Floating Island: a conversation with Mike Osborne

Floating Island: a conversation with Mike Osborne

The title of this work describes a phenomena of long-standing local notoriety — a landmass in the Bonneville Salt Flats that appears to hover slightly above the horizon, like a mountainous mirage. And yet the strangeness of the photographs stems from a mismatch between the density of their numerous human interventions, and the empty indifference of the landscape itself. The border town of Wendover, which straddles Utah and Nevada, is thus transformed into a floating island, or a strangely modern reliquary — an abandoned forward operating base for some suddenly non-existent army. What has been erected in their wake is the homogeneous sprawl of soporific suburban space — a gesture of calculated disinterest in the specific features of this remote and infertile place.

The landscape of Floating Island rendered in Mike Osborne’s photographs is a place of delirious and incompatible intentions, loosely connected by ageing infrastructure and a quintessentially 1950s model of the western frontier. The bureaucratic rigidity of its urban forms stand at odds with the irrepressible wildness of the desert, which is treated as a receptive clay on which to test drearily conventional interests. The desert serves as a convenient trans-shipment point, or as a willing recipient of military ordinance, as a glittering mirage for the passing traveller, or a virgin expanse in which to measure great speeds. It is littered, here and there, with peaked roofs which either presage postlapsarian apprehensions, or else speak to a wilful disinterest in the specificity of arid western space.

The even neutrality of the desert’s surface is offset by the illogical density of wet lawns and shimmering greens, whilst at night its vast skies are undergirded by sulphurous and iridescent hues. We can imagine the anachronism of this small cluster of eastern urbanism nestled in the desert and viewed from the heights of space, as we traverse the incongruous conjunctions that energise so many of these images. Such a place must appear like a blink of regulated order in the shadow of an indifferent and timeless expanse — like a temporary interruption in the glacial flow of the turning world.

The measurement of miles in processional white lines, or the shortening of distance by an undulating array of telegraph poles recalls an improbably antiquated, stalled engine of exploratory vision. Whilst abandoned military bases seem ghostly and arcane, and glistening casinos often appear like fantastical fortresses, what is also clear in the substance of these images is our limited grasp of the shape of the future. What is imposed here does not hold — it cannot and never has — because the frontier demands that we relinquish the spectre of our absolute control.

This peripheral extreme of the western desert is composed of a long series of explorations and expansions, both of the limits of land speed and of aeronautical invention. The region has housed military installations dating back to the Second World War, and running forward through changing Cold War needs to our present obsession with aerial surveillance. In this sense this desert’s modern history has been imperfectly defined by a series of efforts to see, to measure, to survey, to define and to control. These efforts link its military past with the early settling of the Western Frontier, and symbolise the concentric cycle of a history which still returns us to our earliest mistakes.


A Conversation with Mike Osborne

The Great Leap Sideways (TGLS): Can you tell us a little about how and why this project started? What and where is Floating Island?

Mike Osborne (MO):Floating Island is the name of a landmass in the Bonneville Salt Flats, a few miles east of the town where the book is set. When seen across the surrounding expanse of salt, it appears to hover slightly above the horizon. Like photography itself, it’s a very convincing illusion — the result of an inferior mirage.

I appropriated the name, Floating Island, for the title of my book because it struck me as a kind of two word poem. I also knew that Robert Smithson, whose legacy looms large in Utah, had conceived of a work called Floating Island in 1970. I recently learned that Jules Verne wrote a novel, L’Île à hélice, sometimes translated as Floating Island.

My Floating Island was made in and around the small border-straddling town of Wendover, Utah, and West Wendover, Nevada. My interest in Wendover was initially sparked by the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s great residency program, which has brought something like 100 different artists to the area over the last fifteen or twenty years. I also had very vivid memories of passing through that part of Utah back when I was in college.

When I looked into Wendover’s history and the work that others had done there, I became fascinated by the concentration of cultural forces at work in the area. CLUI is very good at pinpointing these nodes in our national landscape. On the Utah side of the border, butting right up against the state line, are the remnants of a massive WWII military base. It’s decommissioned now and belongs to the county, but just beyond that you have the Utah Test and Training Range and the Dugway Proving Grounds, which are still very active military test sites. Then on the Nevada side of the border, you have several enormous casinos, which are now the economic backbone of the town. Two of the casinos have their parking lots in Utah and their front doors in Nevada, just a couple of feet from the state-line. In my proposal to CLUI, I initially talked about making a project that related in some fashion to the border, which I took to be both a geographical and temporal marker. On one side of the border, there were these WWII and early Cold War relics; on the other side of the line was this post-80’s land of casinos, golf courses, small subdivisions, and corporate interstate culture.

Once I began working, I allowed myself the freedom to venture into all these different zones without necessarily worrying about whether the work would cohere visually or conceptually. I shot very freely and independently for the most part, but I also made a few groups of pictures where I worked in a way that was almost like being on an editorial assignment. For one group of pictures, I shadowed some corporate contractors who were sweeping the desert for unexploded ordnance. For another, I spent a few days exploring the casino interiors. In other situations, the approach was much more cinematographic, involving lights and more complicated technical considerations.

TGLS: Can you tell us about how you ending up arriving at its enigmatic chaptered structure?

The book’s structure comes in part from the simple fact that the pictures were shot in these very different modes and contexts. One strategy might have been to “shuffle the deck”, integrating the pictures and establishing a set of motifs, but I went the other way. In thinking about the chapters and their sequence, one model for me was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, which is broken up into these very distinct parts. This might seem strange — what does a late 60’s space film have to do with a Nevada casino town? But the landscape around Wendover, like the Kubrick film, is a place that tends to evoke the long view. Wendover, like 2001, also seemed to be made up of very discrete worlds, places that might be spatially close together but a million miles apart in other ways. As in a sci-fi film, the shifts between interior and exterior in Wendover are particularly stark and dramatic. It is difficult to conceive of two more antithetical spaces than a casino gaming floor and the Great Salt Lake Desert. The chapter structure functioned as a way of pushing those distinctions.

TGLS: The overarching sense of place in the work, for me, describes a certain incongruous and illogical zone. I think you push that in interesting ways in each section of the work, but especially in Montego Bay, Casino and Vertellus. To what extent does this place make sense to you, and how do you understand it?

MO: Thanks and yes, “incongruous and illogical” sounds about right, though I should also say that I loved working in Wendover. It’s a fantastic place.

In certain respects, the town is very typical. You have the military history, the casinos, the main strip with its gas stations, fast food, motels, etc. — it’s deeply American, almost a caricature. In other respects, it’s a strange and puzzling place.  Much of this can be attributed to the landscape. There are very few places on earth that afford a similar sense of space—it’s possible to see extraordinary distances. The landscape also really impacts one’s sense of time. In our day-to-day lives, most of us are rarely confronted with evidence of the very distant past. In Wendover, it’s is everywhere you look. Everything that humans have built over the last hundred years looks incredibly temporary.

It’s interesting that casinos have become the town’s main livelihood. Famously atemporal, casinos are, in a way, the perfect antidote to the incomprehensibility of the landscape outside. Of course, the casinos are “incongruous and illogical” in their own way.

TGLS: Your photographs recall to us a variety of frontiers – from those of land speed records on the Bonneville Flats to the speed of sound and even the exploration of space, but also the traditional photographic subject of the Western Frontier. How did these things overlap for you in this place, in your way of approaching it with a camera?

MO: Yes, I think all of these traditions are very much at work, and as you say, they overlap. For example, you mentioned the tradition of land speed trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats. I photographed several of these events extensively, but I’m not sure if I made a single photograph that addressed the specific nature of the event. Instead, I wanted to use this one kind of limit-experience — people preparing to drive a car 500mph, for example — to talk about another kind of limit-experience, being hurled out into space, for example.

The “Vertellus” chapter does this in an even more pronounced way. For that chapter, I used powerful lights to illuminate a giant pile of mining byproduct on the outskirts of the town. The light in these pictures, along with the deep black skies, mimics the look of NASA’s iconic moon photographs from the late-60s and early-70s.  The moon pictures interested me as a model because they are highly familiar to us all but totally unrelatable in any experiential sense.

Other parts of the project — “Southbase” and “Rest Area,” for example — point back further in photographic history.  I think of those pictures as riffs on the expeditionary photography of the mid-19th century, both in the American West and in the Middle East. Last year, I had the opportunity to show a little bit of Floating Island alongside items from the collection at the Harry Ranson Center in Austin. Francis Frith’s photograph of the Pyramids at Dashoor was among the handful of works I pulled from the collection.

TGLS: That’s an interesting reference, and it certainly resonates with the landscape you’ve photographed. I can’t help think of Misrach’s Desert Cantos cycle, and his work in Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West as other progenitors for this work? How did you try to deal with the epic scale of this space?

MO: Sure, I’ve known and respected Richard Misrach’s work for a long time. I went to college in the Bay Area in the late-90s and saw books and prints at Fraenkel Gallery and elsewhere. Until working on this project, I don’t know that I would have been quick to cite him as an influence, but it’s basically impossible to look at that part of the country without thinking about his work, particularly his photographs that deal with the military’s use of the desert.

I didn’t realize it until after I was well into my project, but Misrach actually worked in Wendover at some point in the late-80s. The only place I’ve come across these pictures is in a book called Violent Legacies, which has three sections, one of which is devoted to the remains of the Wendover air base.  If I remember correctly, Southbase is the primary focus of these pictures. Southbase is a zone within the larger base that contains an array munitions storage igloos. It’s a stunning place — beautiful, terrifying, monumental, and strangely reminiscent of Michael Heizer’s Complex City.

I felt like this particular site was critical to the overall constellation pictures that I was making, so I allowed myself to photograph there in spite of Misrach’s precedent. I shot the site in a number of different ways over the course of the project, eventually settling on a sequence of five night photographs. The pictures were shot on nights when there was no moonlight, so all of the light in the pictures is coming from the town. The casinos are essentially the light source for the pictures.

Speaking more broadly, my way of dealing any anxiety of influence was to shoot very freely and to experiment with many different ways of making pictures in that landscape. In quite a few cases, I photographed the same subjects in several different ways over time before deciding on a particular interpretation. There’s quite a bit of technical variety within this work — literally looking at the landscape through different lenses — as well as shifts in tone and atmosphere. Some of the pictures feel bluntly matter of fact, where others — the Southbase pictures, for example — have a slightly uncanny quality to them. Without it  being my intention, I feel like the process of searching for an appropriate language with which to describe the place became, in a way, one of the subjects of the work.

TGLS: Well certainly one of the interesting aspects of the settling of the desert is the incompatibility of suburban conventions to the nature of that climate and landscape. I think of the portrait of the man watering his lawn beside a house with a peaked roof as being emblematic of that. We still haven’t found the right lens for understanding how to live in sympathy with the rhythms of that space. What’s intriguing is the suggestion in your pictures that we will continue to live in an anachronistic relation to it in the future, given the way it’s being built up…

MO: I think this issue connects back to what I mentioned before about things seeming very temporary and transient in this environment. The USGS map that I used for the book’s cover and frontispiece describes the flats just outside the town as “alkali or mud,” which hardly makes it sound like a good spot to put down roots.

After exploring some pretty barren territory in the book’s opening chapter, I wanted the second section to feel a little like an oasis — you see people, green grass, trees, and water. In the picture you referred to, the man is watering a brand new tree. There’s a plastic tag on one of its branches, and it’s coming out of the ground at an odd angle. I think what interested me about that picture was the extent to which the whole thing feels like a stage set. The theatricality of all of these conventions — the lawn, the fence, the standalone house — is starkly apparent because of the inhospitability of the landscape in the neighboring pictures. While my picture happens to be of a guy in front of his house in Wendover, I think this theatrical or stage set quality extends to any context.

Still, as you point out, not all ecological contexts are interchangeable and the convention of the lawn is clearly at odds with the desert. I can’t claim any special knowledge of these issues, but I’ve read that Las Vegas, a few hundred miles south, has spent several hundred million dollars in recent years paying its citizens to get rid of their grass. Maybe something similar will happen in Wendover. In any case, I can’t say I blame anyone for wanting something green to look at.

TGLS: Well that raises another interest problem though, which I think Rebecca Solnit handles brilliantly in her essay “Scapeland” for the Misrach Crimes and Splendours book, which is to say: shouldn’t we find try to reconcile ourselves to a different convention of beauty in the desert, given how unsustainable and impractical green lawns are out there? I think of your “Rest Area” pictures as showing some of that incompatibility, but wonder whether the future will look more like the early landscapes in Floating Island?

MO: Sure, I completely agree. I’m definitely not making an argument in support of lush front lawns in desert habitats, or anywhere else. I just meant to say that I understand the impulse to want to be surrounded by things that are visibly thriving. I personally think the Great Salt Lake Desert is a phenomenally beautiful and extraordinary place. At the same time, I distinctly remember a conversation I had with a guy who worked behind the scenes in one of the casinos. I told him how much I liked the desert and he looked at me like I was completely insane. He then went on to describe a kind of existential dread of the capital-N Nothing that he saw around him. I’m sympathetic to the toll it might potentially take.

As for the “Rest Area” and “Floating Island” pictures, I’m not entirely sure I follow the distinction you’re drawing, so I might be off base here. I don’t really think about either of those chapters as being about the larger issue of how to live within this or any other landscape, given the scale of our ecological problems. Along the lines of the conversation I just mentioned, I think of both chapters as describing transient experiences in places that might plausibly be described as horrific or transcendent. Yes, the “Rest Area” pictures are about the incongruity of the figures within that stark white expanse that surrounds them. But I also think about them as being about the redemptive possibility that the landscape offers, as a site for reflection and so on. The title — “Rest Area” — was important for me in this regard. Hopefully it communicates that these people are passing through this landscape, that they’re having an experience there and then they’ll be on their way.

TGLS: Yes, I don’t think that either of those sections address sustainability. I suppose I was saying part of the figurative strength of the “Rest Area”pictures flows from the pressure exerted on the small human figures within all that vast white expanse, and I think it does have to do with transience. I wonder whether transience is intrinsic to that landscape, and if so whether our versions of permanence will always be at odds with it? Perhaps a nomadic approach fits better? So many of your pictures seem to be about motion and the passage of time…

MO:  I see what you mean now, but your guess is as good as mine with regard to what will happen in this landscape in the future. I think you’re right about the landscape somehow encouraging transience. From the very little that I know about the Goshute Tribe, which is now based on a reservation seventy miles south of Wendover, they once lived a nomadic life in the same general territory. It’s also worth pointing out that Wendover first came into existence as a railroad town in the early 20th century. It was a place for steam trains to stop for water that was piped down from the neighboring mountains. The town was only there to serve the trains that were passing through.

TGLS: So how did all of this work find its way into book form – was that the intention from the beginning? And how did you end up publishing the work?

MO: At the beginning of the project, I had very little idea what, if anything, would come out my work in Wendover. It was extremely different than the other contexts where I’d worked, so as I mentioned earlier, I tried to cast a wide net in terms of what I was looking at and the photographic language I was using. The book form really served as a vehicle for bringing all of those worlds — the chapters — into conversation with one other.

The book form also appealed to me generally as a new challenge, a new set of formal and technical problems to play with. I first produced a maquette during a residency at Artpace San Antonio in summer 2012. For an exhibition at Artpace, I presented a very small selection of prints. The book maquette, which sat on a table built for the middle of the space, was really the primary focus of the exhibition. Copies of Wendover’s two local papers were also sent to the space on a weekly basis. It was a bit like a reading room.

Over the next year, I refined the book, cut quite a few pictures, and wrote a short introductory text. I shared the project with a handful of publishers and was happy that Daylight took an interest. As is the case for many photographers, the book’s capacity to reach a wider audience was also something that interested me. I am based in DC now, but much of my exhibition history is in Texas. There is a lot happening there photographically and otherwise, but it’s often not so visible to people working in other places. Producing the book has been a great opportunity to contribute to and participate in a broader photographic conversation that’s not so geographically defined.



Artist(s): Medium: mike.osborne[at]gmail[dot]com Site: http://mikeosbornephoto.com/

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