We live in the time in which the gaze of technology is showing humanity increasingly alien views of the world. Mars rovers are giving panoramic views of alien landscapes, military drones are offering intensely detailed zooms of contested sites, and satellites are yielding images of your cat from orbit. At the beginning of August, I travelled through Chicago to spend a day in an installation that I can only now call a “hybrid drawing dirigible telepresence opera” in the way it unfolded over the three months at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Paul Catanese’s Visible from Space could be called a grand telepresent installation dealing with the grandeur of spaces. Situated within Chicago Cultural Center’s Sidney R. Yates Gallery, the ‘performance’ began from Catanese’ experiments with drones and various suspended objects over the Mojave Desert. This body of work began to deal with his fascination with considering what drawing might be when taken to geospatial scales. This approach refers to earth-based artworks from the Nazca Lines to Smithson in intersection with critical surveillance art by Trevor Paglen or Steve Mann. The images from the desert trials are reminiscent of the fish-eye composites from the Viking or Cassini probe missions, even some sort of military skunkworks trial. The notion of being “Visible from Space” conceptually becomes Visible from Space.
Inside the Chicago Cultural Center, Catanese has created a grand mise en scene for the unfolding of his aerial aria. In the approximately 40x25 meter room, there is a large netted area at one end with a silver mylar floor, a 7-meter projection screen at the other, with a large number of black and white striped rods, platforms placed underneath the screen, with the appearance of a large television or imaging calibration pattern, and a 4-meter blimp. These rods, sheets, and the like are placed in the netted area as “drawing elements”, placed upon stands and platforms to create lattices and networks of monochrome lines across the floor.
Image Courtesy the Artist
These patterns are the fodder for the central conceit of the performance/exhibition, the video transmissions of the blimp flights on the projection screen at the front of the room. Catanese had a special blimp fabricated for the exhibition, mounted with a downward-looking black and white video camera. His untethering of the lighter than air ship, ushering it into the enclosure, then sending it on roaring circuits over the shimmering Mylar floor crisscrossed with the various test pattern elements is a surreal sight. The images seen from the downward viewing camera are halfway between Nevada test facility and hardcore Vasulka-esque video art, as the Mylar shimmers under the thrust of the blimp rotors and the occasional breakup of the video signal. The daily flights that Catanese performs are part techno-spectacle, installation, transmission, and service bureau.
Between flights, Catanese catalogues, archives, and replays the trials on the large projection screen as well as being present to answer questions from visitors at the large oaken library desk in the space. When I visited in at the beginning of the run in August, an older man with a vast knowledge of lighter than air ships came by and had a conversation with us for nearly three hours. “For me, this is as interesting as doing the installation.” Catanese stated. “I have people come in who have worked for Goodyear Tire (famed for the lighter than air blimps) been interested in blimps or dirigibles, works with drones or imaging systems. This sort of conversation is always unbelievably educational for me.” So, in this way Visible from Space also becomes a social practice project.
As the time in which Visible from Space built over the three-month time of its duration, Catanese continued to add additional layers, creating what I term as a “multimedia opera”. For example, in Mid-September, Catanese ‘performed’ live across multiple Livestreams to locations around the world, including my timezone in Dubai, creating an inverse metaphor to American drone operations in the Middle East. These performances, would then be archived and them be reinserted in the practice for additional image- and time-based work.
Image Courtesy the Artist
The events toward the end of the exhibition/residency at the Chicago Cultural Center continued to build in complexity. For example, one included live musical accompaniment, “Music for Blimps”, by Chris Kallmyer, including fog, deep in the autumn Illinois night. It is for this reason, for setting up the interaction, then manipulating the space, transmitting it, and adding building spectacle that I term Visible from Space as one of the few multimedia ‘operas’ that truly deserves the term, denoting a sort of gesamtkunstwerk.
Paul Catanese’s Visible from Space incorporates elements of research, performance, installation, and social practice that he would call a ‘hybrid’ performance in the tradition of Intermedia. However, I feel that its first performance (with another slated later this year in Nevada) operates on critical, formal, and aesthetic registers so powerfully that it hits notes of Wagnerian proportions. It lyrically plays with the grandeur of the space it inhabits, while calling into question issues of drone surveillance. It also engages the history of lighter-than-air travel, as well as the formal aesthetics of installation and classical Video Art. Visible from Space provides the platform for a performance-based research project that I hope will be the nexus of numerous artistic conversations in the future, speaking to timely critical and historical notions of media art.