“We exist upon one globe and inside another globe.”
1943. An illustrator produces an image for an American Airlines, Inc. advertisement entitled War-Thinking. In the ad, two nested spheres of Earth and its atmosphere sit in a starless black field. The earth is a contracted cobalt pupil. The pale blue iris-atmosphere surrounding it is far too thick—if Earth were the size of a classroom globe, the atmosphere would have the relative depth of a sheet of plastic wrap.
The ad is one in a series which also includes Air Map (1943), an image of global cities rendered as a sequence of points and set within a featureless white circle, evacuated from topography and political borders, and The Freedom of the Seas (1941), a two-page spread of an ocean liner in rough waters. The second ad’s title and editorial-style copy argue that Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius’s 1609 legal justification of the seas as a common resource, made in support of the unhindered exertion of state power through trade, be extended to the “ocean of air” now accessible by aviation. Each advertisement’s copy is signed, Air Map and War-Thinking bearing the signature of American Airlines’ wartime president A.N. Kemp.
In War-Thinking, the motif of the single eye is abstracted into the proportions of Earth to atmosphere, while retaining its association with the power of vision. The image encourages the viewer to occupy both an “inward” speculative-orbital position of American biopower, mirrored in air surveillance’s expansion of spatial control and police powers, and an “outward” point of view from the pupil-Earth’s contracted surface, in parallel with the expanding technological reach of states during World War II. Taken together, the image and text capture and collapse the ambitions and attendant anxieties produced by rapidly expanding capacities to observe and gather data on Earth’s surface from above, prefiguring further advancements in flight and imaging technology.
At the time, the potential of “the overview effect” and the “interiorization” of the global—as described by Anselm Francke in conversation with Diedrich Diederichsen and Ana Teixeira Pinto for e-flux journal—in effecting a lasting psychological reconfiguration was still an open question. American airborne radar, with its capacity to extend vision, came into use in the early 1940s, and the Gloster Meteor, the first jet-powered fighter aircraft, was in development. H2S ground scanning airborne radar was first used in 1943. American Airlines launched its first domestic freight service in 1944 and began offering international transatlantic flights the following year. Robert Salter’s RAND proposal for a “Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship,” the US Government’s earliest proposal for a satellite reconnaissance system, was to appear a year later in 1946. These imaging systems would soon produce the first partial image of Earth taken from a V-2 missile that same year, and the first full-view color photograph of Earth taken by the Department Of Defense Gravity Experiment (DODGE) satellite in 1967.
“We submit this conception of our changed world…”
But even as War-Thinking references the upcoming “Peace Conference” and espouses its potential to bring about the recognition of a shared “air-globe,” the advertisement’s text is a justification of the global expansion of American trade and police power. Its argument for “peace” remains predicated on airborne military enforcement and global air surveillance, Earth and atmosphere functioning together as a panopticon-in-reverse. And while A.N. Kemp writes that air, as “the only universal realm for transportation,” produces a “conception of our changed world” and frames within it a collective “human race” connected by new proximity and accessibility, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Courier from the same year, Kemp states, “I don’t believe that Negroes will be used as pilots in the immediate world of post-war aviation.” Furthermore, prior to his presidency at American Airlines, Kemp was the president of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance, opening up questions of how an actuarial perspective on risk and the valuation of life may have influenced his insistence on the import of air’s universality, at least in the approval of this particular wartime ad copy.
Considering the contemporary expansion of biopolitical control and the further financialization of life in interlinked projects such as “quantified Earth” and the logic of ecosystem services, War-Thinking retains imaginative potential for the present. The implementation of dual-use technologies for data-gathering, quantification, and measurement in combating climate change, including the widely expanded field of remote sensing satellites and other aerial systems, such as the use of airborne LIDAR in quantifying the value of carbon in tropical forests or scanning protest sites, is a reminder that weather observation and reconnaissance are historically co-located activities. For good reason, then, the anxieties of War-Thinking’s atmospheric geopolitics and “opportunities” remain—though not without the generative potential suggested by its subtext: a reflection upon the commons.
AMY BALKIN’s projects propose a reconstitution of the commons, considering legal borders and systems, environmental justice, and the equitable sharing of common-pool resources in the context of climate change. These include clean air park Public Smog (2004-), A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting (2012-, Balkin, et al.) and This is the Public Domain (2003-), an ongoing effort to create a permanent international commons. She was a collaborator on Invisible-5 (2006), an environmental justice audio tour of California’s I-5 freeway corridor. Recent exhibitions include: Sublime, Centre Pompidou-Metz (2016); DUMP!, Kunsthal Aarhus (2015); Public Works, Mills College Art Museum (2015); Rights of Nature, Nottingham Contemporary (2015); Anthropocene Monument, les Abattoirs (2015); and dOCUMENTA (13) (2012). Recent publications include: Art in the Anthropocene (Davis and Turpin, 2015); Materiality (Lange-Berndt, 2015); and Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics (Scott and Swenson, 2015).
Commissioning Editors: Christian Camacho-Light, Dana Kopel, Humberto Moro