Nicolas Polli, Ferox: The Forgotten Archives (1976–2010)

JTF (just the facts): Published by Ciao Press (here) and Skinnerboox (here) in September 2018. Edited by Nicolas Polli and Camille M. Kröner. Softcover with flaps, 336 pages, with 200 color and black and white photographs. Includes various texts. In an edition of 600 copies. Design by Nicolas Polli. The project also exists as an online archive. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Nicolas Polli, a young Swiss photographer and graphic designer, is interested in exploring the growing global phenomena of hoaxes and fake news, and the default acceptance we seem to have for information, especially when it comes to science and photography. How do we evaluate and critically approach online imagery? With this question at the center of his artistic practice, Polli has developed a project that was recently released as a photobook, entitled Ferox: The Forgotten Archives (1976–2010).

The story focuses on a little known historical event in space research and is presented in the format of a formal document. In June of 1944, a number of meteorites were discovered by geologists in the Swiss Alps, but their finds didn’t get much attention because of the ongoing Second World War. Decades later, the importance of the discovery was better understood and a research project was launched to investigate and study the origin of the meteorites. It was then discovered that the materials came to Earth from Ferox, an undiscovered third satellite of Mars. In 1976, the International Exploration for the Mars Surrounding (IEMS) was established to “understand the origins of the Feroxite meteorites that were supposed to come from the surrounding of Mars”. Funding was secured from NASA, and in 1998, the first rover was send to Ferox to collect samples. The research and studies went on for years, but after a series of failures and budget cuts, the IEMS ended its activity in March of 2010.

Although this book looks like a credible aggregation of scientific research, the story takes unexpected turn as the entire Ferox archive is actually an exhaustive fictional narrative constructed by Polli. Polli decided to focus on space exploration as it is a relatively unknown topic, and thus, an easier one to convincingly fabricate. To build this archive, Polli put together an impressive collection of texts and visual imagery, as well as various data samples and analytics. He commissioned writers to produce plausible texts and fabricated all the photographs in his studio, copying the aesthetic of publicly available NASA space photographs. And he carefully employed the appropriate scientific terminology and key words to give the work more credibility.

The exacting presentation and structure of all of these elements was absolutely essential to the overall success of the deception. Ferox: The Forgotten Archives consists of eleven chapters, presenting the analysis and research materials in a very meticulous and scientific manner. In addition to the extensive research papers by engineers, researchers, and mathematicians, Polli recreated personal letters and archival photographs from the 1940s. There are even blurry black and white portraits of the scientists posing with the rocks they discovered. The collection of images from the labs documents the rocks and includes obscure classifications and naming conventions: AACH 011, AACH 006, etc. In one photograph, an unidentified scientist in a lab coat stands next to the meteorite as it reaches almost up to her or his chest. The following photo shows a scientist on the floor with the rock on top of his body as another person takes some measurements with a device; the caption reads “gravity force experiment: human resisting on Ferox”. The shots of the IEMS facilities reveal their supercomputers, optical transmission fibers, and servers. There are also exhaustive lists of meteorites (with details like the meteorite under number 29 is named “Dar al Gani 735”, found in Dar al Gani in Libya in 1997, its weight is 588 grams and its Shergottite type) and other research data is presented in diagrams and tables.

The most exciting data and image sets come from the rover missions to Ferox. Part of one chapter explains the rover’s structure and many of its arcane technical details (for example, sending a signal from Mars to Earth takes between 3 and 21 minutes). A special camera was built for taking pictures of Ferox, and during the second mission,  the rover achieved Ferox orbit on 10 March 2006 and took a few photographs before the camera turned off. A number of photographs show the surface topography of Ferox, and additional data is provided to identify its topographic locations (Forsbah Crater, Mount Yoshiki, etc), with precise coordinates and relevant information.

Given that all of this is entirely imaginary, Ferox: The Forgotten Archives is undeniably an ambitious and exciting project in its scale, creativity, and execution. As a photobook, it has a clever design, presenting the information in a clear structure and hierarchy: we can choose to focus on the bolded text in the larger font, or explore certain chapters in more depth. Clear questions within the sections keep us intrigued and involved – “If the falling of meteorites has never been reported in Switzerland, how can we still find traces of meteorites in this country?”

Polli doesn’t ever reveal the true, fabricated, nature of his archive in the book itself, which makes the story all the more impressive. While some people are likely to take a rather quick uncritical look at the project and consume it as it is, he is sure others will take a deeper look at its content and catch his trickery. Polli is confident that “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”. Ultimately, the question is: where is the line between reality and fiction and what is our criteria in setting it? Given the intelligence of this extensive fabrication, perhaps, it is time to reset our perception of reality, as our existing framework for seeing the world may no longer be helpful or relevant.

Collector’s POV: Nicolas Polli does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above).

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Read more about: Nicolas Polli, Ciao Press, Skinnerboox

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