Up to 90% of Americans, according to a recent poll, own a computer or computerized gadget, but few of us actually know what’s going on inside those sleek steel shells. If it weren’t for the occasional whir of the cooling fan or the metronomic blinking of lights, you might even think you’ve tapped into some kind of magic instead of a finely tuned piece of hardware with lots of interworking parts.
For seasoned photographer Mark Crummett, that’s part of the mystery: Anything could be going on in our machines, and we’d never know it. Crummett’s photographic essay, Ghosts in the Machine, investigates that very premise, and imagines a cast of colorful characters journeying through the innards of our computers.
“I like the hidden mystery of that world,” Crummett tells Co. Design. “When a steam engine, for example, is operating, by god you know something is happening! A computer, on the other hand, generally looks the same whether it’s screaming through a video game or it’s powered off.”
Crummett repurposes bits and bytes of disused motherboards, circuitry, and wire bundles as sprawling otherworldly landscapes. He populates these micro-cities with small-scale figurines (in architectural/design parlance, “scalies”) just .75 inches tall. The scalies, model railroad humanoids that Crummett sources from hobby shops, are poignantly clothed in all manner of dress, with construction workers, doctors, astronauts, and cyclists, among many others, all represented here. “Like real people, they’re always interesting to photograph,” Crummett says. And adds, “Unlike real people, they’re always available and infinitely patient! And of course, I like their size. Everything you put them next to in our world looks huge and monumental.”
It’s with evident delight that the photographer constructs his scenes. He imaginatively pairs computer parts with scalies wearing quirky attire: A pair of helmeted laborers in overalls, stranded in a field of spinning gears, administers repairs; a paunchy middle-aged man navigates his bicycle through heaps of soldered batteries and pushbuttons; and a devilish bunny rabbit pops in and out of PCI slots with viral spontaneity. One of Crummett’s personal favorites, an engineer-cum-high priest in an orange jumpsuit, thrusts his arms up in the air toward an LED in humbled awe.
Asked about the whimsical construction of each scenario, Crummett says it’s a kind of recontextualization. “I like setting up vaguely absurd situations that make a certain kind of internal sense.” The “orderly way” that the circuit boards are arranged and their limited color palette acquire architectonic and industrial dimensions, which makes for a convincing “urban” context into which he can insert his lilliputian models. Here, among these mechanistic fragments, Crummett says, “I can be as realistic or fantastic as I want to be.”
In architectural renderings and models, scalies are haphazardly employed—alien travelers pushed to the margins only to texture the street life promised by this or that new luxury condo or riverside commercial district. But Crummett’s protagonists refuse to blend in. They don’t spell out “prospective” or hypothetical scenarios as much as mirror the conditions of contemporary life, where, Crummett says, technology constructs our own experiences and environments. The scalies, with their anachronistic wardrobes and clumsy, fleshy proportions, clash with the cool machinery of their adopted living spaces. But because they also channel the “hidden power flowing through those mysterious components,” they sweetly overlap with and even extend those spaces.