Nicolai Howalt – A Journey: the Near Future
Experiencing Nicolai Howalt’s A Journey: The Near Future is a complex process. Or at least it was for me. At first glance, I saw just reprints of photographs taken by rovers on Mars, some of which I thought I had already seen online. Barren landscapes of Martian dust, in irregularly shaped, jagged panoramas stitched from several frames. But these reprints lacked colour, the instantly recognisable reddish brown of the images I thought I had seen before. They first looked like a possible reference back to images of the Moon landings from the 1960s, to the greyness of the Moon where, even when shot in colour, the landscape is black and grey, and only the Earthlings and their gear bring splashes of saturation. The Martian atmosphere makes the sky lighter than on the Moon, but the book’s cover design places one of the panoramas in a black field. Why do this, I thought? Is this a memory lane back to the Cold War, the Space Race, nuclear arms competition?
Howalt’s book stirs one’s habitual assumptions about not only how and why we look at photographs, but also about how they and we, all of us collectively and individually, are actually situated in the long continuum of history—which we can only hope will not repeat itself without limit.
Looking through the imagery more slowly didn’t really help at first. The book’s design is almost as stark as the landscapes it shows. The image plate section shows panorama after panorama, each one spanning a whole spread at a time. Well printed, extremely sharp imagery, carefully set in the middle of a grey rectangle of equal proportions throughout the book. And the pages have a subtle, beautiful silvery sheen, almost like they might be harking back to early photographic processes with silvery chemistry—even the reflective Daguerreotype. Again, the book’s simple layout took me back to the 20th century. It reminded me of modernist books—Karl Blossfeldt with a plant in the middle of a frame; or August Sander; someone with a cataloguing or archival and thoroughly ‘straight’ approach to photography. Nicely, even beautifully done, I thought—but then what?
There is a lot more to the book than this. The concept does some heavy lifting. Already the title suggests something complex. The near future; space and time woven into a familiar linguistic expression, but also into an oddly messy package. How can we actually talk of a point in time as being near — or far, for that matter? A moment of time is everywhere, is it not? The philosopher Henri Bergson might wake up to remind us about his warnings against mixing our conceptions of space and time too much. Albert Einstein with his space-time ‘fabric’ might prick his ears. We’re clearly dealing with something more challenging, more interesting here.
The virtue of this book is that it does not shy away from being a book—something to be experienced without rushing. It includes texts, and interesting and quite substantial ones at that. Howalt’s own introduction finally began to tether my drifting thoughts: the book is intended as an exploration of scientific photographs of Mars, their place in the history of photography, science and humanity. The book in fact shows cutting-edge scientific, digital photographs by Mars rovers translated into silver-based analogue printing.
Temporally the images therefore fold about 200 years into every single spread. The earliest and the latest photographic technology collide in this book; the contemporary is translated into the language of the past. Images of Mars become something like travellers’ photographs from the early history of the medium. Some photographers of the 19th century used the then new technology not only to survey areas of geographic exploration, but also to aid military planning and record keeping, or to explore trade routes newly opened by colonial military conflicts. Some British photographers’ images of the Himalayan mountains and the river Yangtze taken after the Opium Wars, or of Abyssinia during the 1868 expedition, even Fenton’s famous Valley of the Shadow of Death, are in many ways similar to Howalt’s images of Mars. By reminding us about the past of photography, these images show a potential conflict brewing in the future: Mars as the next frontier in human colonial acquisition, the next point of competition for living space and resources as we exhaust the resources of our current home. Perhaps even my initial reaction of seeing the book as referring to the Moon landings and the Cold War was not that far off the mark after all. Speaking about Mars in the language of the past, the book might have said something about the Earth’s present and future too. 20th-century political divisions have now been openly reactivated and will clearly shape our future for a long time to come. One day soon, they might shape life on Mars as well.
The other texts are by Anja C. Andersen and Morten Bo Madsen, both scientists from the Niels Bohr Institute, and Harald Voetmann, an author, translator, and scholar of historical scientific figures. The essays place the images between two poles: a coolly rational, scientific approach, and the intense, quite bluntly worded, more subjective reactions of a writer from a more cultural, historical, personal angle. The scientists see the photography of the space rovers as materials of research into the origins of life. Objective evidence of liquid water, the possibility of organic biology on the planet. Voetmann seems to find in them his own conflicted feelings about the universe—whether or not to bother about it; it doesn’t seem to bother about us humans much; but at least Howalt’s analogue prints humanise Mars a little.
Are we alone in the system? If we are, what does it mean—if anything? If we aren’t, then what? Are we pointless lumps of matter, marginal side products of the cosmic process? Or something more…?
Both approaches surely arise from similar questions: our place in the cosmic system, our value, or lack thereof, to it. Are we alone in the system? If we are, what does it mean—if anything? If we aren’t, then what? Are we pointless lumps of matter, marginal side products of the cosmic process? Or something more—are we at least a bit special in being the only side products of a presumably self-conscious, ‘intelligent’ sort? Where did we, or rather this matter that is us at the moment, actually come from?
The book’s pendular oscillations ended up taking me back to my own, in part painful awakening to the paradoxes of time, space and extension. These paradoxes came to me around the age of eleven, when I saw an early digital stopwatch split a second into hundredths, and learned about science that shows our ‘own’ star swallowing the planets orbiting it in its dying process some time in the future; for humanity to survive, we will need to move well beyond the Solar System—Mars is only a stepping stone.
These experiences instantly also forced the question of limits, perhaps of security among all the intrigue, on me: is there a limit to spatial and temporal extension, whether a smallest or highest extension? And if there isn’t, what do these words, time and space, really pick out from the world? With some physical pain, I concluded that they pick out nothing (and, foolishly, told my friends and family so). These realisations together shattered my basic childhood assumptions, my childhood sense of the solidity of things; space, time, and eventually matter, became open questions rather than fixed realities. Perhaps I went through something similar to what the neurologist Oliver Sacks once spoke of: moving from a vision of the universe as a stable, eternal order (which he had seen represented in the neatness of the periodic table) to a vision of it as an evolving organism. The cosmos around us can—and does—change, and we need to change with it, if we are to survive; if there’s a point to surviving.
In the end, I saw Howalt’s book as staging a deliberate, multidirectional tug of war: in these images, the past, the present, and the future, the spatially near and the spatially distant, the objective and the subjective, the scientific and the artistic, all push and pull me in ways that make me feel reflective, to say the least. The book intends to provoke questions and succeeds at it. It stirs one’s habitual assumptions about not only how and why we look at photographs, but also about how they and we, all of us collectively and individually, are actually situated in the long continuum of history—which we can only hope will not repeat itself without limit.