Upon discovering a group of meteorites in the Swiss Alps in the 1940s, scientists immediately launched an extensive research project to determine the origins of the mysterious rubble. After some preliminary experimentation, they revealed that the material travelled to Earth from Ferox, an undiscovered third moon circulating the planet Mars. With funding from the IEMS, the scientists sent the first Rovers to Ferox, conducting critical experiments and collating data on the meteorites’ peculiar abilities. These studies went on for many years, until research was brought to a sudden halt due to unfortunate budget cuts.
While this block in funding stagnated further developments and understanding of Ferox, a massive collection of data, images and text was meticulously archived for decades. In order to spread awareness about Mars’ third moon, artist Nicolas Polli created an open source website for anyone to access the materials, which were also recently published in an extensive book of research. The story of Ferox is incredibly compelling and important for the history of space research, but there’s just one catch: none of it is real.
With the help of both writers and scientists, Polli fabricated the entire Ferox archive in his own studio, creating images that mimic the aesthetic of archival space photographs, Ranger imaging and laboratory documentation. As a discourse, science remains relatively inaccessible to the masses, and Polli believes our default acceptance of information – especially through images – needs to be questioned. His project Ferox, the Forgotten Archives encourages viewers to trust their criticality, rather than blindly accepting the information they are given. In this interview, Polli speaks to LensCulture about his interest in “fake news,” and why this project is important for dismantling our dissonance with it.
LensCulture: Can you give me some background information on how you developed this entire narrative. How did you begin and how did you know when to stop?
Nicolas Polli: When I started creating questions that needed to be answered for this project, they always led to twenty more questions that needed to be answered, delving deeper and deeper into this massive story. I eventually had to wrap it up, otherwise it would go on forever, so I rounded off the project with the most disappointing scientific outcome: the mission was no longer granted a budget. The last Rover that went to Ferox was a failure because it didn’t land correctly, and because of this, it was no longer possible to do the research we wanted to do. It was a way to stop myself, because as I got more into it, I kept having all these ideas, thinking, “Ok now I should do this, and also this and this,” and it was never coming to an end.
LC: And how did you come up with the idea for this project? Were you looking at other archives or was it something else altogether?
NP: I was looking through NASA and CERN’s archives when they went public, and I was very interested in particular features and elements of each image. If you look through these archives, you see how playful scientists are, and how things often seem staged. I thought about using the original archives for a project, but then I thought it might be even more interesting to create my own world and archive to analyze images.
LC: Why is this investigation into the way we interact with archives so important?
NP: I’ve been interested in the global phenomenon of ‘fake news’ for some time, especially regarding its relationship to photography. I like the idea of looking at a picture and believing it because it seems real, but then as you look closer, you start seeing that certain elements within the frame aren’t actually possible. It’s a delicate moment when we believe something because it’s a photograph, even if it goes against our common sense and better judgement.
Using photography is perfect for playing with this imagination of what’s real and what isn’t, because we could say that photography in itself is not actually real at all – it’s just a perception that we have about our reality, and we record it to communicate with others in a particular way. I didn’t necessarily want to fool people into thinking Ferox was real. I wanted to give them my own reality so that they could evaluate the process of realizing that something is fake, questioning their own filter of criteria for what is real and what isn’t, and how this relates to fake news.
LC: So walk me through the process you want people to go through looking at this work, because you have created it with the intention that no one will initially realize it’s fabricated.
NP: Right now, there is so much research being carried out all over the world about things that are difficult for the average person to understand. Science is a discourse that is still reserved for a small amount of people to engage with and understand, and I want to change that perception. I like the process of someone looking at the work and thinking of it as a real archive. If they’re not interested, they can move on and always believe it is real. But if they are interested, they engage with the work further and ask more questions.
I’m specifically interested in how people get to that second stage. With the book, you have this first layer of perception where you are simply presented with all the material. Then you have this second stage of going through the images, text and data, and you start looking at all the little things on each page. As you really start looking at the images, you see that there are certain elements in each of them that are completely strange or removed from the time period that they should have been taken in. So many people don’t get past this first level, because we are so used to going through scientific materials quickly and accepting them without understanding.
LC: So you’re analyzing both our reliance on fake news and scientific studies, which you feel we approach with the same overly-accepting thought process.
NP: Exactly. I think we approach all kinds of information in this way. As we are bombarded with it, we see an image and just accept it as real because we don’t want to dig in and analyze it. We take everything that we see as truth based on its title. If The New York Times publishes something, we think to ourselves, “Ah yes, that’s obviously real because this news source published it.” With this project, I want to push people into that second level of analysis, where you create a layer of criticality between what you see and what you perceive as real. I want viewers to look at it on a deeper level, coming back to the images in a different way. While this phenomenon interests me, it’s not necessarily something I want to explain every time the work is shown. I want the possibility of the text being perceived as real to remain, so that it’s up to the reader if they believe that Mars has a third moon.
LC: It’s clear that the names and labels you created also establish a sense of legitimacy for the archive. They sound official and real. Tell me about the process of choosing these names, and how titles contribute to deception.
NP: Mars is the Greek God of War, and a lot of the planets are named after the gods of the ancient Greeks. Mars has two moons, which are also named after things related to war – it’s all very aggressive. Ferox means ‘hunger’ in Latin, which I thought was a relevant addition to this grouping, but I actually wanted to call it something else at first.
The meteorites were the first things I created for the series. I used this foam material that expands when it’s exposed to air. The molecules of this substance are called polymer, so I was actually going name the archive after that, but one of the scientists I was working with told me that no one would name something in space using this method, especially if it’s related to Mars. So, I did some research and found the word “ferox.”
Then, the IEMS is like my version of NASA, so it’s a space agency called the International Exploration for the Mars Surrounding. I wanted to create an acronym that sounded nice, just like “NASA.” Because aside from being recognizable, “NASA” is really beautiful to pronounce. Incorporating the word “international” also legitimizes things for the public, making them sound more official. “Exploration” is another word that is really important for legitimizing science, so I wanted to be sure to incorporate that as well.
LC: You started touching on this earlier, but a major reason these images are so interesting is because you’ve staged them to represent all the elements that excite people about old photographs. Aesthetically, they reference something nostalgic, but on closer inspection, the subject matter is always a little off. Why are you interested in playing with our default reliance on this aesthetic as an arbiter of truth?
NP: This was so important for the project. Playing with this aesthetic was essential. I treated the material in a completely different way than if I was just photographing something in general. When I was creating images that were taken by a robot on Mars, I shot them with a certain perspective and quality so that they appeared authentic. Everything was done in a specific way so that it looked real. In the archive, this nostalgic idea of black and white imagery, with the scientist inside the laboratory, was also extremely important. It had to be done in a certain way so that viewers perceived it as real. In our collective imagination, this is what legitimacy looks like, even though it’s giving us a very small amount of information.
LC: Where did you make all of these images?
NP: I did almost everything in my studio, and other images were taken in specific settings, like the Canary Islands, where the rocks are structured in a very specific way. Because I don’t show the sky in them, there’s this perspective that it isn’t daytime, which makes them easy to misinterpret.
LC: And you mentioned that you worked with scientists and other experts to ensure that everything you created was as authentic as possible. Tell me a bit more about this collaboration.
NP: I worked with two different geologists. One helped me create images with an electronic microscope. Because I didn’t have access to this technology, and because it’s really expensive to use if you don’t go through a university, he was really helpful and generous with his time. As images, they aren’t scientifically interesting, but in the project they become relevant because they are visually appealing to look at, which convinces the viewer they are legitimate even if they don’t have a real scientific explanation.
The second scientist is a geologist who studies Mars specifically. He was really helpful because I went over everything with him when it was almost complete. He would give me feedback like, “You can take this image out because it’s something that would never be done in science.” He helped me identify which images had the strongest connections to real scientific research. He’s the one who told me the name Ferox was good, but Polymer was not!
LC: The book is an interesting extension of this work because you’re able to incorporate so much of the text into it. Tell me about how your viewer interacting with the book is an important medium for the two “levels” of analysis you spoke about earlier.
NP: I always wanted this project to be a book, and everything was designed to eventually get there. Presenting this work as a book is an extension of those two levels – it’s a moment of privacy between the viewer and the information, because the process of going through all the material is very time-consuming. Since it’s a complex project and a large publication, a lot of publishers didn’t really have faith in it, so at some point I decided to just do everything solo and publish it myself. I created my own fake publisher – Ciao Press – which was also important for the work because I didn’t want the legitimacy of the archive to be revealed by having a recognizable art publisher blatantly stamped across it.
LC: For both the book and the website, your background in design is crucial. The way the archive is laid out online is incredibly accessible and not at all complicated to work with. It’s clear that there were major considerations made regarding how people should interact with the images. In a way, this project is a great representation of all your abilities as an artist, because it successfully incorporates each facet of your practice.
NP: Because my background in design is art direction, it was interesting to not have to focus on a specific field, and instead use everything I love to create a 360-degree project. Graphic design plays an enormous role. Science is not just about images – it’s mostly about text and how we perceive it, and how images play with this text. It’s about how it’s presented. Starting a database begins with text, so I had six people plus myself writing content, which was so important.
In the same way I created the images, people completely uninvolved in science created text by using words and data that seem scientific. In terms of graphic design, I have a certain idea of how data should be visualized in order to seem realistic. You can be a great photographer, but how these images come together completely changes the perception of the work. I again used this cliché of how things should look in order to graphically create something that is both beautiful and technical at the same time. I wanted it to be simple for people to use, and I think it worked!