Brian C. Moss' complex and multi-faceted project from 2012, "Gas Giants and Black Seas, Sharp Shooters and Solar Wind," interrelates family history, scientific discoveries, and debates around verisimilitude with photographic representation. He does so, in part, by recreating well-known images to the point that their origin may not be clear: is it Moss, or Alexander Gardner with the 1863 Civil War image "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter?" Moss, or a space agency's image of one of Jupiter's moons, Titan, captured and transmitted in 2005 by the NASA/ESA probe Cassini-Huygens?
Although the exhibition has since passed, it and past work by Moss has stuck with me over the years. A thread throughout his work is an ongoing examination of the interrelationships between the nature of perception, familial and historical memories, and the technology of photography, both analog and digital.
I start with a few questions to Moss about past projects and his artistic process, which is followed by rumination about some of the issues explored in "Gas Giants and Black Seas, Sharp Shooters and Solar Wind."
Can you tell me a little about your overarching process and some past projects that led up to Gas Giants and Black Seas, Sharp Shooters and Solar Wind?
Brian Moss: Through juxtaposition and transformation, I have always tried to explore social, physical and conceptual relationships between self and other, or individuals and their surroundings. Though diverse in form, my projects are unified by a heightened scrutiny of the world around me. Recent work includes the 2010 installation Theory of Everything, whose title refers to scientific efforts at reconciling the mutual incompatibility of physical laws for the macro and micro worlds (the theory of general relativity versus quantum mechanics). Initially, the term was used with an ironic connotation (in reference to various over-generalized scientific theories) and my use of it here is both earnest and tongue in cheek. The installation used photography, drawing, digital animation, code driven digital imaging and found objects in an attempt to explore how identity is constructed, categorized and reiterated from mass-media representations and the excessive detritus of contemporary life. The installation encircled the viewer, bombarding them with images, objects and information.
For your show at PØST in Los Angeles, I'm fascinated by your multi-faceted exploration into the nature of photography, how our worldview is shaped by photography, and the interrelationship between war and the technology of photography. Please elaborate.
BM: At the heart of Gas Giants and Black Seas, Sharp Shooters and Solar Wind was a camera obscura projection based on "manipulated" nineteenth century documentary war photos. The differences between reality and its representation were in plain sight: any three-dimensional object must be fundamentally changed and abstracted to be represented in two dimensions. Another element of the installation juxtaposed maps from when the earth was thought to be flat and at the center of the universe with recent digitally generated astronomical "photos." These found images were projected onto a grid of dry ice on the gallery floor that eventually disappeared. The last link in this chain of references draws a relationship between scientific and technological advances and military conquest while questioning whether our differences outweigh our similarities.
Ruminating on the Relationship Between Photography and the Future of Humanity
As Moss states in his essay, it was a "show about photography with no 'real' photos in it," that is, "the installation was created in part to provide a context for a series of fabricated scientific images." Moss is not interested in tricking viewers with mechanisms that challenge perception, such as his jerrybuilt camera obscura, simply to announce that a photographic image cannot be trusted. We know this now very clearly with the advent of digital editing. Rather, the installation is about recognizing a world in which a plethora of photo-based images dominates our viewpoint and, then, with this recognition, asking oneself to consider the legacy that one may leave for the future once the images are stored or distributed.
This notion is best considered in light of the intentions behind selecting the 116 images on the Golden Record affixed to both the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft that were launched from Earth in 1977. The range of images includes ones about science, the solar system, human anatomy, animals, insects, plants, landscapes, food, architecture, and portraits, among other depictions of daily life. These Golden Records are, in fact, phonograph records. The probes include a stylus to play them so that one might listen to music on them and reconstruct the images from digitized, recorded signals. This technology is now thoroughly obsolete; young humans today may not even know how to operate a machine called a "record player." But, even if future humans or other extra-terrestrial intelligences could reconstruct them, they face the even larger hurdle of interpreting what is depicted in the images. There is no context other than they were compiled at one time by an intelligent civilization somewhere in the universe -- presumably the pale blue dot that one of the Voyager craft photographed when it was 3.7 billion miles from Earth.
Most recently, artist and experimental geographer Trevor Paglen worked with Creative Time in New York on a five-year project in which he collected 100 images that were micro-etched on a silicon disc. It was then attached to the EchoStar XVI, an American geostationary communications satellite that was launched into orbit in November 2012. Paglen's images depict Earth as less unified than astronomer Carl Sagan wanted to represent with his Voyager images thirty-five years earlier. Paglen's selections include images of nuclear explosions, before-and-after images of glacial melting, and images from the predator drones.
The essential question that Moss and Paglen ask is an ethical one: what would you leave to the future of humanity, if given the opportunity? Some might say that this is a question to ask oneself every day in regard to how one treats one's neighbors. This is true. But, speaking in cosmic time, what would you leave if you knew that the artifact might be around millions or billions of years? This will be the case with the Voyager I and II spacecraft, which have left our solar system. It will also be the case for the EchoStar XVI, but it will be just above Earth, so it is more probable that future humans may rediscover it.
Once we travel down this path, the dilemma to consider is how future intelligent beings could possibly interpret any selection of photographic images in a way that might come close to the photographs' original context and intention by their makers. We can barely understand Early Modern English from just 400 years ago. It is a problem that cannot be solved now. So, in the end, all that one can do is to make the best effort at selecting images that, when considered collectively, may suggest characteristics about the artifact's sender. Aggregation is one way to create context when the maker of the images is absent, and Moss has done this in his installation.
For Moss, Paglen, or the astronomers charged with selecting photographs to represent humanity, the individual image is dependent upon or superseded by the art installation or the outer space probes that act like pods casting their seeds into the "solar winds." In this photographic panspermia, some images will take hold and grow in intelligent minds, whether human or not, while others will be swallowed by "gas giants." The "sharp shooter" of the future will be the being who does not home in on each image, but understands that one can easily be misled by worrying whether a photograph depicts an authentic scene or not.
Brian C. Moss also runs What's On Los Angeles, a guide to art events in the region.
A version of this essay appeared in the Society for Photographic Education's (SPE) journal, "Exposure," volume 46, issue 2.
Top Image: Brian C. Moss, Planets, 2006-07, digital image, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.
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