There are limits to what satellites can see. Commercial imaging machines orbiting the globe can’t make out objects smaller than 25 cm for example. Their gaze can’t penetrate leafy canopies or high-rise rooftops. And, they only see from one perspective: top-down, bird’s-eye view. Nonetheless, satellites see a great deal, and the maps they generate purport a certain totality. You could say they advertise seeing everything with an asterisk, leaving the exceptions for the fine print.
While satellite imagery flattens the world in the course of its quest for total representation, lenticulars play another trick with perspective. Interlacing two images, with the help of fine hemispherical lenses, these optical novelties change depending on the angle of your gaze. Shifting left to right, or right to left, one version of reality collapses into another. Two truths reduced to one, contingent on where you stand; the insufficiency of a single viewpoint dramatized by the shortness of the distance between points A and B.
In “Reconnaissance”, Ingrid Burrington’s lenticular printed satellite imagery combines a kitsch dime-store technology with a multibillion-dollar military one. The series connects high-resolution aerial photography with the conditions of its production and redaction. Presenting downlinks, data centers, air bases and calibration targets as seen from hundreds of kilometers above the Earth’s surface, the images refer to the infrastructure that made them. They offer traces of the satellites launched and glimpses of the machinery circulating the data captured by those machine eyes. By presenting two versions of each image, which the viewer can toggle between, shuffling from one side to the other, Burrington reanimates the infrastructures and processes that have been or are becoming obscured.
In Volkel Air Base, the lenticular oscillates between two different images both concealing the Dutch military airbase Vliegbasis Volkel. In one, the base is blacked out. In the other, it is camouflaged by a geometric blur seemingly produced
with Photoshop’s crystallize filter, the green and tan quilt of orderly fields all of a sudden disrupted by a pattern of kaleidoscopic prisms. Crystallize seems a friendly way to go about censorship. It’s as if the classified parts of a text were redacted with “nothing to see here” printed in Comic Sans.
Still, seeing nothing is usually seeing something. In this case, it’s witnessing evidence of digital mediations and governmental- commercial negotiations that stitch together the picture of “everything” that is displayed. It’s hard to say where along the supply chain censorship takes place. Governments have been known to make demands of both satellite image vendors and online mapping services. Leveraging their purchasing power at different times, the US government has forced restrictions on vendors like DigitalGlobe and Geoeye, limiting what they can sell other clients. Following a 2007 terrorist attack on British military bases in Iraq allegedly planned using Google Earth intelligence, the UK government seems to have requested Google to censor images of the area. Google changed the map but a statement they gave to inquiring journalists wouldn’t confirm so directly: “We are not prepared to discuss what we have discussed with them. But we do listen, and we are sensitive to requests.” The maps too say and don’t say at the same time.
Even when satellite photos are unedited, there are things that these images can’t say for sure. Reading them, there’s room for misinterpretation. It’s not as much that photos lie but that people can lie with photos, and because of the objective truth-telling imbued in images captured 200,000 feet up in the air by machine eyes, they are especially ripe to be used to bolster controversial claims. In 2003 Colin Powell used satellite photos, as well as intercepted phone calls, as evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Addressing the United Nations Security Council, the then US secretary of state insisted that the images showed chemical weapon munitions bunkers and decontamination trucks. Now we know better, of course. There were never any weapons of mass destruction. Still, satellite images aren’t always untrustworthy sources. Aerial photography has been used as evidence of ethnic violence and mass killings during the Bosnian War and, in more recent years, along the border region between Sudan and South Sudan – claims that have been more difficult to refute.
Over the past twenty-five years, satellite imagery has become more accessible. Aiming to stay competitive with other nations producing and selling their own imagery, in 1994 the Clinton administration opened up restrictions on private civilian companies in the US selling high-res images. In the years between when aerial photos of mass graves in Srebrenica were used to drum up support for NATO intervention in 1995 and when George Clooney co-founded the Satellite Sentinel Project to monitor conflict zones in 2010, the availability of satellite imagery drastically changed. In 2005, Microsoft first launched Virtual Earth (later rebranded under the Bing umbrella), offering consumers satellite imagery combined with a searchable geospatial mapping platform for free. Today, anyone with an internet connection can find an aerial shot of George Clooney’s mansion in about five seconds.
This access depends on new infrastructure. The mainstream dissemination of satellite imagery adds yet another layer to the network of rockets, launch centers, signal transmitters and receivers that make views from space possible. Cloud-based mapping platforms from Google and Bing rely on data centers to store image information, another link in the data supply chain you can find traces of on the maps themselves. Google, however, has been inconsistent about when it chooses to reveal these traces.
In Council Bluffs, Lithia Springs and Moncks Corner, Burrington draws our attention to evidence of a policy change within Google to make information on their data centers more public as they aggressively market their cloud-based services. These lenticulars toggle between aerial images of completed storage centers and images of mounds of dirt at those same sites. Google more recently has opted to display the more up-to-date images showing the completed infrastructure sites, but their decisions to pick and choose when to show current aerial photos and when to show older imagery of data center sites, conflict zones, and areas wrecked by environmental destruction like post-Katrina New Orleans remain shrouded. One day, you wake up and the map has jumped ahead or back in time, no explanation given.
Shadows in every satellite image remind us of the limits to what aerial photos can show. Not only can they not represent everything, they can never show every time. In Edwards Air Force Base, the only thing that changes as the lenticular oscillates back and forth is the shadow from a jet plane abandoned in the desert, like a sundial casting time for no one. From a vantage point in the sky, the height of buildings wouldn’t be legible without shadows drawn on two sides and telephone poles would melt into the landscape if it weren’t for wisps of black like eyelashes stuck to the screen. Shadows give us information, but any mapping project is an attempt to represent space outside of time, abstracting it into some universal representation. In “Reconnaissance”, combining lenticulars and satellite images, Burrington reminds us that these maps themselves are optical illusions.