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One Hundred Years of Exposure

An interview with artist and critic Jonathon Keats, who recently implemented a project in Berlin where participants will anchor pinhole "century cameras" around the city to record its changes over a period of 100 years.
June 19, 2014, 5am PDT | James Brasuell
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Jonathon Keats

Described as an act of "intergenerational surveillance," the Century Camera project was implemented last month in Berlin but it will not reveal its products until the distant future—May 16, 2114, if all goes well. Instead of supplementing the growing powers of surveillance in the era of "Big Data," the project reverses traditional power dynamics by preemptively granting the power of observation to an unborn generation; as such, it's a powerful thought exercise for the planners and urban designers responsible for shaping and creating the environments of the future.

Can you start by describing the pinhole cameras, how and where they will be placed around Berlin, and what the images produced at the end of this experiment will look like?

It's a pinhole camera, essentially, which is the simplest kind of camera that you can possibly make. You take a tin can and punch a hole in it. The hole is small to focus the light, which also has the advantage of minimizing the amount of light that gets into the camera—an important consideration since this is to be an exposure of 100 years.

I tried to make the simplest mechanism I possibly could, based on the fact that anything that could possibly break probably will. Also, with the simple technology of the camera it's more likely that someone in 100 years will be able to take it apart and extract the image.

Instead of photosensitive materials, I use ordinary black paper. With ordinary paper, the ink will fade in time, so black paper takes advantage of that defect. Using this technique, you end up with a unique positive image that will very, very slowly develop inside the camera.

Then you just break open the camera after 100 years, and, provided that the light conditions worked out, you end up with an image of whatever it is that the camera was facing for that full period of time.

If there was change, for instance, if there was a building that was taken down and another one built in its place, you'll see both of the buildings—a double exposure, in effect. The building that was there for a shorter period of time will be fainter and the one that was there for longer will be bolder.

You'll also see repetitive action. You won't be able to see an individual person who stands in front of the camera, but you will see, for instance, a traffic pattern, where cars pass over a period of, say, 30 years in one configuration. If the streets change and for the remaining period of time the cars are moving another way, you would see both patterns, and each would be visible in proportion to the amount of time traffic moved that way. You're getting a film, all in one frame. It condenses the entire period of time and everything that has transpired.

I'm thinking of it as really a visualization of streams. Is that right? What would happen if you pointed it at a river, for example?

There are many good examples of photos of rivers if you look at the history of photography: Carleton Watkins, for instance, and Eadweard Muybridge when they were doing work in nature in the Yosemite Valley. The photos with a long exposure time have a soft focus effect, where you get the average of the wave patterns in the water. With the Century Camera, it would be a similar effect taken to an even greater extreme, where you would have these lines of passage for something that was happening repeatedly where you had cars or people passing in front of the camera on a regular basis.

Some of the media coverage of this project so far has focused on its surveillance aspect, but really it's not surveillance of any individual act or even life. It's really a witnessing of collective activity. Is that a fair assessment?

Surveillance has been used within our society in ways that I find to be unacceptable—an invasion of privacy—but surveillance does not necessarily need to be directed at an individual. The question is whether there is an appropriate way in which surveillance can work, or if there is an appropriate audience for surveillance. The other question is whether this process is permissible when it becomes a way of reflecting on the times surveillance invades our privacy.

One issue in surveillance is whether there's a meaningful difference between observing an individual and a composite: Does big data invade privacy? But it also gets into who the viewer is and what the dynamic of power is. One motivation of this project is to preemptively hand over power to a generation not yet born, which is ultimately affected by everything that we do. It inverts the conventional power dynamic.

But what you said a moment ago is absolutely right: The Century Camera is not only a surveillance camera. It would be equally meaningful to speak of it as a black box in the sense of in an airplane recording the events of a flight, or as a time capsule that makes itself as time passes.

I wouldn't want to imply that any one of those interpretations is correct. I simply put an idea out there in the form of an object that people can interact with, and I allow for all possible interpretations to take place.

The cameras have to stay in place for 100 years to capture the changes we want to observe. How is Berlin uniquely suited, or perhaps dangerous, to the hope that these objects can stay in place in either a natural or a built structure for 100 years? What are some of the criteria that you've seen people considering, or that you would consider, in placing the cameras?

There are at least two very difficult questions that confront anybody who takes one of these cameras out into the world. First you have to consider where to put it that won't change over that period of time. Where can you conceal it well enough that it is unlikely to be disturbed?

Second, and probably more difficult, you have to ask what subject is worthy of a picture that takes 100 years' exposure time. What might change in ways that are deeply pertinent to the future of society from your point of view?

I have found that people have thought about the first question in terms of spaces they can control, such as a family house. Another option is the monumental. For instance, the Berlin Wall—most of it came down, but what remained after 1989 when the wall was taken down became a monument, a memorial unlikely to be disturbed.

The view through a pinhole camera with a much shorter exposure (Image: Jonathon Keats)

People have also thought about graveyards, for instance, places that are sacred in one way or another, and that's an interesting way of thinking about the problem. I haven't asked very specific questions because it would not be in the spirit of the project to do so.

You're crowd sourcing these locations, and you're giving a lot of freedom to the participants to select these places.

In an attempt at giving autonomy to each individual, while at the same time suggesting some sort of broader effort that could operate cooperatively, I've inscribed a serial number on each of a hundred cameras. The serial number corresponds to sectors on a grid of the city. When you take a camera, you see what sector the serial number corresponds to on the map, and place the camera somewhere in that sector. That way it doesn't end up that in 100 years every single photo is of Neukölln, the district where Team Titanic Gallery is located. [Ed's note: Team Titanic gallery is the planned site of the centennial exhibition of the images captured by the century cameras on May 16, 2114.]

This also broadens the thought process about the places that might be significant. When all the Neukölln cameras are gone and you end up with a camera that corresponds to Spandau, it becomes very interesting as a citizen of Berlin to think about Spandau in terms of its significance over the long term. So there's a crowd sourcing of the placement of the cameras, but there's also a crowd sourcing of the thought process that goes into what the city is and what it might become.

Planners and designers have a limited number of tools to visualize what the future might look, like 3D modeling and data projections. One of the interesting things about this project is that the photographs will produce a record of the past, but it's still very much a forward-looking activity. It implies a responsibility to the future. What are your hopes for this exercise as a visualization tool for the people responsible for the forms our cities take?

It's an internal visualization, meaning you aren't going to see the image as it develops. And most people will not be directly involved in the placement of the cameras, but they'll be aware of the fact that the cameras are out there.

What I hope happens is that you project yourself into the distant future, looking back at yourself in process of living in the present. There's a potential for a positive feedback loop of responsibility that might evolve from that process. That is to say, you can look at yourself, at your city, and at your involvement in development and planning from the perspective of people who will be affected by it in the future. You become a surrogate, in effect, for those people, or at least you gain a sort of self-consciousness.

That maybe is a way in which the surveillance concept comes into play. It is a little disturbing that because these cameras are going out in the city unauthorized, almost anything can be a vantage and also almost anything can be a subject of this process of watching.

I don't think that this project has to be done in the way that I've done it in Berlin. There are countless ways in which to improve upon this project. First instance, we could place many more cameras. The total budget we had on this project was around€100. Many more cameras would result in a greater statistical likelihood of cameras surviving and also a much better, much bigger picture of the city. Placing cameras through time could also be a part of that process.

There can also be involvement at an official level. What if every new building included one of these cameras, or many of these cameras, built into the edifice in a very solid and overt way? They would not be hidden in this case, but you would be interacting with your environment through buildings erected for the present but with an eye to the future.

The Century Camera, anchored in place. (Image: Jonathan Keats)

Much in the way that buildings have cornerstones that have a date on them, they might have cameras that become cornerstones to the future. Developers who are reading this publication could very easily, just as a matter of personal choice, start placing these cameras, and at some point in the future, the city could mandate or suggest this project for all new buildings.

Cornerstone cameras would allow developers to connect with citizens, both now and in the future. There tends to be an us-versus-them battle in many cities, including Berlin and San Francisco, where I come from. There are developers, and there are those who are opposed to development. This is a false dichotomy, which can be dissolved with more interaction between these two parties. If developers, who are at the center of that debate by virtue of being the actors in the process, were to take this technology and to make it part of their building process, it might be a way of reaching across that divide and involving everyone in a more productive conversation.

You've begun this project in Berlin, but you have plans to expand to other cities. Can you share any of those plans and also talk about how someone interested in undertaking the project in their city would go about that?

At this point, the conversations are informal. I'm talking with people in Los Angeles and in Phoenix. Outside of the United States, I've been talking with people in Mexico City and Cairo.

I hope that people will take this up all over the world, and I don't need to have any part in it. The technology is totally open source. Basically, all that it requires is making a pinhole camera with a piece of black paper in it. Anybody can do it, and anybody can organize it in any way they choose.

To me it would be most interesting if the United Nations were to become involved. This could become a UNESCO project, where everybody as a birthright would be given one of these cameras. A camera could cost as little as a tenth of a cent to make. It would be much less resilient than those in Berlin, but because there would be so many more of them, some of them would survive. Then you could have a rotating exhibit starting 100 years from now, where every day cameras would be brought out from hiding and the images would be scanned for online viewing. You'd have a kind of continuous view of the future, forever renewed.

The future is present. (Image: Jonathon Keats)

That might be a way for the project really become an all-involving process of escaping the here-and-now and making the future more than an abstraction, Instead we could participate in the future in an active way that bridges generations. I simply put the suggestion out there and happily would help anybody, anywhere to enact the project. Ultimately, it is going to come down to governments, organizations and individuals deciding to take this on. I'm here to help make that happen.

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