Revisiting “Powers of Ten” After Almost 50 Years

by Michael Anthony Farley on February 18, 2016 MEXICO + Reviews

Andrés Jaque / Office For Political Innovation: Superpowers of Ten
Museo Jumex
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 303, Ampliacion Granada, Miguel Hidalgo, 11529
Ciudad de México, D.F.
Performance: March 4, 2016 7:30 – 8:30
On view until March 10

In 1968, husband and wife duo Ray and Charles Eames released A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. Almost a decade later, the  Eameses completed a final, full-color version (above) with improved graphic effects Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see Powers of Ten in an era not-yet numb to pervasive images from electron microscopes and deep space—even today the film gives me chills. It was an impressive attempt to index the scale of the known universe, from the relative emptiness beyond our solar system to the unfathomable quantity of subatomic particles within the human body.

Installation view

Installation view

Now, 48 years later, Powers of Ten is getting its third treatment in the form of a research project, installation, and theatrical adaptation from Madrid-based architect Andrés Jaque’s Office For Political Innovation. In Superpowers of Ten, at Museo Jumex, Ray and Charles Eames’s ambition to represent the scale of human knowledge is pulled into critical focus. Using the film’s processes, cast, and sociopolitical context of 1968 as a starting point for inquiry, a complimentary performance will integrate content such as a transgender beauty pageant and vegan activism. In the gallery exhibition, everything from the grassy field in the establishing shot to the choice of the camera panning to a man’s hand is meticulously dissected for think-piece-like panels of didactic text. If that sounds like a stretch, that’s because it mostly is. That’s not to say the information isn’t interesting—some of the facts here are fascinating—but visitors might find themselves questioning the relevance or motivations of so much nitpicking over minutea.

In the first panel, “Film,” we’re given a brief introduction the Eameses’ contributions to the world of color photography. The couple worked with both Kodak and Polaroid, two companies accused of racial discrimination. Kodak, for example, distributed a photo of an employee named Shirley to laboratories as a model of correct color calibration for developing skin tone. Shirley happened to be caucasian. That seems like less of a deliberately sinister plot than an oversight, but Polaroid is accused of something much more insidious. In 1970, the Polaroid Workers Revolutionary Movement alleged that the company was manufacturing flash cameras specifically for the South African market that were calibrated to only expose the faces of white people correctly. The model was promoted as a means of creating identification photos, thereby excluding blacks from obtaining legal documentation. Is the implication here that Ray and Charles Eames were complicit in white supremacy by using color film? It’s unclear if the work of the Eameses is just an entry point to explore other perspectives on the scope of “the known world” or is being framed as the product of unjust society. Either way, it’s worthwhile to know the dark history of flash photography—I guess I’ll stick with Fuji from here on out.       

The changing face of "Shirley" cards throughout color photography's history.

The changing face of “Shirley” cards throughout color photography’s history.

Similarly, the “Set” panel frames the Chicago park where the picnic scene was filmed as a site that later hosted protests and the history of picnics as political statements. It feels like a bit of a reach. Far more successfully, “Voice” outlines the biography of Powers of Ten’s narrator, scientist Phillip Morrison. Morrison was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and personally helped load the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After visiting the devastated cities, he became an ardent opponent of nuclear weapons and devoted his life to anti-war activism and the search for extraterrestrial life. He was an interesting character, to say the least.

The panel “Space” discusses the human impact on orbital spacefrom satellites distributing cyberwarfare attacks and Beyonce videos to the massive amount of trash that’s now floating around our planet. Another panel, “Meat” similarly discusses the environmental impact of animal products and provides information about veganism (for example, 4% of Europe is vegan). What does this have to do with Powers of Ten? Apparently in 1900 the Chicago River had to be inverted because it was full of run-off from slaughterhouses. And Powers of Ten was filmed in Chicago 68 years later. I’m a devoted vegetarian, and even I felt as if I was being proselytized-to from out-of-the-blue.

“Grass” and “Gender” likewise make tenuous connections between details in the film and sociopolitical issues with historic moments in 1968. The couple in the film are laying in a lakeside field of almost-too-green grass. Eventually, the camera closes  in to the man’s hand for it’s climactic zoom toward the subatomic. That year, Monsanto partnered with Scott’s Seed Company (a partnership of “Miracle Grow” fame) and patented the herbicide that would become Round-Up. The choice of using the man’s hand (as opposed to the woman’s) to represent humanity is correlated to the battles over images of women in 1968, when the Miss America pageant was protested by two groups. Feminists held an alternate pageant where they crowned a sheep and destroyed symbols of female oppressionfrom dishrags to highheels. At the same time, African Americans organized their own Miss America after being excluded from the official pageant.

Slideshow from the Foundación Jumex website. Unfortunately, only a handful of the props are on display. They're pretty great.

Slideshow from the Foundación Jumex website. Unfortunately, only a handful of the props are on display. They’re pretty great.

Again, those are historical details I’m glad I now know. But attaching them to the Ray and Charles Eames’ film seems arbitrary. Artwork that’s reactionary to dead utopian modernists always feels a little intellectually lazy, no matter how well-researched it is. Office for Political Innovation has carried out a series of successful subversive research projects before, from remixing IKEA’s images of domesticity at MoMA to investigating the constructed image of an affluent Milanese suburb at the Venice Biennale. Here, the context of the Museo Jumex feels wasted. I can’t think of a better site for an intervention of institutional critique. The museum houses the largest private collection (from beverage magnate Eugenio López Alonso) in Latin America and is located in Nuevo Polanco—a former industrial district that was scorched-earth-gentrified into an exclusive enclave for Mexico’s super rich. It’s at the heart of controversial billionaire Carlos Slim’s Plaza Carso mega-development, where cultural amenities frame luxury shopping malls and some of D.F.’s most expensive residential and commercial real estate (Slim’s own collection, Museo Soumaya, is just meters away, and was recently parodied by Santiago Sierra at Zona MACO). The area is almost entirely populated by elite white capitalists and is one of the few centers of the city located (seemingly deliberately) outside the reach of the populist metro system. The mechanizations of capital, identity politics, and environmental problems overtly at play in the present-day immediate context of the exhibition make any attempt to critique those issues as tangentially related to a documentary about wonder (made nearly half a century ago) seem quizzically irrelevant. This feels like an occasion where the adage “pick your battles” is all too appropriate.

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