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Frozen Relics: ‘In a time when everything is digital nothing really has to disappear’

The recent exhibition Frozen Relic: Arctic Works by ScabLAB Projects presented a series of Arctic artefacts that no longer exist, but in the digital age of precise cataloguing, are these disappearing landscapes no longer considered precious?

Arne’s Floe is an iceberg that existed at 17:01:07hrs on 16 September at 79 22.558 N, 003 04.611 W in the Arctic Ocean. It has since been torn apart by undersea currents and dissolved by a warming climate, but in a time when everything is digital nothing really has to disappear. 

Frozen Relic, created by ScanLAB Projects (who wrote last month’s View from), was an exhibition full of artefacts like this that no longer exist. In fact they no longer exist in precise and exacting millimetre detail. They drift across a data landscape in which we can still see every crack, every ragged edge, every blemish and fissure. They are high-resolution laser scans generated in the Fram Strait north-west of Svalbard by ScanLAB, Greenpeace and the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University. The memories of these seasonal islands have been frozen in a ghostly coordinate cloud of XYZ and RGB values.


ScanLAB researchers collaborated with Greenpeace on the project in Norway

They were presented as extraordinary backlit prints and projections of the survey scans, and as an archipelago of scaled reproductions in cast ice formed against 3D printed moulds of the landscape. There was a chill in the air and the sound of dripping water echoed through the gallery.

Memories are produced by us and our technologies. Laser scanners, capable of capturing large-scale landscapes to within an accuracy of millimetres, are beginning to change the way we record and remember. They are tools of both science and wonder. These arctic surveys were commissioned to collect data used to calibrate simulation models and research how ice floes form and break up.

In Frozen Relic they also become a mausoleum and remind us in intricate detail of an endangered landscape that is now the icon of contemporary climate change. The space of the scan has become a new form of archive. Another laser-scanning group CyArk, an abbreviation of ‘cyber archive’, has made it their mission to travel around the world recording world heritage sites such as Mayan temples and Egyptian pyramids. It is a project born out of an anxiety that our precious landscapes are disappearing faster than we can preserve them. It is a refusal to allow things to slip away.

In his TED talk Ben Kacyra, the founder of CyArk and early pioneer of the technology, laments that they were unable to scan the Bamiyan Buddhas before they were blown up by the Taliban. Would digital simulacra of these treasures reassure us after they are gone or would the data be used to recreate them as if the war never happened?

As ScanLAB have done with their melting facsimiles of distant ice floes, will we begin to reproduce our increasingly scanned worlds physically? Would it be a curated collection of replica landscapes wrought from the tool paths of herds of CNC machines, 3D printed layer by layer, a carved duplicate at extreme resolution, a theme park of synthetic copies, and like plastic tits on an ageing celebrity, timeless, as everything around them decays.

Beyond the exactness of physical reproductions, the laser scan suggests new ways of relating to digital environments. We are presented with the possibilities of an extraordinarily accurate digital Doppelgänger, a 1:1 avatar of our world. How would we inhabit this space? Could we wander the point clouds, a digital zoo of precious artefacts, a forensic landscape of what the world was, frozen in a given moment?

Would we walk through it with our children as if it were the British Museum, would we line up our sniper scopes and take out insurgents in a hyper-real video game environment, would we see familiar fragments of lost monuments repurposed in the CGI backgrounds of fantasy films? Our contemporary experience of landscapes is changing. We see across vast distances through the lens of nature documentaries, we watch nesting box webcams and swipe through hyperlinked, geotagged Flickr collections. We could soon be armchair tourists exploring past Google Earths formed from the scan data of landscapes lost and, like Sandy Island, a ghost in the South Pacific that was only recently undiscovered − or rather discovered to exist solely in Google Maps − would we ever really know they weren’t there?

In Frozen Relic, the scan transports us, in exacting detail from London to the distant landscapes that our major metropolises are affecting. With Unknown Fields, our research studio at the Architectural Association, I go on annual expeditions to visit these peripheral territories. We understand that if we are ever to change our attitudes to these landscapes that we are consuming then we must first bear witness to them. There is value in cataloguing parts of the world with this precision, but in a digital age, when everything is remembered nothing is precious.

Our digital lives are accumulating in endless fields of super-cooled server farms, containing tweets, check-ins, Instagrams, porn banks, pokes and, now, floating icebergs. The geothermal fields of Iceland and small towns in Middle America are becoming a home to the world’s data.

In sprawling warehouses browser searches sit beside glaciers, emails beside Mayan temples. Server farms are something between filing cabinets and cathedrals. If they are the new repositories of all knowledge and ephemera then how is the data stored, how do we access it, and is anything ever forgotten? Can some data be designed to decay − could pixels erode with time, like a portrait of Dorian Gray, slowly ageing with our sins?

The Argentine magic realist Jorge Luis Borges tells the story of a boy who has lost the ability to forget. His world is one of ‘intolerably uncountable details’. He finds it hard to sleep, to make generalities, he is incapable of abstraction since, just like the laser scan, he recalls ‘every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which surround him’. He is unable to engage the present, adrift in the intricate data scape of his perfect memory. What we choose to remember, what we chose to keep, defines who we are. The permanence of a point cloud iceberg, drifting endlessly in a digital sea, is an eternal reminder of how much we have to lose.

Frozen Relic: Arctic Works by ScanLAB Projects

Where: AA, London

When: Ended 9 February

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