Aerial Agency

[The following guest post is by Jinhee Ha, graduate student in landscape architecture at Cornell University, and research assistant with the Borderlands Research Group. It discusses a technique- Event Specific High Resolution (ESHR) Aerial Photography- that we have been developing for field documentation and analysis. As discussed at length by Jinhee, the technique is trying to build on great work done by folks such as Alex MacLean and Charles Benton (UC Berkeley) as well as folks in fields such as archaeology and fluvial geomorphology.]

 

by Jinhee Ha

[ESHR field work by Petra Marar, Ian Peach, and Jinhee Ha; Testing the ESHR methodology involves negotiating the tensions between environmental variables and our agency. Certain weather effects, suchas wind and gust speed and direction, affect the balloon and ultimately what the camera captures. However, we do have control over the path taken and balloon height to capture desired areas.]

[ESHR field work by Petra Marar, Ian Peach, and Jinhee Ha; Testing the ESHR methodology involves negotiating the tensions between environmental variables and our agency. Certain weather effects, suchas wind and gust speed and direction, affect the balloon and ultimately what the camera captures. However, we do have control over the path taken and balloon height to capture desired areas.]

Internet-sourced, publicly-accessible satellite imagery has become a widely relied-upon tool of designers and planners for site analysis associated with ecological, environmental and natural resources. Reliance on this tool for aerial-based knowledge, however, limits the researcher’s ability to study site events and processes. Low-altitude aerial photography (LAAP) has been a common tool for archaeologists, hydrologists, and other scientists to collect data. Event-specific high resolution (ESHR) aerial photography distinguishes itself from LAAP through its capacity to control variables regarding heights, times, and resolutions. ESHR aerial photography captures time-specific events on site with a high resolution camera and airborne contraption, such as a balloon or kite.

 

While software like Google Earth provides easy access, it is produced in part by powerful corporations and bureaucracies whose methods often do not serve event- and time-specific site research. The ESHR methodology allows for recording and analyzing economic, cultural, and social processes of industrial and public material flows over time. Enacting this methodology will produce site-specific raw data and analysis as a way to study patterns of movement or change at a variety of scales, developing new ways of research on biological, economic, social and agricultural areas across scientific and design disciplines.

 

An important contribution of research using ESHR techniques is the ability to compare the historical nature of human-land relationships to knowledge of today’s resulting, complex landscapes. Historical geographers attempt to study how humans intervene to transform a piece of land into something culturally significant, the natural to cultural, through aerial photography [1]. The images of spherical Earth, the Blue Marble, from the 1968 Apollo mission, inspired responses of global unity and possibly positive changes in social and environmental thinking [2].   Seeing from above enables the ability to examine both ecological and economic landscape patterns, and provides clues to understanding holistically the processes occurring within a particular site.

 

The aerial view continues to affect knowledge of what happens on the ground plane where environmental, economic and social processes collide and, ultimately, raises issues of citizen access to knowledge and space.  Many sources currently point to limitations on “how one sees and acts within the environment.  The aerial view reflects and constructs the world” [3].  Powerful corporations and bureaucracies are the dominant agents, producers, and replicators of the “aerial eye” [4].   For instance, Google Earth stitches most of their data from two major contractors for the US government in the development of high-resolution satellites.[5].

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A great benefit of the ESHR technique and method is its capacity for ownership and potential to be shared with larger audiences.  Historically, militaries and archaeologists have used aerial photography for reconnaissance and security purposes and discovery and analysis of archaeological sites.  Now, it is used as a method in the research of ecologists, conservationists, and coastal monitors.  The fields of landscape architecture, architecture, urban planning, and urban design greatly benefit from the use of the ESHR method as it provides a time-specific view of what is happening on the ground plane.  Specifically for landscape architecture, ESHR provides opportunities for study of processes or patterns throughout seasons and changes throughout time.

 

Gena Wirth and Rob Holmes of the Dredge Research Collaborative employed the use of ESHR aerial photography to map Jamaica Bay in the New York Harbor and study the influences of dredging, filling, wastewater and stormwater outflows.  They also photographed the Yellow Bar Island in Jamaica Bay, in collaboration with Public Lab, to capture the specific event of the Army Corps of Engineers restoring salt marshes with recycled dredged material.  Capturing specific events such as these illuminates both the ecological processes at work and the human action taken to transform the landscape.

 

The ESHR technique can also be shared beyond design fields and has the capacity to be easily taught and used by citizens for environmental activism. Public Lab’s “grassroots mapping” encourages the public to produce their own ESHR images. For example, civic scientists mapped the impact of the BP oil spill off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 [6]. The ownership of this technique empowers citizens to share and raise awareness of the repercussions of environmental disasters through their images.  User-produced aerial imagery aids in the dissemination of knowledge on environmental and resource issues by elucidating ecological, social and economic relationships invisible on the ground.

 

Trial at Bailey Plaza

 

I have been working on and testing this methodology in collaboration with Petra Marar and Ian Peach, with support from Brian Davis.  We tested ESHR planning and execution strategies in Bailey Plaza at Cornell University on February 13, 2014.  Hundreds of people walk through Bailey Plaza every weekday making it an appropriate site for examining movement and changes. We tested, at different heights, the ability of ESHR to record materials and related movement at the plaza. We first flew the balloon and camera contraption at 150 feet and 200 feet and recorded pedestrian movement entering, crossing, and leaving the plaza in our environmental log.  Then we flew the balloon at 50 feet, recording characteristics of snow and ice as an indicator of prior pedestrian movement, drainage patterns and maintenance operations.  These tests informed our identification of appropriate heights for capturing pedestrian-scale movement and ground-level material qualities.

 

Allowing an hour for balloon and camera setup, we documented the plaza from 9:00 – 11:00 AM, when, based on Cornell University’s class schedule standards, a movement pattern was predictably well-defined by large groups of students.  Additionally, we documented lulls, during which maintenance and drainage patterns were easier to record.  The test produced the following image from 150 feet.

[Time-lapse of the Construction of a Plan View Image.  The construction of this plan view image of Bailey Plaza is a negotiation of two forces in a vertical relationship: the pedestrian path along which we guided the balloon's string, and the wind pushing the balloon. Petra Marar compiled this image by identifying key individual shots out of 2500+ photos to stitch a plan view through the Photoshop Photomerge tool.]

[Time-lapse of the Construction of a Plan View Image. The construction of this plan view image of Bailey Plaza is a negotiation of two forces in a vertical relationship: the pedestrian path along which we guided the balloon’s string, and the wind pushing the balloon. Petra Marar compiled this image by identifying key individual shots out of 2500+ photos to stitch a plan view through the Photoshop Photomerge tool.]

The experience of using ESHR at Bailey Plaza was interesting due to the reactions of passersby.  As soon as we inflated the bright red weather balloon, people walking by slowed to look and decipher what we were doing.  The buoyancy and cuteness of the red balloon brought out light- heartedness in the people walking through Bailey Plaza.  Letting the balloon out into the sky enabled us to interact with the public, an otherwise uncommon occurrence among strangers on Bailey Plaza.  A bit of a whimsy invited curiosity.  To answer people’s questions about our intent, we would respond with a statement about how user-produced aerial images allows more control over the process of capturing the ground at specific times, heights, and resolutions.

 

But there is a limit to what can be controlled.  What is in the space between the ground and the sky? I am interested in this in-between part: the processes, movement, change and transformation of the landscape that typically happens in that space. But do those processes, movements, and changes get captured fully?The ESHR method allows us to capture specific events through controlling the height, time, and resolution at the time of capture.  The aerial view presents a unique view rarely experienced by a user of that site.  This is a strength and weakness of using ESHR.  It reveals patterns and changes that might not be detectable as a pedestrian walking through.  However, it doesn’t capture all the relevant views, like the micropatterns and changes that might be detectable just to a pedestrian.  It would be interesting to capture the pedestrian views and analyze them with the aerial views.  These coupled analyses can speak to the landscape experience as well as the patterns and movement seen from above and provide a more complete picture of the site.

 

Sometimes the balloon and the camera have lives of their own and part of that has to do with the weather and environmental factors that affect the flight of the balloon.  The movements of the balloon and camera harness have agency in the creation of the images in the angles presented.  This was noticeable while stitching images together and in the process of creating an animated gif (graphics interchange format).  The kite line angle and perspective is different for each image, implying that it was changing because of wind.  This is quite fascinating and I am curious how we can harness this energy and spirit for future balloon flights.  The Dutch artist Theo Jansen creates “new forms of life” through building mechanisms that move on their own through environmental forces, mainly wind and rain [7].   Perhaps we can use this as an inspiration and let the weather and wind do more for us than just be considered as obstacles.

 

____________________________

1. Thorpe, H. (1975). Air, ground, document. In D. R. Wilson (Ed.). Aerial reconnaissance for archaeology (Research Report No. 12) (pp. 141- 153). London: The Council for British Archaeology. 14.

2. Cosgrove, D. (1996). The Measures of America. In J. Corner & A.S. MacLean. Taking Measures Across the American Landscap(pp. 3-13). New Haven: Yale University Press. 4.

3. Corner, J. & MacLean, A.S. (1996). Taking Measures Across the American Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press. 16- 17.

4. Valla, C. (2012, July 31). The Universal Texture.

5. Kurgan, L. (2013). Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics. New York: Zone Books. 31.

6. Public Lab. (2009). “Balloon Mapping.” Retrieved February 8, 2014.

7. “Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest.” Retrieved March 30, 2014

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