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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."
"Gradually, America's management of its wild animals has evolved, or maybe devolved, into a surreal kind of performance art," reflects Jon Mooallem, author of Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.


Detail from the cover of Jon Mooallem's Wild Ones.

This is a surprisingly generous statement, considering that Mooallem has spent the last few years researching a harrowing litany of accidental extinctions and unintended consequences—including a surreal day spent chasing ex-convict Martha Stewart as she and her film crew pursued polar bears across the Arctic tundra—in order to untangle the complicated legal and emotional forces that shape America's relationship with wildlife.

Despite the humor, the stakes are high: half the world's nine million species are expected to be extinct by the end of this century, and, as Mooallem explains, many of those that do survive will only hang on as a result of humans' own increasingly bizarre interventions, blurring the line between conservation and domestication to the point of meaninglessness.

On a foggy morning in San Francisco, Venue met Mooallem for coffee and a conversation that ranged from tortoise kidnappings to polar bear politics. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

• • •

The polar bear tourism industry in Churchill, Manitoba, relies on a dozen specially built vehicles called Tundra Buggies that take tourists and their cameras out to see the world's southernmost bear population. Photo: Polar Bears International.

Geoff Manaugh: In the book, you’ve chosen to focus on two very charismatic, photogenic, and popular animals: the whooping crane and the polar bear.

Jon Mooallem: They’re the celebrities of the wildlife world.

Manaugh: Exactly. But there’s a third example, in the middle section of the book, which is a butterfly. It’s not only a very obscure species in its own right, but it’s also found only in a very obscure Bay Area preserve that most people, even in Northern California, have never heard of. What was it about the story of that butterfly, in particular, that made you want to tell it?

Mooallem: I thought it would be really interesting to go from the polar bear, which is the mega-celebrity of the animal kingdom, to its complete opposite—to something no one really cared about—and to see what was at stake in a story where the general public doesn’t really care about the animal in question at all. It turned out that there was a hell of a lot at stake for the people working on that butterfly.


Lange's Metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo langei). Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

It’s called the Lange’s Metalmark butterfly, and it’s about the size of a quarter. As you said, it only lives in this one place called Antioch Dunes, which is about sixty-seven acres in total. It is surrounded by a waste-transfer station, a sewage treatment plant, and a biker bar, and there’s a gypsum factory right in the middle that makes wallboard. You can’t even walk across the preserve, actually, because of this giant industrial facility in the middle of it.

In fact, the outbuilding where Jaycee Dugard, the kidnapping victim, was held is just round the corner.


Counting butterflies at Antioch Dunes. Photo: Jon Mooallem

It’s a forgotten place. It’s not the sort of place you’d expect to spend a lot of time in if you’re writing a book about wildlife in America.

On top of all that, not only is the butterfly the animal in the book that people won’t have heard of, or that they won’t know much about, but it’s also the one that I didn’t know very much about, going in. Looking back on it, it was somewhat audacious to say in my book proposal that a third of the book was going to be the story of this butterfly, because I really knew almost nothing about it! But it ended up being by far the most fascinating story, for me. That’s at least partly because I had the sense that I was looking at things that no one had ever looked at and talking to people who no one had ever talked to before.



Jana Johnson leads a captive breeding project for the Lange's Metalmark from inside America's Teaching Zoo, where students in Moorpark College's Exotic Animal Training and Management degree program learn their trade. Photos: (top) Jason Redmond, Ventura County Star; (bottom) Louis Terrazzas, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

It also seemed as though, when you’re working in an environment like that on a species that doesn’t get a lot of support or interest, you’re confronting a lot of the fundamental questions of environmentalism in a much more dramatic way. You have to work harder to sort through them, because it’s difficult to make simple assumptions about what you’re doing—that what you’re doing is worthwhile and good—when you don’t have anyone telling you that, and when it looks as hopeless as it looks with the Lange’s Metalmark.

Maybe hopeless is too strong a word—but you can’t transpose romantic ideas about wilderness and animals onto the situation, because it’s just so glaringly unromantic. You can’t stand in Antioch Dunes and take a deep breath of fresh air and feel like you’re in some primordial wilderness. You don’t have that luxury.

The other thing that was interesting about the butterfly story was the fact that it was happening on such a small scale. The butterfly’s always just lived in this one spot—it’s the only place it lives on earth—so you could look at what happened to this small patch of land over a hundred years and meet all the people who came in & out of the butterfly’s story. It was quite self-contained. It was almost like a stage for a play to happen on.


Butterflies on display in cases at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Photo: Venue.

Manaugh: Harry Lange, for whom the butterfly is named, has a great line that seems to sum up so much of the sadness and stupidity in the human relationship with wild animals. He said, after exterminating the very last of the Xerces Blue butterfly: “I always thought there would be more…”

Mooallem: Right—and that was the other extraordinary thing about the butterfly story.

When I started working on the book, I had no idea about the history of butterfly collectors in the Bay Area. Apparently, the Bay Area was a big hotspot for butterflies, because of the microclimates here. It can be ten or fifteen degrees hotter in the Mission District than it is at the beach; there can be fog in some places and not others; and all of this creates a sort of Galapagos Island effect. The whole peninsula is peppered with these different micro-populations of butterflies because of the different microclimates.

Meanwhile, in the early twentieth century, at a time when the Audubon Society and other groups were being founded and there was a turn against the overhunting of species, it still seemed OK and sort of benign to collect butterflies. It wasn’t considered “hunting.” You could transfer all of that ambition to conquer nature and discover new things to collecting butterflies. You’re here at the very end of North America, where the country finally runs out of room, and now you’re starting to run out of animals too, but there were still enough butterflies to collect and name after yourself.


The Xerces Blue is the first butterfly in America known to have gone extinct due to human disturbance. Photo: Andrew Warren/butterfliesofamerica.com

The story of Xerces Blue, which is the butterfly that Lange thought there would always be more of, is just incredible. Back then, past 19th Avenue, it was all sand dunes. I actually met a friend of Lange’s, named Ed Ross, who was a curator at the California Academy of Sciences; he had to be in his late eighties or early nineties.

He told me about growing up as a kid here and taking the streetcar out to 19th Avenue and just getting out with his butterfly net and walking to Ocean Beach over the dunes. Occasionally you’d see a hermit, he said.


Richmond Sand Dunes (1890s). Photo: Greg Gaar Collection, San Francisco, CA, via FoundSF.


Dunes along Sunset Boulevard, San Francisco (1938). Photo: Harrison Ryker, via David Rumsey Map Collection.

That generation of butterfly nuts who were living in San Francisco in the early twentieth century saw that habitat being erased in front of their eyes.

That backstory really helped to shape my perception of a lot of things in the book by elongating the timescale. It brought up the whole idea of shifting baselines—this gradual, generational change in our accepted norm for the environment—and all these other, deeper questions that wouldn’t have come up if I’d just followed Martha Stewart around filming polar bears, as I do in the first section of the book. It’s a very different experience to zoom out and take in the entirety of a story as I did with the Lange’s Metalmark, which is why I think I enjoyed it so much.

Nicola Twilley: It’s interesting to note that Ed Ross doesn’t actually figure in the book, and that, elsewhere, you allude to several intriguing stories in just a sentence or two—to things like the volunteers who count fish at the Bonneville Dam. Instead, you deliberately keep the focus on the bear, the butterfly, and the bird. But what about all the animals or all the stories that didn’t make it into the book? Were there any particular gems that you had to leave out or that you wish you had kept?

Mooallem: There were tons! The fish counting thing is a perfect example.


Janet the fish counter, hard at work. Photo: Jon Mooallem.

I spent a day at the Bonneville Dam, and it was completely surreal. I barely touch on it in the book, but the question of how to get fish around the dam is a really interesting design problem. There have been different structures that were built and then shown not to work, and so they’ve had to adapt them or retrofit them, and that’s ended up creating all new problems that need to have something built to solve them, and so on.

The government has actually moved an entire colony of seabirds that were eating the fish at the mouth of the river. The fish that got through the dam would get to the mouth of the Columbia River, but then the double-crested cormorants would eat them all. So the government picked up the birds and moved them to another island in the river.

I felt as though, normally, when you hear about these kinds of stories, you just scratch the surface. We’re so used to hearing endangered species stories in very two-dimensional, heroic ways, where so-and-so is saving the frog or whatever, and I just knew that it couldn’t be that easy. If it was that straightforward—if you could just go out and pull up some weeds and the butterfly would survive—it wouldn’t be very meaningful work. That was the space I really wanted to get into—the muddiness where things don’t work out the way we draw them on paper.

At the same time, I was able to mention a lot of these bizarre stories—but, as you say, almost as an aside. Each one of those things could have been a much longer, deeper story. Take, for example, the “otter-free zone,” which was this incredible saga: the government was reintroducing otters in Southern California and, because of complaints from fishermen and the oil industry, they needed to control where the otters would swim. A biologist would have to go out in a boat with binoculars to look for otters that were inside the otter-free zone and, if he saw them, he’d have to try to capture them when they were sleeping and move them. It was just a hilarious, miserable failure. I spent a lot of time reporting on that—talking to the biologist and hearing what that work was actually like to have to do—yet, in the end, I only mention it. But I know there’s a deeper story there.


Sea-otter in Morro Bay, California, just north of the former otter-free zone. Photo: Mike Baird.

In fact, there’s a section of the book where I rattle off a bunch of these examples—there’s the project to keep right whales from swimming into the path of natural gas tankers, and there’s the North Carolina wolves and their kill-switch collars, and so on. Each one of those is its own Bonneville Dam story—its own complicated saga of solutions and newer solutions to problems that the original solutions caused. You could really get lost in that stuff. I did get lost in all that stuff for a long time.

This is my first book, of course, and I feel as though that’s the joy and the luxury of a book—that you do have the time and space to get lost in those things for a little while.

Manaugh: It’s funny how many of those kinds of stories there are. I remember an example that Liam Young, an architect based in London, told me. He spent some time studying the Galapagos Islands, and he told me this incredible anecdote about hunters shooting wild goats, Sarah Palin-style, from helicopters, because the goats had been eating the same plants that the tortoises depended on.


BBC Four footage of the Galapagos Island goat killers.

But, at one point, some local fishermen were protesting that the islands’ incredibly strict eco-regulations were destroying their livelihood, so they took a bunch of tortoises hostage. What was funny, though, is that all the headlines about this mention the tortoises—but, when you read down to paragraph five or six, it also mentions that something like nineteen scientists were also being held hostage. [laughter] It was as if the human hostages weren’t even worth mentioning.

Mooallem: [laughs] Wow. That reminds me of one story I saw but never followed up on, about some fishermen in the Solomon Islands who had slaughtered several hundred dolphins because some environmental group had promised them money not to fish, but then didn’t deliver the money.

Twilley: When you invest an animal with that much symbolic power, the stakes get absurdly high.

Mooallem: Exactly—look at the polar bear. Of course, the polar bear has lost a lot of its cachet. I don’t know whether you saw the YouTube video that Obama put out to accompany his big climate speech in June, but I was surprised: there wasn’t a single polar bear image in it. It was all floods and storms and dried-up corn. Four years ago, there would have definitely been polar bears in that video.

Today, though, the polar bear is just not as potent a symbol. It’s become too political. It doesn’t really resonate with environmentalists anymore and it ticks off everyone else. What’s amazing is that it’s just a freaking bear, yet it’s become as divisive a figure as Rush Limbaugh.



From "Addressing the threat of Climate Change," a video posted on the White House YouTube channel, June 22, 2013.

Manaugh: Speaking of politics, it feels at times as if the Endangered Species Act—that specific piece of legislation—serves as the plot generator for much of your book. Its effects, both intended and surreally unanticipated, make it a central part of Wild Ones.

Mooallem: It really does generate all the action, because it institutionalizes these well-meaning sentiments, and it makes money and federal employees available to act on them. It amps up the scale of everything.

The first thing that I found really interesting is the way in which the law was passed. It was pretty poorly understood by everyone who voted on it. The Nixon administration saw it as a feel-good thing. It was signed in the doldrums between Christmas and New Year’s, almost as a gift to the nation and a kind of national New Year’s resolution rolled into one. And it was passed in 1973, as well, during both Vietnam and Watergate, so the timing was perfect for something warm and fuzzy as a distraction.

But most people never read the law and they didn’t realize that some of the more hardcore environmentalist staff-members of certain congressmen had put in provisions that were a lot more far-reaching than any of the lawmakers imagined. Nixon didn’t understand that it would protect insects, for example. It was really just seen as protecting charismatic national symbols, in completely unspecified, abstract ways.


Nixon signing the Endangered Species Act. AP photo via Politico.

In the preamble to the law itself—I don’t remember the exact quote—it says something like: “We’re going to protect species and their ecosystems from extinction as a consequence of the economic development of the nation.” Passing a law that is supposed to put a check on the development and growth of the nation—all the things government is supposed to promote—is pretty astounding.

Obviously, the law’s done a tremendous amount of good, but I also think that, because of its almost back-room origins, there is a kind of sheepishness and reluctance among a lot of conservationists to draw on it to its full extent. I don’t spend a lot of time in the book on government policy, but, to get a little wonky for a second, I do find it interesting that there’s this hesitancy to really use the Endangered Species Act as a cudgel.

Groups like Center for Biological Diversity that basically spend their time suing the government to hold it to the letter of the Endangered Species Act, are quite controversial among other environmentalists for that very reason. There’s a feeling that it is too dangerous to really unleash the full power of the law. In some ways, I completely understand that, because there is no way to work these questions out. It’s not a zero sum game.

But the Endangered Species Act is always under attack. It’s always a political talking point to be able to say: we’re spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to study slugs or whatever.

Twilley: Then there’s the fact that it’s written so as to protect entire ecosystems, rather than just the animals themselves.

Mooallem: Exactly. To me, that’s actually the even more interesting part of this. Rudi Mattoni, the lepidopterist, pointed this out to me, and it’s why he became so disillusioned with the butterfly preservation work he was doing. The law says that it is supposed to protect endangered species and the ecosystems that they depend on. He and a lot of other people feel that the approach has been completely centered on species themselves at the expense of the larger ecosystem.

Even before the Lange’s Metalmark was listed as endangered, the Antioch Dunes ecosystem had been unraveling for decades. It was already pretty much destroyed. But, using the power of the Endangered Species Act, using the power of the federal government, and using a Fish & Wildlife Service employee whose job is just pulling weeds and keeping the plants that the butterfly needs in place, we’ve been able to maintain the butterfly there, in a place where it doesn’t really belong anymore because the landscape has changed so much.

I guess you could say that one of the weaknesses of the law—or you could say that’s actually the strength of the law, because it has protected a species from extinction even long after it should have been extinct, at least in an ecological sense. But it does bring up questions about what we are actually trying to accomplish.


Churchill's "polar bear jail," where bears that come into town are kept in one of twenty-eight cells, and held without food for up to a month so that they don't associate human settlements with a food reward. Photo: Bob and Carol Pinjarra.


At the end of its "sentence," if the Hudson Bay still hasn't frozen over, the bear is drugged and airlifted by helicopter to be released north of town, closer to where the ice first forms. Photo: Nick Miroff, via Jon Mooallem.

Manaugh: Preservation of an entire ecosystem, if you were to follow the letter of the law, would require an absolutely astonishing level of commitment. Saving the polar bear, in that sense, means that we’d have to restore the atmosphere to a certain level of carbon dioxide, and reverse Arctic melting, which might mean reforesting the Amazon or cutting our greenhouse gas emissions to virtually nothing, overnight. It’s inspiringly ambitious.

Mooallem: As I try to explain in the book, that’s basically why the polar bear became so famous, for lack of a better word. It became an icon of climate change, because in a shrewd, “gotcha” kind of way, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmentalists chose the polar bear as their tool to try to use the Endangered Species Act to put pressure on the Bush administration to deal with climate change as a much larger problem.

Even though the environmental groups themselves admitted it was very unlikely that this would work, they were trying to make the case that the polar bear is endangered, that the thing that is endangering it is climate change, and that the government is legally compelled by the Endangered Species Act to deal with this threat to an Endangered Species. So, if you accept that the polar bear is endangered, then you have to accept the larger responsibility of dealing with climate change.

It’s a completely back-door way to try to force the government to act on climate change, but the result was that the polar bear ended up with this superstar status and popular recognition among the general public, which I found amazing.


The not-sufficiently-charismatic Kittlitz's Murrelet. Photo: Glen Tepke, National Audubon Society.

What’s also interesting is that the Center for Biological Diversity had actually tried this tactic once before, using a bird called the Kittlitz’s Murrelet, and it completely failed. There’s this thing called the “warranted but precluded” category of the Endangered Species Act, which is basically a loophole.

If a species is endangered but the Fish & Wildlife Service or another agency feels that they can’t deal with it right now, they can just say, “Yes, we agree that this species is endangered, so we’re going to put it in a waiting room called ‘warranted but precluded,’ and we’ll get to it as soon as we’re done cleaning up this other mess.” Because there are so many species that are endangered and the threats keep escalating, the government has been able to shunt species after species onto that “warranted but precluded” list.

When the Center for Biological Diversity and a few other groups tried to pressure the administration to do something about climate change by getting the Kittlitz’s Murrelet listed as an Endangered Species, the government just used the “warranted but precluded” loophole, which also meant they didn’t have to rule on climate science or make any really difficult decisions.

But the Kittlitz’s Murrelet failed to inspire any kind of public support, so there was no pressure on the administration to do anything. The environmentalists who were petitioning to get the polar bear listed as part of their strategy to deal with climate change knew that the government could very easily apply the same loophole to the bear and duck the whole issue of climate science, again.


During the public comment period preceding the polar bear's accession to Endangered Species status, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne received half a million letters and postcards, many of which were from children. Via Jon Mooallem.

The Center for Biological Diversity realized that they needed a public relations strategy as well as a legal strategy, and, by picking the polar bear, they knew that they could put the Bush administration on the spot. The Bush administration couldn’t just put the polar bear in this infinite waiting room, because people would be upset.

Kids started writing letters to the Secretary of the Interior begging him to save the polar bear. They were sending in their own hand-drawn pictures of bears, drowning.


A 2007 letter from a child to Dirk Kempthorne included this drawing of a drowning polar bear being eaten simultaneously by a shark and a lobster. Via Jon Mooallem.

In some ways, the premise of the book is that our emotions and imaginations about these animals dictates their ability to survive in the real world, and this story was a particularly fascinating—not to mention peculiar—example in which all this sentimental gushing over polar bears, which, on the face of it, seems mawkish and kind of silly, was the lynchpin in a legal proceeding. In that case, our emotions about this animal really did matter.

Of course, there’s a whole other part of the story where the administration got around it anyway. But, for a while, it mattered.

Twilley: In the book, you encounter a whole range of attitudes that people hold toward wild animals and conservation, and the journeys that they take from idealism to pragmatism to cynicism and despair. There’s William Temple Hornaday, for example, who gets ever more ambitious and optimistic, and who goes from being a taxidermist who hunted buffalo to founding the National Zoo, and then on to a project to restock the Great Plains.


Manikin for Male American Bison, Hornaday (1891), via Hanna Rose Schell; Hornaday's innovative taxidermy "Buffalo Group," originally displayed at the U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian), and since relocated to Fort Benton, Montana (photo: Pete and the Wonder Egg).

Then there’s Rudi Mattoni, the lepidopterist you were talking about, who starts out as a pioneer of captive breeding and reintroduction, and then gives up and moves to Buenos Aires to catalog plants and animals so that at least we will have a record of what we’ve destroyed. Through the process of visiting all these places and spending time talking with all these people, did your own attitude toward wild animals and conservation evolve or shift at all?

Mooallem: What was great about writing the book was being able to absorb all these different perspectives. I met all these different people, some of whom are incredibly jaded and some of whom are incredibly idealistic, but, when you step back, you see that, as a species, we’re all in this struggle together, and this incredibly diverse group of people are all doing their best to grab hold of some piece of it and try to solve it.

That was where the “weirdly reassuring” part of my book title came from—from looking at conservationists as a breed, rather than just an individual person. If I had just written a book about the many, many old, battle-scarred conservationists who are extremely bitter and who claim to have given up, I think I would have ended up being really depressed. I think that it’s important to remember that there are people at all different points on that spectrum of idealism and disillusionment and they all serve a purpose. I identified with all of them, and that kept me from identifying too strongly with any one of them.


William Temple Hornaday's table of wild animal intelligence. Via Jon Mooallem.

I wasn’t trying to advocate any particular position or solve any problems with this book. I actually didn’t realize this till the end, but what I was really doing was just trying to figure out how you’re supposed to feel about all this. How should you feel and respond when you look at everything that’s going on with the environment? What I tried to do is collect the attitudes and emotions of the people that I met and than to take what was useful.

I would get off the phone, for instance, with someone like Mattoni and he would be so horribly pessimistic about everything, yet somehow I would feel slightly exhilarated by it. Here’s someone who is so close to these questions—really big questions about what the place of humans on earth should be—and he’s just totally beaten down by them. But he’s in contact with them. He’s living in engagement with those kinds of questions, and there was something beautiful about that. It doesn’t necessarily make me hopeful, but it does make me feel reassured in some way.

People who haven’t read the book keep asking me, “What’s so weirdly reassuring about it?” And I don’t really know how to explain it. In the book, I just try to recreate the experience that I went through, so that, hopefully, when people get to the end of the book they can have gone through the same range of emotions, so that they also feel weirdly reassured.

Manaugh: As far as the human attitude to wildness goes, I think the role of the child is a fascinating subplot. The idea of the wild, feral child is both fascinating and terrifying in popular culture—I’m thinking of Werner Herzog’s newly restored movie about Kasper Hauser, for example, or about recent newspaper articles in the UK expressing fear about "feral children” starting riots in the streets. It seems like humans want to make children as domesticated as possible, as fast as possible, and that, in a sense, the role of education and acculturation is exactly the task of de-wilding human animals.

Mooallem: I don’t know: among certain people in America right now, it seems as though it’s almost going the other way, that there’s a kind of romanticization of kids as a noble, unspoiled embodiment of nature. We haven’t ruined them yet. That sentiment seems to be actually in opposition to this idea that anything that’s animal-like about a kid is not human.

What was interesting to me is that we surround our kids with all these animal images and stuffed lions and bears and so on, yet no one’s ever really looked at how children conceive of wild animals. We have a lot of research about how a kid might think about their family’s pet dog, for instance, but how does that kid think about a panda bear that they’ll never see?


Rufus, the polar bear rocking horse, by Maclaren Nursery.

There was one set of studies done in the 1970s that interviewed a lot of grade school kids about how they thought about wildlife, and the answers were pretty much exactly the opposite of what we like to imagine. The older kids get, the more compassionate they feel toward the wild animals. The younger kids were just horrified and scared and felt very threatened by the animals—which makes perfect sense, of course, because they’re helpless little kids.

In many ways, that’s actually the more “wild” response: the kids are behaving like animals, in the sense that they’re only looking out for their own interests.

I thought that was really funny, in fact, because the whole book came out of a very genuine feeling that it’s really sad that my daughter is going to grow up in a world without polar bears, and, at the same time, a complete inability to understand why that should be so or to rationalize that feeling. After all, she doesn’t interact with polar bears now. Why should she care about polar bears? I think part of that originally inexplicable sense of sadness comes from a romantic place where we want to see children and wild animals as part of the same culture—a culture that’s not us.

Manaugh: What’s interesting, I suppose, with the children, is that we want a kind of animal-like, wild innocence, but only until they reach a certain age.

Mooallem: That actually mirrors this cycle that I write about with a lot of wildlife where we love wild animals when they are helpless and they don’t threaten us, but then we vilify them when they inconvenience us or aren’t under our control.

My daughter is about to turn five, and I’m really glad she doesn’t bite me any more when she gets angry! At the same time, it fills me with a very profound joy when I see her stalking a butterfly on Bernal Hill, because somehow I want her to be connected to that more pure idea of nature. I think that we love wildness and we love that kind of animal nature when it doesn’t inconvenience us—when it’s not biting us in the leg.


California Department of Fish and Wildlife shot three tranquilizer darts into this celebrity mountain lion, found in a Glendale-area backyard, before removing it to Angeles National Forest. Photo: NBC4.

There’s this study in Los Angeles that showed that when there were almost no mountain lions left, people would celebrate them as a part of their natural heritage—the good wild—but then, when mountain lion populations made a bit of a comeback and the lions started intruding into the city and eating pet dogs, people’s attitudes changed and mountain lions were seen as vicious murderers—the bad wild. There is a kind of fickleness: we want it both ways.

In the book, I quote Holly Doremus, who is a brilliant legal scholar based here in Berkeley, who says that we’ve never really decided—or maybe even asked—how much wild nature we need and how much we can accept.

Twilley: What that question brings up to me, too, is the idea of an appropriate context for wildness. One of Rudi Mattoni’s first projects was breeding the Palos Verdes blue butterfly, which was thought to be extinct after its last habitat was covered by a baseball diamond, but was then rediscovered in a field of underground fuel tanks owned by the Department of Defense. I was curious about both the idea of control and the idea of pristine nature, and how both concepts are embedded in our assumptions about wildness.

Mooallem: Right. Pigeons are wild—but they annoy us. Cockroaches are wild. We don’t romanticize or preserve the wild animals that live alongside us and invade spaces that we think of as ours—we exterminate them.

As far as control goes, we want to have our cake and eat it, too. We want something that has nothing to do with us—something that has free rein and that can surprise us and thrill us—but we only want the positive side of that equation. We don’t want the wolves eating our cattle or the sea otters getting in the way of the fishermen. That’s certainly behind some of the extreme lengths we go to in order to create the right context for the animals and to keep them within a certain area that we’ve decided is appropriate for them.

The point of the book is that we’re only going to see more and more examples like the Palos Verde blue and the Lange’s Metalmark, where the last hope for a species is in a seemingly hopeless place. There are only going to be more industrial landscapes—it’s unavoidable. Travis Longcore, who is an urban conservation scientist that I spoke with for the book, makes a really good point, which is that we have to get away from what he calls Biblical thinking—that you’re either in the Garden of Eden or the entire world is fallen. He heads the organization that’s behind a lot of the Antioch Dunes butterfly recovery, and he makes a point of trying to celebrate the wildness of places that make most of us feel queasy.

I think that’s important—I’m not suggesting that we give up on the romantic idea of the places that do seem “pristine,” but I think that we need to be a little more flexible and we need to find the joy and the beauty in those other sorts of places, too.

Twilley: You chose to start the epilogue with a story that seems emblematic: the “species in a bucket” story. What about that story summed up these complex themes you were tackling in the book?

Mooallem: The “species in a bucket” story is about a fish biologist named Phil Pister and a little species of fish called the Owens pupfish. Back in the 1960s, in the Owens Valley, Phil Pister was part of the group who had rediscovered the Owens pupfish—it had been presumed extinct, but he found it living in a desert spring.


Owens Valley pupfish. Photo: UC Davis; Phil Pister in front of the BLM Springs where the fish still flourishes today. Photo: Chris Norment.

One summer—I think it was 1964—there was a drought, and this one desert spring where the fish lived was drying up. Pister ran out there with some of his California Department of Fish & Wildlife buddies, and they moved the fish to a different part of the spring where the water was flowing a little bit better and the fish would have more oxygen.

He sent everyone home thinking it was a job well done, but then, after nightfall, he realized that it wasn’t working. Scores of fish were floating belly up. So he made a snap decision. He got some buckets from his truck, he put all the fish he could into the buckets, he carried them back to his truck, and he drove them across the desert to this other spring where he knew the water was deeper and that they’d survive.

I was drawn to that story because I heard it a few different times and, originally, to be honest, I just didn’t think it was true. It sounded like this almost Biblical, heroic story of a man alone in the desert—and it was always told to me in that way, too. People stressed how miraculous it was and how noble he was, carrying these two buckets full of fish across the desert to save the species. It was almost too perfect of a metaphor—here we are with the fate of all these species in our hands—but it also turned out to be true. I actually went down to Bishop to meet Phil, and he’s a phenomenal guy.

I thought that story should start the epilogue for two reasons. In part, I liked the story for all the same reasons that I thought it wasn’t true—there’s this timelessness to it. A lot of the book is about adding layer after layer of complexity, so the reader feels less and less certainty. It’s not a book that moves toward an answer—it’s more of a book that unravels all the answers that we thought we already knew. So there was something really refreshing and absolving to just take it back to this one man with a bucket, saving a species.

The other reason is that I thought it was a good illustration of this human compulsion to help, which is the underlying driver of so many of the stories in the book. There was something really nice about Phil’s story, in that it didn’t even strike him as that remarkable at the time. Later it did, of course, and he’s written about it, pretty eloquently. But I thought his story got at the fact that we just can’t not do this sort of thing. We can’t not try to solve a problem when it’s in front of us. I found that there’s a real dignity in that.

Even the people I met who were the harshest critics of Endangered Species preservation wanted to help—they just thought the way it was being done was ridiculous or that the politics are ridiculous.


Brooke Pennypacker in costume, with the juvenile whooping cranes. Photo: Operation Migration.


Chairs set up for "craniacs" hoping to witness an Operation Migration flyover, Gilchrist County, Florida. Photo: Jon Mooallem.

Take, for example, all these people up and down Operation Migration’s route who donate their property to let the pilots stay on their land with the whooping cranes. They’re not people that you would think of as environmentalists, but they’re really grateful for this opportunity to help—there’s no red tape, there’s no government surveyor coming in to check their land for endangered species, just a simple way to make a difference for this one species.

I also liked the idea of pairing Phil Pister’s story with Brooke Pennypacker, one of the Operation Migration pilots. For Brooke, this is not a one-night-with-a-bucket deal: he flies a little plane in a bird costume in front of whooping cranes for five months of the year, and then he migrates back with them on land. His whole life is given up to this effort, for the foreseeable future. It’s not a simple problem he’s trying to solve. I found him on a pig farm, where he’d been exiled due to bureaucratic squabbling, and he had FAA inspectors coming to check out his plane. He was just beset by complexity and he was so in touch with the potential futility of it all. He was willing to accept that maybe everything he’s doing isn’t going to make a difference.


Juvenile whooping cranes getting acquainted with the microlight, pre-migration. Photo: Doug Pellerin, via Operation Migration.

That’s the complete opposite of Phil Pister walking across the desert just thinking that all he has to do is move these fish over here and they’ll be fine. In the span of 50 years, we’ve gone from one scenario to the other. But Brooke is doing it because he feels the exact same way Phil did. Brooke told me that he got involved with Operation Migration because it was as if someone had a flat tire on the side of the road and he had a jack in his car. He saw a problem and he knew that he could pull over and help. That’s where it all starts from.

Manaugh: This is a hypothesis in the guise of a question. Most people’s experience of wildlife nowadays is in the form of roadkill or perhaps squirrels nibbling through the phone cable or raccoons in their backyard. It’s very unromantic—whereas pets seem to be getting more and more exotic and strange. There’s a boom in people owning lions or boa constrictors or incredibly rare tropical birds as pets. I’m curious what you think about the role of the pet in terms of our relationship with wild animals, and whether we are turning to increasingly exotic pets in order to replace the wildness we find missing in nature itself.

Mooallem: That’s never occurred to me, but it’s a brilliant point. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t really have a lot to say about pets. I’ve never really had a pet.

My sense is that when you have a dog, the dog is your buddy. Even though it’s a dog, you more or less relate to it as a person. I think that, in that sense, pets are sort of boring to me. But this idea that we’re trying to get our exotic thrills from a pet monkey is interesting. I’ll have to give that some thought.

The stories that interest me as a writer are ones in which people are trying to respond appropriately to something where it’s not clear what the appropriate response is. For a while, I was writing a lot about the dilemma of recycling—you’re holding this can, and you don’t know whether putting it in the recycling bin is smart or whether it just gets shipped off to China. There’s that drive to do the moral thing, but most of us are completely clueless as to what the right thing might be, because of the complexity of the issues.

Wild animals are the perfect example of that kind of situation, because they can’t really tell us what they need—they’re just this black box that our actions get fed into. For some reason, probably some deep Freudian problem, that challenge of trying to do the right thing but ultimately just banging your head against the wall to figure it out is really appealing to me. I really relate to it.

I guess that’s why I’m not really that interested in pets, either. You come to feel that you understand your pet, even if you don’t. There’s not that tension or urge to solve the problem that you get with otters or wolves or buffalo. You house-break your pet and then it’s over.

Manaugh: I wonder, though, if that’s not part of the appeal of getting an exotic animal species as a pet—the promise and the thrill of not understanding it.

Mooallem: At the same time, that’s a feeling that you’ll eventually get bored or annoyed with, and you’ll end up abandoning the pet. I just read that the government is setting up unwanted tortoise drop-offs for owners who want to abandon their pets, just like babies at fire stations. Apparently in some states—Nevada and a few others—there are dozens of desert tortoises being left by their owners by the side of the road.


Desert tortoises at a sanctuary for abandoned pet tortoises in southwest Las Vegas. Photo: Jessica Ebelhar, Las Vegas Review-Journal.

When a pet monkey goes nuts and the owner gives it up, we tend to look at it as a failure of pet ownership, but maybe they actually wanted that feeling of not understanding the animal, at least at first. It’s an interesting theory.

Twilley: Another group of people who would seem to have a very different but equally complex relationship to wild animals is hunters. That’s a whole segment of Americans who seem to be less troubled about what their relationship should be with wild animals, yet who often end up being at the forefront of conservation movements, in order to save the landscapes in which they hunt. The division is interesting—it seems philosophical, but it’s also maybe class-based?

Mooallem: It’s geographic, definitely. But you’re right: a lot of the stereotypes around hunters break down when you see all the really creative conservation projects that are supported, or even spearheaded, by people who we might normally think of as redneck hunters. The lines are just not clearly defined. You also choose your species—some people are more sympathetic to one species than they are to others.

The other point I was trying to make with the book is that conserving a species or celebrating a species is just another way to use the species. Conservationists always talk about utilitarian values and aesthetic values, but, to me, it’s all the same thing. Some of us want salmon in the Columbia River because we want to fish them, and some of us want salmon there because it’s part of America’s natural glory, or because we’ll feel guilty if they go away. But, in all of those reasons, the salmon are serving human needs.

Those different reasons really come to the surface when a species rebounds. Right now, there’s a huge fight up and down the sandhill crane flyway. They were all but extinct, yet they’ve come back to the point where they’re annoying farmers, and hunters are saying: “Fantastic! They’re back—now I can hunt them with my son again. Success!” And, of course, then there’s an outcry from the birdwatchers and the conservationists who are saying that that’s not why we brought them back. We brought them back so they could be beautiful, not so they could be shot. But these are still just two groups of people who want something out of the bird.

Manaugh: There’s another book that came out recently called Nature Wars

Mooallem: Yes, I read that.

Manaugh: The author, Jim Sterba, argues that all of our well-intentioned efforts to protect animals have actually allowed deer and beaver and Canada goose populations to explode, and now they’re bringing down our planes and causing car crashes and tearing up our golf courses and so on. He ends up, to my mind, at least, over-emphasizing the point that we need to become hunters again—that the ecosystem is out of balance precisely because it no longer features human predators.


Roadkilled deer, South Carolina. Photo: John O'Neill.

Mooallem: Preserving these species—whether it’s intentional or whether it’s an unintended consequence of habitat changes, as in the case of deer—is an ecological act, and it’s going to have repercussions that we should take responsibility for dealing with. We forget we’re ecological participants. In fact, if Sterba’s book hadn’t been written, I might be thinking about exactly the same issue now. There are so many cases where it’s the rebound or the resurgence that causes the problem, rather than the decline.

The real fallacy is the “leave no trace” attitude. There is no way you’re not leaving a trace, so it’s better simply to be conscious and thoughtful and to take responsibility for what you’re doing.

Somebody asked me the other day about the de-extinction movement, and I had the same response. I don’t know what I think about actually bringing back passenger pigeons, but I think it’s good that people are talking about being proactive and being creative rather than just trying to pretend we don’t have any power.

Of course, it also makes me nervous—as it should, given our environmental history of unintended consequences, having to find solutions for problems that were caused by our own solutions for other problems that we ourselves most likely caused in the first place.
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.
 
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