A Building For Measuring Borders

The so-called "Yolo Buggy" was not a 19th-century adventure tourism vehicle for those of us who only live once; it was a mobile building, field shelter, and geopolitical laboratory for measuring the borders of an American county. Yolo County, California.

The "moveable tent or 'Yolo Buggy,'" as the libraries at UC Berkeley describe it, helped teams of state surveyors perform acts of measurement across the landscape in order to mathematically understand—and, thus, to tax, police, and regulate—the western terrain of the United States. It was a kind of Borgesian parade, a carnival of instruments on the move.

The resulting "Yolo Baseline" and the geometries that emerged from it allowed these teams to establish a constant point of cartographic reference for future mapping expeditions and charts. In effect, it was an invisible line across the landscape that they tried to make governmentally real by leaving small markers in their wake. (Read more about meridians and baselines over at the Center for Land Use Interpretation).

In the process, these teams carried architecture along with them in the form of the "moveable tent" seen here—which was simultaneously a room in which they could stay out of the sun and a pop-up work station for making sense of the earth's surface—and the related tower visible in the opening image.

That control tower allowed the teams' literal supervisors to look back at where they'd come from and to scan much further ahead, at whatever future calculations of the grid they might be able to map in the days to come. You could say that it was mobile optical infrastructure for gaining administrative control of new land.

Like a dust-covered Tron of the desert, surrounded by the invisible mathematics of a grid that had yet to be realized, these over-dressed gentlemen of another century helped give rise to an abstract model of the state. Their comparatively minor work thus contributed to a virtual database of points and coordinates, something immaterial and totally out of scale with the bruised shins and splintered fingers associated with moving this wooden behemoth across the California hills.

(All images courtesy UC Berkeley/Calisphere).

100 Views of a Drowning World

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

I've mentioned the work of artists Kahn & Selesnick before; their surreal narratives are illustrated with elaborately propped photos that fall somewhere between avant-garde theater and landscape fiction, with mountain glaciers, salt mines, alien planets, utopian cityscapes, and, as seen here, the slowly flooding marshes of an unidentified hinterland.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

These images are from a new project, called Truppe Fledermaus & The Carnival at the End of the World, that opened at New York's Yancey Richardson gallery last week. "Utilizing photography, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and performance," the gallery writes, "the artists create robust mythic realities for each project, building imaginary, character-driven fictions from kernels of obscure historical truth."
Kahn & Selesnick’s latest project follows a fictitious cabaret troupe—Truppe Fledermaus (Bat Troupe)—who travel the countryside staging absurd and inscrutable performances in abandoned landscapes for an audience of no one. The playful but dire message presented by the troupe is of impending ecological disaster, caused by rising waters and a warming planet, the immediate consequences of which include the extinction of the Bat, in this mythology a shamanistic figure representing both nature and humanity. In one sense, the entire cabaret troupe can be seen as a direct reflection of the artists themselves, both entities employing farce and black humor to engage utterly serious concerns.
The particular scenes shown here, all on display until July 3, 2014, are from a sub-series within the project called "100 Views of a Drowning World."

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

Eccentric residents of a drowning landscape live lives indistinguishable from absurdist stagecraft, as they wander through seemingly wild landscapes that are actually ruins and that will eventually all disappear beneath the deceptively placid tidal flats flowing around them.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

These anonymous coastal dwellers simulate a nature that is already artificial—a kind of maritime grotesque of overgrown animal forms and humans buried beneath ropes and seaweed—and they set off on doomed expeditions through terrains whose original inhabitants have long been forgotten.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

Lone figures in boats look out into what will soon be sea, attempting to navigate land as if it is already an ocean.

[Images: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

And others attempt to escape into some new strain of Romanticism, witnesses of large-scale terrestrial change who know that this moment on the Earth is rare—though not unique—for the extraordinary transitions that lie over the horizon.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

In the end, then, the idea is not that these characters' actions somehow represent or propose a new humanist response to climate change, or that the artists are offering us any sort of practical or ethical insight into what futures might face us in a drowned world, but that these absurd rituals and dreamlike antics instead simply illustrate "a world that is sinking into a marsh."

It is, as the show's title suggests, just a carnival at the end of the world.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

The Yancey Richardson gallery is on W. 22nd Street, over near the High Line; be sure to stop by before July 3. Here is a map and here are more images.

The City and its Periphery

If you're in the Bay Area at the end of month, consider attending an event called Macro City, organized and hosted by the Infrastructure Observatory. Its purpose is "to explore the vast, often overlooked networks of infrastructure that surround us," and, in the process, "to celebrate the numerous people whose countless efforts shape the built landscape every day."

Probably the most interesting part of the whole event is the ambitious program of local field trips, all of which take place on May 30th. They include guided tours of everything from the Zanker landfill & recovery facility down in San Jose to one of San Francisco's wastewater treatment plants, and from a construction aggregate terminal and a kayak trip to an activist walking tour of the city's many surveillance cameras.

[Image: The Dutra Group's extraordinary San Rafael rock quarry, a Macro City field trip site and striking reversal of the figure-ground relationship; photo courtesy of baycrossings/Macro City].

Tickets are available at various levels of price and access—and I should point out that I am also speaking at the event, alongside Nicola Twilley, so my opinion betrays some bias—but the conference has a great and important interpretive mission, and seems well worth attending: "We rarely see in full the cities that we live in," the organizers write. "Focused on our daily lives, urban dwellers are often only dimly aware of the numerous, enmeshed layers of critical infrastructure that quietly hum in the background to make modern life possible."

Come tour and talk about those hidden systems—especially in this time of drought, causing infrastructure to run back to front—on May 30 and 31, at SPUR and the Brava Theater in San Francisco. See the Macro City site for more details.

Demolition Ground

I love this story of the mysterious disappearing sinkholes of Indiana's Mount Baldy, where deep pits in the sand dunes are opening and closing for reasons as yet to be determined. These "strange holes" have "appeared since last year, only to collapse and be filled in with sand a day later. Some of the holes were so deep they could not be measured with the researchers' measuring tapes," Livescience reports.

The area has thus been closed to the public while EPA scientists scan the site with ground-penetrating radar; this will help them to develop an "understanding of the overall internal architecture of the dune, using multispectral GPR and coring."

After all, one of the leading theories is actually that buried structures, consumed by the dune's migration over the past century, might have collapsed deep below the sand, creating these temporary sinkholes.

Imagine small buildings imploding under the weight of the landscape, like little cubic tombs held in place all this time by a dry glacier of sand and gravel, finally bursting inward as the strain becomes too much for them to carry—as if, beneath us in weird labyrinths of negative space, the invisible, slow-motion demolition of old buildings proceeds apace, detectable only as momentary pores and sinkholes breathing open and closed in the earth's mobile surface.

(Images courtesy National Park Service).