FeedIndex
Filter: Waning Gibbous  view all
Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin's most recent novel, is a reconstructionist—an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why.

The novel is based on Arvin's own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction: Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction. Following an introduction to Arvin's work from writer, friend, and fellow explorer of speculative landscapes Scott Geiger, Venue sat down with Arvin on the cozy couches of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animations.




Flipping open his laptop, Arvin began by showing us a "greatest hits" reel drawn from his own crash reconstruction experience. Watching the short, blocky animations—a semi-truck jack-knifing across the center line, an SUV rear-ending a silver compact car, before ricocheting backward into a telephone pole—was surprisingly uncomfortable. As he hit play, each scene was both unspectacular and familiar—a rural two-lane highway in the rain, a suburban four-way stop surrounded by gas stations and fast-food franchises—yet, because we knew that an impact was inevitable, these everyday landscapes seemed freighted with both anticipation and tragedy.

The animations incorporated multiple viewpoints, slowing and replaying the moment(s) of impact, and occasionally overlaying an arrow, scale, or trajectory trace. This layer of scientific explanation provided a jarring contrast to the violence of the collision itself and the resulting wreckage—of lives, it was hard not to imagine, as well as the scattered vehicles.



As we went on to discuss, it is precisely this disjuncture—between the neat explanations provided by laws of physics and the random chaos of human motivation and behavior—that The Reconstructionist takes as its territory.

Our conversation ranged from the art of car crash forensics to the limits of causality and chance, via feral pigs, Walden Pond, and the Higgs boson. The edited transcript is below.

• • •

Nicola Twilley: Walk us though how you would build and animate these car crash reconstructions.

Nick Arvin: In the company where I worked, we had an engineering group and an animation group. In the engineering group, we created what we called motion data, which was a description of how the vehicle moved. The motion data was extremely detailed, describing a vehicle’s movement a tenth of a second by a tenth of a second. At each of those points in time we had roll, pitch, yaw, and locations of vehicles. To generate such detailed data, we sometimes used a specialized software program⎯the one we used is called PC-Crash⎯or sometimes we just used some equations in Excel.


A screenshot from the PC-Crash demo, which boasts that the "Specs database contains vehicles sold in North America from 1972 to the present," and that "up to 32 vehicles (including cars, trucks, trailers, pedestrians, and fixed objects such as trees or barriers) can be loaded into a simulation project."

When you’re using PC-Crash, you start by entering a bunch of numbers to tell the program what a vehicle looks like: how long it is, where the wheels are relative to the length, how wide it is, where the center of gravity is, how high it is, and a bunch of other data I’m forgetting right now.

Once you’ve put in the parameters that define the vehicle, it’s almost like a video game: you can put the car on the roadway and start it going, and you put a little yaw motion in to start it spinning. You can put two vehicles in and run them into each other, and PC-Crash will simulate the collision, including the motion afterward, as they come apart and roll off to wherever they roll off to.

We then fed that motion data to the animators, and they created the imagery.


A screenshot of PC-Crash's "Collision Optimizer."


As the demo promises, "in PC-Crash 3D, the scene can be viewed from any angle desired."

Often, you would have a Point A and a Point B, and you would need the animation to show how the vehicle got from one point to the other.

Point A might be where two vehicles have crashed into each other, which is called the “point of impact.” The point of impact was often fairly easy to figure out. When vehicles hit each other—especially in a head-on collision—the noses will go down and gouge into the road, and the radiator will break and release some fluid there, marking it. Then, usually, you know exactly where the vehicle ended up, which is Point B, or the “point of rest.” But connecting Points A and B was the tricky part.

Twilley: In real life, are you primarily using these kind of animations to test what you think happened, or is it more useful to generate a range of possibilities of which you can then look for evidence on the ground? In the book, for example, your reconstructionists seem to do both, going back and forth between the animation and the actual ground, generating and testing hypotheses.

Arvin: That’s right. That’s how it works in real life, too. Sometimes we would come up with a theory of what happened and how the vehicles had moved, and then we’d recreate it in an animation, as a kind of test. Generating a realistic-looking animation is very expensive, but you can create a crude version pretty easily. We’d watch the animation and say, “That just doesn’t look right.” You have a feel for how physics works; you can see when an animation just doesn’t look right. So, very often, we’d look at an animation and say to ourselves: we haven’t got this right yet.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

One of the challenges of the business is that when you’re creating an animation for court, every single thing in it has to have a basis that’s defensible. An animation can cost tens of thousands of dollars to generate, and if there is one detail that’s erroneous, the other side can say, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense!” Then the entire animation will be thrown out of court, and you’ve just flushed a lot of money down the toilet.

So you have to be very meticulous and careful about the basis for everything in the animation. You have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened.

In the novel there is an example of this kind of thinking when Boggs shows Ellis how, when looking at a vehicle that has rolled over, you literally examine each individual scratch mark on the vehicle, because a scratch can tell you about the orientation of the vehicle as it hit the ground, and it can also tell you where the vehicle was when the scratch was made, since asphalt makes one kind of scratch, while dirt or gravel will make a different type of scratch.

For one case I worked on—a high-speed rollover where the vehicle rolled three or four times—we printed out a big map of the accident site. In fact, it was so big we had to roll out down the hallway. It showed all of the impact points that the police had documented, and it showed all of the places where broken glass had been deposited as the vehicle rolled. We had a toy model of the car, and we sat there on the floor and rolled the toy from point to point on the map, trying to figure out which dent in the vehicle corresponded to which impact point on the ground.

I remember the vehicle had rolled through a barbed wire fence, and that there was a dent in one of the doors that looked like a pole of some kind had been jammed into the sheet metal. We figured it had to be one of the fence posts, but we struggled with it for weeks, because everything else in the roll motion indicated that, when the car hit the fence, the door with the dent in it would have been on the opposite side of the vehicle. We kept trying to change the roll motion to get that door to hit the fence, but it just didn’t make sense.

Finally, one of my colleagues was going back through some really poor-quality police photographs. We had scarcely looked at them, because they were so blurry you could hardly see anything. But he happened to be going back through them, and he noticed a fireman with a big crowbar. And we realized the crowbar had made the dent! They had crowbarred the door open.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Sometimes, though, even after all that meticulous attention to detail, and even if you believe you have the physics right, you end up playing with it a little, trying to get the motion to look real. There’s wiggle room in terms of, for example, where exactly the driver begins braking relative to where tire marks were left on the road. Or, what exactly is the coefficient of friction on this particular roadway? Ultimately, you’re planning to put this in front of a jury and they have to believe it.

Twilley: So there’s occasionally a bit of an interpretive leeway between the evidence that you have and the reconstruction that you present.

Arvin: Yes. There’s a lot of science in it, but there is an art to it, as well. Pig Accident 2, the crash that Ellis is trying to recreate at the start of my book, is a good example of that.

It’s at the start of the book, but it was actually the last part that was written. I had written the book, we had sold it, and I thought I was done with it, but then the editor—Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial—sent me his comments. And he suggested that I needed to establish the characters and their dynamics more strongly, early in the book.

I wanted an accident to structure the new material around, but by this time I was no longer working as a reconstructionist, and all my best material from the job was already in the book. So I took a former colleague out for a beer and asked him to tell me about the stuff he’d been working on.

He gave me this incredible story: an accident that involved all these feral pigs that had been hit by cars and killed, lying all over the road. Then, as a part of his investigation, he built this stuffed pig hide on wheels, with a little structure made out of wood and caster wheels on the bottom. They actually spray-painted the pig hide black, to make it the right color. He said it was like a Monty Python skit: he’d push it out on the road, then go hide in the bushes while the other guy took photographs. Then he’d have to run out and grab the pig whenever a car came by.



But there wasn’t any data coming out of that process that they were feeding into their analysis; it was about trying to convince a jury whether you can or can’t see a feral pig standing in the middle of the road.

Manaugh: That’s an interesting analogy to the craft of writing fiction, related to the question of what is sufficient evidence for something to be believable.

Arvin: Exactly. It’s so subjective.

In that case, my friend was working for the defense, which was the State Highway Department—they were being sued for not having built a tunnel under the road for the wild pigs to go through. In the novel, it takes place in Wisconsin, but in reality it happened in Monterey, California. They’ve got a real problem with wild pigs there.

Monterey has a phenomenal number of wild pigs running around. As it turned out, the defense lost this case, and my friend said that it was because it was impossible to get a jury where half the people hadn’t run into a pig themselves, or knew somebody who had had a terrible accident with a pig. The jury already believed the pigs were a problem and the state should be doing something about it.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Geoff Manaugh: In terms of the narrative that defines a particular car crash, I’m curious how reconstructionists judge when a car crash really begins and ends. You could potentially argue that you crashed because, say, a little kid throws a water balloon into the street and it distracts you and, ten seconds later, you hit a telephone pole. But, clearly, something like a kid throwing a water balloon is not going to show up in PC-Crash.

For the purpose of the reconstructionist, then, where is the narrative boundary of a crash event? Does the car crash begin when tires cross the yellow line, or when the foot hits the brakes—or even earlier, when it started to rain, or when the driver failed to get his tires maintained?

Arvin: It’s never totally clear. That’s a grey area that we often ended up talking about and arguing about. In that roll-over crash, for example, part of the issue was that the vehicle was traveling way over the speed limit, but another issue was that the tires hadn’t been properly maintained. And when you start backing out to look at the decisions that the drivers made at different moments leading up to that collision, you can always end up backing out all the way to the point where it’s: well, if they hadn’t hit snooze on the alarm clock that morning

Twilley: Or, in your novel’s case, if they weren’t married to the wrong woman…

Arvin: [laughs] Right.

We worked on this one case where a guy’s car was hit by the train. He was a shoe salesman, if I remember right, and he was going to work on a Sunday. It just happened to be after the daylight savings time change, and he was either an hour ahead or an hour behind getting to work. The clock in the car and his watch hadn’t been reset yet.

He’d had this job for four years, and he’d been driving to work at the same time all those years, so he’d probably never seen a train coming over those tracks before—but, because he was an hour off, there was a train. So, you know, if he’d remembered to change his clocks…


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: That reminds me of something that Boggs says in the book: “It’s a miracle there aren’t more miracles.”

Arvin: Doing that work, you really start to question, where are those limits of causality and chance? You think you’ve made a decision in your life, but there are all these moments of chance that flow into that decision. Where do you draw a line between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you? What’s just happenstance?

It’s a very grey area, but the reconstructionist has to reach into the grey area and try to establish some logical sequence of causality and responsibility in a situation.

Twilley: In the novel, you show that reconstructionists have a particular set of tools and techniques with which to gain access to the facts about a past event. Other characters in the book have other methods for accessing the past: I’m thinking of the way Ellis’s father stores everything, or Heather’s photography. In the end, though it seems as though the book is ambivalent as to whether the past is accessible through any of those methods.

Arvin: I think that ambivalence is where the book is. You can get a piece of the past through memory and you can get a piece through the scientific reconstruction of things. You can go to a place now, as it is physically; you can look of a photograph of how it was; you can create a simulation of the place as it was in your computer: but those are all representations of it, and none of them are really it. They are all false, to an extent, in their own way.

The best I think you can hope to do is to use multiple methods to triangulate and get to some version of what the past was. Sometimes they just contradict each other and there’s no way to resolve them.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Working as a reconstructionist, I was really struck by how often people’s memories were clearly false, because they’d remember things that just physically were not possible. Newton’s laws of motion say it couldn’t have happened. In fact, we would do our best to completely set aside any witness testimony and just work from the physical evidence. It was kind of galling if there was not just enough physical evidence and you had to rely on what somebody said as a starting point.

Pedestrian accidents tended to be like that, because when a car runs into a person it doesn’t leave much physical evidence behind. When two cars run into each other, there’s all this stuff left at the point where they collided, so you can figure out where that point was. But, when a car runs into a person, there’s nothing left at that point; when you try to determine where the point of impact was, you end up relying on witness testimony.


Screenshots from a PC-Crash demo showing load loss and new "multibody pedestrian" functionality.

Twilley: In terms of reconciling memory and physical evidence—and this also relates to the idea of tweaking the reconstruction animation for the jury—the novel creates a conflict about whether it’s a good idea simply to settle for a narrative you can live with, however unreliable it might be, or to try to pin it down with science instead, even if the final result doesn’t sit right with you.

Arvin: Exactly. It sets up questions about how we define ourselves and what we do when we encounter things that conflict with our sense of identity. If something comes up out of the past that doesn’t fit with who you have defined yourself to be, what do you do with that? How much of our memories are shaped by our sense of identity versus the things we’ve actually done?

Twilley: It’s like a crash site: once the lines have been repainted and the road resurfaced, to what extent is that place no longer the same place where the accident occurred, yet still the place that led to the accident? That’s what’s so interesting about the reconstructionist’s work: you’re making these narratives that define a crash for a legal purpose, yet the novel seems to ask whether that is really the narrative of the crash, whether the actual impact is not the dents in the car but what happens to people’s lives.

Arvin: I always felt that tension—you are looking at the physics and the equations in order to understand this very compressed moment in time, but then there are these people who passed through that moment of time, and it had a huge effect on their lives. Within the work, we were completely disregarding those people and their emotions—emotions were outside our purview. Writing the book for me was part of the process of trying to reconcile those things.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Manaugh: While I was reading the book, I kept thinking about the discovery of the Higgs boson, and how, in a sense, its discovery was all a kind of crash forensics.

Arvin: You’re right. You don’t actually see the particle; you see the tracks that it’s made. I love that. It’s a reminder that we’re reconstructing things all the time in our lives.

If you look up and a window is open, and you know you didn’t open it, then you try to figure out who in the house opened it. There are all these minor events in our lives, and we constantly work to reconstruct them by looking at the evidence around us and trying to figure out what happened.

Manaugh: That reminds me of an anecdote in Robert Sullivan’s book, The Meadowlands, about the swamps of northern New Jersey. One of his interview subjects is a retired detective from the area who is super keyed into his environment—he notices everything. He explains that this attention to microscopic detail is what makes a good detective as opposed to a bad detective. So, in the case of the open window, he’ll notice it and file it away in case he needs it in a future narrative.

What he tells Sullivan is that, now that he is retired, it’s as though he’s built up this huge encyclopedia of little details with the feeling that they all were going to add up to this kind of incredible moment of narrative revelation. And then he retired. He sounds genuinely sad—he has so much information and it’s not going anywhere. The act of retiring as a police detective meant that he lost the promise of a narrative denouement.

Arvin: That’s great. I think of reconstruction in terms of the process of writing, too. Reconstruction plays into my own particular writing technique because I tend to just write a lot of fragments initially, then I start trying to find the story that connects those pieces together.

It also reminds me of one of my teachers, Frank Conroy, who used to talk about the contract between the reader and the writer. Basically, as a writer, you’ve committed to not wasting the reader’s time. He would say that the reader is like a person climbing a mountain, and the author is putting certain objects along the reader’s path that the reader has to pick up and put into their backpack; when they get to the top of the mountain there better be something to do with all these things in their backpack, or they are going to be pissed that they hauled it all the way up there.

That detective sounds like a thwarted reader. He has the ingredients for the story—but he doesn’t have the story.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: In the novel, you deliberately juxtapose a creative way of looking—Heather’s pinhole photography—and Ellis’s forensic, engineering perspective. It seems rare to be equipped with both ways of seeing the world. How does being an engineer play into writing, or vice versa?

Arvin: I think the two things are not really that different. They are both processes of taking a bunch of little things—in engineering, it might be pieces of steel and plastic wire, and, in writing a novel, they’re words—and putting them together in such a way that they work together and create some larger system that does something pleasing and useful, whether that larger thing is a novel or a cruise ship.

One thing that I think about quite a bit is the way that both engineering and writing require a lot of attention to ambiguity. In writing, at the sentence level, you really want to avoid unintentional ambiguity. You become very attuned to places where your writing is potentially open to multiple meanings that you were not intending.

Similarly, in engineering, you design systems that will do what you want them to do, and you don’t have room for ambiguity—you don’t want the power plant to blow up because of an ambiguous connection.

But there’s a difference at the larger level. In writing, and writing fiction in particular, you actually look for areas of ambiguity that are interesting, and you draw those out to create stories that exemplify those ambiguities—because those are the things that are interesting to think about.

Whereas, in engineering, you would never intentionally take an ambiguity about whether the cruise ship is going to sink or not and magnify that!


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: I wanted to switch tracks a little and talk about the geography of accidents. Have you come to understand the landscape in terms of its potential for automotive disaster?

Arvin: When you are working on a case—like that rollover—you become extremely intimate with a very small piece of land. We would study the accident site and survey it and build up a very detailed map of exactly how the land is shaped in that particular spot. You spend a lot of time looking at these minute details, and you become very familiar with exactly how lands rolls off and where the trees are, and where the fence posts are and what type of asphalt that county uses, because different kinds of asphalt have different friction effects.

Manaugh: The crash site becomes your Walden Pond.

Arvin: It does, in a way. I came to feel that, as a reconstructionist, you develop a really intimate relationship with the roadway itself, which is a place where we spend so much time, yet we don’t really look at it. That was something I wanted to bring out in the book—some description of what that place is, that place along the road itself.

You know, we think of the road as this conveyance that gets us from Point A to Point B, but it’s actually a place in and of itself and there are interesting things about it. I wanted to look at that in the book. I wanted to look at the actual road and the things that are right along the road, this landscape that we usually blur right past.

The other thing your question makes me think about is this gigantic vehicle storage yard I describe in the novel, where all the crashed vehicles that are in litigation are kept. It’s like a museum of accidents—there are racks three vehicles high, and these big forklift trucks that pick the vehicles up off the racks and put them on the ground so you can examine them.


A vehicle scrapyard photographed by Wikipedia contributor Snowmanradio.

Manaugh: Building on that, if you have a geography of crashes and a museum of crashes, is there a crash taxonomy? In the same way that you get a category five hurricane or a 4.0 earthquake, is there, perhaps, a crash severity scale? And if so, then you can imagine at one end of it, the super-crash—the crash that maybe happens once every generation—

Arvin: The unicorn crash!

Manaugh: Exactly—Nicky and I were talking about the idea of a “black swan” crash on the way over here. Do you think in terms of categories or degrees of severity, or is every crash unique?

Arvin: I haven’t come across a taxonomy like that, although it’s a great idea. The way you categorize crashes is single vehicle, multiple vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist, and so on. They also get categorized as rollover collision, collision that leads to a rollover, and so on. So there are categories like that, and they immediately point you to certain kinds of analysis. The way you analyze a rollover is quite a bit different from how you analyze an impact. But there’s no categorization that I am aware of for severity.

I only did it for three years, so I’m not a grizzled reconstructionist veteran, but even in three years you see enough of them that you start to get a little jaded. You get an accident that was at 20 miles an hour, and you think, that’s not such a big deal. An accident in which two vehicles, each going 60 miles an hour, crash head-on at a closing speed of 120 miles an hour—now, that’s a collision!


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

You become a little bit of an accident snob, and resisting that was something that I struggled with. Each accident is important to the people who were in it. And, there was a dark humor that tended to creep in, and that worried me, too. On the one hand, it helps keep you sane, but on the other hand, it feels very disrespectful.

Twilley: Have you been in a car accident yourself?

Arvin: I had one, luckily very minor, accident while I was working as reconstructionist—around the time that I was starting to work on this book. I heard the collision begin before I saw it, and what I really remember is that first sound of metal on metal.

Immediately, I felt a lurch of horror, because I wasn’t sure what was happening yet, but I knew it could be terrible. You are just driving down the road and, all of a sudden, your life is going to be altered, but you don’t know how yet. It’s a scary place—a scary moment.



Twilley: Before we wrap up, I want to talk about some of your other work, too. An earlier novel, Articles of War, was chosen for “One Book, One Denver.” I’d love to hear about the experience of having a whole city read your book: did that level of public appropriation reshape the book for you?

Arvin: That’s an interesting question. There were some great programs: they had a professional reader reading portions of it, and there was a guy who put part of it to music, so it was reinterpreted in a variety of ways. That was really, really fun for me. It brought out facets of the book that I hadn’t been fully aware of.

The whole thing gave me an opportunity to meet a lot of people around the city who had read the book. I did a radio interview with high school students who had read the book—this was when we were deeper into the Iraq war and there were a lot of parallels being drawn with that war. And these were kids who were potentially going off to that war, so that was very much on their mind.

You had this concentrated group of people looking at the book and reading it and talking about it, and everybody’s got their own way of receiving it. It helped me see how, once a book is out there, it isn’t mine anymore. Every reader makes it their own.

Manaugh: Finally, I’m interested in simply how someone becomes a reconstructionist. It’s not a job that most people have even heard of!

Arvin: True. For me, it was a haphazard path. Remember how we talked earlier about that gray area between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you?

I have degrees in mechanical engineering from Michigan and Stanford. When I finished my Masters at Stanford, I went to work for Ford. I worked there for about three years. Then I was accepted into Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so I quit Ford to go to Iowa. I got my MFA, and then I was given a grant to go write for a year. My brother had moved to Denver a year earlier, and it seemed like a cool town so I moved here. Then my grant money ran out, and I had to find a job.

I began looking for something in the automotive industry in Denver, and there isn’t much. But I had known a couple people at Ford who ended up working in forensics, so I started sending my resume to automobile forensics firms. It happened that the guy who got my resume was a big reader, and I had recently published my first book. He was impressed by that, so he brought me in for an interview.

In that business, you write a lot of reports and he thought I might be helpful with that.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: Do you still work as an engineer, and, if so, what kinds of projects are you involved with?

Arvin: I work on power plants and oil and gas facilities. Right now, I am working on both a power plant and an oil facility in North Dakota—there’s lots of stuff going on out there as part of the Bakken play. It’s very different from the forensics.

Twilley: Do you take an engineering job, then quit and take some time to write and then go back into the engineering again? Or do you somehow find a way to do both?

Arvin: I do both. I work part time. Part-time work isn’t really easy to find as an engineer, but I’ve been lucky, and my employers have been great.

Engineers who write novels are pretty scarce. There are a few literary writers who started out in engineering but have gotten out of it—Stewart O’Nan is one, George Saunders is another. There’s Karl Iagnemma, who teaches at MIT. There are a few others, especially in the sci-fi universe.

I feel as though I have access to material—to a cast of characters and a way of thinking—that’s not available to very many writers. But the engineering work I’m doing now doesn’t have quite the same dramatic, obvious story potential that forensic engineering does. I remember when I first started working in forensics, on day one, I thought, this is a novel right here.
An hour's drive east-southeast of Pittsburgh, hidden among the picturebook-perfect red barns, white fences, and green fields of the Lignonier Valley, lies an equally carefully maintained landscape of bird research—a nature preserve whose ponds and wildflowers have been augmented with mist nets, field microphones, a songbird recording booth, and a one-of-a-kind rotating flight tunnel.



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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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


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

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

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



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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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



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


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


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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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



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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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


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



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



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



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



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

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



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



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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



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



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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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

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



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



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

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



The "town" is visible on Google Maps, if you're curious, and it is easy to reach from Barstow. Tours of "The Box" are run twice a month and fill up quickly; learn more at the Fort Irwin website, including safety tips and age restrictions.


Arriving much earlier than expected for our tour of Fort Irwin, detailed in another post, Venue spent a half-hour wandering around the so-called Painted Rocks, where outgoing troops memorialize their time at Fort Irwin by painting unit insignias on an ever-larger swath of desert scrabble.

"We have a tradition at the National Training Center of painting rocks with unit patches and insignias," Command Sgt. Maj. Victor Martinez explains in an article posted at army.mil. They are "symbols of pride and allegiance."



The results are colorful, more self-mockingly macho than threatening, and highly photogenic; skulls, serpents, sharks, and dragons join bombs, arrows, spears, castles, and silhouettes of assault rifles, all of which gradually fade in the desert sun and need to be repainted when the unit responsible circles back to the desert base.

Unexpected cousins of Newspaper Rock, which Venue visited in Utah on a separate trip, the Painted Rocks turn geology into media, not as long-lasting as petroglyphs but still a semi-superstitious message left by humans on a thin layer of the earth's surface.
The Hayward Fault runs through the center of the UC Berkeley campus, famously splitting the university's football stadium in half from end to end. It has, according to the 2008 Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast, a thirty-one percent probability of rupturing in a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake within the next thirty years, making it the likeliest site for the next big California quake.

Nonetheless, for the majority of East Bay residents, the fault is out of sight and out of mind—for example, five out of six Californian homeowners have no earthquake insurance.


The Hayward Fault trace superimposed onto a map of the University of California, Berkeley, campus, as seen in the USGS Hayward Fault Virtual Tour.

Meanwhile, three-quarters of a mile north of Memorial Stadium, and just a few hundred yards west of the fault trace, is the office of Ken Goldberg, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at Berkeley.

Goldberg's extensive list of current projects includes an NIH-funded research initiative into 3D motion planning to help steer flexible needles through soft tissue and the African Robotics Network, which he launched in 2012 with a Ten-Dollar Robot design challenge.


Three robots from the "10 Dollar Robot" Design Challenge organized by the African Robotics Network.

Alongside developing new algorithms for robotic automation and robot-human collaboration, Goldberg is also a practicing artist whose most recent work, Bloom, is "an Internet-based earthwork" that aims to make the low-level, day-to-day shifts and grumbles of the Hayward Fault visible as a dynamic, aesthetic force.


Screenshot of Bloom, 2013, by Ken Goldberg, Sanjay Krishnan, Fernanda Viégas, and Martin Wattenberg.

Venue stopped by Goldberg's office to speak with him about Bloom and the challenge of translating invisible seismic forces into immersive artworks.

Our conversation ranged from color-field art and improvisational ballet to the Internet's value as a vehicle for re-imagining the relationship between sensing and physical reality. The edited transcript appears below.

• • •


A Bay Area seismograph. Photograph by Marcin Wichary.

Nicola Twilley: When did you start working with seismic readings in an artistic context, and why?

Ken Goldberg: Well, I had just finished grad school, I had started teaching at USC in the Computer Science department, and I was doing art installations on the side. And I was building robots.

I had just completed an installation for the university museum when I stumbled onto this, at the time, brand new thing called the World Wide Web. My students showed me this thing and I realized: this is the answer! The Web meant that I didn’t have to schlep a whole bunch of stuff to a museum and fight with all their constraints and make something that, in the end, only 150 people would actually get out to see. Instead, I could put something together in my lab and make it accessible to the world. That’s why we—I worked with a team—started developing web-based installations.


The Telegarden, 1995-2004, networked art installation at Ars Electronica Museum, Austria. Co-directors: Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarromana Project team: George Bekey, Steven Gentner, Rosemary Morris Carl Sutter, Jeff Wiegley, Erich Berger. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

We actually built the first robot on the Internet, as an art installation. It got a lot of attention—tens of thousands of people were coming to that. Then we did a second version called The Telegarden, which is still the project I’m probably best known for. It was a garden that anyone online could plant and water and tend, using an industrial robotic arm, and it was online for nine years. I actually just found out that there’s a band called Robots in the Garden, which is exciting.

What was really interesting to me about The Telegarden was this idea of connecting the physical world, the natural world, and the social world through the Internet. I was interested in the questions that come up when the Internet gives you access not just to JSTOR libraries and to digital information, but also to things that are live and dynamic and organic in some way.

That really drove my thinking, and my colleagues and I began to do a lot of research in that area. I registered some patents and won a couple of National Science Foundation awards, formed something called the Technical Committee on Networked Robots, and wrote a lot of papers. From the research side of it, there are a lot of interesting questions, but, from the art side, it also led to a series of projects that look at how such systems were being perceived, and how they were shaping perception.

I worked with Hubert Dreyfus on a philosophical issue that we call “telepistemology,” which is the question of: what is knowledge? What counts as objective distance? In other words, people were interacting with this garden remotely, and that raised the question of whether or not, and how, the garden was real, which is the fundamental question of epistemology.


The Telegarden, 1995-2004, networked art installation at Ars Electronica Museum, Austria. Co-directors: Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarromana Project team: George Bekey, Steven Gentner, Rosemary Morris Carl Sutter, Jeff Wiegley, Erich Berger. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

Epistemology has always been affected by technologies like the telescope and the microscope, things that have created a radical shift in how we sense physical reality. As we started thinking about this more, we became interested in how the Internet is causing an analogous shift, in terms of, hopefully, reinvigorating skepticism about what is real and what is an artifact of the viewing process. I edited a book on this for MIT Press that came out in 2000.

In the middle of all that, then, I moved here and met someone from the seismology group. They agreed to give me access to this live data feed of movements on the Hayward Fault, a tectonic fault that cuts right through the center of Berkeley—in fact, right through the middle of campus, not far from here. I was really interested in this idea of connecting to something that was not just the contained environment of a garden, but something much more dynamic and naturally rooted and global.

I guess I should add, as well, that a big factor for me was when I moved up here and became intrigued by the total amnesia and denial that people here have about their seismic situation. I would ask people, “What do you have in your earthquake kit?” And they would reply, “What? What are you talking about?” Now, of course, twenty years later, I don’t have an earthquake kit, either. [laughs]

Manaugh: I think that’s quite a common scenario. When we first moved out to California, we bought several gallons of water, a few boxes of Clif Bars, extra flashlights, and even earthquake insurance, and the native Californians I knew here just looked at us like we were paranoid survivalists, hoarding ammunition for Doomsday.

Goldberg: It was that sort of reaction that got me thinking a lot about how people are not conscious of the fault, or about earthquakes, in general, and I began wondering how you could make that more visually present. Also, the old seismograph was an interesting visual metaphor for me. Everyone recognized that form, but I wanted to play with it. I thought we could make a live, web-based version, which you can actually still see online.

Twilley: What form did that take?

Goldberg: The very first version was just a simple trace across a black screen. It was called Memento Mori and it was meant to be super-minimalist. In fact, when I showed it to the seismologists, they said, “Oh, where’s the grid? How can we quantify this without a scale?” I had to say, no, no, it’s not about that. We’re just showing a sense of this—a visible signal. We actually wanted people to make an analogy with a heart monitor.



Screenshots from Memento Mori, 1997-ongoing, Internet-based earthwork, Ken Goldberg in collaboration with Woj Matuskik and David Nachum.

What’s also interesting is that the trace mutates quite a bit. You come in at different times of the day and the signal is very different. It’s sort of like the weather. The fault has different moods. When there is an earthquake, people will see big swings of activity with rings, because it goes on for days and days afterward. In fact, when there’s a big earthquake in Turkey, you can pick it up here. It strikes the earth and then a signal comes around at the speed of sound, and then it goes all the way around again, and you get these echoes for weeks. Very small echoes can go on for months. And, every time there is a tremor, we get a huge spike in traffic.

I also liked the idea of making a long form artwork, like Walter De Maria’s Earth Room, online.


The New York Earth Room, 1977, Walter De Maria. Long-term installation at 141 Wooster Street, New York City. Photograph via.

Manaugh: Like a seismic Long-Player?

Goldberg: Exactly.

Part of this, I think, is that as an engineer, I’m really intrigued by the challenge of how you make the system stay on. A lot of times we have robotic projects, but they work once or twice, and then that’s it. I feel like that’s deceiving, because people may see them, or watch a video, and then they take away a certain sense of what robotics is. You have to be careful, because it sets false expectations. The kind of robotics in which you really build a system that can stay online and also take the kind of abuse that happens over the Internet is quite a challenge. I’m very big on this issue of reliability and robustness.

In any case, we put the Memento Mori system online and, after a year or two, Randall Packer, a composer here, approached me and said, “What about adding an auditory component?”

The actual signal frequency is too low—it’s inaudible. If you just attach a speaker to it, nothing comes out. What you want to do is use it to trigger sounds, so that, essentially, the signal becomes like a conductor’s baton, triggering this orchestra of sounds. Through that process of sonification, you can create a very auditory experience that’s still driven by the seismic signal.

Twilley: So you could be using the signal to trigger a laugh track if you wanted to?

Goldberg: Exactly—the sounds don’t have to be notes. Packer did it with a lot of natural sounds, like waterfalls and lightning and thunder—things like that—so it was very earthly. But by no means does it have to be musical. In fact, that’s where we are now with Bloom, which is my most recent project.

We renamed the new auditory version Mori. We got a commission to do a project in Tokyo, at the ICC. They actually gave us a good amount of funding, so we ramped up and built this whole seismic installation with an acoustic chamber that was about fifteen feet square and had extremely powerful subwoofers underneath the plywood floor. The whole idea was that you could walk in and you could lie on the floor. We amplified the signal a lot, and there was this real sense of immersion, like you were essentially inside the earth. What was important is that it was live. Obviously, you could do this prerecorded, but it was essential to us that this signal was coming directly from the earth in real-time.


Mori Seismic Installation, 1999-ongoing, Ken Goldberg, Randall Packer, Gregory Kuhn, and Wojciech Matusik. Photo taken at the Kitchen, New York City, April 2003, by Jared Charney.

That was started in 1999, and, as it traveled around Japan and then to the The Kitchen in New York, we got closer and closer to the one-hundredth anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. I got this idea that I wanted to do a performative version. I wanted to do it in a very big space where everybody could experience it together at the time of the one-hundredth anniversary.

About a year before the anniversary, by chance, I was seated at a table next to a dancer—actually, the dancer—from the ballet. She was the principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet—Muriel Maffre. After a couple of drinks, I got the courage up to ask her, “Would you ever consider dancing to the sound of the earth?” Amazingly, she said yes.

So Muriel, who is just an astounding artist and performer, took this on as a project. The idea was quite radical—that she would take a live seismic signal and respond to it on stage. And it’s improv, because you don't know what’s going to happen. We worked together for about a year, and we convinced the ballet to actually perform it in the opera house. It was about a week before the actual anniversary, in the end. She performed it on stage and it was about three minutes long. She did a phenomenal job. It was just a beautiful thing.


Muriel Maffre performing Ballet Mori, image via Ken Goldberg.

Twilley: How did you connect the signal to her, on stage?

Goldberg: We connected to the signal via the Internet, and we did the sonification right there on site, feeding it into their speaker system. She was just responding to the sound on stage.

What’s so interesting about how the ballet works is that they do all these rehearsals and, then, when they actually set up for the performance, it all has to be done that same afternoon. There’s no advance set up, because the space is in so much demand. You only have a few hours to get the whole thing tuned.

In this case, we were really cranking it—telling them to just turn up the volume. It was amazing to watch this old opera house, which actually was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and then rebuilt, start to vibrate. That was actually a big concern—were light fittings and so on going to fall?


Ruins of City Hall and the Majestic Theater in San Francisco, following the 1906 earthquake.

Manaugh: That reminds me of the artist Mark Bain, who actually got permission to install a massive acoustic set-up in a condemned building in the Netherlands; it got so loud, and the bass frequencies he was using were so extreme, that the building risked collapse—which, of course, was the entire point of Bain’s performance—but the organizers had to shut it down.

Goldberg: The facilities guys actually said to me, “We don’t want to drop the chandelier on people’s heads! What if there’s a spike in the earth’s motion that would cause the sound levels to blow up?” I don’t know if that’s even feasible, but we put a clip on it so, if there was a sudden event, the system wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

From there, I went on to do a limited series of the original Memento Mori piece that collectors could purchase. There was an artist’s edition that would always be publicly available, but people who bought their own edition got their own version that they could label, and that included some private data. But, in the course of developing that, I started thinking, why does it have to be so grim? When I originally conceived it, I was really into the minimalist aesthetic. It was just black and white and about mortality. But I started thinking: why? It started seeming very dark.

So I started thinking about what else this signal could be used to generate, something that would be more visually stimulating and more engaging. That’s what gave rise to my new project, Bloom. Bloom is meant, in some sense, to invoke something that’s more natural and organic. It still references mortality, but in a much more positive way. Maybe it’s because I’m getting a little older or something like that!


Screenshot of Bloom, 2013, by Ken Goldberg, Sanjay Krishnan, Fernanda Viégas, and Martin Wattenberg.

Bloom is basically the idea that all flesh is grass, and that we can look at natural plant growth and organic material as outgrowths of the Earth. The seismic signal is a representation and reminder of this organic substrate, so I thought: let’s use it to trigger the growth of forms. I’m just going to play it for you. [launches beta version of Bloom]

Manaugh: What are we actually seeing right now? What scale of seismic activity do these blooms represent?

Goldberg: What you’re seeing right now is just normal variation. For example, when a big truck goes up Hearst Avenue, which is not far from the seismometer, there’s a signal from that. And then, at any given time, there are actually lots of tremors going on around the world, so you’re picking up all the echoes of those. It’s actually really rich to try to do signal-processing in order to extract signals from the noise, because there are also resonant elements from, for example, the beating of the surf on the California coast.

There’s actually a huge amount of information coming through here. What’s interesting is that this display is so different to what earth scientists are used to looking at. They study plots and seismographs, and so on. We’re actually going to have a meeting with them to talk about their perceptions of this and how they respond to it. My sense is that they probably won’t find it that valuable, because there’s no real scientific benefit to it—although it would be interesting to see if someone who really understands the signal could look at this thing for a while and actually start to read it.

For us, it’s really more of an abstraction.








A sequence of screenshots of Bloom, 2013, by Ken Goldberg, Sanjay Krishnan, Fernanda Viégas, and Martin Wattenberg.

Twilley: Can you explain how the blooms’ particular colors and forms are generated?

Goldberg: The blooms are triggered from left to right, so there’s still this idea of temporal progression, and they are triggered depending on whether the signal is switching. The relative size of each bloom is generated by the size of the signal change. The color choices come from a feed from Flickr—a search for flower images to pull up a data set that we can use to source the color variations.

I’m working with these two wonderful data visualization folks, Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas. They are amazing: Martin has a Math PhD from Berkeley and went off to work at IBM. He’s done a huge number of these visualizations for data of all kinds—most famously, for baby name data. All of his interfaces are just fantastic and we’ve been friends for a long time. He then started working with someone I knew from MIT, Fernanda, who is a painter by training. The two of them started to do all these amazing projects with IBM, and they had their own lab, which they eventually took private. Then they got bought by Google, but Google seems to give them pretty free rein to do whatever they want. We started working on this about a year ago.


Mysteries: Afloat, 2000, Kenneth Noland.

I should also explain the reference to Kenneth Noland. I’ll confess to you—I didn’t really know his work when I began this project. I gave a talk to some art historians, and they said, “Oh, it’s so nice that you’re referencing Kenneth Noland in this way!” I was like, “Who?” They were a little horrified. [laughter]

Noland was a New York color-field painter, whose work is a lot like what we had started generating with Bloom—so I dedicated the project to him. We wanted to play with that reference. What’s amazing is that he passed away just a year ago.


Screenshot of Bloom, 2013, by Ken Goldberg, Sanjay Krishnan, Fernanda Viégas, and Martin Wattenberg.

In any case, we’re still fine-tuning things, including the fades and the way that the colors are derived from the data and how it’s going to be installed in the gallery and so on. The experience in the museum is always more immersive and hopefully more dramatic than it is online. The ideal situation for me is that you would come in on a kind of balcony and you could look down twenty or thirty feet and see all of the colors blooming there below you.


Bloom installed at the Nevada Museum of Art

Bloom is currently on display at the Nevada Museum of Art, Venue’s parent institution, through June 16, 2013.



While in Denver, Colorado, Venue had the pleasure of making a childhood fantasy come true: an all-day backstage pass to the city's public library, complete with a private introduction to room after room full of maps, books, paintings, photographs, architectural drawings, and other collections documenting the people, places, and events that shaped the settlement and growth of the western United States.

The Denver Public Library building, designed by Michael Graves & Associates.

From a meandering tour of the new Postmodern library building, designed by architect Michael Graves in the 1990s, to a covetous browse through the city's old fire-insurance maps produced by the Sanborn Map Company, via a quick mention of the Denver Police Intelligence Files and a thorough bibliography of reference materials related to Denver's saloon cats, it was an exhilarating day of flipping through card catalogs, stepping behind closed doors, following off-limits stairways up to archives not usually open to the public, and learning more not only about the history of Denver and the West, but also about library science, more generally, and about our guide for the day, Senior Special Collection Librarian Wendel Cox, more specifically.

Venue's vote for best card catalog entry ever—a Franz Feneon-worthy novel in two lines, filed under "Horses. Biography."—was brought to our attention by Wendel Cox.

There's no real way, however, without writing our own Ulysses of the Denver Public Library—describing every unexpected turn of conversation, every artifact, every cross-connected historical reference (rabies to quarantine to the library's medical collections) and every other thing seen, read, or pored over in nose-to-paper levels of detail during the day—to encapsulate all that took place during Wendel's enthusiastic introduction to the collections; so, instead, we'll just focus on a few particular highlights, cartographic in emphasis and origin.

Senior Special Collection Librarian Wendel Cox shows us a hand-drawn map of New Mexico and Utah.

First, the fire maps.



The Sanborn Map Company produced, between 1866 to 2007, some of the most extraordinary and historically useful maps of the urban United States available in any collection today.



Almost all major municipal libraries in the country maintain voluminous back-stocks of them, their heavy pages over time thickened past the point of bendability by endless glued layer after layer of property updates, infrastructural upgrades, new construction, and the entire re-routing of streets and whole neighborhoods at a time.



Peeling, partially unstuck, and warped into curling waves like oceans, the pages play host to a century or more of built structures, renovations, and replacements, keeping close tabs on what can be insured, for how much, and under what circumstances.



These Sanborn maps are as near-total a catalog of the city's development over time as can be cartographically imagined, with almost every square inch built up into thick scabs of structures upon structures, upon even more structures.

Every pasted edge conceals a preserved strata of earlier revisions and additions, all but daring us to pick at it (we resisted), tempting us to pull ever so slightly at the looser corners, to lift up the surface layer and reveal the other city—there is the city and then there is the city, as novelist China Miéville might describe it, the two, surreally, existing in the same place at the same time—that lies beneath today's Denver, with its competing but complimentary property lines, a city out of synch with itself as you peel away the layers of history.



Each page, as Wendel showed us, turning carefully through the old volumes, is like a plank of wood at this point, archaeologies of layers laminated into something almost more like furniture.

These are books as Kafka might imagine them: enormous, absurd, and so preposterously heavy with the details of local history as to be physically unmanageable. They are books that could wound the librarians who handle them, slipping discs and offsetting spines, causing even historians to second-guess turning their pages.



But this (exaggerated) sense of physical threat is, of course, echoed in the book's content: as we navigated Denver's neighborhoods, we developed a sense for the city as a place of fire risks and dangerous proximities, a city of escape-assisting back alleys counter-balanced by wood-framed meeting halls, its spaces rated for their performance during events of conflagration.

And, in the process, we saw the city as a series of surfaces built up over time, fractally expanding across the Front Range.



The second thing—of many things—worth mentioning was a decidedly less antique item from the collection: a map and pamphlet, produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and compiled by Glenn R. Scott between 1972 and 2004, called Historic Trail Maps in Eastern Colorado and Northeastern New Mexico (you can download the accompanying 45mb PDF here).



As the map's introduction, written by former USGS Director Charles G. Groat—who recently resigned from the University of Texas in a controversy over financial ties to the fracking industry—explains, many of the "historic trails that were the primary pathways used by pioneers to open the Western United States" have been forgotten or erased entirely.

These trails, he continues, "have names that remain familiar today—Santa Fe, Overland, Cherokee, Trappers, Republican Fork, and Smoky Hill Trails. Some of those historic trails have long-since vanished or are now only faintly visible on today’s landscape."

Scott's map and pamphlet are thus an act of preservation, the USGS explains, saving for future generations the wide range of "historic marks left on the land by Native Americans, trappers, prospectors, early road builders, and settlers from about the 1820s to about 1900."

Put another way, Scott made a map of lost roads.

A long slice of the Glenn R. Scott's USGS map, showing lost roads, trails, and camps to the south and east of Denver, Colorado.

As Groat writes in his introduction to Scott's work, the routes and place-names gathered on the map tell the human history and usage of the Coloradan landscape:

Features of the maps include trails used by Native American tribes and trappers before the arrival of European settlers. As the westward movement continued, trading posts, immigrant and prospector trails, stagecoach lines and stage stations, wagon roads, and railroads marked that expansion, and those features are shown on the maps. From the cattle trails and trails over mountain passes to the towns and military camps and forts, the settlement and use of these lands are captured for posterity. Routes taken by prospectors during the great 1859 Gold Rush to the Pikes Peak gold fields are portrayed, as are the world-famous mining camps that followed, including Central City, Blackhawk, Idaho Springs, Georgetown, Fairplay, Aspen, Breckenridge, Leadville, and Cripple Creek. In addition, the routes traversed by early explorers such as Zebulon M. Pike, Stephen H. Long, and John C. Fremont are shown on the maps. The maps reflect the Hispanic and French heritage of much of the region, and the rich history of New Spain, Mexico, and France are imprinted in the names of numerous mountain ranges, prominent peaks, valleys, rivers, and towns.

Scott's own story, meanwhile, is fascinating—equal parts folklore and geological survey of the American West:

Beginning in 1964, Scott realized that in addition to relating the geologic record there was an entirely different story he also wanted to tell. He was fascinated by the historic trails he encountered during his geology fieldwork—trails used by Native Americans and by pioneers and prospectors who settled in Colorado and New Mexico. He resolved to document those trails before they forever vanished. Using aerial photographs, long forgotten historical archives, and other historical texts, he located historic trails all over eastern Colorado and northern New Mexico, and in 1972 he published the first of his 11 historic trail maps.




Indeed, in a nicely circular reference, Scott himself writes that "most of the information I used came from the Denver Public Library, where I was a volunteer in the Genealogy and Western History Department." At the risk of over-using the analogy, he was a kind of James Joyce of the eastern Rockies, going back through deeds of sale, acts of incorporation for now defunct road-building companies, and, no doubt, Sanborn maps, in search of old ways across the landscape.

In a much longer pamphlet listing the sources used for his map, Scott gives some examples of the sorts of narrative coordinates that are all that remains of certain trails:

Starting at Bergen's house and down the gulch southeastward by the Hendershott's house to Myer's Mill on Bear Creek thence by the most practicable route by Luther's place and Parmalee's sawmill to the Turkey Creek Road at the mouth of the gulch opposite Parmalee's water mill on Turkey Creek.

Or:

From Boulder City, Boulder County, up and along north side of North Boulder Creek as far as practicable and best route to Central City, Gilpin County.

To which he occasionally adds his own surreal story-form updates, as if the information presented is now that much clearer:

Route was changed as follows: from American Avenue on the west bound- ary of Empire City extending 3 miles up the south bank of Clear Creek, then crossing and extending 3/4 mile up the north bank, recrossing and then 700 feet up the south bank, recrossing and then continuing up the north bank on the route designated in the original article, then up to and thru Vasquez Pass, then on the original route to Bangs or Corral Creek, the western terminus in the original article, then outside the area.

Perhaps most evocative of all, there are also entries that simply read:

Route unknown.



These are the "old ways," as author Robert Macfarlane describes the similarly forgotten trails and routes that spider the landscape of the United Kingdom. In his book of that name, Macfarlane writes that, "once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways—shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, warns, snickets—say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite—holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths."

The incantatory geography that Macfarlane refers to is in Britain, but, as Glenn R. Scott's map shows, the prairies, hills, and mountains of the American southwest have their own slowly eroding memory bank of old ways seamed into the ground by human feet, horses, and post wagons.



Briefly, Scott's labyrinthine explorations of trail folklore and historical cartography in Colorado also brings to mind a story published nearly five years ago in The New York Times, on an effort by Vermont's towns and cities to catalog their "ancient roads."

As the Times explained, a 2006 state law had given Vermont residents a strong incentive to rediscover their state's buried and forgotten throughways by allowing municipalities to claim them as official town lands (thus ensuring that they remain as public lands, unable to be claimed by private landowners). As a result, the Times reported, "citizen volunteers are poring over record books with a common, increasingly urgent purpose: finding evidence of every road ever legally created in their towns, including many that are now impassable and all but unobservable."

These "elusive roads"—many of them "now all but unrecognizable as byways"—are lost routes, connecting equally erased destinations. In almost all particular cases, they have barely even left a trace on the ground; their presence is almost entirely textual. They are not just lost roads, in other words, mere unstable geographies flashing in and out of county land registers. They are road that have been deterrestrialized: scrubbed from the surface of the earth.

As the Times acknowledges, "Even for history buffs, the challenge is steep: evidence of ancient roads may be scattered through antique record books, incomplete or hard to make sense of." Accordingly:

Some towns, content to abandon the overgrown roads that crisscross their valleys and hills, are forgoing the project. But many more have recruited teams to comb through old documents, make lists of whatever roads they find evidence of, plot them on maps and set out to locate them.

Like something out of the geography-obsessed poetry of Paul Metcalf—part map, part deep social history, part regional etymology for re-reading place names as the myths that they are—the descriptions found in these old municipal documents are narrative, impressionistic, and vague, perfectly in tune with what Glenn R. Scott found in Colorado.

Returning to The New York Times, for instance, these descriptions "might be, 'Starting at Abel Turner’s front door and going to so-and-so’s sawmill,' said Aaron Worthley, a member of the ancient roads committee in Huntington, southeast of Burlington. 'But the house might have burned down 100 years ago. And even if not, is the front door still where it was in 1815? These are the kinds of questions we’re dealing with.'"

As Wendel told us, these sorts of cryptic references to lost byways are not only of interest to local historians—attorneys form another interest group who consult the Denver Public Library's archives with some frequency. In Vermont, too, the Times reports that these acts of perambulatory interpretation came to be part of a much larger, although fairly mundane, attempt to end "fights between towns and landowners whose property abuts or even intersects ancient roads."

In the most infamous legal battle, the town of Chittenden blocked a couple from adding on to their house, saying the addition would encroach on an ancient road laid out in 1793. Town officials forced a showdown when they arrived on the property with chain saws one day in 2004, intending to cut down trees and bushes on the road until the police intervened.

The article here goes on to refer to one local, a lawyer, who explains that "he loved getting out and looking for hints of ancient roads: parallel stone walls or rows of old-growth trees about 50 feet apart. Old culverts are clues, too, as are cellar holes that suggest people lived there; if so, a road probably passed nearby." Think of it as landscape hermeneutics: peeling back the layers in the map to reveal a vanished landscape.


"Botanical Profile representing the Forest Trees along the route explored by Lieut. A. W. Whipple, Corps. of Top. Eng., near the Parallel of 35º North Latitude, 1853-1854." Prepared by J. M. Bigelow, M.D., Botanist to the Expedition. U.S. Pacific Rail Road Exploration & Survey, War Department.

Wendel led us on through the archive's sedimentary record of human movement across the Coloradan landscape, from a filing cabinet stuffed full of railroad timetables and accident records to an overflowing folder of newspaper clippings on Denver International Airport conspiracy theories. A mournful subsection focused on anticipatory documentation of future erasures: a gorgeous 1854 botanical profile of a proposed U.S. Pacific railway route and the business-like binders of the much more recent I-25 environmental impact assessment.



Our day in the Denver Public Library was itself a kind of lost trail, as we noted with amusement that various quirks of the building made it hard to remember which stairwell we had taken to get to a certain floor—and, thus, whether we could even access that floor or the collections Wendel Cox had in mind for us—and it became abundantly clear that even libraries have their own kind of curatorial folklore, a personal but by no means written down knowledge of where to find certain books, objects, files, or collections, what those artifacts, in turn, mean for other things encountered in the archive, and how certain narrative strands tie a library, and a landscape, together from within.

Many thanks to Myra Rich for suggesting that Venue should meet with Wendel Cox, and for making the introduction, as well as to Wendel himself, for sharing his time and knowledge so generously. This post contains a few paragraphs previously published on BLDGBLOG.
Every day and night, beneath the streets of San Francisco, huge wheels turn, pulling cable cars to their far-flung destinations and back again, as if weaving them across the city in loops.



The cars shuttle passengers up the peninsula's hills and down again, around the city's densely built core, through neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Russian Hill, and the Financial District, riding atop a geometry of iron tracks, underground cables, and spinning sheaves embedded in the streets themselves.



These wheels — and the spider's nest of cables they pull — are free and open to the public for daily visits, courtesy of the surprisingly fantastic San Francisco Cable Car Museum.



An otherwise nondescript brick building at 1201 Mason Street hides a cavernous and open interior that stands all but gutted to make space for these vast winding wheels and the electric motors that drive them.

Inside, steps bring visitors up to a viewing platform for a bird's eye view of the loud and clanking operation, amidst rich smells of fuel and industrial lubricants, as if wandering into a scene from a Jules Verne short story.



The museum itself opened back in 1974, and, in addition to the spectacular engine and winding wheel overlook, it holds a series of plinths and display cases located off to the sides, showcasing "various mechanical devices such as grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms, tools, detailed models, and a large collection of historic photographs.



However, it's not until you descend into an underground viewing area to see the the spinning "sheaves" that bring each of the four cable lines back into the building from their channels beneath the streets that the immense strangeness of the cable car system really becomes apparent.

The fact that something so familiar and over-photographed — in an era dominated by notions of urban software, immaterial metaphors of "the cloud," and the very idea of "smart cities" — actually operates by way of shadowy, clockwork mechanical systems so exhilaratingly titanic, analogue, and, frankly, bizarre was an astonishing thing to learn.



Walking down into a cramped and under-lit vault in which it's too dark to take an effective casual photograph, you peer out through thick glass windows onto what appears to be a medieval guild room, a giant's collection of oversized seismic gyroscopes, or perhaps the villain's lair from some as-yet-unmade sequel to Spiderman.

Here, you realize that this hallway, an underground corridor spinning with Piranesian wheels and cables



— actually connects onward to other halls and sheave rooms, and that those, too, are connected by way of subterranean trenches through which tar-covered steel cables are pulled at a steady 9 mph, and that those very cables are then responsible for the constant whirring and machine-like patter one hears coming from grates in the middle of the street on certain routes through San Francisco.



It's as if a huge stringed instrument has been wound through the basements of the city, a singing nervous system that hauls vehicles the size of small buildings up and down fog-shrouded hills.


Engineer Andrew Hallidie's patent drawing for the "Endless Wire Ropeway," as implemented under the streets of San Francisco.

In his classic essay on the prison images of Piranesi, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein writes of chaotic spaces in which architectural fragments, arches, and "broken balconies" constantly "leap" and "explode" beyond their gravitational bounds. He describes a centrifugal space that "whirls off somewhere," as if "in a hurricane, dashing in all directions: ropes, runaway staircases, exploding arches, stone blocks breaking away from each other."

It is in "the nature of architectural fantasies," Eisenstein writes, that such a space might "carry the eye into unknown depths, and the staircases, ledge by ledge, extend to the heavens, or in a reverse cascade of these same ledges, rush downward."

San Francisco's cable car system is a wonderfully mundane "architectural fantasy," in Eisenstein's terms, an everyday piece of urban infrastructure formed by a literally marvelous webwork of cables and tracks that collaboratively strain to pull together the city. It is also the only mobile National Monument in the world.



Even better, the Cable Car Museum remains free to visit. It can be found at 1201 Mason Street, where the Herculean wheels await your wonder.
According to Jack Chambers, proprietor of the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm and a former Delta Air Lines pilot, when he got in the cockpit of a 747, "the other guys would have second homes and boats and be into golf. But I was the worm guy."


Venue visited Chambers on a sunny September afternoon, and, as he showed us around the farm, he explained that his worm obsession began, straightforwardly enough, as a gardening hobby. A friend told him about a local farmer who had earthworms for sale, and so, twenty years ago, in 1992, Chambers paid a visit to Earl Schmidt, a former mink rancher, enthusiastic angler, and bait worm farmer.

Five days and one 5 gallon bucket of Red Wigglers (Eisenia fetida) later, Chambers' home compost pile was a rich, deep black color with a crumbly texture that he'd never been able to achieve before. He started hanging out with Earl, helping out in return for a chance to learn about worms.


As they picked worms side-by-side over the next three months, Earl told Chambers that he was looking forward to retirement and finally having the time to fish. Chambers, "without really knowing what I was getting into," found himself offering to buy the place.

A crash course in all things worm quickly followed, including a carefully scheduled layover in Vigo, Spain, to attend the World Worm Conference, and conversations with vermiculture pioneer and Ohio State University professor, Clive Edwards. Trial and error also played a role, with Chambers reminiscing about the "worm volcano" he accidentally created by experimenting with cornmeal as a feed — 50,000 disgusted worms all crawled over the sides of the bin at once, in a scene worthy of a horror movie. "Now, if I'm trying something new," explained Chambers, "I only add it to quarter of the bin, to leave room for escape."

Chambers credits his pilot's appreciation for standard operating procedures and checklists for many of the technical improvements he's introduced over the past twenty years. For example, in order to pre-compost the manure source and kill any pathogens or weed seeds before feeding it to the worms, Chambers arrived at his own design for a three-bin forced-air system, complete with a rigorously optimized schedule of turning, blowing, and releasing gases. "If I've done anything with worms," he says, "it's that."


That is certainly not all, though. As we moved under the corrugated steel sheds that house the farm's four million worms, Chambers explained that he realized early on that, in fact, "the vermicompost is the big deal, not the worms." In other words, rather than simply feeding worms in order to harvest them for sale to sport fishermen and gardeners, Chambers focused on marketing their castings, particularly to the region's high-end grape-growers.

To do so, he has built four ninety-foot long continuous flow vermicomposting bins, based on an original blueprint by Clive Edwards, but improved over the years to the point that he now has a patent pending on the design.


"This is high-tech for worms," explained Chambers, as he demonstrated his most recent iteration, the VermiComposter CF40. In sixty days, pre-composted manure will make its way from top to bottom of the four-foot deep bins through a continuous conveyor-belt system of worm digestion.

The raised bins are fed from the top twice per week, and harvested from the bottom once weekly using an automatic breaker bar. A wire mesh tumbler then separates the worms from their excretions; the worms go back in the bins and the remaining black gold is sold for a dollar a pound.


Earthworms are easy to overlook, but among those who do observe their work, they seem to inspire extreme devotion, counting among their historical fans both Aristotle and Charles Darwin. Chambers is equally enthusiastic. As we dug our hands into the warm, soft compost and watched the worms we had disturbed wriggle back into the darkness, he expounded on the mysteries of worm reproduction as well as numerous studies that have shown vermicompost's beneficial impact on germination rates, disease suppression, flavor, and even yield (up to a twenty percent increase for radishes, according to Clive Edwards' colleagues at Ohio State).


Vermicompost is typically used as a potting medium — Chambers' advice is to "put one cup in the hole with your seed or transplant" — or it can be brewed at 73 degrees for 24 hours to make a "compost tea" that can be sprayed onto the soil or plant directly. Although it is between four and fourteen times more expensive than regular compost, Chambers argues that, like a high-end skin product, vermicompost's benefits and economy of use make it well worthwhile:

I tell vineyards to think of it like insurance. After all, a vine costs about $3, and some vineyards lose as many as twenty percent of their new plantings. With our vermicompost, they usually lose less than one percent.


Chambers and his wife even planted four hundred vines of their own, losing only two, and they attribute their ongoing victory over powdery mildew to regular applications of compost tea. They make a very good "Worm Farm Red," that we were lucky enough to sample and that even won a gold medal in the amateur category at the 2008 Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival.

Sonoma Valley Worm Farm already makes more than 200,000 lbs of vermicompost a year, but Chambers took early retirement from Delta last year, and has big plans for the business. The day we visited, he had just finalized the agreements for a new facility that will more than double his capacity, as well as incorporate several new improvements to his existing equipment.


As we examined the architectural plans in Google SketchUp, Chambers described his vision for the next generation VermiComposter CF 40, which will include electronic moisture and temperature monitoring and automated feeding.

While he waits for the new facility to be built, he's already experimenting with feeding the worms an extra inch of compost per week, to see whether he can increase their productivity. Meanwhile, in response to interest from California's berry giant, Driscoll's, he's started working with compost tea-kettle manufacturers on a unit that could brew up to 250,000 gallons at a time. In fact, Chambers' only concern as he scales up, he told us, was what he would do when the worms' demand outstripped the manure supply of the organic dairy farm (Straus Family Creamery) that he currently works with.


Given that, last year, the EPA estimated that thirty percent of annual landfill contents could have been recycled through composting, and that California's dairy cows produce 30 million tons of manure annually, much of which is stored in waste lagoons where it risks contaminating groundwater, it seems as though feeding four or five million new worms is not going to be much of a challenge at all. The fact that those worms will not only remove that waste from the environment, but also transform it into something that scientists are calling "pretty amazing stuff," as well as "the next frontier in biocontrol," is even better.

Chambers told us that he is convinced that "worms are going to be the next big thing in agriculture." If we're smart, it will be.

Grafton Tyler Brown & Co. map of the Comstock Lode and the Washoe Mining Claims in Storey & Lyon Counties, Nevada, published in 1873, via.

Although tourism is now Nevada's largest employer, the state was born from a mining boom in the 1860s, inspired by the discovery of a rich vein of silver ore christened the Comstock Lode.

Extraction still plays a signficant role in shaping the state's landscape and economy: the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology lists 29 gold and silver mines in its 2010 Mineral Industry Census, alongside claims that the state "continues to be in the midst of the biggest gold boom in U.S. history," producing up to eight times as much over the past thirty years as California did during its fabled Gold Rush.


Mine tour photographs by Nicola Twilley.

To get a glimpse of the state's subterranean origins, Venue visited Chollar Mine in Virginia City, which, between 1859 and 1942, yielded enough silver (and some gold) to rank as the third most productive mine on the Comstock. Curiously enough, it's now offered for sale, along with some mineral rights, although our guide assured us that it's much more viable as a tour business than as a working mine, given the flooding in the lower levels, the effort required to retrieve the remaining ore, and the not-insignificant cost of all the impact studies and permits needed to start a mining operation in Nevada today.


Gorgeous U.S. Geological Survey maps of the shafts and tunnels of the Comstock mines, published in 1881. The different colors used indicate each separate hundred feet of depth. From the David Rumsey collection in the Harvard University digital map library.

The Comstock Lode is legendary not just for the mineral wealth it yielded (an inflation-adjusted $400 million in silver per year, plus another $270 million in gold, at peak production in 1877), but for its role as a catalyst for extraction technology innovation.

As our guide explained, one of the major challenges faced by the miners was an ongoing battle against flooding from below by geothermal waters. When the Chollar Mine teamed up with neighboring mines to sink a new shaft to 3250 ft., they had to pump out 5 million gallons of water per day, as well as construct a special underground cooling chamber by lowering in big blocks of ice and buckets of ice water. Workers would spend 15 or 20 minutes working in the heat, and 15 or 20 minutes recovering in the cooling chamber, back and forth throughout their eight-hour shift.


The odd-looking structure to the right-hand side of the photograph is the head of the Combination Shaft, the deepest ever sunk on the Comstock, and so-called because it was a joint effort between the Chollar, Potosi, Hale & Corcross, and Savage mines.

In response, a 30-year-old German immigrant called Adolph Sutro proposed a wildly ambitious solution — drilling a 4-mile tunnel into the mountain that would use gravity to drain its mines from below, while simultaneously allowing equipment and ore to be shipped in and out at valley level rather than lowered and hauled up and down the mine shafts.

Work began on the Sutro Tunnel in 1869 and it opened in 1878 — but, by then, the Comstock had passed peak production, and improved ventilation and pump technology had already delivered many of the tunnel's proposed benefits. Sutro unloaded his own shares as soon as the tunnel was completed, and while his stockholders lost millions, he moved to San Francisco and became mayor.


The Sutro Tunnel entrance, then and in 2007, via the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey and Rich Moreno.

The Sutro Tunnel has caved in in places now, and its entrance is off-limits, on private land. It is, nonetheless, a remarkable engineering landmark, and the direct forerunner of the large access and drainage tunnels still used by mines today.


Our guide told us this story while we stood 100 ft. underground in a stope — an auditorium-like hollow that had been mined out. Shored up tunnels and shafts led to more stopes, all around and beneath us — some as big as skyscrapers. And, in the second of the Comstock's engineering marvels, all of these underground voids are filled with cubes of heavy girders, arranged in regular grids like a wooden honeycomb inside the earth.


A cross section of Virginia City's Belcher Mine, via the Nevada Historical Society.

According to a 1912 history of Nevada, this "square-set" timbering system was invented by another German, Philipp Desdeheimer, as a modular solution that could be extended in any direction, "so as to fill in any ore-chamber as fast as the ore is taken out."

The unit in itself lies within the scope of a man's arms, but, built up in a series, it filled the vacant spaces left by the removal of the Con Virginia bonanza, hundreds of feet in height, in width, and in length.

The resulting lattice-work of notched timbers, held in place by the pressure of the rock all around them, looks uncannily like the skeleton of a skyscraper, stripped in order to construct its mirror image above ground.


A lumber mill at Lake Tahoe, via.

Indeed, as the miners followed the vein of silver further into Mt. Davidson, more than 100 square miles of old growth pines around Lake Tahoe were clear-cut, with the forest brought underground to replace the minerals. Logging, our guide told us, quickly became the second biggest industry in Nevada, as the territory's newcomers rushed to rearrange its resources.

This gridded timber superstructure, stretching for miles underground, as the rocks whose place it took were transmuted into coin, forms a sort of forgotten Continuous Monument of extraction — a ghost forest built underground, in search of silver.

Thanks to Ronald James, the Nevada State Historic Preservation Officer, for the suggestion. If you think of any sites or people that Venue should visit, please let us know!

"Oil Spill #2," Discoverer Enterprise, Gulf of Mexico, May 11, 2010. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Venue's debut last week at the Nevada Museum of Art coincided with the premiere of a new exhibition there: Edward Burtynsky: Oil.

This thematic show, on display through September 23, features nearly fifty large-format images that, taken together, tell the story of oil, from its origins, extraction, and processing in the tar sands of Alberta or the first offshore platforms in Azerbaijan, through the spaghetti junctions and motorcycle rallies that represent oil's spatial, infrastructural, and cultural footprint, all the way to oil's afterlife in mountains of compacted barrels and broken tankers in the Bay of Bengal.


"Breezewood," Pennsylvania, USA, 2008. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. A gap of under a mile between freeway sections gave rise to this landscape of franchises and gas stations, now known (at least to roadgeeks) as a "breezewood."

After a tour of the exhibition, followed by a lecture that introduced some of Burtynsky's most recent work—a global portrait of the human relationship with water—Venue set up in the Center for Art + Environment library for a conversation with Edward Burtynsky. We could not have asked for a more interesting subject for our project's inaugural interview.

The following edited transcript of our discussion ranges from drones, film-making, and the future of photography to the response of Vermont quarry owners to Burtynsky's work, by way of truck beauty pageants, pipelines, and the unexpected challenge of photographing Niagara Falls.

• • •

"Talladega Speedway #1," Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 2009. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Geoff Manaugh: Particularly in your early work, here seems to be a focus on what I might call primary landscapes: looking at where the oil actually comes out of the ground, where the rock is physically cut from the quarry, or where our products are first assembled, and so on. But there’s also a move, particularly in the Oil series, toward representing secondary landscapes—landscapes of consumption, where the oil is burned in the name of a NASCAR race, or where truck drivers enter their big rigs in truck beauty pageants.

I’m curious, though, if you would ever be tempted to pursue your subject to the next step—that is, to a kind of tertiary landscape. For instance, with your current water project, would you be tempted to photograph, say, a family eating tomatoes that were grown in a greenhouse in southern Spain or someone drinking bottled water at the gym? And if not, why not?

Edward Burtynsky: I haven’t really thought of taking it to that tertiary place. I’ve always been interested in systems that are scaled out to the point at which the collective impact is visible, versus the individual act of consumption. In fact, I think it would be very hard to make an image of that act of individual consumption. It just doesn’t fit into what I’ve been doing.

When I’m photographing these systems—systems of extraction, or really just systems of urban expansion, in general—what’s happening is that I have an idea and I’m trying to find the best or most accessible stand-in for that idea. I’ll look at many candidates, and very few will actually get photographed, and even fewer will make it through the editing process.

I’ve certainly gone to places like vegetable packaging plants, but then I’m looking at bagged carrots en masse, rather than a single example of a carrot in somebody’s refrigerator. In fact, I did a whole series on vegetable packing plants back in 1982, and I got into the Heinz Ketchup plant and so on. To me, that’s more interesting.

I think the key to my work is that most things I show are things that we rarely get in front of. We get in front of produce departments in grocery stores quite regularly, so there just isn’t something I feel I can say about that that we don’t usually know already.

Nicola Twilley: And the idea of showing these unfamiliar landscapes is to reconnect us to them?

Burtynsky: Yes, exactly. I’m looking for the disconnected landscapes that provide us with the materials we need to live, build, and do everything we do. Showing the greenhouses in Spain that provide fruits and vegetables for most of Europe is interesting—but to actually show those vegetables on a counter is too far, I think. It’s implied that we eat them at some point.

Twilley: Perhaps you’d actually rather have the viewer make that connection for themselves?

Burtynsky: I think so, yes.


"Oil Fields #19a," Belridge, California, USA, 2003. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: I’m curious about the challenges of making still images of what are very dynamic systems. For example, earlier this morning in your lecture here at the Nevada Museum of Art, you were describing the Kern oilfield as a very kinetic landscape; you talked about the flow of oil and the machinic soundscape. Are there aspects of these landscapes that you struggle to capture in still photography, and do you ever think of experimenting with film?

Burtynsky: Well, I am starting to work with film. I haven’t filmed independently yet, but I am currently in the process of co-directing a film. It’s following the project I’m doing on water, so, everywhere I go now, I’ve got a film crew with me.

Twilley: Are you working with them to document your photography process, or more as an additional way to document the water systems you’re hoping to portray?

Burtynsky: Both. There are things that I’m taking still photographs of that probably aren’t going to translate very well onto film, and there are things that I can’t make stills of that are better suited to be filmed—and then there are subjects that can handle both. I’m finding that there are elements of all three categories in the film we’re currently working on.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Manufactured Landscapes, but photography is the authoring thread through that film, and I want to do the same thing for water, too. In some ways, it’s the stills that I’m making that are going to determine where the film goes. How we bring them into play in the actual movie is all part of the experience of going into the editing room and figuring out what makes sense where.

But when it gets down to making the film—to the logic of the film—I think all our doors should be open in terms of how to do it. I’m of the belief that you pursue your interests, you pull it all in, and you sort it out later.


"Oil Refineries #23," Oakville, Ontario, Canada, 1999. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Manaugh: It’s clear that there’s an environmental consciousness animating much of your work, but it’s also true, I think, that there is a way of looking at your photographs of, for instance, large oilscapes that could read into them a kind of industrial heroism. In some of the works—such as the footprints in the sand with oil bleeding through, or the ship-breaking yards—the human presence seems to add a clear critical dimension. But in your shots of these often strangely beautiful, cathedral-like refineries, or even of the Talladega raceway, I’m curious how you manage to balance a kind of activist environmental agenda with photographs that might otherwise be seen as very formal or simply very aesthetic. Also, how does your use of other media, such as lecturing or film, work to make your critical approach more clear?

Burtynsky: I’d say, actually, that I’ve been careful not to frame the work in an activist or political kind of way. That would be too restrictive in terms of how the work can be used in society and how it can be interpreted. I see the work as being a bit like a Rorschach test. If you see an oil field and you see industrial heroism, then perhaps you’re some kind of entrepreneur in the oil business and you’re thinking, “That’s great! That’s money being made there!” But, if you’re somebody from Greenpeace or whatever, you’re going to see it very differently. Humans can really reveal themselves through what they choose to see as the most important or meaningful detail in an image.

I actually have a funny story about this. After spending about six years and two shows on the Rock of Ages quarries in Vermont, I wanted to do a trade with them: a print for some granite slabs to make countertops in my country house up North. I met with them and I brought ten of my favorite pictures of their quarries. Most of them were of abandoned sections of the quarries. So I rolled them all out—and they were big, 40-by-50-inch prints—and the whole board was there. And they were totally silent.

After this uncomfortable, pregnant pause, I said, “So… what do you guys think?” Someone—I think it was the director of the quarry—finally said, “Why would anybody want one of these?” [laughter]

I’d never really had it put to me in that way! I said something like, “Well, because they’re interesting pictures and they talk about our taking of a resource from the land. It’s about that accumulated taking—the residual evidence of that taking—and then nature bouncing back into that void. You can see it struggling back into that space.”

And he replied, “These just aren’t very interesting for us.” Well, actually, he said, “These are a sorry sight for us, because these are places where we can’t get any more stone out of the ground, and we have to go somewhere else. They’re the end of the line for us. We wouldn’t want to have to be reminded of that everyday.”

I asked whether that meant the deal was off, and they said, “Oh, no, you can go photograph the latest thing we’ve found with all the machines still working on it.” And I did. It never entered my oeuvre, but I photographed it and I got the countertops.

Twilley: So the quarry has an “off-label” Burtynsky, as it were?

Burtynsky: That’s right. In fact, eighty percent of what the quarry produced went to make gravestones, so I blew up a big picture for them to take to a monument fair.


"Rock of Ages # 26," Abandoned Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, 1991. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: The question of access is one I’m really interested in. Earlier, you said it took you three years to set up a photograph of the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, but I imagine it’s even harder to get into places like oil refineries. Have you heard of any responses from the oil industry to your series?

Burtynsky: No, I haven’t. I must say, for the most part, that the oil industry isn’t very enlightened. In most cases, they said no when I asked to come in and make photographs, because they couldn’t see an upside to letting me in. They couldn’t see why. They could only see a downside.

One place I tried to get into is the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies ten to eleven million barrels a day, and this one oil field—the Ghawar—is the oil field of oil fields. It produces five million barrels a day. I thought it would be great to have that as part of the project narrative. In terms of scale, Ghawar is it. There is no bigger oil field. Even all the tar sand activity in Canada produces between one and a quarter and one and a half million barrels a day, while the Saudis are able to produce five million barrels a day from one oil field. That one field is four times the scale of Canada’s entire oil sands operation.

Twilley: But they said no?

Burtynsky: They said no. I went through a fairly lengthy process all the way to the very top, where I was talking to the minister of petroleum in Saudi Arabia. They basically said that they might have been interested if I had had more of a focus on the human dimension of oil—the people who work there, and so on. They said they thought it was too detached and impersonal.

Manaugh: To go back to something you said at lunch yesterday, you mentioned that you consciously exclude green and blue from your photographs, and that, for the most part, you don’t like to shoot in summer or at certain times of day. You also mentioned the way that the light during “the shoulders of the day”—early morning and late evening—makes space much more volumetric and filled with shadows, and that, conversely, shooting at high noon from 8,000ft helps minimize shadow. I’d love to revisit that conversation in the context of this interview and hear more about the role of color, light, and shadow in your work.

Burtynsky: I love the tones of browns and grays—I love more neutral tones. That’s why I like going to the desert and working in the desert. I find that green trees and things like that have a tendency to lock us into a certain way of seeing. When I look at green trees on a sunny day, I don’t know how to make an interesting picture of that. We’re familiar with that already.

Instead, I like the transparency that comes when leaves are off and you can look deeper into the landscape—you can look through the landscape. When I did try to make those kind of green-tree/sunny-day pictures, I’d find myself not ever putting them up and not ever using them. Eventually, I just said, well, I’m not going to take them anymore, because they never make it past the edit.

There’s a certain point where you learn from your own editing. You just stop taking certain pictures because they never make it through. Your editing starts to inform your thinking, as far as where you want to go and what you want to look for when you’re making a photograph.

That what’s different about me after thirty years of doing this kind of work—there are a lot of pictures I don’t have to take anymore. I think that’s called wisdom—learning what not to waste your time on!

Twilley: Do you have a ratio, or a sense of how many photographs you take vs. how many actually make it into the final show?

Burtynsky: My ratio has changed over time, certainly. I used to shoot 8 x 10 film, and, with that, my ratio was pretty high—something like one out of six or one out of seven images would make it through. With 4 x 5, because it’s faster and a little easier, which means there can be a little more risk-taking, my ratio would have been closer to one in twelve or one in fifteen. With digital, now, where everything is dematerialized and I’m up in the air, I’m shooting probably one to 100.

Twilley: Returning to the idea of avoiding blue skies and green trees, I was thinking back to your earlier comment about wanting to show us things that we don’t usually get in front of, places and things that are unfamiliar. In a way, green leaves and blue skies are too familiar—that’s the nature we already know as nature.


"Oil Fields #22," Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2001. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. Note the extremely rare inclusion of green trees!

Burtynsky: You know it already, so how do you say something new about it? It locks us into a cliché, or a genre of understanding. We immediately understand it, so there’s nothing there.

I just came back from a conference on the future of photography, where we had an interesting conversation around this. One of the curators of a museum in Switzerland had invited students from any art school, anywhere in the world to submit work to be included in a survey of photography of the new generation. The one thing that was consistent in 1,200 submissions was that not one of the students was showing anything that had to do with spontaneity. Spontaneity was gone completely.

There were no pictures with light coming through the glass on the table or a Robert Frank kind of street photograph or a decisive moment photograph—nothing like that at all. It was all very staged and all very deliberate—not photography as the act of seeing the world or reacting to seeing the world, but rather a photography of crafting things in the studio. We didn’t find one that varied from that, which I thought was fascinating.

We were wondering, why this is? In school, are they teaching that all the possibilities for taking photographs of reality and interpreting reality and reacting to reality in a spontaneous way have all been done? There seemed to be a feeling that there is no new narrative that can be found by pursuing that avenue of representation, and that they have to move into creating their own world.

Twilley: Perhaps it’s also a response to the fact that everyone now has a camera on them at all times, and so those photos—those spontaneous shots of decisive moments and everyday life—are, in fact, being taken, but they’ve been claimed, in a sense, by iPhones and Instagram, so students need to do something different to be photographers today, rather than just people with a camera.

Burtynsky: That might be the case—it could be a response to the way that we’re all now awash in images. So how do you define yourself? That spontaneous way of making imagery has become an avenue that the next generation doesn’t see as worthy of pursuit because it won’t yield anything that the world hasn’t already put out there.

I think there is an anxiety about the status of the photograph amongst the new practitioners coming in. I have certain anxieties, too, of course, but, I think because I’ve had such an arc of existing work that I continue to build on as an artist, that I don’t feel as much anxiety about using the real world as my palette or as my template, to draw from. I don’t feel compelled to start staging my imagery or moving away from recording “reality” on some level in order to achieve a deeper subjective experience, and I think it’s because I came out of an analogue, more traditional way of approaching photography. Photography was a way to put a window onto the world and to enter into the world. For me, photography is a way to mine ideas that are things.

Manaugh: I’d like to ask another question about the future of photography. As a writer, something that always catches my eye are stories about how they’re working on an artificial intelligence bot that can actually write a sports recap or a movie review on its own. The idea is that things like descriptions of football games are so formulaic that, in the future, a robot will write it, churning out sentences like, “Quarterback X threw for a certain amount of yards for a victory in the last quarter against team Y,” and so on. In and of itself, this is culturally fascinating, of course—but, as a writer, I am particularly fascinated by what it means for the future of my craft.

From the point of view of a photographer, then, it might seem equally interesting that there are now all sorts of new types of photographic systems on the rise—quadcopter-mounted 3D scanners, drones, and even smart ammunition equipped with cameras that can loiter in an area taking aerial photographs. Simply on a technical level, I’m curious about where you see the future of photography going. Do you see a time when you’re not going to be riding in a helicopter over Los Angeles but, instead, piloting a little drone that’s flying around up there and taking photographs for you?

Burtynsky: I’m already doing it.

Twilley: You have a drone?

Burtynsky: Yeah. I use it to go into places where I don’t have any air space. I work with a team. One guy runs the chopper, one guy runs the head, and I take the shutter release and compose. For example, there is no civil aviation space in China, so I was using it there. I used it to shoot the big dam area, and I used it to photograph agriculture.

So I am already using that technology. It offers new ways of entering into places that you would never have considered going—or that you couldn’t even go to—before.

The pictures I’ve been taking of irrigation circles now as part of the water project—that’s something I think would not have been possible to do very easily even just five years ago. It would be almost impossible with film to splice those images together so well and not have it look weirdly distorted or problematic. With Photoshop, and with digital files, you’ve got contrast control, the removal of haze, color filtration, and all of that, so I’m able to do things that, again, were not even conceivable five years ago.

"Dam #6," Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, 2005. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Manaugh: I’m curious about how you know when a series is done, when you’ve said all you wanted to say about a certain them or topic. For instance, I think you said that the water series will be finished in 2013—but how do you know when to put an end to certain things? Is it that there is literally a checklist of sites you want to get to, or is there a more subtle narrative sense of completion that you’re looking for?

Burtynsky: Well, by 2013, I will have been working on water for almost five years. It’s unlike a lot of my other series, in that I’m not doing any other projects right now. During the oil series, I did a whole series in China, and I still kept doing quarries along the way. I did a lot of other things while pursuing the idea of oil systems, and the kinds of landscapes that come from them.

For this water project, I gave myself a five-year time period and that’s all I’m concentrating on. I’ve dropped quarries and I’ve dropped oil, pretty much—except for the Gulf oil spill, which I saw as this historic-scale, crossover event with oil and water, a moment when the two liquids that I have been pursuing for so long were put into such an unhappy marriage. I thought it was worth the chance to go, to see them both in one place; and I think it worked.

But the 2013 date puts a hard stop on the project. It’s not to say that I won’t ever take more images of water—or, for that matter, of oil—but it’s a chance to consolidate the work, to put a book and movie together, and to put something out there for people to react to and see. I don’t think it means that either oil or water will be closed off the way I closed off quarries.

In fact, it’s interesting that once I move away from a series, I can go by those landscapes all day long and I won’t see them anymore. It’s like I’ve just switched it off. I know it’s still there, of course, and, if I went back, I could still find those kinds of things again; but I don’t look for them anymore. To me, the photographic image is an idea that you put into your consciousness, and then you go out in the world in search of manifestations of it. It’s a very idea-driven process—but that also means than, once the idea is expressed, I don’t necessarily go looking for it anymore. I’ve done it.

"Dryland Farming #7," Monegros County, Aragon, Spain, 2010. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: I want to end with a question about where the water project is going next, and, in particular, whether there’s any aspect of water that is proving particularly tricky to capture or perhaps more productive than you originally expected?

Burtynsky: Probably the trickiest bit right now is source: where water comes from. It’s so riddled with clichés. That’s actually where I might end up using film, because it might be able to carry the cliché better than still photographs.

I also gave myself another challenge, which is something I grew up next door to: I’ve been trying to figure out, is there any way I can photograph Niagara Falls without making it a cliché? And I haven’t done it yet. Andreas Gursky shot the Maid of the Mist and it was very postcard-y—but I think he meant it to refer to the postcard tradition. I’m working on it, and I’m trying to figure it out, but it’s hard. I keep looking at Niagara Falls, thinking, “Great. Now what?”
 
  Getting more posts...