FeedIndex
Filter: oil  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 animation viewing.




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 backwards into a telegraph 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 that 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: How do you go about building car crash reconstruction animations?

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. We fed the motion data to the animators, and they created the imagery. The motion data was extremely detailed, describing a vehicle’s movement 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.


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 have a Point A and a Point B, and you need the animation to show how the vehicle got from one to the other. Point A might be where two vehicles have crashed into each other, 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 that you can then look for evidence of on the ground? In the book, your reconstructionists seem to do both, for example, 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.

Which is all to say that 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. 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 rolled through a barbed wire fence, and 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.

Which is all to say that you have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened.


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 does the driver begin 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. And 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.

Twilley: 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, some little kid throws a water balloon into the street that distracts you and, ten seconds later, you hit a telephone pole. 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 gray 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: to what extent, once the lines have been repainted and the road resurfaced, is a place not 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 of crashes that define it for a legal purpose and 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.

Twilley: 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.
The largest collection of wild yeasts in the world fits inside a single beige chest freezer, humming quietly at the back of a busy lab in the University of California at Davis's shiny new Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.



The Phaff Yeast Culture Collection, as it's known, consists of more than 7,000 strains of 750 different species of the single-celled fungi, mixed with glycerine in cryogenically stored vials or freeze-dried into pellets. Roughly 80 percent of them are not held by any other yeast library in the world.



Kyria Boundy-Mills
, the Phaff Collection curator, knows this because last year she surveyed her global yeast-collecting colleagues, then published her findings in the Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology. Her own yeast empire is one of several such microbial archives around the world, ranging from broad national "type" libraries to niche collections specializing in microbes from reefs, breweries, and even Antarctic explorers' huts.

As Boundy-Mills showed Venue around her office and lab, she explained that the Phaff Collection's main focus is yeasts isolated from environmental habitats: gathered from sewage sludge, vanished cacti forests, cockroaches, hot springs, glaciers, human cerebrospinal fluid, and a mare's uterus.



The oldest yeast in the collection was isolated by the UC Berkeley cellarmaster in 1893. When Venue visited, Boundy-Mills was still busy processing the 150 new species of yeast she brought back from a 2011 National Institutes of Health-funded biodiversity survey expedition in Indonesia.

"Nearly half of them are new to science," she told us, which makes them a lot of work. "That’s lifetime’s worth of work there, just to describe 60 new species."

The expedition, which included entomologists, botanists, and ichythologists, cataloged such an immense richness of biodiversity that, Mills told Venue, their research site has now been proposed as a national park. "If it's passed," she said, "it will be the first national park in Indonesia to be declared based on biodiversity data—and one of the first in the world based specifically on biodiversity."

The unspoken implication here—that there could even someday be a yeast-based national park—raises the fascinating subject of scale when discussing the types of landscapes or habitats we consider worthy of preservation. Could a single, microbiologically rich room or building be biologically important enough to be declared a national park?

In any case, while other colleagues focused on collecting and identifying microbes and plants with therapeutic potential, Boundy-Mills' focus was on possible bioenergy applications. Specifically, this meant looking for new enzymes that can break down plant materials to simpler sugars, as well as new yeast varieties that can eat sugar and turn it into oil. As Boundy-Mills explained:

Most yeasts will stop eating when they’re no longer hungry. But there are a few yeast species that keep eating the sugar—and eating it and eating it—and they convert it to oil and store it. Under the microscope, you see these big, huge oil droplets inside the cells. They can be up to 60 percent oil—they’re like these obese, couch-potato yeasts.

To find enzymes that can break down plant material, Boundy-Mills and her team sampled the gut microbes of wood-feeding beetle larvae, as well as the decaying wood around them. Meanwhile, a lot of the high-oil yeasts that Boundy-Mills brought back were isolated from the surface of leaves, with some coming from the soil.


Dissected Buprestid beetle larvae, photograph by Irnayuli Sitepu (UC Davis; Ministry of Forestry, Indonesia).

Yeast cells, at only a couple of microns in length, are frequently more of a challenge to isolate for collection than plants or fish. In some cases, Boundy-Mills would just take a sterile bag, put it around a leaf, pluck it off, and pour in some sterile saline solution. After it had swished around for a while, she would put that liquid on an agar plate to culture any microbes that had been on the leaf's surface. Meanwhile, she told us with evident glee, a lot of the high-oil yeasts form ballistospores, meaning that they shoot out their spores, firing them several millimeters into the air:

This is kind of cool. For them, we smeared some Vaseline inside the lid of the Petri plate, and we stuck some pieces of leaf in the lid. If the yeast can make these ballistospores, they will shoot those down onto the agar surface and grow there. It’s called the ballistospore capture method.

Now that she has these Indonesian couch-potato yeasts back in the lab (after mountains of import and and export paperwork, and a lengthy process of purification and DNA analysis), Boundy-Mills is not only observing their oil production performance, but also studying the other by-products that could possibly come out of the yeast cell, in order to make it an economically viable biofuel production process.

As well as oils, some of her yeasts produce protein, anti-oxidants, and even flavoring ingredients. Elsewhere in the collection are yeasts that show promise in agricultural pest control or are used in food processing.

One strain, Phaffia rhodozyma, was originally isolated on a tree stump in Japan, and is now used industrially to produce a dietary supplement for farmed salmon and shrimp, to make them pinker.



In addition to her own research and the occasional yeast-hunting expedition, Boundy-Mills spends her time preparing and sending out strains to researchers who request them, and maintaining the collection—no small task, as the yeasts are far from immortal, even in the extreme cold, so each strain has to be re-cultured on agar in Petri dishes every five years.


Kyria Boundy-Mills with Herman Phaff's notebooks. Phaff, who founded the collection, focused on the ecology of yeast, recording copious contextual notes on their functionality in nature, their interaction with decaying plant material, and the insects that live alongside them.


The Yeasts: A Taxonomic Study has expanded from one volume (center) to three (left) over the past decade.

Boundy-Mills also acts as a kind of yeast consultant, screening and identifying yeasts for biotech companies. As we prepared to leave, she showed us her yeast bible: a taxonomic catalog of all known yeasts. To help us understand why she finds the field so exciting, she explained:

In 2001, when Hermann Phaff, who founded this collection, died, the Taxonomic Study was just one volume, with about six or seven hundred species. In 2011, they had to split it into three volumes, to accommodate more than 1,400 species. And there’s another couple of hundred yeast species that have come out since that was published.

Incredibly, while the known universe of yeasts is increasing exponentially, thanks primarily to DNA sequencing technology, it's estimated that less than one percent of the world's yeast species have been discovered.

"It's one of the most under-surveyed fields—microbes in general," Boundy-Mills sighed. "There are no yeasts that are on the endangered species list because we wouldn't even know if they were at risk. We’re spending all this time and effort exploring the extraterrestrial world, which is great. But we need to spend more time and effort exploring the terrestrial world, too. There’s so much on this planet that we just have not discovered yet!"
Screenshot of our own SimCity (called, for reasons that made sense at the time, We Are The Champignons) after three hours of game play.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

• • •



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Data layer showing ore deposits.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Screenshot from SimCity 4.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Sims queue for the bus at dawn.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

But, if you watch someone build a city, you just know. I mean, I don’t have to teach you that putting a garbage dump next to people’s houses is going to piss them off or that you need to dump sewage somewhere. I think the reason that the audience got so into it is that everyone intuitively knows the rules of the game when it comes to cities.

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...