Project: Satellite Landscapes
Much of the strangest architecture associated with humanity is infrastructural. We have vast arrays of rusting cylinders, oil rigs dotting wastelands like lonely insects, and jewel-toned, rhomboid ponds of chemical waste. We have gray and terraced landfills, 5-story tall wastewater digester eggs, and striped areas of the desert that look as though they rendered incorrectly until we realize that the lines are made of thousands of solar panels. Massive cooling towers of power plants slope away from dense, unidentifiable networks on the ground and are obscured in their own ominous fog. If there is something unsettling about these structures, it might be that they are deeply, fully human at the same time that they are unrecognizably technological. These mammoth devices unblinkingly process our waste, accept our trash, distribute our electricity. They are our prostheses. They keep us alive and able, for a minute, to forget the precariousness of our existence here and of our total biological dependence on a series of machines, wires, and tubes, humming loudly in some far off place.
But at the same time that they sustain us – making possible one more day on this planet – they also tell the story of inevitability, spelled out in so many oddly shaped structures. In everyday life, distance matters: landfills are typically located behind hills, the pipes run underground, the coal plant is far away, the wastewater flows to a different city. Trash is transferred and transferred again. These hidden places comprise the specific physical site of what at all other times (save perhaps for the people working in these places) remains an abstract sense of finitude. But this physicality is stubborn; they can only be moved so far away. These are places where, in other words, the shit finally hits the fan.
Even as testaments to the best in engineering, the structures take on a tragic air. They are already monuments; that is, they are monuments of a time (now) when the world careened toward total environmental irresponsibility, when more and more was borrowed against a disappearing future and we all knew it. Inside the plants, everything has been maximized and streamlined, but the plants themselves form the constellation of something whose logic is closer to that of a tired man who’s lost all his money in a windowless casino and now slumps forward to play some more. This is the tragic air: that they look already like dinosaurs, like relics of a failed time from the perspective of a time when we will know better — or when we are no longer here.
All the People on Google Earth
Project: All the People on Google Earth
All the People on Google Earth is an ongoing series of modified snapshots of crowds found on Google Earth, with everything but the people (and their attendant blankets, umbrellas, dogs, etc.) removed. The angle reveals each person’s shadow, which is often the only thing that identifies a particular shape as a person at all. Occasionally we may see a leg thrust out in the act of walking; there are suggestions of tennis-playing movements. In All the People in Dolores Park, the only sign of order is the bathroom line in the middle of the park. Otherwise the people exist on the very limit of the recognizable, dissolved into pixels.
Seeing ourselves this way calls up the strangeness of a world in which we take for granted the ubiquity of (often unmanned) cameras and the proliferation of our own images, unbeknownst to us. But more importantly, something authentic about us is captured, if peripherally or by accident. In this context, a non-human photographer — the satellite — has taken a picture in which people have never looked more like people.
Project: Satellite Collections
You can see from pole to pole and across oceans and continents and you can watch it turn and there’s no strings holding it up, and it’s moving in a blackness that is almost beyond conception.
-Eugene Cernan, an astronaut on the Apollo 17, on seeing the Earth from space
In all of these prints, I collect things that I’ve cut out from Google Satellite View– parking lots, silos, landfills, waste ponds. The view from a satellite is not a human one, nor is it one we were ever really meant to see. But it is precisely from this inhuman point of view that we are able to read our own humanity, in all of its tiny, repetitive marks upon the face of the earth. From this view, the lines that make up basketball courts and the scattered blue rectangles of swimming pools become like hieroglyphs that say: people were here.
The alienation provided by the satellite perspective reveals the things we take for granted to be strange, even absurd. Banal structures and locations can appear fantastical and newly intricate. Directing curiosity toward our own inimitably human landscape, we may find that those things that are most recognizably human (a tangle of carefully engineered water slides, for example) are also the most bizarre, the most unlikely, the most fragile.
Project: Land Marks
Oil sands, much of which occur in Canada, are typically extracted by drilling oil wells into the ground. The Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada, represent one of the only areas where the deposits are shallow enough to use surface mining instead. Thus it is here that the activity of extraction is most visible from above. Surface mining of oil sands involves some of the world’s largest power shovels and dump trucks to remove the sand for processing with water and caustic soda. This (often strangely-colored) water and chemical combination is stored on site in plastic-lined depressions, forming tailings ponds. Dealing with tailings ponds remains one of the challenges of oil sands production, as it is does with many other types of mining operations.
A Satellite Outlook
Jenny Odell is a Bay Area native with an MFA in Design from the San Francisco Art Institute and a BA in English Literature from UC Berkeley. In her work, she mines imagery from online environments, most typically Google Maps, in an attempt to create candid portraits or to insist on the material nature of our modern networked existence. Because her practice exists at the intersection of research and aesthetics, she has often been compared to a natural scientist (specifically, a lepidopterist). Her work has made its way into the Google Headquarters, Les Rencontres D’Arles, Arts Santa Monica, Fotomuseum Antwerpen, and the Made in NY Media Center. It’s also turned up in TIME Magazine’s LightBox, The Atlantic, The Economist, WIRED, and the NPR Picture Show. Odell teaches at Stanford and the San Francisco Art Institute.