Artist Jonathon Keats is taking one long photo. His project, a pinhole camera that is taking one continuous picture of a room in the Hotel des Arts in San Francisco, is a mixture of uber-low-tech and ultra-high concept geekiness. As a potential tourist to San Francisco who might want to stay in this room, I wanted to find out if Keats would see me naked.
Gizmodo: Describe your project. How did you get the impetus for this?
Keats: Oddly, it started out with quote from St. Augustine: "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know." When I first read this line a decade-and-a-half ago, I began to wonder whether the trouble he was having, echoed by countless other puzzled philosophers and theologians, was merely technological. More recently, I've started to speculate, more concretely, that the problem might be addressed with the right type of camera. Photography has revealed the workings of pulsars and DNA. If time is all around us, I saw no
reason why it couldn't also be captured on film.
Of course, we don't ordinarily see time on film, but that may simply be a signal-to-noise issue. It might be that the camera is recording so much else (for example, the three dimensions of space, all brightly-lit), that time is too subtle, relatively speaking, to be visible. If so, it seemed to me that the problem becomes one of isolating time on film by optimizing the camera to capture it.
So my project entails building various prototype cameras with which time might be photographed. The
hypothesis guiding the design of my first apparatus, which I've just installed at Hotel des Arts, is that time transpires very gradually, potentially over eons and eons, and that ordinary cameras don't record it because their exposure lengths are too short for sufficient time to accumulate on film. After several
inconclusive experiments involving cyanotype photography with day- and week-long exposures, I've increased my span by several orders of magnitude: My new camera, which I've built by hand from brass, will take a single continuous exposure of one hundred years duration. In order to be durable, I realized that the camera has to be simple. There are no moving parts, nor any toxic chemicals. The film is archivally-stable black paper, which will fade in the focused light of a pinhole projection over the next hundred years, producing a unique positive print.
G: What did you have to go through to get this into a motel room? Don't people value their privacy?
K: Actually, Hotel des Arts approached me. For the past year, the hotel has been giving rooms to artists to do with as they please, with the idea that anything an artist might do in a room would be more stimulating than four white walls. I'm not so sure. I like white walls. But, since I'm a conceptual artist by trade, I didn't think it wise to bring up that point.
So when John Doffing, who's been curating the project, asked if I'd take on a room, I readily accepted.
That's when I remembered that I don't know how to paint. But I'd been wanting to do some long-term
photography for a while, as I was saying before. About a year ago, I got in touch with the US scientific outpost in Antarctica about setting up a thousand-year camera there, but my proposal was summarily rejected.
(Apparently my research was deemed unserious — as if it were serious work making snow angels, or whatever it is they do.) The hotel, on the other hand, was promising a permanent space, no questions asked. And, since I live in San Francisco, it was easier to get to than Antarctica.
As for people and their privacy, I'm sure that some do value it. And in that sense, this camera is ideal.
Whereas an ordinary camera would take their picture in an instant, and perhaps put it on the internet within a minute, mine takes only 100-year-long exposures. So there's plenty of time to live down any embarrassment.
G: So this will be around for a few years. What happens if YOU die?
K: Without question, I will die. But Galileo also knew that he would die, and that didn't stop him from undertaking his research.
G: So this will be one exposure of 100 years? What happens if they move the furniture?
The furniture doesn't matter to me. There's nothing wrong with it, don't get me wrong. It's black,
fashionably innocuous. But if I were trying to photograph it, I would probably opt for a shorter
exposure with a higher-ASA film, say, 1/500 second with Tri-X Pan.
The important point is that time is everywhere. If it's under one bed, it will be under another. Like people, the decor is expendable.
G: What other projects have you done? Is this your first long-term piece?
K: All my conceptual art tends to be pretty long-term. Last year, I attempted to genetically engineer God in a petri dish, with some preliminary success. (I got a lot of help from the genetics laboratory at UC
Berkeley, as well as researchers at UC San Francisco and the Smithsonian Institution.) That project is ongoing, through an organization I founded, called the International Association for Divine Taxonomy.
Previously, I've also tried to pass a law of logic, that every entity shall be identical to itself (i.e., A=A), in the city of Berkeley. That law still hasn't passed, and I'm currently looking for another city
enlightened enough to put it on the books.