Map Critique

Jenny Odell

Satellite Collections


…because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.

Hannah Arendt

“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.”

Jenny Odell

In her essay about The Satellite Collections, Jenny talks about how changes in scale can unlock possibilities in the very same subject matter. She mentions how the perspective of a satellite or a microscope can force our shift of reexamining objects as varied meanings, where scale determines art and what is routine or familiar is often overlooked until there is a shift/rupture in our experience; or when blind spots are a way of processing information, where what’s missing is abbreviated and perception can be explored rather than assumed. She continuous breaking down her essay into references and scenarios where these categories summarize the main elements which affect and influence our perceptions of objects and the everyday. These sections highlight the key areas which define her work and what I believe is her aim and process throughout her investigations.

206 Circular Farms

Jenny Odell is a multi-disciplinary artist and writer based in Oakland, California. She states that her work exists at the intersection of research and aesthetics and her practice often involves encounters with archives or the creation of new ones, linking the digital and the physical in the process. From the satellite vantage of Google maps, representations of humanity are extracted and grouped in varying compositions. I chose Satellite Collections because of its simplicity and how these accessible databases and platforms can be broken up, taken out of context and assembled into an invented graphic vocabulary. This type of ‘vernacular imagery’ she explains is imagery that wasn’t necessarily made by a photographer or for a specific purpose and supplied endlessly by both Google Street View and Google Satellite. Odell describes how these mechanized cameras capture our environment without trying to take a picture of anything, generating ‘candid shots’ that are uncommunicative in their peripheral nature.

125 Swimming Pools

As an artist, she is not making something new but she is allowing us a new way to look. The legibility in her work exists in the fact that these are actual specific elements isolated out of their original environmental context. Satellite Collections gathers and compares human patterns on earth and brings your attention to the infrastructures that provide services and resources needed in our daily life. These collections are a new and different way of seeing things that we may often not see on the ground. Her tool is the internet, and by using Photoshop she cuts out these elements and creates a visual catalogue that archives and presents an alienated way of seeing our surroundings. It is a simple method that has repurposed the use of these Internet tools that often deploy automated perspectives.

Since the elements which make up the work are cut and rearranged into varying compositions, a new context emerges that would not have existed within the original material. As we do not know where each element comes from, there is no need to situate ourselves, instead, the work gives us a curated perspective, absent of time and place. The authenticity and rawness of these images are what makes it familiar when viewing her images since we have grown accustomed to seeing these types of aerial view imagery. The work captures your attention as each composition is made up of multiple similar elements that, when put together, become inherently more interesting. A certain quality is revealed when these objects/structures are subtracted from their surrounding and grouped in a way where their attributes become more visible by their overall relationship to each other.

Her work acts as a map in a way that it tells us how things are and what they look like. Since she hasn’t manipulated the imagery itself, and her method is easily understood and can be replicated. She describes the process to be a curious one where she had always been navigating Google Satellite view with the labels turned off. In my attempt I did the same, however I used the history feature to collect older images. I happened to do this a few years back for a project, where I collected nearly all the roundabouts in Qatar as they were gradually being replaced by traffic signals. I was not aware at the time that there was an artist doing the same thing but for different purposes. It is easy to understand that anyone can do this as the platform is easily accessible. The subject matter, although, would differ from user to user since there is so much that can be collected. My process proved to be useful as I was always curious how many roundabouts there are. There were many, and what I learned is that they looked much better from above as each had different two-dimensional geometry patterns made using grass and other plants. I would never have noticed these patterns on the ground, and so it was quite fascinating to discover them online. This tool is simple as it does not require any advanced skills and it has proved useful to track changes over time. As my thesis is focused on a specific area, I hope to create a database of images that would visualize patterns in the urban landscape.