Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The inverted sublime

Watching the DVD of the 02006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes about the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, I was struck by an observation he makes in relation to one particular image...

Edward Burtynsky (01983) Kennecott Copper Mine #22, Bingham Valley, Utah
Image via iCollector

So I decided to do mining as a theme. This particular photograph is Bingham Valley Canyon, just outside of Salt Lake City. My research took me to the largest, I was always looking for the largest mine. What I was hoping to find was something that spoke to scale, that spoke to the fact that we as a species are now dwarfed by our own creation, that the sublime has inverted itself. So, at one point we were kind of fearful of nature -- it's like the Turner with the ship going off to sea in a storm* -- and that nature was the omnipresent fearful force, and the sublime force. What I was trying to do with these images was to say that force has shifted, now we are a force within the planet, or on the planet, and it is our own creations that dwarf us.

~Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes, Stills Gallery with Commentary (DVD extra), 'Manufactured Landscapes' series, commentary to slide #3

Here, the photographer pinpoints, and distils into a symbolically-laden encounter with the unseen fruits of our collective industry, a historic, even mythic, transition point with which we are still, ever so slowly, coming to terms. Did we do that?

Recently we seem to be discovering inconvenient truths everywhere we look, Frankenstein's monsters around every corner.

This evening, when I dug up the link for the Seminar About Long-term Thinking that he did for the Long Now Foundation in July 02008, I noticed that chapter 15 of the video of that seminar was dubbed "Future Responses to Images of Today". The first remark made by Long Now impresario Stewart Brand introducing the post-presentation Q&A session: "It's going to be interesting to see what these images look like in a hundred years' time, a thousand years' time, ten thousand years' time... I have a feeling this kind of imagery -- you're dead right -- is exactly the kind of thing to launch through time."

Coincidentally, I'd been entertaining an almost perfectly symmetrical line of thinking. One of the things I sometimes consider in relation to future artifacts -- Strategic Anachronisms -- is the following thought experiment: If I had to send a time capsule of the present back to the past, say 100 years ago; which objects, images, elements of today might I pick out as most surprising, instructive, evocative, or characteristic of our times? Burtynsky's stuff could well find its way into my capsule selection: I find these images bear a kind of historic weight; they document something profound about What's Going On Here.

That is: we have inverted the sublime, and awaken with awe to the scale and import of what we have wrought. Yet, as terrible as many of the consequences of our industrial transformation have been, this moment of recognition seems to portend the taking of a new level of responsibility commensurate with that power. Or, as Stewart Brand put it in another context: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it."

* This may be the Turner painting that Burtynsky had in mind.