The Long Now: Edward Burtynsky and the 10,000 Year Clock
If you could leave behind pictures for someone to see ten thousand years from now, what pictures would you choose? If you expected our global civilization to collapse under pressures of our own making- war, resource depletion – would you send a warning? An apology? Or something that simply shows us as we are? Edward Burtynsky has recently had the opportunity to ask himself these questions, and to ask how images could be printed to last for ten thousand years.
The 10,000 Year Clock , or the Clock of the Long Now, is a project of the Long Now Foundation, which was founded by a group of friends around the idea of a clock that would tick once a year, advance every hundred years and chime once every millennium. The clock was conceived by engineer Danny Hillis as a reaction to his sense that in his own lifetime a future worth looking forward to, one that would guide the decisions of the present, had disappeared. (Michael Chabon has written a compelling essay about pessimism about the future.)
Edward Burtynsky has proposed a photography gallery to accompany the 10,000 Year Clock. The gallery, like the clock, is intended as a vehicle through which we can communicate to (if not with) the future, and he has some ideas about the kind of work that this very long-running exhibit should display. In our time, the clock is meant to be a destination of pilgrimage. Esconced within Mount Washington in the Eastern Nevada desert, it is small-scale yet monumental architecture tied to the land on (in ) which it sits. It’s not clear whether this gallery would be open to visitors but future generations, if they keep track of the gallery’s location, may choose to revise and add to the exhibit.
The clock and the gallery (as well as the foundation’s other projects such as the very long-standing “Long Bets ”) are objects for thinking, ideas that, in their realization, focus the way in which we think about time and about the future. The clock has already been prototyped and some bets have already been settled. The gallery will presumably move from concept to reality, and to this end much of Burtynsky’s attention has been on the practical challenge of identifying a printing process that is archival to 10,000 years. Burtynsky has selected a 19th century carbon transfer process , a form of which was once offered by Kodak but which is now practiced by only a handful of artisanal printers. The magenta stone used for pigment can be found in only one mine in Germany and the materials are custom-produced for these few printers.
Burtynsky has selected three complementary exhibits to be printed with the carbon transfer process and stored in a gallery alongside the clock, curated by himself and two colleagues, (friends “who would do it without charging”). Vid Ingelevics ‘ Museum of the Mundane would include images from existing Canadian archives, including the archives of a department store, of product photographs of consumer products – mid 20th century everyday technologies – and juxtapose them with pictures of objects found in dollar stores. Marcus Schubert ‘s Observations from a Blue Planet is a collection of images found online, presented in contrasted pairings, ie wealth and poverty. The third component is an exhibit of Burtynsky’s own work , from his long-term, ongoing project In the Wake of Progress, large format studies of industrialized landscapes, printed with stunning clarity.
While these exhibits are explicitly meant to describe the condition of the world at the beginning of the 21st century, Burtynsky’s choices also reveal implicit attitudes about society and cultural production embedded within this project, attitudes that unfortunately hinder this worthwhile project from reaching its full potential. These exhibits individually, and in concert, speak in a language of binary contrasts: rich and poor, large and small, old and new, authored and found, archived and regrouped. Burtynsky’s own work focuses on extremes: the first oil field, the largest engineering project, (just as the carbon transfer technique is described in terms of the scarcity of knowledge and resources for such a process). The consumer product archives seek to describe the mundane in absolute terms. And the Blue Planet is based entirely on contrasts.
These projects may actually be stronger separately than they are as a collective. Each speaks to material technology and consumption in its own way. Combined, they reveal an obsession with technology and with the extremes. They somehow manage to erase human experience almost entirely; there is no sense of subjectivities, just of people as objects. Even in Blue Planet, the people are reduced to symbols. In his presentation Burtynsky expounds on the value of personal photography, family pictures, etc.; he comments on human figures in paleolithic cave paintings and in pornographic art unearted at Pompei; such perspectives are curiously absent. Historical particularity and the possibility of consciousness is eschewed in favour of a generalising depiction of people lost to an inevitable current of history and technological “progress”. Like the stunning but flawed films Koyaanisqaatsi and Baraka, this group of exhibits are spectacular in their scope but very limited in what they can actually say about how and why we live as we do. They are an indictment of modern consumption but do not explain why we live in this world despite our awareness of the costs of this way of life; they are ethnocentric in their adoration of technology and the contradictions of the “machine in the garden”.
The Gallery of the Clock of the Long Now is a great idea, a useful way of focusing thinking not only about the future but about the value of documentary images and documentary practices. But by fetishizing the archival processes, the best purposes of this clock and of this gallery- the opportunity for serious reflection and assessment- stand to be lost. This would be a shame as the project does call on us to ask abiding questions: Who are our images for? What effect are they meant to have? How do the stories that we tell about ourselves shape the way in which we think of ourselves, and of what is possible?
There are no simple answers. But I can’t help but feel that Burtynsky could push his curators further and wish that he could be as innovative in curating as he has been in selecting an archival process. This is an opportunity for a larger participation, maybe something that Worldchanging , an organisation with which Burtynsky is closely associated, could support. Perhaps the Long Now Foundation could issue a call for proposals, evaluated by an international jurying board of thinkers (they certainly wouldn’t need to work in the photo industries, though they could be) for whom submissions would not be regarded as an opportunity to see new talent. A Family of Man for the 21st century, organized on the scale of Visa Pour L’Image. Then put it in the mountain if you want to, but show it to the world as well, so that we can more broadly imagine ourselves as the history of the future.
Edward Burtynsky seminar at the Long Now Foundation (Long Now blog)
Art & Soul (carbon transfer process)