Traffic in Morse Code: James Nizam’s Heliographic Scale
by Helen Wong
Traffic sounds like the heartbeat of a city—the hum of an engine, the clicking of pedestrian crosswalks. This rhythm breathes life into a metropolis and is a symbol for modernization. It is constant, at times soothing, and immediately recognizable. Modernization was a result of the Industrial Revolution in England in the 1700s. The creation of new jobs led to a mass influx of individuals from surrounding rural areas producing the metropolises we know now. As a result, traffic can be seen as a precursor to modernization; the increase of traffic is a signifier for the modernized city. This was the theme of the city of New Westminster’s latest public art piece in partnership with Capture Photography Festival. Photographer James Nizam’s work Heliographic Scale, 2016, was selected to be installed as the backdrop for the Telus Building in New Westminster. On view for a year, Heliographic Scale is a photograph of an abandoned limestone mine on Texada Island, in the Strait of Georgia. By depicting a sequence of flashes burst across the quarried landscape by means of the sun, Nizam has orchestrated an ascending scale of star formations, recorded in a panoramic view.
Nizam’s photographic practice largely concentrates on exposing the camera as a medium. In Heliographic Scale and its sister work SOS (Star Trail Sequence), 2016, Nizam uses light as a means of creating sculptures within the work by connecting the apparatus of the camera with architectural space. By using light as a subject to bring attention to the process of photography, Nizam addresses the evolving narrative of sculpture through his artistic intervention within the built environment and landscape. SOS (Star Trail Sequence) was produced through a long exposure where Nizam manipulated the aperture of the camera in order to play with the shutter speed. This created flashes of light that resemble Morse code patterns in concentric circles.
Inspired by the resemblance of the concentric circles in his piece to a vinyl record, Nizam collaborated with a sound engineer to translate the work into sound. They created a spectrograph that assigned the brightest points in the image to higher frequencies and assigned darker tones to lower frequencies. A software system then scanned the image from left to right creating a soundtrack of 42 minutes, the total exposure time of the photograph. From this, a nickel-plated disc called a “stamper” was created. A stamper is used to impress the vinyl with ridges that correspond to sound; these are typically used in the mass production of vinyl records. This stamper became the basis of Heliographic Scale. The brutalist groves of Texada Island paralleled the positive and negative space of the stamper plate and became a natural point of reference to SOS (Star Trail Sequence). Bringing this piece full circle, Nizam photographed the quarry from a bird’s-eye view and performed a series of heliographic flashes using the stamper plate, thereby creating an ascending scale.
Heliographs were used for communication in military, survey and forest protection work until the 1960s. They were signaling devices by which sunlight was reflected in flashes from a movable mirror, utilizing Morse code as a means of communication. Therefore Heliographic Scale and SOS (Star Trail Sequence) embody light as a language. Light not only becomes a tool in which Nizam has created sculptural works, but it also speaks to the modernization of how we communicate. Thus, the evolution of language and the development of cross-channel communication have been absorbed in the modern sense of the word ‘traffic’. The connotations associated with traffic are no longer represented solely by the literal sense of cars driving, but has evolved to incorporate digital modes of communication as well. As a result, Nizam’s work speaks to a larger movement away from tangible sets of definitions or ideas, toward the intangible—in this case taking the form of wireless communication or altered landscapes. By placing this work in the sphere of public art, this piece takes on a third meaning. The work is located on the Telus Building in New Westminster, a company centered on telecommunications and mobility. Thus, Heliographic Scale directly speaks to the day-to-day operations of the building, in a sense becoming an extension of the building itself.
The placement of this work aims to enhance the surrounding area of the Telus Building in an effort to activate the space as a central hub. Through the Public Art Program in New Westminster, the city is also working on updating and improving the public plaza adjacent to the installation. Public art is used as a means of bringing new audiences to the city, becoming a driver of traffic.
Heliographic Scale is representative of the ability of public art to generate traffic into new areas, working to promote cultural, social and economic growth. In this vein, traffic continues to represent the heart of a city, but is altered to sound like a new text message, or the ringing of your cellphone.
James Nizam: Heliographic Scale is part of the Capture Photography Festival in Vancouver. The festival runs from April 1 to April 28, 2017.
Helen Wong is a writer based in Vancouver. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Art History and is currently the Development Assistant at the Contemporary Art Gallery. She is interested in collaborative projects that link people to interactive and new ways of discovering art.