The Los Angeles County Department of Ambient Music vs. The Superfires of Tomorrow

You might have seen the news last month that two students from George Mason University developed a way to put out fires using sound.

"It happens so quickly you almost don’t believe it," the Washington Post reported at the time. "Seth Robertson and Viet Tran ignite a fire, snap on their low-rumbling bass frequency generator and extinguish the flames in seconds."

Indeed, it seems to work so well that "they think the concept could replace the toxic and messy chemicals involved in fire extinguishers."



There are about a million interesting things here, but I was totally captivated by two things, in particular.

At one point in the video, co-inventor Viet Tran suggests that the device could be used in "swarm robotics" where it would be "attached to a drone" and then used to put out fires, whether wildfires or large buildings such as the recent skyscraper fire in Dubai. But consider how this is accomplished; from the Washington Post:
The basic concept, Tran said, is that sound waves are also “pressure waves, and they displace some of the oxygen” as they travel through the air. Oxygen, we all recall from high school chemistry, fuels fire. At a certain frequency, the sound waves “separate the oxygen [in the fire] from the fuel. The pressure wave is going back and forth, and that agitates where the air is. That specific space is enough to keep the fire from reigniting.”
While I'm aware that it's a little strange this would be the first thing to cross my mind, surely this same effect could be weaponized, used to thin the air of oxygen and cause targeted asphyxiation wherever these robot swarms are sent next. After all, even something as simple as an over-loud bass line in your car can physically collapse your lungs: "One man was driving when he experienced a pneumothorax, characterised by breathlessness and chest pain," the BBC reported back in 2004. "Doctors linked it to a 1,000 watt 'bass box' fitted to his car to boost the power of his stereo."

In other words, motivated by a large enough defense budget—or simply by unadulterated misanthropy—you could thus suffocate whole cities with a oxygen-thinning swarm of robot sound systems in the sky. Those "Ride of the Valkyries"-blaring speakers mounted on Robert Duvall's helicopter in Apocalypse Now might be playing something far more sinister over the battlefields of tomorrow.

However, the other, more ethically acceptable point of interest here is the possible landscape effect such an invention might have—that is, the possibility that this could be scaled-up to fight forest fires. There are a lot of problems with this, of course, including the fact that, even if you deplete a fire of oxygen, if the temperature remains high, it will simply flicker back to life and keep burning.

[Image: The Grateful Dead "wall of sound," via audioheritage.org].

Nonetheless, there is something awesomely compelling in the idea that a wildfire burning in the woods somewhere in the mountains of Arizona might be put out by a wall of speakers playing ultra-low bass lines, rolling specially designed patterns of sound across the landscape, so quiet you almost can't hear it.

A hum rumbles across the roots and branches of burning trees; there is a moment of violent trembling, as if an unseen burst of wind has blown through; and then the flames go out, leaving nothing but tendrils of smoke and this strange acoustic presence buzzing further into the fires up ahead.

Instead of emergency amphibious aircraft dropping lake water on remote conflagrations, we'd have mobile concerts of abstract sound—the world's largest ambient raves—broadcast through National Parks and on the edges of desert cities.

Desperate, Los Angeles County hires a Department of Ambient Music to save the city from a wave of drought-augmented superfires; equipped with keyboards and effects pedals, wearing trucker hats and plaid, these heroes of the drone wander forth to face the inferno, extinguishing flames with lush carpets of anoxic sound.

To Reach Mars, Head North

[Image: An early design image of Fermont, featuring the "weather-controlling super-wall," via the Norbert Schonauer archive at McGill University].

I've got a new column up at New Scientist about the possibility that privately run extraction outposts in the Canadian north might be useful prototypes—even political testing-grounds—for future offworld settlements.

"In a sense," I write, "we are already experimenting with off-world colonization—only we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north."

For example, when Elon Musk explained to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine last year that cities on Mars are "the next step" for human civilization—indeed, that we all "need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization"—he was not calling for a second Paris or a new Manhattan on the frigid, windswept plains of the Red Planet.

Rather, humans are far more likely to build variations of the pop-up, investor-funded, privately policed, weather-altering instant cities of the Canadian north.

The post references the work of Montréal-based architectural historian Alessandra Ponte, who spoke at a conference on Arctic futures held in Tromsø, Norway, back in January; there, Ponte explained that she had recently taken a busload of students on a long road trip north to visit a mix of functioning and abandoned mining towns, including the erased streets of Gagnon and the thriving company town of Fermont.

Fermont is particularly fascinating, as it includes what I describe over at New Scientist as a "weather-controlling super-wall," a 1.3km-long residential mega-complex specifically built to alter local wind patterns.

Could outposts like these serve as examples—or perhaps cautionary tales—for what humans will build on other worlds?
Modular buildings that can be erased without trace; obscure financial structures based in venture capital, not taxation; climate-controlling megastructures: these pop-up settlements, delivered by private corporations in extreme landscapes, are the cities Elon Musk has been describing.
Go check out the article in full, if it sounds of interest; and consider picking up a copy of Alessandra Ponte's new book, The House of Light and Entropy, while you're at it, a fascinating study of landscape, photography, mapping, geographic emptiness, the American West, and the "North" as a newly empowered geopolitical terrain.

Finally, don't miss this interesting paper by McGill's Adrian Sheppard (saved here as a PDF) about the design and construction of Fermont, or this CBC audio documentary about life in the remote mining town.

White House, Redux

[Image: Via Wikimedia].

The U.S. Secret Service might construct a back-up White House—or, more accurately, a "fake White House to help protect the real one," the New York Times reports.

It would be an $8 million "detailed replica" of the presidential residence constructed 20 miles from the existing White House. Secret Service agents could then train in a more accurate environment; at the moment, according to Secret Service director Joseph P. Clancy, "train on a parking lot, basically... We put up a makeshift fence and walk off the distance between the fence at the White House and the actual house itself. We don’t have the bushes, we don’t have the fountains, we don’t get a realistic look at the White House."

This White House redux, so to speak, would join a long list of other proprietary microcosms, or military and security-themed surrogate landscapes used for training purposes—but it also raises the question of where other, unofficial bootleg White Houses might already exist, sitting quietly inside vast Russian warehouses, for example, or inside camouflaged aircraft hangars in the outer regions of China's own military-industrial complex.

Read more at the New York Times or NPR.

It Came From Below


Formless and ancient things from the depths of our planet move beneath Los Angeles, unexpectedly setting fire to sidewalks and burning whole businesses to the ground. Welcome to urban life atop a still-active oil field.

This post was originally published on The Daily Beast.

Sliding around beneath the surface of Los Angeles is something dark, primordial, and without clear form. It seeps up into the city from below through even the smallest cracks and drains. Infernal, it can cause fires and explosions; toxic, it can debilitate, poison, and kill.

Near downtown Los Angeles, at 14th Place and Hill Street, a small extraction firm called the St. James Oil Corporation runs an active oil well. In 2006, the firm presided over a routine steam-injection procedure known as “well stimulation.” The purpose was simple: a careful and sustained application of steam would heat up, liquefy, and thus make available for easier harvesting some of the thick petroleum deposits, or heavy oil, beneath the neighborhood.

But things didn’t quite go as planned. As explained by the Center for Land Use Interpretation—a local non-profit group dedicated to documenting and analyzing land usage throughout the United States—“the subterranean pressure forced oily ooze and smells out of the ground,” causing a nauseating “goo” to bubble over “into storm drains, streets, and basements” as far as two blocks away.

The sudden appearance of this black tide beneath the neighborhood even destabilized the nearby road surface, leading to its emergency closure, and 130 people had to be evacuated. It took weeks to pump these toxic petroleum byproducts out of the basements and to resurface the street; the firm itself was later sued by the city.

While this was an industrial accident, hydrocarbons are, in fact, almost constantly breaking through the surface of Los Angeles, both in liquid and gaseous form. These are commonly known as seeps, and the most famous example is also an international tourist attraction: the La Brea Tar Pits, with its family-friendly museum on Wilshire Boulevard.

The “tar” here is actually liquid asphalt or pitch, and it is one of many reasons why humans settled the region in the first place. Useful both for waterproofing and for its flammability, this sticky substance has been exploited by humans in the region for literally thousands of years—and it has also given L.A. some of its most impressive paleontological finds.

[Image: Tar pushes up through cracks in the sidewalk on Wilshire Boulevard, near the La Brea Tar Pits; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In other words, precisely because they are so dangerous, the tar pits are a veritable archive of extinct species; these include mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, and dire wolves, examples of which have been found fatally mired in the black mess seeping up from the deep. Groups of these now long-dead creatures once wandered across an otherworldly landscape of earthquakes and extinct volcanoes, an active terrain pockmarked with eerie bubbling cauldrons of flammable liquid asphalt.

What’s so interesting about contemporary life in Southern California is that this surreal, prehistoric landscape never really went anywhere: it’s simply been relegated to the background, invisibly buried beneath strip malls, car dealerships, and sushi restaurants. Every natural tar seep and artificial oil well here can be seen as an encounter with this older, stranger world trying to break back through into our present experience.

What humans choose to do with this primordial stuff leaking through the cracks can often be almost comical. Architect Ben Loescher, who has given tours of the region’s oil infrastructure for the Center for Land Use Interpretation, points out that many buildings near Lafayette Park must contend with a constant upwelling of asphalt. He sent me a photograph showing a line of orange utility buckets arranged as an ingenious but absurd stopgap measure against the endless and unstoppable goo.

[Image: A makeshift system for capturing the near-constant tar and liquid asphalt leaking up from below a building near Lafayette Park; photo by Ben Loescher].

Nearby, Loescher added, parking lots are a great place to see the onslaught. Many are constantly but slowly flooding with tar and asphalt, to the point that one lot—run by a karaoke club—is struck so badly that the tar is actually visible on Google Maps. “That parking lot is riddled with seeps, as well. When it gets hot, the parking lot sort of re-asphalts itself,” Loescher explains, “and they have to put down tarps on top of it so the cars don’t get stuck.” A much larger gravel lot across the street also exhibits multiple sites of seepage, as if pixelating from below with black matter.

Loescher emphasized that these sites are by no means limited to the La Brea Tar Pits. They can be found throughout the Los Angeles basin, beneath sidewalks, yard, parking lots, and even in people’s basements. To exaggerate for dramatic effect, it’s as if the premise of The Blob was at least partially inspired by a true story—one that has been taking place for hundreds of thousands of years throughout Southern California, and that involves, instead of a visitor from space, something ancient and pre-human forcing its way up from below.

[Image: Liquid asphalt leaking upward into the parking lot of a Los Angeles karaoke club; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In a short book called Making Time: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles, writer William L. Fox explores the remnant gas leaks and oil seeps of the city. At times, it reads as if he is describing the backdrop of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Such is the strange and permanent apocalypse of 21st-century L.A.

Fox writes, for example, that “a methane vent opened up in the middle of Fairfax Street” back in 1985, and that it “burned uncontrollably for days before it could be put out.” At night, it was a world lit by flames. Astonishingly, he adds, in 1962 “a Hawthorne woman had a fire under her house—a house with no basement. She located the source of the problem when she went outside and touched a match to a crack in the sidewalk: A flame ran down to it.”

This city where sidewalks burn and sewers fill with oily ooze is a city built here almost specifically for that very reason; Los Angeles, in many ways, is a settlement founded on petroleum byproducts, and the oil industry for which the city was once known never actually left. It just got better at hiding itself.

It is already well known that there are oilrigs disguised in plain sight all over the city. The odd-looking tower behind Beverly Hills High School, for example, is actually a camouflaged oilrig; an active oil field runs beneath the classrooms and athletic fields. Even stranger, the enormous synagogue at Pico and Doheny is not a synagogue at all, but a movable drilling tower designed to look like a house of worship, as if bizarre ceremonies for conjuring a literal black mass out of the bowels of the Earth take place here, hidden from view. If you zoom in on Google Maps, you can just make out the jumbles of industrial machinery tucked away inside.

However, amidst all of this still-functional oil infrastructure, there are ruins: abandoned wells, capped drill sites, and derelict pumping stations that have effectively been erased from public awareness. These, too, play a role in the city’s subterranean fires and its poisonous breakouts of black ooze.

As Fox explains in Making Time, a labyrinth of aging pipelines and forgotten wells crisscrosses the city. He explains that the Salt Lake Oil Field—which underlies the La Brea Tar Pits, sprawls below an outdoor shopping center known as The Grove, and continues deep into the surrounding neighborhoods—once contained as many as 1,500 operative oil wells. However, most of these “have long since been abandoned and are virtually invisible,” he writes, and, alarmingly, “roughly 300 are unaccounted for.”

These “unaccounted for” oil wells are out of sight and out of mind—but it should not be assumed that they are safely or permanently capped. Indeed, the Salt Lake Oil Field actually “appears to be repressurizing with oil and water,” like an underground blister come back to life, Fox writes. This only raises the stakes of “a hazard already complicated by the lack of knowledge about the exact location of all the wells on the property.” Only 10 years ago, for example, “an orphaned well in Huntington Beach blew out in a gusher forty feet high, spraying oil and methane over one-half square mile, a hazardous-waste problem that will become more common.”

[Image: The Baldwin Hills old field; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Due to its centrality, the Salt Lake field plays an outsized role in terms of strange petroleum events in the city. The Salt Lake was behind the multiday methane fire in the middle of Fairfax Avenue, for example, and behind arguably the most well known and certainly most destructive reminder of the city’s subterranean presence.

In 1989, in a busy strip mall at Fairfax and 3rd Street, a Ross Dress for Less began to fill with methane gas leaking up from a large pocket connected to the oil field below. Somehow, it had broken through the natural clay boundary that should have held it in place, and the methane thus easily seeped up into the storage rooms, closets, and retail galleries of the discount clothing giant.

Before long, the methane ignited and the entire store blew up.

[Image: Screen grab from YouTube].

This was by no means an insubstantial explosion—you should watch the aftermath on YouTube—as the entire façade of the building was blown to pieces, the roof collapsed, and dozens of people were disfigured by the detonation.

The resulting fires burned for hours. Small fires roared out of nearby sewer grates, and red and orange flames flickered out of even the tiniest cracks in the sidewalk, like some weird vision of Hell burning through the discount blouses and cheap drywall of this obliterated shopping center.

[Image: Flames burn through cracks in the sidewalk; screen grab from YouTube].

While reporting the tragedy, a local newscaster worryingly informed his viewers that it was simply “too early to tell where or when [the methane] might surface again”—in other words, that there could very well be further explosions. This paranoia—that there is something down there, some inhuman Leviathan stirring beneath the city, and that no one really knows when and where it will strike next—continues to this day.

Even at the time of the explosion, the possibility that city workers might inadvertently drill into a methane pocket beneath the neighborhood became one of the chief reasons for blocking the construction of a new subway line in the area. This same fear has recently resurfaced as the number one excuse for blocking a proposed subway through Beverly Hills.

Back in 2012, local parents released a video urging the city to stop the expansion of subterranean public transit through their neighborhood, concerned that it would cause Beverly Hills High School to explode. (The fact that stopping the subway would also keep certain economic undesirables out of their streets and shopping districts was just a fringe benefit.)

In any case, the narrative resonance of all this is impossible to deny. Formless and ancient things from the depths of our planet move beneath the city, unexpectedly setting fire to sidewalks and burning whole businesses to the ground. Taken out of context, this could be the plot of a new horror film—but it’s just urban life atop a still-active oil field.

As Matthew Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, explained it to me, the city “is really just a giant scab of petroleum-fueled activities,” an impermanently sealed cap atop this buried monstrosity.

It is worth considering, then, next time you step over a patch of tar on the sidewalk, that the black gloom still bubbling up into people’s yards and basements, still re-asphalting empty gravel parking lots, is actually an encounter with something undeniably old and elementally powerful.

In this sense, Los Angeles is more than just a city; it is a kind of interface between a petrochemical lifestyle of cars and freeways and the dark force that literally fuels it, a subterranean presence that predates us all by millions of years and that continues to wander freely beneath L.A.’s tangled streets and buildings.

(Note: This piece was originally published on The Daily Beast. I have also written about the La Brea Tar Pits and William L. Fox's book in Landscape Futures. Opening image: a close-up of Hell, from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

Intermediary Geologies

[Image: From "H / AlCuTaAu" by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen].

For a project called "H / AlCuTaAu"—named after the chemical elements that comprise its final form—artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen created what they call "an artificial mineral mined from technological artefacts."

[Image: From "H / AlCuTaAu" by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen].

As they explain in the accompanying, very brief artists' statement, "Precious metals and stones were mined out of technological objects and transformed back into mineral form. The artificial ore was constructed out of gold (Au), copper (Cu), tantalum (Ta), aluminium (Al) and whetstone; all taken from tools, machinery and computers that were sourced from a recently bankrupt factory."

Of course, our devices have been geology all along—refined aggregates of the Earth's surface repurposed as commercial properties and given newfound electrical life—but it's incredibly interesting to reverse-engineer from our phones, circuitboards, and hard drives entirely new mineral compounds.

[Image: From "H / AlCuTaAu" by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen].

The project also—albeit in the guise of speculative art—very much implies the future of metal recycling, where our future "mines" are as likely to look like huge piles of discarded electronics as they are to be vast holes in the Earth.

In the same way that some of you might have tumbled rocks on your childhood desks for weeks at a time to scrape, abrade, and polish them down to a sparkling sheen, perhaps the mineworks of tomorrow will be benchtop recycling units extracting rare earth metals from obsolete consumer goods.

Armed with drills and ovens, we'll just cook our own devices down to a primordial goo that can be selectively reshaped into objects.

[Images: From "H / AlCuTaAu" by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen].

You might recall the discovery of so-called "plastiglomerates." As Science reported last summer, a "new type of rock cobbled together from plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, and corals has begun forming on the shores of Hawaii." Part plastic, part rock, plastiglomerates are the new geology.

Put another way, this is terrestrial science in the age of the Anthropocene, discovering that even the rocks around us are, in a sense, artificial by-products of our own activities, industrial materials fossilized in an elaborate planetary masquerade that now passes for "nature."

[Image: A "plastiglomerate"—part plastic, part geology—photographed by Patricia Corcoran, via Science].

Here, however, in Cohen's and Van Balen's work, these new, artistically fabricated conglomerates are more like alchemical distillations of everyday products: phones, radios, and computers speculatively cooked, simmered, bathed, acid-etched, and reworked into an emergent geology.

[Image: From "H / AlCuTaAu" by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen].

It is a geology hidden all along in the objects we use, communicate with, and sell, a reduced mineralogy of electronics and machines that will someday form a new layer of the Earth.

(Via The New Aesthetic).

Ghosts of Home Geography

Noted scam artist and "Facebook fugitive" Paul Ceglia, hoping to escape from a recently imposed state of house-arrest, "sliced off his GPS ankle monitor and affixed it to a crudely built contraption in his rural New York residence," Ars Technica reports.

The GPS sensor's subsequent movements were then meant to maintain the illusion that he was still at home.

[Image: The GPS contraption; photo via Ars Technica].

According to the U.S. Marshals, "While conducting a security sweep of the home, the Task Force Officers observed, among other things, a hand-made contraption connected to the ceiling, from which Ceglia’s GPS bracelet was hanging. The purpose of the contraption appeared to be to keep the bracelet in motion using a stick connected to a motor that would rotate or swing the bracelet."

The "contraption" appears to have been almost laughably basic, but it's not hard to imagine something more ambitious, complete with tracks wandering from room to room to make it appear that someone is truly inside the residence.

In fact, the idea of faking your own location through attaching your GPS anklet to a Roomba, for example, and letting it wander around the house all day is perversely brilliant, like something from a 21st-century Alfred Hitchcock film. Of course, it wouldn't take very long to deduce from the algorithmically perfect straight lines and zig-zag edge geometry of your Roomba's movements that it is not, in fact, a real person walking around in there—or perhaps it would just look like you've taken up some bizarre new form of home exercise.

But a much more believable algorithm for faking the movements of a real, living resident could be part of some dark-market firmware update—new algorithms for the becoming-criminal of everyday machines.

[Image: Roomba-based LED art, via artselectronic].

A whole new class of products could be devised: part burglar deterrent, part anti-police-tracking device, they would meander and bump their way through a home's interior, creating the geographic illusion that someone is moving around in there, passing room to room at certain moments.

It would be a GPS surrogate or implied resident, a locational ghost built from satellite signals and semi-autonomous robotic machines.

American Mine

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 2, 2007)" by David Maisel].

[Note: The following essay was previously published under the title "Infinite Exchange" in Black Maps by David Maisel (Steidl), as well as in Cabinet Magazine #50].


1.
In a 2011 paper on the medical effects of scurvy, author Jason C. Anthony offers a remarkable detail about human bodies and the long-term presence of wounds.

“Without vitamin C,” Anthony writes, “we cannot produce collagen, an essential component of bones, cartilage, tendons and other connective tissues. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is replaced continually throughout our lives. Thus in advanced scurvy”—reached when the body has gone too long without vitamin C—“old wounds long thought healed will magically, painfully reappear.”

In a sense, there is no such thing as healing. From paper cuts to surgical scars, our bodies are catalogues of wounds: imperfectly locked doors quietly waiting, sooner or later, to spring back open.

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 5, 2007)" by David Maisel].


2.
The Carlin Trend was discovered in north-central Nevada, near the town of Elko, in 1962. Some fifty years later, at this time of writing, it remains one of the world’s largest actively mined deposits of gold ore. In fact, the region has become something of a category-maker in the gold industry today, which describes analogous landscapes and ore bodies as “Carlin-type” deposits. The Carlin Trend is a standard, in other words: a referent against which others are both literally and rhetorically measured.

The trend’s discovery and subsequent exploitation—and the extraordinary negative landforms that have resulted from its exhumation—has been a story of nineteenth-century U.S. mining laws, legally dubious provisions governing public land, extraction industry multinationals, advanced geological modeling software, specialty equipment few people can name let alone operate, and genetically modified bacteria mixed into vats of gold-harvesting slurry.

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 1, 2007)" by David Maisel].

Writing in 1989, John Seabrook of The New Yorker pointed out that, in the previous eight years alone, more gold had been mined from the Carlin Trend “than came out of any of the bonanzas that feature so prominently in our national mythology, including the California bonanza of 1849.” That’s because gold in the region is all but ubiquitous, peppered and snaked throughout Nevada:
There is gold in the Battle Mountain Formation, the range that runs southeast of town; gold in the alluvium to the west; gold in the Black Rock Desert to the northwest; gold in the Sheep Creek Range and in the Tuscarora Mountains to the northeast. The Tuscaroras are especially rich. Along the Carlin Trend, a forty-mile stretch of this range, are twelve deposits. Some people believe that a much richer swatch of ore, a deposit to rival South Africa’s Gold Reef, runs unbroken under the Carlin Trend, perhaps three thousand feet down—more than three times as deep as the deepest mines there now go.
“Some people believe”: more is hidden in the apparent neutrality of Seabrook’s phrase than we might at first suspect. Mining for gold—the actual, violent excision of waste rock from the earth, searching for ore—is never a question of finding a perfect, shiny lump of solid metal and carefully, surgically removing it from the planet. Gold is diffuse. It is now more often mined as particles, not blocks or even nuggets. Like glitter, it is scattered throughout the rocks around it.

In fact, the presence of gold, in many cases, can only be inferred. The angle at which local rock strata dip back into the planet, the direction water flows through the landscape, or the complex of other minerals and crystals locked in the rocks underground: these all, to varying degrees, act as telltale signatures for the famously coy king of metals.

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 18, 2007)" by David Maisel].

Looking for these signatures entails a peculiar mix of local folklore and verified science, and the hunt—sometimes life-consuming, sometimes maddening—for signs is exhaustively documented by what Seabrook calls “prospecting paraphernalia: geological reports, assay figures, maps, contracts, aerial photographs, electromagnetic surveys, gravitometer readings, lawsuits, letters from people who think they have gold on their property, letters from people who know people who have gold on their property.”

Gold is less discovered, we might say, than interpreted.

The Carlin Trend has thus served as a test site, now in its fifty-first year, for various interpretive techniques, both scientific and superstitious. Specialty journals refer to the region’s “geochemical patterns”—only fragments of which are available to them to analyze for “the characteristics, signatures, and genesis of Nevada’s world-class gold systems”—the idea being that these might be found again elsewhere and thus be more instantly recognizable. Geologists track concentrations, contours, “metal zones,” and mineralized fractures; they build models of “stacked geochemical anomalies” in the earth below, hoping to piece together an accurate model of the gold ore’s location.

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 8, 2007)" by David Maisel].

Where the gold came from in the first place is yet another interpretive preoccupation. A paper—forthrightly titled “Is the Ancestral Yellowstone Hotspot Responsible for the Tertiary ‘Carlin’ Mineralization in the Great Basin of Nevada?”—suggests that the gold of the Carlin Trend is actually a thermal after-effect, or geochemical ghost, of the still-nomadic Yellowstone hotspot that once pulsed and geysered beneath Nevada.

The language used to describe these deposits is often extraordinary. We read, for instance, that discontinuous ore bodies apparently produced at different “stages of mineralization” in the earth’s history might, in fact, be “part of a single event that evolved chemically through time.” That is, one state-sized geological event—with titanic embryos merging and splitting inside the earth—delicately infused into the landscape from below as slow pulses of mineral-rich magmatic fluid freeze into spidery veins of precious metal. Or we read about “anomaly-related mineral assemblages,” millions of years’ worth of “mineralizing events,” and “geochemical halos in this part of the Carlin Trend.” Industrial descriptions of the earth’s interior lend an unexpected poetry to the act of mining.

Another way of saying all this is that mind-bogglingly large terrestrial events, occurring invisibly below ground in rock formations we can only measure indirectly—scanning the earth for hidden signatures—produce ore bodies, the excavation, dismemberment, and eventual global distribution of which shapes human economic history in turn.

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 10, 2007)" by David Maisel].

In any case, the form of a gold deposit itself must be mapped and clarified before excavation can begin. The shape of the ensuing pit is not the result of frantic, directionless digging, but of a carefully controlled design process. The word “design” is used deliberately here, even if the shape of the pit is orchestrated not by aesthetics but by the needs of financial rationality. Using proprietary graphics software—similar in function to visual effects programs used in film, gaming, and architecture—the ore body is predictively 3D-modeled.

Mining, at this point, becomes less an act of extraction than of physical verification: machines and their profit-minded operators pursue the outlines of a virtual form by gradually expanding the mine’s target zones, in effect checking to see if the geologists’ models were right.

As architect Liam Young suggested in a recent interview, conducted after he returned from leading a group of design students on a research trip to the gold mines of Western Australia,
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.
In essence, Young suggests, mining engineers produce and explore speculative models of gold distribution in the rocks below ground. Using surprisingly low-res data taken from seismic tests and weighing that data against equipment availability, labor costs, and, most importantly, the internationally recognized price of gold, the extraordinary ballet of machines can begin.

This then becomes predictive on a much larger scale, as well. By constantly refining their models of how exactly gold forms in the first place, and where and how it can be mined most effectively, geologists can understand where—and, to some extent, predict when—future ore bodies might accumulate. Interestingly, these future deposits will appear on a timescale that far exceeds human civilization—so, while human miners most likely won’t be around to exploit them, it’s nonetheless intriguing to know that serpent-like veins of precious metal are incubating in the darkness beneath us.

[Images: (top) "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 12, 2007)"; (bottom) "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 13, 2007)," by David Maisel].

Here we return to Seabrook, who warns that “there is a good deal of poetry in these figures,” of ounces mined and subterranean veins discovered. “They are based on statistical models, a kind of three-dimensional game of connect the dots played by a computer.”

These are then treated explicitly and formally as works of art: Seabrook points out “a computer-generated three-dimensional picture of the ore body, dry-mounted and framed,” hanging on a geologist’s office wall. Call it the new Subterranean Romantic:
Mining people have a habit of stretching the metaphor when they talk about their ore bodies. They say how beautiful, how satisfying, how tantalizing their ore body is, they make hourglass shapes with their hands, knead with their fingers, smooth with their palms as they talk.
These gorgeous bodies, removed from the earth, leave scars: precisely designed but roughly implemented holes—exit wounds of temporally contingent value—clearly and deliriously visible from above.

[Images: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 12, 2007)" by David Maisel].


3.
The very idea that gold has value is a funny thing. Aside from a few basic industrial uses, gold’s value is almost entirely ornamental—that is, it is agreed upon by financial traders and metals futures markets, even if no actual gold changes hands. Gold comes out of one, very carefully designed hole in the ground—whether in Nevada, South Africa, or Western Australia—only, most likely, to be interred again in another part of the world in a bank vault or federal reserve, where it is precisely gold’s removal from direct exchange that augments its value and its mystery.

Mystery is not used lightly. In his odd but insightful study of the various symbolic entanglements between gold, cocaine, violence, and colonial labor in South America, anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, with suitably mythic overtones: “How perfect is gold, the great shape-changer, the liquid metal, the formless form.”

This “formless form,” however, undergoes a strange—we might say alchemical—transformation, from shining metal to the rarefied super-object known as money. In a long description based on a memoir by Captain Amasa Delano, Taussig recounts the nineteenth-century process of minting coins from gold bullion:
The gold ore was wetted and kneaded by blacks treading on it with their feet on a paved brick surface after which they put mercury on it so as to separate out the gold. Then the metal was heated, becoming red as blood. To get the liquid metal to run from its crucible, the spout was touched with a stick with a piece of cloth around it. When this stick made contact, there was a flash and the metal began to run in a stream not much thicker than a pipe stem. The bars of gold formed were subsequently squeezed flat by rollers until the thickness of a dollar or doubloon, by which time the bars had become sheets four feet long. A powerful press cut coins out from these thin sheets like a cookie cutter, and the pieces were turned to receive a milled edge. Then came the weighing.
For Taussig, this process reveals the machinations “both mysterious and everyday” by which a mineral becomes money—that is, how “gold and silver coins become enchanted, material things, aglow with a power emanating from deep within.” This base matter has been transformed, given exchange-value through formal regularity and sent off to participate in a global system of monetary transactions.

Gold coins are thus but one of the “minutiae in which the supernatural is secularized”: a haunted mineral is pulled from the earth and given an uncanny second life elsewhere.

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 22, 2007)" by David Maisel].

The spectral mathematics that can turn reserves of gold into abstract instruments of monetary exchange—into financial products and debt instruments, derivatives and funds—operates through a barely comprehensible carnival of surrogates flashing back and forth through the global marketplace. Until the end of the Bretton Woods system in August 1971, when the US dollar was unilaterally decoupled from the international gold standard, gold served as a reliable, universally recognized equivalent for economic exchange.

Gold, in the words of Jean-Joseph Goux, himself citing Marx, had value precisely because it could so effectively disappear into the “circulation of substitutes.” This is a logic of exchange by which Object A can be traded for Object B, as long as we agree that Object B also refers, off-stage, to something else entirely: some standard or reserve for which it acts as a practical surrogate.

Before 1971, that off-stage presence—that silent original, sleeping in a state of eternal reservation—was gold.

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 20, 2007)" by David Maisel].

To say, then, that there is an “economy” is thus to use shorthand for what Goux describes as “a regulated process of equivalents and substitutions,” whereby stand-ins, equivalents, and acceptable replacements all interact in occulted reference to an absentee original. The natural hard matter of gold, artificially extracted from the earth, thus becomes caught up in a supernatural system of objects: coins, bills, and derivatives—future duplicates and doubles.

In this context, the ongoing attempts to return the United States to the gold standard—by, for instance, perennial Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul—can be seen as an almost folkloristic attempt to put the genie of infinite derivative exchange back in the bottle.

Sites like Nevada’s Carlin Trend thus serve as base points for this process, emitting endless phantasms in an economic fiction of equivalents—derivative products that refer to one another in a superstition of indirect exchange referred to as the economy—to such an extent that we might say these mines can never be refilled. Or, more accurately, they can only be overfilled, stuffed beyond capacity with the carnival of substitutes their hollowing-out has, however inadvertently, unleashed.

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 7, 2007)" by David Maisel].


4.
In 2007, David Maisel began work on a group of photographs called “American Mine,” part of a larger and older series known as “The Mining Project.” These images document, in extraordinary abstract swaths of color, the emergent geometries of mines along the Carlin Trend.

Scattered across Maisel’s images is a forensic survey of cuts and incisions—wounds that will outlive us, scars that won’t go away—older surgeries through which modernity has, in effect, been created. The mines of the Carlin Trend remain unhealed—in fact, year on year, they are growing—a raw scurvy of rocks exposed on a scale so monumental that geologists estimate mines, not cities, will be the final trace of humanity left visible in a hundred million years’ time.

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 17, 2007)" by David Maisel].

Vast terraced bowls step down—and down and, impossibly, further down—tracking dead faults and mineralization fronts on a scale only made clear when we notice 16-ton trucks like specks of dust on canyon walls. Discolored oceans of chemical runoff wash across vehicle tracks with acid tides. Retaining walls and stabilized slopes loom over assembled superscapes of mine detritus, abandoned shells of industrial insects dwarfed by the world they’ve helped create.

In these scenes, geotextile mats have all but replaced the earth’s surface, offering instead a deathless, replicant topography. Artificial hills, each uncannily and exactly like its neighbor, roll from one side of the frame to the other, shifting in tandem with commodities prices, their malleable geography thus forever resistant to mapping. The mines grow and metastasize as voids: storm fronts of negative space exploding with their own slow thunder into the planet.

[Image: "American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 14, 2007)" by David Maisel].

What is of particular interest in Maisel’s “American Mine” series is its revelation of the injuries at the start of the commodity chain: planetary wounds, seemingly beyond the breadth of nature, out of which commodities have been extracted for later exchange.

The production of economically recognizable objects can thus be seen as a kind of terrestrial focusing: out of the chaos of the mine site, with great lakes clouded by geochemical effluent and abstract landforms like ritual mounds from human prehistory, pristine products eventually emerge, assembled from these heavy elements torn so roughly from the ground. Out of the carcinogenic discord of rock dust, circuit boards appear.

In a sense, it is surprising that the computers, phones, batteries, television sets, and other mundane electronics that fill the markets of the world are so free of this fallout, so astringently cleansed of the geological evidence of their own creation. Or perhaps we might say that it is precisely this stripping-away of a product’s elemental birth that gives it its later value and utility. Such products are ironically de-terrestrialized: washed of the very planet from which they came.

• • • 

I owe a huge thank you to David Maisel and editor Alan Rapp for inviting me to participate in the Black Maps book, which is an absolutely gorgeous compendium of Maisel's work, as well as to Sina Najafi for his editorial feedback before this essay ran in Cabinet Magazine. You can see some photos of Black Maps over at the publisher's website.

For those of you in Los Angeles, meanwhile, Maisel has a new show opening this spring—on March 26th, 2015—at the Mark Moore Gallery. Check back at this link in the weeks to come for more information.

Finally, if you would like to read some previous posts here on BLDGBLOG about Maisel's work, don't miss "The Fall" or "Library of Dust," among many other short posts; and be sure to read the interview with David Maisel published in The BLDGBLOG Book.

Buy a Skyway

[Image: The skyway-to-nowhere while it still spanned the street; photo via the Star-Tribune].

Continuing our irregular look at oddities in real estate, you might be interested to know that you can now buy a skyway.

The 280,000-pound steel structure was originally designed by architect Ed Baker, a man apparently also known as "the father of the skyways," according to Greg.org, and as a "skyway visionary," as suggested by his 2006 obituary in The Journal.

The structure itself is still intact, although it no longer spans a street or sidewalk; rather, it sits empty in a nearby lot, devoid of both purpose and context, like an architectural prosthetic discarded, half-forgotten, by the city.

But it's no ordinary skyway.

[Image: The skyway sitting in its dusty lot; photo via the Star-Tribune].

“It is a piece of Minneapolis history,” architect Ben Awes of CityDeskStudio told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “To demolish it would be a significant waste of resources, the waste of an object that is both extremely practical and has tremendous creative potential.”

The back-story is complex:
The saga of the grounded skyway, which once ferried shoppers in climate-controlled comfort over S. 5th Street between the J.C. Penney and Powers stores in downtown Minneapolis, began more than a decade ago when the Powers store was demolished, leaving the abandoned skyway perilously projecting over 5th Street.

When work began on the 5th Street LRT line in 2002, the University of Minnesota bought the skyway to nowhere for $1. Plans to repurpose the elegant network of zigzagging steel tubes and trusses never materialized, and in 2006, CityDeskStudio bought it for $5,000 at a blind auction and wheeled it to a weed-strewn field near the U’s Twin Cities campus.
And it has sat there ever since.

When CityDeskStudio bought it, they initially envisioned transforming the structure, in one, architecturally coherent piece, into a modern lakeside cabin somewhere in the wilds of Minnesota. Until the economy got in the way.

[Image: The skyway as lakeside retreat; rendering by CityDeskStudio].

Technically speaking, the thing is not even for sale: in fact, CityDeskStudio will pay you to take it away from the site. But the moving costs, insurance, and whatever other associated site-preparation fees you might face before planting it in the woods somewhere could be quite considerable.

Any takers?

(Spotted via Greg.org. Previously on BLDGBLOG: Buy a Fort, Buy a Lighthouse, Buy an Underground Kingdom, Buy a Prison, Buy a Tube Station, Buy an Archipelago, Buy a Map, Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Silk Mill, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church).

The Conqueror Worm

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

A group of friends, their faces rigorously hidden from public view, find a huge borehole leading down into some tunnels beneath the city.

Not content to just lie there, straining to see more than 260 feet into the deep and merely wondering what might be down there, they do what any enterprising team of explorers would do.

They don mountaineering gear and descend into the pit.

[Images: Photos by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

It's like scaling Mt. Everest in reverse—"descending black ropes," in their words—swinging ever closer to the entrance to the tunnels, their headlamps and cameras at the ready.

Plus, some weird new myths have been circulating around town: that there's a monolithic machine down there, something massive and temporarily abandoned beneath the city. It is "the toughest of all the machines. A dormant juggernaut that lies underground."

They want to find it, to see if the rumors are true—and, who knows, to discover if the machine might still be operational. Imagine what you could do with a discarded tunneling machine seemingly forgotten in the deepest basement of the metropolis. Imagine if you could bring it back to life.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

Thus begins the next phase of their subterranean quest to find the so-called "Worm Maiden," this conquering machine-animal lying dormant in its lair somewhere under the streets.

"Hitting our helmets and our backpacks on almost everything we found on the way," they inched forward on foot.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

They soon drop their ropes and progress through a series of excavated tunnels and industrial caves, as if puzzling some new route into a pharaoh's tomb—an Egyptology of urban infrastructure with its own secret chambers and traps.

And, incredibly, they actually do it: they actually find the machine, realizing that the rumors were both true and strangely inaccurate.

That is, the machine is even larger and more extraordinary than they'd been led to believe. It is a sprawling and tentacular presence that blocks the tunnel with the dark bulk of its old valves and pipework, like some ancient engine that wanted to hide itself in a cocoon of its own making.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

"Walking through the sleeping beauty, through her corridors amongst rust and spiderwebs," we read, "she looked much bigger than we could have imagined. She didn’t seem to have an end. Eventually we reached a point where we couldn’t go any further, it was full of pipes and unknown mechanisms but the end was intuited."

The machine was so complex, in other words, that they couldn't find the other end of it, having to negotiate their way through all its internal doors and control panels.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

It could be the ultimate joyride—Grand Theft TBM—driving a stolen machine literally through the foundations of the city, carving your own maze through bedrock.

But a way forward was eventually found, and the Kubrickian monolith of this now-stationary drill head was revealed up ahead like some Mayan sculpture in the darkness. Abandoned for now and just lying there: a machine-ruin rusting away in the underground world it had made for itself. The conqueror worm.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

"It was much better than I had imagined," we read. The text is like an archaeological report made possible by climbing gear and GoPros. "A twelve meter diameter of pure love just in front of us, was bestial. I couldn’t stop staring at HER. I could see the strain on her, the hard work she had done. The dirt in every part of the face. Pure beauty. All the space around her was filled by a foot of dirty water. A mixture of sand, dirt, water and oil. This mantle of fluids that covered everything was perfect, the vapors fogged my camera lens but the effect was delightfully dramatic. Go and use a filter to look like this. I can see the new Instagram filter now... TBM vapors effect!"

But that's literally only half the journey. They've mountaineered into the planet, like reverse-Alpinists of the inferno—and they go so far as to discover an artificial lake beneath the city, a brackish reservoir that "shone under the light of our torches"—but now they have to get back out, which is not nearly as easy as it had seemed.

There are dozens of other photographs over at Trackrunners, and a much longer version of how everything happened that day; go check it out (and don't miss their other stories, such as the disused stations beneath Barcelona).

(Thanks to Charles Bronson for the tip!)

The Moving Mountain, or Terrain as Spectacle

[Image: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, via KCET].

Nathan Masters remains one of the more interesting chroniclers of life and landscape in Southern California, as evidenced by his "L.A. as Subject" blog for KCET. I could (and should) just link to all his posts, to be honest—lost hills! buried rivers! conflicting grids!—but last week's installment, albeit short, was particularly interesting.

"For a few days in late November 1937," Masters writes, "it was the Southland's greatest attraction—a landslide in slow motion, 1.5 million tons of an Elysian Park hillside creeping toward the Los Angeles River bed."
Sensational news reports, printed in papers and broadcast on radio nationwide, described it as a "moving mountain," and tourists came from afar to witness the geologic curiosity. One Oklahoma City police officer took a leave of absence to watch the slide. Two boys hopped freight trains from New York to see it. Some 10,000 sightseers came by the hour. Spectators pressed against police barricades along Riverside Drive, and enterprising vendors worked the throng like a baseball game, hawking peanuts, popcorn, and soda. Some even sold field glasses.
Even local astronomers showed up, telescopes in tow, in order to study the mobile mass, this blob of geology suddenly making a move into town.

After a catastrophic lurching of the slow-motion mountain, the terrain appeared to come to a standstill. "The next day, an estimated crowd of 500,000 converged on the site, munching on popcorn and hoping the mountain would move again."



This pent-up dramaturgy of the landscape—the possibility that its newfound agency would continue—crawling, oozing, rolling, forcing its way into public consciousness—remains strong today, even if subsumed into other contexts.

In other words, I'd suggest that many Angelenos are still, in a sense, "munching on popcorn and hoping the [landscape] would move again," and that this is the dark fascination of seismic instability, of what it means to live in an earthquake zone: that the land itself is active, motivated from within by a kind of a slow-motion sentience, a mineral energy that is as much an invigorating spectacle as it is an existential threat.

Read the rest of Masters's post over at "L.A. as Subject."

Low-Poly Tectonics

[Image: A "wooden textile" by Elisa Strozyk].

You've undoubtedly already seen these, but the "wooden textiles" by designer Elisa Strozyk are a beautiful and surprisingly simple rethinking of the idea of a textile—and they have some interesting implications for terrain modeling and even gaming.

First, though, what are these things?

[Image: A "wooden textile" by Elisa Strozyk].

Strozyk writes that she wanted to find "a new tactile experience" for wood, which she achieved by producing wooden tiles that "are then attached to a textile base. Depending on the geometry and size of the tiles each design shows a different behavior regarding flexibility and mobility."

[Image: A "wooden textile" by Elisa Strozyk].

These "different behaviors" can be seen in the following images, where the shape and size of the tiling system dictates the types of ridges and forms that result; while this is obviously interesting from a material standpoint, thinking of these as landscape-modeling exercises lends them a fascinating terrestrial applicability in representing different topographies.

[Images: A "wooden textile" by Elisa Strozyk].

In other words, you start with what appears to be a carpet, but very soon thereafter, with just a few adjustments, you have a mountain range, a moor, a midocean ridge, a series of rolling hillsides. It's tectonics at work, from a flat plane to a folded landscape, like a storm pulsing through the world from below.

[Images: A "wooden textile" by Elisa Strozyk].

As Strozyk points out, "there are various possible applications, for example as floorings, curtains, drapes, plaids, upholstery or parts of furniture."

Her site thus shows these atop beds, on floors, and spread across other objects.

[Image: A "wooden textile" by Elisa Strozyk].

But I can't help but wonder what you could do with this in very different contexts: in a student landscape design project, for example, or even as an Arduino-actuated, live-action game board, something tweaked, ridged, and uplifted to form the polygonal backdrop of a new strategy game.

Consider all of the recent excitement over Earth Primer, for example. "Like a deity in training," Wired effuses, "you can sculpt mountains, summon rain storms, and move tectonic plates with your fingertips. It’s a novel way to learn about our planet, certainly. But it’s also an inspiring design experiment, and a reminder that interactive media is a young and undeveloped world itself."

Something at least as conceptually exciting, yet more tactile and physically immersive, could also be achieved using Strozyk's wooden textiles—even if only as a somewhat expensive luxury item, sure, but the possibilities for developing a textile-based deformable game board, either for personal entertainment or for in-class pedagogy, is a pretty wild thing to think about.

[Image: A "wooden textile" by Elisa Strozyk].

Imagine teaching kids geology using intricately woven, planet-modeling blankets, or producing a landscape-intensive strategy game that can be warped in real-time using semi-solid, geometrically complex textiles.

The result would be far from an aesthetic outlier.

[Image: A "low-poly" landscape by Timothy Reynolds created for Amplify].

In a virtuoso history of landscape art, from Modern painters such as Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne to today's digital polygons, Tim Schneider suggested that artists such as Timothy Reynolds have been experimenting with so-called "low-poly" landscapes as a way of deliberately foregrounding the possibilities (and limits) of the digital medium.

"The sharp edges, vivid colors, and obviously geometric modeling put the polygon itself on view," Schneider writes, and this is done on purpose, "despite the fact that more traditionally realistic visual styles are available."

Indeed, low-poly art such as Reynolds's has "highlighted colorful lighting, sharp edges, and the geometric re-interpretation of organic forms as particular draws of the aesthetic. Each of these was [also] explored by more than one icon of early Modern artwork en route to their positions in the canon, and in some cases, their status as present-day household names."

[Images: A "low-poly" landscape by Timothy Reynolds created for Amplify].

This has never been an easy career path. "While the academies viewed these unrepentant stylizations as naive, childlike, or simply vulgar," Schneider reminds us, "Modern artists recognized the possibilities in this new brand of visual honesty."

[Image: A "low-poly" landscape by Timothy Reynolds].

"Counterintuitively," he adds, "what they realized was that individual expression held more power to connect with an audience than fidelity."

[Images: A "wooden textile" by Elisa Strozyk].

In any case, Schneider's 3-part essay can be read in its entirety if you click these three links, but my own over-riding interest here remains with the potentially half-digital, half-analog nature of Elisa Strozyk's wooden textiles, wondering how they—or objects like them—might potentially be used as platforms for narrative content.