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«Chris Perkins and Martin Dodge Geography, School of Environment and Development University of Manchester Abstract This paper documents and assesses ...»

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Satellite Imagery and the Spectacle of Secret Spaces

Chris Perkins and Martin Dodge

Geography, School of Environment and Development

University of Manchester


This paper documents and assesses emerging efforts to resist and subvert deep-seated and

long-held governmental secrecy over geographical spaces of military/security activities and

other sites deemed sensitive by the state. It explores tensions in new web-served mapping and

high-resolution imagery of these sites, which view them though ‘pin holes’ of publicly available data. These ‘counter-mappings’ focus attention on the significance of sites that are either buried unnoticed in seamless global image coverage, or else censored on official mapping. Some reveal a strongly anti-hegemonic and oppositional discourse, others a more playful set of cultural practices. We situate these newly witnessed secret sites in contemporary visual culture, exploring the spectacular and Debordian possibilities of resistance that they offer, and evaluate the significance and ironies of these diverse imaging practices.


Secrecy, Spectacle, Satellite Imagery, Power, Resistance, Debord

1. Introduction “Secrecy has become integrated into (no longer expelled from) the spectacle; forming a spectacular secrecy… This spectacular form generalizes secrecy into public and private domain, making revelation no longer the end to secrecy, but its new catalyst” (Bratich 2007: 42).

Secrets are strongly associated with visual culture: they are hidden but may be revealed;

ubiquitous, but often unseen and are particularly associated with certain spaces. This paper focuses upon the role of overhead imagery in the contestation of sites deemed secret by nation states.

Secret spaces cover a wide range of sites including a panoply of military installations, sites relating to state security, policing and prisons, strategic national assets and infrastructures (particularly nuclear facilities). These are often hidden to some degree from civil society, and protected by legislation, as well as being separated by high fences and patrolling guards. All nation states operate systems to protect their security, and many of these systems depend upon keeping critical information relating to location and internal layout hidden, from citizens or outsiders, who might threaten the hegemony of those who rule. Woodward (2005) for example draws attention to the ways in which military activities are ubiquitous but unseen in the fabric and processes of everyday British life. In the post 9/11 world perceived geopolitical ‘threats’ have strongly encouraged many states further to restrict information in the public domain, and also to try to use technology in more efficient ways of controlling their citizens and outsiders. Secrecy is now ubiquitous in global culture (Birchall, 2007). But these same technologies of control also allow the formerly secret to be seen for the first time by civil society, and notions of being secret or open are complex and contested.

This article focuses upon the tensions represented in the witnessing of these secret sites, by assessing the significance of different kinds of counter-hegemonic imaging of these places through high-resolution satellite imagery delivered on the Web. Tensions around national security, freedom of information, confidentiality, neo-liberal accumulation, regulation, technology and representation are mapped out and contested in this process. Here we investigate the interface between strategic deployment of visual technologies of mapping, aerial photography and, in particular, high-resolution satellite imagery that have traditionally concerned geographers. Our argument starts by exploring the customary and exclusive ‘official’ uses of mapping and overhead imagery, and their theorization as strategic and rational tools of governance. Tropes of mapping for social control are, we argue, being increasingly destabilized, and part of this process has been encouraged by the increasing availability and dissemination of high-resolution imagery over the World Wide Web. We argue, however, that a more complex reading of secrecy is needed to understand this process and then illustrate counter-hegemonic re-imaging of what was formerly secret, in a comparative case study of three contrasting Web sites, exploring the contextual differences, how these relate to Guy Debord’s (1998) notions of ‘spectacular secrecy’ and to changes in what might be deemed ‘secret’ in western society.

2. Seeing as control

Seeing casts a particular power: it reveals the hidden, conveys precision and offers control to the observing eye. An elevated vision can appear to be a ‘view from nowhere’ (Haraway,

1988) and overhead satellite imagery as media have been closely associated with scientific and managerial approaches to the world (Parks, 2001; Robbins, 2003). Connotations of a naturalistic objectivity and transparency flow from the use of these visual technologies: the aesthetic of abstraction and remoteness connotes the image as a document of truth, and hides the political work the image is employed to achieve. Military and state strategic interests derive much of their power from this naturalizing surveillant capacity that denies the humanity of landscapes seen. However, regarding these images from space as neutral, mirrorlike ‘views from nowhere’ has been shown to be deeply naïve. As Wood (1992) insightfully details imagery is no less neutral than the culturally tainted map text. Images are embedded in situated, cultural contexts, (see for example the very different roles played by imagery in the other articles in this theme issue).

The militaristic logic of state institutions such as the police, state security and intelligence services rests in large part on their ability to render spaces and subjects visible, without the surveilled knowing when or why they are being watched. The success of this strategy rests, in large part, upon exclusive control of these data. In the history of modernism, mapping technologies are acknowledged as the militaristic gaze par excellence because of their ability to survey extensive areas and render complex landscapes into standardized, fixed, addressable and knowable visual symbols (Pickles, 2004). For example, large scale national topographic surveys commissioned throughout Europe from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and extended to European colonies were established primarily to help military forces to maintain state control over territory. State mapping agencies almost all trace their origins to military needs and the cartographic specifications underlying most contemporary national ‘framework’ geospatial data-sets are derived from the needs of war fighting (Parry and Perkins, 2000). Many advances in cartographic technologies in the twentieth century were driven by the need to extend the range and diversity of this military visual capacity (Day et al., 1998; Monmonier, 2002). For example, the Global Positioning Systems were initially developed to facilitate more accurate targeting of weapon systems and is still under the command of the U.S. military, and it has also been argued that the development of GIS has been strongly influenced by military investment during the Cold War (Cloud, 2002).

The technologies that are most significant for our argument here, however, concern the collection of visual data, and stem from developments in photogrammetry and remote sensing. Indeed, the scope of visibility over space granted by conventional cartographic representations has in many senses been surpassed over the last fifty years by the availability of aerial photography and satellite monitoring. Such remotely sensed data have seen progressive increases in spatial and temporal resolution, and they form a critical part of the military ‘surveillant assemblage’ (Harris, 2006; Haggerty and Ericson, 2000). The specification of the original Landsat satellite sensors were driven by military needs (Mack, 1990), military spy satellites amassed huge quantities of ‘secret’ imagery during the cold war era (Richelson, 1998), and geospatial surveillance systems form an essential part of the armoury of security agencies in the ‘war against terror’ (e.g., Beck, 2003). Imagery was used to build evidential pictures to support the case for the Iraq war, and offered significant support for the prosecution of the campaign and for the political justification of the action (Richelson, 2003). Subsequent security applications include identifying possible sites of nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea. Unsurprisingly the largest demand for commercially available highresolution imagery is from military and intelligence agencies in countries without their own spy satellites (Dehqanzada and Florini, 2000).

So the ‘best’ mapping and imagery, in terms of coverage, scale, positional accuracy and currency, has been, and often still is, the exclusive preserve of the military, and the strategic advantages this brings have been jealously guarded by those in power.

3. The political impact of high-resolution satellite imagery Whilst much research has focused on the role of mapping, imagery and GIS in participatory democracy, truly anti-hegemonic counter-mapping, able to challenge power relations by highlighting social inequalities, has grown apace in the last twenty years (Harris and Hazen, 2005). Published maps embody a practical and rhetorical power to articulate alternatives.

These alternative mappings can be used to re-frame the world in the service of progressive interests and challenge inequality. They have been used to reaffirm the rights of indigenous peoples; argue local cases in resource struggles; confront globalisation and multinational power; encourage community involvement in sustainable lifestyles; re-assert the role of the past in contemporary contexts; or celebrate the aesthetic and local in an age apparently dominated by uniform and mechanized production and global style. Cartographic power has also been exploited to counter dominant corporate discourses, using the authority of the map against itself. It can be argued that changing technologies of representation, and especially shifts in the resolution and availability of high-resolution satellite image data are facilitating these ‘counter-maps’.

Many aspects of national government and corporate activity appeared to operate in a more transparent fashion in the new international political structures that emerged in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The demands of international trading and trans-national interactions in a globalizing world drove calls for more open government and greater corporate social responsibility. Florini (1998: 53) argues that “the world is embracing new

standards of conduct, enforced not by surveillance and coercion but by wilful disclosure:

regulation by revelation”. International bodies and NGOs audit press freedom in different countries, ‘score’ corporate ethics and environmental conduct, and tabulate government corruption. Meanwhile an increasing number of governments enacted freedom of information legislation (Banisar, 2004).

A small, but significant, element in these new mechanisms of more open governance stems from the apparent transparency offered by commercially-available high-resolution satellite imaging (Baker et al., 2001). Some commentators argue the unprecedented spatial detail, currency and availability of these data create the possibilities of almost utopian change with more equal, democratic access to overhead vision in which “[n]onstate actors will be able to peer behind the walls of national sovereignty, accelerating a shift in power that is already under way” (Dehqanzada and Florini, 2000: v). And Baker and Williamson (2006: 4) note the rise of what they term ‘imagery activism’ by NGOs, academics researchers and the news media that “help focus domestic and international attention on problematic issues such as environmental degradation, international security and human rights abuses in closed societies.” It is undoubtedly true the pictorial value from high-resolution satellite imagery has advantages above the topographic map, particularly in communicating to the general public. The photographic quality of imagery data means familiar features are instantly recognisable and the image exudes an apparent naturalness. In many respects images also have an aesthetic appeal above the abstraction and functional austerity of topographic mapping. Because of these affectual qualities (see Kwan, 2007), the context in which images are released, deployed and presented is crucial. The politics behind which images are used, and how they are interpreted alters their rhetorical force.

In the years since the end of the Cold War there has been a significant switch from detailed satellite imagery that was previously secret and exclusive preserve of military-intelligence, to a much more global and commercial environment (Rao and Murthy, 2006). By 2007 thirteen different countries had mid-to-high resolution optical systems in orbit and by the end of the decade there will be twenty-one (Stoney, 2008). The commercial market is currently led by Space Imaging’s Ikonos and DigitalGlobe’s Quickbird satellite platforms, providing imagery at sub-metre resolution. The next generation satellite imaging platforms will yield even more detailed and sophisticated visual evidence. Commercial interests increasingly sell data into the public sphere. Livingston and Robinson (2003) argue that state regulation of high-resolution imagery is already impossible given the diffusion of the technology beyond the confines of U.S. legal jurisdiction and military power. The mass-market access to data from these systems is increasingly dominated by web portals such as Google Earth, which serves imagery in virtual globes. Multi-national corporations like Google are subverting military hegemony over global scale mapping and imagery.

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