Close up at a distance

KURGAN Close up at a distanceStuart Elden trailed Laura Kurgan‘s Close up at a distance: mapping, technology and politics earlier this year, and it’ a sumptuous book.  The main title is a good summary of the techno-cultural field produced for drone strikes, but Kurgan’s focus is different: it’s on satellite imagery.  Now Trevor Paglen has provided a summary review for Bookforum:

Imaging technologies, explains Kurgan, “let us see too much, and hence blind us to what we cannot see, imposing a quiet tyranny of orientation that erases the possibility of disoriented discovery.” Part of the problem is a matter of perspective: The view from above is less an expansive panorama than a view through a keyhole. This vantage is also highly susceptible to ideological forces. When Colin Powell sat before the UN advocating the invasion of Iraq, he brought satellite images showing a handful of trucks and buildings. This data, he claimed, provided evidence of “active chemical munitions bunkers” operating outside Baghdad. “The facts speak for themselves,” he said. Of course, as Kurgan points out, the images did anything but that, and Powell needed to do a great deal of misleading speaking on their behalf to make them show anything close to what he claimed they did.

But Kurgan does not want to write off the “visual regime” of satellite imagery entirely. In fact, much of her work makes use of visual data culled from mapping, geolocation, and overhead-imaging technologies, and in Close Up at a Distance she argues that the need for interpretation is precisely what makes this kind of information so significant. For her, the “imaginative leaps” required to turn data into stories don’t always have to be carried out by the Colin Powells of the world: Such interpretive work can also advance movements for social justice or anti-imperial politics—such as when Pakistani journalists used Google Earth to document an unacknowledged American Predator-drone base in Baluchistan. In a series of deftly rendered case studies, Kurgan demonstrates how understanding satellite images—their production, interpretation, and distribution—is “a civic responsibility and a political obligation.”

Lisa Parks has travelled over much of the same ground and to brilliant effect, but Kurgan’s emphasis (she’s Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia) is on a series of artistic re-workings of satellite imagery to produce radically new and insistently critical ways of seeing, of re-imagining what we see (and what we don’t) – which is why Trevor, as both artist and geographer, is such an apposite reviewer.