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Building A Time Capsule For The Digital Age

A new time capsule reveals our changing relationship with photographs, and personal mementoes in general.

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One of the great mysteries of time is how the current generation will be remembered in the future. Historians may document war, politics, and scientific breakthroughs, but mundane details—like what everyone ate for dinner or watched on TV—fade away.

Enter the time capsule, a vessel filled with ephemera from the present day, sealed up, and buried for the humans of the future. It's an idea that's existed for more than a century: Westinghouse made a time capsule for the 1939 World's Fair filled with things like cameras and slide rules for opening in the year 6939. In 1940, Thornwell Jacobs, then president of Oglethorpe University, created the Crypt of Civilization time capsule for opening in 8113, which he described as an "archaeological duty."

Today, the fascination endures. But the real twist is that time capsules aren't for the future at all—they're really for the people who make them. That's the message of a new exhibition called The Present Is the Form of All Life: The Time Capsules of Ant Farm and LST, at the Brooklyn art center Pioneer Works, an art center in Brooklyn.

Ant Farm—a countercultural art, design, and architecture practice active from 1968–1978—frequently explored time capsules in its work. Founded by Chip Lord and Doug Michels, with later members Hudson Marquez and Curtis Schreier, Ant Farm staged elaborate performance pieces that were more about assembling and burying time capsules than their eventual exhumation. The group inaugurated its Time Capsule project in 1972 with the burial of a domestic refrigerator filled with food. Then there was Citizens Time Capsule, an Oldsmobile filled with random donated objects, coated with cement, and buried in Upstate New York in 1975.

Ant Farm regarded most of these homemade time capsules as failures: when Time Capsule was opened in 2000, its contents were dust, while Citizens Time Capsule remains buried because it's considered an environmental hazard. ("The lesson there is that it’s very difficult for artists to control their work over time," Lord says.)

Then, in 2008, the group's second incarnation, LST—founded by Lord, Schreier, and Bruce Tomb—created a modern time capsule for an exhibition at SFMOMA, collecting digital files—like photos and audio files—from people who participated in the artwork. The time capsule on view this fall at Pioneer Works, Ant Farm Media Van v.08, builds on that.

"We came to realize when we worked on [Media Van v.08] that it doesn't matter if the time capsule moves forward in a significant way at all," Tomb says. "It’s about the gathering of content. To put something out there seems to matter less and less. It’s about the moment."

I step inside their 27,500-cubic-foot inflatable structure, built inside Pioneer Works' warehouse-like space, and climb into the shell of '70s Chevy van that's outfitted with white benches. I plug my iPhone into a contraption called a HUQQUH (pronounced like "hookah") and the device—which kind of looks like a CRT television with a steering wheel around it—then asks me if I trust it or not. I tap yes on the screen. Then, the HUQQUH scans the thousands of photos I've taken over the years, picks one at random, and churns out a receipt printed with a grainy snapshot of some vaguely European buildings of which I have no recollection. (I searched my hard drive later and turns out it was from a trip to Barcelona three years ago.) My photo is now part of the time capsule's archive, which will exist as a digital file and be given to anyone who buys a copy of the exhibition's catalog.

"It will be a dispersed time capsule and many people will walk away with a copy of it, which in some way ensures its durability because there are so many versions out there," Lord says. (The final destination of the van after the exhibition has yet to be determined.)

"We’ve come to understand that the best way to preserve digital media is to distribute it," Tomb adds.

"Just like with genetics—you pass it around," Schreier chimes in.

While most time capsules, like Westinghouse's and the Crypt of Civilization, speak generally about a culture, Ant Farm's are more personal, and say something about individuals. Hence the focus on the photographs that people produce, chosen at random, for Media Van v. 08. "It’s like random anthropology," says Pioneer Works director Gabriel Florenz. "What happens to [those photos on our phones] in the future? Most of it will be completely evaporated and lost. We don’t have object-based cultures anymore. When you think about preserving digital space and actually replicating it to look at it in 2030, all of [these everyday photos] would probably have disappeared. It’s about putting importance on something that is overlooked."

The images collected during the van's 2008 installation are displayed in the gallery. The album, of sorts, includes of snapshots parents took of their babies, scenic vistas, bikes, food—the stuff that most of us photograph. What's most telling are the hundreds of black squares with white circles in them, which represent illegally downloaded music files—the height of the Napster debate was around that time—that didn't have images associated with them.

Now, the curators are noticing a new trend with the photos: lots and lots of screen grabs of text conversations—and selfies.

"The implementation of photographs has changed—and you see that," says Pioneer Works curator Liz Flyntz. "We know it’s happened, but we don’t really think about it until we’re confronted with a whole bunch of images people take with their phones. People still take photographs the things they always have—their friends, their boyfriend or girlfriend, their dog—but they also use the utility of having instantaneous images they carry around with them all the time. There are a lot of pictures of price tags. Also blisters and rashes sent to their doctor friend, like 'what’s this?’ People are using photographs for utility in a way that when you had to develop film, it just wouldn’t make any sense."

So while a time capsule of sorts exists in the images we already post to Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr, they represent an ultra-curated perspective of daily life. The real story is in those random photos that we all carry on our phones.

"Everyone I tell about this is kind of scared," Florenz says. "They want to do it but think, ‘What the hell is on my phone’?"

The Present Is the Form of All Life: The Time Capsules of Ant Farm and LST is on view at Pioneer Works until October 23.

[All Photos: Andy Romer Photography]

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