'Decolonized Skies' Art Show Tries, and Fails, to Set Airspace Free

A group exhibition of aerial shots underlines the fact that when we look up, the skies look back with a cold mechanized gaze.

Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
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Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

Viewers of the group show “Decolonized Skies,” at the Artport Gallery in Tel Aviv, come out of the exhibition knowing one thing for certain: The skies are not open; they are under total control. This has nothing to do with divine providence and everything to do with the constant documentation of supervision, flight control, military attacks and the collection of commercial and other information. The skies are shackled, reticulated with satellites and unmanned aircraft in a manner that blurs the distinctions and boundaries between military and civilian.

“The view from above has become associated with state control and corporate power,” the curators, Yael Messer and Gilad Reich, write. “Since the invention of aerial photography during the last decades of the nineteenth century, the sky above our heads has become a territory subjected to militarized conflicts over mastery and command.” This view, which is the representative of absolute control, also kills: Most airborne attacks today in conflict regions are executed by UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). At the same time, in recent years the view from above is being subjected to a critical exploration of its political associations and its aesthetic potential, amid the growing routine civilian use of digital navigation and tracking systems (such as GPS and Google Earth).

“Parallel to this disturbing rising trend, and in many respects as a response to it, an increasing number of artists, activists, scientists and designers from different regions seek ways to use today’s technology to re-appropriate the sky and reclaim the view from above,” the curators note.

A key point of departure in the exhibition’s structure is “San Francisco Earthquake Ruins,” photographed by the inventor and aviation researcher George R. Lawrence in 1906. The photograph has become iconic both because of its tremendous visual power – it’s a panoramic shot from an elevation of 2,000 feet (610 meters) showing a cloud-enveloped, sea-circled city, like a kind of lost Atlantis, and a disconnected, ruined continent that evokes an alien discovery in space – and because it represents a premodern civil view from above that provides practical information. Lawrence started out by taking pictures from ladders and towers. In 1901, he used what was effectively a cage tied to hot-air balloons, which became disconnected and fell. After surviving this incident, Lawrence developed an aerial photography technique in which he strung together a series of kites to hoist a camera that remained aloft for hours – the time then needed to produce a photograph. Two of these images, taken from what he called his “captive airship,” are on view in the exhibition together with the San Francisco shot.

Most of the projects in the exhibition tend toward activism and information art. One of these, which dominates the center of the gallery, is by Hagit Keysar and the Public Lab in Jerusalem. The distinctiveness of this project is that it does not make use of images that were produced institutionally (by the government or commercially). Instead, it creates aerial shots in order to map life in areas where freedom of movement is restricted and access to information is blocked. Keysar conducts workshops and activities based on the photographic technique developed by the Public Lab, which involves aerial photography with the use of kites and balloons. The documented images are then fused together to produce a map.

A large panel in the center of the project offers do-it-yourself tips for assembling a photograph from above, accompanied by infographics. Around this, on the floor, are maps created from dozens of photographs taken by residents in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Beit Safafa, in “Vadi Ha’asbestonim” (valley of the asbestos structures) in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Hayovel; in Silwan, which abuts the Old City (where the map was created by children aged 10 to 12 in a workshop), and other locales, then brought together into a single serrated montage.

The visual characteristics of the final image are the rough edges of the frames, revealing that they were produced by compiling numerous views and showing that they can be added to and enlarged. Kite strings or parts of balloons are apparent in the frame, illustrating the subjective, limited view, so different from that of the ubiquitous Big Brother. (Lawrence retouched sections of his devices and balloons that entered the frame, considering them visual interference.) According to Keysar and others involved in the project, civilian aerial photography of this kind makes it possible to document changes in the area, disruptions of the community fabric and invasive land appropriations. In addition, with the aid of the photographic maps, effective tours can be planned in areas where free mobility is limited and blockage is the norm.

Similarly, the American artist Peter Fend’s “Ocean Earth” project is based largely on infographics. Since the 1980s, Fend has been part of a group of scientists and activists who specialize in analyzing satellite-based information. Using civilian satellite imagery, Fend has also independently analyzed disaster zones and made the information available to media outlets.

Documentation of hostile elements

In contrast to these and other projects, photographer Miki Kratsman’s 2010 “Targeted Killing” series stands out. The photographic strategy of these images is to adopt the military’s view through lenses of the type used by the Israeli army in order to collect information and launch attacks. Kratsman attached the lenses to his camera and documented everyday life in the Palestinian villages and neighborhoods around the Mount Scopus-based Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. According to the curators, the “objectivity” that characterizes the military view from above erases the human, thereby legitimizing violence, and is revealed to possess an “optic” nature. Everything and everyone present in the photographed frame in this sort of format is taken as suspect. Thus every photograph becomes documentation of a hostile element who, as such, is disposable.

When Kratsman’s series was shown as part of the exhibition “According to Foreign Sources,” four years ago, the curator, Gilad Melzer, observed that the photographs establish a “strategy of suspicion” and “paranoid aesthetics,” thus “framing every subject as a suspect, implying that the pressing of the shutter release or the trigger is suitable punishment.” In short, the view through certain lenses validates murder under the aegis of the law.

What’s alluring in these photographs is precisely the open, loose, poetic dimension that requires supplementary commentary (What’s in the photographed car and why is it parked like that? Who is the person passing by a parked car? Is he in danger, and from whom? Or is he dangerous and we are looking at a plot we can’t figure out, which is a blocked code understood only by experts in terrorism and military ethics?). These images stand out as exceptions in an exhibition whose theme is the transmission of information, the heightening of vision, the finding of alternative observation points, the belief that knowledge is power.

The exhibition’s potently oppressive effect derives, ironically, from the predictable failure of the attempt. The curators want to present models of “civilianizing the view from above” and, as they write, “to decolonize the aerial point of view and the visuality it produces by manipulating satellite images, operating handmade UAVs and creating new mapping systems in a search for civilian-oriented visual and political imagery.”

But it’s clear that even though the underlying ambition of the exhibition is important and the projects are interesting and original, they remain point-specific, local, random examples that lack the wherewithal to rattle the overweening force of the omnipotent supervision. The curatorial argument is pointed, the exhibition abounds with original and necessary critical knowledge, and it addresses a worthy current issue. However, whereas Messer and Reich seek to emphasize the “potential for a new visual language” that neutralizes aerial photography from associations of control and supervision, in practice what is empowered is the helpless consciousness of the fact that we look up and the skies send back a cold mechanized gaze.

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