#agir Recommendations for February 27, 2015
Somewhat by accident, I have a lot of stuff this week about photography, the environment, and the intersection of the two. First, though, some music that you could be listening to as you read this post:
Playlist: “Selected Ambient Works, v.3” by Richard D. James; selected by Mark Weidenbaum
Richard D. James, aka Apex Twin (among other things) is, of course, one of the most important creators of electronic music…well, ever, I think we can safely say at this point. After having been more or less silent for over a decade, last year he released Syro, a record which made many critics’ best-of-year lists. And then, he apparently took to Soundcloud and started uploading a massive archive of unreleased tracks as “user48736353001″; there are over 170 there so far. Obviously, it’s a lot to sort through. Mark Weidenbaum, who literally wrote the book on Apex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, v.2 has assembled a handful of these new tracks into a playlist he proposes as a kind of unofficial addition to the lineage of that record. Having not had the time or energy to comb through all of this stuff myself, I am grateful that somebody else is willing to bring a little order to the chaos.
Article: “A True Picture of Black Skin” by Teju Cole
You may have read about the recent relaunch of the New York Times Magazine, which includes some fairly dramatic changes in design, content, and, in particular, their online presence. There are quite a few things about this that sound exciting to me, including the fact that they will be printing poetry every week and are turning “The Ethicist” into a podcast. Probably the most exciting thing, though, is a section called “The Ons,” which will feature four different critics in rotation, each focusing on a different area or field; one of these will be Teju Cole, writing about photography. I’ve really enjoyed both of Teju Cole’s novels, particularly Open City, as well as some of his other writing on photography; he is an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful writer, and if the level of discussion in the magazine in general is anywhere close to his standard, it will be fantastic. This first piece is about the photographer Roy DeCarava, of whom I’d never heard before reading this (so it was worth reading for that, if for no other reason). It’s an interesting reading of DeCarava’s work specifically, but connects that reading to a broader discussion to the technology of photography and the ways in which it may be/have been biased toward the color and luminance of white skin rather than brown or black. If that sounds far-fetched at all, just read it— he can back it up. Cole takes the photography of the Civil Rights era, which now seems self-evident in how it should be understood, and complicates it in an interesting way, in a few hundred words. If he can do this once a month, it will be a great thing.
Photography captures instants, precise moments in time; a chain of such instants asks the viewer to generate a chronology that connects them, and build up a story of change. At least, maybe, sometimes. Manuagh’s essay is ultimately about the photography of David Maisel, who creates aerial images of massive mining sites, revealing their weird mixture of organic-looking and clearly artificial geometry; several of his images are included in the post. Along the way, Manaugh writes about mines as wounds— deepening that metaphor in interesting ways by talking about the actual biology of healing&mdash and, fascinatingly, the technology and economics of gold mining. Mining engineers must predict the probably layouts of mineral deposits, and design a pit shape that will maximize yields while minimizing costs. Manuagh quotes from an interview he did with architect Liam Young, and the picture he paints justifies me reproducing that quotation in full:
mining engineers are basically designers. They develop all these fragmentary data into models, which become the design of the pit itself. … But then what happens is, based on gold prices, the pit model changes. In other words, if the gold price or the mineral price is higher, then the pit gets wider as it becomes cost-effective to mine areas of lower concentration. This happens nearly in real time—the speed of the machines digging the pit can change over the course of the day based on the price of gold, so the geometry of the pit is utterly parametric, modeling these distant financial calculations.
The notion that streams of data can affect decisions in real time isn’t really a surprising one anymore, but the juxtaposition of that notion with the apparent brute force of massive machines making holes in the ground is striking, almost shocking.
The piece about the Aral Sea is much more straightforward; it’s an environment story, describing how human actions (specifically, using rivers to irrigate cotton fields) resulted in the more or less complete disappearance of what was the world’s fourth-largest lake, and how other actions (the construction of a dam) may result in its partial reappearance. It’s about the unintended consequences of our attempts manipulate nature to serve human needs. But the piece is also a great example of how good web design can help to tell a story. It’s not just an illustrated news article; the images are an integral part, and it’s notable how much some of them recall, in the abstract, the Maisel’s mining photos. I’m thinking here in terms of shapes, more than what they literally depict. Though of course they are all in some sense images of environmental destruction or transformation, it seems to me there’s a more interesting kind of resonance between the progressive aerial shots revealing the extent of the Aral’s decline and those of the massive open-pit gold mines Maisel is looking at.
(As a bit of a side note, I was gratified to see that somebody mounted an exhibition a couple of years ago that put Maisel’s work together with Edward Burtynsky, who is looking at some similar things, but I can’t believe there isn’t more writing out there about the two of them— so if anybody know of anything, let me know).
Sony sponsors an annual photography competition, and these are some of the finalists. There’s a wide range here, from nature to war photography, so there’s something for everybody. The Atlantic has successfully foiled my attempts to extract and post individual images, but I think #8 is my personal favorite— yet another aerial photograph that, thorough scale and perspective, renders human activity as abstract geometry.