A helicopter hovering over a crowd of onlookers in Siberia, pinned to the wall.
Craig Kalpakjian is a Brooklyn-based artist who has exhibited widely in the US and abroad over the past two decades. Sarah Kessler is a Triple Canopy editor at large. The following exchange was conducted via email in early January.
Craig Kalpakjian: I’ve become a bit obsessed with this photo I found of a 1995 expedition to Tunguska, a remote region in Siberia where a meteor exploded above Earth in 1908. I had heard of the “Tunguska Event,” which is mentioned wherever meteor impact events are discussed: It was both the largest impact event and the most powerful natural explosion in recent history.
Its magnitude exceeding that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by a thousand times. For weeks, the sky above Europe glowed all night—it was bright enough to read. People thought the world was about to end.
Tunguska plays a minor role in Thomas Pynchon’s newest novel, Against the Day. In Pynchon’s version, the sky’s strange glow provokes the paranoia of the major European powers as they anticipate the coming of the First World War. Tunguska’s effects make them fear some new superweapon has been tested.
There’s still no agreement as to what actually happened. One article warns, “The apparent uniqueness of this event requires that all possible explanations must be seriously considered and that no explanation can be discarded merely because it has a low probability of occurring.”
Tunguska has become a testing ground for every possible theory, a kind of plaything for fringe science. It has been claimed to have been a chunk of antimatter falling from space, a miniature black hole passing through Earth (a theory refuted on the grounds that the black hole would have created another event on exiting the planet’s other side), an experiment by Nikola Tesla, an explosion of high-speed ball lightning, and, of course, a UFO.
Though generally thought to be an impact event (albeit one that exploded in the atmosphere), there’s disagreement as to whether it was an asteroid or a comet, with former Soviet scientists believing more in the comet, while those in the West lean more toward the asteroid.
These images are also from the website of Andrei Olkhovatov, the Russian physicist. He has his own “tectonic” theory about the Tunguska event—this is the ball-lightning theory.
There’s more that I find intriguing about these images, beyond the Soviet-era nostalgia and the strange ambiguity about what actually happened, but I don’t quite know where to start.
Sarah Kessler: What’s so striking about the photograph is that I’m made to feel part of that Russian crowd; my gaze is directed toward whatever that crowd is looking at, which is something we can’t see. The effect is something like being short at a rock show, straining to catch a glimpse of the action you know is happening based on the reactions of other audience members.
This mystery is compounded by the fact that the event’s effects, or traces, are so ambiguous. The images that would seem to represent these traces are the most ambiguous of all: abstract, grainy patterns created, I assume, by felled trees or forest fires. Do you know whether anyone has attempted to “find” a crater? Is that what the nerdy, pallid scientist in the picture is doing there?
CK: A hundred years later, they’re still looking for a crater at Tunguska. The 1927 expedition found burned trees felled in a radial pattern around the site, with some remaining upright in the center. Viewing the area from above, they saw no crater, but the trees made what the expedition called a “butterfly pattern,” which was later found to be consistent with a huge explosion in the sky. (In the ’50s, Russian scientists modeled the impact of the explosion on trees, using matchsticks for trees.)
Recently, an Italian team announced that they believe Lake Cheko, near the epicenter, is the crater, but there’s a dispute about the lake’s age, with some arguing it’s much older. This response to the Italians, posted on a Russian government website, is really great: It is necessary to comment [on the] unusual conclusion of Italian researchers concerning Cheko Lake as meteorite crater. It seems that this conclusion was done very quickly and without methods of 3-D mathematical modeling of impact. On the contrary, we know a lot of arguments that Cheko Lake can not be stated as meteorite crater. Certainly, small heavy fragments of Tunguska comet may be found everywhere on the area of ~2000 square kilometres (and in the bottom of Cheko Lake too). But why necessary to search solution of Tunguska scientific problem under the water? Is it more difficult and more interesting for mass-media? Is it the subject for quick sensation? If to say strictly, we already have results of 3-D modeling of Tunguska catastrophe and know approximate coordinates of the most probable regions, where small heavy fragments may be discovered. May be more correctly to search substance of Tunguska comet during sunny day, but not during dark night? Why is necessary this situation of dark night under the water? In addition we can confirm, that Cheko Lake is beautiful place for summer rest. Moreover, it is excellent place for fishing. To our mind, Cheko Lake is the best place for rest after searching of Tunguska substance in real regions.... It is already wonderful that Italian researchers began to use more correct variant of Tunguska trajectory’s azimuth. We consider this hard decision of Italian researchers concerning trajectory as correct and brave. Let us remind, that the most serious Russian scientists use the same variant of trajectory already from beginning of XX century.
SK: I’m still curious about the “Soviet-era nostalgia” you mentioned earlier. Is it yours or does it belong to the photographs?
CK: Can nostalgia ever definitively be said to belong to a photograph? I would prefer to say that it exists between us and the image, in our experience of it, or in what we bring to it. It is like Roland Barthes’s description of the punctum—that which disrupts the disinterested study of the image—in Camera Lucida: “It is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.”
One of the things I’ve always found disturbing and difficult (but also compelling) is the way that photographs almost unavoidably come to acquire some form of nostalgia, along with a kind of “historical” interest. This ties in with the documentary or archival aspect of photography, since what is depicted will inevitably disappear—the people and the places will be lost, or at least changed. The problem, for me, is the difficulty of foreseeing the effects of these cumulative changes. The possibility of working with them in advance, even including them as a part of the content of a work, is something I find really interesting.
This image is from a series of lens flares I’ve been working on. The lens flares emerged from photographs of the sky that I was taking to use in my computer-generated work. While rendering architectural exteriors, I came to realize I had no interest in rendering sky and clouds to appear reflected in the windows on a building’s facade.
Though I could easily have found a program to generate sky and clouds, I was only interested in using computer programs to create the built environment. After taking some photographs of the sky, I realized I wanted to empty these images out even further, so the clouds kind of fell away, and I just started photographing the sun, getting completely drawn in by the resulting lens flares. I actually found a lens that is particularly “bad” and produces a lot of flare.
What you see in these images is the actual apparatus: the hexagonal aperture and the light bouncing off the inside of the lens—all these things that are supposed to remain transparent.
Besides being something you aren’t supposed to do (looking into or pointing a camera at the sun), the lens flare is technically an unwanted artifact, though it’s long been a kind of “mood” signifier—actually a bit of an empty signifier that can be used for almost anything, any mood. Maybe it’s just this emptiness that attracts me, for I’ve also drained the images of most of their color. Even when the sun is in the frame, I think of them as images of nothing. Only light. Specters.
Although we know what they are, the lens flares retain the sense of apparitions, of unidentified phenomena or effects. In this sense, I see them as connected with the Tunguska event, albeit in an oblique way.
SK: You say the lens flares “retain the sense of apparitions, of unidentified phenomena or effects.” What kind of an event is represented by a lens flare? In one of the classes I taught last semester, my co-teacher asked our students to note the use of lens flares at the beginning of The Shining. She explained that such techniques are specific to the late ’70s and early ’80s and now invoke a sense of nostalgia for a time in which our relationship to film production was more “raw.” People were more excited about what cameras could do with light—the apparatus hadn’t yet been conquered.
Lens flares were (and still are) used to create drama. While it seems they should make you more aware that what you’re witnessing is a construction, there’s something about the camera’s inability to represent pure light that’s pretty captivating. Perhaps this explains the mood lens flares can create (when they’re not being used parodically, as they often are nowadays). In your work, they seem more genuine, but maybe this is because they’re one of the only “real” photographic elements you work with! It’s always tickled me that the fake windows of the artificial structures pictured in your work reflect real light.
CK: I also thought of the lens flare as something from the ’70s; it evokes the cinema of that time for me.
I remember seeing a well-known cinematographer speak about the radicalism of doing such things back then, of preserving these things that might have previously compelled him to go back and reshoot, that would have been read as mistakes. But I still think the flare is kind of illegible, even if it’s imbued with nostalgia. The first piece in which I used a flare was titled In the Moment, which was completely digitally rendered.
I very much wanted to create an analogue to the physical experience of looking into the sun—a feeling of being overwhelmed by the sun as well as the architecture.
SK: An event is defined as: “something that takes place; an occurrence”; “the final result; the outcome”; “a point in space-time.” I’m trying to parse the differences and similarities between man-made events and natural disasters, events like Three Mile Island and Hiroshima versus events like Tunguska. Does the “drama” invoked by a lens flare bear any relation to that invoked by a mushroom cloud or a meltdown, which itself cannot be pictured? And are the ambiguities in these images comparable?
DeLillo’s description of the “airborne toxic event” in White Noise:
The enormous dark mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings. We weren’t sure how to react. It was a terrible thing to see, so close, so low, packed with chlorides, benzines, phenols, hydrocarbons, or whatever the precise toxic content. But it was also spectacular, part of the grandness of a sweeping event.…
Our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious. It is surely possible to be awed by the thing that threatens your life, to see it as a cosmic force, so much larger than yourself, more powerful, created by elemental and willful rhythms. This was a death made in the laboratory, defined and measurable, but we thought of it at the time in a simple and primitive way, as some seasonal perversity of the earth like a flood or tornado, something not subject to control. Our helplessness did not seem compatible with the idea of a man-made event.
On a recent trip to the Midwest, my mother and I drove by Three Mile Island. Some images from Three Mile Island, before and after the accident:
CK: I actually went to Three Mile Island when it happened—it was probably the weekend after the disaster.
I was in high school at the time, and a few of my friends and I thought it would be a really funny/dumb thing to do to go and take our picture in front of the site. I think we naively believed it was safe, were skeptical of the danger, and wanted to make fun of the fear that was rampant during those few weeks after the meltdown. I don’t think I ever even printed the photograph, probably out of embarrassment. It didn’t take very long to realize how stupid it was, as more and more came out about the amount of radioactive gasses that had been released. But at the risk of romanticizing the experience, I must say it reminds me of J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World: London floods and becomes tropical, but as the temperature rises, the main character decides to go south rather than north to safety.
SK: I wish I could see that picture! Maybe I can provide some lesser substitutes: What leads people to take these sorts of photographs? They seem to have something to do with reveling in the proximity to destructive power, along with a level of “historical interest.”
Is it more wholesome to be fascinated by natural disasters? Can Tunguska even be called a natural disaster? Even if it didn’t cause an actual disaster, it provides the archetypal image of a disaster, the apocalyptic “impact event” that is the basis of so many science-fiction narratives.
CK: I think Tunguska is certainly a natural disaster, though I can understand your reluctance to see it that way. We tend to think of nature as Earth-based.
Because Tunguska is of cosmic origin, otherworldly, and so singular in human history, it confounds the concept of “natural.” (In general, we tend to see the anomaly as unnatural.)
But I think even most of the fringe explanations would still place the event under the category of “natural.” There is a natural element to nuclear reactions, after all: The light and heat of the sun are derived from nuclear reactions; the premise of nuclear science is the unveiling of nature’s most fundamental forces. Someone suggested that Tunguska might have been an asteroid that reached such a high temperature on impact with the atmosphere that it created a kind of “natural” nuclear explosion.
Both natural and man-made disasters have the effect of pointing out how much we don’t know and can’t control.
SK: The degree to which the effort to explain Tunguska serves as a grounds for competition among nations makes me think of DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star.
CK: Yes, the book’s Cheops Feeley Medal:
The award secretly coveted by everyone in the sciences. The one they’d lie and cheat to get. It’s the underground prize, given for the work that has an element of madness to it. Of course, no one says this openly. But we all know that madness content is the determining factor.
SK: I read Ratner’s Star about one month before going on a trip to the salt flats of southern Bolivia: While there, I had a hemorrhage in my retina. An ophthalmologist in La Paz later told me it could have been caused by either the high altitude or the fact that I’d looked directly into the sun for a split second after waking up one morning.
(I thought the growing red spot in my eye was an afterimage, but it didn’t go away. The blood took nearly four months to dissipate, and there’s still a small blur in the middle of my right eye.)
When these photographs were taken, I had probably 60 percent of my vision. I was pretty miserable. The photographs make me nostalgic for something I only half-saw.
From Will Self’s Grey Area:
How small does an event have to be before it ceases to be an event? If you look very closely at the tip of your fingernail as it lies on a clear surface (preferably something white like a sheet of paper), so closely that you can see the tiny cracks in the varnish; and then push it towards some speck of dust, or tweak the end of a withered hair, or flick the corpse of a crumb still further into decay, is that as small as an event can be?
This passage always leads me to recall images from Gattaca, a film in which events so minor they could be deemed non-events—an eyelash falling out, a fingernail breaking off—possess tremendous significance. The still below doesn’t quite capture this, but it does provide another ambiguous event to add to the collection.
CK: From Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: "A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."
From Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?:
The event is not the state of affairs. It is actualized in a state of affairs, in a body…but it has a shadowy and secret part that is continually subtracted from or added to its actualization.… The event is immaterial, incorporeal, unlivable: pure reserve.
It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking the event is always grand and sweeping, like the one DeLillo talks about, but I also love the idea of the micro-event from the Self quote, the tiny shift that changes everything. In On the Line, another Deleuze and Guattari text very close to my heart, the authors use Fitzgerald’s wonderful essay “The Crack-Up” to create a whole theory of lines, or cracks. There is a nearly imperceptible fracture that occurs without our knowing it; but when we find out about it, we realize everything has changed. “We can no longer put up with things the way we used to, even as we did yesterday,” they conclude. “The distribution of desire within us has changed, our relationships of speed and slowness have been modified; a new kind of anguish, but also a new serenity, have come upon us.”