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Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Arsenic, The Universe, Panama and Everything

More quick notes on books starting with the Eriskay Connection (and you will find them this week in Paris on the fantastic Polycopies Boat), a publisher who make beautifully designed and quite serious photobooks which approach subjects with a definite aura of sobriety.

Universe by Jos Jansen is a visual exploration of the cutting edge of scientific research. If you want to know what the edges of scientific imaging looks like, this is the book for you. Universe is s a visual template for how we frame this way of seeing, a kind of visual check sheet for the Scientific Gaze - which is where the Medical Gaze, the Surveillance Gaze, the Anthropological Gaze, Eugenics, and I'll stop there because it doesn't end nicely. You want to know where the end of the world will come from. The answer might be here.

The Arsenic Eaters by Simon Brugner slips into that scientific way of seeing - that's what Eriskay is all about - and examines the fascinating world of arsenic eating, but with added folklore and superstition. So it's science and superstition which is really what science is all about when it comes down to it, albeit superstition of a scientific bent. The basic story is a long time ago that is not really that long ago, it's within living memory....

Actually living memory is quite long ago. You've still go people alive whose met people who would have met Napoleon. There are people alive who knew people who knew Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein, there are people alive who knew people who remembered the Opium Wars. I'd better stop there before...

Anyway, people used to eat arsenic and Simon Brugner decided to follow the thing and photographed the archives, the places, the people, and the region of Styria where the practice was especially common. Essentially, Styria was a backward place filled with backward people, ugly backward people who were lethargic, bad-tempered and nasty. Until they started eating arsenic, which made you lively, vivacious and attractive in a mountain environment kind of way. It warded off other diseases (they were all killed by the arsenic) and gave you superhuman strength. The only problem was - stop eating arsenic and you die. There are lots of questions left unanswered in there I know.

In the Heat by Arturo Soto meanwhile offers up an urban examination of the accident of history that is Panama, a country that invented by the USA to enable them to build the Panama Canal. So right from the start, Panama is an extension of the USA. This theme is pursued in In the Heat through images that captures the Panamanian elite's attempt to build a Panamanian Miami on the border with South America. There are images of resistance in the black and white urban landscapes, the sad shadow of Hector Gallego appearing in one image. Gallego worked on cooperative projects in rural Panama and was disappeared for his efforts. The image serves as both a reminder of the brutality of the landowning and military powers that have dominated the country, but also of hope, that things don't have to be this way, that there is something good in this world, there are people we can aspire to be like. And that is something we all need wherever we are.

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