Kathy Marmor – Practices of seeing: a bird’s eye view – 2005


First publication workshop Space: Planetary Consciousness and the Arts, in
collaboration with OURS Foundation, IAA and Maison d'Ailleurs, Yverdon, 2005

My presentation proposes that it is possible to challenge the authority that satellite images manifest by visually representing space satellites and inviting people to interact with them. To demonstrate this I am going to discuss two of my recent audio installations, Berenice’s Hair and Birding. These two works are sketches that form the basis for a more complex interactive installation called Bird Watching. These pieces use satellites as an analogy to examine the political and cultural ramifications of globalism. I am particularly interested in satellites that employ remote sensing. Remote sensing is defined as a technique used to gather information about an object with out touching it. Remote sensing Satellites use a wide variety of sensors to collect information about the earth and its atmosphere. This data is then transmitted to ground stations where it is interpreted as images.

The first remote sensing satellites were a class of spy satellites called keyhole and they were operated by the US military from 1960 to 1972. Their original payloads were primarily of cameras. The reason I am mentioning keyhole satellites, is in 2005 the Internet search company, Google, acquired Keyhole Corporation. Keyhole created a client application that allowed computer users to manipulate a 3D database of the earth’s surface over the Internet. On Keyhole’s website I also learned that in 2003 a private nonprofit venture funded by the CIA invested in Keyhole on the behalf of National Imagery Mapping Agency. This agency in turn used keyhole’s technology to support the troops in Iraq.

In a press release, Google’s vice president of product management says “with keyhole you can fly like a super hero from your computer at home to a street corner somewhere else in the world. Keyhole is a valuable addition to Google’s effort to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

I want to make two points here. First that satellite imagery is used by both governmental and civilian operations and second, both military and civilian interests propel satellite technologies.

However as one of those “computer users” Satellites have an invisible presence and remain to me somewhat mysterious. I know about them only through the data that I have access to. As I was beginning to research them I discovered that you could listen to them as well as see them as they pass overhead. You can also purchase software that allows you to see their orbits and create your own weather maps by intercepting their data.

Space satellite technology is based on translucency. The notion of a transparent world is a political construct that is practiced for the greater common good. Thus, satellites are a form of military deterrence.

Satellite images directly correspond to their data therefore the data must also be indexical to the earth and its peoples. A satellite image may indeed reveal and denote a component of the earth but it connotes the eye of an omnipresent, omnipotent disciplinarian. Satellite images function as a “powerful legitimating tool” and like photography they have been absorbed into culture as “ a measure of truth.” Yet, the images themselves are a mosaic of abutting scenes, taken in different seasons and in different years. In fact satellite images must be verified by ground truth, or onsite visits to check their accuracy.

The manufacturing of satellites is expensive and out of reach for the layperson. However, like biotechnology, satellites and their images continue to affect public policy and become integrated in popular culture.

As an artist, I believe that by approaching this complex intertwining of space, geography, ecology, science and technology from the perspective of an “amateur” I can question the collection and implementation of satellite data from a completely new perspective. My installations attempt to lend some transparency to these issues and as the biotech hobbyists Natalie Jeremijenko & Eugene Thacker note, democracies depend on transparency and public oversight. It is my contention that by making the devices that take the pictures in outer space visible on a more intimate and LOCAL level I can question the role that globalism has played in the constitution of both national and individual concepts of identity.

Techniques of seeing

Space satellites are technical devices that augment human sight and like microscopes and telescopes provide the eye with a better view, revealing structures that would have otherwise remained invisible.

Visual perception and its techniques influence the construction of selfhood. In an article called “Re-corporealizing Vision”, the authors H. Nast and A. Kobayashi eloquently outline Jonathan Cary’s argument that the camera obscura, which was a very popular device from about 1500 – 1700, substantiated a distinction between the idea of an interiorized subject and an exteriorized world. A dichotomy that then resulted in the notion of a divine disembodied inner mind’s eye. However, the invention of apparatuses like the stereoscope in the early 19th century physically integrated the viewer into the mechanical device itself. Thus, as Jonathan Crary states the observer became at once a spectator, a subject of empirical research and observation, as well as and element of machine production. “This contradictory triad assisted in collapsing the distinctions between spectacle and surveillance. “

Although microscopes and telescopes aided vision, the invention of photography allowed vision to be recorded with unprecedented detail. The camera and its accompanying chemistry became the mechanized eye that paralleled the idea that the human body was a series of interconnected mechanical systems. Overtime, the readily observable truth recorded by the camera became the quintessential moment of subjective expression.

The proliferation of scientific images through popular science and mass media has led to what I would term a hyper-visuality that results in a different type of transparency. This transparency is similar to the term used to describe computer software that works so well that its underlying complexity is invisible to the user. This form of transparency gives rise to the paradox: the more we see, the less we see. I suggest that the pictures produced as the result of scientific investigation are quickly assimilated into modern culture. These images are abstracted and detached from their original meanings. The image becomes an icon.

The role of popular science and the amateur

These icons wield enormous power over the public by signifying science’s power. However, a picture of the structure of DNA makes DNA accessible to me only on a superficial level. These iconographic images also represent esoteric systems of knowledge that seem impenetrable to a layperson. Yet, scientific concepts, such as genetic mapping and gene modification infiltrate daily life.

I am suggesting that it is this popularization of science that entices the amateur. An amateur is learned person who is neither credentialed nor earns their living by working in their area of interest. An amateur does not merely appropriate concepts or improvise tools; instead amateurism demands a diligent commitment to the politics of knowledge. As Nico Stehr writes, Knowledge is the capacity for action. Knowledge is conceptual doing. Amateurism is an effective strategy for artists because it can expose the political ideology embedded in specific scientific paradigms. Amateurism allows the artist to disrupt closed systems by shifting awareness into action.

In 2003, at a local art festival in Burlington Vermont I performed a work based on my web installation, the DNA cookbook. The DNA cookbook is part of a series called Kitchen Science. In the performance I assisted the audience in extracting DNA. We used common household products and kitchen tools to “spool the stuff of life.”

My audience’s response was fascinating. I discovered how little we actually know about DNA. I was surprised to see how enthralled people were as they watched the strands of DNA begin to drift through the alcohol. This simple activity was effective because I had removed the process from the biology lab and set it the familiar surroundings of a kitchen. I had taken an abstraction and made it concrete by making the molecule visible. Some audience members even expressed disbelief because the DNA did not look like its picture. My web installation and performances were influenced in part by Shawn Carlson’s article entitled “Spooling the Stuff of Life” which he had written for his column the amateur scientist in Scientific American. This article intrigued me on two accounts, first because he provided instructions for extracting DNA in your own home. Secondly, by the way in which he introduced his wife as a biophysicist. Ironically by talking about his wife and collapsing the distinction between her occupation and his preoccupation he married the kitchen and the laboratory. His equation of the kitchen as a laboratory underscored my assertion that there is a hidden gender ideology in science.

I like to use familiar domestic tools or objects as interfaces in my installations because these implements have specific connotations that remain bonded to them even when they are removed from their familiar context. For example the Origins of Life another work from the Kitchen science series uses domestic measuring spoons as electronic switches. Measuring spoons are full of meaning on a variety of different levels. Consequently, the complexity of their meanings makes them “good to think with”. The measuring spoon gives me with a way to ask the participant in my installation the question, “who is measuring what?”

My use of domestic objects and low technology to foster new assemblies of ideas also informs my recent work. In both Berenice’s Hair and Birding I suspended simple open cardboard boxes from the ceiling. In Berenice’s Hair they held audio speakers and were metaphorical planets that listeners orbited around. In Birding the card board boxes were a visual representation of the satellite’s sound. The painted box in Berenice’s Hair was an allegory for loss and the unaltered box in Birding was homage to the allegorical hobbyist.

While researching satellites for Birding, I discovered to my delight that you could listen to the telemetry of satellites as they pass overhead. Telemetry is transmission of satellite data to the ground station. My interest in this led me to an organization called the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation who, as they say on their website, are dedicated to creating a low tech entry into the high tech world of space.

(Their first project, Oscar was started in 1960 on the west coast. Oscar 1 orbited for 22 days and transmitted a “hello-world” greeting in Morse code. OSCAR III became the first Amateur Radio satellite to carry a transponder.)

Keyhole and keynote

I am currently revising Birding to create a new installation called Bird Watching that will also include motion tracking. Bird Watching like Birding uses sound to accentuate the relationship between the observer and the observed. I use proximity sensors in both works to emphasize the relationship between the body’s geography and the geography of sound and space. The audio events in these installations define the environment by locating the body in space.

In Birding the participant’s physical proximity to the sensor defines the duration, pitch and amplitude of the sounds. One can, with careful interaction, control the sound the boxes make. The box and the participant are reciprocally responsive to each other. Bird Watching like Birding will also incorporate an antenna that is attached to a hand held VHF scanner. The scanners constant hum becomes the installations keynote and like the body’s biorhythms it establishes a spatial reference point. It conditions all the other sound in the work.

However, my new installation will also use the sensors’ data to track the participant’s location. The computer will displayed her coordinates as a visual image in real time elsewhere in the room. This connection between sound and place generates a map that symbolically represents a local global dialectic. The map, the small closed circuit cameras and the sound employed in Bird Watching articulate a mutual relationship between the watcher and the watched. Usually, surveillance connotes a one-way flow of power that hides this relationship. I am interested in articulating the tension that occurs as the observer becomes aware that she is observed. I also want the participant who is watched to be conscious of being watched. There is the possibility in interdependent relationships that power will be shared although perhaps not equally.

Examples of artists who emphasize this relationship – Applied Autonomy’s iSee. iSee is web-based application that charts the locations of surveillance cameras in urban environments. With iSee, users can find routes that avoid these cameras.

One Pixel by Steven Holloway Boston Cyberfest 2005.

The term “resolution” is often used to describe the total “real world” area, represented by an individual pixel. A one-meter resolution would mean that each pixel is equal to one meter on the ground.

This talk presents three different definitions of transparency to examine the linkages between the practices and the techniques of seeing. Rendering something visible is also a perceptual phenomenon and my installations create exploratory environments that emphasize the ecology of perception. In Birding and Bird Watching I employ corporeal perceptivity to shift cognitive awareness. Thus participants, overtime, become aware that they are satellites themselves

1. Transparent: Capable of transmitting light so that objects or images can be seen as if there were no intervening material.

Satellites represent global transparency in the form of surveillance.

2. Transparent: an attribute ascribed to computer software that shields the user from its complexity

Satellites augment human sight and make visible what is the beyond the scope of the eye. However satellite images as they enter into mainstream culture become detached from their original meanings and function as signs.

3. Transparent: Free from what obscures or dims

Amateurs also make knowledge transparent. This is an effective strategy for artists seeking to question closed systems of knowledge and tease out political implications.

Global identity

My presentation focuses on some of the interchanges between economics, politics and culture in science and allows me to consider them in relation to psychological and cultural construction of self-identities. My recent work addresses remote sensing and satellite imaging to investigate the overlaps of power, gender and technology as they relate to the constitution of a “global” identity.

Satellite and remote sensing technologies are deeply embedded in the construct of globalization. Satellites operate in a shared non-territorial space and their data is a commodity available for purchase to every nation. Satellites and satellite images manufacture from a variety of perspectives a fragmented view of the earth. This has altered our conception of boundaries. “Imaging satellites function as symptom, expression and reinforcement of modernity’s dream of knowledge as power. “

However, as David Lyon states a global world is not a less local world. The global and the local are interdependent and globalization is the practice of globailty itself. Consequently I would argue that identity is multidimensional and fluid. There is a drive towards plurality and a decoupling between national and civilian “identities” However, these notions of identity are not initiated by global technologies like satellites but rather these technologies reinforce and enable the transformations that are already in play.

I would like to conclude by dedicating my presentation today to Evelyn Pruitt, (1918-2000) a geographer/oceanographer who first established the term remote sensing in 1956. Evelyn was a key administrator at the U.S. Office of Naval Research. (ONR) and instituted many important policies. Her research focused on costal science.

© Kathy Marmor & Leonardo/Olats, April 2006 / republished 2023