Untitled Landscapes

[Image: Untitled (Uranium tailings); Mexican Hat, UT, 2005, by Victoria Sambunaris, from Taxonomy of a Landscape].

Design writer Sarah Rich has posted some really spectacular images by photographer Victoria Sambunaris, along with a short Q&A discussing landscapes altered by human activities and industry.

Truck yards butt up against uranium disposal cells and open pit mines yawn over the horizon from border fences that stretch like continuous monuments through the desert.

[Image: Untitled (talc mine benches); Cameron, MT, 2009, by Victoria Sambunaris, from Taxonomy of a Landscape].

Sambunaris is, in Rich's words, "a 21st-century documentarian of human presence in the American landscape... a kind of mapmaker, displaying the layers of material and the layout of space that compose a particular geographic region."

[Image: Untitled (Houses); Wendover, UT, 2007, by Victoria Sambunaris, from Taxonomy of a Landscape].

These layers include infrastructure and housing, but also—and, in some ways, more interestingly—the subtle traces of invisible legislative superstructures that come to define the scenes in question.

For example, Sambunaris's shot of Yellowstone National Park—which you can see in the original interview—betrays human meddling on a different scale altogether, precisely through its absence of any visible interference. That is, the landscape depicted in Sambunaris's photo has, in fact, been artificially scrubbed clean of all human traces by an unseen scaffolding of political regulation—its declaration and protection as a National Park—making even this a kind of altered landscape, an arranged scenography planned and implemented from afar by human beings.

In any case, click through to read the full interview, but also consider picking up a copy of the photographer's new book, Taxonomy of a Landscape, with an accompanying essay by Natasha Egan.

Empty Landscapes of Invisible Dangers

[Image: "The Polygon Nuclear Test Site 1 (After the Event)," Kazakhstan (2011); photo by Nadav KanderNadav Kander, courtesy of Flowers Gallery].

The new book Dust by Nadav Kander documents the broken test-cities of the Soviet nuclear program, with shells of partially dismantled buildings lying scattered across the landscape like dead monuments, anonymous and unsigned.

[Image: "The Polygon Nuclear Test Site VII," Kazakhstan (2011); photo by Nadav KanderNadav Kander, courtesy of Flowers Gallery].

As the Guardian describes Kander's work—which opened just last week at London's Flowers Gallery—the "desolate is rendered sublime—almost too perfect—in these epic images of a land laid waste by Soviet nuclear ambitions."

What you're looking at are, in the gallery's words, "the radioactive ruins of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia," architectural targets now collapsing wall by wall into the barren plain.

[Image: "Priozersk (Military Housing)" Kazakhstan (2011); photo by Nadav KanderNadav Kander, courtesy of Flowers Gallery].

The region they're in was known simply as the "Polygon," a suitably abstract designation for what was essentially a nuclear sacrifice zone. From the gallery:
Priozersk (formally known as "Moscow 10") and Kurchatov are closed cities, restricted military zones, concealed and not shown on maps until they were "discovered" by Google Earth. Enlisted to the pursuits of science and war, the sites were utilized for the covert testing of atomic and long distance weapons. Falsely claimed as uninhabited, the cities, along with nearby testing site "The Polygon" set the stage for one of the most cynical experiments ever undertaken. Scientists watched and silently documented the horrifying effects of radiation and pollution on the local population and livestock.
Kander's photos are on display until October 11, but you can also buy the book from publisher Hatje Cantz.

[Image: "The Aral Sea I (Officers Housing)," Kazakhstan (2011); photo by Nadav KanderNadav Kander, courtesy of Flowers Gallery].

In the meantime, be sure to check out the gallery's website for many more photos, and the artist's own portfolio includes other series well worth a look, such as photos from the Arctic Circle, from the ruins of Chernobyl, and even a fantastic, David Lynchian project called "Night," featuring all but depopulated suburban landscapes lit up by street lamps and garages.

(Note: This post's title—"empty landscapes of invisible dangers"—comes from Nadav Kander, as quoted in the Flowers Gallery press release).

Procedural Forestry

[Image: A "procedural forest gone wrong... or right?," developed by Florian Veltman].

We looked at procedural Brutalism the other week—and, deep in the BLDGBLOG archives, we explored the moors of a procedurally generated British countryside—so why not procedural forestry?

Designer Florian Veltman tweeted two screen grabs the other week, along with the quick comment that he was "working on a procedural forest." The first image, which you can see in his tweet, is just a path or small clearing—almost a holloway—cutting forward through a forest of algorithmic leaves and branches.

But it's the picturesque errorscape seen in the opening image of this post, and in Veltman's second tweet, that really caught my eye. Captioned by Veltman as a "procedural forest gone wrong... or right?," it resembles a kind of upended tectonic plate overgrown with vegetation, pierced by the alien presence of a miscalculated substrate erupting from below.

Procedural forestry, procedural geology, procedural oceanography—the very idea of a procedural natural history is just incredible. Unstoppable worlds endlessly flowering from roots of code. Imagine landscape information modeling becoming weirdly sentient, self-generating, and aesthetically sublime, laced with errors, topographies gone wild—stuttering and mutated—in the infinite seams between digital worlds.

We watch in unearthly awe as coded terrains crack open or glitch apart just enough to reveal their mathematical interiors, buried operating systems indistinguishable from nature whirring away within the roots and leaves.

(Indirectly spotted via @jimrossignol).

Celestial Chiaroscuro



An interesting new project called Satellite Lamps, by Einar Sneve Martinussen, Jørn Knutsen, and Timo Arnall, attempts to visualize the ever-drifting, never exactly accurate workings of GPS.

As the above video shows, the project uses "a set of lamps that contain GPS receivers, that change brightness according to the accuracy of received GPS signals. When we photograph them in timelapse, they reveal how the accuracy changes over time."

You're basically watching the indirect effects of signal drift, transformed here into ambient mood lighting that acts secondarily as a graph of celestial geography.

[Image: From Satellite Lamps, photo by Timo Arnall].

In what the group calls a "selective history of how a piece of the Space Program has ended up in our pockets," they explain that the everyday reception of signals coming down from the constellation of GPS satellites is always subject to temporary errors, inaccuracies, and misalignments; this can be seen easily enough by glancing at nothing more than your own physical location, as mapped on your cell phone.

They also point to an interesting observation, made by artist James Bridle, that "if you leave a running app such as Nike+ or Runkeeper on your bedside table while you sleep at night, you will wake up to see that the app reports that you ran a significant distance, without doing anything. This, we speculated, is due to the way in which these apps are recording the GPS inaccuracies and counting these as actual, physical movements. In reality, these odd asymmetrical star-shaped tracks offer a map of the shifts of the phone attempting to locate itself."

This ghostly movement is not "real" in any spatial or geographic sense, but it nonetheless leaves digital tracks in our information profiles, like phantom trips being taken by our data-shadows in secret.

[Image: From Satellite Lamps, photo by Timo Arnall].

So why not visualize this ongoing slippage—these minor tectonics events taking place inside the tools of geography—in a different form, not with, say, an iPhone scooting around all over your neighborhood at night, trying to keep up with the haunted midnight fugues of an errant running app, but with something stationary, something all the more uncanny for the invisible movements that seem to pass through it like an aurora?

This, then, is the point of Satellite Lamps, which flicker and dim to help reveal the invisible glitches in earth-to-satellite coordination, paradoxically unmoving chandeliers that shine in a chiaroscuro of side-effects leaking in from a parallel world.

[Image: From Satellite Lamps, photo by Timo Arnall].

In any case, the project is voluminously explained and documented. Considering reading about GPS itself, about the team's strategy for giving visual form to invisible information, and, finally, about the physical realization of the lamps.

Implied Landscapes

[Image: "Colour experiment no. 61," 2014; photo by Jens Ziehe, via Tate Britain].

The forthcoming exhibition of J.M.W. Turner's late works at Tate Britain not only looks amazing, but it's also accompanied by a gorgeous new series of seven works by Olafur Eliasson.

Called "Turner colour experiments," the paintings were made after Eliasson "analyzed seven paintings by Turner to create Turner colour experiments, which isolate and record Turner’s use of light and color."

These are Turner's paintings, reduced and purified to form, in effect, circular indexes of every color Turner himself once used. They are landscapes, abstracted and distilled.

[Image: "Colour experiment no. 58," 2014; photo by Jens Ziehe, via Tate Britain].

In fact, these are actually just the most recent pieces from Eliasson's ongoing research.

As Eliasson writes, describing an earlier and related work called "Emergent fade—colour experiment," he hopes this work "will eventually lead to a new colour theory based on the prismatic colours." The technical effort behind all this is insane:
The visible colour spectrum in light ranges in frequency from approximately 390 to 700 nanometres. Since 2009, Olafur Eliasson has been engaged in a project that he hopes will eventually lead to a new colour theory based on the prismatic colours. He began these experiments by working with a colour chemist to mix in paint an exact colour for each nanometre of light in the visible spectrum. Since the initial experiments, Eliasson has used this palette to make a number of different paintings, known collectively as the Colour experiment paintings. Each painting is different and individual, but all are attempts at investigating what Eliasson hopes will evolve into a new colour theory.
Specifically in terms of Turner, Eliasson adds, his goals—seemingly something more from the world of material science than from the history of representational art—are to "begin an experimental study by abstracting the prismatic colours of Turner's palette and filtering them into a new, utopian colour theory."

[Image: "Colour experiment no. 60," 2014; photo by Jens Ziehe, via Tate Britain].

But what's perhaps most exciting about these, for me, is the idea that these are a bit like the color genetics—the base pairs and physical hues—behind Turner's extraordinary landscapes and atmospheres.

These imply Turner's landscapes, falling within the outermost parameters of their light and color.

In each wheel, in other words, we see the compressed and essential colors of Turner's sunsets, coasts, and rainstorms blowing in to shower half a continent with new tones, the sky cracking open as mountain air filters ambient light into shining cascades, first blurred then separated here down to the nanometer.

[Image: Installation view of "Turner colour experiments" by Olafur Eliasson; photo by Jens Ziehe, via Tate Britain].

I love the idea that these are the rays of light originally depicted by Turner, a kind of visual broadcast tuned to the exact same frequencies, only here purified and re-arranged.

It's as if seven huge cyanometers have been assembled inside the museum: Eliasson's brilliant engines through which Turner's old skies can shine again.

(Vaguely related: The Great Age of Clouds).

Procedural Brutalism

[Image: Procedural Brutalism by Cedric].

Here are a few GIFs of procedurally generated architecture by a game developer named Cedric, built using Unity. Cedric describes himself as an "indie game dev focused on social AI, emergent narrative and procedural worlds."

[Image: Procedural Croydon by Cedric].

These were pointed out to me by Jim Rossignol, who has both guest-posted and spoken at length here on BLDGBLOG about procedural architecture, and whose own development company, Big Robot, is behind the awesome "British Landscape Generator" whirring away beneath the rolling hills and cliffsides of Sir, You Are Being Hunted.

[Image: Procedural facades by Cedric].

The GIFs here are relatively big, obviously, so it might take a while for them to load, but then you can just sit back and watch the rule-based production of built structures pop, rise, and expand like urban accordions.

Imagine whole game worlds powered by real-time computation at the building level, constantly and parametrically fizzing with architectural forms, barely predictable new Woolworth Buildings and Barbicans sprouting on-demand from the ground whenever needed.

Shapegarden

[Image: From "Geometria et Perspectiva" by Lorenz Stöer (1567), via Bibliodyssey].

I just thought these images were cool: geometry workouts engraved in the 16th century by Lorenz Stöer, featuring dense architectural exercises of pure geometry, with shapes drawn for the sake of shapes—on top of shapes in front of shapes—all illustrating what perspectival rendering can achieve with complex spatial environments.

[Image: From "Geometria et Perspectiva" by Lorenz Stöer (1567), via Bibliodyssey].

Light and shadow; depth and relationship; stars and wheels and cylinders; arches and stairs.

You could probably just stare at these all night and imagine new angular worlds emerging through which bewildered humans wander, surrounded by huge and immersive crystal cities, perhaps something like a variant on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a story told "against an ever changing backdrop of mysterious ruins, monuments, orchards, gardens and fountains."

Now imagine that story retold by a Cubism-obsessed Renaissance engraver doomed to live four centuries ahead of his true time. It's geometry as a narrative device.

[Image: From "Geometria et Perspectiva" by Lorenz Stöer (1567), via Bibliodyssey].

These were all found via Bibliodyssey, who originally posted these five years ago and who also maintain a full Flickr set featuring these and many more such images. It's worth noting that that Flickr set was built from scans originally done by Will from A Journey Round My Skull.

Don't miss that Flickr set.

Demolition School

[Image: The Broelschool, Kortrijk, Belgium, via Space Caviar].

As part of the 2014 Biennale Interieur, curatorial group Space Caviar is hosting what they call a "demolition workshop" in the Belgian town of Kortrijk.

Set in a derelict school building condemned to demolition after the workshop has ended, the project aims to "construct alternative routes into and through the building, most significantly a new staircase," and to explore new forms of improvisatory navigation through architectural space by way of "inventive deletions or modifications."

Think of it as applied topology in the tradition of Gordon Matta-Clark.

[Images: Some internal views of the Broelschool, via Space Caviar].

You have only a narrow window of time in which to apply to join one of two teams in the exercise, however—that is, you only have until Friday, September 5, to express interest.

To apply, send an e-mail to martina (at) spacecaviar (dot) net with the subject "Broelschool Demolition Workshop," including your name, contact information, hometown, and professional CV or PDF portfolio, and you need to indicate which of the two teams you are hoping to join. Those teams are, and I quote:
TEAM DÉRIVE (5 people) will construct alternative routes into and through the building, most significantly a new staircase. Through sensitive and inventive deletions or modifications, this group will create shortcuts and reveal hidden aspects of the original architecture, as well as foreshadowing some of the future architectural plans for the building site. Using the building itself as a source of reusable material, the workshop will both predate the destruction and celebrate the transition of the school.

TEAM TIMELINE (5 people) will create a graphical layer on top of the existing architecture that offers a unique chronology of the domestic space over the last half-century. Blending quotes, data, diagrams, graffiti, and way-finding, the timeline will lead visitors to explore the nooks and crannies of the school in search of the steps in the story of the home.
However, in your email you must also then complete these sentences in no more than 100 words: a) My first memory of home is... b) My current home is... c) My ideal home is...

The workshop itself takes place September 23-28.

[Image: "Splitting" (1974) by Gordon Matta-Clark, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

Finally, somehow tying into this event will be a "Roomba ballet" choreographed for 12 of the robotic vacuum cleaners.

Space Caviar is thus also looking for someone to choreograph that dance, so please also consider getting in touch with them if you have any ideas for how to control 12 algorithmically impulsive, semi-autonomous household appliances.

Through the Cracks Between Stars

[Image: Trevor Paglen, "PAN (Unknown; USA-207)," from The Other Night Sky].

I had the pleasure last winter of attending a lecture by Trevor Paglen in Amsterdam, where he spoke about a project of his called The Last Pictures. As Paglen describes it, "Humanity’s longest lasting remnants are found among the stars."
Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization's most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.
Paglen ended his lecture with an amazing anecdote worth repeating here. Expanding on this notion—that humanity's longest-lasting ruins will not be cities, cathedrals, or even mines, but rather geostationary satellites orbiting the Earth, surviving for literally billions of years beyond anything we might build on the planet's surface—Paglen tried to conjure up what this could look like for other species in the far future.

Billions of years from now, he began to narrate, long after city lights and the humans who made them have disappeared from the Earth, other intelligent species might eventually begin to see traces of humanity's long-since erased presence on the planet.

Consider deep-sea squid, Paglen suggested, who would have billions of years to continue developing and perfecting their incredible eyesight, a sensory skill perfect for peering through the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the oceans—yet also an eyesight that could let them gaze out at the stars in deep space.

Perhaps, Paglen speculated, these future deep-sea squid with their extraordinary powers of sight honed precisely for focusing on tiny points of light in the darkness might drift up to the surface of the ocean on calm nights to look upward at the stars, viewing a scene that will have rearranged into whole new constellations since the last time humans walked the Earth.

And, there, the squid might notice something.

High above, seeming to move against the tides of distant planets and stars, would be tiny reflective points that never stray from their locations. They are there every night; they are more eternal than even the largest and most impressive constellations in the sky sliding nightly around them.

Seeming to look back at the squid like the eyes of patient gods, permanent and unchanging in these places reserved for them there in the firmament, those points would be nothing other than the geostationary satellites Paglen made reference to.

This would be the only real evidence, he suggested, to any terrestrial lifeforms in the distant future that humans had ever existed: strange ruins stuck there in the night, passively reflecting the sun, never falling, angelic and undisturbed, peering back through the veil of stars.

[Image: Star trails, seen from space, via Wikimedia].

Aside from the awesome, Lovecraftian poetry of this image—of tentacular creatures emerging from the benthic deep to gaze upward with eyes the size of automobiles at satellites far older than even continents and mountain ranges—the actual moment of seeing these machines for ourselves is equally shocking.

By now, for example, we have all seen so-called "star trail" photos, where the Earth's rotation stretches every point of starlight into long, perfect curves through the night sky. These are gorgeous, if somewhat clichéd, images, and they tend to evoke an almost psychedelic state of cosmic wonder, very nearly the opposite of anything sinister or disturbing.

[Image: More star trails from space, via Wikipedia].

Yet in Paglen's photo "PAN (Unknown; USA-207)"—part of another project of his called The Other Night Sky— something incredible and haunting occurs.

Amidst all those moving stars blurred across the sky like ribbons, tiny points of reflected light burn through—and they are not moving at all. There is something else up there, this image makes clear, something utterly, unnaturally still, something frozen there amidst the whirl of space, looking back down at us as if through cracks between the stars.

[Image: Cropping in to highlight the geostationary satellites—the unblurred dots between the star trails—in "PAN (Unknown; USA-207)" by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

The Other Night Sky, Paglen explains, "is a project to track and photograph classified American satellites, space debris, and other obscure objects in Earth orbit."

To do so, he uses "observational data produced by an international network of amateur satellite observers to calculate the position and timing of overhead transits which are photographed with telescopes and large-format cameras and other imaging devices."

The image that opens this post "depicts an array of spacecraft in geostationary orbit at 34.5 degrees east, a position over central Kenya. In the lower right of the image is a cluster of four spacecraft. The second from the left is known as 'PAN.'"

What is PAN? Well, the interesting thing is that not many people actually know. Its initials stand for "Palladium At Night," but "this is one mysterious bird," satellite watchers have claimed; it is a "mystery satellite" with "an unusual history of frequent relocations," although it is to be found in the eastern hemisphere, stationed far above the Indian Ocean (Paglen took this photograph from South Africa).

As Paglen writes, "PAN is unique among classified American satellites because it is not publically claimed by any intelligence of military agency. Space analysts have speculated that PAN may be operated by the Central Intelligence Agency." Paglen and others have speculated about other possible meanings of the name PAN—check out his website for more on that—but what strikes me here is less the political backstory behind the satellites than the visceral effect such an otherwise abstract photograph can have.

In other words, we don't actually need Paglen's deep-sea squid of the far future with their extraordinary eyesight to make the point for us that there are now uncanny constellations around the earth, sinister patterns visible against the backdrop of natural motion that weaves the sky into such an inspiring sight.

These fixed points peer back at us through the cracks, an unnatural astronomy installed there in secret by someone or something capable of resisting the normal movements of the universe, never announcing themselves while watching anonymously from space.

[Image: Cropping further into "PAN (Unknown; USA-207)" by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

For more on Trevor Paglen's work, including both The Last Pictures and The Other Night Sky, check out his website.

Weather is the Future of Urban Design

[Image: From a newscast about Istanbul's recent tornadoes].

It's hard to resist a story where urban design is blamed for creating tornadoes. But the recent cluster of "freak mini-tornadoes" striking Istanbul offers an anomaly in search of an explanation, and the newly built outer edges of the metropolis are potentially to blame.

According to Ed Danaher at NOAA's Center for Weather and Climate Prediction, speaking to the Hürriyet Daily News, "we know that tornadoes are exotic to Istanbul, like snow is to Florida." That article go on to suggest, however, that these tornadoes "are possibly one result of the city’s rapid urbanization," and that such a claim can be made based on their conversations with other meteorological researchers working at NOAA.

As their headline states bluntly, "Istanbul tornadoes [are] a 'result of urbanization'."

This conjures up frankly outrageous images of a city so sprawling—and so thermally ill-conceived—that huge masses of air at different temperatures are now rising into the sky to do battle, violently colliding like mythological titans above the city to generate the surreal tornadoes now ripping through the neighborhoods below.

Weather might be the future of urban design—but the rest of the news story actually includes no such quotations or any relevant evidence that would back up such a claim. They refer to climate change and its effects on regional humidity, of course, but, oddly enough, there is otherwise no attempt to back up the opening statement.

[Image: Photographer uncredited; via the Hürriyet Daily News].

But... But... It's so tempting to speculate. Beyond just being clickbait, this vision of suburban sprawl inadvertently churning the skies with the introduced turbulence of tornadoes, and thus destroying the landscape like some twisted instant karma of the atmosphere, is too awesome not to entertain for at least the length of a cup of coffee.

What weird old gods of weather have Istanbul's architects accidentally awoken? As streets and buildings continue to bulge outward into the forests and hills of the region, what else might their spatial activities unleash?

(Originally spotted via @urbanphoto_blog. Vaguely related: The Weather Bowl).

Powers of Quarantine

[Image: Liberian security forces implement "a quarantine of the West Point slum, stepping up the government’s fight to stop the outbreak and unnerving residents." Photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Of Forcible Blockades and Military Isolation

A neighborhood-scale quarantine was forcibly imposed on the slums of Monrovia, Liberia, yesterday to help prevent the spread of Ebola.

Using makeshift roadblocks—consisting, for the most part, of old furniture, wooden pallets, and barbed wire, as everyday objects were transformed into the raw materials of a police blockade—authorities have forcibly isolated the densely populated neighborhood of West Point from the rest of the city.

Unsurprisingly, however, poor communication, over-aggressive law enforcement tactics, and general misinformation about the nature—even the very existence—of Ebola has led to local resistance.

Al Jazeera reports, for example, that "police in the Liberian capital have fired live rounds and tear gas to disperse a stone-throwing crowd trying to break an Ebola quarantine imposed on their neighborhood." But they were perhaps simply trying to defend themselves against a badly communicated onslaught of police wielding batons and machine guns, and they would be doing so whether Ebola was in the picture or not.

[Image: Neigborhood-scale quarantine; photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Ubiquitous Quarantine

But this is only one of the most recent—and one of the more extreme—examples of the spatial practice of quarantine reappearing in the news in recent weeks. At the end of July, for example, the Chinese city of Yumen was partially quarantined due to an outbreak of bubonic plague, as parts of the city were "sealed off" from the neighborhoods around them; and the ongoing Ebola outbreak has led to involuntary quarantines being implemented at nearly every spatial level, from the individual to the city to entire international regions.

In the latter case, recall that just last week a cordon sanitaire was enforced in the international border regions of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to stop people possibly infected with Ebola from crossing the borders. As the New York Times described this action, "The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is so out of control that governments there have revived a disease-fighting tactic not used in nearly a century: the 'cordon sanitaire,' in which a line is drawn around the infected area and no one is allowed out."

This spatial technique for managing the spread of microbiological life has "the potential to become brutal and inhumane," the paper adds. "Centuries ago, in their most extreme form, everyone within the boundaries was left to die or survive, until the outbreak ended."

[Image: Enforcing quarantine; Photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Resisting Quarantine

Yet resistance to quarantine is nearly as ubiquitous as attempts to implement it. The very notion of involuntary quarantine is important to emphasize here: this is something that must be spatially imposed on people who have not chosen to bring this condition upon themselves.

Read this dramatic description from the Times, for example, depicting the moment at which involuntary government quarantine is revealed:
Soldiers and police officers in riot gear blocked the roads. Even the waterfront was cordoned off, with the coast guard stopping residents from setting out in canoes. The entire neighborhood, a sprawling slum with tens of thousands of people, awoke Wednesday morning to find that it was under strict quarantine in the government’s halting fight against Ebola.

The reaction was swift and violent. Angry young men hurled rocks and stormed barbed-wire barricades, trying to break out. Soldiers repelled the surging crowd with live rounds, driving back hundreds of young men.
Involuntary quarantine can inspire this type of reaction at any scale. Consider the panic-stricken family who forcibly raided a hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in order to free an Ebola-stricken relative who, they had come to believe, was being held against her will; she later died, but not before passing her infection on to others. Or consider the Nigerian nurse possibly exposed to Ebola while caring for patients who nonetheless "skipped quarantine," either out of a desperate sense of self-preservation or due to sheer ignorance of the dangers of her actions.

"Don't Touch The Walls!"

Somewhat incredibly, though, the deliberate breaking of quarantine can also occur not out of survivalist panic or concern for one's own medical safety, but simply for the purpose of looting. Some of the descriptions here are jaw-dropping, with raiders actually breaking into Ebola wards to steal "property like tents, tarpaulins, buckets, hospital beds, mobile phones and shoes among other things," literally all of which could bear traces of Ebola and thus spread the contagion elsewhere.

The New York Times had a particularly chilling example of why not to steal from Ebola wards when it ran this haunting sentence two weeks ago: "'Don’t touch the walls!' a Western medical technician yelled out. 'Totally infected.'"

Yet, even in the West Point quarantine zone, misguided acts of theft are rampant: "Residents stormed through" the quarantine zone, we read, also in the New York Times, "running off with a generator and supplies like mattresses, some soaked with the blood of patients who were believed to have Ebola. "

Yet, in a situation where even the hospitals are considered to be "death traps," where the walls themselves are "totally infected" with Ebola, the designation of involuntary and militarily enforced quarantine boundaries is taken to mean the designation of a kind of urban sacrifice zone, a place where patients can be fatally off-loaded and the disease tragically but successfully contained. From this point of view, getting out of the quarantine zone becomes a top priority.

Residents of West Point have even protested that "their community, they believed, was becoming a dumping ground for Ebola patients," and that quarantine was simply a spatial excuse for putting victims all in one place, uninfected neighbors be damned. "In all," we read, "residents tried to break through the barricade three times on Wednesday, Col. Prince Johnson, the army’s brigade commander, said Wednesday evening by phone. His soldiers had fired in the air, he said, but he would not comment on whether they had also fired into the crowd."

[Image: A "quarantine house" in Pennsylvania; courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

Powers of Quarantine

Who has the power to quarantine? Where does this power come from—especially in a Constitutional democracy like the United States—and where exactly are this power's limits? Does it have any?

Nicola Twilley and I explored these questions last week for the New Yorker, looking at, among other things, the Constitutional implications of quarantine powers. As we point out in that piece, there is an ethically troubling overlap between the notion of the quarantined subject, spatially isolated often against his or her will, and the liminal figure of the "enemy combatant" who potentially never faces the prospect of a legal trial whilst being indefinitely detained.

In both cases, extrajudicial detention can occur on the ground of suspicion alone—presumed guilt or infection—rather than legal or medical certainty.

In fact, writing as a coauthor on two Congressional Research Reports from 2005, legal theorist Jennifer Elsea commented on both of these categories: of the combatant held by the state without rights or legal access to resistance, and the medical subject unable to protest his or her segregation due to being held in a state of involuntary quarantine.

As we see massive international quarantine zones enforced at gunpoint throughout West Africa, and as suspected Ebola cases pop up everywhere from Johannesburg to California, it is well worth discussing where these spatial powers come from, who controls them, and when and where quarantine has reached its limit.

The Return of Quarantine

Indeed, as Twilley and I suggested back in 2010 during the "Landscapes of Quarantine" design studio and exhibition at New York's Storefront for Art and Architecture, quarantine is a decidedly pre-modern spatial practice that is nonetheless experiencing a contemporary comeback.

Confronted with widespread antibiotic resistance and increased global air travel that can bring diseases like Ebola to every global metropolis in a matter of hours, quarantine is part of "a 14th-century toolbox" that ironically looks perfectly at home in the 21st century.

[Image: Quarantine station, Pennsylvania; courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

Given all these examples of resistance, confusion, and the violence often necessary to impose spatial isolation on people only suspected of bearing a disease, we suggest in the New Yorker essay that quarantine becomes something of a spatial fiction, always and permanently on the verge of collapse. Its premise is a fantasy; the imaginary boundaries it seeks to defend are legally loose and physically porous.

Nonetheless, for all its apparent instability, quarantine offers a necessary fiction of separation and control at a time when the boundaries between health and contagion have become so vertiginous and blurred.

(Note: Parts of this post were co-written with Nicola Twilley).

The Great Age of Clouds

[Image: A "hurricane" at Saturn's south pole, via NASA; see also The Planetary Weather Report].

In Frédéric J. Pont's new book Alien Skies, he describes the atmospheres of other planets: what storms are like, what the clouds are made of, how a sunset might appear through a chemical haze at high pressure on another world.

He points out, for example, that many of these "alien skies" would likely consist of wildly unfamiliar shapes and formations, as different elements would be capable of condensing to form clouds at ever-increasing heights.

As he puts it, "The type of compound likely to condense into clouds depends on the temperature, and varies from planet to planet. Earth has water clouds. Carbon dioxide clouds sometimes grace the Martian sky, and Venus is shrouded in sulphuric acid clouds. On the giant planets, successive cloud decks are made of different compounds as the temperature increases in the deeper layers."

[Image: J.M.W. Turner, "Storm at Sea" (1824), courtesy of Tate Britain].

However, I should emphasize that all of this stuff needs to be put into the context of the Hudson River School and European Romanticism, of so-called "representational exploration art" of earlier scientific expeditions, where humans attempted to visually depict the wild worlds they'd plunged themselves into.

You shouldn't see this stuff and think of astronomy, in other words. You should think of J.M.W. Turner or John Constable, of huge coastal storms and mountain passes lit by lightning, of ships dashed on the rocks as wrathful pillars of dark cloud spiral into the blackness of space above terrified figures for whom weather bears traces of omnipotence.

Only now the weather is even more spectacular, and it is glimpsed on planets more exotic than any continent to which artists have traveled before.

The weather on other planets should not be left only to scientists, in other words, but needs always to be considered in the context of art and landscape history.

[Image: John Constable, "Seascape Study with Rain Cloud" (c. 1824), via Wikipedia].

In any case, Pont explains that, as you move higher into some of the otherworldly atmospheres he describes, you would continually pass into entirely new elements—carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia—now frozen or condensed, billowing and moving about in the wind, capable of assuming structures unlike anything seen on Earth, vast "waves, spirals and tentacles," or "unpredictable storm patterns" and even giant hexagons, as weird configurations unlock through a chemical sky.

[Image: The great hexagon at Saturn's north pole, via Universe Today].

The book is less landscape poetry, however—sadly, after all, as what an incredible book of poems it would be, simply describing the skies of other worlds—than a scientific introduction to atmospheric chemistry, including here on Earth. But don't hold that against it.

For instance, during Pont's survey of the atmosphere of the early Earth, he makes an interesting and particularly evocative observation, one worth repeating here.

As he points out, the early Earth—for a period that lasted nearly a billion years—was quite boring, geologically speaking, "because nothing much happened to the rocks in a billion years." But the skies were another matter.

[Image: A false-color image of the "hurricane" at Saturn's south pole, via NASA; the eye is estimated to be 1,250 miles wide].

"The oxygen content in the atmosphere was stable," Pont explains, "at around 0.1 percent. This was not enough to produce an ozone layer. Therefore the stratospheric lid that kept the clouds below ten miles in the present Earth did not operate."

This had at least one spectacular side-effect:
Convection must have extended much higher into the atmosphere. This would have been called "the Great Age of Clouds" by any visitor, since the high temperatures, large oceans and lack of stratospheric lid would have produced the most magnificent cloud formations and the most awesome storms.
Imagine standing on the shore of some rocky archipelago billions of years before any other humans were born, as massive and otherworldly storms four or five times taller than anything you'd ever seen come rolling over the horizon, torqued into strange tropical towers, flashing in every crevice with lightning to reveal vast humid interiors where air roars upward in near-permanent mushroom clouds, breaking open to reveal shells of orange and red storms within storms boiling continuously for weeks at a time. The Great Age of Clouds would be in full performance.

Pont's book is also available through SpringerLink if you have academic access.

Minecraft

[Image: Der Bergbau, courtesy of the British Museum; view larger].

Der Bergbau is a beautiful 19th-century German board game set in a mine, currently in the collection of the British Museum. They describe it as a "game-board showing a cross-section of a mine and the network of tunnels leading down from 6 buildings, along the tunnels, various numbers which represent ore."

The rules are not given, unfortunately, but the board itself is a gorgeous image in its own right, worth viewing in full.

(Originally spotted via @SubBrit).

The Fall

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

At the end of 2013, photographer David Maisel was commissioned to photograph the city of Toledo, Spain, as part of a group exhibition called ToledoContemporánea, timed for a wider celebration of the 400th birthday of the painter El Greco.

Maisel's photos offered a kind of aerial portraiture of the city, including its labyrinthine knots of rooftops. But the core of the project consists of disorientingly off-kilter, almost axonometric shots of the city's historic architecture.

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

On wider flights beyond the edge of the city, modern swirls of highways are seen coiling through the landscape, like snakes preparing for arrival; in a sense, their geometry mimics—or perhaps mocks—the bewildering whorls of tiny streets and passages seen in the city's core.

[Image: David Maisel, from ToledoContemporánea].

While he was in the country, however, Maisel took advantage of some extra time and access to a helicopter to explore the landscape between Toledo and Madrid, a short stretch of infrastructural connections, agricultural hinterlands, abandoned suburban developments, and arid hills.

The result was a new series of photos called The Fall.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

As Maisel writes, The Fall suggests a genre in which "the worlds of painting and photography have merged together," creating an ironically abstract form of landscape documentation.

This is most evident in the photos from an area called Vicalvaro on the outskirts of Madrid. As Maisel explains, this is "where construction was halted after the economic collapse of 2008. The abandoned zones appear like the surreal aftermath of a bombed out city or an alien landing field."

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

But, as seen in Maisel's photos, they could also just as easily be extreme close-ups of minimalist oil paintings, nearly microscopic zooms into the texture of another method of representation to reveal a different kind of landscape there, one created by pigments and dyes.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

This is an interrupted landscape, a geography elaborately and expensively prepared for something that has yet to arrive.

However, the dead abstractions of Vicalvaro were only one part of the "three different areas of the Spanish landscape" that Maisel says he set out to see.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

Another landscape type—true to form, considering Maisel's pre-existing focus on landscapes of industrial use—are borax extraction sites.

These are "strange, ashen landscapes," he writes, seen "in a mining and agricultural region of La Mancha. The soil is laden with the mineral borax, which gives a surreal, ashen quality; the landscape shines, almost like a grey sea in a desert."

They're like windowpanes—or mercury lakes—reflecting the afternoon light.

[Image: David Maisel, from The Fall].

The surface of the earth becomes weirdly metallic in these shots, just a thin surface scraped away to reveal something seemingly utterly unnatural beneath, as if some divine force has begun etching the earth, scratching and engraving incomprehensible shapes into the planet.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

In many cases, amidst these grooved and metallized landscapes, gridded blooms of plant life have been introduced both to visually interrupt and physically contain the landscape.

Among other things, their roots help to secure disturbed dirt and soil from blowing away in heavy winds—but they also act to recuperate the terrain aesthetically, as if seeing these robotic fields the color of gunmetal was so philosophically unsettling for local residents that plants had to be brought in to make things seem earthly once again.

What we're seeing is thus not really arboriculture, but a kind of existential stagecraft, a rigorously constructed landscape whose ironic purpose is to shield us from the true artificiality of our surroundings.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

In fact, these bring us around nicely to the third landscape type Maisel says he was exploring with these photographs, joining the abandoned developments and borax sites that we've already seen, above.

This is Fuensalida, or a region of "croplands in the La Mancha region" that have been "gridded, crosshatched, and abstracted."

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

Like the exquisite tree farms documented by Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter, these rob viewers of any real sense of scale.

What are, in fact, trees appear instead to be small tufts of fabric pushing up through a needlepointing mesh. It could be a carpet interrupted mid-weave, or it could be some worn patch of clothing rubbed raw to reveal the underlying pattern for all to see.

[Images: David Maisel, from The Fall].

But it's just landscape: the earth reformatted again, made artifactual and strange, carefully touched up for human culture.

This is just a selection of images, however; click through to Maisel's website to see the full series.

(All images by David Maisel, used with permission. If you like the look of Maisel's work, considering picking up a copy of The BLDGBLOG Book to read an interview with the photographer).