Erika: So I’m thinking, let’s start by articulating some entry points into each of our approaches, both for ourselves and for our readers and viewers. We all have such different backgrounds: visual arts, sound, geology, music. What do you see when you look at something like the salt flats? What is made possible by your training as a geologist, and what do you see on a perhaps more philosophical level, as a curious person in the world?

Jonathan: So when I look at the salt flats, it depends a little on which hat I’m wearing. Geologist, chemist, philosopher/human… but the salt flats really evoke the geologist first. The first thing I see is a dried up lake. I see, or try to see, the place that it was. In the case of the salt flats, we have something hot and dessicated, but in the not-so-distant past it would have been cooler, with deep blue waters and vegetation and life all around the shore. In a way, trying to remove myself from the place and time that I’m in is also an exercise in being a human trying to understand his place in the world.

What do you see?

E: I like this idea of the geologist as time traveler. For me, the first things that come to mind are human activities that have taken place in landscapes like this. The history of photography is intimately linked to certain projects and activities that have happened in the American West, all tied to power in different ways (settler colonialism, Westward expansion, atomic testing). So we have the layering in my mind of the history of photography, plus present day human relationships to the land. Time just... folds in on itself here. The land speed records, the military activity that happens, for starters. They built the Enola Gay here, the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb. And what else obliterates time more completely than the a-bomb?

The idea of recording is also very present in my mind: the land as recording. A record of history that we can read if we have the right tools, starting with you. 

J: Very interesting. Human activities are often the last thing I see when I’m looking through the eyes of a geologist. I think the areas both south and north of the salt flats are a perfect example of why. There are giant scars of bomb testings all over the landscape. But they will be quickly eroded and erased in the context of geologic time.

To me it’s like, here’s something that’s the pinnacle of human force, the pinnacle of our most self-important and self-indulgent tendencies, and the earth barely notices.

E: The time scales that you are thinking on are totally different from what comes to mind for me. I even consider, like, early photography as old. But it’s not. I feel like people have a hard time comprehending scale. And we can connect this to say, thinking about the future? Climate change? And how our brains simpy cannot calculate the sheer scale of the issue. “Our brains” being based on your and my position, Western and white; of course scale, time, change, all of these things are understood differently based on culture and context. (Our position is not a neutral, objective one.)

J: Absolutely. And this is where the more philosophical thoughts start to come in for me. You can have an immensity of experiences in the timescales that you’re thinking in. And then to try to blow that up to the scale of the universe is staggering. Fills me with awe and wonder every time.

This definitely connects to climate change as well. Visible scars from bombs and dams and mines might seem to be the largest alterations we make to the earth, but the invisible changes to our atmosphere are far more consequential and will be one of humankind’s greatest legacies. (That and plastics perhaps...) The earth will notice these changes more. The climate will change and everything will have to reach a new equilibrium. That’s fine for planet earth - it’s been shifting between equilibrium states for as long as it’s been around. The dried up salt flats and the full Lake Bonneville, for example. It oscillated between those two happy states a couple dozen times in the past million years.

E: So interesting. And can we go back to this idea of recording for a moment? One thing I find really compelling too is related to the tools that I use as an artist, recording sounds and images - this goes for Ryan too. We haven’t always been able to do that. So every single sight and sound before we were able to record was utterly unique. Unique and unrepeatable. It happened once and could never be recalled. This is so different from how we live now, especially with so many of us having essentially a recorder (our phones) in our back pockets at all times. What does this do to perception and our sense of time?

J: That is super interesting. In my work, we deal with this same issue. Everything that happened was unique and unrepeatable and most importantly not recorded. My entire field is based on trying to find things that inadvertently recorded things that we wanted to know. So for example, the temperature gets colder, bacteria beef up their cell membranes with special molecules (their version of a fur coat), and when they die, those molecules get washed into lake sediments and “recorded”. So our lake sediment records are like a stack of muddy photographs, and we’re just trying to learn how to read them.

Also, to add to your last question, what does this do to our sense of permanence?

E: Yeah, that’s a good question… I feel like it ties into the video that I’m sharing here, Mirror State. It’s one long, static shot of various groups of people out on the salt flats from the highway rest stop, all of them photographing - literally, all of them - in a constant stream of images of themselves and one another. I’m not trying to get into a knee-jerk critique of Instagram culture or whatever. I’m more interested in what’s going on as a kind of collapse of time. The documenting turns into an instant stream on social media for people to consume elsewhere, in a different physical and mental space.

There’s something there about time just folding in on itself... I’m making images of people making images, lost in their own worlds, where an image  leads to another image which leads to another, with no image being enough. It’s all present elsewhere/nowhere? And of course visually this all takes place on this surreal mirror landscape, with its many lines, blues and greys, reflective surfaces, sky and salt which come together. It feels to me like a digital space even as it is very physical.

J: Wow, yeah. Absolutely is time folding in on itself. And the landscape is so surreal that it’s almost like a digital world. Like where the photographs would live.

E: Yes, totally! And this connects actually to the other project we made, I haven’t been (2018), with the drone footage you took on Baffin Island in which we are playing with that liminal space of landscapes that look digital even if they are not. Or landscapes that *feel* digital even when they are most certainly real. I like this idea of what it means to *feel* digital.

J: Totally. It’s interesting that we’re living more and more in our representations of the world rather than the actual thing. It’s also so odd to think about true permanence and the lack thereof of this media we create, from a geologic lens. As in, every image has to be stored somewhere. Even if it’s digital, it’s stored on a piece of silicon. All of that will degrade. There’s actually a scientific law, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that says that the entropy (disorder) of the universe is always increasing. When anything happens, it creates disorder. Even when you try to order something, like sort a deck of cards, say, you create even more disorder just in the heat you give off (alright, getting too into it). But basically, it is built into the structure of the universe that information will be lost. So the best we can do is store something temporarily.

E: So interesting to think of the internet and all that it entails as having a physical manifestation, as being so grounded in “real life.” Also, that’s something we are completely disconnected from, what it costs in terms of actual material to do something like surf the web.

J: Absolutely. The internet and, to some extent, the images that we generate, feel like they live in a very abstract place: “the cloud.” But it’s not a cloud. It’s a bunch of materials buried in a hidden location in the desert, and our actions in this abstract space are translated into actions of manipulating something physical.

E: Yes. So many layers! As we talk about time though I also want to talk about space, the other big dimension we’re playing with here. I think time definitely folds in on itself in those long shots of the rest stop by the salt flats, but space does in a way too. Thoughts?