Collect, analyze, and interpret geographic information provided by geodetic surveys, aerial photographs, and satellite data. Research, study, and prepare maps and other spatial data in digital or graphic form for legal, social, political, educational, and design purposes. May work with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). May design and evaluate algorithms, data structures, and user interfaces for GIS and mapping systems.¹
Consume... will never know who has tasked a satellite to take a picture (unless they did it themselves) in order to see something close up, but from far away. And every view from a satellite is an experiment with the technology of looking close up at a distance, remotely examining and representing something... —Laura Kurgan²
Two 4' x 4' high-resolution, blue bulls-eyes are staked into the ground (made from biodegradable fabric and not recommended for flight scales over 1:3600). From above, an aerial photograph is taken of that terrain from a plane, satellite or drone. Using a mathematical formula based on the known distance along the ground between the two targets, the focal length of the lens (and adjusted for other factors) the landscape becomes calibrated to the image through the staking out of the traditional "X-marks-the-spot."
Much of human beings' relationship to the environment is predicated on such processes. Rather than the Borgesian attempt to create a 1:1 map in "The Exactitude of Science," we have a constant scaling of the landscape to the human, and a constant calibration of that landscape to the image. This extreme and ongoing act of cartography, in which the world is reduced to the fragile constructions of humanity, has always been central to the role of photography specifically and technologies of vision generally.
Most photography is not made for artistic purposes; it is made to serve quite utilitarian requirements. Indeed, in "Seeing Machines," Trevor Paglen points out that much of contemporary photography is not even meant for human consumption. He adopts the term seeing machines "to encompass the myriad ways that not only humans use technology to "see" the world, but the ways machines see the world for other machines."3 These other uses of vision technologies encompass not only vast amounts of data but also entail specific ways of seeing—even styles—that have always had implications for 'art' photography. "Seeing machines create noncontiguous spatial and temporal geometries. They collapse the near into the distant, and the present into the past and future."4 Examples include not only satellite and drone photography, but also number-plate and facial recognition software and other automated surveillance technologies.
Hito Steyerl's 2013 video work, How Not To Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, is partly inspired by photo calibration targets in the California desert, which look like giant patterns of pixels in the ground. As described by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, "the targets function like an eye chart at the optometrist, where the smallest group of bars that can be resolved marks the limit of the resolution for the optical instrument that is being used. For aerial photography, it provides a platform to test, calibrate, and focus aerial cameras traveling at different speeds and altitudes."5 The targets can also be used in the same way by satellites. Steyerl uses one of these targets as a way to describe the way in which the world has become calibrated to images. The mechanical voiceover in the work intones, "it calibrates the world as a picture" and "resolution determines visibility." These targets were designed for analogue photography and so are now largely obsolete. They continue on however as crumbling swaths of concrete in the desert, resembling inscrutable artworks from a long-forgotten civilization.
My interest in the rise of these machines of seeing (drones, satellites, surveillance, GIS) comes from my interest in the idea of viewpoint. The use of cameras—still or moving—once implied a human viewpoint: someone standing on a lookout point or someone walking or driving through space. The classic instance of this is Caspar David Friedrich's 1818 painting, "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog." This viewpoint can no longer be taken for granted. The first photograph of earth from space was taken by a human. Now the vast majority are taken via satellite or other automated systems. Video footage shot from drones is increasingly popular, despite a slightly uncanny and unmistakably machine-like movement and viewpoint. A related feeling of the uncanny has been with photography from the beginning, as evidenced by the early popularity of spirit photography, for example. Cameras have always been seen as semi-autonomous machines and so their ability to capture an image of the world still retains a sense of the uncanny. (In Australia, public television publishes a warning before any program that shows photographic images of dead Aboriginal people.)
An artist walks down a roughly constructed rubble jetty that stretches out into the bay only to end abruptly in a short, concrete staircase to nowhere. The surrounding salty marshland, loading dock and decommissioned navy ship recede out of the side of the frame, and only the view across the bay remains. The camera gazes out at an expanse of water and some distant shore.
In the work I make, there is a human behind the camera and moving with the camera through space. This viewpoint is highlighted by a hand-held aesthetic and the prevalence of framing that imitates the idea of looking out, as if from a 'lookout' point. In the past, I sometimes performed in my videos and my presence in the frame referenced the ideas and history of the human form in the landscape. Recently, I have instead chosen to reference the human through highlighting the presence of the artist behind the camera. My work is still about the body in space and time, but it is not about my specific body. My aim in the work is to acknowledge my presence behind the camera but to empty out this body so that it can also be a place occupied by the viewer. My viewpoint in the work is open to others for the purposes of imaginative and generative speculation. I am present but I am invisible. I am a machine but not one.
2Laura Kurgan, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics (New York: Zone Books, 2013), 20-3.
3Trevor Paglen, "Seeing Machines," Still Searching: On Online Discourse on Photography: Fotomuseum Winterthur blog, 13 March 2014, accessed October 5, 2014, http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2014/03/ii-seeing-machines/.
4Trevor Paglen, "Geographies of Photography," Still Searching: On Online Discourse on Photography: Fotomuseum Winterthur blog, 11 April 2014, accessed October 5, 2014, http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2014/04/iv-geographies-of-photography/.
5Centre for Land Use Interpretation, "Photo Calibration Targets: Terrestrial Test Patterns Used For Aerial Imaging," Lay of the Land (Winter 2013), accessed November 13, 2014, http://www.org/newsletter/winter-2013/photo-calibration-targets.