Q&A: Philosopher's 'Millennial Camera' at ASU Art Museum

On March 6, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats’ “millennial camera” was installed at the Arizona State University Art Museum to document the Tempe skyline. Keats’ camera is designed like a traditional pinhole camera, with oil paint in place of film, and will leave its shutter open for 1,000 years. The philosopher used data from art conservation and photography when designing the camera but acknowledges that “the margin of error is quite large.” An unveiling is scheduled for spring 3015, but just in case you won’t be able to make it, we asked Keats to tell us more about his project.

How big is the camera?
The camera is very small, deliberately. When you’re looking at something that needs to survive for that long of period of time, you really need to be attentive to all the ways in which it can break and all the ways in which it can become vulnerable or even incomprehensible as time goes on. So the size is about 3 inches long by about 2 inches in diameter. It’s a cylinder.

How did you decide on the camera’s construction?
The construction is in copper, a metal that has been around for a very long time and used for a very long time in human technology. We know it will take on a patina that will protect it from the elements. It will allow for the chamber of the camera to remain intact and lay tight for the long term. The pinhole is made out of 24-carat gold, and the reason for that is as much as copper is strong and resilient, it also isn’t perfect. There can be enough corrosion that the pinhole could be blocked and the image could be destroyed.

Why choose the pinhole method?
In 1,000 years, we have no way of knowing what technology people might have. We don’t even know whether there will be people around. But assuming there are, they most likely will not be using the same operating system for their iPhone that we are right now, and they might not have the means even of developing an image in the way that you develop a black-and-white photograph. They might not know that chemistry. This image will make itself — that is to say, if you open the camera up in 1,000 years, the image will be there and you will see it right away.

What do you predict the final photograph will look like?
The image will be approximately 2 inches in diameter, circular, and will be in red and white, with the shadows the darkened part in red and the lightest part, such as the sky, in white. The image will be cumulative; you can think of it as a movie all in a single frame where you have superimposed everything that transpires. Obviously, anything that happens quickly and only once is not going to show.

How did you choose Tempe as the home for your first millennial camera?
Tempe is a fascinating place because it embodies a mode of urbanization that seems to be quite prevalent and also to have a lot of potential but also a lot of peril. That is to say, Tempe is as a city largely the result of a process by which a city grows into its suburb, and by which sprawl becomes a part of urbanization. It’s important to look at closely and carefully because urbanization is probably the only way into the population that we have and that we’re expected to have to obtain any level of sustainability. The efficiency of the city is probably the only sort of efficiency that will work at the population level and density that we have right now, and especially that we’ll have in the future.

At the same time, the city is probably the most wasteful of places. It's essentially the most dangerous of phenomena. And this is particularly the case in a place like Arizona, where resources are few and where water in particular is scarce. So how Tempe grows and how Tempe deals with scarcity and finds efficiency, in a sense becomes a case history of how through urbanization, we may more broadly be able to evolve as a society and survive as a society. So on the one hand you can look at this picture as being data that in 1,000 years will be helpful to some future urban planner. On the other hand, I’m not just looking to the end product. I think the camera is as much for and about the present as it is for and about the future. Because the way in which the camera works, it takes in everything that we do, all the decisions we make in a way that we are aware that that process of documentation is happening. And therefore the camera can be a sort of check on decisions that we make. That we are being watched by those in our future can affect how we can go about making the city work and how we interact with the environment more broadly in the moment.

What plans have been made for the project’s future?
The camera is on loan to the museum for the next thousand years. There is paperwork that ensures that in a thousand years, the camera needs to be returned to my heirs. But not the photograph; the photograph will be donated to the museum in a thousand years. Of course, all of this is very presumptuous; all of this assumes that the institution will survive and that the cultural mechanisms that have allowed the camera to come into being will still be in place over the long term. That is also part of the project, part of the thought experiment, part of the conversation.  Do we have the means to preserve some sort of cultural continuity over the long term, through deep time?

Photo: A "millennial camera" (top right of photo) installed at the ASU Art Museum is the brainchild of philosopher Jonathon Keats. | Nathan Broderick

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