jenny odell

...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

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to be as it is, infinite.
-William Blake

As a child, I was obsessed with portals. The more banal, the better: the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, the kid swimming through a bowl of Cheerios in Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the Magic Schoolbus traveling down into a toilet. These stories presented the idea that one need not travel into outer space to encounter alien landscapes. Instead, one simply needs the opportunity to make a slight shift in space or time, and the world reveals itself in all of the detail formerly precluded by a habitual way of looking (or not looking).

In these books and movies that I loved, such a shift required either magic or technology, the two often being conflated. The '90s were an era of zapping and hacking; it's no coincidence that a story I wrote when I was 8 involved being zapped to a parallel universe through Microsoft Word only to encounter "the real Michael Jackson" (the familiar MJ revealed as a robot he'd sent to Earth via fax). To this day I've continued to think about technology not just as a portal to another perspective, but as a seeing apparatus: something that can reveal a hidden dimension that, however fantastical it might seem, can be said to have existed all along beneath the day-to-day.

At the same time, perhaps because of my proximity to technology (being born in Silicon Valley to parents worked who in tech), I've developed a very specific attitude toward it. To me, the use of technological tools is interesting insofar as it ultimately returns the viewer to the physical world with new awareness, or creates opportunities to interact with strangers in that same world. While I certainly enjoy using technology to make art -- especially to do things that a tool wasn't meant to do -- I only use it in order to highlight the real (embodied, imperiled) world we inhabit together with other people. I'm not interested in escape. I'm interested in zooming out so that, ultimately, we can zoom back in.

It's clear that technological tools, even when used subtly, have the potential to broaden our attention and perceptual faculties in the physical world. (For instance, viewers of David Hockney's Yorkshire Landscapes videos have reported that, going outside, "everything looks different," and Hockney himself describes his work as tricking people into "really looking.") In my case, I use satellite and other secondhand web-based imagery because it happens to reflect our current position, obliquely and in a way more accurately than otherwise possible, in an environment so familiar it has become nearly invisible to us. The result is something like the most candid photo possible: we, and our world of things, are captured in an arbitrary moment by a mechanized camera on a satellite or on top of a car, or by a tourist who meant the photo to be of something else.

This shift in perspective can make visible to us the utter strangeness of everything, including ourselves. Most importantly for me, it creates a moment of openness, a temporary removal that allows us to see our world as the strange and specific place it has become, before the old familiarity settles back in. At best, this removal can effect what writer Walter Benjamin once described as “blasting” an image from the historical continuum, in some cases allowing us to really see it for the first time. If the subject of my work has recently tended toward the infrastructural, it is because infrastructure so well represents perceptual problems of macro/micro, here/there, banal/spectacular, everyday/epochal. Slippages along these axes point toward an infinite number of habitable perspectives. It is both terrifying and exhilarating to imagine the world as a gray mass enlivened, rendered, by perception, because perception then becomes an issue not just of curiosity but of what seems possible, and therefore what happens. After all, we can only move through the world we can perceive.

To be able to inhabit other perpsectives on that which seems given also has political implications. Speaking about dialectical images, Benjamin gave the example of seeing an image of a bomber plane superimposed on DaVinci’s original drawing of a flying machine -- which DaVinci, heartbreakingly in retrospect, envisioned using “in order to look for snow on the mountain summits, and then return to scatter it over city streets shimmering with the heat of summer.” Such a superimposition illuminates a space between the images that suggests that history is not linear and that each moment of the past existed in a field of possibilities (as in the early stages of any technology). This kind of "stereoscopic vision" allows us to see through the idea that things turned out the way they did because they were destined to be this way. In other words, to reopen the field of possibility in the past is the reopen that same field in the future. At a remove from things so familiar we have forgotten to look at them, 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.