LANDSCAPES OF THE LATE ANTHROPOCENE  

Philip Zimmermann (2017)

 

About two years ago I read an online article by Sarah Zhang, entitled “The “Harvard Sentences” Secretly Shaped the Development of Audio Tech”. http://gizmodo.com/the-harvard-sentences-secretly-shaped-the-development... .  The article was about a fascinating subject, the creation of a series of text lines that were used to test the fidelity of spoken words when broadcast over military and civilian radio transmitters. What ended up being 720 lines of text started as a series of short sentences that were meant to test the accuracy of military communication systems towards the end of the Second World War. They were developed in the basement of Harvard’s Memorial Hall, hence the informal name “Harvard Sentences" which is often included alongside the project's official title, “IEEE Recommended Practices for Speech Quality Measurements”.

 

The sentences are originally designed to be “phonetically balanced, meaning that the frequency of sounds in these lists matched that of natural language.” What I found especially interesting about these 720 sentences –72 lists of ten sentences each– is that they are mysteriously poetic and timeless. But they can also be thought of as metaphor for determining (or not) meaning from the static, transmitted signal from noise. We, as the populations and governments of planet earth, certainly have not yet registered the dire warning message of global warming. You can read the Harvard Sentences here.   Aside from the very early ones which were written during the war, it is difficult to ascribe any line or set of sentences to a particular author. They are still used by segments of the government and industry to this day.

 

Something about the text itself seemed haunting, in an old-fashioned, almost nostalgic sort of way. I wondered if I could use some version of them as a text to a book on climate change that I had started thinking about. I had done a similar kind of found-text editing for my book Long Story Short years ago, where I used aphorisms and cliché truisms to tell a narrative story. My son, Nick, an urban planner and GIS professional, had been researching changes in global sea-level projections as modeled by NASA, NOAA, and other agencies. The infographic visualizations that were used to show sea-rise levels over the next 100 years were unbelievably scary, and much worse than the figures often cited in the newspapers and normal media channels. These figures showed an eventual rise, with all polar caps and glaciers completely melted, of over two hundred feet!

 

An article in the just published July 2017 issue of the National Geographic magazine, entitled Antartica is Melting, and Giant Ice Cracks Are Just the Start is very scary. Read it here.

 

When I thought of a sea level rise of two hundred feet and what that could mean in terms of our cities and our society, the future seemed incredibly bleak. For the landscapes in the book, I decided to create a dystopian set of images that hinted at a future watery world, one where the remnants of civilizations lived in armed and guarded towers, growing their food in vertical farms inside these towers. The rest of the world population would have mostly died off. Marauding remnants existed in small groups that would try to gain entrance into these armed tower structures. The backgrounds of these images were built using scans of steel engravings from several 19th century books. I used photos of water and waves to make the foregrounds. I have long been interested in airport control towers and have many photos of them around the world. They seemed to me like the modern version of towers on medieval castles. Using a web app by the programmer Evan Wallace, called webgl-filter, I changed the airport control tower photos into dithered images that looked more like the background steel engravings. The assembly and coloration of the images was done in Photoshop. The goal was to create a series of images of a forbidding and lonely watery world, one that was austerely beautiful but scary and thought-provoking.

 

Last Fall, Brad Freeman, of the Journal of Artists’ Books (JAB), wrote to me and asked if I would like to contribute an artists’ book to JAB Issue No.41, to be printed in the Spring of 2017. He gave me a number of possible size formats and I picked a smaller sized one that was 48 pages. The two-page spreads were to be four-color, alternating with a duotone spread using a color pair of my own devising. The book that I had originally planned was to be larger than JAB’s 4.5” x 5.5” size format with the whole book full color. But I liked the idea of using a dark-blue Pantone spot color, with silver as the duotone set for the alternating pages, since I rarely get to use metallic silver (or offset) anymore. I love silver offset ink, and metallic inks are rarely available to me now that I mostly use pigmented inkjet or digital print-on-demand for printing my books. I decided to have Brad Freeman produce this as a special version of the book for JAB, but I still plan to do a larger and longer version of the same subject matter. Brad agreed to send me 20 unbound printed copies of the JAB No.41 version, so that I could 'case' those in and give them out to family and friends. In general I don’t like self-covering books like the version that is included in the JAB journal, though I am grateful for the excellent production and printing that Brad and his grad student achieved. They did a great job. See:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gvTgBOBHjU .

 

For the duotone pages I used two sets of images. For the blue background, I used Google earth satellite views of water and shorelines, printed in that deep blue Pantone color. NOAA images of maritime depth charts were used for the silver depth numbers and contour lines. Editing and selecting the Harvard Sentences was a great deal of fun. There were so many that I felt had poetic resonance with the subject matter, starting with the initial text line, “There is a lag between thought and action” which seemed the perfect way of describing where we as earthlings are in regards to climate change.

 

The twenty unbound copies that Brad sent were sewn and cased-in by me, with a silver foil-stamped title on the cover. I am hoping to create the second, larger version, in 2018, and publish an expanded edition of fifty copies myself, using pigmented inkjet, and letterpress with metallic silver ink for the text and contour lines on the alternating spreads. I am planning on having about 96 pages instead of the current 48 pages.

 

This version is 4.5” x 5.5”. The text block is printed by offset at the Center for Book and Paper at Columbia College Chicago on their Heidelberg GTO. The hard cover boards and end sheet pastedown were printed by myself using pigmented archival inkjet, and foil-stamped on the cover and blind embossed title on the spine. If you would like a copy of the JAB version go to: http://www.journalofartistsbooks.org/JAB-OrderForm.pdf ; I think there are still copies available.

 
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