Tenth Anniversary

“Powers of Ten”: Some Thoughts on Scale, Galaxies, Intimacy, and Authority—On the Occasion of Daily Serving’s Tenth Birthday

Our vantage point begins slightly above the ground, passing quickly across it and then down, already a step removed. Already surveyors, we are outside of the frame but implicated. The scene presented to us—which measures one square meter—is of two picnickers by a lake who lounge on a blanket strewn with an enviable spread of fruits, cookies, wine, and books.[1] This vignette is the opening scene for a much-adored artifact of midcentury modernism, the husband-and-wife duo Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 film, Powers of Ten, described in the opening credits as “a film dealing with the relative size of things in the universe—and the effect of adding another zero.”

Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of Ten, 1977 (video stills); color video, 9:00. Eames Office.

Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of Ten, 1977 (video stills); color video; 9:00. Eames Office.

The first filmic iteration of Powers of Ten was produced in 1968 under the name A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. The Eameses based the work on Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps, a book that the Dutch educator Kees Boeke wrote and illustrated some ten years earlier while he and his wife ran the Children’s Community Workshop, a school they founded on egalitarian Quaker principles and a nonhierarchical governance shared by students, teachers, and staff. The Eameses took Boeke’s instructional aide and made it move—made it a cinematic feat of optics at a time when the United States was increasingly pleased with its prowess in the “space race” of the late 1960s. The premise of the film, and the book, is quite simple: Beginning at ground level, the audience is taken on a journey of shifting magnitudes—first through space, all the way beyond the Milky Way, and then under the skin as deep as the carbon nucleus. Each frame is ten times further out, or in, than the previous one.

Kees Boeke. Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (cover); New York: The John Day Company, 1957.

Kees Boeke. Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (New York: The John Day Company, 1957).

The scientific information that accompanies each of the levels is abbreviated—moving quickly to travel 100 million light years out, and 0.000001 ångstroms in, within nine minutes—but there is no shifting point of view and no change of scenery along the way that is not accompanied by a spoken description of what already is, or is about to become, visible. Often, the film’s narrator speaks evocatively; at one point he describes the day’s weather as a “long parade of clouds,” and later, when we’re hovering in deep space, he says, “This emptiness is normal.” It is not enough to say that Powers of Ten is a document that privileges the power of vision. Viewing the film is similar to the ascent readers take in René Daumal’s Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing, where the tale’s protagonist is led along the trail by Father Sogol (an alpine oracle whose name is logos spelled backward). The constancy of the narrator of Powers of Ten, unseen but always heard, asserts that we cannot see what we cannot say: without the structure of language, this would all be only dust. But does proclaiming the emptiness make it any less so?

Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of Ten, 1977 (video stills); color video, 9:00. Eames Office.

Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of Ten, 1977 (video stills); color video; 9:00. Eames Office.

At ten to the fifteenth power, the film shows constellations. We see Aquarius, Cetus, and Phoenix: human-drawn lines in the space between preexisting, celestial punctuation, penned to make meaning of our lives. We see this mythopoetic calligraphy again, within our internal cosmology at 10-6, where the narrator explains, “We come to the double helix itself, a molecule like a long, twisted ladder whose rungs of paired bases spell out twice—in an alphabet of four letters—the words of a powerful genetic message.” Yes, we are gaining much knowledge as we travel, and the distance moved in both directions from the level of the picnic (of the pedestrian) is described plainly as “increasing in power.” The phrase “ten to the power of one” tells us little more than what is already intimate to us, but “ten to the power of negative sixteen,” achieved by a subdermal lens that reveals the atomic level of our bodies, reveals intimacies of such extremes that they seem completely alien from anything we consider ourselves to contain.

Kees Boeke. Images from Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (New York: The John Day Company, 1957), 28 and 6.

Kees Boeke. Images from Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (New York: The John Day Company, 1957), 28 and 6.

In And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, John Berger writes: “The visible brings the world to us. But at the same time it reminds us ceaselessly that its space also takes the world away from us. Nothing is more two-faced.”[2] Scale is the realm of analogy, which relies on a preexisting realm of accepted symbols. We see this in the Eameses’ film as the mathematical notations shift on the perimeter of the image, making microns and light years measurable by meters. Seeing these numbers validates but does not dispel the enchantment of each unfolding or contracting scene. In Boeke’s book, too, we encounter images and sentences of such simplicity, and they easily belie the grandness they describe: “So here we find our galaxy again, but as an ellipse barely 8 millimeters in length, and inside the small square.”[3] A galaxy has been reduced to a mark no larger than that of a thumbprint, and yet we make the conceptual leap toward understanding it as something massively larger than we are.[4] The world has been brought to us, but it has never felt so far away.

Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of Ten, 1977 (video still); color video, 9:00. Eames Office.

Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of Ten, 1977 (video still); color video; 9:00. Eames Office.

Powers of Ten poses questions for those who dwell in the art of interpretation, including writers and critics. Because of its brevity, the film inherently editorializes. In the film, we see how interpretation can by its nature foreclose imagination, locking forms and gestures into a rigid structure of meaning while they are still lucid and nascent in the eye of the beholder. Thoughtful criticism acknowledges this danger: It commits to understanding its subject wholly but focuses on that commitment and not the prize of understanding. If there’s a discomfort in reading a piece of writing about a piece of artwork (like listening to a male voice narrate the sublimity of seeing the curve of the Earth from afar), the writing has done its job well. It has challenged authority, namely its own. Said another way, by Lucy Lippard, the art critic should seek an analysis where “Ideally the conclusions drawn are readable, but not necessarily easy to read.”[5] This discomfort may at times be accompanied by satisfaction. The uncomfortable truths of our existence are the raison d’être of many artworks and practices, and the willingness of critics, or conscientious persons, to speak this truth no matter how messy or ill-equipped our words is our best defense against the insipid status quo. The potency of illegibility is often what keeps us breathing.

Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of Ten, 1977 (video stills); color video, 9:00. Eames Office.

Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of Ten, 1977 (video stills); color video; 9:00. Eames Office.

It is an honest question for me now, living in an era of “alternative facts,” if a film like Powers of Ten—made forty years ago and presenting a principal view of humans’ relationship to the universe—could be made and loved again in America. It’s hard not to see Powers of Ten today as a potent missive from the past, crafted during the Cold War by idiosyncratic architects and furniture makers. Flippantly, we may say that the journey taken in Powers of Ten is not one many of us will ever embark on—but we do, every day, without choice. The real journey the Eameses set into motion is far more radical than the ability to surveil the Earth from space or the body from within. It is a journey that likens our fingerprints to a galaxy and one that brings into view the truth of our commonality, however uncomfortable or unsayable that truth may be.

 

[1] Somewhat strangely, one book has nothing but a clock face on its cover (and quickly passes as an actual clock, without closer inspection), while another is titled The Voices of Time. This collection of essays was edited by Julius Thomas Fraser and published in 1966. It shares the name of J.G. Ballard’s nonlinear, dystopian science-fiction short story (published in 1960) of a neurosurgeon by the name of Powers, whose final days are littered by encounters with elaborate mandalas, homes built in spirals measured to represent the square root of -1, and a civilization suffering a strange, entropic neurological disorder that turns them into “sleepers.”

[2] John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 52.

[3] Kees Boeke, Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (New York: John Day, 1957), 28.

[4] Even the astronaut John Glenn was keen on the language of scale: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

[5] Lucy Lippard, “After a Fashion: The Group Show,” The Hudson Review 19, no. 4: 625.

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