January 30, 2009

Images, Part 1: Imagining the Mountain

After seeing images from Mars recently, I was visited again by that strange feeling about the use of digital images in representing reality (and I use that term loosely).
The images from Mars were sent courtesy of the Mars Exploration Rovers (which have been toiling away on Mars for five years now) and of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has a super-powered camera that can capture objects as small as a baseball on the planet's surface. And the images taken from the surface are truly remarkable, in that (for the non-scientist at least) its hard to imagine the space of 200 million miles, much less imagine all the work involved in processing gigabytes of information and images from that far away -- sent by geologist-like robots with wheels for feet. But the images are (for the non-geologist) mundane as well; they show a bleak landscape with gigantic volcanoes, vast craters, clumps and balls of hematite, and striated crater walls. 
The desire to have that reality look nothing like our own seems almost an imperative. Yet more than anything else, the images sent back from Mars show that...the other place looks a lot like our place. Which makes sense, since the whole neighborhood was built at about the same time. 
No doubt the immense amount of information collected through this foray to Mars will re-align our understanding of our own planet's 4 billion year history, or maybe even alter perceptions of time itself. But the truth is, most of the images that are part of that story are modified and colorized and abstracted by the NASA and JPL scientists working on the project, both for their own use, and for the "enhancement" of the viewing public's comprehension of what they are seeing. 
But I guess I am not one for enhancement from an external source, as that is the task my mind is engaged in. I encounter things I cannot quite believe almost daily, and it requires an imaginative leap to take those images to complete resolution. 
A few years back, in drenched and mossy Eugene, Oregon, I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of poems written in gorgeous calligraphy (presented on sweeping long banners hung around the gallery space) at the Schnitzer Art Museum. One line of poetry authored by a Korean poet in the mid-1500's read: "With no friends on the secluded mountain, I pile up books." 
This line stopped me. I was moved by the sentiment, which is accessible to anyone who has felt the need to sustain oneself. And I was moved by what it may have meant to the author, if it was at all biographical -- for what were books like when he wrote that line? What did they look like and smell like, how did you come across them, who created them? And what variety was there, at that time, in that place, of content? I thought of "Fahrenheit 451", where in a sacred and imaginative act of preservation, people became books. And I wondered, what that would look like, a secluded mountain? What would it be like to paint that? 
The excellent presentations I saw on the progress of the Mars mission ended with a panoramic image of the surface, an image in 3-D. We all put our blue/red glasses on and suddenly the space rocks were more real than real. We were on the planet, looking out of one of the Rover's at-human-height eyes. We were, incredibly, right there. To encounter the incomprehensible reality of another planet (another planet!) imagination was required.

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