What do we see when we look at computer-generated maps that are based on the visualization of data derived from remote sensing devices? What is the role of the human/ nonhuman viewer in this entanglement of perspectives where data is gathered from multiple sites, scales, and sources? In her latest work Sensing Landscape, researcher Saadia Mirza, whose practice explores the relationship between aesthetics and politics in knowledge-making cultures, addresses the relation between remote sensing, data, and landscapes. Featuring visualizations and mappings of conflicted landscapes in southern Afghanistan during the 2001–2014 war, the installation stems from a research project originally developed through conversations with archaeologists, analysts, and geographers at the University of Chicago. In conversation with researcher and artist Caitlin Berrigan, whose most recent work Imaginary Explosions draws from storytelling, geological time and space through episodes of vulcanology, both negotiate their understanding and relation to questions of sensing and mapping data and the very old human obsession to measure the world.
Saadia Mirza: We have both been thinking about remote sensing lately. What drives your fascination with the topic?
Caitlin Berrigan: We could break the subject down into a few different arenas and their crossover, all of which are rich and profound. »Sensing,« and how the human body is or is not implicated in different forms of spatial information gathering, or whether the human subject relies upon the augmentation of technology to acquire and interpret this information. The »remoteness« of this information gathering and its doubling of presence, or its connection to a network of sites and systems that confounds individual embodiment. »Power« and the military, and geopolitical dimensions of deploying and gaining access to technologies of remote sensing, and the pervasive absence of feedback from consenting civilian subjective experience to confirm or complicate the findings of such data. Remote sensing is »time-based media« that multiply across concatenations of territories, apparatuses, and intentions. It’s above all that remote sensing is distributed across material, social, and political sites; an incoherent body of many organs that nonetheless assembles information into coherent forms that may, upon closer examination, disintegrate into unreliable phantoms. Which is why sensing is still a more descriptive term than measurement, in a way.
»The all-overness of perspective(s) is certainly a far cry from the Western Renaissance perspective, that at this point seems an illusory, formal gesture; a fabrication of vistas as fictional as the all-overness of spatial perspective and time in Persian miniatures and Chinese scrolls.«Caitlin Berrigan
When we have discussed your process in making your new work, Sensing Landscape, you have described how your practice is itself a journey of wayfinding through databases, rumors, readings of sources in disagreement, and layers of time-based social strata. How important is it to you to share this situated passage through information gathering to an unskilled viewer? That your process is a kind of unique, situated perspective? What is perspective anyway, in remote sensing? The all-overness of perspective(s) is certainly a far cry from the Western Renaissance perspective, that at this point seems an illusory, formal gesture; a fabrication of vistas as fictional as the all-overness of spatial perspective and time in Persian miniatures and Chinese scrolls.
SM: Absolutely. Individual embodiment is complicated by political structures that control databases and information. How is it possible to discuss situated perspective in that instance? And yet, the situated perspective is exactly what is interesting. It’s fascinating that what we call »remote sensing« today used to be called »photointerpretation« by geologists and geographers using aerial photography up until the early 1970s.
The interpretation of visual imagery, as Orit Halpern reminds us in Beautiful Data, depends not only on the biological fact of vision, or on the advancement of sensing apparatuses, but of culturally and historically situated perspectives that allow us to make things visible and to notice and pay attention to them. Visualization, in particular, is for her a practice that allows the creation of visibility that doesn’t already exist. She refers to Haroun Farocki’s work Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988), in which he offers us a tableau questioning how and why American and British analysts failed to see Auschwitz in aerial imagery until 1978, identifying only manufacturing plants in those same images during the 1940s. Only after watching a television series on the Holocaust were analysts beginning to realize what had existed in those photographs all along.
So we can safely assume that vision has consistent biological and physiological parameters. Halpern’s point of view also reveals how interpretative vision is very much historically and culturally conditioned. I would add that seeing is a technique. So those of us who have vision see in much the same physiological way, but how are your techniques different from mine, and mine from yours? I like to stay with that thought when it comes to this topic of what a »situated« perspective is.
»When the term ›aerial interpretation‹ became too narrow for the range of observation techniques using infrared and spectral bands that became more common around the early 1970s, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) now located in Paris, had already decided to use the term ›remote sensing.‹«Saadia Mirza
At the same time, it could be that in aerial photography there is also a different way of gathering and spatializing information; and it is indeed situated in many ways. But when the term »aerial interpretation« became too narrow for the range of observation techniques using infrared and spectral bands that became more common around the early 1970s, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) now located in Paris, had already decided to use the term »remote sensing.« It’s fascinating because the »sensing« of objects has been considered to precede their »interpretation« in much of Western philosophy—an idea that still somewhat continues into neurobiology and cognitive science today. And here we have an interesting turn: the term applied to the study of objects at a distance returns to »sensing« instead of interpretation, which is what it used to be called. And in that way, it’s an open question as to how we can probe the question of »sitedness« in all this—especially where the body lies in the process of making knowledge about the world. I know that your reference to volcanology in Imaginary Explosions definitely thinks through mediation between body and site. Could you say more about how you think through »sitedness« as a concept in remote sensing?
CB: Yes, there’s also so much to the idea of site, which we could unravel. Remote sensing technologies expand human embodiment and make presence multiple. But along with site, there is also situatedness, or what Donna Haraway calls situated knowledges, which acknowledge asymmetries of power and particularities of perspective in gathering large swathes of data.
Embodiment produces forms of data and knowledge that may be expressed and shared with others through narration or formal representation. When navigating your body in space, there is a multi-layered processing of direct experience and sensorial data gathering, as you determine your physical orientation in space, correlate it with the spatial map you may already have modeled in your mind, on paper, or using software. Then as you discover and respond to your movement through space, there is the constant oscillation of orienting and checking your embodied experience with your mental or virtual model. The process of adjustment and adaptation is active, across multiple modalities of information. It’s not so much that either the embodied information or the mapped data is more or less truthful, but rather that they arrive in so many different forms and languages, and sometimes must all be accessed at once.
I am thinking of a recent experience of collective, spatial wayfinding that was prosaic and quite comical, but also illustrative. I was at a dinner party in Berlin for the full lunar eclipse on July 27, right around our birthdays. I guess all these eclipses and retrogrades in my astrological chart made me especially determined to see this lunar eclipse, which was supposed to be blood red and the longest eclipse for the century. It is one of those reminders that we live here on planet Earth, orbiting a ball of solar fire, itself being orbited by a cool sphere of rock, our moon. We didn’t make any particular plan to view the moon, in part because most of us were visiting someone else’s neighborhood, and those people were themselves visitors to Berlin. We were near the Volkspark Friedrichshain, and we just assumed that a park would be open and elevated and the moon would be there. We didn’t think much of it. We set off together through the streets to the park a little bit before the eclipse entered totality. But when the moon did not immediately present itself, we realized that we had no idea where the moon should be in the sky. We needed to orient ourselves in the city, and also know something about where the moon should be in relation to that orientation. I suddenly felt sad that I knew so little about the path of the moon through the sky. I always take it for granted, as a surprise, shining wherever I stumbled upon it. But at that moment, I was desperate to know where to find it. How to place my body in relation to the moon?
The navigational software on phones is all intended for the granular urban pathways of the earth, not for the sky around us. Furthermore, the park itself is unusually forested. We began climbing up to the top in the dark, through an ad hoc group decision making process, stumbling up many stone staircases, assuming that we would have a vista when we reached the summit. One of us had some idea of where the moon might be in the sky, others knew a bit more about the park and the streets, others consulted our phones, others just tried not to fall in the dark while scanning the night sky for an eclipsed moon. The summit was also forested, and the moon was nowhere to be found. We descended and found ourselves again on the wrong side of the hill, a section of empty sky.
»When navigating your body in space, there is a multilayered processing of direct experience and sensorial data gathering, as you determine your physical orientation in space, correlate it with the spatial map you may already have modeled in your mind, on paper, or using software.«Caitlin Berrigan
Finally we set off to walk in the streets, which seemed more open to the sky than the forested park, despite the buildings. I heard a voice behind me cry out: »look! It’s there! Can you see the moon?« I was almost going to walk again into a spatial proportion by which a building would block my view of the moon, which had been straight in front of me now for a couple of minutes. But I wouldn’t have known how to see it if I hadn’t been told it was already there. It was fully eclipsed, of course, the deep reddish purple color of a black plum. It could hardly be distinguished from the night sky. It had required the input of a team to find the moon, and the cross-consultation of many different mental maps, memories, and software. We arrived at our vista, a humble edge of sidewalk polluted by a mercury halide street lamp and the occasional street car rattling past.
Here I am curious if you can say more about your knowledge of early surveyors who had to not only navigate so-called uncharted territory, but also to develop a methodical way to move through and measure space. I appreciate that you see the evolution of technologies in a genealogy. Can you say more about how you think about the embodiment involved in your own work? How does that become expressed?
SM: I often wonder if the advancement of sensing technologies has any major impact on what cartographers had always been doing—i.e., creating an intelligence of the terrain through a visual process. But I suspect that there is a change in the process by which sensations are quantified in knowledge-making; especially where simulations and model-building is involved.
For example, the French had been desperately trying to map Mont Blanc during the nineteenth century, realizing that the mountainous terrain could only be mapped as far as the human body could go. The historian Emily d’Orgeix writes on the memoirs of a French military man-turned-archaeologist (this alliance between military science and archaeology is fascinating) who designed a gadget in the 1800s that combined a telescope with an artist’s drawing planchette to ensure that a general would have complete confidence while surveying the landscape from a distance, hopefully never having to leave his station. But still embodiment never really went out of the picture—the perspective was situated, and an aesthetic experience of landscape was coded into a drawing. French military education for instance emphasized the need for artistic sensitivity in drawing a landscape for reconnaissance and intelligence, emphasizing how an engineer must be able to »delicately« illustrate every leaf of a tree while documenting a topography. So techniques of direct human sensory perception were as important as the tools for training engineers back then. And Viollet-le-Duc wrote quite insistently in the late 1800s that the French had failed in wars with the Germans because the latter had a greater on-the-ground »intelligence« of terrain (I suspect he meant a sensory apprehension), while the French up until then had focused too much on perfecting map-reading skills and couldn’t connect what the eye understood with what the body was able to navigate. So, making actual contact with terrain became a necessity. Landscape architects like Christophe Girot at ETH Zürich mention this relation as a way of talking about topology: a system by which we can express an intelligence of terrain that returns to an elegant language of human sensory apprehension. In which sensations can once again be quantified in ways that can be drawn back to the realm of a bodily, aesthetic realm of perception. In which the mediation between the realm of sensory evidence and formal intellection, as the historian Antoine Picon might put it, can be once again be a little more transparent. I think we need this. So the question of site and the perspective is also a sensory and aesthetic one—a question of how we are engaging with landscape, whether we think of landscape as a »way of looking«, or as an object in the world.
But what do we make of these engagements when in satellites like LANDSAT, the »sensing« is taking place on mirrors that are able to record reflections and are a kind of haptic skin that records values that analysts have to later interpret as textures or temperatures within the overall context of the landscape? These are perception tools that alter the structure of sensory engagement with landscape, and with it, probably also the way in which territories are administered or governed remotely. Besides, it’s thought-provoking that geographical imagery we see of important places are made from data in which the image isn’t always already there, like it is in some sense with aerial photography, a map, or a painting. Photography was an extension of human memory, but remote sensing is an augmentation of physiological acts of perception. Even more interesting is that much remotely sensed data is image-like but not an image, and has to be computed, assembled, and mosaicked to become something »interpretable.« But with a different method of computation, that same image could tell a very different story by making a different set of things interpretable. Analysts often look for patterns in these randomized configurations. Does the wide range of options of how to use the same data also mean that the range of stories we can tell about the same object has increased twofold? I suspect it does. And it has to do with the materiality of the data itself. I’ve been trying to explore this by generating imagery pushing the limits of the datasets and testing how and when they come together as a meaningful image and when they fall apart into obscurity in the visual experience.
»I pay attention to the sensory perception and impressions of the data, which show how the virtual realm does have a materiality. The goal is to have the viewer experience it in immersion with the help of narration, sound, and imagery that illustrates how visibility is created in ›a world of incomplete information‹.«Saadia Mirza
I do want to address embodiment in Sensing Landscape. Communicating with the unskilled viewer is an important concern: I am trying to grapple with spaces in which sensing returns to the fore. I pay attention to the sensory perception and impressions of the data, which show how the virtual realm does have a materiality, but one that pervades a collective experience of a distant territory. The goal is to have the viewer experience it in immersion with the help of narration, sound, and imagery that illustrates how visibility is created in »a world of incomplete information,« as Halpern might put it. To have them walk with me through a process that still confounds me, in which the landscape »becomes« something, out of an obscure pattern of points, pixels, and amorphous cloudlike structures.
This is exactly why the aesthetic opportunity in mediums like VR and video work so well: They generate visual sensations and optical intimacy while retaining an awkward bodily distance. We know anyway that this aspect comes from military techniques of reconnaissance which is intimately connected to these mediums to begin with—photographs of Afghanistan have been peered at through stereoscopes since the late 1950s when Fairchild Aerial Surveys was first commissioned to map it remotely. While helping me develop the VR component, new media artist Marc Downie kept reminding me that we will not be the first people to fly over the terrain of Afghanistan in virtual reality, but hopefully we’ll be among a select few people doing something else while flying over it in this VR space. For me, that »something else« is to »unblackbox« this terrain as a media object. The idea is to become archaeologists digging through remote and virtual soil. I hope it does evoke »site« and »embodiment« because maybe the so-called »disembodied eye« has a situated point of view after all.
CB: Yes, and precisely for this reason I think it is important for artists to embody and reinvent these »black box terrains« produced through military and corporate structures. We must go towards these apparatuses and inhabit them. How can the singular, human-privileged view of photography be multiplied, but not alienated? Can we learn to embody abstract, dynamic, array-based assemblages of vision and information gathering? Can we account for the assemblages of power that produce and distribute images of inhuman scale? My instinct is to go into these realms and to become familiar. Such collective practice requires not just literacy, but also imaginative inhabitations that encompass all forms of creativity: some serious, others irreverent, many experimental or playful.