The Map is the Territory – by Eugenio Tonoli

The Map is the Territory – by Eugenio Tonoli

… the perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors.
– Georges Perec
(Espèces d’espaces, 1974)

The photograph of a dried shell bristling with thorns opens the sequence of Mike Slack’s The Transverse Path (or Nature’s Little Secret); this image is followed by a photograph of a window taken from the inside, the elements of verticality and horizontality of a mosquito net grid are contrasted by the fluid and seemingly directionless movement of a climbing vine shoot.
Echoing the filigree of the mosquito net is the tangle of words and numbers that propagates on the surface of a backlit map: the first image of the main sequence.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite” wrote Luigi Ghirri, quoting William Blake, in the preface to Atlante (1973); and it is precisely on perceiving the world that Slack’s photographs focus on, exploring it thoroughly in the belief that any object, from bushes to styrofoam, from concrete to steel or water, from moss to rubber, are to be considered Nature.

Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory features Jed Martin, an artist who made his debut in the gallery world with a series of photographs depicting details of maps (sounds familiar?).
Now old and isolated from the outside world, Jed spends his time devoting himself to his gargantuan final work of art: an extremely intricate video piece in which, via a specially designed software, thousands of clips converge: natural elements from the wooded park surrounding his mansion and objects he calls “industrial” (televisions, computers and anything containing electronic components).
The latter are filmed for days as they undergo a process of deterioration through the use of acids; the various video fragments are then interwoven, blending the natural and the artificial: “long hypnotic shots where the industrial objects seem to drown, progressively submerged by the proliferation of layers of vegetation. Occasionally they give the impression of struggling, of trying to return to the surface; then they are swept away by a wave of grass or leaves and plunge back into a plant magma, at the same time as their surfaces fall apart, revealing microprocessors, batteries and memory cards.”

In reading for the first time the description of this uneven struggle, an image forced its way in my mind: a microchip half-drowned in uncultivated grass, which Slack places in the sequence of his book just before the photograph of a wall overhung by a rounded cloud, the rigid and repetitive geometry of the bricks contrasted by the light and perpetual flow of the cloud.
Similarly to the protagonist of Houellebecq’s novel, who with his final work wishes “to give an account of the world … simply to give an account of the world”, Slack penetrates deeply into the layering of the real, aware that what we commonly call ‘real’ is the product of each individual’s perception, an illusory kaleidoscope effect in which the human being, also part of the World, attempts to investigate, catalog and control what surrounds them, as if it was all foreign and alien.

Often, throughout the sequence of The Transverse Path, images appear that refer to visceral anatomical components that are disturbing in their familiarity, as if the world is constantly mixing its components, just to spit them back out later in different forms: a bundle of rubber tubes covered with a sun-cracked sheath, iron cables and a foam mattress rolled up on itself recall muscles, tendons and soft layers of skin, the tiled covering of a roof recalls the scaly underbelly of a giant reptile, and a tangle of woolen threads of a thousand colors and sizes refers to the very fabric of reality, akin to the labyrinth of veins and capillaries that unravel beneath our skin, still unknown as far as much explored and probed, again and again.

From time to time an element intrudes into the sequence to tear apart the veil of ambiguity and suspension that characterizes the images: this is the case of the light blue tile of a puzzle, photographed against the background of barren, cracked ground, reminding us of how all representations of reality together form an image quite similar to that of a mosaic composed of infinite pieces, which, however, “does not become a solution to the puzzle, because the same reassembled puzzle is put back again into the flow of existence, and becomes another tile to be placed.” (Luigi Ghirri, from the preface to Vedute 1970-79)

Slack’s images constantly refer back to the relationship between ‘real’ and ‘fake,’ ‘natural’ and ‘other.’ Synthetic plants and samplings of unnaturally colored artificial leather (on which the words “Matrix Collection” appear) alternate with views in which traces of human presence almost disappear, swallowed up by the landscape. A spider’s nest peeping out of dry grass in the early pages reappears toward the end of the sequence, the spider web turned into shreds of opaque plastic; a round lamp sways in the dying sunlight, its shadow cast on the wall presents all the mysteries of the universe to those who stop to observe it.

Every single photograph we take represents a tiny speck in constant transition within the reality around us; understood as representations of the world by part of itself, photographs thus become perfect metaphors for what Man is: a solitary fragment of time, isolated in space by light.

Let’s talk about it with Mike Slack

At the end of the book, we are presented with a quote by philosopher and writer Vilém Flusser, which helps us understand what the general considerations at the foundation of this body of work of yours are: “Reality is a web of concrete relations. The entities of the environment are nothing but knots in this web, and we ourselves are knots of the same sort.” When did you start reflecting upon this subject of the relation between man and nature, and our perception of it all?
And how did the photographic project begin to form (did you revisit your archive and notice some echoing elements, or did you start from scratch)? 

I like that we’re beginning at the end, and thanks for mentioning that quote (it’s from a really wild book Flusser wrote about the vampire squid). Around the time this book was made I was reading a lot of Flusser, and also Timothy Morton’s early books. Many of the photographs came first — not as a direct response to the reading, but I was probably drawn to the subjects or visual situations that became The Transverse Path for the same reasons I was drawn to these writers: a curiosity about the nature of things in general (“the entities of the environment”) and about our use of adjectives like “organic” and “synthetic” to think about them. How do these “entities” (which include people and their minds and emotions) become what they are, and how do they break down and change? Is there a single process or operating system at the root of it? I noticed that I was making a lot of photographs in which the the so-called organic and the so-called synthetic shared the frame in some way, and I started to lean into that dichotomy more intentionally, to try to make images in which the apparent line between “man and nature” became porous or obscure — as if I was using the camera to listen to that dialogue and translate it somehow. This later extended to other basic dualities, like the wave/particle nature of light, or even the basic duality of light and shadow, earth and sky. That general curiosity led to what became The Transverse Path, and Flusser’s comment about reality as a “web” helped give it some structure.

Let’s now move to the very beginning of the book then: how did you come up with the title? I love the fact that the subheading – (or Nature’s Little Secret) – makes everything even more ambiguous, inducing us to wander through the pages looking for a slippery answer instead of pointing us toward a certain direction, as subheadings usually do. And speaking of ambiguity: we get to know at the end of the book that the images are taken in a lot of different places all over the USA and abroad, in the span of 6 years, but still the feeling while flipping through the pages is of a single, relentless, hermitic journey (on foot, in my imagination) wandering across this almost post-apocalyptic desert region, desperately trying to collect shreds of the voiceless dialogue you mentioned above. Why is it that you are drawn to the desert and to the empty and seemingly abandoned?

There were dozens of working titles for the book but I kept coming back to the word “path” — Shining Path was a contender for a while — and at some point I found the phrase “a transverse path” (in a book by Deleuze and Guattari) and that’s the one that stuck. It doesn’t mean anything specific but it connotes a lot — the wandering, the transecting, the connecting, the poetry, the indirectness — and sets up a kind of question or mystery for the viewer before the book is even opened. “Nature’s Little Secret” also begs a question — what is the secret? Is there an encrypted message, and can the camera decode it? I also love Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (or The Children’s Crusade) and also Brian Eno’s series of ambient records — Ambient 1: Music for Airports, etc — and I’ve always wanted to double-title my books in a similar way. My third Polaroid book was called Pyramids (or Bright Future).
As for the “seemingly abandoned,” I’ve had an affinity for wastelands, back alleys, vacant lots, peripheral zones for as long as I can remember — the places our brains automatically overlook or edit out, or that we physically avoid because there’s “nothing” there. I don’t know where this affinity comes from, but, as a photographer, those places — the background noise, that ambient stuff-between-the-stuff — are attractive because they’re so ripe with unexpected relationships. And the desert is especially fascinating because it’s not really “empty” at all — it’s just wild, full of untamed life and unnamed stuff, living and dying, recombining, often in really harsh and extreme ways. It might look post-apocalyptic in a kind of sun-blasted Mad Max way, but beneath that is a sense that these un-peopled landscapes and scenes are somewhat beyond the grasp of day-to-day human intelligence, that the laws of nature are just rambling along with no goal or purpose, and we’re somehow tangled up in this incomprehensible flow. And by “desert” I mean macrocosmic places like the Mojave and Sonora, but also the microcosmic spaces that surround us in cities and towns — where dust and debris gathers in the corner of a doorway, for instance; or sunlight sparkling off the surface of water in a nondescript drainage ditch.
It’s strange looking through the book now, years after the pictures were made, because I’m aware of how much was deleted, the endless edits, what my personal life was like and what was happening historically in those 6 years, and yet in itself, even to me, the book does feel like the record of a single self-contained journey — on foot, as you say, or in someone’s mind’s eye — the way a dream or a fabricated memory becomes so familiar it seems to have actually happened, or the way snapshots can become our actual memories.

Speaking of editing and unexpected relationships: were there images that became pivotal for the sequence and made you realize that this array of pictures needed to become a book?
Six years is quite a long time even for a photographic long-term project, and a lot of things change, even just on a personal level, that can cause a shift in direction or perspective. How did your relationship with the work change during all those years of gathering and editing material? 

The sky-blue puzzle piece in the dirt was one of the early anchors, and (somewhat related) the swimming pool full of dirt. But the book really wasn’t built around standalone images; it was more about the (transcendental?) qualities of one picture resonating with the qualities of two or three other pictures, and so on. Certain clusters of images became inseparable for various reasons, and those clusters intersected with other clusters, or constellations, and then it was just a matter of editing and sequencing and finding a rhythm from page to page, so those nonlinear echoes could still be felt in the linear form of a book (with a ‘beginning’ and an ‘end’) and it all cohered somehow, a web of associations.
For maybe a year, I had conceived the book as having a lot of text, and tried to design it that way. In early versions the pictures were mixed with occasional blocks of type filled with randomly generated placeholder text, which I was “translating” (with an app) into English or Esperanto and then re-writing for “clarity,” so there was a signal-to-noise thing, with sense and nonsense fading in and out, etc. But that was just confusing in the end, maybe too personal. I needed the words while I was sequencing the pictures, but when I deleted all the text boxes the pictures felt suddenly more alive and autonomous. At a certain point, as time passes, the pictures also lost their “factual” content and feel more like “fiction.” 

In conclusion: was there any photographic influence that particularly helped you give shape to The Transverse Path, meaning both the project in its entirety and the book as an object (format, cover, etc.)? 

It’s hard to say. I was in regular contact with Ron Jude, Ed Panar and Tim Carpenter during that time, though I don’t see any much similarity in our work (aside from the desert vibe of Jude’s Lago, and maybe the rhythm of the editing there). The format and cover of the book are a reference to the classic “Composition Book” students use here, with the black tape spine and the marble pattern cover, and the binding style was inspired by a book called The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. I have no formal training as a designer — or even as a photographer or editor — so for me it’s largely a matter of watching and imitating, consciously or not, puzzling different ideas together until it feels finished.

Eugenio Tonoli was born 1998 and lives in Milan.
He is a photography graduate of IED Milan and holds a master in Publishing from the University of Verona. His own photography practice is focused on long-term personal projects, with particular attention to the relationship between landscape and memory. Over the last year he has been working at Micamera.

Mike Slack was born in 1970, lives and works in Los Angeles, California. After an undergraduate degree in English literature and linguistics, and concurrent with a career in book publishing, he began his self-taught practice in photography in the late 1990s, and later co-founded The Ice Plant publishing imprint in 2006.