published in Avery Shorts, season 3

Pan is the chillest Greek dude. While everyone else is in the temple, Pan’s holding it down in the woods, hosting epic parties, making sure everyone’s goblet is full, and getting laid. He’s enjoying the pre-industrial night air, cracking jokes, and jamming on his flute. But sometimes, all his friends go home. Sometimes, Pan wakes up in the morning, alone in the forest – confused, hungover, depressed – and he cries out. “Panic.”

One panics when they feel lost and confused in nature.

In the early nineteenth century, gold was “discovered” by immigrants on the west coast of the United States and in Alaska, prompting a migration of people seeking a chance at fortune. The Gold Rush conjures a specific fantasy of the prospector: the self-made white man, a lone individual, a master of nature. In reality, panning for gold is a collective activity done by precarious workers, historically in North America and today in Africa and South America.

It is the kinetic flow of a river that sorts and deposits minerals. A gold panner understands this geomorphology, and places her pan strategically. Sediment and water swirl against mesh, conjuring the hope she will capture the precious flakes. Once sifted out, gold today enjoys a brief period of sexiness and cultural adoration as electronic componentry before it is rendered obsolete and shipped to India or China or somewhere else for re-sorting. Panning in a body of water is a human-scale, performative extraction that sets an economy of earth materials into motion. 

In cinema and photography, a pan is a horizontal movement of the camera used to follow a subject. The establishing shot – here’s where we set our scene – the panorama, establishes Earth as the subject of the machinic gaze. As panoramas became formalized into spatial environments – the cyclorama and, more recently, VR – they required the viewer to become an agent, squinting an all-seeing eye on a rendered territory.

While the prefix pan derives from the Greek meaning “whole,” the panorama is a method of expanded-yet-edited Earth-viewing, with pronounced bodily effects. At the 1900 Paris Exposition, the Trans-Siberian Railway Panorama distilled a 14-day rail journey into about an hour, creating a composited landscape from the most awe-inspiring scenes. The slowly turning drawings were said to produce fits of vertigo and fainting among the members of the audience. Panic. Immersive VR encourages the inhabitation of private worlds, but for bystanders it is experienced as bodies possessed and flailing. Disorientation is endemic to panoramic landscape.

Panning extracts from the earth while fixating upon it. Panning is both to understand specific ecologies and to be overwhelmed by landscape to the point of sickness or terror. Panning is possession. Panning is a contemporary habit, and a chronic condition.

*Cue pan flute*