The Landscape as Visual Text

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The Landscape as Visual Text

Jenny Odell


Satellite Collections [digital prints, 2009-2017]

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.’

nuclear power plants-web

Satellite Landscapes (Transportation Landscape, Waste Landscape, Manufacturing Landscape, andPower Landscape) [digital prints, 2013-2014]

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.


Land Marks [2014, digital prints]

Far from the cities, out in the dust or the taiga, is a text that was written by us. Though the edges of this text may be smudged by time, floods, sand, and regrowth, its words are legible from space, and they tell stories of extractions, explosions, and burials. This text refuses to be erased, a physical insistence that can feel surprising in the the midst of the renewal and amnesia of everyday experience. Cities overturn themselves, subdivisions are shoddily built and fall into disrepair, we bemoan our lack of historical consciousness. Meanwhile, our inadvertent monuments are lastingly built on the fringes, forming the immovable collateral of our desires. These are the places where our dream of limitlessness meets the limit of the cold, hard ground and alters the face of the earth. Unlike the other stories we tell, this one is not abstract. It is written in the dirt and will be readable long after the writers have forgotten it.



What prompted the project satellite views? 

In 2008, I graduated from UC Berkeley and started an MFA program at the San Francisco Art Institute. This meant that I had to move from Berkeley to San Francisco. Still without an iPhone at the time, I was finding myself looking at San Francisco on Google Maps a lot, trying to map alternate routes between SFAI’s main campus and its grad campus, which were on opposite sides of the city and not easy to bike between. But at some point my utilitarian interest in online maps spilled over into an aesthetic interest. I found myself fascinated by the idea of looking at satellite imagery with the text / location labels turned off, trying to “read” the landscape as a kind of visual text. It recalled the feeling I had as a kid obsessively looking out of airplane windows during flights.


The pieces in Satellite Collections were initially motived by a simple desire to impose some sort of (personal) order on a seemingly endless array of potential images. In fact, before I made the first satellite collection, in 2009, I simply arranged screen shots in grids that proceeded from one color to another. But over time, I noticed my own preference for collecting structures that were not only manmade, but that are considered pedestrian or banal. I came to value the Google Earth perspective as something from which the everyday was immediately rendered strange. Ironically, it was from this viewpoint – which no human would ever inhabit – that the specific human-ness of things like water slides and parking lots became fully apparent.

 waste ponds_small

What is your work process when selecting and cutting the different components and satellite images?

 Most of the time, my process is largely intuitive. Although my work is sometimes (mis)construed as “data visualization,” I’m less interested in recording specific structures than giving an impression of, or inviting reflection on, a type of structure. In that sense, my work is aligned with the typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher. In the Satellite Collections, I search for “specimens” that interest me, and try to create a pool of them that reflects a good variety within the category. As I’m searching, I often learn something about where or how the structure occurs, which makes the process easier as I go along. For example, as I was creating 144 Empty Parking Lots, I learned to look in the exurban areas of cities, particularly in office parks.


I will typically collect a large number of specimens and begin cutting them out and arranging them; this part of the process is also intuitive. At some point as the formation is taking shape, I’ll usually go back and look for more specimens that I feel will balance or complete whatever it is that I have so far.

The process is a bit different for Satellite Landscapes. For those pieces, I take a large number ofscreen shots of an infrastructural area on Google Earth, merge them together in Photoshop, and then mask out theground.


What tools do you use and what defines the way you cut out?

I use Photoshop and a Cintiq monitor, which allows me to cut things out using a stylus. In cutting things out, I try to stay true both to the structure and to the image; i.e. I will usually keep my edges about as soft as they are in the screen shot. Most of the time this part is fairly straightforward, but in some of the Satellite Landscapes, the structures were so complicated that it was often hard to determine what the edges were, or even what something was at all. In those cases I would look at other angles on Google Earth, or even photographs, to try to determine how best to proceed.

Sometimes the question of what to cut out and what to leave in is a more conceptual one. For example, in Valero Oil Refinery, Benicia, CA, I chose not to include the cars in the parking lot (presumably cars belonging to employees of the refinery), but one could certainly argue they should be included. I also had to choose at some point to cut off the pipelines proceeding outward from the plant. Besides being difficult decisions, these issues actually point to what is most interesting to me about infrastructure, which is the way it is embedded in vast networks that are ultimately very hard to picture.

 Valero Oil Refinery.jpg

What is the role of the blank background as basis on which you position the fragments? Is it an active participant?

For me, the act of cutting something out and placing it on a blank background is one way to achieve what I’ve recently been calling a “demarcation of attention.” Besides making certain structures easier to see in a strictly visual sense, it is also an invitation to consider the structure in the first place, particularly since I favor structures that are often overlooked. The effect can be similar to semantic satiation, in which you say a word over and over again until it sounds strange. Unmoored from its everyday context, the specificity and strangeness of most anything can become palpable. In that sense, what I’m trying to achieve with the blank background is related to, for example, the function of the pedestal in Duchamp’s Fountain.


What is the effect and purpose of the formatting as circular frames?

 Some of the Satellite Collections are circular and some are not; this is mostly an aesthetic decision based on how the individual fragments look once I begin collecting them. Other decisions – the physical size of the piece, the number of fragments, the density of the arrangement – are made in a similar way.Basically, I try to balance these things to create a composition that will hold the viewer’s attention and incite curiosity about the the type of structure. I don’t want so many pieces that each fragment is washed out in a kind of visual oblivion, but I also want enough that the piece is about a generality rather than specific fragments. Particularly when these prints are displayed physically in a gallery, my hope is that the aesthetic appeal of the arrangement from afar will draw the viewer in, where they’ll discover a variety of specimens that invites them to stayawhile.


What is your take on the contemporary condition of the enormous data we are collecting- how did this inform the project on the facade of the google data centre?

While I am certainly troubled by the amount of data being collected, the data center project was less motivated by that than by the aesthetics – or rather lack of aesthetics – of data access and storage. Two things fascinate me about data centers: one, the sheer fact of their existence, a reminder that our seemingly immaterial interactions have material basis in a physical location using physical resources like water, wind, coal, etc. In other words, data centers are where physical materials from the earth are put to use for that which we think of as being the least material. Even their locations are physically determined, since they require so much energy, water, cheap land, etc. Second, data centers often look nondescript from the outside. We’re all used to seeing the stereotypical data centers with the cooling structures on the sides, but many newer data centers – for example the one I created the mural for – just look like a giant box. The mural was in many ways a simple attempt to visually indicate the interior function of this giant box.

In intervening on an architectural artefact, how did this effect the way you worked and the final project itself?

I should say that this project was a collaboration between myself and the Google Creative Lab in New York. While I created the image, it was their decision to have it hand-painted on the data center wall, one of the things I find most interesting about the project overall. I’m not sure that the way I worked on this project was much different from how I normally work, but it is definitely true that my opportunity to go inside the data center effected the way I have thought about infrastructure since then. It gave me an appreciation, in a real and embodied sense, of the complex interactions of dispersal and localization – not to mention simply the digital and the physical – involved in such a network.


What is your hope of the effect of these satellite images you produce? Do you think they have the potential in awakening a certain level of conscience towards our contemporary environmental condition?

Something I often say is that the Satellite Collections and Satellite Landscapes, are ultimately not about satellite imagery. For me, the piece is only complete when the viewer goes “back outside” and takes note of those structures in the lived, everyday environment. In that way, I consider the satellite pieces temporary mediations, or perceptual crutches, that would ideally lead to a more nuanced awareness of the built environment.

 More than that, the specificity and strangeness of the fragments viewed in this kind of void often makes them appear fragile and contingent. In dislodging them from their everyday context, I hope in some ways to remove their “given-ness.” This is something I wrote about in a 2011 essay about the Satellite Collections:

…[T]o reopen the field of possibility in the past is to reopen that same field in the future. This is why it matters to really look. Casting aside our habitual ways of seeing and fixing meaning, freshly oriented toward the overfamiliar, we can just begin to see it: all of the things the world has not become and, most importantly, all of the things it could become.



Jenny Odell is an Oakland-based artist and writer whose work frequently features encounters with archives – from Google Earth to Craigslist to the city dump. Her work has been exhibited at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Ever Gold Projects, the Richmond Art Center, apexart (NYC), the New York Public Library, the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, the Lishui Photography Festival, Les Rencontres d’Arles, Fotomuseum Antwerpen, and East Wing (Dubai). It has appeared in TIME’s LightBox, The Atlantic, The Economist, i-D Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, and WIRED. In 2016, Odell was commissioned to create a mural for the side of a Google data center in rural Oklahoma. She has been an artist in residence at Intersection for the Arts, Recology SF, the Palo Alto Art Center, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Facebook, and the Internet Archive, and is currently the first artist in residence at the San Francisco Planning Department. Odell has also written for SFMOMA’s Open Space, Topic, and Real Future. She has been a lecturer in the Art & Art History Department at Stanford University since 2013.


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