Home > Aesthetico-Technical, AMT, Anthropocene, cold war, curating, media art, visual culture > Earth/Sky exhibition opening talk

Earth/Sky exhibition opening talk

With Ryan Bishop we wrote the following short oral presentation as part of the opening panel of the Earth/Sky exhibition that is on at the Calit2 gallery at UC San Diego! Please visit the show if you are in the region and for those interested, below the short opening introduction.

Screen Shot 2019-02-04 at 17.11.08

Ryan Bishop and Jussi Parikka

March 7, 2019, UC San Diego

Earth/Sky exhibition – introductory remarks

Where the vertical X line meets the horizontal Y line in the X/Y axis is called the origin. Although we are not going to pursue myths of origins in this panel, that intersection is certainly the origin of inspiration for our exhibition and the works that comprise it.

What is the relationship between the X/Y axis and the horizon? Where is the horizon in the X/Y axis and how is it constructed, reconstituted, erased, or negated by the visualizing technologies these artists deploy, explore, exploit and query? The question of the horizon in relation to technology emerged in its contemporary guise in the aftermath of WWII and remains with us, cast by Martin Heidegger as “the age of the world picture “. The telecommunications technologies developed to provide constant real-time surveillance of the earth necessary to conduct the Cold War and enforce the Truman Doctrine simultaneously converted the earth into a globe (a bounded sphere visible at all times) as well as into a flattened world without horizon (due to the use of “over the horizon” visualizing technologies and complete surveillance of the entire planet all at the same time).

It found visual form in two works produced about the same time as Heidegger was writing: Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map, and Jasper Johns’ large-scale painting for the Montreal Expo ’67 inspired by Fuller’s map (and installed in Fuller’s massive geodesic dome erected there for the expo). The multi-pieced and multi-shaped canvas painting measures more than 30 feel long and over 15 feet high. As with Fuller’s cartographic vision, the icosahedron Dymaxion map created by Johns could be disassembled or assembled at will. Fuller’s map could be folded together to create a sphere or unfolded, origami-like, to be a flat two-dimensional object. Co-created with Shoji Sadao, Fuller’s map provided the model for the interactive, data-driven version used in his real-time teletechnological teaching tool called the World Game. Fuller and Sadao’s map moved easily, then, between 3-D and 2-D representations of the earth’s continents. These were represented in size based on population distribution and resource usage instead of the standard cartographic nod to physical coverage. While Fuller’s optimistic vision of the map’s pedagogical elements was at odds with Johns’ more pessimistic view of the geopolitical agonism that marked the moment, the map mimetically reproduces fully “the age of the world picture”. The globe as stage for Fuller-inflected neighbourliness also became a site of contiguous land masses locked in Johns-depicted animus: 3-D holistic vision coupled with 2-D Cold War strategically-generated economic inequities.

The cultural politics of Heidegger’s interpretation of modernity’s generated metaphysics can be charted in the capacity for representation to equate with both experience and the real, for the map to create the territory and the technological means for cartographic representation to become the tools for human crafting of the earth as globe, as flat observable plane or, as Fuller termed it, Spaceship. The visualizing teletechnologies on display in the Dymaxion Map, as well as the works in our exhibition here, are just such tools, for they chart a trajectory in which the world travelled from being construed as plane to orb to globe to flat, surveilled entity again. Our capacity to see and render the planet whole erased the horizon of the world and made it capable of being held in our collective teletechnological grasp. This is the “negative horizon” theorized by Paul Virilio: the conversion of the surface of the earth to pure surface, pure plane, to salt flat deserts and “mineral cemeteries” (141), a screen for projections and visions, a platform for unfettered terrestrial and aerial acceleration and optical realization. The age of the world picture is evoked in these maps made by Fuller and Johns, and it is so in the means by which we have enframed, delineated and curtailed potential futures, realized or not.

This leads us to our works on display in the exhibition (as well as the one screened as part of this opening panel, Susan Schuppli’s vertical cinema piece Atmospheric Feedback Loops). Schuppli’s audiovisual installation “Nature Represents Itself” presents the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in its legal and aesthetic form to propose the ecological site as a material witness capable of representing its own damaged condition. This auto representation of environmental disaster posits a new medium unique to the components of the disaster; in many ways, it is a visual analogue to Reza Negarestani’s philosophical fiction writing that fabulated the non-human revenging force of petroleum in Cyclonopedia. Furthermore, it taps into the multiple camera angles of the Anthropocene: the live feed of the underwater oil leak, the aerial view of the region as a massive size oil painting (as Ubermorgen, art group, coined it), the cultural politics of TV footage, the scientific imagining, and so forth.

Concerns about the horizon are omnipresent in the name of the documented disaster: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with its connotations of X and Y in itself as well as the dimension of depth as the passage to the underwater realms that link from Jules Verne’s fictional Captain Nemo’s megalomanic world tour to the as megalomanically disastrous seascapes of drilling and deep sea mining. While the melting arctic ice that will flood vast coastal areas and towns presents its own new northern passages as well as oil and mineral opportunities, we are left with the archive of disasters that already took place across the petrocultural century. Deepwater is one where the various axes are again brought together both as its spatial coordinates and as part of visual culture of disasters.

The Gulf of Mexico was made an unintentional canvas of human intervention and failure, as seen in the many images of the disaster taken by NASA’s pertinently named Terra satellite. The visual register on screen in Schuppli’s work is that of the accident, which is a recurring feature of that axis where visual culture and technological infrastructure and political decision-making meet. As Paul Virilio reminded us, the invention of any technology is also the invention of its failure, of its accidents. The technology in its operation and its failure provide equally fodder for planning, speculation and aesthetic production. This also applies to the speculative side in more ways than one: not merely inventing technologies, but inventing their accidents around which technological systems can be laid out as large scale systems. Virilio in fact posited that the history of technology could better be queried and understood through a Museum of Disasters than our usual technolophillic celebratory institutions. If such a site were to be built, Schuppli’s work could take a proud place there as one example of the long term legacy of petroculture as itself an invention of an accident around which modern culture takes place, from transport to industry, from lifestyle to the variety of materials that sustain our sense of the everyday.

Another kind of an accident lurks in Herregraven’s “Sprawling Swamps,” a series of fictional infrastructures dispersed within the cracks of the contemporary financial geography that operate on a technological, legal and social level. Herregraven’s focus is on the littorals, the ambiguous shifting zones where sea and land interact, the port and the portal interface. These ambiguous and ambivalent spaces, gaps between economic and environmental certitudes, speak to Paul Gilroy’s arguments for a “critique at sea level”. Picking up from Gilroy, Francoise Verges asks: how do we develop cultural theory that starts from water, the sea, the oceans – from the middle passage, but then also the northern passages, the various forms of colonial and other kinds of disasters, including contemporary ones that take place across liquid and swampy landscapes? What is sea level in the current moment and in this moment of warming currents? Increasingly land can become water, arable land can become desert, etc. in the weird mixes of the classical four elements; as Gary Genosko puts it, these four elements are not however anymore the stable sort of earth-water-fire- air. A longer quote from Genosko (in the Posthuman Glossary) gives a clear picture of the new synthetics of elements:

The new fundamental elements… EARTH : dust; WATER : blood; AIR : lethal fogs; FIRE :flammables. Wrapped around these elements is the planetary phylum, a great tellurian cable bunch with its own products: EARTH : electronics; WATER : liquidities like water bottled in plastic, which throws forward diagrammatic intensities in the explosion of plastic debris; AIR : gases (green house); and FIRE : smouldering car tyres, slashed rainforests and seasonal wild fires in the great northern forests. However, as we have seen, the new elements combine both in existing directly – blood mixed with dust in the extraction of conflict minerals and oil fields, or methane, a flammable unnaturally mingled with the water supply, and which contributes to the green house gas effect – and by means of especially communicative matters, like microscopic fragments of plastics that perfuse the oceans and get into the food chain, and constitute fine dusts that affect respiration, settling among the fogs, gases and lethal clouds.

The Ovid-like metamorphoses of nature, of bodies changed, operates in pre-socratic thought in relation to the elements with the universe composed of these elements battling or playfully transforming into one another, as Empedocles theorized. But from Empedocles, we should move further to the chemical period of the past 200 years of chemistry and its multiple forms of interaction and escalation of planetary deposits. What we are witnessing now is a rapid reshaping of the elements of the planet, some by design but most not, some by human actors and some by technological systems working autonomously or in tandem with others in unintended ways. The dynamic nature of matter, and of nature, finds form in precarious legal, financial and governmental infrastructures poised along the liminal littorals. Nonetheless urban human forms as a guiding set of imaginaries are seemingly impervious to the vicissitudes of unstable ecologies, in spite of high winds, hurricanes, typhoons, floods and drought.

Visualizations of the XY axis rarely show the air or the sky. The seeming transparency of atmospheres is however a source for another sort of “light media” and “sky media” that is often crystallised in technological figures such as drones or satellite infrastructures or then in the toxic legacies such as smog. It also includes the longer legacy of the aerial perspective – sightlines lifted from the ground.

We most often see the earth as surface (with the X line being the literal line of sight). The horizon is usually implied, what we know lies beyond the frame. Heba Amin’s lyrical and witty projection piece, “As Birds Flying,” allows views of the sky, the earth, the horizon, savannahs and wetlands, settlements and aviary migrations, which in turn allude to human migrations on the rise throughout the world. Her use of found footage and non-human surveillance techniques, in this case mistakenly believed to be strapped to a migrating stork, reveals horizons of visualization, tracking and the continual geopolitical struggle for contested terrain. This view is not stable but one in movement; a survey of landscapes and velocity, of movement and tracking, of cinematic visions projected onto daily existence.

It is worth noting in closing that the aerial views on view in the show now are visible by humans but the majority of the images of the earth’s surface being produced today are by machines for machines: they are not representational but informational and automated; this is what Harun Farocki coined as the world of operational, or operative, images, which also includes an increasing amount of environmental imaging. These are also a dominant strand of the Earth/Sky and X/Y axis visualizations of the present that expands from aerial views to soil analysis, and to interplanetary visual cultures as with the recent Mars Rover images too. These images as measurements are used for their data despite the at times glamorous views we get a glimpse of. That which isn’t visible can be translated into data visualizations that help feed a vast machine of charting, control and most importantly prediction.

In so doing the X-Y axis extends to include the Z axis, and enters into predictive temporalities: planning, investment, policing, and so forth. The role of AI techniques of prediction in the futures markets results in manipulation and prediction that links governmental sovereignty to data visualization technologies and their capacity to shape and generate financial systems and markets. The particular surfaces that are catered as massive datasets are the past archive for the hypothetical future-nows that open up a new horizon. Questions surrounding the large-scale production of premediated near-future predictive strategies linking geomedia to algotrading speeds up the earth as the manipulation of its materials for control and gain set the data-gathering agenda in spite of the many admirable and altruistic projects that may complement it. In this way, the images and the predictive data scraped from them replicates bureaucratic tools of domination past. Sean Cubitt writes: “That trinity of fundamentally bureaucratic media—databases (filing cabinets), spreadsheets (ledgers) and GIS (maps)—still operates, not least at the level of companies and institutions, where it continues to provide the backbone of a residual early-modern biopolitics.” These instances of administration , Cubitt continues, “were the dominant media of the early 21st century, because they were the media of domination.” The techniques and technologies have changed but the larger cultural technics and their ontological rationale have not.

The origin of the X/Y axis remains literally and figuratively in place, if not accelerated and exacerbated by our visualizing technologies.

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