Kataskopos: The Extraterrestrial View of the Earth in Film

Curator's Note

This video essay attempts an analytical account of how images of the Earth seen from an extraterrestrial viewpoint, that is to say, as an orbital panorama or as a whole disc, have been used within film.
The conceptual root of this visual idea can itself be traced back to the ancient Greek idea (subsequently modified in European thought) of kataskopos. Initially (and significantly in our era of "national technical means") applied to a viewing position related to spying and information gathering, it was later modified in European thought to describe a more philosophically transcendent position yielding cartographic and panoramic views of the Earth.
Drawing upon a filmography that ranges from the mid 20th to early 21st century, the essay seeks to present visual evidence to the viewer of how such images of the Earth in cinema are in fact derived from a long and complex set of cultural fascinations in which the emergence of cinema itself as a medium is deeply implicated.
The development of this essay required the solution of quite particular formal problems at points regarding the use of creative  - but academically robust - editing and imaging techniques. Such procedures were designed to present clear evidence regarding, for example, the cognitive and cultural continuities joining 19th century painting and panoramas to cinema in respect of the kataskopic subject, without generating distortions of meaning to the original source materials. In this way, the particular structural usages of both montage and mise en scene at points within the video essay function as active agencies in ways that a straightforward "cut" between adjacent clips is not always capable of rendering with sufficient economy.
Part of the research for this work involved interviewing NASA astronauts [1] in order to provide an experiential baseline regarding the cognitive biases built into the cinematic frame, given that all such images in cinema (excluding a handful of spectacle-dominated IMAX presentations) remain optical or digital fabrications constructed upon the surface of the planet. This non-experiential basis also throws up conceptual challenges in relation to cinematic realism, given that audience reactions to the verisimilitude of such images of the Earth are similarly built up by reference to other such images in cultural circulation, rather than from experiential information.
The broad structure of the essay is designed to initially open out an historical relationship between kataskopic views of the Earth and of the cinematic medium representing it, before drawing the viewer’s attention to specifics regarding the morality of vision, the design of sound, the semiotic dimension to such images in general culture, and an emotional affectivity resulting from the inter-relationship of self with planet.
This is by no means a complete account regarding the development of the elevated image image within film – my video's peer reviewer Steve Anderson has noted the importance of aerial photography for example [2], yet is one that serves as a sufficient beginning in order to indicate the conceptually anisotropic nature of such a subject. Whilst the frame shows the same planet in each film, it is in fact a different world being created for the viewer on each occasion. Following a single visual subject across a range of film genres in this way allows the viewer to experience a range of cognitive and culturalist perspectives in close proximity to each other, as mutually informing agencies.
As well as examining commercial cinema itself, it is is also incumbent to note the responses given to such subject matter by both formal and informal exposition on the internet, such as Max Shishkin’s Cinema Space Tribute (2014) (https://vimeo.com/113142476). Shane Denson’s meditation upon the displacements of vision within an Anthropocene context  additionally draws attention to a dynamic in which "Digital cameras and algorithmic image-processing technologies confront us with images that are no longer calibrated to our embodied senses", a cognitive zone alluded to by Semiconductor’s Black Rain (2009) (https://vimeo.com/3921306) appropriation of raw satellite data.
Finally: a note of caution. Though the extraterrestrial image of the earth in film is indeed a visually "global" one, the politics of image making require us to remember that it remains a view fundamentally shaped by cultural contingency - permeated, as the cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove reminds us, by "the distinctive Western mentality that lies behind the universalist claims of contemporary globalism" (xi). 

Tony Patrickson currently lectures in virtual cinematography and multimedia at the Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland. Since 1988 he has exhibited a range of performance, interactive, and moving-image artworks on an international basis. His present research interests lie in the structure and meaning of imaging practices spanning cinema and visual art. An archive of his work can be found online at: http://www.aspatrickson.net/ 


[1] Story Musgrave, Skype interview 19 Feb, 2015; Leroy Chiao, Skype interview 5 Mar, 2015.
[2] Both Beaumont Newhall’s Airborne Camera (1969) and Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema (1984) remain classic texts in this regard.
Works cited:

Denson, Shane. "Post-Cinema After Extinction". May 21, 2015. https://medieninitiative.wordpress.com/2015/05/21/post-cinema-after-extinction-full-text/

Cosgrove Denis. Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.