The Camera With the 1,000-Year-Long Exposure

Surveillance systems have long been criticized over their problematic usage as mechanisms for institutional censorship and voyeuristic invasions of privacy. Now, a photographic time capsule experiment is reimagining this technology not as a means to suppress, but  as a tool to transform our relationship with the environment and implement sustainable development.

Using pin-hole cameras — simple devices that capture images via pin-sized holes rather than modern-day lenses — Jonathon Keats, an experimental philosopher and researcher at Arizona State University, is attempting to document landscapes around the world over the course of the next thousand years. 

“I’ve been trying to figure out how we can somehow instill some sense of the consequences of our actions over a span of time that in some way coincides with or reflects the degree to which we affect our environment,” Keats said in an interview with Hyperallergic

“In other words, how to create a relationship through time with those who are affected by our actions today, so that we can consider our actions from their perspective, from their vantage,” he continued. “Photography seemed like a particularly interesting way in which to go about this.”

A close-up view of the Millennium Camera, constructed out of a copper cylinder with a punctured gold sheet. (photo by Ryland West)

Titled “the Millennium Camera,” the project employs photographic devices created out of light-proof copper cylinders that allow only small trickles of light to enter through thin gold sheets punctured with pin-sized holes. As light passes through the device, it will gradually imprint an image onto a light-sensitive surface coated in layers of red madder oil pigment and rubbed with pumice and garlic, inspired by a Renaissance oil painting technique. The resulting impression in 3023 will be a projection of the camera’s view of the landscape.

The daring 1,000-year venture began in 2015, when Keats and his team installed the first Millennium Camera on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe, then later stationed two other cameras at Amherst College in Massachusetts and Lake Tahoe in Nevada. Most recently, another camera has been mounted on top of Tucson’s Tumamoc Hill, where it overlooks the city’s Star Pass neighborhood. Later this year, Keats and his research team plan to install other cameras in the Austrian Alps and in Los Angeles. They are also currently looking into possible locations in China.

The 1,000-year timelapse builds upon a previous ongoing experiment that aims to document Berlin over the course of a century. That project started in 2014 when Keats along with team titanic gallery distributed 100 cameras to the German capital’s residents, who were instructed to hide the cameras and reveal their locations to the next generation. Until those cameras are opened in 2114, their locations — and statuses — remain undisclosed to Keats and the gallery.

“It’s a network of cameras that are each engaging the local community where they are situated. But all of them together are taking this composite view — essentially an image that will show change through time,” Keats said.

The Millennium Camera installed on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe (photo by Jonathon Keats)

Keats admitted that there is no guarantee that the cameras will withstand 1,000 years, noting that there are “myriad ways in which this could fail,” whether by natural degradation or future human intervention. But whether or not the cameras last the duration of the experiment is not necessarily the point.

“The idea is that you’re able to see what has changed and what has remained constant,” Keats said. “And this is activating a sense of responsibility in terms of the decisions that we make because the decisions we make will be visible in what the camera shows.”

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