In a conversation with media theorist Jussi Parikka, filmmaker Solveig Suess and art historian Asia Bazdyrieva address multiple scales of large infrastructural systems, as they not only challenge the modes of representation but also require novel ways of understanding visual aesthetics in such geopolitical systems.
Geocinema project investigates planetary-scale sensory networks that consist of multiple forms of recording, transmitting, processing, calibrating, stitching and reworking images in complex feedback loops between satellites, geosensors, cell phones, surveillance cameras, ground observations and more. Drawing on the recent fieldwork on the Digital Belt and Road Initiative (DBAR) in China, they speak, among other things, about the oblique connections between historical Jesuit contributions to techniques of earth sensing, vast resource extraction, and current demands aimed towards battling a future of climate change. Here, filmmaking and collaborative practices become both a mode of research and a modest proposition to draw missing planetary connections.
The conversation was recorded at Jessika Khazrik’s studio in Berlin, following a collaboration between Parikka and Geocinema under the Digital Earth Fellowship in 2018–2019.
About the authors
Jussi Parikka is a writer, media theorist, and professor in technological culture & aesthetics at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton). He is the author of books on media archaeology, digital culture, and technical media including Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology (2010), What is Media Archaeology? (2011), and A Geology of Media (2015). Parikka’s most recent work has been on art and “Middle East Futurisms” and a co-authored short book Remain (2019, also available as Open Access).
Geocinema consists of art historian Asia Bazdyrieva and filmmaker Solveig Suess. Bazdyrieva studied analytical chemistry at the Kyiv National University (2009) and art history at The City University of New York as a Fulbright grantee (2017). Suess completed her undergraduate in Visual Cultures at the Glasgow School of Art, with her postgraduate at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths University, London (2017). Bazdyrieva and Suess started their collaboration at the New Normal urban design think-tank, Strelka Institute, Moscow (2018).
- Thousands of Tiny Futures and Geology of Media, Jussi Parikka 2018.
- 中国科学院 The Chinese Academy of Sciences is a national natural science academy of China. Functioning in parallel with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, it operates as a national scientific think tank and academic governing body, with power to advise and assess services towards economic, social development, science and technological progress. As the world’s largest research organization, it is in this institution where the Digital Belt and Road project is being worked on.
- The Digital Belt and Road project (DBAR) is the Chinese-led Big Data program, which aims to synchronize Earth Observation data towards a modernity based on predictability. The program was initiated by the Chinese Academy of Science as an international venture “to share expertise, knowledge, technologies, and data to demonstrate the role of Earth observation science and technology and big Earth data applications to support large-scale development.” One of the main claims of the project is the ability to use Earth observation data to manage climate risks. The two of us were based in Beijing for half a year, where we took this project as a starting point for our next documentary’s research. And during this, we’ve insisted on using an open-ended method of filming as a mode of research. Institutional access or opportunities with interviews demonstrated an inherent value system embedded within levels of access which were granted to us, along with the locations we were then allowed to enter and capture on video.
- The calibration process we mentioned came through an encounter with an image while we visited Thailand’s only satellite ground station in Si Racha. The image was textured and noisy, showing a patch of land in Tinga Tingana, Australia. Because of its incredibly stable site conditions and specific reflective characteristics of its surface, this patch of land is universally used for the radiometric calibration of satellites.
- In 2018, the first Centers of Excellence of the Digital Belt and Road project were opened in Si Racha, Thailand with the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA) operating as its scientific counterpart. Si Racha ground station is owned by GISTDA, where it currently receives data from various international satellites covering the South East Asian region. After the country adopted the Thailand 4.0 economic model, Si Racha had been chosen to be the next technological and innovation hub, relocating majority of the nation’s larger telecommunication and remote sensing centers into its compounds.
- The institutional framework of meteorology in China began with the establishment of the Shanghai Zikawei Observatory by the Jesuits in 1873. With financial assistance from Chinese and English insurance companies it would become the premier meteorological observatory in the East. Under the directorship of Marc Dechevrens and with the support from International Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, the observatory focused on observation of typhoons. In 1884 Dechevrens devised a storm warning system which was to be widely used in the region and which could be transmitted to the harbour at Shanghai via a newly installed telegraphic link with his observatory. By 1904, Zikawei was receiving 150 telegraphic bulletins daily from 60 stations, ranging from Siberia to Indochina. (Early China Coast Meteorology The Role of Hong Kong. P. Kevin MacKeown, 2011).
- The animistic cult of the dragon in China had expressed itself through rituals during drought and floods along with explanations made by respected intellectuals on the dragon’s abilities to make rain. These were subject to sustained criticism during the early modern era as part of an ‘enlightenment’ drive against popular cults and ‘superstitions’. Led by a few Jesuit-inspired Chinese scholars, these critics drew on Aristotelian conceptions of nature and meteorological theories to attack the core ideas of the traditional dragon lore and their underlying cosmology. The de-animated and rigidly stratified view of nature articulated by this small but discernible group of Chinese critics, can be seen as marking the beginning of the decline of the dragon — the allegedly semi-divine aquatic animal which swims, walks, flies, and makes rain. (“Dragonology” to Meteorology: Aristotelian Natural Philosophy and the Beginning of the Decline of the Dragon in China. Qiong Zhang, 2009)
- In 1913, the Zikawei Observatory in Shanghai adopted the China Seas Storm Signal Code to warn of tropical cyclones, issued by Imperial Maritime Customs. The purpose of the code was to enable vessels which have been warned by a storm signal station, to repeat the signal to other vessels and to other stations. Repeating stations that receive these signals will then exhibit them to passing vessels.
- Sean Cubitt uses term geomedia to refer to assemblage of operations that both mediate the earth and establish a relation between time and value (Sean Cubitt, “Three Geomedia”, CTRL-Z , issue 7, 2017).
- ‘Making Ready for a Big World’, Patricia Reed, 2019.
- Jennifer Gabrys, Program Earth. Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (University of Minnesota Press, 2016)
- Ute Holl, Cinema, Trance and Cybernetics (Amsterdam University Press, 2017)
- Maya Deren, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (The Alicat Bookshop Press, 1946)
A filmmaking practice we also want to mention is Sasha Litvintseva’s proposition for the concept and practice of “geological filmmaking” as a strategy for tackling the perceptual challenges posed by the ecological crisis and the Anthropocene. Geological filmmaking emerges from the understanding that the form and content of any film, and thus the perceptual and durational experience it engenders, are rooted in geological materiality. (Sasha Litvintseva, “Geological Filmmaking: Seeing Geology Through Film and Film Through Geology.”, Transformations, issue 32, 2018).
Jessika Khazrik is a Beirut-based interdisciplinary artist and a writer. In her practice, she focuses on topics ranging from ecotoxicology and machine learning to linguistics, photography, and the history of science. The podcast features Jessika Khazrik’s music composed for Geocinema’s next documentary (expected in 2020). We also included the piece which had first drawn us to her work, “I Am Not Your History” from “Terrella Al2ard Alsaghira” (2017).