Empty space is no longer empty. It is swarming with information. Electromagnetic waves carry Wifi signals, radio transmissions, cell phone data packets, and the stray snatches of Bluetooth and other near-field network communications through the air ceaselessly. And even when all the humans have gone home and left an area, our automated systems keep tabs on the space, collecting images with CCTV, sounds from automatic microphones designed to pinpoint gunshots, and electronic monitoring of all kinds from satellites above.
Upon first noticing this lack of emptiness, paranoia might be the first reaction, and rightly so. But we can also shape this informational space, just we shape physical space with our architecture and our activities. This data flowing through the air is us—it is an inimical part of our culture, and the leaking, collateral sounds of human activity, like a heartbeat of our cities, echoing through the very fabric of the universe.
In Constellations of the City, Lee Montgomery and his students Sheldon Bess, Kevin Bott, and Ryan Davis show us this informational space, and how beautiful it can be. Photographs of the project are on display now at 516 ARTS in Albuquerque through May 3rd, but a photograph is only one sort of information. The ethereal quality of the images hints at what other information cannot be seen visually. In dark spaces, hanging strings of white light illuminate the ground beneath them, and through the shadows, the edges of buildings—parking lots, city streets, warehouses. And darker still, the silhouettes of people—perhaps the artists, perhaps bystanders—identities unknown, their credentials unverified.
The photos are “light paintings”, a newly-popular means of making images using small lights moved through a dark space, captured with long-exposure photographs. The spread of affordable DSLR cameras has seen these images proliferating online. But there is more information in Constellations than a picture can transmit. These light paintings were made in three-dimensions, using remotely-piloted drone quadrotors, armed with LEDs. The shapes they trace are representations of map data, drawn from an additional facet of the project. In abandoned areas of downtown Albuquerque, the artists imagined alternate uses for the empty spaces, and then recorded these narratives into sound files, broadcast across those spaces using low-power radios. The locations and their spatial relationship to each other were then converted into GPS map data, which the drones traced through the air.
The light paintings are representations of space in as many as six dimensions, depending on how you count. We sense light in the images, but also drone motion, geospatial data, the FM radio band, sound recordings, architectural cityscapes—and most important of all, imaginations of how one might use the city. This is the true constellation at work in the project. Stars produce light, electromagnetic transmissions, and points of reference, not to mention vast nuclear fusion reactions responsible for life as we know it. But it is the pictures that we draw from stars, the stories we have created by drawing invisible lines between them, that we have used to orient civilization since the beginning of human history. The technological terrain of our cities is not something that most of us get to design. It happens to us, and we are forced to live within it. But, as Constellations shows us, we can do plenty within that space, manipulating the threads of technology and transforming them into the city we wish we had—where cameras are used to share beauty rather than for spying, and hidden transmissions tell stories rather than leak our secrets. Invisibility doesn’t need to mean emptiness, if we can draw a constellation in that space.