Ground Effect

loading up a camera on the side of a plane (WW1)

Heavily escalating from 1914 onwards, as Virillio points out, the first images of the Earth sent back to the eye were for wartime reconnaissance. Something of this origin still exists in the ‘chronophotographic’ techniques that apply the industrial method of work-division and production of images to aerial surveillance, and which is now so familiar to us that we barely associate its origins in war. Most people have access to this vision-machine in their pockets. The technics of image production sending us back satellized surveys of the Earth’s surface owe their existence to military innovation – the real spearhead of capitalism. 

We are living through extraordinary times when it comes to machines of vision. During the 14th and 15th centuries, as the vision-machine of perspective was being invented, it was still unclear how the new technology would affect the world and what it would bring in its wake. Looking back into history we can observe the instances that emerge with perspectival vision, from military ballistics to the colonization of space.

Maholy-Nagy, Radio Tower Berlin (1928)

As Virillio notes, even the photography galleries at the MOMA dedicated to Edward Steichen are barely associated with the origin, given that most people are unaware that the great photographer Steichen was former director of aerial operations of the American expeditionary force in France during the First World War. There was an entire wave of new vision techniques produced out of that horrible event. Benefiting from their military experience, the Bauhaus photographers like Moholy-Nagy “aerialized” their pictures by climbing over the roofs and fire escapes.

Nowdays the eye of the artist is aerialized to the degree that the person is replaced, not longer needed to bodily climb the roofs or fire escapes since they are replaced by surveillance machines, cctv cameras and drones – the next generation in what Virillio calls the “chrono-war.” The space and the time of the being of things as they are constituted by human perception are being effaced. The fierce irony of the technical motor is that while we sense ourselves ‘more connected’ into the world around us through the technologies and are thus more visible we are simultaneously increasing into disappearance.

The delirious joy of speed, as Marinetti called it, is less an object of consumption to be desired than it is an object ‘outside’ of history, and perhaps even outside of geography. The subheading to this post could be called “Effacing Geography.” The satellitization of the gaze is a technical effect whose survey obliterates any singularities found in a locality. It rubs out the niceties of the objects. Speed breaks away from the earth like the drones over the warzones (the warzones are everywhere now), it nihilates the flesh.

I am interested in the aerialized image. I use it often in my art documentation and installations and cartographic work. And of course many people use it everyday to find directions. Part of the reason I wrote this text was to acknowledge the background of this satellite vision in war. In this way at least I do not remain ignorant to the origins of the medium. It owes its existence to the synergy of the eye and the motor: it is the technical-eye that makes the vision possible: call it the satellitization of the gaze.

Materia Forma - Alkaline Work

The history of this image-machinery would have been the extension of the presumption of control by motorized elements invented by technician culture, as Virillio says “steadily increasing our dependency on directional systems of accountability and control (speedometers, dashboards, remote tele-control).” As an object that is assimilated to the sending of information, bodies are given over to the authority of automatism, reducing value to the zero, and somehow the moment of the screen begins to replace personal moment.

Chaism-between-Nature-&-History-2
Bombardment I, from the Aerial Series – J Mason

In our age of the ‘satellitization’ of the gaze, which enacted itself through the militaristic vision of global surveillance, the Earth becomes a ground-effect.  In this respect we ought to be aware that our era of delocalization is birthed from the aerial bombardment of the ground.

The mobility of the subject’s point-of-view, which is now fed into the synergy of the motor and the eye, no longer has at its basic reference a horizontal plane. We have reached the altitude. We are no longer in the horizontal, as with perspective, but in the vertical, as with the satellites. And we ourselves have become sites of reconnaissance.

We artists are living more and more in the debris of a vast catastrophe. Speed is not constituted without the surprise of the accident, which in anthropocene is utterly catastrophic. Virilio has been known as the theorist of the accident, mentioning the probability of the “global accident.” That global accident does not await us, it is already here. This accident is not only virtual but geographical, and not only geographical but geological. The ground effect is an image producing the obliteration of the ground. In my opinion what Virilio identifies is not only an accident at the level of informatics or of the cybernetic and semiological regimes, but equally of the material – what would be considered the stuff of objects composing the world around us.  And much like the drone that bombards from the air, itself a predatorial technical eye of the satellite gaze, speed as the progressive accident of history effaces the living flesh.

In our time of the anthropocene, identified as that layer in the geological record where the trace of humanity has become a geological agent, humanity begins to disappear…

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