Paul Wombell is an independent curator and writer on photography living in London. He has been the Director of Impressions Gallery (1986–94) and Director of The Photographers’ Gallery (1994–2005). From 2007 he has curated exhibitions for the annual photographic festival PhotoEspaña in Madrid and for FotoGrafia Festival Internazionale di Roma. Most recently, he curated the one-person exhibition Calves and Thighs: Juergen Teller (2010) in Madrid and the group exhibition Field (2012) in Roma. He as edited nine books on photography, the most recent being The 70s: Photography and Everyday Life (2009) co-edited with Sergio Mah and End Times: Jill Greenberg (2012). He was the Guest Curator of the 2013 Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal under the theme Drone: The Automated Image. Since 2011 he has been the artistic director of the photographic mission on the French landscape, France(s) Territoire Liquide.
Silos teeming with corn, wheat or soybeans become death traps when grain cascades out of control, asphyxiating or crushing their victims. Since 2007, 80 farm workers have died in silo accidents: 14 of them were teenage boys. Experts say the continuing rate of silo deaths is due in part to the huge amount of corn being produced and stored in the United States to meet the global demand for food, feed and increasingly, ethanol-based fuel.
The day he died, Tommy Osier climbed a 10-foot ladder and crawled into the cement silo. The corn was caked along the sides of the bin and also formed a solid crust, or bridge, above his head. He began poking at the corn with a iron rod while his co-worker Patrick Pickvet, then 23, shoveled corn out of a small hole at the outside base of the bin.
Suddenly, the corn above and below Tommy gave way, and in seconds he was gone, buried under the avalanche, heaved against the rough side of the silo, sliding downward, yellow-brown kernels forced up his nose, into his ears and down his throat.
Ms. Osier said she was not surprised by the extent of his injuries, but was shocked that the impact had dislocated his jaw. “You know, it’s morbid, but I wish I had photos of that so I could use it for rescuers because It devastated so many of the first responders,” she said.
New York Times. 29 October 2012
About 10,000 years ago humans started to segregate plants into two different groups: plants that could be cultivated for food consumption and plants that could not be cultivated, and were defined as wild or weeds. This act of separation was the beginning of the domestication of the earth’s resources for the benefit of humans that is now called the Agricultural Revolution. Some geologists have also marked this moment as the beginning of the Anthropocene, where the actions of humans started to fundamentally change the planet and the future development of all living species.
Agriculture was the foundation from which settlements would develop into cities. Where the cultivation of plants necessitated irrigation and deforestation, where surplus food was stored for the future, where objects could be produced and acclimated, where growing seasons defined the passing of time, where history could be recorded, where taxes could be paid, where ownership was defined by property, where trading became the norm, and where the division of labor made it possible to build large structures like the Pyramids. The Agricultural Revolution was not only the domestication of plants, but it was also the domestication of humans.
During the early part of the 20th century a group of American artists, collectively known as the Precisionists, started to look at industrial and agricultural buildings for their inspiration in making their art. The painter and photographer Charles Sheeler, and prominent member of the Precisionists, equated these functional buildings as equivalent to the gothic cathedrals of Europe. These buildings that gladly displayed their geometric abstraction and engineering intention for all to see were seen as the appropriate subject for the artists of the machine age. Their paintings would emphasis speed and force of technological change by using over lapping transparent plains and shafts of color emerging from the buildings reaching to the sky. Yet, if one building type became a recurring motif for these artists, and came to signify this moment of modernity, it was the grain silo.
It was not only American artists who were taking their inspiration from these functional buildings; they had also caught the imagination of European architects. In 1913 Walter Gropius, the architect and founder of the Bauhaus, stated in his essay The Development of the Modern World, that the “monumental power” of the grain silos of North America “can stand comparison with the construction of ancient Egypt”. Le Corbusier in his book Vers une Architecture (Towards A New Architecture) published in 1923 was illustrated with many photographs of grain silos, which he called “the magnificent first-fruits of the new age.
One year later after visiting America for the first time, the German modernist architect Erich Mendelsohn remarked in a letter to his wife on the colossal scale of the concrete elevators he saw there: “Mountainous silos, incredibly space-conscious, but creating space. A random confusion amidst the chaos of loading and unlading corn ships, of railways and bridges, crane monsters with live gestures, hordes of silo cells in concrete, stone and glazed brick. Then suddenly a silo with administrative buildings, closed horizontal fronts against the stupendous verticals of fifty to a hundred cylinders, and all this in the sharp evening light. I took photographs like mad. Everything else seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams. Everything else was merely a beginning.” Mendelsohn would later publish two photographic books based on this trip to America.
By the 1930s photography had been truly been seduced by the curves of the grain silo. Photographers working under the patronage of The Farm Security Administration like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White and John Vachon would regularly feature the grain silo in their work. Some forty years later the photographic exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape announced a new generation of photographers who where investigating the boundary between the urban and the rural and the relationship between nature and culture. This seminal exhibition was not a celebration of technological development, but more a call to witness the implications of the machine built environment with the repetition of similar constructed buildings seemingly growing without any control. Here was a dystopian landscape where entropy ruled that was obliterating any vision of a future paradise, either pastoral or technological.
These photographers also had an interest in the vernacular architecture like warehouses, new housing estates and shopping mails. Frank Gohlke and the photographic team of Bernd and Hilla Becher had work in this seminal exhibition, and would also feature the grain silo in their wider body of work. Known for their black/white typological photographic studies of vernacular industrial buildings, the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher had undertaken a survey of the grain silo across North America and Europe. Their interests in these building types was more about industrial archaeology rather than responding to the changing built environment. The American photographer Frank Gohlke took a more romantic notion and saw the grain silos that he found on the American Great Plains as monuments from some ancient civilization.
Gohlke remarks recall the some of the ideas behind the works of Robert Smithson. In his 1967 essay A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, Smithson equates the construction machinery he found on a weekend walk in New Jersey, “to resemble prehistoric creates trapped in the mud, or better, extinct machines – mechanical dinosaurs stripped of their skin. On the edge of this prehistoric Machine Age were pre- and post- World War II suburban houses.” A few years later in his photographic work Hotel Palenque, Smithson depicts a recently built hotel near the Mayan archeological site in Yucatan, Mexico, in a state of disrepair suggesting that contemporary building could be ruin of a lost civilization not dissimilar to our own, or what Smithson called “ruins in reverse.”
These large concert silos seen in the work of these 20th century artists and photographers have played a pivotal role in making the modern industrial society. Designed to hold grain collected from farms after the harvest, then stored by elevating the grain within the silo to the upper floors and made ready for further distribution along the food production line. This machinery of collecting, storage and transportation was central to what is called the second industrial revolution that started in the middle of the 19th century. Now at the beginning of the 21st century the silo is only one stop on the supply line of everything, from grain, ammunition, information, nuclear energy and the human. A place where things are stored way for some future use. Where the 1930s was a key moment in modernism, we are now at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution. This is defined by the increasing power and speed of the computer. The computer has become the silo of knowledge where pre existing boundaries are open to question, where all materials, inanimate and animate, become minable.
The Barcelona based artist Max De Esteban’ project Binary Code can be seen as a return to some of the similar concerns that the Precisionists artists engaged with at the beginning of the 20th century: how does architecture become a symbol for a new age and how do you visualize technological change?
Binary Code is an assemblage of different images that have had previous life in other media that have been ‘harvested’ by the artist to be processed in the computer. The resulting multi-image panoramic work can be seen as a play between the will of the artist and the agency of the computer’s software based on the mathematics of the binary number system used in digital electronic circuitry. You could call this the domestication or the digitization of the human imagination and the realization of ‘machine gesture’ instead of the human gesture.
The industrial silo becomes the dominant and recurring motif within the work, with the added element of human figures floating around within the same picture space. All are in a state of flux suggesting that the artist is involved in some form of experimentation in the fermentation of image bacteria and we have entered a non-binary world were the fluidity between the human and the non-human has become the norm. This is a flat world that you might see looking down onto a Petri dish were green pigment, buildings, rag paper, trees, brush strokes, human bodies and halftone dots all have equal status.
Binary Code gives the impression that we are witnessing a form of transmutation that is taking place inside the silos. Bodies’ float in some unspecified liquid, some of these figures seem familiar and might be recognizable images from the history of the cinema: Jeanne and Paul the two lovers from The Last Tango in Paris and Rachel the replicant from Blade Runner. Juliette Gréco can be seen dancing with her black male partner in Paris, and Carmen Miranda the samba queen can also be recognized. Others are hard to pin down, but have the quality of publicity or fashion images found in picture magazines with women wearing men’s clothing and bodies embracing. Is it important that we name check these images, or are these human characters playing out a longer historical story?
One explanation might be that Binary Code could be a modern day interpretation of one of the 16th century paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder like The Harvesters peasants are portrayed placed within a panoramic landscape with a large tree in the foreground and church to be seen in the distance. Some of the peasants are working while others enjoy a moment rest eating and drinking the fruits of they labor from a previously harvest. Or may be Bruegel’s painting The Peasant Dance where peasants are engage in singing, lechery and dancing while the church oversees all the proceedings. Both these paintings offer a moral guidance that behavior on earth will determine your fate after your death, either by going to heaven or hell.
By equating the grain silo with the constructions of ancient Egypt like the pyramid, Walter Gropius opens-up another interesting historical connection with death and the afterlife. Pyramids were built to transport the dead to the afterlife, a kind of resurrection machine for rebirth. The deceased body of the king was sealed inside the burial chamber allowing the soul of the dead king to leave the pyramid by a narrow shaft that was directed to the night sky where the king would join the gods. To assist the king the chamber walls were decorated with pictures and texts to give the dead king guidance to navigate the journey to the afterlife.
With the collapse of Old Kingdom of Egypt and the demise of the monarch’s power around 4000 years ago, the afterlife became available for many more Egyptians. They could also join the gods and achieve divine status if they used the same royal texts and images that where original found in the pyramid chambers. These texts and images with maps would be incorporated inside the wooden coffins of the common people and assist them in finding paradise.
This route to paradise could take two different paths, but both involved Osiris, the god of the underworld who had the power of transforming and resurrection. One path involved the soul of the deceased leaving the mummified body and coffin up to the heavens to join the sun god. When the sun set the soul would return to the coffin and the safety of Osiris after been reborn by the rays of the sun.
The other path was a journey through the underworld to join Osiris with the promise of rebirth in the Elysian Fields. This was an epic journey that was arduous and full of obstacles and tests with gates to open, rivers to cross, knowledge to master and magic spells to cast. The final destination was a land of lush farmlands that yields record harvests where peace and plenty for all eternity will be found.
The metal silo called the ‘Bigfoot’ Dewar is designed to hold four human bodies and six brains immersed in liquid nitrogen at 196 degrees Celsius. This form of storage is called cryonics, the preservation at low temperatures of living tissue like the human body. And that sometime in the future medical technology will have advance to heal many of today’s diseases and that the stored bodies will be resurrected and cured.
Binary Code might be our guide to the future. Suggesting a possibly world of fluidity of things, fluidity of time and fluidity between life and death. Where the only constant is the silo in which the human and the replicant will be reborn in the afterlife by the rays of the sun and realize our dream of immortality.
A 14-year-old girl who said before dying of cancer that she wanted a chance to live longer has been allowed by the high court to have her body cryogenically frozen in the hope that she can be brought back to life at a later time.
During the last months of her life, the teenager, who had a rare form of cancer, used the internet to investigate cryonics. Known only as JS, she sent a letter to the court: “I have been asked to explain why I want this unusual thing done. I’m only 14 years old and I don’t want to die, but I know I am going to. I think being cryo‐preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time.
“I don’t want to be buried underground. I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance. This is my wish.”
The Guardian. 18 November 2016