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This is the Sublime of Our Time
Alex Steffen, 24 Jul 08

Stewart Brand writes up Ed's talk thusly:

Photographer Edward Burtynsky made a formal proposal for a permanent art gallery in the chamber that encloses the 10,000-year Clock in its Nevada mountain. The gallery would consist of art in materials as durable as the alloy steel and jade of the Clock itself, and it would be curated slowly over the centuries to reflect changing interests in the rolling present and the accumulating past. Photographs in particular should be in the 10,000-year Gallery, Burtynsky said, “because they tell us more than any previous medium. When we think of our own past, we tend to think in terms of family photos.”

But photographic prints, especially color prints, degrade badly over time. Burtynsky went on a quest for a technical solution. He thought that automobile paint, which holds up to harsh sunlight, might work if it could be run through an inkjet printer, but that didn’t work out. Then he came across a process first discovered in 1855, called “carbon transfer print.” It uses magenta, cyan, and yellow inks made of ground stone—the magenta stone can only be found in one mine in Germany—and the black ink is carbon.

On the stage Burtynsky showed a large carbon transfer print of one of his ultra-high resolution photographs. The color and detail were perfect. Accelerated studies show that the print could hang in someone’s living room for 500 years and show no loss of quality. Kept in the Clock’s mountain in archival conditions it would remain unchanged for 10,000 years. He said that making one print takes five days of work, costs $2,000, and only ten artisans in the world have the skill, at locations in Toronto, Seattle (link), and Cornwall. Superb images can be made on porcelain (or Clock chamber walls), but Burtynsky prefers archival watercolor paper, because the ink bonds deep into the paper, and in the event of temperature changes, the ink and paper would expand and contract together.

The rest of the presentation was of beautiful and evocative photographs from three demonstration exhibits for the proposed gallery—”Museum of the Mundane” by Vid Ingelvics; “Observations from a Blue Planet” by Marcus Schubert; and “In the Wake of Progress” by Burtynsky himself. A typical Burtynsky photograph showed a huge open pit copper mine. A tiny, barely discernible black line on one of the levels was pointed out: “That’s a whole railroad train.” Alberta tar sands excavation tearing up miles of boreal forest. China’s Three Gorges Dam. Mine tailing ponds beautiful and terrible. Expired oil fields stretching to the horizon. Michelangelo’s marble quarry at Carrera, still working.

“This is the sublime of our time,” said Burtynsky, “shown straight on, for contemplation.”

Original post on Long Now.

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