NEW REMOTE EARTH VIEWS
In Transmission: New Remote Earth Views, Dan Holdsworth appropriates topographical data to document the ideologically and politically loaded spaces of the American West in an entirely new way. In his images of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mount Shasta, Salt Lake City (Park City) and Mount St. Helens, we see stark, uninterrupted terrains where meaning is made through what it is absent, as much as what is seen. What at first appear to be pure white snow-capped mountains or perhaps the surface of the moon are in fact digitally rendered laser scans of the earth appropriated from United States Geological Survey (USGS) data. These are ‘terrain models’ which are used to measure climate and land change ̶ to measure the earth and man’s effects upon it. Stripped of surface detail there are no signifiers of a natural wilderness or any picturesque aesthetic; there is no invoking of the Romantic Sublime. And yet at the same time those things that might be thought antithetical to the Romantic commitment to ‘nature’ ̶ namely the man-made, the artificial, or the vernacular of the New Topographics photographers ̶ are also absent (see Jenkins 1975). With neither the schema of the Romantic nor the everyday to guide us, Holdsworth absorbs us into a vision of the unknown; a space that is unequivocally, transcendentally, Other.
Whether dealing with natural or built environments, man’s relationship to earth is central to Holdsworth’s work. Looking at the world as though from space, Transmission evokes a sense of capturing something that has never been seen before; something especially powerful as these landscapes have been so visually reproduced throughout history as to become embedded in the popular conscience. This sense of seeing anew is key to the series: Holdsworth is concerned with the feeling of ‘discovery’ that has been long associated with these terrains. It is these landscapes, the then unknown areas of so-called wilderness, where in the nineteenth-century the USGS undertook expeditions to survey and classify American land. The expeditionary parties comprised not only geologists, but photographers and artists who also documented the landscapes, in order to both record their shared findings and to create visual impressions of them. Echoing this process, Holdsworth has collaborated with the Geomorphologist Dr. Stuart Dunning to capture and interpret the data that underpins Transmission. His process returns us to the history of collaborative labour needed to map uncharted territories, and to the roles that artists and photographers have played in their visualisation, that is, creating an image of them in public consciousness. Holdsworth throws light on how we comprehend and value different territories: that is, how we construct different ideas of geography.
Countering the relatively recent perception that these two facets of art and science are mutually exclusive, Transmission can therefore be seen as an exploration of the feedback between culture and science in our perception of place. The series explores the relationships between a ‘rational’ approach to gathering and presenting ‘information’, its communication through artists’ media, and its subsequent entry into the public consciousness – and conscience. This latter, it becomes clear, is especially relevant to the landscapes in question.
The first important photographic record of Yosemite Valley was captured in 1861 by Carleton Watkins (later to become a USGS photographer). Around the same time, when the Grand Canyon was painted by Thomas Moran in his fantastical style (when he accompanied the first USGS expedition to Yellowstone in 1871), both painting and photography attested to the existence of an unspoiled landscape. This ‘unspoiled’ place allowed for the idea of a mythical wilderness to develop: the notion of a “place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness” (Cronon 1995 n.p.) It was this escapist aesthetic that supported the campaigning of conservationist John Muir, whose accounts of an Eden-like territory contributed to the preservation of these spaces and supported legislation for the creation of the U.S National Park Service in 1916. Free of man’s sullying touch, these sanctified areas were seen as where God could be found, and thus, for the poets, philosophers and artists of this time, so too could ‘the sublime’.
Their early twentieth-century take on this idea was as a divine and yet pleasurable one. According to Cronon, Muir invoked “late romantic sense of a domesticated sublime … [his] descriptions of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada reflect none of the anxiety or terror one finds in earlier writers” (Cronon 1995 n.p.). This sublimity could be easily appropriated, or internalised. Carleton Watkins’s stereoscopes of this new frontier helped create the public perception of it as an idealised, almost mythical West: a place of wonder. Here, at least two of Edmund Burke’s three categories of the sublime could seemingly be found: vastness; obscurity; and the terror of the unknown, albeit subsumed into awe, and seen from the safe distance of viewing a picture (Burke 2009). Holdsworth has chosen to work with the same terrains as his subject matter, with all of the baggage that they carry. It is precisely this sense of phenomenological overstimulus, of being overwhelmed by (representations of) ‘nature’, albeit by through new pictorial technologies, that Transmission points us towards. Bringing the artistic and the scientific into a close relationship, or at least proximity, Holdsworth’s process of appropriating data acts to make manifest an intense new form of perception of the ‘natural’ world.
This Romantic version of the West, of the myth of the frontier as an untouched wilderness persists. Its significance in photography is now seen through the lens of its unmaking or undoing by the group of photographers associated with the legendary 1975 exhibition New Topographics. In other discourses, the myth of wilderness endures, particularly in environmentalism and preservation. Though the avant-garde photographers apprehended an entirely different, ‘man-altered’ landscape to their nineteenth-century predecessors, they, like Holdsworth, are all aligned in an embrace of new techniques that allow them to survey a changing world. As Britt Salvesen has written, these photographers of the 1960s and 1970s ̶ Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel Jnr, and Bernd and Hilla Becher ̶ captured the landscape as it existed at a time when “no real models existed for treating the built environment as a subject in and of itself … [the] available precedents [only] portrayed untrammelled wilderness [or] emphasised human despoliation” (Salvesen 2009: 18). This treatment of the American West did not portray ‘outstanding natural beauty’, instead speaking in the language of the everyday. Their work was executed in a ‘survey’ style, that enabled them to purge landscape photography of sentimentality and seemingly even of subjectivity (Salvesen 2009: 13).
Unlike the exalted Romantic ideology associated with Carleton Waktins and later Ansel Adams, the New Topographics photographers adopted a minimalist aesthetic and privileged a sense of detachment that aligned them with their peers who became known as Conceptual artists (such as Ed Ruscha and Carl Andre). Indeed many of the figures in New Topographics are better seen as ‘conceptual artists’ rather than as ‘photographers’. Their portfolios, though ostensibly neutral in intent, were consumed as though political in intent. The polemical un-picturesque presence of industry and labour called to mind early environmentalist politics that posited the Romantic against the real. As Cronon has noted:
This nostalgia for a passing frontier way of life inevitably implied ambivalence, if not downright hostility, toward modernity and all that it represented. If one saw the wild lands of the frontier as freer, truer, and more natural than other, more modern places, then one was also inclined to see the cities and factories of urban-industrial civilization as confining, false, and artificial (Cronon 1995 n.p.)
It is these changing methods of seeing the world, and what we might call a new mechanics of looking that were significant about these artists. They allowed us to see place in a fresh light, and have long illuminated Holdsworth’s practice. Their influence is to the fore in Transmission. As Angus Carlyle observes with regard to Holdsworth’s earlier work, “Lewis Baltz’s Park City project resonates with aspects of some of Holdsworth’s own explorations of the interfaces between transient human inhabitation and its impact on the more durable ecology” (Carlyle 2005: 45).. Expanding his interest in charting shifting human perceptions of the Earth, the significance of this group of photographers to Transmission is made explicit in Holdsworth’s decision to work with imagery of Salt Lake City as it exists today (to which Park City act as a nearby ski station). In these images, landscape is stripped of the detritus of human life, leaving no people, no cars, and no buildings. Instead, the lasting effects of humans upon the planet including climate change are exposed or embedded on its surface like scars. Here, smooth, sparse, terrains portray neither the ideal of an unspoiled terrain, nor any lament for its apparent loss. Although working with signifiers of man’s presence on the landscape, this series could never have the same range of meanings as those of the New Topographics figures. The understanding of what can compromise artistic investigations has changed. The sense of a national economic decline in America in the 1970s (mirrored in England) has long passed (see Lange 2010 n.p.). Instead, what we encounter is a territory laid completely bare, through a scientific and what Holdsworth calls “data-driven” treatment.
Perhaps the most surprising element of this series is what the reduction of information contained in the photographic frame seems to reveal. The cultural complexity of these spaces is belied by the apparent purity of bright white across the picture plane. Reyner Banham’s observation that “the false consciousness exposed by the New Topographics’ irony is that the West was ever pristine, ever uninhabited: even the nineteenth-century photographer, to get his view, left footprints” is key here (Banham 1992: 5). This points both to the myth of the West as an unspoiled wilderness, and to its ideological legacy. As such, it becomes clear that not only does Transmission work with physical maps of the American West, but it functions as a metaphorical kind of ‘mapping’ of the many artistic visions that have claimed this territory as their own. We should see Transmission as creating a document surveying the other imaginative as well as topographic overviews of the land. Holdsworth is working outside of the tradition of wilderness myths, as part of a photographic avant-garde that is the ‘after’ to Carleton Watkins’s and Ansel Adams’s ‘before.’
Holdsworth opens up a conceptual territory that is open to ambiguity, to the ethereal as much as the concrete, and brings the spheres of art and science into relation. His work draws together the familiar and the alien, the industrial and the natural, to query what categories can make sense of the world in the twenty-first century. Here, amongst the discontents of these polarities, the exaltation of discovery can still exist, not least because the ‘man-made’ and the sublime are far from mutually exclusive. Evolving from earlier work such as A Machine for Living (2000), Holdsworth demonstrates that they can and do occupy a shared territory. Just as the Romantic sublime saw the mountain replace the cathedral, so a form of utopian capitalism has replaced the mountain with the shopping mall as the new place of discovery, and self-discovery. As Cronon observes, naturalists from Muir and Thoreau back to Wordsworth can be seen as participating in the same cultural tradition and building a single myth of “the mountain as cathedral” (Cronon 1995 n.p.). Holdsworth extends that tradition by posing a challenge to it.
Transcending the deadpan of the everyday, Holdsworth imbues natural and industrial landscapes with a sense of the virtual. He offers us a digital alchemy that, even when applied to the impassive urban landscape, transcends our immediate comprehension. We might say that he invites us to have inklings of a new apocalyptic frontier rather than present it. This series is perhaps analogous to Blackout (2010) as it is to the photographs exhibited in New Topographics in that this ‘apocalyptic frontier’ is not the territory of the unknown, but a space we know when seen though a different lens. Transmission extends the logic of his earlier bodies of work, where the feeling of virtuality is present in documents of landscapes that already exist, and can be experienced by any of us. In the ‘terrain models’ of Transmission Holdsworth opens our eyes to a reality that is already knowable but which without his intervention would otherwise remain unseen. Here, in what we might call this ‘hyper-reality’, is a conjuring of an electric, technological sublime. We undertake a powerful reckoning with science, and have the unsettling experience of seeing the world anew - and feeling it anew.
As we read this sense of discovery in the legacy of the nineteenth-century Romantic aesthetic, and in the New Topographics’ objectivity, we might remember Bill McKibben’s observation that “we live in a biosphere completely altered by our own activity, a planet in which the human and the natural can no longer be distinguished, because the one has overwhelmed the other” (McKibben 1989 cited in Cronon n1995 n.p.). This is a reminder that Holdsworth is not only treating the American West through a different aesthetic to his predecessors, but the American West itself has been irrevocably changed. Photography’s ‘frontier space’ cannot be seen as being the depiction of a landscape altered by humans through the presence of ‘our’ objects on its surface. Instead, the boundaries of photography lie somewhere deeper. Holdsworth suggests that they lie in plotting how and where humans have changed the very structure of the earth and its processes. One sense we have encountering Transmission is of an unfathomable change made palpable. We might describe this as a renewed sense of ‘discovery’, where we discover what the limits of ‘the human’ are as a domain ̶ which is to say, where ‘the human’ is the sum total of our impact on all other entities. In this, Transmission articulates the historical link between the scientific act of mapping and the artistic connotations of the sublime.
This position offers several poignancies. Challenging the received understanding of these fields of knowledge as autonomous, or working in isolation, Holdsworth’s interest is precisely in the kind of sublime that comes from scientific discovery. This highlights his position in the legacy of the period Richard Holmes terms “The Age of Wonder”: the early nineteenth century. Holmes describes the “beauty and terror” of the “second scientific revolution” ̶ in astronomy, chemistry, and exploratory voyages to undiscovered lands ̶ where science and the arts are united through the pursuit of wonder, of discovery, and the betterment of the human mind (Holmes 2009). One of the few certainties about the sublime is that it is a form of experience at the edge of what can be conceptualised, and therefore of comprehension. It is a response to finding wonder in that which transcends our existing knowledge of the world. From the USGS expeditions that took place in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Age of Wonder’, through to humans visiting the Moon, artists and writers have found sublime experience in the electrical, the technological, even the atomic. In recent years, a constant feature in the representation of sublimity is what we might call the ultimate spatial frontier: outer space (McKibben 1989 cited in Cronon 1995 n.p.).
Through the lunar appearance of the landscapes in Transmission, we are therefore exposed not only to the seeming unfamiliarity of the subject, but also to the sublime’s various guises throughout the history of human ‘exploration’, on earth and into space. This history is also a history of scientific development, of course, in which our latest inventions allow us both to reach new places, and to map and measure their terrain. This allows Holdsworth’s work to be not only a new variant of ‘the sublime’, but a kind of study of its typologies.
Looking to the images of the Grand Canyon, for example, our reaction echoes how Moran’s 1872 painting of this landscape appeared to an East Coast audience at the time where it is “as thrillingly alien as the first photo from the moon would a century later” (Hughes 1997: 199). Elizabeth Kessler has noted that there is a pleasing symmetry to NASA having coloured-in photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope photographs by adapting Moran’s style, similarly in order to provoke awe or wonder (Kessler 2011 n.p.).
Even the works in New Topographics have been described in terms of how the imagery of space exploration affected artists’ understanding of how strange ‘land’ is, and what the exploration of territory involves. Discussing Joe Deal’s work, Britt Salvesen observes that “with their allover texture, otherworldly sheen, and retinal precision, these photographs bear a strong resemblance to those captured by the Ranger moon lander just ten years earlier” (Salvesen 2009: 43). This observation crystallises the notion that even undertaking the most empirical of scientific pursuits, and those which use the most ‘rational’ methodologies, we cannot always predict the results, nor properly quantify our experience of them.
And so, while the process of territorial ‘discovery’ can be mapped through photographs, charts, graphs and other imaging technologies, it becomes apparent that it is the experience of this information where meanings are made. John Schott, speaking about his portfolio Route 66 Motels exhibited in the New Topographics exhibition, noted the following:
The issue of the phenomenology of the image is very important. You can dry out the image, so to speak, but you are still looking at this hallucinatingly [sic] interesting thing you have to confront – the absolute print itself. It is a confrontation, looking at something, and your vision is transformed [in the encounter] (Schott quoted in Salvesen 2009: 46).
The ‘objective’ is far from affectless: indeed enothing could be more emotive. Schott’s remarks could just as easily refer to the seriality of Carlteon Watkins’s stereoscopes as to the Holdsworth’s empiricism and apparent detachment in Transmission. Shorr articulates the idea that, despite the logical conformity of the pictures’ grid structure and their registration of particular temporal and spatial co-ordinates, captured by lasers, in the last instance what engages us is precisely a sense of discovery. Spending time in Holdsworth’s landscapes affords just this sensation. They exist just beyond the parameters of our understanding. Their total absence of markers of scale allows us to get lost inside them, or to lose ourselves in a sense that this is unfamiliar territory. We are invited to confront our own fragility, and the limits of perception. Appropriated from a scientific technique developed to create new forms of knowledge about the world (and to help preserve it), Transmission presents us with an entirely kind of new frontier to discover. We are invited to share in the artist’s wonder not only at the ‘natural’ world and the