A silhouette of a ballerina is fading on an abandoned semi truck, a sign for Lover’s Lane warns of “falling rocks” and “high water.” And not a person is around. What is this strange and desolate landscape?
Craig Hickman, a professor of digital arts at the University of Oregon, created this alternate reality with composites of photographs of decaying Americana, 19th and early 20th century US Patent Office images, a 19th century costume text, and other archive imagery. In April he published it as a monograph called Oxide. In his very brief introduction, he calls it a “work of fiction” on a world “like ours.” He adds: “You might think of this book as describing the setting for a larger fictional work that hasn’t been written yet. You are welcome to write it.”
That’s the only guidance you’re given. However, almost every image in the 128 pages includes some scrap of language, such as the “missing persons” sign printed on a door replaced with concrete, a drawing of a chair barely visible on the surface. (You can find even more material that didn’t make the book on his website.) There’s a lot of overt humor as well, with the “Heart of the City: Self-Guided Tour” sign marred into “Art of the City: Elf-Guided Tour.”
Elsewhere, compounds like sodium thiosulfate and silver nitrate are printed on walls, and what appears to be the town college is a derelict mess of shacks and old box cars for everything from the department of philosophy to the questionable department of chronological sciences. Hints of time travel are embedded in the landscape as possible clues to what this place is, and why it is empty. In the end page “note to archivist,” Hickman asks that they “please cross-reference under the following headings,” and includes “space-time,” “sucrose,” “arrow of time,” and “museology.”
Some of the work is more obviously fiction than others, but where it works best is when, out of the context of Oxide, you might not realize it was a fabrication. All over cities and towns are these ghost signs and typography for vanished businesses that often appear as cryptic messages, the advertisements having outlived the products. The composite images are whimsically strange, but enjoyable to browse as a visual detective in what feels like a post-apocalyptic puzzle.