I KNOW IT'S A CLICHE, but you know how you hear the
name of a new threatened indigenous nomadic tribal people, and
all of a sudden you hear the same name five more times that week?
Happened to me just recently.
The final time was on the deck of a very nice home on Telegraph
Hill, at a party with small vegetables and barbequed oysters
and overlapping conversations. Admittedly, it's a kind of borderline
thing, to munch baby carrots while talking about threatened indigenous
nomadic tribal peoples, but it is certainly better than munching
baby carrots and pretending that the rest of the world does not
exist at all.
I think I'm getting too old for irony.
The party was a celebration of the opening of the only noncommercial
camera obscura in the United States. A camera obscura is (to
simplify) a dark room with a periscope poked through the roof.
The slowly revolving periscope gathers the images of the surrounding
area and projects them on a round flat surface (like a kitchen
table, except smoother and cleaner) in the dark room.
Think of it as a being in a submarine, except the eyepiece
of the periscope is removed and another lens is substituted,
a lens that enlarges the image and projects it downward.
The result, for the viewer, is the rediscovery of the intricacy
and beauty of a familiar landscape. The light seems sharper and
fresher; the shapes (reduced to two dimensions) surprising. And
because the image looks so much like a painting, the movement
with the image -- cars going down Lombard, an unsuspecting neighbor
yawning -- is magical.
It was while waiting to go inside the camera obscura that we
began talking about the Penan.
FIVE DAYS BEFORE, not four blocks away, I had looked
at a work-in-progress about the
Penan. The work is a collaboration between photographer John
Werner, head of the Endangered People Project, the world's tiniest
environmental action group, and Janey Fritsche, an artist and
designer at the far edge of computer technology.
Using laser disks, hypercards and other info bundles, Fritsche
is making an interactive computer presentation using images and
sounds collected by Werner and others.
The images are striking; the music is hypnotic; the intent
is political. The Penan live in Sarawak, that part of the island
of Borneo that is controlled by Malaysia. The Penan live in (perhaps "are
is more accurate) the rain forest of the highlands.
And because the rainforest is being destroyed, the Penan are
being destroyed. Some experts have already given up -- the Pacific
rain forests are doomed; best to concentrate of the Amazon. Fritsche
hopes that the intensely personal, visionary nature of the medium
she works in will help persuade the way older forms cannot.
But there's a catch: The hardware is not widely available.
Even if the project were finished tomorrow, there are few places
where it could be seen. The race to revolutionize technology
mirrors the race to cut down trees.
YOU DO WHAT you can; you use the gifts you were given.
There are no easy answers; it may be that there are no answers
at all. The Penan know things we can never know; killing their
culture to make coffee tables is cosmically dumb.
But sometimes it seems that all we can do is sit in our darkroom
with the periscope up, scanning the horizon for ships that never
come, rejoicing only in the light that is still left.