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An unforgettable exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Photos of Silicon Valley by Milan-based architect and photographer Gabriele Basilico.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I remember well when the Valley was mostly apricot orchards and vegetable farms. But Basilico’s images do not sentimentalize the past or assault the viewer with a harsh, urban, edgy vision. These photographs are quiet–almost apocalyptically silent–and most of them capture a people-free version of a region that has become notoriously overpopulated, overtraffiked and drenched in a smug layer of “we’re just a little smarter (and richer) than everyone else” self satisfaction.

That isn’t what captures Basilico’s eye however. Instead he discovers what urban theorist Manuel Castells calls the “space of flows.” As described by Jeff Byles in Modern Painters magazine:

That’s what you see beyond the galvanized steel guardrails. That is the informational city, a land of virtual networks ever more severed from their social context…Check out Basilico’s view of US Highway 101 gashing through the flat valley in ominous shades of black and white, a vast parking lot to the left, an empty field to the right. Transmission wires arc low across the sky and trail into the distance. This is the space of flows. On the horizon sit carceral towers, the seeming prison houses of software engineers and product managers. Latent in the image are layers of spatial data: vestigial scraps of nature; the low, defining hills; cars streaking along the highway, their own vectors in the landscape.

Byles goes on to draw specifically from the writings of Castells:

This is where the social meaning of place evaporates… “There is no tangible oppression,” Castells wrote of the informational city, “no identifiable enemy, no center of power that can be held responsible for specific social issues.” There are just flows. Input, output: service stations and taco stands.

Basilico’s photographs capture a centerless, ambient foreboding that something here isn’t right. How he does this is beguiling and mysterious. And he achieves it without resorting to manipulative gestures or a need to patronize the viewer. These images feel fresh. Raw, yes, but starkly fresh.

Perhaps it is his method of work: “To slow down vision,” Basilico wrote, “was for me a small revolution in the way of seeing.” In Byles’ view, the emptiest photographs are the most powerful. “Basilico is the de Chrico of sprawl.” Well put.

To view the Basilico images in the SFMOMA show, click here.

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