After a long Easter break, this week was a welcome return to Landscape Surgery’s seminar series. We were welcomed back by a wonderful panel of guest speakers, as Pete Adey (Professor of Geography, RHUL), Anna Jackman (Lecturer in Human Geography, RHUL), Gwilym Eades (Lecturer in Human Geography, RHUL) and Sasha Engelmann (Lecturer in GeoHumanities, RHUL) each presented their work around the theme of aerography.
The session starts with an introduction by Sasha as she briefly explores the definition of aerography. Taken literally, aerogeography means a description of the air. However, when considering the term more deeply,it comes to embrace the whole domain of atmospherics from the flow and counter-flow of the air, the pressures, temperatures, humidities, dust content, electrical charge, as well as their function in relation to living systems. Citing the work of Alexander McAdie (1917) Sasha presents how aerography looks to engage with the multiple textures, nuances, and material resonances of the atmosphere and how by attending to them, we can develop new understandings around the wider energetic politics of the atmosphere. This is particularly poignant because, as Sasha goes onto discuss, geography has for too long been focused on the surface of the earth. She argues increasingly there is a need to attend to the new power geographies of the air. Especially when considering that the atmosphere is more and more beyond our control, as it becomes increasingly populated by drones, aircraft, pollutants, legal regulations, and waves of communication.
Australia’s Flying Doctors
The panel is kicked off with the first presentation by Pete Adey, as he explores different ways of accessing aerographic material folded through Australia’s air history and gender politics. He begins by focusing on the Aerial Medical Service (AMS) of Australia, a service designed to fly in medical support to isolated communities or evacuate those in need of care in Australia. Founded by John Flynn, a Presbyterian minister, who envisaged a ‘mantle of safety’ across the country that would connect communities with one another. Pete describes the flows of doctors and people to and from sites across the country and how they are represented in several maps by concentric rings or ‘beams of light’ stretching out across Australia. In this way, the flying Doctor becomes entangled with religious iconography and creates a sense of racial uplift and colonial security as white colonisers were able to exert their power over environment and local communities.
Expanding on this Pete also highlights how the radio, as an aerographic interface, was crucial within these interactions with the air and helped highlight how flight became imbedded within the home. In this instance, the radio and its connection to the flying doctors were embodied through acts of touch and speech, as only by pushing the radio pedal with a foot and speaking into the receiver would you be able to communicate with other radio users. This wireless service enabled communication between women in the home and served to entrench radio and flight etiquette in the teachings of children in the domestic sphere, as they learnt about its various rules and regulations. The role of the home was also key in managing and regulating the atmosphere as Pete highlights how the buildings thresholds were policed by various strategies (although not entirely sealed) allowing air currents to get in but preventing unwanted wildlife, temperature and matter from entering. As fly nets, stilts, gauze and room placement became ways of managing various aerographic flows in the outback. Through these various lenses, Pete highlights the numerous ways of apprehending the politics of aerography, presenting how as a concept it can be used to engage with the colonial and gender relations in Australia’s history of the flying doctor.
The View From Nowhere
Following on from Pete, Gwilym turns to present his work on ‘counter-mapping’ and ‘the view from nowhere’. He begins by discussing his favourite science fiction book; ‘Star Maker’ by Olaf Stapledon. A book that challenges ideas of absolute knowledge (aka ‘the view from nowhere’) by structuring some written speculations in fictional form (with characters, plots, and conflicts) for exploring and critiquing the implications of literalizing what it might actually mean to be able to access ‘the thing itself’, or to act literally as though one were a roving punctum, unbound by both space and time. From these ideas, Gwilym explores the theoretical framework behind the ‘view from nowhere’ and how this relates to geography through notions of ‘ground truth’ and the ‘view from above’.
He discusses the idea of the ‘ladder of objectivity’, a tool he presents for examining various cartographic and visual hierarchies of mapping. The lower-most level of the ladder representing the contentious idea of ‘ground truth’, which has the same kind of feel to it as ‘thing itself’. He highlights that in moving up the ladder, we begin to combine views and viewpoints. For instance, we can think of what things must look like from the point of view of the CCTV operator’s concealed vantage point, the one that lets him or her see, using technologies of the televisual and televisual practices, to begin to select features in the landscape for scrutiny. He also highlights how these kinds of operators do not work alone. This presents an ethical consideration, for there is always a group pressure to conform to established practice, whether in security or in science.
As we move up the ladder, we eventually reach the penultimate step, which for Gwilym, represents the step at which we hover when we read a map, the classic ‘view from above’, which is so close, but so far from ‘the view from nowhere’. Here he highlights Google Maps, or Ordnance Survey as examples. Using these ideas, Gwilym highlights how the production of the idea of ‘the view from nowhere’ relies upon televisual practices for its effectiveness. In particular, exploring his own experience of asking people to draw where they live, it was common for participants to draw similar 2D surface depictions of their homes, reminiscent of Google Maps images. This exemplifies the role of visual tropes in structuring our view from above and that the authority of the knowledge relies upon its visuality and visual nature in order to be taken seriously.
Gwilym ends by briefly discussing the role of drones and big data. He highlights how they exist on the ladder of objectivity. Placing televisual drone productions just below those of so-called ‘big data’ precisely because the latter are more abstract and tend to represent the idea of ‘the view from nowhere’ as well as potentially incorporate into big-data, the images derived from drone flights. As such, Gwilym presents how the effects of both are having a huge impact on the way we understand reality. Concluding that the harvesting of massive datasets with the goal of producing an all-encompassing objective view of reality in order to then influence and change reality is extremely problematic to say the least.
The Aerocene Project
For the third presentation we turn to ‘The Aerocene Project’, presented by Sasha Engelmann. The project is a multi-disciplinary engagement that foregrounds the artistic and scientific exploration of environmental issues. Launched by Tomás Saraceno, known for his airborne sculptures that explore possible futures for airborne dwelling, the project explores how we can engage with the atmosphere in creative and physical ways. In particular, through the use and inflation of large sculptures which are made from 15-micron rip-stock fabric, that become buoyant when heated by the sun and infrared radiation from the surface of the earth. Sasha highlights how through such sculptural work as the Aerocene Project, it opens up a dialogue around alternative methods of moving through the atmosphere, without the burning of fossil fuels or damage to the environment, as well as exploring alternative and perhaps forgotten methods to apprehend atmospheric knowledges. In this way the project is both at once aesthetic but also political.
The sculptures themselves can be transported in a backpack, providing a space of craft and experimentation that can be rapidly deployed to apprehend the always-already-happening of the atmospheric world. Sasha talks through an inflation of one of the sculptures by her 3rd year undergraduate class. The launch requires a careful consideration of the weather for a successful take off. Considerations of solar quality, wind, precipitation and light levels require a unique collaboration with the atmosphere. She highlights how the launch presented a variety of experiences, coalescing around an object that was responding to atmospheric conditions. As several students fill the fabric with air, another group attaches sensors to the sculpture, which are used to track and record various atmospheric conditions as well as the location of the sculpture, whilst another get ready to control the sculptures flight.
The black material then absorbs solar energy, heating the air inside causing it to slowly rise. This makes visible the unique relationship between the wind, sun and ground. Meanwhile, Sasha highlights how the flight team then hold the rope that holds the sculpture and move and dance with the aerial object as it finds pockets of air. The whole process comes to represent a series of interactions between points, nodes, tethers, webs, lines and flows as humans are able to extend themselves to engage with largely invisible atmospheric conditions. In this way, Sasha concludes how launching such sculptures and exploring the concept of aerography allows for an engagement with new knowledges of movement and the atmosphere that currently geography has been reluctant to engage with.
The final talk is by Anna Jackman and her work on drone technology and the future of drones in the city. She begins by highlighting how in recent years domestic air space is increasingly populated by drones across a wide variety of sectors – commercial, military, surveillance, healthcare, technical and individual use. Using a number of case studies, she explores this recent proliferation of drones and the political implications that arise from this. Turning first to the law enforcement drone, she describes how typically such drones are portable and are often used to assist the police in finding missing people, stolen and illegal objects or track heat signatures. The drones visual technology uses infra-red and thermal cameras to track its targets, providing overhead support to officers on the ground. Anna discusses the role of such more-than-human technologies that help to extend the capability of officers on the ground, facilitating autonomous monitoring at a distance, serving to render visible the invisible.
Anna moves on to discuss the delivery drone, already being trialled by a number of corporations. It aims to speed up delivery by using drone technology to automatically drop parcels at customer’s doors. Looking at the Amazon drone more specifically, Anna discusses the use of monitoring technologies built into Amazon’s designs, as it incorporates several microphones and scanners that can collect data whilst en-route to a delivery. This data can then be used to tailor adverts to customers, based on their immediate surroundings and where they live. The drone thus becomes more than just an ‘eye in the sky’ but develops the capacity to interact with what it finds around it. Anna also notes that Amazon have filed a number of patents around drone technology, such as the ‘Drone Hive’, which aims to integrate drone technology with Amazon’a distribution centres, so items can be seamlessly passed onto drone delivery services in what Amazon terms a ‘multi-level fulfilment centre for unmanned aerial vehicles’. In discussing both these examples, Anna quickly highlights the political implications they raise, particularly around issues of privacy. In both examples she presents how there is a lack of critical engagement around whose interests such drones serve and what impacts they will have on wider society. In this way her work calls for a greater need for collective attention for the more- than-visual sensor laden drone.
As we came to the end of the panel’s presentations there was a clear sense that each sought to raise real questions around thinking more widely about atmospheric space and its politics. Particularly around the seemingly uncritical acceptance of air technology and the ‘freedoms’ associated with flight. It opens a much-needed dialogue within geography, which has for too long been fascinated with the surfaces of the earth and forces us to consider many of the invisible atmospheric forces that dictate and interact with the world around us. Either way it was a fantastic panel on a thoroughly stimulating topic.