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[text] Laura Kurgan


New York, September 11, 2001, Four Days Later...

by Laura Kurgan


…as seen by the Ikonos satellite, a high-resolution snapshot from outer space of a city in a state of emergency. The satellite monitors the earth’s surface, collecting data. On Saturday morning at 11:54am, in between the satellite and the bodies of more than 5,000 people, a cloud of smoke slowly drifts away from the disaster.

There is a lot to see in this picture, too much in fact. The density of its detail demands that it be viewed close up. But there is no single thing to look for, and no particular piece of evidence which tells the decisive story. In the gallery the entire image is enlarged, too large to see all at once. The zoom offers no revelation, though, no instant of enlightenment and no sublime incomprehension either. It tells many stories. What has happened?

This image should not exist, nor should the event it has captured. Although the crime is not, in fact, unrepresentable - here you see it - it is unacceptable. The image makes us witnesses: it is imperative that we look at it.

The satellite’s sensors capture a mass grave, what remains of a crime or an act of war. Nothing can justify or rationalize what happened here. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the image itself offers no instructions about how to understand or respond to what it has recorded in memory.

One-meter resolution satellite images of the aftermath of the event: detailed pictures of a disaster.

The image on the left was collected at 11:43 a.m. EDT on Sept. 12, 2001, the one on the right at 11:54 a.m. EDT on Sept. 15, 2001 by Space Imaging’s IKONOS, the world's first high-resolution commercial earth imaging satellite. It travels 661 kilometers above the Earth’s surface at a speed of 7 km per second, orbiting the planet once every 98 minutes.

The image on the left was downloaded as a 25-megabyte file from Space Imaging's website. The image on the right was purchased, at a cost of several thousand dollars, in the form of a 323-megabyte data file from Space Imaging, and forms the basis of the images in this installation.

According to the company, 'one-meter resolution' means that »objects that are 1-meter in size on the ground can be distinguished, provided those objects are well removed from other objects and have separate and distinct visual characteristics. One-meter imagery cannot 'see' individual people.«

Image analyst John Pike says, more simply, »generally you need one pixel to detect, about four lines of pixels to recognize, and about six lines of pixels to identify a target.«

»As democratic norms spread, as civil society grows stronger and more effective in its demands for information around the world, as globalization gives people an ever greater stake in knowing more about what is going on in other parts of the world, and as technology makes such knowledge easier to attain, transparency would appear to be the ineluctable wave of the future.

The legitimacy of remote sensing satellites is part of this global trend toward transparency. Imagery from high-resolution satellites is becoming available now not only because technology has advanced to the point of making the imagery a potential source of substantial profits, but because governmental policies permit, and indeed encourage, such satellites to be operated. Yet as is always the case with increases in transparency, not everyone benefits and not all uses of the resulting information are benign.«

- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, »No More Secrets?«, June 1999

CNN reported, in January 2000, that »the sort of spy-in-the-sky images previously available only to intelligence agencies and defense departments are now within reach of almost all the rest of us.« They »make everyone an eyewitness in a world in which anyone - not just Big Brother - can be watching.» wrote The Los Angeles Times in June 2001.

High-resolution satellite images are one of our most powerful metaphors for a supposed transition from an age of surveillance to one of transparency: an all-seeing image, potentially of any point on earth, available to almost anyone, rich in data that can be used for purposes we cannot even predict. But what is this image? It wants to represent the incomprehensible magnitude of the event: with the sublimity proper to a catastrophe, it offers the view from above, from 'overhead,' in which the city is seen in the midst of an emergency. It tries to see everything at once, everything that cannot usually be seen with the human eye.

The buildings are missing, disintegrated into a vast zone of ruin. The city is quiet, except for intensive activity around the site. There are trucks along ominously empty highways removing the debris. New York City's rigorous urban grids are broken up by the shadows of the buildings which remain, but also by the dust and smoke and the rubble of the very large buildings which have collapsed. At 11:54 in the morning, four days later, the image says, this is what it all looked like.

But the image offers only a certain kind of evidence. When the pixels finally reveal themselves as simply the pixels that make up the image, they are as silent as what they are picturing. This evidence reveals little, and is of little use, forensically. But the pixels will stay, here on this image, even as the debris is removed, day by day, from the site. At least we will always be able to locate the rubble here.

So if in fact transparency is trivial, and nothing new is discovered about the event, we must rather say: here it is, the event is encoded right here, by the light that has traveled from the ground to the satellite, and captured in an instant as the memory of this event. As data. Mutable, yes, but no less a memory all the same.

What is missing from this image is what is missing now from the city or the world, and it is always missing at the limits of one-meter resolution, for all its detail. What is missing are the missing, over 5,000 people now presumed dead. Beneath or beyond the limits of visibility, of data, are the dead. And yet they remain in the image, in the ruin of the image, and ask something of us.

The ruin is still on fire.

Smoke hovers nearby, displaced from the site by the wind. It does not cast a shadow, the way a cloud further to the south obscures the area near the rubble of the World Trade Center. During the weeks following September 11, one could not always register directly what had happened in the city -- until the wind changed direction and you could smell the smoke.

It is hard to isolate anything on this image. When one tries to isolate the disaster site by selecting similar pixels, the image processing software tends to equate rubble with buildings. But it can isolate the smoke, and what remains hazily below the smoke. So choose a pixel in the middle of the disaster site -- it has a longitude and a latitude and a spectral signature. The software can then associate this pixel with similar pixels, and the area can grow to define the most changeable part of the site: the cloud of smoke that bears witness to the crime. Displaced, caught in motion, it records a particular moment of September 11, four days later.



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This page was last updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2001 at 12:33:01 PM
Copyright 2001 ZKM | Karlsruhe