Liminal Camera: Drought
Exhibition Dates: Opening 10/22/16 on view through 11/27/16
1040 MASS MoCA WAY North Adams, MA 01247
In 2010, Lauren Bon, and artists Richard Nielsen and Tristan Duke formed the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio, which is devoted to reinventing photography in a post-industrial era. Their exhibition, focusing on the epic drought in the American West, opens at MASS MoCA on October 22nd.
Since photographing the Rochester Kodak factories as the company declared bankruptcy, the Optics Division has embraced a return of the medium to its alchemical, and handmade foundations. The team has sought to re-contextualize photography as a land-based practice that explores the photochemical agency of the natural landscape. From mining silver in the Sierra Nevada Mountains; to making gelatin from local cattle; and formulating developers out of native plants and mineral sediments of the Owens Valley—the Optics Division has made photographs that are literally of the land.
The central tool for this work is the Liminal Camera—a giant functioning camera made from a 20-foot shipping container, which can be seen in the courtyard of MASS MoCA from October 22nd through to November 27th. The team has traveled the country making photographs with the Liminal for the past six years. Transported by flatbed truck, barge or train, the Liminal is both a camera and a darkroom in which the Optics Division captures and develops monumental format negatives. The word “liminal” refers to a threshold and an in-between space—a fitting name for a camera where people are invited to come inside, and experience where image and place meet.
The selection of images on view at MASS MoCA represent Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio’s sustained engagement with the Owens Valley. The Owens Valley was drained dry by the thirst of the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, 200 miles to its south. Opened in 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which ferries water from the Valley, still provides LA with 35% of its water supply. Bon and The Metabolic Studio’s first action of reconciliation occurred in 2009 when she drove a tanker truck of water from the LA River and deposited it back in the lakebed. In 2013, on the 100th anniversary of the LA Aqueduct’s opening, Bon led 100 mules on a 28-day (one lunar cycle) journey, tracing the entire length of the aqueduct.
The search for photo-reactive elements in the Owens Valley led the Optics Division to a blood-red pool of briny water in the dried lakebed. Teeming with extremophile bacteria, the pool proved to be a concentrated source of sodium thiosulphate—a chemical “fixer” essential to the photographic process. One night, under a blanket of stars, the team took a Liminal negative and buried it in one of these pools. The next morning, the image was not only fixed but also transformed by a flow of chemical reactions.
The Optics Division’s practice in the alchemical landscape of the Owens Valley results in images that bear the trace of their own making; photographs in and of the landscape imbued with the very chemical composition of the Valley. Mineral residue obscures the image, while also revealing the starkness of this solitary landscape, including the dead trees that are casualties of the dropping water tables and droughts in the region. These images are at once beautiful and heartbreaking. Some contain aurora borealis-like swirls across the surface like the oil slick of a troubled environment. Equally, this iridescence can symbolize a rainbow of hope that this landscape may be healed, and prevail.