A realtime, experiential, and hyper-realistic portrait of Earth, using live data from hundreds of satellites to allow a direct encounter with the planet.
Research supported by Hewlett-Packard.
Conducted at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Department of Technology, Culture & Society. In collaboration with Dana Karwas and Ivan Safrin.
Video of the Realtime Engine
The “Blue Marble” photograph, captured by a NASA astronaut in 1972, is still the image of Earth that dominates our collective consciousness. Astronauts report a deep shift that occurs upon seeing their planet from space—labeled the “overview effect”—and seek to communicate the power of this heightened perspective to the public with photography. However, their perspective of the planet is highly subjective, limited by their personal perceptual abilities, and singular vantage point; as well as the representational entanglements and technical constraints of photography as a medium.
Dana Karwas and I originally conceived of the project as part of their wider effort to identify and address gaps in environmental perception. When we came across a series of realtime data feeds from satellites, it was evident that the data being collected could offer a highly relevant, yet largely unseen, view of the planet.
Each moment, hundreds of satellites are circling the globe, delivering rich, detailed information. They offer science, government, and industry a new look at our planet that goes far beyond common understanding. These datasets are cryptic, complex, and unwieldy—impenetrable to the general public. The Satellite is an intervention in public perception, an attempt to subvert these constraints by transfiguring the data streams into an instinctive encounter.
The Satellite is a reassessment and opening up of the potential of empirical data, to produce a direct, physical, and accessible experience of the planet as a living entity. Central to our tradition is a fascination with future landscapes: dreams of utopia, fueling a march toward comfort and bliss. The Hudson River School revealed an unseen Earth of their own in their imaginings of the American west. Today, with the widening and advancement of mechanized perception, new frontiers are coming into sharp focus. The space industry is becoming privatized and promoted; probes are seeking new interstellar worlds to settle. Artists are producing work that connect us to these new terrains. Thomas Ruff’s images package Mars as a tangible frontier, and James Turrell’s skyspaces help us to register our cosmic context.
By contrast, The Satellite is a mirror, an attempt at self-portraiture through landscape, to look back at ourselves in the historical moment. It encourages us to question the idea of the “known” world, exposing Earth as terra incognita.
Working with open data feeds and simulated physics, the research is focused on creating realistic, realtime visuals of terrestrial phenomena: land color, cloud volumes, ice cover, lighting strikes, and aurorae. These techniques are being continuously refined through photographic research, consultations, and feedback from audiences.