Maps are the ultimate representational artifacts. Taken as copies of the physical world, we depend upon them to orient ourselves within our environment. But maps are also expressions of fantasy and control in objective guise, representing the cartographer's particular reality or desire. And in our digital surveillance era, with global, mechanized mapping and image-taking systems constantly running, the massive virtual archives that accumulate can exceed the reality of the actual landscape.
CAM Raleigh's exhibition Surveying the Terrain, guest-curated by Dan Solomon, gathers work that both critiques and embodies the way maps and mapping technologies shape our awareness of the world. Several of the artists leverage publicly available surveying archives by giants such as Google.
In the main gallery, four serial photographic works surround Maya Lin's monumental floor sculpture "Blue Lake Pass" (2006). Visually, the photographs share the same organizing grid that Lin uses to arrange large wooden blocks, the contoured tops of which render a topographical landscape in total. You can walk between the blocks and smell the particleboard they're made from, locating yourself within the landscape and reclaiming real experience from the representation.
For Matthew Jensen's "The 49 States" (2008–09), which covers the back wall behind Lin's work, he logged untold hours navigating Google Street View to capture one representative image from each state (Google hadn't covered Hawaii at the time). Presented in retro Instamatic squares, every image shares the same camera angle, quality and tonality, bespeaking the inherent homogeneity in taking a mediated archive as a proxy for the real. The North Carolina image is a click-culture stereotype—kids shooting hoops in a suburban driveway.
While Jensen navigates a mapping program as a landscape, David Maisel and Mishka Henner experience the landscape as a map. Maisel's colorized aerial photographs, shot on film from an airplane, are beautiful in their detail, recalling Richard Diebenkorn's paintings once you step back from them. But Maisel's work also bears witness to human environmental damage: In "Lake Project 1" (2001), a central red gash turns a lake into a spill or wound, recasting the environment as an injured body.
Taken from a higher vantage, Henner's "North Ward Estes Oil Field, Ward County, Texas" (2013) is an enormous composite photograph stitched together from Google Earth Pro imagery. It presents a perfectly gridded array of oil pumpjacks across a shockingly large section of land. While Maisel uses altitude to provide an aesthetic distance, Henner uses it to deliver the inhuman scale of this petroleum enterprise as a gut punch. Although Henner has spoken of his pumpjack work as an homage to abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, it's hard to abstract this work once you feel dwarfed by Big Oil.
And frankly, why would you want to abstract this oil field image? By making a connection to painterly traditions, Henner and Maisel both risk diluting their works' critiques with aesthetic concerns. They're working in a tricky space between activist documentary and fine art, and trying to have more feet in the latter. Jensen's more pedestrian imagery, by staying on a human scale, might become more subversive by comparison.
Maisel gets in an airplane with his camera, at least, and writer and artist Trevor Paglen also does substantial legwork to capture even more problematic imagery involving military satellites and drone aircraft. For the trio of images comprising "San Nicolas Island," Paglen used an astrophotography lens to shoot a U.S. Navy weapons testing facility from 65 miles away. The 23-square-mile island off the Los Angeles coast is entirely owned and operated by the military. Photographs of it are likely illegal, but Paglen's pictures are illegible. One image is almost entirely black. The other two show a blurry horizon line below a dark orange sky.
Although Paglen's images don't cause as much of an emotional reaction as Henner's does, his photographic act is more provocative, reclaiming some measure of image-making agency from covert operators. Other images from Paglen's "Debris" series show dazzling night skies with active and retired satellites strewn among the stars. By taking these pictures, Paglen is saying "I see you, too" up at the satellites and drones. To fight the power, you must first see the power.
Alfredo Jaar's installation "Lament of the Images" in CAM's basement gallery puts metaphorical weight behind that lesson. It comprises two rooms connected by a winding corridor and tells a cautionary tale about how survey and surveillance now populate the same archive. The first room is dark, with three gravestone-like texts glowing on the wall. The first tells the story of Nelson Mandela's 1990 release from a South African prison and how, having suffered damage to his vision from forced labor spreading lime on roads, he was incapable of crying upon his release. The second text tells how the Bill Gates-owned image licensing firm Corbis has bought up libraries such as the Bettmann and United Press International archives—holdings estimated at 65 million images. Corbis is burying the originals in a Pennsylvania limestone mine, thus making them inaccessible while the company profits from selling the digital reproductions.
Jaar's final text explains that, in the frantic days after 9/11, the U.S. Department of Defense bought exclusive rights to all commercially available satellite imagery of Afghanistan and its neighboring countries, effectively blacking out the region and forcing news agencies to use stock footage to cover the subsequent attacks.
Describing the rest of Jaar's installation would contain a spoiler since you discover it in stages. Visitors' reactions will vary from eye-rolling dismissals to lengthy, meditative sit-downs. Regardless, Jaar's point about blindness comes across. The best way to control people's minds is to control what they see, and if you can close their eyes, then they will know nothing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Landscape surveillance."