Five Views of the Gray Knoll from Primary and Other Bergblicks
Paula Poole and Brett Stalbaum
(Related project, Primary and Other Remote Locations)
Before describing the Five Views project, we will describe how it came about through our participation in the Bergblick residency program. After describing the conceptual and technical aspects of the project, we will discuss the pictorial qualities of the paintings produced.
Our participation in the Bergblick residency
Franziska Lamprecht and Hajoe Moderegger made their property near Modena, Utah available to us through their Bergblick residency program; a program that is a conceptual work nested in the context of Lamprecht's and Moderegger's residency at the Eyebeam Center. When we applied for their residency, which is located on a treeless patch of high desert near Modena, Utah, we understood that the residency program was itself an artist's project. But we (Paula Poole and Brett Stalbaum) were nevertheless intrigued by the project, both because of its own playful, postmodern conceptual qualities, and due to our own history of working in and with great basin deserts as artists.
We initially proposed that we would actually go and live on their land, as opposed to performing some related work that exists offsite (such as cyberspace), in order to more fully realize the resident aspect of the residency. It seemed to us that other artists who might be involved in the program were unlikely to go to the site, let alone live on site. We were selected for one of three slots in the 2K3 Bergblick residency program, and enthusiastically accepted.
Figure 1. Campsite at Primary Bergblick
We did indeed occupy the site as promised in our proposal. While not the most pleasant place to spend 5 days, it was certainly tolerable for experienced desert campers. We enjoyed fairly comfortable weather: Highs in the 90's and nighttime lows around 60. In other words: perfect camping temperatures. There was fairly consistent annoying wind, blowing the fine alluvial dust of the Escalante valley floor into just about everything, truck and tent included. Being open range, we had to manage curious cows in the area. We misplaced a GPS device, which we believe blew off of our vehicle’s hood where it was being used to hold down a map. There was a super-cell that passed through the area on July 30th that picked up our tent and rolled it across the desert floor, but we had left the immediate area for the afternoon and only suffered having to recover some items that had blown away from the campsite after returning that evening. Kaleb, the owner of the Force’s general store in nearby Modena (and to whom we owe a debt of thanks for much local information and hospitality), had less fortune: a downed portion of a tree on one of his trucks, and some broken windows. He did however make the local news, being interviewed by phone regarding the severe weather on the evening news broadcast out of Salt Lake City
Figure 2. Sending the cows home was a nightly activity
On the evening of the 30th, we were treated to a lightning show as related thunder cells continued to pass through the general area. This occurred only hours after Clayton Hunt, a rancher whose family has kept cattle in the area for many years, explained to us (among other things), the correct pronunciation of "Beryl", and showed us the burial markers for the dog and horse of a rancher hit by lightning in 1976. The markers are visible from the primary Bergblick site. The horse died at the same instant as the rancher, and was buried on the spot where they fell. The dog died of heartbreak two days later, and was buried next to the horse. So the story goes. As it turned out, the Bergblick site is in what local ranchers call "lightning alley". Clayton's cattle operation had lost over 50 animals in the past decades to lightning strikes. It was a spectacular storm that we witnessed that evening, particularly given the tragic narrative context. We owe Clayton a debt of thanks for stopping in to check on us and inform us regarding local conditions.
Figure 3. Burial markers near primary Bergblick
Technical basis of the Five Views of the Gray Knoll from the Primary and Other Bergblicks project
Although adding a real ‘in residence' element to what has in the past been a virtual residency was our original concept, we developed some hybrid concepts that would allow us to combine our practices as painter and computer artist. In the period between being notified of our acceptance to the Bergblick residency, we conceived a plan to unite Poole's talents as a painter (MFA, San Jose State University, 1998), with Stalbaum's (MFA, SJSU, 1999), recent work on a Geographic Information System for the analysis of USGS elevation data for C5. Essentially, we would perform one of the early uses of the C5 landscape database outside of a C5 context.
One of the analytic capabilities of the C5 software is the location of similar topographies. The software can be fed the coordinates for a location, and produce a list of the most topographically similar locations in the database. For mundane reasons (we were in the process of changing primary residences from Sacramento, California, to San Diego), the computer with the most recent version of the similarity algorithm was in storage. Thus a development version of the algorithm was used to identify similar topographies in around the primary Bergblick site. The process yielded "other Bergblicks", the topographical others relative to the input site, all within the Escalante Valley.
Figure 4. Topographic data from primary Bergblick site (C5 landscape database)
The other Bergblicks share particular qualities in common with the primary Bergblick site owned by Lamprecht and Moderegger. In order to describe these qualities, we must describe the selection process in detail. The development version of the algorithm seeks similarity based on the standard deviation of the elevations in a one-kilometer square area, and the difference between the highest and lowest elevations as constrained by an arbitrary value. We note that the primary Bergblick plot is substantially smaller than 1K square, so the actual Bergblick site is within the seed area used for the search. In other words, conceptually, we used the location of the primary Bergblick as a selector for the larger regional 1K ‘pixel’ that can be called the 'greater Bergblick area'. This area was used as input for use in a search that yielded other 1K 'pixels' on the almost flat valley floor. The search yielded over 30 potential 1K areas that are topographically similar to the greater Bergblick area. The list produced by this early draft of the algorithm was further analyzed visually, and areas were hand selected with strong central stripes of contiguous elevation representing the mode, mean and median elevations. The current development version of the algorithm performs similar, though less specific narrowing of the results based on contiguous modalities. Both processes yield similar results.
Figure 5. Selected Other Bergblicks
One constraint on the project was the sample size of the data. Although the resolution of the elevations in the database is 30 meters, the grid of 'other' sites used in the search was a 1K grid snapped to 1000 meter multiples in the UTM grid system. This was due to time and logistical constraints. The processing time needed to calculate the entire table for every possible 1K square area represented by each point in the database (every thirty meters) is approximately 3 months given the current state of the software and available machines. By calculating only the 1K square areas represented by multiples of 1000 meters in the UTM coordinate system, and not every possible overlapping grid at 30-meter resolution, the processing time was held within the space of a single weekend.
Figure 6. Checking topographic maps and preparing to locate sites with GPS
There were two final notable constraints on our movement within and selection of other Bergblicks. The first was on our location within the 'other Bergblicks', in that we positioned ourselves at the most convenient locations based on local roads, which were often un-maintained or nearly desiccated. Secondly, given that some of the Bergblicks were obviously on or near private land, we were prevented from gaining access without sufficient time to research the ownership and seek permission to enter. Regarding the former, we tried to position ourselves as close to the center of the 1K areas as local roads would allow. As an example of the latter, other Bergblick #9 seems to have been located within an operational alfalfa farm. The four selected 'other Bergblicks' were thus chosen due in part to being on clearly marked public land. Also, given that there was some clustering of the other Bergblicks, (not unexpected given a topographical similarity algorithm) we chose sites that would provide some differing views of the selected geographical structure for rendition by oil paint.
Figure 7. The other Bergblicks were marked on topographic maps
The Gray Knoll
Figure 8. Gray Knoll on Heist map. Other Bergblicks 2, 5 and 11 are a few Kilometers south on the Pinyon Point map. (See figure 6.)
The Gray Knoll was selected as a subject for the paintings, because it is located roughly in the center of the other Bergblicks. In fact, the general clustering of the other Bergblicks around this knoll was somewhat of a surprise to us. The original list of sites proposed by the software contained sites only from the Heist and Pinyon Point areas (data from those corresponding USGS paper maps), even though data adjacent areas (all to the East) were also included in the area that was searched. Yet, the areas of similarity (with or without the strong bands of contiguous modal elevations which were hand selected) nevertheless surrounded the modest Gray Knoll, a geological structure rising a mere 100 feet from the valley floor just east of Modena. Visually, the Gray Knoll is defined only by the flatness around it, and not by its own prowess. In any other geologic context, it would not express very much identity of its own. Interestingly, the primary Bergblick site turns out to be the furthest from the Gray Knoll, while other Bergblick #4 is less than 2 kilometers away. Yet the primary Bergblick’s statistical profile matches similar sites that all converge around the Gray Knoll. We chose not to characterize the meaning of this outcome, beyond saying that that it is some combination of our conceptual decisions and room for the data impinge on subject selection.
Figure 9. The Gray Knoll
Needless to say, there are certainly better 'other Bergblicks' in the Valley that could be found with future improvements in algorithm and better logistics and planning. This is a problem that we would like to return to one day. We believe that an improved process might yield more satisfying results in terms of its value as topographical research in the arts. But as a draft of a process for allowing landscape data to play a more integrated role in landscape painting, we feel that the sites located and the subject selected are of sufficient quality to operate conceptually as generators of perspectives for the landscape paintings that resulted.
The first painting is from the primary Bergblick site. The view was painted looking in a southern direction toward the Gray Knoll, the same Gray Knoll that appears as the subject of each of the five paintings. Included in the pictorial information are two extraneous elements: a con-trail and an unexplained light. The con-trail (condensation trail from aircraft) appears between the clouds. The light appears on the same horizon line as the Gray Knoll. These phenomena are not unusual to the area and are among symbols that Paula uses in her Great Basin paintings to represent a human (or non-human) presence in the sparse landscape. This view of the Gray Knoll, taken from the primary Bergblick site, shows that it is the farthest away from the knoll.
On the second canvas, the Gray Knoll is fairly close-up in reference to the other views that were at greater distances. Paula included a roadcut in the mountain behind the Gray Knoll. In the sky about the mountains, a con-trail appears and continues the line, though offset, from land to sky. The perspective faces west in this painting. The line is a connection between sky and land in a literal sense. Paula often includes a trace of human occupation in both land and sky separately in her great basin paintings.
Figure 10. Plein air
In the third painting, the sagebrush appears in a strange circular formation. The sagebrush is prevalent in all the paintings, of course, but in this case the plants could have grown naturally into this strange circle, or they could have been tampered with by construction activity or other intervention. Interpretation is up to the viewer. In the sky, there is a star like light appearing in the daytime. The view of the Gray Knoll is facing north.
In the fourth painting, there is a natural dust trail reaching to the sky. Its source is an unpaved road that cuts a swath through the sagebrush. The perspective is from this road. The Gray Knoll sits, again, to the north of this view as it does in other paintings. In the sky, a con-trail mirrors the trajectory of the dust trail. It is most common to see con-trails tracing across the sky in this horizontal manner.
In the final painting of the series, the Gray Knoll is visible once more to the north. A fire appears to the east of the knoll. The origin of this fire is not evident. This painting only includes one element of narrative interest. While Poole usually includes two events, one in the sky, and one on land, she felt that the smoke from the fire would tie the earth to the sky. The fire is happening on the same horizon line as the Gray Knoll. It is just beginning and has not blackened much of the landscape yet.
Figure 11. Work in progress
The paintings make use of the distinguishing marks that scar the sky and land in Poole’s other great basin works. Even though the views, and in a conceptual manner the subject, were pre-determined from the mapping software, (and though the Gray Knoll is not as grand as Mt. Fuji, she painted different perspectives of the Gray Knoll in a manner similar to the manner in which Hokusai positioned>Fuji in his woodcuts. There are certainly features of the landscape in the Escalante valley that are more attractive, but the data, being allowed its say, enforced the scale of the Gray Knoll and particular perspectives, onto the works.
Lamprecht and Moderegger would later stop a passing train to offer refreshments. Between July 26th and 31st of 2K3 C5 Corporation  C5 will soon release the Landscape database under an open source license for any related application.  Stalbaum is the lead developer for this C5 project.