To call a virtual globe the god’s-eye view implies a completeness, a totality of vision. But the aerial perspective of Earth, as seen on Google Maps, EarthExplorer, and Marble, is far from complete. Instead, it's a photographic perspective from various satellites hurtling around the globe, stitched together into a pretty remarkable whole. A collage, if you will.
In the exhibition Reconnaissance, writer and artist Ingrid Burrington explores this patchwork, incomplete god’s-eye view. Her debut show, which opens today at NOME Gallery in Berlin, presents a series of lenticular prints, each showcasing merged photographic instances of grounded infrastructures like data centers, military bases, and downlinks.
As Burrington tells Co.Create, her goal with Reconnaissance is to remind viewers that the now quotidian aerial perspective, normalized by Google, didn’t just come out of nowhere. It was the result of decades of research and development in the fields aerospace and electrical engineering. To that end, Burrington turns the satellite gaze back down at the infrastructure that enabled. Viewers see sites like Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, and Google’s data center in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, amongst other places.
"For me and probably a lot of other people, growing up online meant growing up alongside Google, and more than just about any other company they've normalized the aerial perspective as a way of seeing the world by making it something really quotidian," Burrington says. "Of course NASA and private companies like DigitalGlobe made those images possible, but prior to Google Earth the idea of an ordinary person with internet access being able to casually look at, say, images of a drone base in Djibouti was pretty unthinkable. Now, it's pretty easy to assume that one has a constant, perfect bird's-eye view of the world. Which is kind of incredible and really weird."
Burrington’s interest in satellite imagery grew out of her friendship with Charlie Lloyd, a satellite imagery expert and engineer at Mapbox. When Lloyd launched Mapbox (a provider of custom online maps used by Uber and Foursquare, amongst other companies), he was essentially trying to remove all clouds in satellite imagery from the company’s maps.
And it’s not just clouds that are wiped from virtual maps. Objects like planes are occasionally removed. These "rainbow planes" were source of inspiration for artist James Bridle’s Rainbow Planes series that features works depicting experimental planes and other aircraft removed from satellite imagery. Military bases are also routinely obscured, though Area 51 is surprisingly clear on Google Earth.
"Learning about that process and seeing how the imagery I had been taking for granted as a picture of the world was really a picture of hundreds of pictures of the world, calibrated and cleaned up and stitched together, made me curious about all of the other stuff that goes into making that now-quotidian aerial perspective," Burrington says. "When you start to get into the history of aerial photography and satellite imagery, it turns out a lot of that stuff exists in sites rife with other weird political narratives—like the air bases and the downlinks and the data centers."
Once she knew what ground sites she wanted to explore, Burrington gathered images from several sources, including Google Maps and Mapbox satellite imagery. But most of the material comes from the United States Geological Survey’s EarthExplorer website. To achieve the zoom level she wanted, and get image sizes big enough for 1m x 1m prints, Burrington had to compromise on image selection.
Transforming these images into lenticular prints, Burrington was able to let viewers see these sites from different "angles"—or, rather, from the same angle twice. The decision to present this imagery as lenticular prints partly came out of Burrington knowing Rachel Binx and Sha Hwang, creators of the lenticular print-on-demand service Gifpop.
"I don't think it would have occurred to me that you could just get a lenticular made before that," she says. "[But] the idea of using a lenticular for satellite imagery had been percolating for a while, partly out of a frustration with the limitations of time-lapsing satellite imagery in print news and in web applications."
Newspapers and magazines cannot publish lenticular prints, and online media can only show an approximation of the prints through GIFs. For this reason, Burrington believes the images make more sense in an art exhibition.
People have been normalized to the fixed satellite perspective—one that allows users to easily pan and zoom. In a gallery setting, where viewers are really focusing on the prints, the lenticulars are unstable, and so is the perspective of humans looking at the prints. Burrington appreciates this fragmented quality.
"I like that when a viewer looks at these prints, they actually have to move to see changes to the landscape, rather than pointing and clicking on the landscape," she says. "There's also some really lovely glitch effects that can happen in that process of shifting perspective on them."
"I think the main thing I'd like viewers to take away from this work is an appreciation of the uncertainty of things that on the surface appear to be fixed and true."
Ingrid Burrington’s Reconnaissance opens September 16 and runs until November 11 at NOME Gallery in Berlin.