On a sunny day a few weeks ago in late September, a group gathered to draw and talk on the grounds of Northrop Grumman's Space Park Drive facility, their aerospace headquarters in Redondo Beach. In the group were several artists, geographers, an historian and urban planner. Our goal? To contemplate looking, drawing, recording, and representing landscape at the home of military "sight."
Here, satellite technology, stealth technology, and C4ISR systems, (Command, Control, Communications, Computes, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) are built for the military to view conflict zones and prevent others from detecting them. In the midst of violent international conflicts, military commanders rely on images of remote battle spaces to make critical decisions. Incendiary Traces chose the Northrop Grumman site for a draw-in because it offers myriad examples of landscape imagery (or more broadly, geographic imagery) as an instrument for perceiving, understanding and fighting seemingly remote wars. (Incendiary Traces is dedicated to looking at the Southern California landscape as a way to understand international conflicts in similar subtropical landscapes.)
Sitting on the grass next to the TOTS - Telemetry and Orbital Testing Station across the street from a radome atop a tall industrial building, we considered some of the specific viewing and view-jamming technologies developed there. For example, engineers, technicians and others are working on stealth technology, also called low observable technology, which is designed to hide military vehicles and people (on land, sea and air) from radar, sonar, and infrared detectors. Engineers there are also developing the HART, that is, Heterogeneous Airborne Reconnaissance Team system, which the Northrop Grumman web site explains, "autonomously manages a large mix of manned and unmanned aircraft and sensors and distributes streaming video, surveillance and reconnaissance information to war fighters in the field." With systems like this, the military gathers imagery and related spatial data (including the location of the place pictured, for example) from satellites, videos shot by weapons guidance systems, reports from fighter pilots, and other sources. This information is then used to make decisions about battlefield manoeuvring and targeting.
To help us better understand what happens behind the walls of these buildings and provide a deeper context for drawing there, we began with a conversation centered around a comparison between the insights geographic images provide to the military, humanitarian aid workers and the general public. We read an excerpt from communications scholar Chad Harris's 2006 paper "The Omniscient Eye: Satellite Imagery, 'Battlespace Awareness,' and the Structures of the Imperial Gaze". In this paper and his 2011 publication "Transparency as Realist Narrative", Harris looks closely at the instrumental role satellite and overhead imagery play in military operations and how aerial views contribute to military and non-military activity within conflict zones. These perspectives, once reserved for only military use, are increasingly being used by non-military organizations, NGOs and the general public. To learn more about this, geographer Joel Myhre was with us to share his first hand experience working with satellite imagery and related technologies developed by the military for humanitarian aid purposes. Myhre, Principal Consultant at Nordic Geospatial Consulting in Marina del Rey, works with the United Nation's Operational Satellite group (UNOSAT) within the Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and others in this capacity. (More about Joel Myhre's work is in an interview Incendiary Traces conducted with him here.)
Some of the questions we pondered include, How do on-the-ground perspectives of landscapes, and conflict zones in particular, compare to aerial views of these places? Several writers have written about the 'god's eye view", the aerial view historically developed by European military-imperial cartographers as an instrument of control wielded by authorities. Aerial views, geographic measuring practices and surveillance are not only used to secure countries, they are also used to determine the identity of states, as their history in cartography indicates. But as participating poet and geographer Diane Ward pointed out, it now also allows any viewer within the general public to put him/herself into a larger context. When the public shares aerial views with the government, does this make for transparency and better democracy? That is, if the public can see as much of the world as the policy makers (in theory) can they monitor these decisions better? (The Open Skies Treaty is an interesting example of this, an international agreement in which the participating countries are permitted to take aerial surveillances images of any geographic areas within the participating countries' territories for peacekeeping purposes.)
Our discussion provided the group with a point of reference for comparing our experience on the ground viewing and drawing the Northrop Grumman Space Park Drive facility with the aerial perspectives of far-off conflict zones generated here. We traced the arc of this imagery developed at this site, acted upon elsewhere, and our place within war zones -- the roles of representation in fighting and understanding them. As artists, we are intrigued to ask what role do imagery and image making processes play in defining the physical geographic boundaries as well as the conceptual identity of the nation? To explore this question further, we will be drawing and otherwise metaphorically tracing at the US Mexico Border in the upcoming weeks.
Hillary Mushkin is a visual artist exploring contemporary and historical intersections of art, visual culture, social and political consciousness. She works in studio and post-studio forms including drawing, media, and interactive formats. Mushkin frequently collaborates with others from fields including poetry, architecture, and digital media.