Project Related Links:

Ran Prieur
Wasteland Twinning
The Archdruid Report
Club Orlov
The Center for Land Use Interpretation

Recommended Films:
Time of the Wolf (2003)
Darwin’s Nightmare (2004)
Syriana (2005)
Stalker (1979)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Manufactured Landscapes (2006)
Koyaanisqatsi (1982)/Powaqqatsi (1988)
bibliography

Welcome to the Deindustrial Revolution

The modern industrial economy, with its torrential flows of energy and resources, seems as permanent as any human reality can be. This sense of permanence, however, is an illusion. The Herculean feats of this anomalous period in our species’ history are revealed to be transitory as the diminishing returns of complexity and the end of cheap energy consign them to our collective past.

Archeologists identify the recycling of old structures for new uses as one of the distinguishing characteristics of a collapsed society. The reinforced concrete constructions of our age represent significant concentrations of embodied energy and will be widely called upon to perform new functions in a deindustrializing world. Ruins of the most durable of these will persist into a future we’d scarcely recognize.

Using improvisational filmmaking techniques that adhere to the methodology of pure cinema, The Illuminated Thread seeks to identify and document industrial structures with the capacity to function as a cultural bridge, connecting the present to the postindustrial future. Embodying the values and exploits of the industrial age, such structures will someday serve as monuments to this brief and exuberant period.

The global drawdown of Earth’s one-time allotment of fossil energy has erased the possibility that societies of the future will duplicate our industrial model. With this in mind, The Illuminated Thread becomes an exercise in cultural conservation. Photographically preserved in the project’s growing archive, even the less-iconic fixtures of the industrial complex are saved from oblivion. Since periods of decline are historically not well documented, the record is a valuable resource.

All the sites in the project’s catalog were accessed by bicycle, most within the context of a multi-stage cross-country tour. By relying on human-powered transportation to string together points in the US industrial constellation, the project’s system of research and production reflects the reality of increasingly scarce and expensive energy. Additionally, cycling through impacted landscapes permits true immersion in subject and site.

The extraordinary success of the industrial model has brought upon us an uncertain future. As disillusion with the religion of progress spreads, the need for new visions of the future may become an overwhelming force. The Illuminated Thread provides an aesthetic context in which these visions can flourish.

The Illuminated Thread’s archive serves three primary functions:

  1. Expose the often-concealed interconnections between hyper-complex industrial megasystems.
  1. Identify structures with ‘ruin value’—the potential to transmit the legacy of the industrial age to future cultures.
  1. Build a dynamic audio-visual tableau of the industrial world as it enters a prolonged period of contraction.

As the number of sites increases, the degree of connection and interdependence between them is inevitably revealed. A growing archive will more and more forcefully demonstrate the ubiquity of these megastructures, and how the viewer and their modern lifestyle are embedded within this intricately linked network.

This Q & A section fills in the details. The project's complete archive can be viewed here on Vimeo.

Proposed future waypoints

[Note: rollover satellite imagery to reveal ground level photographs.]

 

White Sands Missile Range Museum

The museum associated with one of the largest military facilities in the country, 4,000 square mile White Sands Missile Range, has a large collection of vintage projectiles.

wikipedia page

 

Asarco Copper Smelter

The most conspicuous feature of this 123-acre plant site is its 828-foot sack. That black line in the satellite photo is the towering structure’s shadow.

 

El Paso Copper Refinery

Employing continuous-casting methods, this sprawling complex is one of the world’s largest electrolytic copper refineries.

 

Sierra Blanca Sludge Ranch

If you took a shit in Manhattan between 1992 and 2001, there’s a good chance it ended up at this remote 80,000-acre property in West Texas. What’s likely the world’s largest sludge dump is currently idle.

NY Times article

 

Marfa/Valentine, Texas

The existence of this weird little artist’s colony in the middle of the West Texas desert can be traced back to Donald Judd’s relocation here in 1971. The nearby town of Valentine is home to a sealed time capsule Prada store with “luxury goods from the fall 2005 collection.”

wikipedia page

 

Texas Petrochemical Patch

From Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us:

The Industrial megaplex that begins on the east side of Houston and continues uninterrupted to the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles away, is the largest concentration of petroleum refineries, petrochemical companies, and storage structures on earth.

Q and A

What documentation tools do you use?

An HD camcorder, a pair of binaural microphones, a high-resolution audio recorder and a laptop are all part of my current toolkit. The computer makes it possible to edit images and sound as well as write and post content to the project’s site, all while on the road. Additional tools may be added (or upgrades made) as the need arises while others may be voted off the bike if they fall out of regular use.

In general, I try to keep high technology out of the project: paper maps instead of GPS and no speedometer/odometer. The rule is: if I can’t figure out how it works by looking at it, it doesn’t belong on the ride. The use of high technology shortcuts, effectively magic, means neglecting the innate human skills they’re meant to augment or replace. For example, my intuitive navigation would suffer if a GPS unit were introduced. Developing a dependence on a particular technology means committing to continued use of it. Since high technology is supported by an industrial base of questionable stability, such alliances are unwise.

Obviously an exception is being made for audio/video equipment. Superficially, it may appear hypocritical to use anything with strong ties to a crumbling industrial world. I’m no purist and, believing video to be the medium most capable of revealing the subject—of reflecting our own image back at us, embrace its use and the associated paradox.

Why power plants and refineries?

Industrialization was spread right across the world, carried forward mainly by the power of oil. When the supply of oil wanes that power will subside and industrialization will begin its long retreat.
--E. F. Schumacher

Oil refineries as well as coal and natural gas fired power plants are the most visible points in the hydrocarbon-based systems that built and sustain the industrial world. There’s no way to overemphasize their role in allowing us to run things at the scale we do. In many parts of the world it’s likely to be access to fresh water that first curtails growth, but for the industrialized nations, cheap energy will be the limiting factor. It’s this role as the glass ceiling above further industrial and economic expansion that puts fossil energy in its many manifestations at the forefront of this project.

Why abandonments?

Documenting the ruins left in the wake of industrial civilization’s long retreat is one of the project’s core objectives. They provide a glimpse of the world we are entering and a reminder of the one we’re leaving behind. Abandonment is a powerful cultural motif and I’d like to delve deep into the ruin’s significance in the modern world.

Framing abandonments as symbols of renewal and rebirth will be a common theme here. My hope is that witnessing them be reclaimed by a diversity of plants and animals may prove a rewarding experience more widely shared. When ruined, places once antithetical to life are returned to nature and inherently drift toward greater complexity and beauty. As barometers of local ecological recovery, they may even temper the eco-guilt that will follow us into the future.

I’m drawn to the industrial ruin’s potential to subvert the persistent myth of progress. Demonstrating the transience of all earthly things, they crumble despite utopian promises of endless social advancement. Each is a tangible reminder of the process of succession as it applies to our human communities and living patterns.

A lot of artists are photographing ruins—so many that it’s become its own genre. (There’s even a sort of dark tourism emerging around sites of ruination.) While I doubt any of these artists are working within the context of a multi-year bicycle tour, it’s my positioning of the images within the narrative of an epochal global contraction that really sets them apart. Additionally, I intend to evoke certain moods and emotions that may be outside the typical urban explorer’s set of concerns.

What qualities tie your sites together?

While nearly everything around us is somehow embedded in the legacy of the industrial age, the sites I select are extreme cases. They demonstrate heroic efforts to exploit the environment in pursuit of progress (the California Water Project, open pit mines), and/or the potential to outlast their original function (nuclear power plants, freeway interchanges). Many belong to megasystems that were only possible to build and operate during the period of cheap and abundant energy coming to an end. Embodying the values and pursuits of the industrial age, they’ll someday serve as monuments to this brief and exuberant period in our specie’s history.

Another common quality is restricted access. Fences and walls as well as security personnel equipped with surveillance systems make sites difficult and risky to photograph. I’ve found it of no use to request admittance (“not since 9/11”) and have learned to appreciate the view from just outside the fence. Where I can gain access, as is the case with most abandonments, I take my time and often spend the night.

Why the bicycle?

It could be asked why this travel-based research endeavor couldn’t be carried out with an automobile. While I could certainly cover more ground in less time, I’m in no hurry, and the added costs of maintaining a car would require funds in excess of what I’m prepared to request from my readers. You can completely overhaul a bicycle for as much as it costs to replace your car’s alternator. Perhaps more importantly, I’d lose the autonomy associated with being able to self-power and easily maintain my form of transportation.

The bicycle is an incredibly good device for converting human muscle power into mechanical energy and it’s still the most efficient way of moving a human body over relatively smooth terrain. The bicycle meets all the requirements of a technology well suited to the deindustrial age. It’s durable, independent, replicable, and transparent, meaning you can understand how it works just by looking at it. Not so with what’s under the hood of your Prius. In many ways it’s the quintessential form of post cheap energy transportation and should have no trouble perpetuating itself well into the future.

Unlike traveling while enclosed in a climate controlled glass and steel bubble, the bicycle forces you to contend with the elements. You must learn to move with the weather and the seasons which puts you in tune with nature’s rhythms. The sensual experiences of rain on one’s skin, food smells wafting from kitchens, or the hoot of an owl passing overhead are available to the cyclist while the driver is denied them.

The bicycle is human-scale and moves at human-scaled speeds: slow enough to take in the details yet fast enough to cover significant distances. No one who’s only flown or driven across the country has an accurate sense of its enormity. The massive scale and heavy development that describes many of the landscapes I pass through puts them in a category referred to as the industrial sublime. I’m drawn to finding myself that tiny figure in the industrial landscape that defines its dimensions and is witness to its grandeur. The Monk by the Sea becomes The Cyclist by the Copper Mine.

How long and how far?

We tend to be goal oriented, to expect a final payoff after putting in our time and energy. Rejecting this limiting precept, I adamantly reaffirm that the journey is indeed the destination. My hope is that the thread will evolve onto a sustainable organism, capable of continuing indefinitely. The world accommodates by offering effectively endless places to explore. If The Illuminated Thread were a game, the object would be to keep playing.

With that said, I anticipate it taking several years, perhaps as many as five, to visit and document relevant sites within the world’s industrialized nations. Beyond the US: England, Germany, Russia, the Post-Soviet states, Japan and China are each high on the list. At some point the thread will likely evolve into another project. Perhaps the best sites become shooting locations for a film, or maybe I’ll lead others on pilgrimage rides to abandoned power plants. It’s too early to rule anything out.

The project’s open-ended design does permit mini-goals to be embedded into its larger structure. Segments of the ride, dubbed stages, will serve as units of progress and break up the larger story into more digestible chapters. I’d like to periodically do events and gallery exhibitions to showcase visual and auditory material outside the confines of the Internet. Such happenings would also serve to measure headway.

You’re an artist. Is this Art?

Good artists will make love among the ruins…Good art will always take us by surprise.
--Dave Hickey

There are individuals in a variety of fields looking at the troubled period we’ve entered through the lens of their respective disciplines: geologists, ecologists, writers and policymakers, each with their own skill sets and approach. Having received my training in the language of images, my strength lies in coping with the visual world. If the process of making art involves imagination, a focused investigation, a tapping of the unconscious and the skillful deployment of images and sound to convey what cannot be said with words, then by at least one definition what you’ll find here qualifies.

What about your research process?

This project is built on a foundation of research and theory. I spend long hours sifting through the work of several authors, looking at maps and satellite imagery, corresponding with “experts,” watching geopolitical events and energy markets, synthesizing the information I take in and trying to form a general picture of what’s going on “out there.” In a very real sense, the café I’ve been working in almost daily for the last several months has become my artist’s studio.

Artists often find themselves a member of a group of practitioners with overlapping interests. Although not necessarily explicitly, they’re in dialogue with these individuals, pushing the conversation forward. My “group” consists of four contemporary writers/thinkers: Ran Prieur, James Howard Kunstler, John Michael Greer and Dimitri Orlov.

Because I’ve no official qualifications outside art, I’m (by default) a generalist: trying to connect the dots and construct a larger picture of what’s occurring. I consider this position a strength as I’m free to let my interests wander and educate myself in whatever subjects I should need to. It could be argued that hyper-specialization is contributing to our inability to make sense of what’s happening to us. Being an artist with the freedom to pick and choose where I focus my attention gives me an advantage in understanding our changing circumstances.

Who is your (ideal) audience?

My hope is to maintain a modestly sized group of intelligent readers. If you’ve read this far you’re probably perfect.

What are the videos about?

Without clearly defined narrative arcs or characters, the video vignettes fall within the realm of pure cinema. The approach is to simply document what’s there and let the visual compositions, editing, and sound-visual relationships deliver the emotional experience. The absence of constructed situations and scenarios leaves plenty of room for the viewer to arrive at his or her own meanings and insights. So how the videos function and what they convey will be largely determined by the subjective experience of the viewer.

While remaining open to many reads, the vignettes are designed to establish setting and mood, not unlike the opening shots of a film. But what’s beginning is no movie, but a new and unfamiliar time for mankind. This makes the videos stronger as a whole—as entries in a larger archive. They’re fragments that, as they grow in number, will coalesce into a detailed image of the industrial world at its most hectic and troubled moment, still chugging away on fumes. By photographically preserving these places, in a certain sense they are saved from death. Since periods of decline are historically not well documented, the record is a valuable resource.

By capturing the otherworldly, almost supernatural character of such places, especially sites of ruination, I hope to reveal their spiritual value. Far from being simply a place of decay, an industrial abandonment offers beauty and romance as well as a rare authentic experience for the visitor. Highlighting such qualities, the videos are concerned with the mystification of former industrial sites, transforming them into mythic ruins.

What are the donation gifts about?

If you’ve visited the Support section, you probably detected a hint of satire in the list of donation gifts and services. While the page is an appropriate place to exhibit a sense of humor, what might appear to originate from irony and cynicism is actually rooted in earnestness and sincerity. Also, the placement of gifts into hierarchical “donation levels” is an attempt to assign value to the objects the project produces—its artistic detritus.

While I would hope the ultimate reward would be watching the project flourish and enjoying the visual and auditory material produced as it penetrates new territory, it’s nice to get something tangible for one’s dollars. Fortunately, the tour provides a nearly continuous stream of found objects as well as digital content that lends itself to commodification for just such a purpose. For example, derelict sites are treasure troves of lost and abandoned objects that can be reframed as artifacts and reintroduced into the world as commodities. As Tim Edensor puts it, “they have already passed through the process of becoming waste but then are re-figured, re-categorized as valuable “found sculpture” proving obsolescence can be a somewhat fluid category.”

What isn’t this project about?

The Illuminated Thread is not a travel diary, a form of esoteric post-industrial tourism, a vacation or a pleasure ride. It’s difficult and lonely work I have no intention of romanticizing. The images I present are not intended to function as discrete aesthetic objects and should not be separated from the conceptual framework of the larger project.

While I enjoy testing the frontiers of highly secured environments and being in places I’m not supposed to be, I enter them in pursuit of much more than the thrill of transgression and a few illicit snapshots.

Long bicycle tours are nothing new. Of the many folks riding great distances at this very moment, most are simply enjoying some well-earned time off while others are touting various causes: raising money for skin cancer or global warming. While I support such endeavors, this ride has a much different set of concerns. Donations go into a general fund, extending the life of the project farther into the future.

Can I find you on any social networking sites?

Working within the rigid templates of Facebook and the like would mean surrendering control of the look and functionality of my posted content. Additionally, their use would create a redundancy and introduce unwanted advertising into the project. I’m into networking and connecting with people in general, believing our human relationships will continue to be among our most valuable assets, but when it comes to large corporations, the desire to maintain a healthy distance form their advertising outweighs any benefits their services might provide.

The Illuminated Thread is an ongoing research venture committed to documenting and interpreting the contraction phase of the industrial age. The project’s growing archive of active and disused industrial sites identifies structures capable of communicating the ethos of our age to the cultures of the future. Set within the context of an open-ended bicycle tour, the project employs modalities connected temporally, viscerally and spiritually to the living world—the antithesis of advanced industrial mechanization.