Pic­ture it: A 1,000-year ex­po­sure show­ing a chang­ing planet Earth


If a pic­ture is worth a thou­sand words, then Jonathon Keats fig­ures a pic­ture can also span a thou­sand years.

Keats, a San Fran­cisco writer and self­de­scribed ex­per­i­men­tal philoso­pher and con­cep­tual artist, has de­signed a “mil­len­nium cam­era” that he in­tends to mount in a church­less steeple on a col­lege cam­pus and chron­i­cle cli­mate change by tak­ing a 1,000-year ex­po­sure of a west­ern Mas­sachusetts moun­tain range.

If it seems far-fetched, con­sider that some of Keats’ pre­vi­ous en­deav­ors in­clude sell­ing tracts of real es­tate in the the­o­ret­i­cal ex­tra di­men­sions of space-time; open­ing a pho­to­syn­thetic restau­rant that serves gourmet sun­light to plants; chore­ograph­ing hon­ey­bees; copy­right­ing his own mind to give his “in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty” a 70-year postlife ex­ten­sion; and, con­tro­ver­sially, join­ing in a bid to ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neer God.

Even at his quirki­est, Keats notes he al­ways has a se­ri­ous mes­sage to de­liver, and in the case of the mil­len­nium cam­era — a cylin­dri­cal de­vice small and light enough to hold in one hand but hope­fully durable enough to sur­vive the cen­turies — it’s en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to think be­yond their own hu­man life­span to what ge­ol­o­gists call deep time, the lengthy pe­ri­ods in which the world changes on a grand scale.

“We need to find a way to think in deep time if we are to re­spon­si­bly make use of the tech­nolo­gies we have,” he says. “So the cam­era is in­tended, in a sense, as a men­tal pros­the­sis, as a way of cre­at­ing some sort of a feed­back loop in deep time, where set­ting up the cam­era now, look­ing out into the far fu­ture, al­lows for peo­ple who are alive in the far fu­ture to see the de­ci­sions we made through the ef­fect that they had.” But will it work? Even Keats can’t say for sure. Nor is he cer­tain hu­mans will be around in 3015. Nor, as­sum­ing they are, that some­one will know to re­trieve the cam­era and open it.

A thou­sand years is, af­ter all, a long time. In 1015, the Nor­man con­quest of Eng­land was still more than 50 years away, the first cru­sade was more than 80 years away, and Colum­bus would not reach the New World for an­other 477 years.

The cam­era, Keats ex­plains, is very sim­ple, so sim­ple that noth­ing me­chan­i­cally should fail. “Which of course is the wrong thing to say, be­cause then it will,” he quickly adds.

It be­gins as the old science fair standby, the pin­hole cam­era, which al­lows light to en­ter through a tiny aper­ture. But since pin­hole cam­eras aren’t de­signed to last a thou­sand years, Keats made his of cop­per be­cause of its re­sis­tance to cor­ro­sion. The pin­hole he pierced through a rugged 24-karat gold plate.

To cap­ture the ex­po­sure, Keats adapted a Re­nais­sance art tech­nique by us­ing rose mad­der, a sturdy, or­ganic-based oil paint, ap­plied di­rectly to the cop­per in the back of the cam­era. Dig­i­tal pho­tog- ra­phy was im­prac­ti­cal, and he ruled out us­ing film be­cause it would de­te­ri­o­rate too quickly and be­sides, there’s al­ways the chance by 3015 that so­ci­ety will revert to an­other dark age, with­out pho­to­chem­i­cal pro­cess­ing skills.

That im­age will be of the Holyoke Range, a mod­est but pic­turesque moun­tain chain that sci­en­tists be­lieve has ex­isted for 200 mil­lion years. What a denizen of the 31st cen­tury would see is not a be­fore-and-af­ter im­age, not what to­day we might call time-lapse photography, but rather one pic­ture de­pict­ing a mil­len­nium of change.

For ex­am­ple, if the now heav­ily forested area were to grad­u­ally turn to grass­lands, the trees, Keats pre­dicts, will linger on the pho­to­graph as ghostly re­minders of a prior pe­riod, set against the bolder out­line of the more re­cent land­scape.

Later this spring, Keats will as­cend a har­row­ing set of wooden stairs in­side the dusty steeple, po­si­tion the cam­era and open its shut­ter, be­gin­ning what he be­lieves will be his­tory’s long­est ex­po­sure. He hasn’t sought a patent for the de­vice, which he es­ti­mates costs about US$100 (NT$3,059) in raw ma­te­ri­als to build, say­ing he wants oth­ers to copy it and place their own mil­len­nium cam­eras strate­gi­cally around the world.

“I’m well over­stat­ing the case for th­ese cam­eras,” he con­cedes. “I re­al­ize (it) may seem like a supreme act of ego­tism. It’s prob­a­bly also an ex­treme act of naivety on my part. But I think you just have to give it a try.”

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