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Cameron Keith Gainer Goes on a Journey into Sound and Space in the Smithsonian’s Digital Archive and Finds Magic.

Shana Lutker in conversation with Cameron Keith Gainer | October 26, 2020

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Cameron Keith Gainer discovers artists’ oral histories, deep dives into Mercury’s Rembrant crater, finds one of the first audio recordings (which is actually a photograph), and stumbles into magic for healing. Oh, and an amoeba eating a shrimp, too.

To celebrate MHz Foundation’s collaboration with the Smithsonian Open Access initiative, we asked artist Shana Lutker, one of MHz Curationist’s Advising Editors, to introduce the new Smithsonian Open Access collections to artists and talk with them about what they found. Shana and the other artists in this series are all former Smithsonian Artist Research Fellows (SARFs). The SARF residency invites artists to spend a month or two in the Smithsonian Archives in Washington DC, exploring a topic of their choice and expanding their artistic research. 

For the third interview in the series, Shana spoke with Cameron Keith Gainer on April 6th, 2020 over Zoom. Shana first met Cameron through their shared background as artist-publishers: Shana is Executive Director of the publisher of X-TRA and Cameron is the founder, publisher and Executive Editor of The Third Rail

When the interview took place, Shana was in Los Angeles, and Cameron was in New York. Both were at home under lockdown orders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Their  conversation was before George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis which was the catalyst for mass protest for racial justice and against police violence across the US. 

As we publish this now, months into these crises, most schools, museums, and libraries remain closed, and the value and necessity of Open Access initiatives is all the more clear.


Cameron Keith Gainer
: I’m currently living in Manhattan and it’s a complicated moment to be in the city surrounded by this pandemic and the amount of suffering that’s happening here. So thank you for the invitation to explore the Smithsonian Open Access archive.

Shana Lutker: The impetus for reaching out to fellow former Smithsonian Artist Research Fellows (SARFs) was to take advantage of our familiarity with the Smithsonian archive and open some doors for readers into the Open Access archive. The SARFs were granted access to the archive when it was behind a wall. Now that portions of it are available for free online, it is interesting to revisit it and explore. It’s fascinating to learn about your research. You already know which doors you want to open—doors into areas of the Smithsonian’s archives that  others couldn’t even know exist.

CKG: It’s also timely, to access these vaults of information in a moment when learning has moved entirely online. You cannot physically be in a classroom or library, and now there’s this extraordinary resource that can be engaged in a multiplicity of ways. 

When I first started looking through the website I found an archive that I wasn’t aware of: the Archives of American Art. For decades they’ve been recording interviews with artists and talking to them about their work and influences. I just didn’t know that there was a resource like that there. It’s been really fun the last couple days to go through and listen to these excerpts of conversations, and gain insight into how these artists were thinking about their practices and give context to what they were making in the studio and who was influencing them. And then within a few clicks I’m watching an amoeba eat a shrimp and thinking about the single cellular world. Ha. These bifurcated research experiences create new conceptual possibilities. There’s something beautiful about the joy of being rewarded for your curiosity!

SL: First, tell me a little bit about the research you did at the Smithsonian.

CKG: My proposal was to research the nomenclature and morphology of impact craters on the surface of Mercury. It was super specific and particular. I wanted to understand the geologic and visual clues that define the landscape of another planet. How are these structures formed and how are they named? There is a particular set of rules for naming the craters on each planetary body. 

This all started with an international body of scientists who conferred on the criteria for how craters are named on each planet. For instance, all of Mercury’s craters are named after artists. I became fascinated with this process. How do they choose the names? Why is this particular crater named for this or that artist? Each crater is like a thumbprint and has very particular visual characteristics. I became fascinated with the process of making depictions of landscapes. 

SL: I love the associative and eclectic collection you compiled from your wander in the archive. Can you narrate your approach to putting this together? What were you searching for, and where did you forge new paths?

CKG: When I first started clicking through the Smithsonian Open Access archive, I saw that you can search by audio. The very first entry in the audio archive is this Volta laboratory experiment. It’s also one of the few audio items that also came up with an image. The description is interesting, it’s described as an experimental sound recording made in the Volta laboratory in 1885. Volta Laboratory was created by Alexander Graham Bell in 1880. This audio recording involved a photographic process. They projected a beam of light through a liquid which was vibrating when exposed to different audio frequencies, and this caused sound waves to interrupt both the light and the liquid which exposed a prepared photographic plate. So they are literally making the invisible visible. It was an attempt to take sound waves and turn them into a visible form that can then be recorded photographically, and then reverted back into sound.

“So they are literally making the invisible visible.”

There are a number of things that I love about this. For me, this is the pearl in the ocean—it’s stumbling upon a single object that satisfies multiple lines of inquiry, my interest in photography, and the recording mediums, but also my interest in making visible that which we can’t see. This is the key to imagination and how we determine the possibilities of our futures. We can’t make what can’t be imagined. And so, the crux of creating new realities is the ability to explore the edge of perception, to reveal things that are just beyond sight. The actual recording in this case is also really strange, and a bit haunting. It’s the voice of someone in the lab reciting “Mary had a little lamb.”

“We can’t make what can’t be imagined.”

There’s so many different ways to filter through what this single artifact means. I love the idea of listening to a record and having to imagine what sound looks like. Shifting perspective to a point where you approach it from an oblique angle.

Mercury’s Great Valley
Carnegie Institution of Washington, DLR Institute of Planetary Research, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Source: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum/YouTube

The second archive item that I chose is a video of a three-dimensional rendering of the surface of Mercury, specifically Mercury’s Great Valley.

My eyes lit up right away when I saw this, “Oh my God, that’s Rembrandt’s crater!” The crater in the upper right quarter is named after the Dutch painter Rembrandt. I studied an image of that crater very closely when I was working at the Smithsonian as a SARF in 2014. 

What’s interesting is that I always assumed it was just a single image. The surface of a planet is typically recorded and documented by a single spacecraft in orbit. In this case, the Messenger spacecraft traveled around the planet over a number of years and took thousands of photographs. And then those photographs were stitched together to make a patchwork of photographs to document the entire surface of the planet. I was looking at the Rembrandt crater from what I thought was a singular image. I started making a painting of the crater and halfway into it, I realized that the shadows on the far right and the far left occurred at opposite times of the day. Essentially I was painting both the sun rising and the sun setting on the planet.

“I was in the studio with this huge piece of canvas, painting this image, and all of a sudden realized that I was painting an impossible landscape.”

At that moment, when I discovered that, it was life changing. I was in the studio with this huge piece of canvas, painting this image, and all of a sudden realized that I was painting an impossible landscape. I was painting something that could not exist in one single moment. The beauty of this video from the archive is that it shows precisely why they had to stitch those two images together: one half of the crater is always in shadow. Either the right half is in shadow or the left half is in shadow. 

The rendering shows where the peaks and valleys are. This was new to me, this didn’t exist when I was a fellow. This video is explicating what’s not visible. When I stumbled upon this, my eyes lit up, and I thought, Oh, my God, finally, I understand why they had to stitch these two photographs together!

SL: How many artists’ names are attached to Mercury’s landscape?

CKG: There are 401 named craters on Mercury. As a rule, all new craters on Mercury are named after an artist, composer, or writer who was famous for more than 50 years and has been dead for more than 3 years. On one level, it’s a cheesy pun on which artists had the biggest impact. The bigger the artist the bigger the crater! Of course Rembrandt is one of the biggest craters on the surface. But they are still naming craters. Every year or so I submit three or four artist’s names for unnamed impact craters for Mercury. Sometimes the moon and other planetary bodies will also consider new names. The moon craters’ names are a combination of scientists and explorers. There is a process by which one can be a part of naming these different impact craters

When I was a SARF, my office was at the Air and Space Museum. I spent time in the various departments and libraries there. The photographic archives aren’t yet available online. It was interesting, in searching through this online archive now, to see what was chosen for inclusion over other things. It is a Herculean effort to get the millions of photographs in the archives digitized and uploaded, which I assume they are starting to do. While I was there, I worked with a scientist named Thomas Watters, who worked on the Messenger satellite project for years. While I was in the office, that mission was coming to an end. At some point, Mercury’s gravity was going to pull the Messenger satellite to the ground. And the satellite itself would make a new impact crater on the surface. The satellite went around Mercury for four years, just photographing images of the surface. There was something beautiful about that narrative arc, that this thing was spinning around discovering this planet, and it was never going to return to the earth, it was never going to leave its orbit. It had one mission, and at some point, it was going to die. It’s a beautiful linear narrative with which I became enamored.

“There was something beautiful about that narrative arc, that this thing was spinning around discovering this planet, and it was never going to return to the earth, it was never going to leave its orbit.”

The third link that I sent you is another bifurcation. Again, I returned to the audio files and I started randomly listening. I stumbled upon this one, which was titled “Magic for curing.” It includes a date, February 1, 1958, but there isn’t much more descriptive text. It’s a sound recording. The listed Contents: 1. Magic for purella (tumors); 2. Prayer for parents; 3. Magic for luhulo (paralysis (?)) recipe for medicine included; 4. Prayer for pregnant woman; 5. Prayer for a baby.

The recording is of a man performing magic. The truly invisible, recorded. I especially love that these are spells “for curing.” It was emotional to be sitting here in New York in the middle of a pandemic listening to a recording of a man using his voice to heal. It’s rare that you find something in a library or in an archive that isn’t overly documented. The beauty in this clip is that it is not simply an archived ethnographic document. It’s the idea that the recording itself is a magic that heals when listened to.

There is no transcript. It’s just five spells, spoken into a microphone without any introduction. With most of the audio recordings in the archive, the interviewer or ethnographer says who they are, what they are recording, and the date. When you first listened to it, what did you think?

SL: I first closed my eyes and tried to accept the magic. But then I started digging through the information for clues. There is one lead in the key words: “Mariana.” I didn’t go any further than that. But I believe “Mariana” gives some geographic guidance.

CKG: Yes. The keywords may point towards a general location, and a couple words in the Contents listing are recognizable. It lists, “Purella” and then in parentheses “tumors.” And then “(paralysis (?)).” This is one of the things I love about archives and being in libraries. I’m of that generation that would go to the library and just spend hours exploring. I’d start some place and end up four hours later reading about something that had nothing to do with the reason I walked in that front door. This audio file is an invitation, if you want to know more, it’s here. And if you don’t want to know more, the magic is still here. Right? There are a couple of clues and you could probably find out what language it is, maybe a general region. But where is magic located? Can it be translated? There’s an intensity in the way this man is speaking the words. And in some cases, I don’t even think they are “words.” They’re more like grunts and guttural moans. This comes full circle to the first link we discussed, shining a light through “Mary had a little lamb” to make the sound waves visible, to capture a photograph that then becomes read as sound. Sound lives in a space where it’s documented and the meaning can be understood, but at the same time, there is a kind of unknown, a bit of the invisible, a bit of magic.

I could take in this archive for weeks, and just bounce around. It was fun to be back inside a space like this.

SL: I’m so glad that you were able to talk today and take me on a murky sound journey and into space. Thank you.

CKG: Thanks so much for inviting me. I’m excited to read about how other people engage this resource.

Visit Cameron’s full collection at the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab.

Read Shana’s previous SARF interview Kim Schoenstadt Wanders the Smithsonian’s Digital Archive and Finds Unexpected Meaning in Simple Machines.

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