I recently attended a talk by Hannah Goodwin on the fragmentation, alteration, and deletion of female bodies in digital media. I found her approach to deletion compelling, and was inspired to revisit an old project of mine that used and altered found images. For that project I wrote a script to gather images from the now-defunct Mass Traveler webcams, and created an algorithm to blend multiple frames together over time.
The technique has the effect of hiding almost all individual movement, much as Louis Daguerre’s 1839 photographic image, Boulevard du Temple, erases everything moving except for the shoe shiner and their customer. In my case, the traffic camera’s purpose is inverted to create a landscape that is devoid of traffic. Daylight scenes become surreal as the familiar bridge appears strangely unpopulated. As evening falls, the cars paint in light on wet pavement.
The theme of erasure is relevant to this moment, as algorithms and artificial intelligence shape more and more of the images we see. To wit, my Google Clips arrived yesterday. It is a camera that decides for itself when to take little movies, looking especially for happy faces and pets. Whereas the technological (de)selection of subjects in work like Daguerre’s was somewhat arbitrary, it has now become driven by opaque algorithms.
I find it interesting that for all the high tech wizardry behind this new device, it still has a shutter button and a lens ring to turn. In mimicking older forms of technology, these elements make the device intelligible to people more familiar with “dumb” cameras. This also serves to lessen our apprehension as it gets to know our family and waits for us to smile.
Even with the safeguards that Google has built in, such as avoiding cloud processing or automatic uploads, Google Clips is not neutral. I began to feel uneasy as my daughters looked at this thing over the breakfast table. I don’t want to undermine their sense of sanctuary within our home, which we’ve cultivated by keeping out devices like Alexa. In family settings especially, this new tool could begin to erase a sense of the private, unobserved self for people who cannot give their consent. Whether that’s an inevitable consequence of an artificial photographer or just a possible pitfall of using it around children remains to be seen.
“The many historical uses and meanings of the Meadows have left their marks on the landscape. Today, what would a representation of the Meadows look like that pays generous attention to them? What mixtures of subject matter and means would inform them? What understanding and interpretation of the Meadows’ natural and cultural histories would shape them?” –The Great Meadow, 2016
These are the questions that Anthony Lee, Claudette Lambert Peterson and I addressed in our exhibition The Great Meadow: Natural and Cultural Histories of Northampton’s Meadow at Historic Northampton.
I wanted to look extremely closely at a landscape that has been so well documented already, using a robotic tripod to gather panoramic images of the smallest details of the ground. You see a lot of bugs and trash from an altitude of two inches, but also features that echo river bends and stone walls.
I especially enjoyed the creative process of working as a group to understand the Meadows, with Lee’s landscapes informing my choice of subject matter and the bits of trash I found making an appearance as natural history objects in Peterson’s work. Technology is ubiquitous in the “natural” setting of the Meadows, from the bottle caps and other human castings to the cultivated corn and bits of brick.
The names the 17th century settlers gave to plots of the Meadows are evocative. Venturer’s Field was so called because a family chose to spend a winter in a cave there. Bark Wigwam referenced an existing structure, but also the presence of other inhabitants. And you can easily imagine how Hog’s Bladder got its name. There is a ball field in the Meadows to this day.
You will meet a lot of people if you spend six hours in the Northampton Meadows with a robotic camera rig. Dog walkers, bird watchers, cops who want to know if you saw a suspicious SUV go by, people who just want to park and smoke and be left alone. This is truly a liminal space, where many paths cross. Looking down intently, I found many of their traces as well. Here are a few early returns from the project.
For context, here are some photos of my practice in capturing the red bit of plastic pictured above. This latest version of my robotic tripod rides on repurposed rails from a bookshelf and features two powered inline wheels for extra precision.
The damp ground and overcast skies are perfect for my purposes, but make a good set of boots into an essential component of my work.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m something of a hoarder, gathering bits and pieces of technology that have the potential for a second act as part of a robot. These cast aways have been coming along nicely over the last few months. I just finished a workshop for teachers where we built robots and drew all over the floor of the Media Lab at Mount Holyoke with them.
Poking around the garden yesterday with my robotic tripod, I captured a lot of moss and a few odd interlopers. Did you know that moss that was frozen under a glacier for 400 years can come back to life? Or that little moss tumbleweeds support an entire ecosystem as they bounce around the tops of glaciers? Here we have them growing happily on top of glacial till and outwash.
Click for the higher res image – the original is in the 50 megapixel range! I like the way a long exposure and tiny aperture increased my depth of field and caught the evening light.
I’ve been playing around with Arduinos and robotics lately, and have created a robotic tripod that allows me to progressively scan the ground at ridiculously high resolution. Continue reading A Robot in the Garden