20 December 2018

The Fabricated Story of a Forgotten Space Program

20 December 2018 - Written by Laurence Cornet

In his latest photobook, published by Ciao Press, Nicolas Polli offers an unidentified readable object half-way between scientific research and an anticipatory art-piece set in the past.

© Nicolas Polli, spread from the book, Ferox: The Forgotten Archives

Nicolas Polli is a designer and photographer from the fake news generation. One who started his career having to face an audience that is more sceptical than ever towards visual information. And so, he decided to dismantle it, to dive into its forms and apparatus to give us a lesson, with bright humour.

His book, Ferox: The Forgotten Archive, retraces the story of a failed space-exploration project dating back to the 1970’s. The mission, Nicolas Polli explains through texts of scientific credentials and documentation images, was meant to explore a freshly discovered moon of Mars named Ferox that promisingly showed traces of water. The program was called IEMS, for International Exploration for the Mars Surroundings, and was active from 1976 through 2010 - a failed landing on Ferox has seen funding cut drastically, we learn, leading to the end of IEMS’s activity.

© Nicolas Polli, spread from the book, Ferox: The Forgotten Archives

The book compiles documents from different periods of time – long texts by IEMS researchers, archival photographs, photographs of geological material shot with electronic microscopes and rovers on site, as well as indexes, long lists of geological materials, as well as projection maps. The amount of material is mind-boggling. Or rather, its content.

An attentive look reveals some dissonances, some scientific mistakes, some revealing blurs, some weird-sounding names. And for good reason: Nicolas Polli carefully invented every single piece of the book. “The idea underlying the project is to understand what human beings are ready to accept as true. This “archive” seems credible because elements are contextualised within a scientific methodology – and contextualisation transforms our way of seeing”, Polli explains. As a matter of fact, a scientist who helped Polli with nomenclature told him that while his text sounded like crap after a few lines, his fake pictures of Mars would look real to any researchers if they were standing on a scientist desk.

“We live in a world where we want to believe in things that make us feel good. With this project, I never say that it’s fake. I give enough clues so people understand that it’s fake, but I never state it clearly. It’s a way for the project to live beyond me. It would be funny if in a few decades people thought that back in 2018 researchers believed in the existence of Ferox!”, Polli laughs.

© Nicolas Polli, spread from the book, Ferox: The Forgotten Archives

Polli’s trick functions all the more efficiently as it relates to space-research. “That’s one of the few domains of research that the public can’t corroborate with their own eyes. It’s also one that has been the subject of so many movies that our understanding of the place is based on fiction”, Polli continues. It plays on a long-time fascination for space and its imagery. And that’s another question posed by the book. While valorising the imagination triggered by science, it also questions the limits of scientific documentation that is overly compelling, aesthetically speaking.

“Such images are so “beautiful” that some artists use them out of easiness. And it goes for most archival photographs, which are trending at the moment. Artists often don’t think thoroughly about the reason why they use them, and what they represent”, Polli warns. And in recreating a plausible space archive with fragments from the Earth he is somehow rehabilitating our surroundings.


Ferox – The Forgotten Archives by Nicolas Polli

Published by Ciao Press // Edited by Camille M. Kröner and Nicolas Polli

Offset printing // 21.5 x 30 cm // 336 pages // Edition of 600 // €35



Nicolas Polli is a Swiss photographer and teacher. He studied Visual Communication at SUPSI (The University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland) and Art Direction at ECAL (Ecole cantonale d'art de Lausanne). In 2012 he helped establish YET Magazine in collaboration with Salvatore Vitale. Follow him on Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

4 minutes

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