This artistic work sets out to devise a set of critical and artistic strategies to sense the ways in which the sky is structured under a fusion of state and corporate power. By placing the military drone as a central actor, I argue the atmosphere is enveloped within a topography of enclosure, reconfigured in the service of military and corporate technologies. By using an artistic strategy of what I term counter-reconnaissance, a necessary inversion of the satellite’s gaze, we may conceive of, and value, the atmosphere as a material entity; a parallel sky that is vivid and tangible, political and aesthetic. Counter-reconnaissance utilizes the narrative terrain of Google Earth, where its open and accessible data can be used to help map the shadow states—and invisible rules—that structures and encloses space all around us. This method counter-maps global American military drone infrastructure and makes it palpable to the viewer, creating a constellation of violent geographies.
Look up into the sky, and what do you see? This question has always been present in my life; I recall my teachers telling me to “get my head out of the clouds.” At first glance, all we might see are beautiful fluffy clouds, a blue sky, or a redolent night sky, filled with constellations of flaming gas. A few summers ago, I was looking up into the night, and I noticed a particular bright light that just seemed to hover; it was too bright to be a star, too fat and bulbous, lying somewhat heavy up in space. Then a plane flew overhead. Then, a satellite streaked across, and then another one. I started to count these dots in the sky, the ones that were transiting across the cosmos, left to right, up and down, leaving a kind of technological inscription across the atmosphere in their wake (Figs. 1, 2).
What I saw was a parallel sky, inorganic and mechanical. This sky forms a different landscape, not bound by the terrestrial surface of the earth, but one with its own palpable form, comprised of physical objects sent up beyond the clouds and into space. In the nineteenth century, British astronomer William Herschel built telescopes so he could imagine what he called “the topography of the universe” (Belisle 2012). So I want to know: what is the topography of the sky in the twenty-first century? In what ways are we becoming bound within a form of atmospheric enclosure? For geographer Ian Shaw, this enclosure is performed by machines—namely, the military drone—a mediator between the terrestrial, spectral, atmospheric and orbital (Shaw 2016) (Fig. 3).
By foregrounding the drone, I can think of ways to conceive of, sense, and value the atmosphere not just as an unknowable sky that we fly through or that drops rain on us, but as a material entity in its own right. Drones reconfigure the atmosphere as infrastructure, no different than highways and bridges and water treatment facilities. This parallel sky is vivid and tangible, political and aesthetic. It is not neutral, nor solely a space for wonder. What we see is a collision of interests; this sky is infrastructural, but also a system of climate and weather, a terrain for the electromagnetic spectrum, a fluid construction of data to feed Google’s (and our) compulsion for visual transcendence, and a ubiquitous envelope of surveillance. The sky, then, becomes a discursive space to link the military and the sovereign, the public and the private, an amalgam of knowledge and technology (Parks 2009).
The sky is the home of the drone, but it is the earth’s surface that enables it. Drones are dependent upon a vast and visible global infrastructure, networked together to form an archipelago of militarized space. This space consists of asphalt (or dirt) runways, Quonset huts, communication nodes, research and development facilities, physics, energy, special forces soldiers and more. The drone is a fusion of human labor and material object, contradicting the government’s rhetoric of being unmanned and autonomous, rendered invisible by its classified and hidden status. In fact, much of the American military’s global drone infrastructure is surprisingly viewable in the perpetually unfolding satellite imagery of Google Earth (Fig. 4).
To seize this infrastructure and make it palpable, I developed an artistic counter-strategy that inverts the imperial gaze of Google Earth’s digital archive, into an act of counter-reconnaissance. Here, I expand upon philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s inversion of surveillance into one of counter-veillance, where he sought to turn the prison inside out and “watch the watchers” (Welch 2011). Additionally, I draw inspiration from William Bunge's Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute, where he used methods of reconnaissance and reclamation to counter-map urban space as political practice, that is, a mapping from below (Bunge et al. 1971). Counter-reconnaissance, as a method and strategy, can wrest the aerial view from the control of state and corporate power, placing it into the realm of the public, to reclaim a node in the landscape of secrecy (Skrebowski 2018).
The narrative terrain of Google Earth consists of a constellation of violent geographies, where its open and accessible data can be used to help map the shadow states—and invisible rules—that structures and encloses space all around us. In turn, I hope that I have begun to sense how this new sky permeates our everyday lives, and obliges us on an everyday basis to intermingle with military and corporate technologies. The sky is nowhere, and everywhere, all at the same time. What I see, beyond that simple flickering white light hovering above, is a benign force that is anything but (Fig. 5).
Belisle, Brooke. 2012. Artifacts: Trevor Paglen’s Frontier Photography. In Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life, ed. Kruse Jamie and Ellsworth Elizabeth Ann, 145–149. Making the Barbara: Punctum Books.
Bunge, William, et al. 1971. Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Parks, Lisa. 2009. Digging into Google Earth: An Analysis of ‘Crisis in Darfur’. Geoforum 40: 535–545.
Shaw, Ian. 2016. Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Skrebowski, Luke. 2018. Resistance at a Moment of Danger: On Trevor Paglen’s Recent Work. In Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen, ed. Jacob JP and Skrebowski Luke, 127–185. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Welch, Michael. 2011. Counterveillance: How Foucault and the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons Reversed the Optics. Theoretical Criminology 15 (3): 301–313.
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Weber, D. The geography of our geography: counter-mapping infrastructures of power. Digi War 1, 106–110 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s42984-020-00024-9
- Military drone
- Google earth