited to this day, but, yes, you can go there. As long as you don’t drink the water or eat the coconuts—anything that actually comes in contact with the soil, which has a layer of Cesium-137 in it—then you’re fine. The islands have healed. You know, it’s tropical. They’ve healed. There aren’t five-headed crabs walking around. The fish are fine; you can eat the fish. But it’s still pretty radioactive. I’m walking around in a Speedo bathing suit, thinking, “Wow, I’m glad I’m never having kids, ever!” You can’t feel radiation, but it’s there.

So there you are, having a tropical paradise moment, surrounded by tropical paradise visuals, yet you know, in your head, that this is one of the most violent landscapes on earth.

100 SUNS: 086 MOHAWK/360 kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1956 (2003)

Two commercial aircraft fly the Marshall Islands. There is no access to private aircraft. The distances are too great. Bikini and Enewetak are in the middle of nowhere—that’s why they were used as test sites in the first place. To get aerial access to them was extremely difficult. I had to shoot from those two commercial air shuttles.

Over Enewetak I was able to get some pretty great images of the Mike crater. Mike was the first H-bomb test or, I should say, the first test of a “thermonuclear device.” It was not a bomb.

Mile-Wide, 200’ Deep 1952 MIKE Crater, 10.4 Megatons, Enewetak Atoll (2003)

That was Edward Teller’s baby, and one big-ass crater. That was 10.4 megatons. The scale of that kind of explosion dwarfs all of the ordinance detonated in both world wars combined. Five seconds after that detonation, the fireball alone was five miles wide. These were really, really big explosions. It’s hard to get your head around how big they were.

100 SUNS: 065 MIKE/10.4 megatons/Enewetak Atoll/1952 (2003)

Getting above and working with the Mike crater was terrific. I was able to get above Bikini, but not above the Bravo crater or out to the farthest edge of the atoll. Bravo was the 15-megaton test that left Bikini radioactive.

100 SUNS: 099 BRAVO/15 megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954 (2003)

However, I was able to dive in the Bravo crater while I was there, which was one of the creepiest experiences of my life. It’s still quite radioactive out on the edge of the crater. There’s a bunker right on the edge of Bravo Crater that’s sheared off at the top.

Radioactive Bunker Facing Mile-Wide, 200’ Deep 1954 BRAVO Crater, Bikini Atoll (2003)

Anyway, it’s obviously very deep and very rich territory. It was pretty amazing to be able to make the pilgrimage after having spent so much time with the archival material as I worked on 100 Suns. I have always felt ambivalent about the Bikini work. I’ve never known quite what to do with it. It is hard to work out there. I think that, ultimately, I will do a small book that will move between historical imagery of the ships and of the servicemen. There were 40,000 servicemen stationed there for several years while the Crossroads tests were happening.

I went back in 2007—I think that was right after you and I first talked about this. I got to do some aerial work and some more work on the ground, but, primarily, that trip was about bringing out a digital camera, which I did not have in 2003, and using it underwater. I had a housing and some lights, but I was not very successful in imaging those ships recognizably at those depths. It’s hard.

Ship Sunk by 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

There’s a lot of organic matter in the water. It’s incredibly dark. It’s very difficult to figure out, conceptually, a way to image the country’s first aircraft carrier. For example, I can’t back away from it enough, underwater, to get the whole thing. In theory, one could put together composite images, shot at a fairly close level, and then sort of stitch together what should look like a ship. But it’s a challenge.

Growth on Ship Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

For me, throughout the Bikini work, both in 2003 and in 2007, I have taken the approach of reversing the positive as a conceit toward a sense of visually representing radiation and visually suggesting multiple energy sources other than the sun—multiple sources of light. There are also questions about narrative: about entropy, light, Hades, narcosis, dissolution.

You’ve got this kind of X-ray death trip, if you will.

Tower of the IJN Nagato Battleship, Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

It’s a very, very strong feeling, diving amongst those ships, and the ghosts of all the people who died on those ships, and knowing what they were used for and how they were sunk. It almost feels like the last gasp of an industrial era that’s now long over and gone. It was really an age of iron. It’s as far from the digital world that we live in now that you can imagine. It’s a dead era, and the work is tough. It’s not warm and fuzzy, or nostalgic. None of that is what Bikini is about. It’s about as dark as you can get.

Along the USS Saratoga, Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

Manaugh: In the context of 100 Suns and even hearing you say things like, “as dark as you can get,” it almost seems as though sites like the Mike crater and even these tropical ruins are like spatial byproducts of very large-scale light events. It’s as if the light of a counter-sun—the nuclear explosion—has created its own landscapes of extreme over-exposure and violence. The scenes you’re documenting, in a sense, are byproducts of light.

Light: Yes, some of this is important to me, and I do tend to think oppositionally, in rather binary terms.

Inside Radioactive Photographic Bunker Built In 1956, Aomon Island, Bikini Atoll (2003)

There are so many levels of meaning to the bomb. There are landscape meanings. There are political meanings. There are industrial meanings. There are scientific meanings. To me, as I mentioned, this is a landscape book at bottom.

I personally see the moment that the Mike device detonated in 1952 as the moment when the classical landscape sublime—which, of course, up to that point was the domain of either the divine or of massively powerful natural forces beyond human control—switched. In 1952, the landscape sublime shifted wholly over to humans as the architect.

I was interested in looking closer at that moment when humans became “the divine”—as powerful as, if not more powerful than, the natural forces that they’re subject to on the planet. What was the effect of that—what did that do to landscape representation—when the sublime became an architecture of ourselves?

100 SUNS: 081 TRUCKEE/210 kilotons/Christmas Island/1962 (2003)

With the attainment of a thermonuclear fusion device, humans are igniting their own stars. What does that mean in landscape terms? What does that mean in architectural terms? When you talk about light itself creating a landscape and leaving behind these giant craters, it’s very resonant territory.

Arguably, humans firing up their own stars could be seen as the absolute pinnacle of a tool-bearing civilization—although it’s equally fair to say that it could be seen as humanity’s greatest tragedy, because it came out of a cauldron of violence and was immediately put back into a cauldron of violence.

100 SUNS: 093 BRAVO/15 megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954 (2003)

To bring us back to ground a little bit here, I did 100 Suns, and I did Full Moon, and I continue to do my aerial forays into the American West, because these are things that I want to learn about and try to understand. I just truly didn’t understand fusion and fission; I really didn’t understand space. I think that, while I have a taste—and the human mind has a taste—for scale, there’s only so much scale that we can take. Even then, we need to have it served to us in smaller chunks.

I found that other books and investigations pertaining to outer space were just way too broad and, in the end, didn’t tell me anything. I don’t get much out of the Hubble images, for example. They’re too big. I have no entranceway into those to conceptualize or think about the subject, so I wind up with cotton candy or some nebula image that’s pretty, sure, but I can’t get any substance out of it.

100 Suns never would have happened without having spent five years on the surface of the moon, metaphorically. Studying the nature of light in a vacuum—that was really the primary interest of mine, artistically, in taking on that project.

FULL MOON: Astronaut's Shadow; Photographed by Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17, 1972 (1999)

How does light work without atmosphere to break it up? It’s sharper than anything our eyes have evolved to see, and it behaves very differently than it does when diffused by an atmosphere. What does that do to the physical act—the actual technology—of photography as it tries to capture that light? What does that light do to a landscape?

What does that landscape do to all the other landscapes we’ve already seen in the history of landscape photography?

FULL MOON: Morning Sun Near Surveyor Crater, With Blue Lens Flare; Photographed by Charles Conrad, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

I spent a lot of time looking at the sun’s effects on the surface of the moon, in near-vacuum conditions, and I thought, “Well, what’s the next logical step for this?”

FULL MOON: Solar Wind Collector; Photographed by Alan Bean, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

Certainly, it’s not Mars, as so many publishers would suggest. It seemed more logical to go look directly into that sun and, at least in terms of the 20th century, very clear that I should step back just two or three decades, and deal with the bomb. Of course, the Apollo program never would have happened without ICBMs.

On that level, it’s logical—but it also acts as a kind of psychological journey. In 100 Suns, there’s no handholding that occurs for the viewer to guide them between attraction and repulsion. You’re just thrown into it. There’s science afterward; there’s text afterward; there are explanations afterward; there are politics afterward. But that kind of frontal experience was what I wanted you to feel, as a viewer.

It was a very daunting subject. The scale of America, and the scale of its power, offers an infinite mountain of mystery.

Twilley: In terms of both the moon and some of these military ruins, like the Nevada Test Site, physical access for the photographer is all but impossible. Has this made you interested in remote-viewing, remotely controlled cameras, or even drone photography? What might those technologies do, not necessarily to the future of photography, but to the future of the photographer?

Light: Absolutely. I think it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the Apollo photographs were made without anyone looking through a viewfinder.

Those cameras were mounted on the surface of the moon or on the chest area of the spacesuit. With a proper wide-angle lens and an electric advance, the astronauts basically just pointed their bodies in 360-degree circles, at whatever area they were collecting the samples from, and that was the photograph. They were trained very carefully to make sure they could operate the cameras, and there are certainly examples of handheld camera images on the surface of the moon, but a lot of the images were these sort of automatic images you’re talking about—photography without a photographer.

FULL MOON: Alan Bean at Sharp Crater With the Handtool Carrier; Photographed by Charles Conrad, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

It’s one of those things that I find interesting about Full Moon, that what we consider to be interesting, photographically, can happen absent of a human set of eyes making the image. Today, as you mention, it’s only getting more extreme.

I should say, at this particular photographic moment, as a photographer myself, I feel overwhelmed. I have not figured out where photography is going. I don’t think anyone has. I certainly know that it’s changing, radically, and sometimes in ways that make me want to run back to the 19th century.

For one thing, everyone’s a photographer now, because everyone has a phone, and those cameras are getting very good. The cameras themselves are doing more and more of the work, as well, work that, traditionally, was the field of the photographer, so the quality of photographs—in the classic sense of things like quality of exposure, density, resolution, contrast, and so forth—is going up and up and up. And, of course, as you well know, there are now systems in place for total and instantaneous publishing of one’s work via the Internet. I think we are entering a world of total documentation.

Obviously, all of this visual information is going to continue to proliferate. I don’t know how to navigate my way through that. I tell myself—because I have my own methods, my own cameras, and my own crazy aerial platform—that my pictures have a view that you are not going to get from a drone.

Personal drones are going to proliferate, and our eyes, soon enough, are going to be able to go anywhere and everywhere without our bodies. Humans have a tremendous interest—they always have had—in extending themselves where they physically cannot go. That’s just picking up more speed now—it’s going faster and faster—and the density of the data is thickening, becoming smog.

I think that photography, or what we currently consider photography, will become more about the concept or the idea driving the picture than the actual picture itself. Maybe that has always been the case. Metaphors are obviously applicable to everything, and you can find them in everything, if you want to. It’s not so much the picture—or, it’s not so much the information in the picture—it’s the spin on it. Information does not equal meaning. Meaning is bigger than information.

I used to fly model aircraft as a kid. It’s a powerful fantasy: mounting a camera on a little electric helicopter and running it around the corner, lifting off over the fence, the hedgerow, the border, and seeing what you can see. I actually do it physically now, in airplanes, and I’m very invested in the physical experience of that. It’s a big part of my aerial work: the politics of transgressing private property in a capitalist society.

I may not be able to get into that gated community on the outskirts of Las Vegas—which is what I’m photographing now, a place called Lake Las Vegas—but, legally, I can get above it and I can make the stories and the images I want to make.

“Monaco” Lake Las Vegas Homes on Gated Grand Corniche Drive, Henderson, NV (2010)

That homeowners’ association, or that world created by developers, wants total control over its narrative, and, in general, they have it. They exclude anyone who wants to tell a different story. So far, with the exception of military air space and occasional prohibited air space around nuclear power plants and that sort of thing, I can still tell my own stories, and I do.

A couple of years ago I went out to Salt Lake City. I sold one of my big handmade books to the art museum there, and I also made an effort to see Kennecott Copper, which is owned by Rio Tinto. I thought they might be interested in buying some of the work—but, as it turned out, they were not at all interested, and, in fact, seemed to wish I didn’t exist.

I met with their PR person—a very nice, chatty PR kind of lady. I showed her this spectacular, 36-inch high and 44-inch wide book of photographs featuring this incredible, almost Wagnerian hole in the ground. And the only thing that she could say, upon seeing the book, was: “How on earth did you get permission?” Not: Wow, these are interesting pictures, or whatever. She instantly zoomed into the question of the legal permission to represent or tell the story of this site. I said: “Well, I didn’t get permission, actually, because I didn’t need permission.” And that was anathema to her; it was anathema to the whole corporate structure that wants to control the story of the Bingham Mine.

Earth’s Largest Excavation, 2.5 Miles Wide and .5 Miles Deep, Bingham Copper Mine, UT (2006)

Anyway, I think it’s through my own selfishness that I would not want to send a drone up to transgress over a site when I could do it, instead. I could just sit at my computer screen and kick back in my chair—but we spend enough time in chairs as it is. It’s more that I am putting my butt on the line; I’m breaking no laws, but there is the experience of physical exploration that I would be denied by using drones. Obviously, in areas where I truly cannot go—like the moon—or where I wouldn’t want to go—like on the edge of one of those nuclear detonations—then I’d be thrilled to have a remote.

Manaugh: You mentioned control over the narrative of the copper mine. It’s as if Kennecott has two-dimensional control over their narrative, through image rights, but they don’t have volumetric, or three-dimensional, control over the narrative, which you can enter into with an airplane and then relate to others in a totally different way.

Light: Of course.

My particular approach, aerially, is very different. The obvious answer is: why not just Google Map it, and zoom in, and then throw a little three-dimensionality on it by moving a little Google Earth lever? But the actual act of going in at the low altitudes that I do lets me make these particular images. I don’t do verticals; I do obliques, because they allow for a relational tableau to happen. To go in low—to make that physical transgression over Bingham or over Lake Las Vegas or over this or that development—is great, and I think it’s a viewpoint that is unique.

Looking East Over Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots, Black Mountain Beyond, Henderson, NV (2010)

Manaugh: You’ve mentioned Las Vegas, but I’d also like to talk about your Los Angeles work. You basically have two oppositional series—L.A. Day and L.A. Night—which really makes explicit the role light plays in changing how we see a landscape. For instance, in L.A. Night, the city is represented as this William Blake-like microcosm of the universe, with the lights of the houses in the Hollywood hills, and the cars on the freeways, mimicking the stars above them. The city becomes a copy of the sky.

Untitled/Downtown Dusk, Los Angeles (2005)

Then there’s L.A. Day, which confronts the massive Ballardian geometry of the freeways themselves, baking under the sun.

Long Beach Freeway and Atlantic Boulevard Looking Southeast, L.A. River Beyond (2004)

I’m interested in what the city is doing for you in these photographs. Is it a representation of the end of civilization, or is it a strange depiction of new, golden dawn for urban form? What is your attraction to and metaphoric use of the city—of Los Angeles, in particular?

Light: Well, these are very interesting questions. One thing to bear in mind, first of all, is that the day work and the night work is now quite old work to me. The day work was shot in 2004 and the night work was shot in 2005 and it’s just a Los Angeles; it’s not the Los Angeles. It’s very much a particular spot in time that I found myself at that moment. I’ll get into that in a little more detail in a minute.

Back in 1986, when I moved to San Francisco, I wanted to come west for a lot of reasons, one of which was to work for the environment. I had worked for the Sierra Club doing political lobbying with their D.C. office for a couple of years right out of school in the late 1980s. I’ve remained a pretty strong environmentalist, although I try not to make my work tendentious or overtly activist in that sense. I want to be more complicated than that.

Looking Northwest, Somewhere Near Torrance (2004)

Anyway, in San Francisco, the default attitude is to look down your nose at the Southland—like, “Oh, yeah, Los Angeles. It’s everything that’s wrong with America.” The more I’ve lived in California, though, which is 26 years now, the more I have come to realize that this is an extraordinarily common, but very facile, view of Los Angeles. I hope I have grown in the depth of my views about L.A., I’d say, because, if there’s any one thing I’ve learned about photographing Los Angeles—like anywhere else, but particularly L.A.—it’s that, every time you shoot, it’s a different city. L.A. in the spring is one thing. L.A. in the dry summer is another. L.A. day. L.A. night. L.A. color. L.A. black and white. I have been humbled, I think, in a positive way in my views of Los Angeles. Of course, maybe I’ve just gotten more cynical or maybe I’ve gotten a little more complicatedly environmental. But I’m not condemnatory about that city the way I used to be.

L.A. is a massive thing. This is one of the reasons why I was drawn to it in the first place. It’s so big. It’s so complex. Is it apocalyptic? Well, yes; it has a certain apocalyptic quality to it. But, if I’m trying to understand America, or trying to understand the bomb, how could I not try to understand L.A.?

So L.A. Day came directly out of doing 100 Suns. 100 Suns came out in 2003 and I had been spending a tremendous amount of time metaphorically looking at “suns.” Obviously, in L.A. Day, one of the major tropes is that I am shooting directly into the sun, and I’m dealing with air, light, and atmosphere. In that regard, I’m also exploring many of the same things as Full Moon.

I was also just beginning to work with 4x5 negatives, and wanted to go as high-key as possible, to go back into that annihilating desert light. A lot of it was shot either early in the morning or very late in the day, but the whiteness of the light at midday is a very dry, Western, annihilating light that I was also interested in investigating. There’s an image that I’m particularly fond of: it’s downtown L.A. with the river in front, and the city is almost vaporizing. It’s almost just lifting up into the ether. I guess I wasn’t overtly looking for a nuclear moment, something coming so literally from 100 Suns, but, in my mind, that image really—at least, metaphorically—bridges those two projects.

Downtown Los Angeles Looking West, 1st Street Bridge and L.A. River in Foreground (2004)

The night work was kind of a binary reflex. I had been thinking about the old 19th-century blue-sensitive films, where the skies would go pure white, for a while. Full Moon, obviously, is the reversal of that, where the ground—the surface of the moon—is white with undiluted sunlight and the sky is endlessly black.

In the day in L.A. you get the obverse: a terrestrial sky, if you will. L.A. Night is another reversal and a kind of the binary analogue to the moon and its vacuum sky.

Untitled/River Stars, Los Angeles (2005)

Those things were operating in my mind, although the night work also came out of a technical challenge I wanted to face. I wanted to get this 4x5 camera to work from a helicopter. I can only go one-sixtieth of a second. Slower than that and I get a blur. The challenge was: can I actually get enough light on the film at one-sixtieth of a second, either at dusk or in pure dark? Can I even make this work?

I discovered very cheap—relatively speaking—Robinson R22 helicopters, operating out of Van Nuys, that I could get for something like $230 an hour with a pilot. The physical thrill of having your own private dragonfly, really, which is what these helicopters are, also drove my interest. I was doing all this day work and I thought, well: let’s try a night flight. Let’s actually drift over the vastness and the endlessness of the city, and all the light washing around in that basin. It is exquisitely sparkly. It’s delightful. It has some enchantment in a way that Los Angeles, in daylight, does not. It’s rife with metaphor with all the little lights standing in for all the little people.

Untitled/Hollywood, Los Angeles (2005)

I think that, in all of my work since the late 1980s, there has been a transposition between up and down, or a loss of gravitational pull, and that’s very important to me.

FULL MOON: Edward White at 17,500 mph Over the Gulf of Mexico; Photographed by James McDivitt, Gemini 4, 1965 (1999)

A sense of vertigo or spinning in space, the full 3-dimensionality of space—the spatial delirium we were talking about earlier. I’ve always been interested in imagery that gives me a sense of looking up when I am actually looking down. That reversal is something I try to look for.

Sawtooth Mountains Diptych, ID (2012)

But that night work was very much of a moment in time in my own production—meaning that I would not go back to L.A. and make pictures like that again.

The work I’m doing over Vegas couldn’t be more different. It’s color. It’s very much lower to the ground. It’s much more specific to its content. In aerial work for me, not only is there tremendous pleasure in moving through space, 3-dimensionally, there is also tremendous pleasure in moving over and around and amongst geology and amongst actual formations of the land. Much of the content of the western work is about that dialogue between geology and the built world.

Empty Lots in the “Marseilles” Lake Las Vegas Community, Henderson, NV (2011)

The subtitle of my larger project, Some Dry Space, is An Inhabited West. My point is that there is no place that’s untouched anymore. The west is a giant human park.

But, that said, there is still lot of space left and it’s really fun to move through that space. It’s fun to say, well, okay, here’s Phoenix or here’s Los Angeles, but how can I make images that actually show the power of the geology of a place? How do I represent two different time scales? How do I photograph the human one and the tectonic one? I find that dialogue, between a human time frame and the time frame of the land, to be an interesting one. I try to capture both when I can, preferably adjacent to each other in the same picture.

New Construction On East Porter Drive, Camelback Mountain Beyond, Scottsdale, AZ (2007)

Twilley: What have you been trying to capture or represent in your most recent trips out there?

Light: Every flight is different. Every mindset is different. I find that I take radically different pictures each time I go up. It’s an interesting thing. I’ve contained myself to two areas—Lake Las Vegas and the MacDonald Ranch, which is this whole side of a mountain that’s been completely sculpted into house pads. It is the most spectacular, simple engineering project I think I’ve ever seen. It’s very dramatic. Parts of it are built out; parts of it aren’t. I don’t know what the final awful sales name of the development will be, but these will be very high-end homes.

I’ve really taken on the domestic side of Las Vegas, where “California dreams” are to be had on the cheap—and then on the extraordinarily inflated side of things, the delusional, opulent side of things.

Vegas is a very easy target for the sophisticated East Coast cultural critic to come out and judge. But that line of critique is a dead end. It’s not new territory, and it also dismisses the people—the end-users—without asking any questions about how they got there. I’ll nail the developers any day of the week: this is a calculated, rationalized capitalist agenda for them. But the people at the end, on the receiving side of it, the people who are trying to build their lives and their dreams, on whatever unstable sands that they can or can’t afford out there—I would like to present them critically but without condemnation.

Halted “Bella Fiore” Houses and Bankrupt “Falls” Golf Course, Lake Las Vegas, Henderson, NV (2011)

The L.A. work was too high and atmospheric to get political. Now that I’m down, flying much lower and getting closer and closer to the material, I think the work can carry more of an agenda. It is a presentation with sophisticated layering, I hope, rather than a blanket condemnation. Otherwise, I’m looking down my nose, saying, “Oh, look at these poor fools living in Las Vegas, while I’m up in San Francisco living the way people should live.”

The more work I do in Las Vegas, the more I see parallels between the mining industry—and the extraction history of the west—and the inhabitation industry. They do the same sort of things to the land; they grade, flatten, and format the land in similar ways. It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes between a large-scale housing development being prepped for construction and a new strip mine where some multinational firm is prospecting for metals.

Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots and Cul De Sac Looking West, Henderson, NV (2011)

In other words, the extraction industry and the inhabitation industry are two sides of the same coin. The terraforming that takes place to make a massive development on the outskirts of a city has the same order, and follows the same structure, as much of the terraforming done in the process of mining.

That was a revelation for me. The mine is a city reversed. It is its own architecture.

Hiking Trail and Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots, Black Mountain Beyond, Henderson, NV (2010)

This latest shoot also resulted in some structural advances in the photographs, in the way that they are composed and the way that they are offset and fragmenting. I was pleased with it. I was also testing out a new camera I had rented.

Twilley: Are you shooting digital?

Light: I am beginning to. I’m trying. I’m renting all the Hasselblads—60 megapixels—that I can get my hands on.

Two years ago now, when I had already been doing the Vegas work for a while, I wanted to get away from the very, very new. I wanted to get away from what was, before the crash, the fastest-growing city in America, and go out to find the very, very old. I flew out to the Acoma Pueblos and the Hopi Mesas, which are the oldest, continuously inhabited settlements on the North American continent.

I worked out there twice, on two separate trips, that summer of 2011. It was amazing: the super-old against the super-new. Obviously, the Vegas work is by helicopter, whereas I’m in my small aircraft over Acoma and Hopi land.

The Hopi outlawed photography, recording, and anthropological visits and sketching back in 1913. You do not roll up onto Hopi land and take pictures or make recordings without their specific permission. Likewise with Acoma: you ask permission. This is sacred territory.

Now, I’m in the air. I don’t have any problem transgressing over corporate property—private property—when I’m in America: it’s my country and I’m an American. I’m an arrogant motherfucker. If I want to make a picture, I’m going to make a picture. I don’t care who you are; I’m going to do it, if I can legally get away with it, and, in the air, I can legally get away with it.

However, I do not have that right over Hopi land and Acoma. I don’t have that right over Native American territory. It is not my country; it’s their country. It’s not my nation. It’s not my inheritance. It’s not my heritage. It’s not my politics. It’s their sovereignty. I truly do not have a right, morally, as far as I am concerned, to transgress those boundaries. I respect them.

On the other hand, I am a photographer—an aerial photographer—and I’m looking for images. I did a lot of legwork. I spoke to photographers who work aerially, and who have worked aerially for decades, in Navajo land and Hopi land. Morally—and, again, this is my compass, not necessarily your compass—my feeling is that if I’m there, in the air, and I’m able to make the image, I’ll make the image. Of course, whether I can use that image after the fact remains to be seen, and that will only be determined after open discussions with various tribal entities.

So, basically, I made images that I may never be able to publish. I made them because I wanted to make them. I made them for myself. I made them as unobtrusively as I possibly could. Mine is a small aircraft. It makes absolutely no sound if I cut the power and I descend. Then, eventually, I have to add power and climb up and out, but it’s a pretty quiet little number. And I would never photograph religious ceremonies.

But if I were ever to publish any of that work, I would show them all the images first; I would give them a copy of all the images; and I would probably offer any revenues from those images to the tribe. But there is a difference between acquiring images and presenting images to the world. It is interesting, these politics.

U.S. Magnesium plant, Great Salt Lake, UT (Google Maps, 2013)

Take the chlorine magnesium plant outside of Salt Lake. This is a plant that’s owned by—I’m blanking on his name. That plant outside Salt Lake is the worst polluter in America.

Manaugh: You mean the Hummer guy? Ira Rennert?

Light: That is exactly right. Ira Rennert. He owns the largest private residence in America. It’s in Sagaponack, New York. I grew up 12 miles from Sagaponack. I know that area very well.

Ira Rennert residence “Fair Field,” Sagaponack, New York: 29 bedrooms, 39 bathrooms, 110,000 sq feet built structures (Google Maps, 2013)

I have a mind—and I have had a mind, for a while—to transgressively photograph his insane, absurd residence at the end of Long Island. I would do a bifurcated book, featuring images of his house and images of the chlorine magnesium plant outside Salt Lake, and let him sue me. Bring it on. But, oh boy, would I have to talk to the lawyers beforehand. You have to plan for lawsuit attack.

Here’s an interesting story: There was a couple—a man and a woman—who made a bunch of money on the Internet, cashed out, and bought a Robinson R44 four-seater helicopter. They did this thing called the California Coastal Records Project, where they systematically documented every single piece of the California coast and put it online. I think you can even zoom in—the images are pretty high-res. I’m not sure if they identified everything on the coast, but there was probably some identification going on. This is the land of Google, right?

But, when they were flying past Malibu—which is just one part of the California coast—they happened to photograph Barbra Streisand’s house. She sued them for $50 million. She claimed invasion of privacy. Happily, the judge threw it out and said, “Grow up, Barbra. This is not about you.” And that is true: they weren’t singling out Barbra Streisand.

Now, if I tackle Mr. Rennert, then that is singling him out.

Anyway, the more I photograph, the more I have become attracted to architecture and the meanings of architecture. As it appears here and there out west in the landscape, architecture stands out so much. It’s just plunked down, naked and exposed. Whatever intentions it has, if there are any, are so apparent.

Houses on the Edge of the Snake River Lava Plain, Jerome, ID (2009)

As I have come to photograph these inhabited landmarks, it’s more and more obvious how the affluent choose to manifest their affluence through architecture. They manifest it by getting or obtaining a certain piece of land—a spectacular piece of land in the spectacular west—and then by building some sort of structure there. They want to insert themselves into the most sublime location possible.

They take in the sublime, as we all would, and as I do, but then they try to project it back out again through a generally dirty and dark architectural mirror. You see it on the Snake River, with the potato barons. You see it in Colorado. You see it in ski towns. In my view, it’s just a re-projection of the American business ego—let’s just call it the American ego—back out into the landscape, via this or that villa. It’s an architectural version of wanting now to be the true authors of the landscape sublime, and part of this abrupt shift from classical, uninhabited landscapes to built landscapes of our own monumental and violent design. That’s all part of what I mean by “the inhabited west."
Across the United States, natural darkness is an endangered resource. East of the Mississippi, it is already extinct; even in the West, night sky connoisseurs admit that it's quicker to find true darkness by flying to Alice Springs, Australia, than traveling to anywhere in the Lower Forty-eight.

Ever since the nation's first electric streetlight made its debut in Cleveland, on April 29, 1879, the American night has become steadily brighter. In his new book, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, Paul Bogard aims to draw attention to the naturally dark night as a landscape in its own right—a separate, incredibly valuable environmental condition that we overlook and destroy at our own peril.

Poster designed by Tyler Nordgren, author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks.

Venue took the opportunity to visit Bogard in his office on the campus of James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to learn more about nocturnal America and its dark skies—and what we have lost by dissociating the two.

Our conversation touches on the difficulty of measuring and preserving such an ephemeral quality, as well as the ecological and health consequences of endless artificial light, with speculative detours into evolutionary shifts in human vision and the possibility of preserving Las Vegas (the brightest pixel in the world in NASA photographs) as a "light pollution park."

• • •

The Bortle scale was originally published in Sky & Telescope magazine in 2001. It classifies the darkness of skies from point of view of an astronomer, ranging from 1 ("an observer's Nirvana!") to 9, in which "the only celestial objects that really provide pleasing telescopic views are the Moon, the planets, and a few of the brightest star clusters." This illustration of the scale comes via Stellarium.

Nicola Twilley: Darkness is easy to overlook, if you’ll excuse the pun. How did you go about structuring the story of such a familiar, yet intangible quality?

Paul Bogard: People think they know darkness, and that they experience darkness everyday, but they don’t, really. That’s one of the reasons I borrowed the Bortle scale for the table of contents. I think John Bortle’s point, when he created this tool for measuring the darkness of skies, was that we have no idea what darkness really is. We think night is dark—full stop, end of story. But, on the Bortle scale, cities would be a Class 9—the brightest. Most of us spend our nights in what he would call a 5 at best, or more likely a 6 or 7. We rarely, if ever, get any darker than that.

Until the coming of electric light, people experienced a darkness that Bortle would classify as 2 or 3, every night. What I tried to do in the book is to show that difference, by working my way down from places that are bright to those that are less bright, but also by talking to people who are living and working in those places.

Left: Winter constellations in a Bortle Class 4 or 5 sky. Right: The same constellation panorama in an urban, Class 8 or 9 sky. Illustrations by John Bianchi from Exploring the Night Sky by Terence Dickinson, Sky & Telescope, February 2001.

Twilley: It’s interesting that, in order to see the nuances in darkness, we need to measure and name it. It was certainly a revelation to me to read in your book that twilight has three stages—civil, nautical, and astronomical, with civil being when cars should use headlights, nautical meaning that enough stars are visible for navigational purposes, and astronomical referring to the point at which the sky is dark enough for the faintest stars to emerge. Previously, I had thought of twilight as a single condition on the light-to-dark spectrum, rather than a multiplicity.

Bogard: For sure. For me, one of the reasons why identifying different depths of darkness is so important is that we don’t recognize that we’re losing it, unless we have a name to recognize it by. It’s also a way to talk about what we might regain.

That’s also what the National Parks Service Night Sky team, who I describe in the book, is trying to do with their sky quality index. If you’re charged with preserving darkness as natural resource, unimpaired for future generations, then you need to be able to put a number on the level of darkness. You need to be able to see and measure any losses before you even know what you’re trying to protect.

A member of the Night Skies team setting up the wide-field CCD camera that the National Parks Service uses to measure light pollution, at Homestead National Monument, Nebraska.

Twilley: It’s astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There’s a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That’s not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I’ve been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can’t have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it’s bright. That’s the great thing—the darker it gets, if it’s clear, the brighter the night is. That’s something we never see either, because it’s so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.

New York 40º 44' 39" N 2010-10-13 LST 0:04, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times. Cohen photographs major cities at night, digitally manipulates them to remove all lights, and then inserts a starry night sky from somewhere with much less light pollution on the same latitude, to create an image that shows us what New York City or Sao Paulo would look like under the Milky Way.

Geoff Manaugh: There are a few popular urban legends about the extent to which people no longer experience true, natural darkness. One is that, even though telescopes sell really well in New York, no one has seen a star over Manhattan since 1976 or something like that. The other one, which I have to assume is also at least partially an exaggeration, is that, after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, the L.A.P.D. was flooded with worried phone calls because people were seeing all these mysterious lights in the sky—lights that turned out to be stars.

Bogard: I’ve heard that one, too—that people were seeing the Milky Way for the first time, and they didn’t know what it was.

Those stories make me think of a couple of things. While I was writing the book, I went to Florence, on the trail of Galileo, and they still have two of his four telescopes. An astronomer there had this amazing line that he told me, which was that 400 years ago, in Florence, everyone could see the stars, but only Galileo had a telescope. Now, everybody has a telescope, but nobody can see the stars.

That really speaks to that New York legend. Telescope sales continue to be good, astronomy books continue to be published, and there are sky-watching apps on your phone. People are interested in the night sky. But we can’t really see any of it.

Los Angeles 34º 06' 58" N 2012-06-15 LST 14:52, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times.

The other thing it reminds me of is a guy I met in Paris, who told me that he thinks that, for the amateur astronomer, the most important instrument is not the telescope, but the automobile, because you have to have a car to drive somewhere dark enough to see anything.

Twilley: At the start of the book, you differentiate between darkness and night. Is it just that the two are no longer synonymous, or were they ever?

Bogard: It’s a good question. They’re so obviously intertwined, but it seemed to make sense to differentiate them or to specify one or the other. Night, obviously, in many places, is no longer really dark, or at least not naturally dark. In that sense, you can’t say that night means darkness. They’re not synonymous anymore. Sometimes I think that what makes night night, what makes night special, and what I love about it, is more than darkness. It is light, whether it’s natural light, like candles, or beautiful artificial light. A lot of electric lighting is really quite beautiful now.

Artificial lighting has meant a lot of really good things, arguably. We are able to extend the day into the night, which means that we can keep working, we can pursue our hobbies, we can go out to dinner, we can entertain—we can party all night long! We can do all these things that we like to do, that night has become known for. But there are other things that we have lost through this process of nocturnalization.

Landmarks in our short history of artificial street lighting include gas lamps (these arrived in New York City in 1827, with each one having to be lit by hand), and arc-light moontowers (several cities experimented with these in the late 1800s, but Austin, Texas, is the only place to still use them today).

It’s not really my thrust in the book, but I guess what I’m saying is that, if that’s all that night is, and we have lost so many of these other qualities of night, whether it’s quiet or darkness or solitude, then I think the night that we are experiencing now is really a lessened version of what it could be.

Night has a lot of qualities beyond darkness or lack of darkness—things like nocturnal sounds and smells. Those sensory things have more to do with night, for me. I’ve always had that sense that, at night, the world reduces in size and fury and sound and we start to feel not so overrun by everything. At night, that’s how I feel—free, to pursue my writing and reading or whatever. We let go of those burdens that the day holds. Those sorts of things mean that night is much more than just darkness. Yet darkness itself has so much importance alone, too, for human health and ecological health.

This Sunforce 82156 60 LED Solar Motion Light promises "added security," "powerful detection," and "peace of mind."

Manaugh: People also assume that darkness is inherently dangerous, yet you show how the connection between light and security is often a false promise.

Bogard: Exactly. Historically, that connection is really interesting. The state really encouraged light, because officials felt as though they could control a well-lit city better. Illumination was conflated with the power of the state, going back to Louis XIV, the Sun King, who decreed that candles should be hung in the streets, to demonstrate his might by banishing dark. In the years before the French Revolution, for many Parisians, public street lighting stood for tyranny. Oil-lamp smashing was a regular thing.

Ironically, what has happened now is that we have so much light that we can no longer see. We’re blinded—sometimes literally, by the brightness and glare of our security lighting—but also metaphorically, which is to say that when we light everything up, there is really no reason to look over and notice something, and say, “Wow, that’s a weird thing.”

When everything is so brightly lit, why should we look? It’s light, so it’s safe, so we switch off. And, while no one is looking, we’ve actually made life easier for the bad guys. Some studies even show that criminals actually prefer well-lit areas. I had several policemen and security consultants tell me that criminals are as afraid of the dark as we are. They don’t want to go in the dark. The light makes them feel safe, just as it does us.

Centurion Security Lighting Kit, via.

The other thing is that, physically, so much light makes it hard for our eyes to see. We don’t adapt from bright to dark quickly, so if we look toward the light, we can’t see anything else, and then most street lighting is incredibly badly designed and actually reduces contrast.

Sure, some lighting is helpful, in terms of safety and security. But we are not safe or secure simply because of lights. We are safe and secure when we are conscious of our surroundings. Most of our security lights are a huge waste of money and energy.

It’s a difficult issue. The entire third chapter is all about safety and security. I spent a lot of time on it, because the minute you start talking about light pollution, or the importance of darkness, people’s first response is, “Yeah, but we need light for safety and security.” It touches a nerve. I would just say that we don’t need all this light for safety and security. We use way more than we need, and it isn’t making anybody any safer.

Civil Twilight Design Collective won Metropolis' Next Generation 2007 contest for their lunar-resonant streetlight system, which would brighten and dim in response to ambient lighting levels.

One thing I’d say is that our eyes are amazing organs. Given the chance to adjust to darkness, we can see quite a bit and see fairly well. I would imagine that if you got rid of wall-packs and security lights and so on, you could rely on more subtle lighting design in crosswalks, stairwells, and doorways. A couple of the lighting designers I spoke to were very excited about responsive lighting.

For example, I spoke with a woman in Boulder, Colorado, whose thing was that putting lights on poles is ridiculous, and that, instead, we should have step-lights at foot level that get triggered with a motion detector. Another guy I talked with was mapping the night geography of Paris, with the idea that you could match the lux level of street lighting to the level of activity.

Twilley: There seem to be significant disparities in the quality of different cities’ nightscapes. In the book, you engage in some comparative darkness tourism in London and Paris, and London comes across as a completely wasted opportunity, in terms of lighting.

Bogard: I thought so. I’ve noticed again and again that cities will spend all this money on making themselves pretty to draw visitors, and then they having glaring light all over the place. At night, they are as ugly as every place else.

Notre-Dame de Paris illuminated at night, by Atoma.

In Paris, the lighting is designed to make the buildings beautiful at night. In London, and really all over the United States with very few exceptions, much of the lighting is just a big light shining on a building. You can see it, sure, but it’s not really very beautiful.

Manaugh: Speaking of darkness tourism, I just noticed a book called Night Walks on the bookshelf behind you, and it reminded me of something I read about the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Apparently, Coleridge would take massive walks in the middle of the night. He would show up at Wordsworth’s house at 3 a.m., and they would head out into the Lake District together, talking and walking beneath the stars. It made me wonder if there are—such as night walking—lost practices of darkness, so to speak, through which people once pursued certain experiences defined by the absence of light.

Bogard: I have always loved the experience—wherever I’ve been living—of going out walking at night, usually at around eleven-ish. Nobody is out, for the most part. You can look through windows into people’s houses, if you want to, which is sort of like an Advent calendar thing. Everything looks a little different, somehow. It’s just quieter. My dog and I go walking at night, before we go to bed.

What’s interesting is that I love being out at night, but I’m also still somebody who’s afraid of the dark. That’s why the experience that I have in the book, being in Death Valley and just walking around in this incredible darkness over a several hour period, was a really great one, because after two or three hours, your eyes seem to shift again and you can see even more. You begin to feel much more comfortable. I’d love to do that again.

Twilley: The most astonishing statistic in the book, for me, was the fact that 40 percent of Americans live in such bright environments that their eyes never transition to night vision—from the cones to rods. I can’t help but wonder if, thanks to our saturation in artificial light, we might end up losing one of our ways of seeing the world.

Bogard: I actually asked Alan Lewis, a former head of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, exactly that question. He said he didn’t have any proof that our physiology was changing in response to the disappearance of darkness. Of course, it hasn’t been very long. My guess is that, if we keep going down the path of more and more artificial lighting, we would eventually lose scotopic vision—that’s the technical term for low-light vision using the eye’s rod cells.

That’s one of the things about all this light—it’s been so recent. Our grandparents and our great-grandparents grew up in a time when it was just so much darker. In the book, I’ve included the map that Fabio Falchi, the Italian I meet towards the end of the book, has made of the increase of artificial night sky brightness in North America. It shows the late 1950s, the mid-1970s, 1997, and then a prediction for 2025.

The increase in artificial night sky brightness in North America, including an extrapolated prediction for light pollution levels in 2025. Maps created by P. Cinzano, F. Falchi, and C. D. Elvidge.

I remember the 1970s. It wasn’t that long ago. And it’s significantly darker on those maps then than it is now.

Manaugh: That raises the question of historic preservation and what it means to bring darkness back. I’m reminded of architect Jorge Otero-Pailos and his experimental olfactory reconstruction of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. He realized that, to recreate the original smell of the house, you not only had to recreate all the VOCs off-gassing from new paint and furniture, etc., but you also bring back the smell of tobacco and the smell of certain colognes that were ubiquitous at the time—an entire olfactory aesthetic, as it were, that has been lost in the subsequent years. I mention that because you can imagine that a true historic reconstruction of a 1950s suburb would require not only a totally different light level at night but, by today’s standards, a blinding sky full of stars.

Paris 48º 50' 55" N 2012-08-13 LST 22:15, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times.

Paris 48º 51' 46" N 2012-09-13 LST 2:16, photo illustration by Thierry Cohen as part of the Villes Eteintes series, via The New York Times.

Along those lines, I’d love to hear how the National Park Service’s Night Sky Team plans to go about actually protecting such an intangible resource as darkness, and maybe even reconstructing it to “original” levels. I’m also curious whether, in the other direction, you could maybe imagine a time where, thirty years from now, we might actually have a nostalgic “light pollution park.” People would pay admission to see how crazily well-lit our cities used to be.

Twilley: We could just wall off Las Vegas and declare it a light pollution sacrifice zone right now.

The Luxor beam in Las Vegas is equal to the light of more than forty billion candles.

Bogard: That is such a neat idea. I hope that, in thirty years, or perhaps even less, that would make some sense.

As you probably know, for Earth Hour every March, people turn off the lights on certain buildings. When I met with Fabio Falchi, he was trying to get his town, Mantua, to turn off the lights after midnight. He said that he went to the Leaning Tower of Pisa for Earth Hour, and he suddenly realized how magical it was to see these famous monuments with the lights off. He thought that if more people could see these places surrounded by darkness, it would be like a discovery, because no one has seen them like that in fifty years.

Of course, he said, even with the lights off, it’s not how it was, because there’s so much sky glow. There is so much cumulative light from the surroundings reflecting that you could probably never get back to what it was originally like.

Light domes from cities at various distances from Mt. Dellenbaugh, Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument, in 2007. NPS photo.

Twilley: In the book you mention that, even in Death Valley, one of the darkest places in North America, you can see the light dome of Las Vegas on the horizon, and the lights of flights heading into San Francisco above.

Bogard: Exactly. That’s the challenge of preserving darkness: you can’t do it on your own. The National Parks Service team, in addition to figuring out how to measure darkness in order to put a number to what we have to lose, figures that their best bet is education. Of course, the parks themselves have overhauled their own lighting, but they’re also starting to offer all kinds of night programs, whether it be focused on the sensory experience of the land at night or astronomical observation or whatever. If they can’t get the rest of us to care about darkness, they don’t stand a chance of preserving their own.

There are some positive signs. For example, Acadia National Park in Maine had its first Night Sky Festival in 2009, and now the local community of Bar Harbor has enacted a light ordinance to reduce their sky glow.

Poster designed by Tyler Nordgren.

That’s the National Park Service idea, essentially. Americans will come and learn about light pollution and darkness and all of the ecological and health reasons why darkness is important and endangered. Then we will go home and, hopefully, apply some of those lessons there.

I would imagine that lots of people west of the Mississippi might say, “It’s dark where I live.” But we have changed things so much that anywhere you go east of the Mississippi, there is no true darkness. It has all been tainted.

One guy on the Night Sky team told me that sometimes people will ask, “What are you going to do with the cities? You’ll never get the cities dark again—that’s just impossible. There are too many people and too many lights.” He said that, to a certain extent, that’s true. You’re probably not going to bring the Milky Way back over Manhattan or Chicago.

His reply, though, is that if you were able to just reduce the lighting in these major cities you would see great benefits. You could address a lot of the health issues that people in the cities, who are exposed to huge amounts of light at night, are suffering from.

The other thing is that, when you draw the lighting down in the cities, the darkness ripples out into the suburbs and the country. The reason the suburbs and the countryside are so bright is because of the cities. Plenty of suburbs and towns have awful lighting as well, of course, but they could fix that lighting or even turn it all off and their skies would still be bright, because of the nearest city.

A satellite view of Earth at night shows the prevalence of artificial lighting. NASA.

Twilley: To follow up on that, I’m curious about the question of legislation. Some cities, like Flagstaff, have lighting ordinances, of course. But one of the really interesting implications in your book is that, if you think about darkness as a common resource like water or clean air, we have environmental legislation and acceptable levels for pollution for them. Or, if you think about the health side, you could make the analogy with secondhand smoke and the ways in which we regulate that. At one point you mention the phrase “light trespass,” which implies we could treat darkness like property. Would any of these be effective models for preserving darkness?

Bogard: Realistically, I think we have to start with the places that are still dark, and preserve them, because, as with so many things, they are not making it anymore. The pressures are all headed in one direction. Any kind of forward-looking lighting plan that I’ve seen starts with a solid core of darkness and then works its way out from there.

In terms of legislation, in the UK, British astronomers are taking the approach of putting lighting standards into building code. That way, any new building has to have dark-sky-friendly lighting. Then lower lighting levels become more and more normal, and you don’t get that escalation effect I describe, where older buildings look dim next to new ones, and upgrade their lighting to match, and so on. People just get used to it.

Gas station in the middle of Nevada, photograph by James Reeves. "Gas stations," Bogard told us, "are the worst offenders by far. They are just egregiously bright."

Manaugh: Of course, there is potential for a huge backlash against that, at least in the United States. If you use even something as universally beneficial as vehicle emission limits in cars as an example, you see people railing against government intrusion all the time. I can easily see someone on cable news complaining, “They want to tell me when I can turn my lights on?”

Bogard: My hope is that part of that just takes time, and those voices will eventually fade away. I see this with my students. They’ve never really been asked to think about lighting and darkness, and they assume that this super-bright world in which we live today is just the way the world is. If you could shift that and, for example, make a college campus a place where you became sensitive to good lighting, then everybody would leave with at least a sense of what’s possible.

Roger Narboni, who designed the world’s first urban “lighting master plan” for the French city of Montpellier way back in the 1980s, told me that his dream is to have education about light and darkness beginning in kindergarten, as a core part of the curriculum.

Manaugh: There’s a certain poetry to having a conversation about dark sky reserves in the National Radio Quiet Zone. This is a landscape, after all, where, by federal decree, electromagnetic “pollution” has to be kept to a bare minimum.

Bogard: Wow, I didn’t know that. I had never heard of that.

The National Radio Quiet Zone boundaries, via the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Manaugh: The regulations were put in place to protect the work of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank. The result is a 13,000-square-mile radio quarantine zone. It’s one of the few places in the United States where the air is not completely saturated by electromagnetic emissions from cell phones and power lines and radio stations and everything else.

Twilley: What’s also interesting is that people move here for that reason—people who feel that they are sensitive to electromagnetic emissions will move here for their health.

Manaugh: So, while we were driving here, we were thinking about the idea of a luxury darkness retreat, as a well-being thing.

Bogard: I can definitely imagine that. The thing I write about in the book is the question of who will have access to darkness. It’s like so many of these other things—green space, trees, quiet, and so on. It could end up being unevenly distributed; where the only way to get real darkness is to be able afford to live in a community like Aspen or Vail or somewhere like that.

This makes me think of when I was in Phoenix. I can’t remember the name of the wealthiest suburb, but what I noticed is that when you drive up towards it, all of a sudden, it’s dark. These people are rich enough to have anything they want, and they choose to have darkness at night.

Meanwhile, kids who are growing up in cities whose families don’t have the resources to travel are never going to experience that. I wonder if it will get to the point where none of us can get there, unless you’re the one percent. Then you can afford to go someplace really dark.

Twilley: It already seems as though there are huge inequalities in our exposure to light at night. I was shocked by the statistic you quote about nearly 20 percent of African-Americans in the United States working the night shift.

Bogard: And then there’s the fact that public housing is almost always over-lit in an effort to deter crime. There’s another darkness-deprived population I hadn’t considered either, before I wrote this book, which is prisoners. There’s this former convict, Ken Lamberton, who wrote about his time in prison and the way he was forced to be in the light—he wasn’t even allowed to cover his face with a blanket at night. It’s as if being constantly illuminated was actually part of his punishment.

Hallway lighting in a supermax prison is never switched off. Photograph via.

One thing that appeals to me about light a lot is how symbolic it is. Our usage of light right now is hugely symbolic of our lack of awareness of how we use things and the way we use so much more of everything than we need. It seems to me that if we could control our light use and use light more intelligently, then it could also be symbolic of us finally getting our act together in a lot of different ways.

An hour's drive east-southeast of Pittsburgh, hidden among the picturebook-perfect red barns, white fences, and green fields of the Lignonier Valley, lies an equally carefully maintained landscape of bird research—a nature preserve whose ponds and wildflowers have been augmented with mist nets, field microphones, a songbird recording booth, and a one-of-a-kind rotating flight tunnel.

On a recent morning, Venue joined researchers Luke DeGroote, Amy Tegeler, Mary Shidel, Kate Johnston, and Matt Webb, as well as several dozen warblers, catbirds, and a cuckoo, for a tour of the various devices of bird surveillance at the Powdermill Avian Research Center (PARC), part of Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve.

Founded in 1961, PARC is the longest-continuously running bird banding station in the United States, and has assembled one of North America's largest census data sets on migratory songbird populations. Six days a week during the spring and fall (and only slightly less often during the winter and summer), DeGroote and his team head out before dawn to unfurl the Center's 61, forty-foot long, eight-foot tall nylon mesh mist-nets.

Over the course of the morning, until either the temperature reaches 78 degrees or the time hits 11 a.m., whichever comes first, these superfine, over-sized volleyball nets form a network of barely visible barriers stretched between trees, along the banks of artificial ponds, and hanging parallel to overgrown hedgerows, trapping both droplets of dew and unwitting birds from the atmosphere.

The majority of the nets have stood in the same place for the past half-century, raised and lowered each day to create a sort of avian calendar, marked by the arrival and departure of different species within the northern Appalachian landscape. Indeed, as we accompanied DeGroote on his rounds, he noted that the preponderance of warblers signaled that the spring migration was drawing to a close.

While carefully untangling a Kentucky Warbler and a stunning Scarlet Tanager (the first male of the season, apparently) from the first net, and stowing them in cloth bags attached to a system of color-coded carabiners he wore on a chain around his neck, DeGroote explained that the landscape is pruned and maintained to remain as similar as possible to its 1970s "early successional" state: arrested in a state of post-agricultural regrowth that will never be allowed to mature into secondary forest. The more things the banders can keep the same within their own research ecology, the more valuable their data becomes for detecting changes in bird populations and behavior. It is both a control landscape, anchoring the variables of the various experiments, and a landscape of control.

Bird-banding, we quickly realized, does not make for a relaxing morning. Every minute spent away from its normal activities eats into a bird's valuable refueling and breeding opportunities, so PARC's operation is set up with assembly-line efficiency. Back at the banding station, DeGroote and his colleagues unhooked bird bags from their necks and hooked them onto a washing-line pulley for processing.

PARC catches roughly 13,000 birds each year (their up-to-date tallies are posted online), 3,000 of which are recaptures. The other 7,000 need to be issued with a unique 9-digit number ("bird Social Security," joked DeGroote), which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives on a small aluminum cuff gently fitted around one leg. On the wall, behind the bird pulley, was a map showing all the places PARC bands have been reported, with sightings as far afield as Peru.

DeGroote held a bird in one hand and typed with the other, measuring and entering data on weight and wing length, all the while continuing a running commentary on sage grouce dance-offs, the particular chirrup a bird makes when it is released ("like it's saying 'potato chip'"), and the dietary choices to blame for the cuckoo's notorious stink (too many caterpillars). By blowing gently on the birds' stomachs, he revealed more data points: their fat stores (visible through translucent skin) and breeding condition.

The only pause in the otherwise seamless process came when trying to determine the birds' age. The quality of their feathers is apparently the main giveaway—baby birds grow all of their feathers in a hurry so that they can get out of the nest, and then have to regrow some to a higher standard. The difference is almost impossible for a novice to spot—the juvenile feathers have slightly less of sheen, and the plumage pattern is muddier—and it is sometimes quite challenging even for experts.

As we watched, hypnotized by the banding team's practiced, economical motions, PARC's bird processing line ground to a brief halt over the cuckoo, whose spotted tail feathers were of inconclusive quality. DeGroote pulled down a reference book to look for additional clues before playing it safe with a broad "older than two years" designation, and swinging smoothly back into action.

Even the architecture had been modified to account for this avian activity: a small hole in the wall, complete with a sliding panel, acted as a quick-release hatch for any birds not destined for additional research. With the banding as its baseline activity, PARC balances releasing birds quickly with the opportunity to conduct additional research, and this season was also hosting a West Nile virus swabbing station, as well as its own ongoing programs for flight tunnel and bioacoustic research.

We accompanied Amy Tegeler, the bioacoustics program manager, over to her recording studio, with a gorgeous and talkative black, orange, and yellow American Redstart in tow.

In addition to its mist nets, the landscape around PARC is also miked, with three pole-mounted "sky ear" recording devices, based on a simple plastic flowerpot design originally developed by Bill Evans.

As they migrate, most songbirds emit short, single-note nocturnal flight calls. No one, Tegeler explained, is quite sure why they do this—she likened it to trying to make a phone call while running a marathon—although the generally accepted hypothesis is that it has to do with maintaining flock spacing and cohesion.

Researchers are not only interested in learning about these nocturnal calls for their own sake, however: the idea behind PARC's bioacoustics program is that, by using software to analyze recordings of the nocturnal soundscape, it will be possible to conduct a remote, automated census of migration and species numbers.

This, Tegeler was quick to explain, won't replace bird banding. Instead, a bioacoustic survey can pick up species that aren't often caught in nets, can be used in environments that would be difficult for humans to reach or set up nets in the first place (remote rainforest and cities, for example), and offers the opportunity to conduct lower-resolution counts across a larger landscape (perhaps even as a citizen science effort—the microphone costs about $50 to make out of parts readily available at a hardware store and RadioShack).

While exciting, the technique is still in its infancy, and the Raven Pro software that Tegeler uses to extract flight calls from the hours of night recordings—cross-species cryptanalysis as app—also flags, unfortunately, each and every raindrop impact as a bird. After spring migration season, Tegeler estimates that she ends up with 75,000 audio clips, only 5,000-10,000 of which are actually calls. Sorting through the terabytes of data takes months.

Andrew Farnsworth and colleagues developed this 2006 guide to warblers' nocturnal flight calls using field recordings. A larger version, with sound samples, can be seen/heard at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website.

To help improve the call identification process, PARC has built a custom-designed bird recording studio, which it uses to capture a "Rosetta Stone" library of "clean" nocturnal flight calls, to replace the fuzzier field recordings currently used as reference.

To demonstrate, Tegeler dropped our Redstart into an "acoustic cone" (actually a black-out fabric cylinder built from a long-sleeved T-shirt and two embroidery hoops from Jo-Ann), hung it between four mics in a soundproof booth, closed the door, and sat down at the control desk with her headphones on. The whole set-up looked like something Paul McCartney might use to re-record a vocal track—that is, if he liked to sing suspended in mid-air in complete darkness.

With her headphones on, Tegeler played our avian rock star two minutes of American Redstart nocturnal flight calls recorded in the field, interspersed with silence, and the croak of a spring peeper frog as a control. From within the booth, the bird responded to the calls with four high-pitched squeaks—in the process, yielding a perfectly clean recording for Tegeler and other researchers in her field to work with.

Spectrographs of the nocturnal flight calls of the American Redstart (left) and Savannah Sparrow (right), from Bill Evans' spectrograph library.

With most common birds recorded, this migration season, Tegeler has been collecting data to try to establish what other information, beyond species identification, is embedded in nocturnal flight calls.

Zeep, double-banded upsweep, and single-banded downsweep nocturnal flight calls, from Bill Evans' spectrograph library.

"There are patterns to the calls, but we don't yet understand why, or what they mean," Tegeler explains, adding that the calls themselves can be separated into distinct types, named for their sound: buzzy, zeep, upsweep, downsweep, and chip. An entire acoustic ecosystem awaits decoding: some species will respond to other species' flight calls, others, for reasons known only to themselves, won't; and Tegeler can detect variations within a species' calls, based on an individual bird's age and sex.

Diagram showing the moon-watching technique developed by George H. Lowery Jr from Gatherings of Angels: Migrating Birds and Their Ecology, edited by Kenneth P. Able. The original caption explains that "as birds cross the disk of the moon their flight paths are coded as 'in' and 'out' times on an imaginary clockface. All paths are then analyzed to produce a migration traffic rate—the number of birds crossing 1.6km per hour."

Astonishingly, before bioacoustic research got started just a few decades ago, the only way to gather data on nocturnal bird migrations was a technique called "moon-watching," in which researchers and volunteers would point a telescope at a full moon from twilight until dawn, counting and identifying birds silhouetted against its disk.

Now, nocturnal flight call surveys are matched with radar bioscatter analysis in a new scientific discipline called "aeroecology," or the study of the planetary boundary layer and lower free atmosphere as a biological ecosystem.

A screengrab showing "Composite Reflectivity in the National Radar Mosaic" from the SOAR (Surveillance of the Aerosphere Using Weather Radar) website.

Meanwhile, bioacoustic bird monitoring is just one area of an emerging field of acoustic ecology: researchers are using sound to assess population shifts in species as diverse as whales and bark beetles, while the National Park Service recently recognized soundscapes as an intangible asset, worthy of historical protection, and has begun installing field microphones across their lands to conduct a system-wide acoustic survey.

An acoustically instrumented landscape at Kenai Fjords National Park; photograph courtesy the National Park Service.

From the ways in which humans use invisible information to see birds, we moved to the bird's final stop in their short, PARC-assisted detour—a device designed to test how birds see human infrastructure.

One of only two bird flight test tunnels in the world, this prototype was built in partnership with Christine Sheppard of the American Bird Conservancy, in order to test how birds interact with different window treatments. An astonishing number of birds—more than a billion, according to the most recent estimates—die each year as a result of flying into the glass facades of urban America.

Clouds reflected in the Time-Warner Center towers in New York City (left) and a temptingly plant-filled glass atrium (bottom left) are among Christine Sheppard's collection of bird-unfriendly buildings. In her caption to the top right image, Sheppard notes that "architectural cues show people that only one panel on the face of this shelter is open; to birds, all the panels appear to be open." All photographs by Christine Sheppard, American Bird Conservancy.

Birds killed by building collisions, collected by monitors with FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) in Toronto, photograph by Kenneth Herdy, via the American Bird Conservancy.

Sheppard's goal is to measure "relative threat values" for different kinds of glass patterns or finishes, in order to develop a recommendation for the most bird-visible (and thus bird-friendly) glass. And the device she has designed to do that is extraordinary: a stretched-out shed combined with the trompe-l'oeil trickery of a Baroque cathedral.

Matt Webb, the technician in charge of these bird/window strike-avoidance studies, retrieved a bagged Grey Catbird from the banding station ("they love flying in the tunnel"), in order to show us how the system works. He released the Catbird from its bag into a tiny hole at one end of the tunnel, and, as it flew down the ten meter-long darkened shed, a video camera recorded the bird flying toward the plain glass control panel covering half of the tunnel's other end, rather than the crazy-paving patterned glass on its right.

As we braced sympathetically, anticipating impact, the bird was saved by an invisible mist net (the same kind the banding team use). It hopped about in the felt-lined tunnel, completely unharmed and making the miaow-ing sound for which the species is named, while Webb logged the result, walked around to the side, opened a small door in the tunnel wall, and released it.

This particular manufacturer's "bird-friendly" glass, Webb told us, has a 73 percent avoidance rate, meaning that out of 120 tunnel test flights (each using a different bird), 88 had presumably seen the pattern, and chosen to avoid it by flying toward the clear—and hence invisible—glass to the left.

Not all birds are suitable research subjects, Webb explained: Yellow Warblers "get confused" and fly around in all directions; our vocal friend the American Redstart often sees the safety net, rending the whole test moot; and House Sparrows and other cavity-nesting birds simply make themselves at home in one of the tunnel's dark corners.

The tunnel itself is an experimental prototype: it is based on a design originally created by Austrian scientist Martin Rössler to test free-standing glass panels used in highway barriers, and Sheppard is already fine-tuning the next-generation tunnel from her base in the Bronx.

Briefly, it is worth noting some resonances here between Sheppard's architectural design for tracking and framing bird flight and a body of much earlier work done by bio-media pioneers such as Étienne Jules-Marey, who performed his own controlled studies of bird flight.

Jules-Marey's work combined innovations in multi-lens camera design and wearable media for birds with an interest in the science of flight to produce astonishing documents of animal bodies in motion.

These often took surreal form, including a proposal for hooking birds up to a machine that could register individual wing beats.

In any case, at the moment, Sheppard's current flight-monitoring structure is mounted on a turntable so that it can follow the sun, thus ensuring that its mirrors bounce sunlight onto the front of the glass at the same angle all morning. Inside the tunnel, and for the birds that fly through it, it is always the same time of day.

When we followed up with her by phone, Sheppard explained that this feature, while ingenious, is not perfect:

On a cloudy day, for example, you're going to have a break in the clouds that's nowhere near the location of the sun, but it's still the brightest part in the sky, and that will throw the reflections off.

One of the things that we're most interested in studying is ultraviolet patterns, because birds can see UV and we can't, but the mirrors we're using to reflect light onto the glass surface take out more of the UV in light than they do other wavelengths. At the moment, our flight tunnel handicaps the UV patterns.

In Sheppard's new design, the entire tunnel is housed in a shipping container, which allows for a much more closely controlled, and potentially more sophisticated, set of lighting parameters, in which an array of "daylight" and UV bulbs can be set up to mimic a variety of natural solar conditions.

The shipping container also weather-proofs the structure: although we visited on a sunny, calm morning, the current tunnel has been known to pivot with a sudden gust, giving bystanders a nasty shock.

Most important, however, is the fact that the new tunnel will increase capacity. "With only one tunnel," explains Sheppard, "we actually can't do enough testing to conduct our own research and test prototypes for glass companies that are trying to develop products for bird-friendly design. And, because we definitely want to encourage the market for bird-friendly products, we've been doing a lot of commercial testing over the last two years."

Even as scientists move toward a better understanding of avian perception (Sheppard told us of one project to build a model of the avian retina using a digital camera equipped with a series of specially designed filters), they still can't necessarily model how the bird will react to that visual information—"the 'what do the birds think about this?' question," as Sheppard puts it.

Will a bird think it can go through a space in between stripes? What about if the lines are diagonal? Will birds perceive a cobweb pattern as an obstacle?

Although the American Bird Association already knows (and recommends) several strategies for bird-friendly design, their goal is not to arrive at a single avian-endorsed glass solution. Instead, Sheppard says:

What we want is to create the situation where architects have maximum flexibility, and they don't feel like bird-friendly design is a burden. We're not trying to get them to stop using glass, and we're not trying to make them to design ugly buildings; we want to give them lots of different possibilities. To do that, we have to ask these birds a lot of different questions.

In other words, PARC's spinning, elongated garden shed, with its trompe l'oeil sky, wing mirrors, and slide-in glass panels, is a cross-species translation tool—a structural device designed to test whether the built environment makes perceptual sense both to people and to birds.

As the last stop on our tour of this well-oiled bird surveillance machine disguised as a nature reserve, the flight tunnel provided an intriguing counter-perspective, asking, in this artificially shaped landscape disguised as a natural preserve, how birds see our habitat and what their perceptual frame might require from our own future designs.

Fort Irwin is a U.S. army base nearly the size of Rhode Island, located in the Mojave Desert about an hour's drive northeast of Barstow, California. There you will find the National Training Center, or NTC, at which all U.S. troops, from all the services, spend a twenty-one day rotation before they deploy overseas.

Sprawling and often infernally hot in the summer months, the base offers free tours, open to the public, twice a month. Venue made the trip, cameras in hand and notebooks at the ready, to learn more about the simulated battlefields in which imaginary conflicts loop, day after day, without end.

Coincidentally, as we explored the Painted Rocks located just outside the gate while waiting for the tour to start, an old acquaintance from Los Angeles—architect and geographer Rick Miller—pulled up in his Prius, also early for the same tour.

We laughed, said hello, and caught up about a class Rick had been teaching at UCLA about the military defense of L.A. from World War II to the present. An artificial battlefield, beyond even the furthest fringes of Los Angeles, Fort Irwin thus seemed like an appropriate place to meet.

We were soon joined by a small group of other visitors—consisting, for the most part, of family members of soldiers deployed on the base, as well as two architecture students from Montréal—before a large white tour bus rolled up across the gravel.

Renita, a former combat videographer who now handles public affairs at Fort Irwin, took our names, IDs, and signatures for reasons of liability (we would be seeing live explosions and simulated gunfire, and there was always the risk that someone might get hurt).

The day began with a glimpse into the economics and culture of how a nation prepares its soldiers for war; an orientation, of sorts, before we headed out to visit one of fifteen artificial cities scattered throughout the base.

In the plush lecture hall used for "After Action Reviews"—and thus, Renita apologized, air-conditioned to a morgue-like chill in order to keep soldiers awake as their adrenalin levels crash—we received a briefing from the base's commander, Brigadier General Terry Ferrell.

With pride, Ferrell noted that Fort Irwin is the only place where the U.S. military can train using all of the systems it will later use in theater. The base's 1,000 square miles of desert is large enough to allow what Ferrell called "great maneuverability"; its airspace is restricted; and its truly remote location ensures an uncluttered electromagnetic spectrum, meaning that troops can practice both collection and jamming. These latter techniques even include interfering with GPS, providing they warn the Federal Aviation Administration in advance.

Oddly, it's worth noting that Fort Irwin also houses the electromagnetically sensitive Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, part of NASA's global Deep Space Network. As science writer Oliver Morton explains in a paper called "Moonshine and Glue: A Thirteen-Unit Guide to the Extreme Edge of Astrophysics" (PDF), "when digitized battalions slug it out with all the tools of modern warfare, radio, radar, and electronic warfare emissions fly as freely around Fort Irwin as bullets in a battle. For people listening to signals from distant spacecraft on pre-arranged frequency bands, this noise is not too much of a problem." However, he adds, for other, far more sensitive experiments, "radio interference from the military next door is its biggest headache."

Unusually for the American West, where mineral rights are often transferred separately, the military also owns the ground beneath Fort Irwin, which means that they have carved out an extensive network of tunnels and caves from which to flush pretend insurgents.

This 120-person strong insurgent troop is drawn from the base's own Blackhorse Regiment, a division of the U.S. Army that exists solely to provide opposition. Whatever the war, the 11th Armored is always the pretend enemy. According to Ferrell, their current role as Afghan rebels is widely envied: they receive specialized training (for example, in building IEDs) and are held to "reduced grooming standards," while their mission is simply to "stay alive and wreak havoc."

If they die during a NTC simulation, they have to shave and go back on detail on the base, Ferrell added, so the incentive to evade their American opponents is strong.

In addition to the in-house enemy regiment, there is an entire 2,200-person logistics corps dedicated to rotating units in and out of Fort Irwin and equipping them for training. Every ordnance the United States military has, with the exception of biological and chemical weapons, is used during NTC simulations, Ferrell told us. What's more, in the interests of realism (and expense be damned), troops train using their own equipment, which means that bringing in, for example, the 10th Mountain Division (on rotation during our visit), also means transporting their tanks and helicopters from their home base at Fort Drum, New York, to California, and back again.

Units are deployed to Fort Irwin for twenty-one days, fourteen of which are spent in what Fort Irwin refers to as "The Box" (as in "sandbox"). This is the vast desert training area that includes fifteen simulated towns and the previously mentioned tunnel and caves, as well as expansive gunnery ranges and tank battle arenas.

Following our briefing, we headed out to the largest mock village in the complex, the Afghan town of Ertebat Shar, originally known, during its Iraqi incarnation, as Medina Wasl. Before we re-boarded the bus, Renita issued a stern warning: "'Afghanistan' is not modernized with plumbing. There are Porta-Johns, but I wanted to let you know the situation before we roll out there."

A twenty-minute drive later, through relatively featureless desert, our visit to "Afghanistan" began with a casual walk down the main street, where we were greeted by actors trying to sell us plastic loaves of bread and piles of fake meat. Fort Irwin employs more than 350 civilian role-players, many of whom are of Middle Eastern origin, although Ferrell explained that they are still trying to recruit more Afghans, in order "to provide the texture of the culture."

The atmosphere is strangely good-natured, which was at least partially amplified by a feeling of mild embarrassment, as the rules of engagement, so to speak, are not immediately clear; you, the visitor, are obviously aware of the fact that these people are paid actors, but it feels distinctly odd to slip into character yourself and pretend that you might want to buy some bread.

In fact, it's impossible not to wonder how peculiar it must be for a refugee, or even a second-generation immigrant, from Iraq or Afghanistan, to pretend to be a baker in a simulated "native" village on a military base in the California desert, only to see tourists in shorts and sunglasses walking through, smiling uncomfortably and taking photos with their phones before strolling away without saying anything.

Even more peculiarly, as we reached the end of the street, the market—and all the actors in it—vanished behind us, dispersing back into the fake city, as if only called into being by our presence.

By now, with the opening act over, we were stopped in front of the town's "Lyndon Marcus International Hotel" to take stock of our surroundings. In his earlier briefing, Ferrell had described the simulated villages' close attention to detail—apparently, the footprint for the village came from actual satellite imagery of Baghdad, in order to accurately recreate street widths, and the step sizes inside buildings are Iraqi, rather than U.S., standard.

Dimensions notwithstanding, however, this is a city of cargo containers, their Orientalized facades slapped up and plastered on like make-up. Seen from above, the wooden frames of the illusion become visible and it becomes more and more clear that you are on a film set, an immersive theater of war.

This kind of test village has a long history in U.S. war planning. As journalist Tom Vanderbilt writes in his book Survival City, "In March 1943, with bombing attacks on cities being intensified by all sides, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction at Dugway [Utah] on a series of 'enemy villages,' detailed reproductions of the typical housing found in the industrial districts of cities in Germany and Japan."

The point of the villages at Dugway, however, was not to train soldiers in urban warfare—with, for instance, simulated street battles or house-to-house clearances—but simply to test the burn capacity of the structures themselves. What sorts of explosives should the U.S. use? How much damage would result? The attention to architectural detail was simply a subset of this larger, more violent inquiry. As Vanderbilt explains, bombs at Dugway "were tested as to their effectiveness against architecture: How well the bombs penetrated the roofs of buildings (without penetrating too far), where they lodged in the building, and the intensity of the resulting fire."

During the Cold War, combat moved away from urban settings, and Fort Irwin's desert sandbox became the stage for massive set-piece tank battles against the "Soviet" Blackhorse Cavalry. But, in 1993, following the embarrassment of the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, Fort Irwin hosted its first urban warfare, or MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) exercise. This response was part of a growing realization shared amongst the armed forces, national security experts, and military contractors that future wars would again take the city as their battlefield.

As Russell W. Glenn of the RAND Corporation puts it bluntly in his report Combat in Hell: A Consideration of Constrained Urban Warfare, "Armed forces are ever more likely to fight in cities as the world becomes increasingly urbanized."

Massed, professional, and essentially symmetrical armies no longer confront one another on the broad forests and plains of central Europe, the new tactical thinking goes; instead, undeclared combatants living beside—sometimes even with—families in stacked apartment blocks or tight-knit courtyards send out the occasional missile, bullet, or improvised explosive device from a logistically confusing tangle of streets, and "war" becomes the spatial process of determining how to respond.

At Fort Irwin, mock villages began to pop up in the desert. They started out as "sheds bought from Shed World," Ferrell told us, before being replaced by shipping containers, which, in turn, have been enhanced with stone siding, mosque domes, awnings, and street signs, and, in some cases, even with internal staircases and furniture, too. Indeed, Ertebat Shar/Medina Wasl began its simulated existence in 2007, with just thirteen buildings, but has since expanded to include more than two hundred structures.

The point of these architectural reproductions is no longer, as in the World War II test villages of Dugway, to find better or more efficient methods of architectural destruction; instead, these ersatz buildings and villages are used to equip troops to better navigate the complexity of urban structures—both physical, and, perhaps most importantly, socio-cultural.

In other words, at the most basic level, soldiers will use Fort Irwin's facsimile villages to practice clearing structures and navigating unmapped, roofed alleyways through cities without clear satellite communications links. However, at least in the training activities accessible to public visitors, the architecture is primarily a stage set for the theater of human relations: a backdrop for meeting and befriending locals (again, paid actors), controlling crowds (actors), rescuing casualties (Fort Irwin's roster of eight amputees are its most highly paid actors, we learned, in recompense for being literally dragged around during simulated combat operations), and, ultimately, locating and eliminating the bad guys (the Blackhorse regiment).

In the series of set-piece training exercises that take place within the village, the action is coordinated from above by a ring of walkie-talkie connected scenographers, including an extensive internal media presence, who film all of the simulations for later replay in combat analysis. The sense of being on an elaborate, extremely detailed film set is here made explicit. In fact, visitors are openly encouraged to participate in this mediation of the events: we were repeatedly urged to take as many photographs as possible and to share the resulting images on Facebook, Twitter, and more.

Appropriately equipped with ear plugs and eye protection, we filed upstairs to a veranda overlooking one of the village's main throughways, where we joined the "Observer Coaches" and film crew, taking our positions for the afternoon's scripted exercise.

Loud explosions, smoke, and fairly grisly combat scenes ensued—and thus, despite their simulated nature, involving Hollywood-style prosthetics and fake blood, please be warned that many of the forthcoming photos could still be quite upsetting for some viewers.

The afternoon's action began quietly enough, with an American soldier on patrol waving off a man trying to sell him a melon. Suddenly, a truck bomb detonated, smoke filled the air, and an injured woman began to wail, while a soldier slumped against a wall, applying a tourniquet to his own severed arm.

In the subsequent chaos, it was hard to tell who was doing what, and why: gun trucks began rolling down the streets, dodging a live goat and letting off round after round as insurgents fired RPGs (mounted on invisible fishing line that blended in with the electrical wires above our heads) from upstairs windows; blood-covered casualties were loaded into an ambulance while soldiers went door-to-door with their weapons drawn; and, in the episode's climax, a suicide bomber blew himself up directly beneath us, showering our tour group with ashes.

Twenty minutes later, it was all over. The smoke died down; the actors reassembled, uninjured, to discuss what just occurred; and the sound of blank rounds being fired off behind the buildings at the end of the exercise echoed through the streets.

Incredibly, blank rounds assigned to a particular exercise must be used during that exercise and cannot be saved for another day; if you are curious as to where your tax dollars might be going, picture paid actors shooting entire magazines full of blank rounds out of machine guns behind simulated Middle Eastern buildings in the Mojave desert. Every single blank must be accounted for, leading to the peculiar sight of a village's worth of insurgents stooped, gathering used blank casings into their prop kettles, bread baskets, and plastic bags.

Finally, we descended back down onto the street, dazed, ears ringing, and a little shocked by all the explosions and gunfire. Stepping carefully around pools of fake blood and chunks of plastic viscera, we made our way back to the lobby of the International Hotel for cups of water and a debrief with soldiers involved in planning and implementing the simulation.

Our hosts there were an interesting mix of earnest young boys who looked like they had successful careers in politics ahead of them, standing beside older men, almost stereotypically hard-faced, who could probably scare an AK-47 into misfiring just by staring at it, and a few female soldiers.

Somewhat subdued at this point, our group sat on sofas that had seen better days and passed around an extraordinary collection of injury cards handed out to fallen soldiers and civilians. These detail the specific rules given for role-playing a suite of symptoms and behavior—a kind of design fiction of military injury.

A few of us tried on the MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) harnesses that soldiers wear to sense hits from fired blanks, and then an enemy soldier demonstrated an exploding door sill.

While the film crew and Observer Coaches prepared for their "After Action Review," our guides seemed talkative but unwilling to discuss how well or badly the afternoon's session had gone. We asked, instead, about the future of Fort Irwin's villages, as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. The vision is to expand the range of urban conditions into what Ferrell termed a "Decisive Action Training Environment," in which U.S. military will continue to encounter "the world's worst actors" [sic]—"guerrillas, criminals, and insurgents"—amidst the furniture of city life.

As he escorted us back down the market street to our bus, one soldier off-handedly remarked that he'd heard the village might be redesigned soon as a Spanish-speaking environment—before hastily and somewhat nervously adding that he didn't know for sure, and, anyway, it probably wasn't true.

The "town" is visible on Google Maps, if you're curious, and it is easy to reach from Barstow. Tours of "The Box" are run twice a month and fill up quickly; learn more at the Fort Irwin website, including safety tips and age restrictions.
Screenshot of our own SimCity (called, for reasons that made sense at the time, We Are The Champignons) after three hours of game play.

In the nearly quarter-century since designer Will Wright launched the iconic urban planning computer game, SimCity, not only has the world's population become majoritatively urban for the first time in human history, but interest in cities and their design has gone mainstream.

Once a byword for boring, city planning is now a hot topic, claimed by technology companies, economists, so-called "Supermayors," and cultural institutions alike as the key to humanity's future. Indeed, if we are to believe the hype, the city has become our species' greatest triumph.

A shot from photographer Michael Wolf's extraordinary Architecture of Density series, newly available in hardcover.

In March 2013, the first new iteration of SimCity in a decade was launched, amidst a flurry of critical praise mingled with fan disappointment at Electronic Arts' "always-online" digital rights management policy and repeated server failures.

A few weeks before the launch, Venue had the opportunity to play the new SimCity at its Manhattan premiere, during which time we feverishly laid out curving roads and parks, drilled for oil while installing a token wind turbine, and tried to ignore our city's residents'—known as Sims—complaints as their homes burned before we could afford to build a fire station.

We emerged three hours later, blinking and dazed, into the gleaming white and purple lights of Times Square, and were immediately struck by the abstractions required to translate such a complex, dynamic environment into a coherent game structure, and the assumptions and values embedded in that translation.

Fortunately, the game's lead designer, Stone Librande, was happy to talk with us further about his research and decision-making process, as well as some of the ways in which real-world players have already surprised him. We spoke to him both in person and by telephone, and our conversation appears below.

• • •

Nicola Twilley: I thought I’d start by asking what sorts of sources you used to get ideas for SimCity, whether it be reading books, interviewing urban experts, or visiting different cities?

Stone Librande: From working on SimCity games in the past, we already have a library here with a lot of city planning books. Those were really good as a reference, but I found, personally, that the thing I was most attracted to was using Google Earth and Google Street View to go anywhere in the world and look down on real cities. I found it to be an extremely powerful way to understand the differences between cities and small towns in different regions.

Google has a tool in there that you can use to measure out how big things are. When I first started out, I used that a lot to investigate different cities. I’d bring up San Francisco and measure the parks and the streets, and then I’d go to my home town and measure it, to figure out how it differed and so on. My inspiration wasn’t really drawn from urban planning books; it was more from deconstructing the existing world.

Then I also really got into Netflix streaming documentaries. There is just so much good stuff there, and Netflix is good at suggesting things. That opened up a whole series of documentaries that I would watch almost every night after dinner. There were videos on water problems, oil problems, the food industry, manufacturing, sewage systems, and on and on—all sorts of things. Those covered a lot of different territory and were really enlightening to me.

Geoff Manaugh: While you were making those measurements of different real-world cities, did you discover any surprising patterns or spatial relationships?

Librande: Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don’t think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots.

Manaugh: You would be making SimParkingLot, rather than SimCity.

Librande: [laughs] Exactly. So what we do in the game is that we just imagine they are underground. We do have parking lots in the game, and we do try to scale them—so, if you have a little grocery store, we’ll put six or seven parking spots on the side, and, if you have a big convention center or a big pro stadium, they’ll have what seem like really big lots—but they’re nowhere near what a real grocery store or pro stadium would have. We had to do the best we could do and still make the game look attractive.

Using the zoning tool for the city designed by We Are the Champignons.

Twilley: I’d love to hear more about the design process and how you went about testing different iterations. Did you storyboard narratives for possible cities and urban forms that you might want to include in the game?

Librande: The way the game is set up, it’s kind of infinite. What I mean by that is that you could play it so many different ways that it’s basically impossible to storyboard or have a defined set of narratives for how the player will play it.

Stone Librande's storyboards for "Green City" and "Mining City" at the start of play.

Instead, what I did was that I came up with two extreme cases—around the office we call them “Berkeley” and “Pittsburgh,” or “Green City” and “Dirty City.” We said, if you are the kind of player who wants to make utopia—a city with wind power, solar power, lots of education and culture, and everything’s beautiful and green and low density—then this would be the path you would take in our game.

But then we made a parallel path for a really greedy player who just wants to make as much money as possible, and is just exploiting or even torturing their Sims. In that scenario, you’re not educating them; you’re just using them as slave labor to make money for your city. You put coal power plants in, you put dumps everywhere, and you don’t care about their health.

Stone Librande's storyboard for "Green City" at mid-game.

I made a series of panels, showing those two cities from beginning to late stage, where everything falls apart. Then, later on, when we got to multiplayer, I joined those two diagrams together and said, “If both of these cities start working together, then they can actually solve each other’s problems.”

The idea was to set them up like bookends—these are the extremes of our game. A real player will do a thousand things that fall somewhere in between those extremes and create all sorts of weird combinations. We can’t predict all of that.

Basically, we figured that if we set the bookends, then we would at least understand the boundaries of what kind of art we need to build, and what kind of game play experiences we need to design for.

Stone Librande's storyboard for "Mining City" at mid-game.

Twilley: In going through that process, did you discover things that you needed to change to make game play more gripping for either the dirty city or the clean city?

Librande: It was pretty straightforward to look at Pittsburgh, the dirty city, and understand why it was going to fail, but you have to try to understand why the clean one might fail, as well. If you have one city—one path—that always fails, and one that always succeeds, in a video game, that’s really bad design. Each path has to have its own unique problems.

What happened was that we just started to look at the two diagrams side-by-side, and we knew all the systems we wanted to support in our game—things like power, utilities, wealth levels, population numbers, and all that kind of stuff—and we basically divided them up.

We literally said: “Let’s put all of this on this side over in Pittsburgh and the rest of it over onto Berkeley.” That’s why, at the very end, when they join together, they are able to solve each other’s problems because, between the two of them, they have all the problems but they also have all the answers.

Stone Librande's storyboard for the "Green City" and "Mining City" end-game symbiosis.

Twilley: One thing that struck me, after playing, was that you do incorporate a lot of different and complex systems in the game, both physical ones like water, and more abstract ones, like the economy. But—and this seems particularly surprising, given that one of your bookend cities was nicknamed Berkeley—the food system doesn’t come into the game at all. Why not?

Librande: Food isn’t in the game, but it’s not that we didn’t think about it—it just became a scoping issue. The early design actually did call for agriculture and food systems, but, as part of the natural process of creating a video game, or any situation where you have deadlines and budgets that you have to meet, we had to make the decision that it was going to be one of the things that the Sims take care of on their own, and that the Mayor—that is, the player—has nothing to do with it.

I watched some amazing food system documentaries, though, so it was really kind of sad to not include any of that in the game.

Data layer showing ore deposits.

Data layer showing happiness levels. In SimCity, happiness is increased by wealth, good road connections, and public safety, and decreased by traffic jams and pollution.

Manaugh: Now that the game is out in the world, and because of the central, online hosting of all the games being played right now, I have to imagine that you are building up an incredible archive of all the decisions that different players have made and all the different kind of cities that people have built. I’m curious as to what you might be able to make or do with that kind of information. Are you mining it to see what kinds of mistakes people routinely make, or what sorts of urban forms are most popular? If so, is the audience for that information only in-house, for developing future versions of SimCity, or could you imagine sharing it with urban planners or real-life Mayors to offer an insight into popular urbanism?

Librande: It’s an interesting question. It’s hard to answer easily, though, because there are so many different ways players can play the game. The game was designed to cover as many different play patterns as we could think of, because our goal was to try to entertain as many of the different player demographics as we could.

So, there are what we call “hardcore players.” Primarily, they want to compete, so we give them leader boards and we give them incentives to show they are “better” than somebody else. We might say: “There’s a competition to have the most people in your city.” And they are just going to do whatever it takes to cram as many people into a city as possible, to show that they can win. Or there might be a competition to get the most rich people in your city, which requires a different strategy than just having the most people. It’s hard to keep rich people in a city.

Each of those leader boards, and each of those challenges, will start to skew those hardcore people to play in different ways. We are putting the carrot out there and saying: “Hey, play this way and see how well you can do.” So, in that case, we are kind of tainting the data, because we are giving them a particular direction to go in and a particular goal.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the “creative players” who are not trying to win—they are trying to tell a story. They are just trying to create something beautiful. For instance, when my wife plays, she wants lots of schools and parks and she’s not at all concerned with trying to make the most money or have the most people. She just wants to build that idealized little town that she thinks would be the perfect place to live.

A regional view of a SimCity game, showing different cities and their painfully small footprints.

So, getting back to your question, because player types cover such a big spectrum, it’s really hard for us to look at the raw data and pull out things like: “This is the kind of place that people want to live in.” That said, we do have a lot of data and we can look at it and see things, like how many people put down a park and how many people put in a tram system. We can measure those things in the aggregate, but I don’t think they would say much about real city planning.

Twilley: Building on that idea of different sorts of players and ways of playing, are there a variety of ways of “winning” at SimCity? Have you personally built cities that you would define as particularly successful within the game, and, if so, what made them “winners”?

Librande: For sure, there is no way to win at SimCity other then what you decide to put into the game. If you come in with a certain goal in mind—perhaps, say, that you want a high approval rating and everyone should be happy all the time— then you would play very differently than if you went in wanting to make a million dollars or have a city with a million people in it.

As far as my personal city planning goes, it has varied. I’ve played the game so much, because early on I just had to play every system at least once to understand it. I tried to build a power city, a casino city, a mining city—I tried to build one of everything.

Now that I’m done with that phase, and I’m just playing for fun at home, I’ve learned that I enjoy mid-density cities much more then high-density cities. To me, high-density cities are just a nightmare to run and operate. I don’t want to be the mayor of New York; I want to be the mayor of a small town. The job is a lot easier!

Basically, I build in such a way as to not make skyscrapers. At the most, I might have just one or two because they look cool—but that’s it.

Screenshot from SimCity 4.

Manaugh: I’m curious how you dealt with previous versions of SimCity, and whether there was any anxiety about following that legacy or changing things. What are the major innovations or changes in this version of the game, and what kinds of things did you think were too iconic to get rid of?

Librande: First of all, when we started the project, and there were just a few people on the team, we all agreed that we didn’t want this game to be called SimCity 5. We just wanted to call it SimCity, because if we had a 5 on the box, everybody would think it had to be SimCity 4 with more stuff thrown in. That had the potential to be quite alienating, because SimCity 4 was already too complicated for a lot of people. That was the feedback we had gotten.

Once we made that title decision, it was very liberating—we felt like, “OK, now we can reimagine what the brand might be and how cities are built, almost from scratch.”

Technically, the big difference is the “GlassBox” engine that we have, in which all the agents promote a bottom-up simulation. All the previous SimCity games were literally built on spreadsheets where you would type a number into a grid cell, and then it propagated out into adjacent grid cells, and the whole city was a formula.

SimCity 4 was literally prototyped in Excel. There were no graphics—it was just a bunch of numbers—but you could type a code that represented a particular type of building and the formulae built into the spreadsheet would then decide how much power it had and how many people would work there. It just statically calculated the city as if it were a bunch of snapshots.

A fire breaks out in the city designed by We Are The Champignons.

Because our SimCity—the new SimCity—is really about getting these agents to move around, it’s much more about flows. Things have to be in motion. I can’t look at anybody’s city as a screenshot and tell you what’s going on; I have to see it live and moving before I can fully understand if your roads are OK, if your power is flowing, if your water is flowing, if your sewage is getting dumped out, if your garbage is getting picked up, and so on. All that stuff depends on trucks actually getting to the garbage cans, for example, and there’s no way to tell that through a snapshot.

Sims queue for the bus at dawn.

Once we made that decision—to go with an agent-driven simulation and make it work from the bottom up—then all the design has to work around that. The largest part of the design work was to say: “Now that we know agents are going to run this, how do schools work with those agents? How do fire and police systems work with these agents? How do time systems work?” All the previous editions of SimCity never had to deal with that question—they could just make a little table of crimes per capita and run those equations.

Manaugh: When you turned things over to the agents, did that have any kind of spatial effect on game play that you weren’t expecting?

Librande: It had an effect, but it was one that we were expecting. Because everything has to be in motion, we had to have good calculations about how distance and time are tied together. We had to do a lot of measurements about how long it would really take for one guy to walk from one side of the city to the other, in real time, and then what that should be in game time—including how fast the cars needed to move in relationship to the people walking in order to make it look right, compared to how fast would they really be moving, both in game time and real time. We had all these issues where the cars would be moving at eighty miles an hour in real time, but they looked really slow in the game, or where the people were walking way, way too fast, but actually they were only walking at two miles an hour.

We knew this would happen, but we just had to tweak the real-life metrics so that the motion and flow look real in the game. We worked with the animators, and followed our intuition, and tried to mimic the motion and flow of crowds.

We Are The Champignons' industrial zone, carefully positioned downwind of the residential areas.

In the end, it’s not one hundred percent based on real-life metrics; it just has to look like real life, and that’s true throughout the game. For example, if we made the airport runways actual size, they would cover up the entire city. Those are the kinds of things where we just had to make a compromise and hope that it looked good.

Twilley: Actually, one of the questions we wanted to ask was about time in the game. I found it quite intriguing that there are different speeds that you can choose to play at, but then there’s also a distinct sense of the phases of building a city and how many days and nights have to pass for certain changes to occur. Did you do any research into how fast cities change and even how the pace of city life is different in different places?

Librande: We found an amazing article about walking speeds in different cities. That was something I found really interesting. In cities like New York, people walk faster, and in medium-sized or small towns, they walk a lot slower. At one point, we had Sims walking faster as the city gets bigger, but we didn’t take it that far in the final version.

I know what you are talking about, though: in the game, bigger cities feel a lot busier and faster moving. But there’s nothing really built into the game to do that; it’s just the cumulative effect of more moving parts, I guess. In kind of a counter-intuitive way, when you start getting big traffic jams, it feels like a bigger, busier city even though nothing is moving—it’s just to do with the way we imagine rush-hour gridlock as being a characteristic of a really big city.

The fact that there’s even a real rush hour shows how important timing is for an agent-based game. We spent a lot of time trying to make the game clock tick, to pull you forward into the experience. In previous SimCities, the day/night cycle was just a graphical effect—you could actually turn it off if you didn’t like it, and it had no effect on the simulation. In our game, there is a rush hour in the morning and one at night, there are school hours, and there are shopping hours. Factories are open twenty-four hours a day, but stores close down at night, so different agents are all working on different schedules.

The result is that you end up getting really interesting cycles—these flows of Sims build up at certain times and then the buses and streets are empty and then they build back up again. There’s something really hypnotic about that when you play the game. I find myself not doing anything but just watching in this mesmerized state—almost hypnotized—where I just want to watch people drive and move around in these flows. At that point, you’re not looking at any one person; you’re looking at the aggregate of them all. It’s like watching waves flow back and forth like on a beach.

For me, that’s one of the most compelling aspects of our game. The timing just pulls you forward. We hear this all the time—people will say, “I sat down to play, and three hours had passed, and I thought, wait, how did that happen?” Part of that is the flow that comes from focusing, but another part of it is the success of our game in pulling you into its time frame and away from the real-world time frame of your desk.

Twilley: Has anything about the way people play or respond to the game surprised you? Is there anything that you already want to change?

Librande: One thing that amazed me is that, even with the issues at the launch, we had the equivalent of nine hundred man-years put into SimCity in less than a week.

Most of the stuff that people are doing, we had hoped or predicted would happen. For example, I anticipated a lot of the story-telling and a lot of the creativity—people making movies in the cities, and so on—and we’re already seeing that. YouTube is already filled with how-to videos and people putting up all these filters, like film noir cities, and it’s just really beautiful.

Screen shot from SimCity player Calvin Chan's film noir montage of his city at night.

The thing I didn’t predict was that, in the first week, two StarCraft players—that’s a very fast-paced space action game, in case you’re not familiar with it, and it’s fairly common for hardcore players to stream their StarCraft battles out to a big audience—decided to have a live-streamed SimCity battle against each other. They were in a race to be the first to a population of 100,000; they live-streamed their game; and there were twenty thousand people in the chat room, cheering them on and typing in advice—things like “No, don’t build there!” and “ What are you doing—why are you putting down street cars?” and “Come on, dude, turn your oil up!” It was like that, nonstop, for three hours. It was like a spectator sport, with twenty thousand people cheering their favorite on, and, basically, backseat city planning. That really took me by surprise.

I’m not sure where we are going to go with that, though, because we’re not really an eSport, but it seems like the game has the ability to pull that out of people. I started to try to analyze what’s going on there, and it seems that if you watch people play StarCraft and you don’t know a lot about it, your response is going to be something like, “I don’t know what I’m looking at; I don’t know if I should be cheering now; and I don’t know if what I just saw was exciting or not.”

But, if you watch someone build a city, you just know. I mean, I don’t have to teach you that putting a garbage dump next to people’s houses is going to piss them off or that you need to dump sewage somewhere. I think the reason that the audience got so into it is that everyone intuitively knows the rules of the game when it comes to cities.
Dennis Scholl is a former accountant and sometime casino card-counter turned Emmy-award winning documentary producer, as well as a boutique winemaker who now distils artisanal mescal in Oaxaca. He is also currently Vice President of Arts for the Knight Foundation, where his initiatives include “Random Acts of Culture,” a program that surprises passers-by with pop-up opera and ballet performances in unexpected spaces.

As someone who went to his first museum at the age of 22 and became an art collector six months later, Scholl is passionate about the ways in which arts and culture enrich our lives and communities, but he is equally committed to inserting them into the fabric of cities—bringing the arts to people where they are, rather than requiring people to come to arts.

His focus on the value of shared, transformative cultural experiences fits with the Knight Foundation’s own research findings on the most important reasons why people become attached to a particular city, in which social opportunities, aesthetics, and a sense of openness and inclusivity frequently rank above jobs, demographics, or amenities.

Venue caught up with Scholl at the end of the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival to talk about the art world equivalent of farm shares and veg boxes, the hits, misses, and future of the “Random Acts of Culture” program, and the importance of field trips. The edited transcript of our conversation is below.

• • •

Nicola Twilley: You’re were invited here to the Aspen Ideas Festival to speak on a panel called “Making Cities Sing.” What does a singing city look—or, I suppose I should say, sound—like for you?

Dennis Scholl: I was joined on the panel by Rocco Landesman, the chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, and Darren Walker, who is the head of culture for Ford Foundation. The moderator was Richard Florida, who wrote The Rise of the Creative Class, and the question that he put to us is, “How do you make a city sing?” Not sing in the literal sense, but rather, “How do you make a city have a kind of vibration where it’s in harmony and people are feeling good about it?”

Of course, all the panelists come from a cultural background, so we spent a lot of time talking about what we’ve each done in culture to try to create that particular environment in a city—to try to create engagement amongst citizens in communities.

For my part, I talked about one of the programs I started at the Knight Foundation, called “Random Acts of Culture.” “Random Acts of Culture” takes opera singers and puts them in the farmers’ market. It takes ballet dancers and puts them in the airport. And sometimes we take a 650-member choir and put them in Macy’s in the Wanamaker Building with a 20,000-pipe organ and get them to perform the “Hallelujah” chorus.

It’s all spontaneous to the public. It’s obviously very thought-through in terms of our behind-the-scenes organization, but the idea is to have a surprise performance in a very surprising place. Our goal is to reconnect people to the classics—so in one sense, we’re quite traditional. The performers are all professional artists and we pay every artist for every performance. But we feel that the model of an 8pm start at the Symphony Hall on a Saturday, where you either come or you don’t, just doesn’t fit today’s lifestyle that well. People’s attention spans, their free time, and their constant digital engagement all make our lives so much more fragmented.

So we decided to try to take the symphony out of the symphony hall and put it into the streets—and the response has been incredible. We have well over ten million YouTube views for the “Random Acts of Culture” that we’ve filmed so far. There have been many, many copycats, which we love, and if you include the YouTube views for those, the total is well over fifty million online views of spontaneous cultural, classical performances in very interesting places. Now we’re turning it into a documentary, too—I was actually up very late last night looking at a rough cut of a film we’re making about the program.

Twilley: How did “Random Acts of Culture” originally come about?

Scholl: Somebody sent me a video from Valencia, Spain. I clicked on it, and it was in one of those big, open marketplaces. There was a guy selling a piece of ham to somebody. I was very close to clicking it off. But, suddenly, he bursts out into song, singing opera. So I keep watching. Then he steps out from behind the counter, and across the counter from him is a woman selling something—coffee beans, I think. She begins to sing, and she comes out from behind her counter. They’re doing this beautiful duet and a crowd begins to gather. Suddenly more people step out of the crowd and begin to sing. And it goes on and on and on, and at the end of it, the crowd goes wild, people are bawling—crying is a very common occurrence when it comes to “Random Acts of Culture,” in person or on the web. At the very end, holds up a sign, in Spanish, that says, “So you think you don’t like opera, huh?”

I was just so taken by it. I wondered what would happen if we did it over and over and over again with lots and lots of disciplines in very unique places. We did one in Miami, where Knight is based, and the audience response was immediate and electric. So we went to our Knight Foundation Board of Trustees and told them that we’d like to do one thousand “Random Acts of Culture.” Now, that was a mistake, because I could have told them that I wanted to do one hundred “Random Acts of Culture” and they would have been just as happy! But I’m a “go big or go home” kind of guy, and once we committed, we had to deliver. Yesterday, we completed Random Act #943. [As of February 1, 2013, 1244 “Random Acts of Culture” have been completed.]

Twilley: That’s exciting—you’re nearly there.

Scholl: We’re in the home stretch. I believe we’ll be done by the end of the year. It’s been a wonderful project. We’ve gotten thousands of emails, and most of them begin with, “I’m sobbing as I type this.” It’s just been a joy.

We’ve now done them in eight different cities across America—the cities where the Knight brothers used to own a newspaper—as well as a few other places, like yesterday’s performance here at the Aspen Ideas Festival. I think we’ve really created a sense of community, and we’ve put a lot of artists to work in a way that has been profound for them, too. There’s normally this big separation between the people in the seats and the people up on the stage, and auditoriums have big lights so the performers can’t even see the audience for the most part, so for them to stand this close to somebody and sing opera is a trip.

Geoff Manaugh: What types of performances have you done so far? Is it only opera?

Scholl: We’ve done opera, we’ve done flamenco, we’ve done ballet, we’ve done gospel, we’ve done jazz, we’ve done classical—we’ve done all sorts of things. For the two performances here at Aspen, there were two unusual Chinese instruments played by Wu Tong, a Classical Chinese performer who is here this week. He played the sheng, which is almost like a panpipe. They’d probably kill me for saying that! [laughter] Then he played the bawu. I can’t even describe what that’s like. You’ve just got to see it. It looked like he was playing an octopus, basically; it’s a very unusual instrument. I’d never seen anything like it before. The crowd went crazy—there were 2000 people in the music tent, and they just went nuts.

Manaugh: Is there any particular place—or even a particular art form—that you’d like to use for a future “Random Act of Culture” but you haven’t quite figured out yet how to make it work?

Scholl: The biggest problem we’ve had so far is doing something within the visual arts. We’ve gotten a couple of good ideas, but we haven’t quite been able to crack the code there. In comparison, the performing arts are so immediate. However, we do have one good idea we’re working on from an artist in Miami who came to me and asked about it, so we might crack that one.

As for locations, we’d very much like to do something classical at a sporting event, and we haven’t pulled it off yet. We were going to try to do one in Akron, but, logistically, it’s very difficult. I don’t want to do it out in the halls when everybody goes to get a hot dog. I want to have people stand up in the stands and just begin to perform. We haven’t quite been able to conquer the logistics—maybe we need to wait for the seventh-inning stretch or something like that. But we won’t quit until we get one of those done, for sure.

Twilley: What happens after you reach one thousand?

Scholl: We have some incredibly big surprises coming for the last handful of them, in terms of scale, which will be exciting. I think it actually has a life of its own. In the eight cities that we focused on, the performers have formed strong partnerships. Venue-wise, Macy’s was our opening partner. They’ve been wonderful to work with, and you really haven’t lived until you’ve stopped traffic in Macy’s six times in a day during a Saturday shoe sale. Many of those partnerships will go on.

Twilley: I’m curious about how well such a physical, immediate project lives online, too. Was that the plan originally?

Scholl: Very much so. I knew that we couldn’t make the kind of investment we were going to make if only between 50 and 100 people were going to see these performances each time. By filming many of them—we’ve filmed close to 100 now—and putting them up on the web, we’ve touched millions and millions of people.

We did a big one in Philadelphia that got a lot of international media attention, and what was amazing was that, after watching it, people started clicking onto all the other ones we had online. People would literally sit there and go through all 30 of them that were on at the time, or all 50, or all 70. Even ones that we didn’t think were going to get much traction have 175,000 views now.

Manaugh: Aside from “Random Acts of Culture,” how else do you make a city sing?

Scholl: One of the things that happened here in Aspen this week is the thirtieth rendition of something called Community Supported Art. It’s a really beautiful project that was started by a woman named Laura Zabel in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is one of the Knight cities where we have the art program. She has an organization there called Springboard for the Arts that finds ways to increase artists’ value in and to their community.

I’m sure that you’ve heard of community-supported agriculture—the idea that you buy a farm share, and you get a box of whatever’s fresh throughout the year. For Community-Supported Art, Laura’s gotten a series of artists to each make an edition of 50 objects. Some of them go all out and make 50 originals; some of them make a print of 50; some of them will make a record or an mp3. Meanwhile, she sells shares for $350. The CSA supporters show up at a pick-up point, and the artists are there, and the subscribers get nine works of art. The idea is that it’s not for the cognoscenti of the art world. It’s for everybody. And the artists get paid—it’s a modest amount, but the artists get paid.

The real payoff is the connection between the people who are brave enough to buy a share, not knowing what they’ll get, and the artists. This helps demystify the process of collecting art, which is really important to us, because it can be a very elitist activity. It also introduces the artist to 50 new potential patrons. Many of the artists who have participated in Community-Supported Art have received subsequent commissions from people who really like the tiny object they received and want something more.

CSA "harvest" in St. Paul, MN. Photograph by Scott Streble.

It’s really a way of connecting artists with their community in a way that’s different than their current relationship. We’re not trying to get $350 for a CSA from art collectors, because that’s not what they pay for art. We’re trying to get $350 from people who are curious and who want to take a chance. Because once you’re in, and you have nine works of art, then all of a sudden, you’re a collector, too.

In St. Paul, they sell out in five minutes now after announcing it, every time they do it. We asked if we could help ramp it up to more cities. We funded the creation of a playbook. Now, if you want to do a Community-Supported Art program in your city, you just sign up and get the playbook. From there, it doesn’t cost anything to run, and there’s even a little money in the fee structure to cover your admin time.

It’s now been run thirty times across America, and there are fifty more CSAs pending. We actually did one here at the Ideas Festival as a demonstration project. I reached out to six very good Aspen artists, and they agreed to do six objects for a Community-Supported Art edition here. We did a small, twenty-person share, which was a mistake, because we probably could have sold one hundred. People loved it. So now the artists are very excited, and I bet you they’re going to do it again by themselves.

There’s an organic, grassroots element to it where, once you show somebody how to do it, it can be self-perpetuating.

CSA shares awaiting pick up in St. Paul. Photograph courtesy Knight Arts.

Twilley: There’s an interesting overlap between the Community-Supported Art and “Random Acts of Culture” in terms of the idea of surprise. In both examples, you don’t know what you’re getting in advance.

Scholl: Yeah, that’s my thing. It’s something that I care about greatly. I think you have to leave room in your life for happy surprises, and that’s something the arts are really good at delivering.

Another thing, though, that we have a lot of concern about at the Knight Foundation is community arts journalism. We don’t fear for New York or LA or Chicago. There will always be lots of arts coverage in those cities, because they’re dense in populations who care about those things. The New York Times had more than 400 dance reviews last year. But around the country, in some of the cities that the Knight Foundation works in, in terms of the traditional media covering culture, it ranges from not very much to none at all.

Working with the National Endowment for the Arts, we created a contest called the Community Arts Journalism Contest. We asked people in the eight Knight communities of Akron, Charlotte, Detroit, Macon, Georgia, Miami, Philadelphia, San Jose, and St. Paul, Minnesota, to give us their best idea for community arts journalism. We asked for ideas that we could fund that would create more community arts journalism in people’s communities—and better community arts journalism.

CriticCar Detroit. Photograph courtesy Knight Arts.

We thought we’d get just a few entries from each community and we’d fund the best one. We got 233 responses—long, deep, detailed responses—which blew our minds. We’ve chosen three to fund. One is called Critic Car, in Detroit, which is a mobile van that has a booth in it where you can film interviews. It will be parked in front of a dance performance or in front of a gallery, and you’ll be able to go in and give your thoughts about the show.

We’ve funded a joint venture in Philadelphia with Drexel University and the Philadelphia Daily News to create a lot more arts journalism using college students. And we have a really complicated and significant initiative in Charlotte, where the Charlotte Observer has, in essence, donated two additional pages for cultural coverage. They’re working together with an alliance of public TV and radio and online partners and the local state university.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this is that Rocco was so impressed by the response that he has agreed to add it to list of things that the NEA will fund out of their regular grant program, starting in March. Then, we've committed that if people in Knight communities win, and there’s a match required, we’ll cover that.

Twilley: One of the things that’s really interesting about the Knight Foundation is that the cities in which you operate—cities in which the Knight brothers once owned newspapers—are quite varied in terms of geography, demographics, industries, and so on. Do your programs play out slightly differently in each of the different cities?

Scholl: It took me a while to figure out what they all had in common. What these communities all have in common is that they are all in states of significant transition. Detroit is going in one direction—which I believe is up. Some of the other communities are not fully developed in some cases, or have come off of their highs. They’re all in flux. There is a different level of cultural sophistication in each of them, and I found that very complex to work with, certainly.

We definitely tweak projects as we expand them, to make sure they respond to the particular community. For example, we started a project five years ago in Miami that we call the Knight Arts Challenge, in which we invite anybody in the community to give us their best art idea. If we like it, we’ll fund it. After three years, the project was so successful that we expanded it to Philadelphia. But that’s a project that we’ve continually managed and tweaked because the community’s gotten so engaged. One thing we found—and this shouldn’t have been a revelation, but it was—is that the best art ideas don’t necessarily come from 501(c)(3)s. For me, that was a Eureka moment, because so much funding goes to those kinds of organizations, but art comes from artists.

The latest twist to it is that, out of this year’s Miami finalists, we are picking five up-and-coming artists or organizations and offering them a separate prize based upon the community’s support. We’re going to give them an extra $20,000 just based on who votes for them. We think that this’ll be another way to really have the community be engaged in the selection process.

Microteatro Miami, a 2012 Knight Arts Challenge winner, is presenting a series of short plays in nine shipping containers. Photograph via the Miami New Times.

The Challenge—along with many other things, such as Art Basel—has had a really significant impact on Miami, in terms of how the community perceives itself as culturally. I’ve lived in Miami for almost fifty years, and it wasn’t exactly a cultural oasis when I was growing up there. But the recent achievements are dramatic: we have a Frank Gehry building for the New World Symphony, we have a brand new Herzog & de Meuron building coming out of the ground for the Miami Art Museum. We have a science museum underway with Grimshaw doing the design. We have a Herzog & de Meuron parking lot. We have a Zaha Hadid parking garage. We have an Arquitectonica parking garage.

We do things a little different down there when it comes to architecture, but we do them. It’s been a really incredible…you can’t call it a renaissance, because it never happened before. It’s been an incredible cultural awakening. And I think the Knight contest, with its open invitation to people to express themselves culturally, has been very meaningful.

Random Act of Culture in Miami; photograph courtesy of Knight Arts.

Manaugh: I’m curious about the idea of bringing the arts to people, and how that requires you to expand the toolkit of traditional cultural philanthropy. For example, could you have even more of a long-term impact on a community not by funding an arts performance but by paying, say, for free guitar lessons for every 15-year-old in town?

Scholl: Arts education is a difficult minefield to deal in, but we believe that one of the things that kids remember is field trips. That really sticks. We’ve done a couple of things in that direction. We have funded a ten million dollar grant to the Miami Art Museum to make sure that every single third-grader in Dade County—27,000 kids—will go to that museum every year in perpetuity.

The other thing we support is in very close cooperation with the superintendent of schools in Miami-Dade County, which is the fourth-largest school district in America, with 327,000 students. He has a plan called the Cultural Passport in which every grade, K through 12, gets aligned with a cultural institution in town. In kindergarten, you might go to the Miami Children’s Museum, and, in first grade, you might go to the Performing Arts Center, and, in second grade, you might go to the ballet, and, in third grade, you’re going to go to the Miami Art Museum. By fifth grade, you might go MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art. Each of the institutions gets assigned a grade, and it’s a pretty great experience. We’ve given well over a million dollars to support that, and we were able to take the number of kids participating in that program from 55,000 to 110,000.

It’s not guitar lessons, but it is universal!

A selection of works from Dennis and Debra Scholl’s personal art collection is currently on display at the Nevada Museum of Art, Venue’s parent institution. Featuring 40 works by 18 artists, Hook, Line & Sinker is “an exhibition of drawings construed in the widest sense, as an anthology of practices deployed by artists to configure the world,” and is on display through April 28, 2013.

Map of the city of New York and island of Manhattan as laid out by the commissioners appointed by the Legislature, April 3, 1807, published in 1811, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Last year, the Manhattan street grid celebrated its 200th birthday.

The grid was originally proposed in 1811, by Gouverneur Morris, surveyor John Rutherfurd, and New York State Surveyor General Simeon De Witt, four years after the city council appointed them "Commissioners of Streets and Roads," charged with master-planning the city's expansion from its dense base on Manhattan's southern tip.

In their proposal, the Commissioners explained that they had deliberately avoided embellishments such as "circles, ovals, and stars," in favor of a regular grid of twelve north-south avenues criss-crossed with east-west streets. Their scheme, they wrote, would ensure "free and abundant circulation of air" to combat disease, and had the added benefit that "straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build."

They did not mention, however, that alongside the economic and public health benefits embedded in their design is also an astronomical calendar.

The sun creeps into view behind Madam Tussaud's. Manhattanhenge photographs by Nicola Twilley.

Twice each year, the setting sun aligns perfectly with the angle of the street grid (which is thirty degrees off from true north). The phenomenon has been dubbed Manhattanhenge, most notably by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and it is quite spectacular: for a few minutes, the enlarged red ball of the sun hovers above the pavement, nestled perfectly in the cradle of the dark skyscraper canyon, and sends a shaft of glowing orange light down each street before dropping out of sight.

Of course, this cosmic phenomenon is not limited to Manhattan. Any city built on a relatively uninterrupted grid will experience its own days of alignment, and, provided it has the right balance of street-width and skyscraper-height to produce a sun-sized notch, it, too, can be called a henge: hence Chicagohenge and Torontohenge, and no doubt others besides.

Manhattanhenge is also not limited to sunset; however, the sunrise alignments take place in December and January, and the cold weather, combined with the early hour and more cluttered eastern horizon, makes it a much less popular event.

But the sunsets of Manhattanhenge have gradually turned into minor public festivals, with camera and phone-waving crowds gathered in the middle of popular cross-streets (14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, and 57th), careless of traffic. Their behavior attracts yet more people, demanding to know what's going on, as well as a horn accompaniment from blocked taxis, and, combined with the astronomical light show, it feels as though Manhattan is sharing an unofficial 15-minute celebration (and pedestrian takeover of the streets).

Clouds and rain obscured the first Manhattanhenge of 2012 in May, but the July 11 full sunset was spectacular, and Venue got back from visiting an atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado, just in time to document it.

This idea that a city can be a clock, with its own solstices, seems to be an accident worth making intentional. From constellations to comets, what other cyclical astronomical events could be given a spectacular frame by the built environment? Landscape architecture blog Pruned, for instance, recently put out a call for speculative designs for a "pavilion for viewing the coming intergalactic collision between Andromeda and the Milky Way," but the list of possible overlaps between astronomy and the urban environment is all but infinite.
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