The Satellite

40’ x 15’ Video Installation

The Satellite is a research initiative on the development of a real-time, experiential and hyper-realistic portrait of Earth, using live data from observation satellites to allow the public a more direct encounter with the planet. Working with open data feeds and simulated physics, the research was focused on creating visuals reflective of terrestrial phenomena: land color, cloud volumes, ice cover, lighting strikes, and aurorae. Two years of research were funded by Hewlett-Packard and a demo of the experimental software was featured in TechCrunch, on the International Space Station’s traveling exhibit at the Intrepid Air and Space Museum, and the Telluride Mountain Film Festival. 

Project Overview:

The Satellite is a realtime, experiential, and hyper-realistic portrait of Earth, using live data from hundreds of satellites to allow the public a direct encounter with the planet. Entering a communal viewing space, participants look out upon an expansive, intimate vision of their world.

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.

WIKA originally conceived of the project as part of their wider effort to identify and address gaps in environmental perception. When they came across a series of visual 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 the understanding afforded by the individual. 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. Visits to the viewing chamber will take on a ritual dynamic, allowing participants to witness change firsthand, and to contemplate the unseen realities of the planet.

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. The Satellite 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.

In providing broad, global access to this transformative piece, The Satellite will generate millions of subjective experiences of a shared reality: A place to weigh our stellar origins and our cosmic future, and the role this planet plays in that story.

Advisors to the project include Astronaut Charles Camarda, Writer Alex Zafiris, Game Developer Ivan Safrin, and NASA Goddard producer Matthew Radcliff.

Diagram of Installation: