Center for Art + Environment Blog

September 14, 2016   |   William L. Fox

Looking Down, Looking Up

Cropped image of "Visible from Space." Photo courtesy of Paul Catanese.

I’m in Chicago’s Cultural Center across from Millennium Park, sitting in what was formerly the reading room of the first Chicago Public Library, a palatial space in which Paul Catanese has installed the latest iteration of his Visible from Space project. I first learned of Paul’s work while at Playa, a residency program run on the edge of Summer Lake in Oregon. He’d been there a few months earlier to construct aerial photo targets in the desert that he imaged from a drone. He’d started the work while in residence in Bisbee, Arizona in 2009, then continued it in 2010 at Rhyolite in southern Nevada, and was beginning to amass a large body of images from this ongoing thought experiment about aereality—or how we see the world from above.

The former reading room of the first Chicago Public library. Photo by Bill Fox.

Paul’s idea was to make a drawing on Earth large enough to see from the Moon, something that’s unlikely to ever happen. The largest drawings in the world are made by Jim Denevan working on spaces such as frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia, a massive body of water more than 400 miles long that contains more than all the fresh water than all of the Great Lakes combined. But the largest of Jim’s drawings, done in 2009 on the Black Rock Desert a hundred miles north of Reno, was a series of more than 1000 circles nine miles in circumference—making it larger than Burning Man.

Denevan drew the largest circles by dragging a segment of chain-­link fence six feet across behind a truck to make lines 28 feet aide and three feet deep. You can see the drawing with the naked eye from 40,000 feet, and it’s been photographed by satellite—but you couldn’t come close to seeing it from the International Space Station, which orbits the Earth at 249 miles out. The Moon is 238,900 away. That’s why Paul calls his interdisciplinary art project a thought experiment.

2009 Black Rock Desert, NV. Image courtesy of Jim Denevan.

The installation in Chicago consists of hundreds of carved sticks painted over a two-­year period by his studio assistant Justin Botz in black-­and-­white segments as if they were surveying stakes. They were then deployed on the floor in two arrays. The smaller one forms a faux map or key that sits under a huge video screen displaying a loop of video taken over the other and larger array. This second part consists of a sheet of mirrored Mylar about seventy feet long and thirty feet wide upon which the stakes are arranged (and frequently rearranged.) It all sits in a huge string cage inside which Paul flies a remote-­controlled 12-­foot helium blimp with a video camera slung underneath. The miniature unmanned aerial vehicle dips, swoops, rotates, and in general behaves almost like an aquatic creature as it surveils the array, and disappears in and out of clouds generated by a fog machine as Paul pilots it.


Paul Catanese, “Visible from Space.” Photograph by Philip Dembinski.

It’s an oddly thrilling performance, watching out of one eye while Paul puts the translucent blimp through its lightly choreographed paces, while out of the other eye scanning the live streaming video of the blimp imaging the constructed landscape below. You’re sitting or standing in between the live action and the video, physically mediating the art work while you’re attempting to process it all. The Mylar ripples in response to the rotors of the blimp when it descends to maneuver amongst the stakes, the motors whining as it lifts up to dash across the enclosure.

Paul not only rearranges the landscape for his performances three times a week, but adds elements: a ship’s bell when the fog bellows out, an improvised sound score, the tapping of a wooden block at irregular intervals. The fog and sound are used to make apparent the spatial volume of the performances, and the image of the blimp itself is displayed on the video as it is reflected in the Mylar during the flights. This makes it all recursive but slightly unknowable even while you’re witnessing both performance and video. Even as I’m sitting at the library table that Paul uses as a desk while I’m writing this, I keep looking up obsessively at the video loop, so compelling are the patterns.

And that’s the real issue here: the seductive nature of aereality. We sometimes call the aerial gaze a “God’s-­eye view,” which links the power of seeing from upon high with divinity. But it’s a fallacy that the view from above is more true, or even more authoritative, than the experience of a landscape at ground level. The aerial view is just as prey to fallacy and fiction as any other perspective. Yes, you can see patterns from the air that you can’t perceive from the ground, and it gives you more information about the environment to do so—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you
understand what you’re seeing.

Paul’s extraordinary project is available for viewing through the 27th of this month, and there will be a flight performance that day. The next day it will be struck like a stage set and put into storage until it’s next iteration. In the meantime, his project archive will come to the Center for Art + Environment to join materials from Jim Denevan, and other Chicago photographers such as Terry Evans and Judy Natal, and aerial imagers David Maisel, Michael Light, and others. Among his materials will be videos of the installation and performances of what is becoming a legendary art project.