Week 7: Remote Sensing, Imaging, and Surveillance

This week, we explored ideas and problems regarding remote sensing in terms of its technological, social, biological, and artistic contexts, situating these issues within their ethical implications. In many of the photographs we viewed in lecture, the concealment of surveillance was often the result of being hidden by its aesthetic quality. We looked through the history of developing ideas of using remote sensing via photography or imaging technique beginning with early executions of aerial photography in the photographs by Nadar and how imaging progressively developed in the 19th through 20th century to take on new roles of function. As new technologies advanced in terms of science and photographic imaging capabilities, so too did their intentions for their use and in particular, in the use of images and photography for advancing reconnaissance or surveillance, exemplifying the idea of the “aerial gaze.” For instance, we move from Nadar’s use of aerial photography as purely aesthetic investigation to George R. Lawrence’s use of aerial photography for the purpose of documentation of horrific, natural disasters and the visual evidence of damage they caused. In the 20th century we begin to see the use photography/imaging techniques as intelligence and remote sensing change for the purpose of reconnaissance. In particular, the technological developments of camera imaging, aerial photography, and reconnaissance imaging played a huge role in the covert occurrences that were recorded during the Holocaust and World War 2. As a result, this instigates the need to use remote sensing and imaging for the purpose of unveiling corrupt and/or unjust covert operations and intentions by the government.

As technology advances in all related fields, the use and prevalence of the aerial gaze and photographic/image sensing remains just prevalent and problematic. Contemporarily, issues and current events dealing with governmental secrecy, surveillance, and informational privacy are prevalent in current issues in terms of governmental uses with imaging and algorithmic-based means of gathering personal information as we saw in the Edward Snowden and NSA leaks in 2012. These contemporary issues and events have sparked response from visual artists in terms of addressing the related problems within the uses of remote sensing and algorithmic technologies. Wilson cites several examples of algorithmic or computer based projects that explore the notion of surveillance and its impeding presence within society. For instance, Joel Slayton’s installation Tele present Surveillance uses interactive robots within the gallery space that are designed with internal cameras implanted in them that move around the space, following the museum-goers as they move, and then taking images that are then projected to the viewers (Wilson 343). This work explores not only ideas of surveillance and imaging technologies but also the role of technology and computing in the context of robotics and artificial life as a whole. Another project that examines the presence of the “aerial view,” in surveillance and imaging in both its social context as well as its context within “experimental aesthetics,” (Wilson 313). Another project that deals with surveillance and remote sensing using imagery is a project called Sven (Surveillance Video Entertainment Network) created by Amy Adler (a professor at UCSD), Wojciech Kosma, and Vincent Rabaud. The project engages these issues using humor and popular music in order to engage viewers in a comical and comfortable manner that also leads them to consider more grave concepts and ideas surrounding remote imaging and intelligence.

Throughout photographic and/or digital imaging’s relatively recent history, the contestable debate of whether or not photography should be viewed as an art or a science has been a formidable issue and continues to be widely debated. This debate is also rampant in attempts to categorize remote sensing within a designated discipline as well. As we can see, the interconnectedness of science, technology, and art has been historically present as the three disciplines continue to grow and change in unison with and a response to one another. As with many of the photographs viewed in lecture that were taken for purposes for surveillance, the images were also simply aesthetically pleasing and worthy of being placed in a gallery as opposed to be solely interpreted for information. These works not only questions the ethical and social issues regarding these types of imaging but they also allude to ongoing debates regarding to the integration and divergences between art, science, and technology.

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