THE ARTIST BEHIND TAHOE TIMESCAPE
In this in-depth interview, Tahoe Public Art gets a closer look from artist, Jonathon Keats, about his environmental art project,Tahoe Timescape.
“If we think about what we are doing today in terms of inheritance, it begs the question: How do we give with as much generosity as possible?”
I'd like to start off by asking what Tahoe Timescape means to you. What does it mean
for future generations?'
Keats: Tahoe Timescape is an attempt to build a relationship with place and in time through photography, using cameras taking extremely long exposures. Lake Tahoe as a place is incredibly rich in terms of all of the qualities that come together to make an ecosystem operate. The complex mix of factors both local and global can be daunting to understand. I'm interested in how we can use art in general, and photography in particular, as a way to bring people into this place, encouraging them to recognize the incredibly vibrant environment it is. There are ways in which scientists do this that are very powerful, but because they are so intensely data-driven, they’re unapproachable for most people. So what I've been seeking is a way for people to relate to place through something we all recognize: an image.
We have such a profound impact on the environment in terms of the decisions we make. We are a part of the system. We are a part of nature. Tahoe Timescape is an effort to reintegrate us into nature psychologically so that we might act responsibly. It's important that we observe Lake Tahoe, but it’s also essential that we observe ourselves. Tahoe Timescape is a mirror, and it’s a way that we can imagine ourselves from the vantage of the far future. In that sense, the project is directed at us.
At the same time, I hope that Tahoe Timescape may be a gift given to the future, for the future to be able to learn about the changing environment, and to apprehend the decisions we make, good and bad. Those decisions are in their own right bequeathed to future generations. If we think about what we are doing today in terms of inheritance, it begs the question: How do we give with as much generosity as possible? It isn't obvious how to do so, but perhaps these cameras can help. Any means that we have to experience the perspective of future generations can be informative, and can encourage intergenerational empathy.
Can you explain the functioning of the cameras, and what the end result may be? Is the end
result really the point of the project?
Keats: If this project were simply a philosophical proposition, I don't think it would have the effect that it can as a functioning apparatus. Even given all of the ways the project might fail, the accountability inherent in images being made over time seems crucial to me. We really need to do something – to build something out in the world – to make the connection between our good intentions and our actions.
The camera is built to withstand time, which requires materials that are inert and will be changed as little as possible by the elements. The casing is made out of copper, a metal that tends to stabilize after accumulating a layer of patina. A pinhole aperture is pierced through a plate of 24 karat gold, which will not corrode over the next thousand years. Through this pinhole, an image is focused on a copper plate that is glazed with an organic oil paint that has been used since the Renaissance, and is known to fade, but only very gradually. In this camera, the pigment will fade most where the image is brightest. Sudden and extreme change will have the appearance of a double exposure. Gradual change will have the appearance of blurring.
Eventually, if everything goes according to plan, there will be four small circular images, each two inches in diameter, visible in a millennium when the cameras are opened up. Of course there are many reasons why they may not come out as expected. This has never been done before, at least to my knowledge. We have little basis for determining the correct exposure time, and of course the cameras may be broken or lost or stolen. Whatever happens will reveal something a thousand years from now. It just might take a form other than conventional photography.
Will you give some examples of what might be revealed?
Keats: Whatever happens, Tahoe Timescape will provide an image of our expectations about the future, and an image of our abilities and ambitions in the present, as well as where our abilities and ambitions fail us. As a result this project relates to the phenomenon of hubris, which is one of the most catastrophic tendencies of humankind. This tendency to feel that we can do what we set out to do, and that we have complete control, is often the basis of environmental overreach and folly. Recognizing how these cameras may fail can be a check on our sense of omnipotence.
Also I should mention that there will be opportunities for direct engagement with the cameras in the interim. Under the stewardship of Sierra Nevada College, students and the public are invited to make images or written records of what they anticipate the cameras will reveal in 3020. All of these materials will be archived. I believe this has the potential to engage people more actively in the environment, and to recognize their role in making the future.
Who’s an environmental artist that you admire?
I very much admire Helen and Newton Harrison, who have been working for many decades on projects around the world, including one at the Sagehen Creek Field Station, close to where Tahoe Timescape is being installed. They combine art and activism with unsurpassed mastery, in part because they’re deeply engaged in the specifics of place and how systems can be changed so places can thrive.
For instance, at UC Santa Cruz, they’ve been building greenhouses that simulate potential future local climates, and are growing plants that can survive in those conditions. So, they're preemptively trying to figure out what it might take for plant life to have the resilience needed to grow in Santa Cruz fifty or one hundred years from now. I admire the way they engage science and scientists, while remaining independent in terms of their own ideas.
Art has become an ultimate X factor in today’s society. The artist can do things that no one else can, in ways that no one else can, that don't get questioned according to conventional wisdom. The Harrisons have taken advantage of this with such deftness and poetry. They are a great model for artists in the future, showing how to make art that is motivated by a vision that is both artistic and political.
In 1,000 years what do you envision the Lake Tahoe Basin to look like?
Foresight is a dangerous game. It can lure us into believing a given future is inevitable, which can lead us to become fatalistic, and also to be less present in terms of our relationship to other people and to nature. I can certainly speak to concerns that I might personally have and hopes that I might harbor, but I don't believe a straightforward prediction would be appropriate, as it accords a level of authority that is not merited.
I do believe Lake Tahoe will be exploited for its beauty. It may be that we love Lake Tahoe too much. We may build it up to the point that we hate it, and then abandon it to natural processes that might to some extent restore it as an ecosystem. I hope the cycle isn’t so extreme. I hope that we find a way to appreciate Tahoe without overrunning it, that we can integrate ourselves into the ecosystem instead of dominating and then abandoning the Tahoe landscape. Perhaps Lake Tahoe can even be a model for how we act everywhere on the planet.
Acclaimed as a "poet of ideas" by The New Yorker and a "multimedia philosopherprophet" by The Atlantic, Jonathon Keats is an artist, writer and experimental philosopher based in San Francisco. His conceptually-driven interdisciplinary projects explore all aspects of society through science and technology. In recent years, he has installed a camera with a thousand-year-long exposure time on Lake Tahoe – documenting the long-term effects of climate change – in partnership with Tahoe Public Art; launched a reciprocal biomimicry initiative – allowing non-human species to benefit from human technologies – at Bucknell University; opened a photosynthetic restaurant serving gourmet sunlight to plants at the Crocker Art Museum; and deployed a cosmic welcome mat – countering xenophobia by fostering relations with aliens – at the International Astronautical Congress. Keats is the author of six books, most recently You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future, published by Oxford University Press, and the author of a weekly online art and design column for Forbes. He was recently the Black Mountain College Legacy Fellow at the University of North Carolina - Asheville, and is currently a Research Fellow at the Nevada Museum of Art's Center for Art + Environment, a Polar Lab Artist at the Anchorage Museum, a Visiting Scholar at San Jose State University, and an Artist-in-Residence at both the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany and UC Berkeley's Sagehen Creek Field Station in California. Keats is represented by Modernism Gallery, San Francisco. A monograph about his art is forthcoming from Hirmer Verlag.