Blog Archive for the ‘The Big Here’ Category

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We are Walking Rocks: Friends of the Pleistocene Explore the Geologic Now

Posted on Saturday, August 30th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Geopoetry Smudge Studio

In The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time Joel Smith writes:

Imagine making a picture using film so insensitive to light – so slow, in photographic parlance – that to burn an image onto it required an exposure of twenty-five centuries. Geologically speaking, the blink of an eye. The picture from that negative would reveal a world made of stone, and stone only. It would be a world where plants and people, seasons and civilizations, had come and gone, quite untouched, and unbothered, by mankind. And yet, here it is, a world, unmistakably shaped by human hands.

Perhaps one of humanity’s greatest weaknesses is that our power of imagination tends to be dwarfed by our power of transformation. Twenty-five centuries ago, Rome was little more than a small town; Confucius had just resigned from his government post; Olmec society had slid into decline; and none of the languages we speak today had yet evolved. Entire civilizations rise and fall within the blink of a geologic eye – and whether as cause or consequence, we have a collective attention span to match.

We might be able to stretch our sense of “our time” a century or two into the past and future, but anything beyond that feels so far away that it dissolves into (seeming) irrelevance. As a result, we often don’t realize that our contemporary world is significantly shaped by the geological worlds that came before it; and that the fruits of our short-term pursuits can far outlast our own physical existence on Earth.

The Friends of the Pleistocene try to encourage this realization by spurring our temporal capacity for imagination. An interactive and creative research collaboration by Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, the duo behind Smudge Studios, FOP’s mission is, essentially, to create the kinds of pictures Smith imagined. Through a variety of projects, they direct our focus to the Pleistocene traces that continue to reverberate through our contemporary world, and to the impact our culture makes on the ancient landscapes around us.

The geologic epoch of the Pleistocene is commonly dated from 2.58 million to 10,000 years BP (before the present). We know it as the time of glacial periods, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and Neanderthals. It is also the period of humanity’s childhood: it’s during the Pleistocene that the genus Homo first learned to walk upright and manipulate its environment with stone tools. This epoch predates agriculture, or any notion of ‘civilization’ – yet its landscapes are still as much a part of our present world as they were to our early ancestors. As Kruse and Ellsworth explain,

The Pleistocene landscape literally shapes how we live today and affords the placement and design of many infrastructures in our contemporary lives, such as building highways along the spines of glacial moraines, as in the case of the Long Island Expressway, or the great views afforded by the now extinct Pleistocene Lake Bonneville’s shoreline “benches” where suburban houses perch in Draper, Utah. We also use Pleistocene lakebeds as testing grounds for weapons (such as for the Trinity test in 1945) or for recreation, like the Bonneville Salt Flats or Cape Cod’s beloved swimming holes – the kettle ponds.

And just as the Pleistocene continues to shape our world, so do we continue to make an impact on it. Kruse and Ellsworth recall making this realization during a residency at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Utah:

… we came across their (CLUI’s) book on the Nevada Test Site. At that point, we had no idea that over 1000 nuclear bombs had been detonated in the United States. We began to realize that the tourist experience of the American West often overlooked the fact that just behind or underneath the stunning backdrops of iconic scenery were invisible vibrant human-made materials, and they were actively reshaping the landscapes we were moving through, at the very moment we were moving through them. The forceful actions of many of those materials were potent enough to continue this reshaping into deep geological futures. This led to future trips where we actually toured the NTS and ended up designing a project to visit the sites where underground testing had occurred outside the NTS. It was literally standing at these sites, in the present, that geologic time and the contemporary moment came vividly together for us.

Exploring such ancient sites across the United States and beyond, the Smudge duo harness art and design as useful tools to spur our imagination into time scales that dwarf a human lifetime. They produce photographic essays, narrative field guides, educational events, and speculative tools to help others explore the convergence of human and geologic processes – and they add not one, but two zeroes to their date notations!

Smudge’s projects include an examination of how the Pleistocene geology of the Great Lakes continues to influence processes of urbanization in the region; visualizing the ancient geological materials that constitute the man-made buildings of New York City; mapping the intersection of human and geologic processes in the American West; and representing the material origins of the energy that sustains our civilization.

Much of their work has examined the handling of nuclear waste – an issue that indelibly reminds us of how tied we are to the deep material processes of our world:

In realizing that the contamination can’t be moved from where it is, and will stay contaminated for tens of thousands of years in the future, it seems important to start developing capacities to think and design for larger timescales. … We humans have catalyzed a geologic impact around the globe, materially. These effects are much more than the nuclear, but nuclear materials are such a clear and potent example, they still exist at the root of our work and are why we veered in this direction so many years ago.

Their projects tend to incorporate an interactive approach: Ellsworth and Kruse try not only to visualize, but to encourage others to join in their imaginative processes:

Interactivity seems key to the ideas we’re working with – which focus on the importance of being able to experience the material reality and force of processes and movements that are either hard for humans to sense physically, or hard for humans to admit politically or emotionally.

In 02012, Kruse and Ellsworth published Making the Geologic Now, an edited collection of photographs and essays by more than forty contributors that include Rachel Sussman, (photographer/author of the Oldest Living Things in the World and Long Now SALT speaker) and Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction and Field Notes from a Catastrophe).

Making the Geologic Now documents and encourages what they have identified as a “turn toward the geologic,” a collection of “early sightings” of emergent social and cultural awareness of the deep geological parameters of our world. The book is meant to be generative rather than analytical or critical; in their introduction Kruse and Ellsworth describe the contributions as

places to think experimentally about what might become thinkable and possible if humans were to collectively take up the geologic as an instructive partner in designing thoughts, objects, systems, and experiences. The book provides an armature for framing responses to that idea.

Earlier this year Kruse and Ellsworth went to Norway for a work they called “Inhabiting Change” – it’s part of a larger collaboration that investigates the socio-geographic changes ahead for the Arctic Circle. Once seen as a remote forbidding place, it is now being transformed by the forces of capitalism, the pinch of dwindling resources, and a growing global population. As they expressed their goal for this project:

We intend to create dynamic tracings of the arrival of new futures of the North into widespread human + nonhuman cognizance. Works that result from Inhabiting Change may take the form of a series of linked multi-media dispatches. We also intend to compose a collaborative, human + nonhuman voice with multiple, moving points of view—while we live and make in the midst of the forces of change that currently are composing emerging futures north.

Ultimately, what Ellsworth and Kruse hope people take away from their work is new curiosities about and appreciations of their bare physical materiality – the chemical and physical fact that we are “walking rocks,” and that we live within the geologic, as a condition of our daily lives.

Making The Geologic Now can be purchased or downloaded from Smudge Studios. They also offer a place to contribute your own sightings of the geologic.

Images by FOP/Smudge Studios

The Future of Language at The Interval: Tuesday July 22

Posted on Friday, July 18th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Laura Welcher of Long Now and Rosetta ProjectDavid Evan Harris Executive Director of Global LivesMandana Seyfeddinipur
Laura Welcher, David Evan Harris, and Mandana Seyfeddinipur speak on Tuesday, July 22 at The Interval

This Tuesday at The Interval “The Future of Language” featuring Dr. Laura Welcher of Long Now’s Rosetta Project and Global Lives Project‘s David Evan Harris, and special guest Dr Mandana Seyfeddinipur of the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme who is visiting from London.

Tuesday July 22, 02014 at 7:30pm
at The Interval (doors at 6:30)
Advanced Tickets are strongly encouraged as space is limited

Long Now’s Rosetta Project is dedicated to documenting and preserving human languages. In 02014 preservation is crucial because the languages of the world are dying at an unprecedented rate. And that’s only part of a larger problem.

The link between language diversity and biodiversity is well established. A quarter of all languages on Earth will not survive this century. When we lose a language we also lose the culture of its speakers, their specialized knowledge of the natural world and their care for it.

On Tuesday, July 22, at The Interval you’ll hear more about the situation and a new initiative between Long Now and the Global Lives Project to document the lives and culture of endangered language speakers and raise awareness of the problem in collaboration with The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project and a team from the Smithsonian Institution.

Mandana Seyfeddinipur directs the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at SOAS, University of London. She is enabling hundreds of groups around the world to document dying languages around the world, some of the most important work going in this field.

The Global Lives Project is a Bay Area non-profit developing a video library of everyday life in cultures around the planet. Global Lives’ unique long-form videos tell a “Big Here” story about people around the world.

Long Now’s salon talk events happen on Tuesday nights at The Interval our bar/cafe/museum at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. The lineup of upcoming talks is growing. Check out the full list here.

Interval donors hear about our events first: there is still time to become a charter donor.

Craig Childs: Apocalyptic Planet, Field Guide to the Everending Earth — A Seminar Flashback

Posted on Wednesday, July 2nd, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In July 02013 author Craig Childs spoke to Long Now about his travels around the world. One of the world’s great intrepid travelers and story-tellers, Childs finds the places on Earth that are most geologically or climatically dangerous and hangs out, observing closely, then documents them from a personal as well as scientific perspective. Twice a month we highlight a Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) from our archives.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until August 02014. SALT audio is free for everyone on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

This Earth is a story teller, Childs began. And it is not a stable place to live. It is always ending. We think of endings as sudden, but it is always a process. [...]

I would like to backpack on Mars, said Childs. For the local equivalent he hiked across the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, where it never rains. It’s been a desert for 150 million years. You walk across nothing but salt so hard it pings like steel. The sun blasts you all day and at night the water in your pack freezes solid. You walk for days and you don’t see a single living thing, you’re on a dead planet, and then it gets really strange because pink flamingoes come flying in over your head. They’re there to strain brine shrimp out of water sources. You’re at the end of the world and there are flamingoes! You think, ‘Yeah, that’s what this planet is about.’

Craig Childs’ books include House of Rain, Finders Keepers, and Apocalyptic Planet. He is a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition and contributing editor at High Country News.

Craig Childs and Cactus

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until late June 02014). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Mapping the Long Walk – An Out of Eden Update

Posted on Friday, June 20th, 02014 by Chia Evers
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In January 02013, we introduced you to slow journalist Paul Salopek, who is retracing the steps of our earliest human ancestors in a seven-year journey Out of Eden. Since then, Salopek has covered more than 4,000 kilometers (nearly 2,500 miles), from in Eastern Ethiopia to East Jerusalem. His route was, intentionally, sketched in broad strokes, but each of his Milestones and Dispatches have been pinned to a digital map that captures the sights, sounds, and stories of his long road from Africa to Patagonia.

The first map pin, at Herto Bouri, marks a dense archaeological site, where Australopithecus garhi, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens idaltu made their homes 2.5 million to 160,000 years ago. Several of the Homo sapiens idaltu fossils bear the marks of (possibly cannibalistic) mortuary practices that included scraping the flesh from the skulls of the dead.

A map-within-the map in Djibouti, on the edge of the Red Sea, illustrates the ancient land bridges that carried our ancestors across the Red Sea into the Levant, and eventually into Southeast Asia and the Americas.

At Petra, the ancient stone city that is now Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, Salopek recorded a timeless dirge about the the ingratitude of children and the pain of old age. The singer, Qasim Ali, accompanied himself on the rababa, a 1200-year-old ancestor of the violin.

Four thousand kilometers from the ambiguously marked remains at Herto Bouri, Salopek reached Qafzeh Cave, on the slopes of Mount Carmel. This is the site of the first ceremonial human burial in the archaeological record—a teenaged boy with a red deer’s antlers held fast against his chest.

As of June 02014, Salopek is in Jerusalem, the subject of another thematic map—one which covers a two-day, 23-mile trek around the ancient city. His most recent Dispatch, from the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, tells the story of a traditional judge who negotiates settlements between families when a wrong has been done.

From Israel, Salopek will continue on to the Silk Road. We will continue to post updates on his progress, and have asked him to speak with us when his route brings him through the Bay Area in a few years. In the meantime, you can follow Salopek and the Out of Eden Walk on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, Vimeo, and Google+—or visit OutOfEden.com and the Out of Eden Walk site at NationalGeographic.com.

Explore Urban Infrastructure at the MacroCity Conference, May 30-31

Posted on Tuesday, April 15th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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macrocity-01

We rarely see in full the cities that we live in. Focused on our daily lives, urban dwellers are often only dimly aware of the numerous, enmeshed layers of critical infrastructure that quietly hum in the background to make modern life possible.

Come and explore the amazing stories and surprising histories to be found lurking just below the surface of our cities at MacroCity, a two-day, whirlwind tour of this bigger picture of urban life. The event brings together a diverse set of panelists, speakers, and participants to explore the vast, often overlooked networks of infrastructure that surround us. The line-up includes rogue archivist and Lost Landscapes creator Rick Prelinger, as well as Laci Videmsky of the New California Water Atlas.

The schedule also includes a variety of field trips, offering an opportunity to explore first-hand some of the vast networks of infrastructure that sustain the Bay Area.

Organized by the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, the conference will take place on May 30-31 at SPUR and the Brava Theater in San Francisco. The Long Now Foundation is partnering with BAIO on the event, and Long Now members receive a 25% discount on tickets – please check your email for your discount code.

Field trips will take place on May 30th, with most of the speakers scheduled for May 31st. A basic pass to the talks can be reserved for $100; the deluxe pass for $150 includes access to a field trip, as well. Half-price tickets are available for members of the nonprofit community; please see the event registration page for more information.

Watermark: New Film by Edward Burtynsky

Posted on Monday, April 14th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Every living thing requires water. We humans interact with it in a myriad of ways, numerous times a day. But how often do we consider the complexity of that interaction?

Renowned photographer and former SALT speaker Edward Burtynsky explores these questions in a new film. Co-directed by Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal,

Watermark is a feature documentary film that brings together diverse stories from around the globe about our relationship with water: how we are drawn to it, what we learn from it, how we use it and the consequences of that use. … Shot in stunning 5K ultra high-definition video and full of soaring aerial perspectives, this film shows water as a terraforming element and the scale of its reach, as well as the magnitude of our need and use. This is balanced by forays into the particular: a haunting memory of a stolen river, a mysterious figure roaming ancient rice terraces, the crucial data hidden in a million year old piece of ice, a pilgrim’s private ritual among thousands of others at the water’s edge.

The film is part of Burtynsky’s larger Water project, which also includes a book and an exhibition of dramatic large-format photographs. Watermark will be playing at theaters throughout the United States this month and the next; you can find a list of screenings here.

In San Francisco, Watermark will be screened at the Opera Plaza Theater  for one week, starting this Friday, April 18. Come see the film on opening day for a chance to hear Burtynsky speak about the film: he will attend the 4.30 PM and 7.00 PM shows in person for a post-screening Q&A with the audience.

More information about the Water Project book can be found here, and the accompanying photographs will be on exhibit at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco through the end of the month.

 

The New California Water Atlas

Posted on Saturday, February 1st, 02014 by Austin Brown
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California_Water_Rights

Almost forty years ago, California’s young new governor faced the challenge of leading his state through one of its worst droughts ever. Around that time, a group of cartographers had been hoping to develop a comprehensive and definitive atlas of the state and one of them suggested the idea to an advisor to the governor’s office, Stewart Brand. In light of the crisis, a scaled-back, more focused atlas detailing California’s water systems garnered support from members of the administration and governor Jerry Brown.

Several years later, in 01979, California’s Office of Planning and Research published the California Water Atlas, an attempt at “providing the average citizen with a single-volume point of access to understanding how water works in the State of California,” as the volume’s foreword, written by Project Director and Editor William L. Karhl, put it.

Several decades later, California is once again governed by Jerry Brown. Drought has returned and so, coincidentally, has the water atlas. The New California Water Atlas seeks to revive and update the original’s citizen-serving, data-sharing approach by offering online, interactive maps.

bio-boundaries

Headed up by Laci Videmsky, a project director at the Resource Renewal Institute, The New California Water Atlas operates as a non-profit project, rather than directly out of the Governor’s office. Now moved to the web, it also seeks to publish not a single volume, but a growing body of tools and interactive visualizations with regularly updated data.

Videmsky spoke with me about the project from Berkeley, where he also lectures for the College of Environmental Design at the University of California. He described at length how the original Water Atlas inspired this new project and about what’s in store.

Videmsky first encountered the original Atlas when his wife brought it home from UC Berkeley’s library. “Both of us were in awe,” he says.

Around this time, Videmsky explains, he’d been exploring the world of web mapping, open data and open government:

I was really interested in the ethos of open government and how people were using data, thinking about transparency and accountability, and how their systems communicate with government and the kinds of technologies they were using to connect people. And most of this work was being done at the city level and then at the federal level and also most of it was related to various amenities and services that were often not natural resources, so I wondered, why don’t we take this open government and open data to natural resources agencies? They are civic institutions and they could benefit from this.

One area he began researching was California’s system of granting water rights.

I was learning how to do web mapping and I called the state water board to download their data from their site. They had kind of an older application that they’d built a while back that kind of half works and doesn’t have an easy way to search or to download data, and they were actually nice enough to just give me their whole data set.

The_California_Water_Atlas

Not long after these extracurricular efforts, he walked into the office of Huey Johnson, founder and president of the Resource Renewal Institute (and a former SALT speaker), and noticed a copy of the Water Atlas. Johnson had been the Secretary for Resources in Jerry Brown’s first administration and served on the Water Atlas’s advisory board along with Stewart Brand. They got to talking about the original Atlas, as well as some of Videmky’s efforts to visualize water data.

I showed him this interactive map that I’d made with the water board data and the lightbulb went off and we started having conversations about open government and how open data’s kind of changing the way government works and how we can maybe do that for California water.

It was out of that conversation that the New California Water Atlas was born and from that early prototype map that the site’s first big visualization would eventually grow. Videmsky and others are currently working on two more interactives for the site, with hopes of many more being developed as the project grows. The first focuses on groundwater levels:

We’re working on groundwater – so another state agency called the Department of Water Resources, which actually funded the first atlas, they have a data set of all the water levels in the ground of about 15,000 groundwater elevation monitoring wells. We downloaded from their water elevation monitoring system about 500,000 records which represents about 30 years of data for the whole state. It was very laborious – it took us a month to get 30 years.

Using the final product, Californians will be able to zoom into an area of the state on a map and move a slider to view the last 30 years of fluctuations in groundwater levels.

Another interactive in the pipeline will track water prices across the state:

I’m starting a collaboration with the California Public Utilities Commission to make data available to visualize water prices. Water isn’t priced according to scarcity, it’s priced according to the price of delivering the water. So I think it’d be really, really interesting for people to be able to compare what they paid for water.

Something Videmsky has found to be consistent with the original Atlas is the eagerness of state agencies to share their data, despite budgetary and technical challenges. Stewart Brand wrote in the original’s afterword:

Some of it was easier than expected. The state government probably has more information on water than any other subject, but early fears that the information would be jealously guarded by the agencies turned out to be incorrect. At every level, from local to state to federal, people were generous with their data and their time.

As Videmsky put it:

A lot of state agencies don’t have the resources either in staff or money to improve the way they make water understandable and water data available to the public. And so there’s definitely a need for private-public partnerships and that’s actually happening in many different sectors. We get a lot of moral support from the agencies. They’re very excited about this. We’re making something that’s very visible, highly accessible and so they’re really eager to participate.

Beyond helping the state’s agencies tell their stories, Videmsky is also exploring the idea of making a platform for citizens to tell theirs as well.

One idea – this is not implemented – but one idea is to allow for, almost a site within a site so a user would be able to create a blog around a certain geographic area. They’re dealing with issues locally that are important to them, like groundwater contamination, so it’d almost be like a citizen atlas, where citizens’ science sits alongside authoritative data. There are a lot of stories to tell that are not necessarily data stories but personal stories.

Additionally, they’re looking for help from programmers, translators (they want the site to be in both English and Spanish), designers and data-wranglers. Much of their work is open-sourced on GitHub, where they’d be happy for help building part of the visualizations or cleaning up the data.

Keeping the project open-source isn’t just a collaborative choice, though. Videmsky sees it as a way to help the project bear long-term fruit. While the original Atlas was a single volume, the web will allow the new Atlas to live and grow along with the state and possibly to be adopted by other states or for analyzing other natural resources. Along other long-term lines, Videmsky said they’re looking for a good institutional partner to help support and archive the data so that the database of California’s water system they hope to build can continue to grow and inform the state’s citizens for generations to come.

An Animated Atlas of The Known World

Posted on Tuesday, January 28th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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mapanim

In 01830, English journalist Edward Quin created a historical atlas that illustrated our expanding knowledge of the world. Depicting a time span that stretched from 02348 BC to 01828 AD, or more than four millennia, each successive map showed a slightly larger piece of bright, colorful land, surrounded by the ominous clouds of the unknown.

Slate recently compiled these maps into a single, chronological GIF (high res version) that highlights the sense of dynamism, evolution, and enlightenment that Quin sought to convey. As each image follows its predecessor, the viewer sees a menacing black sky gradually receding until the modern world is finally revealed.

The atlas, which belongs to Long Now Board member David Rumsey‘s map collection, certainly tells a story – though it may not be the one Quin sought to tell. To a modern audience, these maps are less an account of expanding geographic knowledge than a history of Western thinking about the rest of the world. The maps depict a decidedly European perspective, beginning with the biblical world of Noah’s Ark, and progressing, via ages of imperial conquest (Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and finally colonialism), to incorporate the entire globe. As Slate summarizes:

To say that an area of the world was “known” was, for Quin, the same as saying that it was “known” by Greek, Roman, or European cartographers. A set of such maps drawn from the perspective of the Aztecs, Egyptians, or Chinese would, of course, look quite different.

For more information about the atlas, please visit David Rumsey’s online collection, where each map – with descriptions by Quin – can be examined on its own.

David Rumsey’s Historic Maps of San Francisco on Display at SFO

Posted on Friday, December 20th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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rumseySF

There’s no place like an airport to ponder the notion of place in both its microscopic and macroscopic manifestations – in its continuities, and its evolutions.

Next time you fly in or out of San Francisco’s International Airport, take a stroll down to Terminal 2 (post-security), where a series of historic local maps and drawings are on display. The images, on loan from Long Now Board Member David Rumsey‘s collection, document San Francisco’s transformation from sleepy backwater into lively boomtown during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

San Francisco was at once improbable and inevitable. Much of the land at the northern tip of this hilly peninsula consisted of wind-swept sand dunes and was frequently blanketed with a cold fog during its summer season. But its location at the entrance to the largest natural harbor on the Pacific Coast, a series of auspicious events, and consecutive generations of citizens boldly reinventing their home on their own terms all combined to produce a city considered by many of its residents and visitors to be one of the world’s finest only fifty years after its founding. By all accounts, the transition of this sleepy village clinging to the shoreline of a sheltered cove to a boisterous, thriving metropolis was sudden. Charts, maps, and illustrated views document the remarkable pace of San Francisco’s early development in the latter half of the nineteenth century and its perpetual state of transformation throughout the twentieth century.

For those who would rather avoid the TSA, the exhibit is also viewable online. Every image includes a link to David Rumsey’s own online collection, where you’ll find detailed information about each map.

A visit to Star Axis

Posted on Monday, November 11th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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LOOKINGUPTUNNEL

Having climbed the staircase for some time, I stopped on a step that sent me back to the sky of twenty-five hundred years ago, the sky that loomed overhead when the Book of Job was written. I braced myself against the cool stone of the corridor that bracketed the staircase, and looked up through the tunnel. In the 5th century BC, the orbit of Polaris was much further out from the pole than it is now. We know this from our understanding of precession, but also from observations that were recorded at the time, observations that suggest a new way of looking at the sky had begun to emerge by then. Very slowly, it seems, the conceptual filters that humans used to interpret celestial phenomena had started changing, becoming less theological and more empirical. Instead of scanning the sky for the moods and faces of a humanlike god, people began looking for patterns in it. They went searching for order itself in the void.

Aeon Magazine Senior Editor Ross Anderson recently had the privilege of visiting Star Axis, a large-scale architectural installation in the New Mexico desert by artist Charles Ross. Anderson tells the story of his journey to the incomplete and mystery-shrouded artwork, with plenty of backstory on its creator and the astronomical mechanics it highlights.