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Sensing Landscape

To make a map is to give order to the world—to give it a “reasonableness which it doesn’t necessarily possess”, as William Boyd notes in his novel on wartime authority, An Ice-Cream War. By making the world appear rational and reasoned, maps describe more than the biophysical constitution of territory, revealing instead an obsession with exactness and measurement; opening up a biography of observation, control, and knowledge.

This video installation lays bare my map of Afghanistan from the Afghanistan of my map.

Long represented as an imaginative object, landscape represents the many aesthetic parameters of human consciousness. From the realistic to the surreal, landscape is as evocative as it is political. But in the age of a computational planet, what does it mean to experience a landscape as a digital media object? This video installation opens up a view into the surreal aesthetics of a politically fraught space—representing landscape as a digital and virtual reality through computation, digital cartography, virtual reality and modeling.

Featuring visualizations and mappings of post-9/11 Southern Afghanistan, this installation stems from a research project that analyzed the strategic importance of the most conflicted landscapes in the area using digital modeling. With the increasing popularity of landscape visualization for such research, there are many possibilities in using satellite imagery and computation to find answers. It uses historical imagery from declassified cold-war period satellites alongside contemporary digital terrain models to narrate the appropriation of three archaeological landscapes as military infrastructure.

This installation exposes not the truth-value, but instead the peculiar and surreal aesthetics of remotely sensed landscapes. A process of pure optics, this is a visual culture where aesthetics and objective knowledge become entangled in a process that is at once as subjective and qualitative as it is evidentiary. 

Credits: The work is created and produced by Saadia Mirza, featuring geospatial analysis done through training and conversations with archaeologists and geographers at the Centre for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes (CAMEL) at the University of Chicago. It features data collected from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the collaboration of artist, composer and performer, Antoni Rayzhekov, in the form of a sonification of the project’s image-data, maps and the topography represented. The soundscape is thus an expansion of his distinct project, Organic Oscillators, featuring sonifications of different scales ranging from the microscopic to the cosmic. The production work for this work has taken place through generous residencies at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart and Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. 

Photographs courtesy Frank Kleinbach and Akademie Schloss Solitude, September 2018.