Powers of Ten 10.06.13

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The vertiginous Powers of Ten was directed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1977 for the computing giant IBM. While the film's extraordinary vertical zoom, travelling from deep space to the subatomic, seems to anticipate much of today's aerially-infused visual culture, it is also an event in a much longer history – encompassing the development of both the microscope and the aeroplane – of "seeing from above". A persistent theme within this has been the ideal of bringing everything into view. Grasping the possibilities of their medium, the Eameses exploded the limits of earlier panoptic representational mechanisms. In so doing, they hitched a didactic exposition of the dimensional relations of things to a visually overwhelming voyage that conjured fantasies of both intergalactic space travel and miniaturisation.

The film's template was derived from Cosmic View, a visual essay that had been published in 1957 by the Dutch educational reformer and pacifist Kees Boeke. Boeke's intention was to provoke a radically expanded and interconnective view of existence through a sequence of drawings that pictured "the universe in 40 jumps". To achieve this, he devised a system of escalating viewpoints structured through powers of ten, whereby the leap to each new one was ten times greater than that previously taken. Eleven years later, two films were released that animated Cosmic View's static transitions: Eva Szasz's silent Cosmic Zoom, for the National Film Board of Canada, and the Eameses' black-and-white trial, A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. In contrast to the Szasz film, which had a more pastoral feel, A Rough Sketch displayed a relentless and exhilarating verticality in which line of vision and trajectory powerfully converged. Two chronometers, one showing "traveller's time", the other "Earth time", reinforced the impression of being – in Philip Morrison's words – like a "driver in a space ship", a connotation heightened by the fact that in A Rough Sketch the viewer was launched from Florida, the departure point for the Apollo missions then underway.

The better-known colour version of 1977, with its smooth integration of photographic materials and artwork, is justly celebrated. The Eameses collaborated in making this – one of their final films – with Morrison, an MIT physicist and SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) enthusiast, who narrated the script. The accelerating zoom, through which the vast visual field of the film is disclosed, is one manifestation of the Eameses' persistent search for a compacted visual form appropriate to cultural conditions of intensifying velocity and informational saturation.

Equally significant is the film's Cold War context, which casts light on the striking visual consonance between the "outer" and "inner" spaces that the film depicts, drawing space-race geopolitics into the dimensions of the microscopic. If the Eameses' client, IBM, was the emblematic company of what the political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski heralded as the "technetronic era" of US global dominance, it was so because of its ability to manipulate matter on the micro-scale penetrated in the second half of the film.

While there are declared descendants of Powers of Ten, such as the 1996 Cosmic Voyage IMAX film or the Spore evolutionary video game, the most vivid testimony to its hold on our cultural imagination is the extent to which this endlessly fascinating film sets the precedent for so much of our contemporary visual experience, from the nose-cam videos shot from falling missiles during the Gulf War to Google Earth.




The Eames Office



Mark Dorrian

quotes story

The accelerating zoom is one manifestation of the Eameses' persistent search for a compacted visual form appropriate to cultural conditions of intensifying velocity and informational saturation

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