German-born artist Christoph Gielen is an aerial video and photography specialist whose art is deeply invested in the politics of land use and all its ramifications from the social to the environmental. He lives and works in New York and has photographed several American cities from a bird’s eye view. The photographs showcase the geometry and symmetry of expansive urban development while implicitly questioning its sustainability. Alienated from the real buildings by the distance of the camera, the entire development appears as a glyph. Aptly titled Ciphers the photographs capture suburbia from California to Texas in alluring patterns that remind us of intricate codes that reflect the exclusivity of these settlements.
Gielen’s visualization is inspired by a description in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49;“Like many named places […] it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts – census tracts, special purpose bond – issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway. […] hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.”
In Ciphers, we see the distinctions between residential, commercial, and public properties become unrecognizable, presenting a sprawling cluster of architecture that is home to only a handful of people. We undergo the breakdown of the taken-for-granted notion that there is unlimited, space and growth for all.
Gielen criticizes the lack of responsibility and foresight on the part of post-war, national legislation towards city planning, as leading to the rise of this trend. This sense of homogeneity is in part due to the overuse of maps by American city planners in the creation of a spatial logic. Neat geometric divisions ignore any interaction with the natural world. The result is decidedly, overwhelmingly large swathes of land dedicated to low-density populations who then navigate this area using fuel-burning vehicles – a “car-dependent” society that doesn’t care for distances.
Through his photographs Gielen urges us to think about how development should be re-imagined, he pushes for a more symbiotic, ecologically aware, and energy-efficient way of designing habitable urban ecosystems. We are forced to reflect on contemporary architecture’s agenda in maintaining the status quo, in being brazenly destructive towards the environment in fulfilling its idea of futuristic urban perfection, and how we are unwittingly allowing for it to happen.
Ciphers (2013) is available as a hardcover publication with photographs by Christoph Gielen and text by Geoff Manaugh, Susannah Sayler, Edward Morris, and Srdjan Weiss. It was nominated for the Deutscher Fotobuchpreis.
His upcoming video project Supermax: Structures of Confinement and Rationales of Punishment is a different take on the relationship between humans and built space. Here he explores the reformation of prisoners by focusing his lens on the notoriously private architectural plans of large American prisons which are built upon extreme surveillance and control enabled by advanced modern technology.
Gielen hopes to unravel the aims of prison architecture and their purported claims to correcting “violent prisoners”. He borrows from Sharon Shalev’s book, Supermax (2009) which argues that the “discourse of dangerousness” is one that is fashioned and sustained by the physical space itself. The video exhibition will be accompanied by discussions on the design, utility, and purpose of prison buildings; how the future of this currently fraught scenario can be envisioned. Once the project is fully realized, and a sizable number of locations covered, the artist hopes it will bring about practical and humane reforms.