“The Zeppelin entered Washington from the southeast, passing close to the Capitol, to which it dipped in salute as hundreds emerged from the House and Senate office buildings to view the spectacle. Continuing straight through the heart of the city, the dirigible swung through the northwest section over the German Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, down past the State, War and Navy Building toward the Washington Monument. By this time its altitude was estimated at about 1,000 feet. It swung easily with a slight roll, the rip in its port fin plainly showing. It circled the Monument, passing almost over it and dipping in salute. She then turned her nose to the northeast and went directly over the White House, where she again dipped in formal salute and then straightened away toward Baltimore on her way to New York and Lakehurst.”
Montreal Gazette, 16 October 1928
For the last three years, I have been studying military vision and what that might mean in physiological, psychological and metaphysical terms. This enquiry has taken me deep into notions of the locus of the eye-view, and has ranged from ideas of perspective to modern forms of surveillance. One of the key factors in developing a theory of military vision was the moment the eye became aerial. Mankind has long sought wings in order to assume the viewpoint of God, and whilst there are rumours that the ancient Nazcas perfected some sort of flying device, no trace of that has ever been found. Unmanned hot air balloons called Kongming lanterns were used in Chinese military signalling from approximately 220AD, but even before this, our histories are permeated with flying myths from Icarus to the magic carpet, all allowing humans to look down upon the earth and read it like a map. In some ways, the history of viewing seems like a race to cartography.
There’s something very different about looking down at the earth from a thing which is moving, to seeing from a tall building, or a tree-top or a cliff. Viewing from a-height shares some of the characteristics of mobile aerial viewing, but it does not share the sense of supplanting the omnipotent eye, emphasising instead our sense of being locked to the spot, imprisoned by a single view. Exploring some of the narratives, myths and science surrounding the aerial turn has enabled me to test questions of why the eye in the sky in all its forms exerts such a powerful fascination (positive and negative) on humanity.
The trajectory of aerial development certainly permits me a huge repository of narratives to explore. I think of unmanned drones flown over Iraq by pilots in California; the spy planes of the Cold War; Armstrong, Aldrin, The Eagle and the photographs of Earth from space; the rumours of Aurora and more- and I find myself returning again and again to the Wright brothers on their desolate strip of land between North Carolina and the sea, where they lived for months at a time in extremely challenging conditions whilst following their aeronautic dreams. Delving into the Wright Brothers notebooks during my Library of Congress residency, I found myself overwhelmed by my privilege and their scientific method. I read their accounts and letters of their experiments. Like Orville, I dreamed of flying (and like Orville, I’ve always found the dream of flying much more exciting than the reality). When I finally found myself in Kill Devil Hills, after a day racing ahead of a tornado, I understood why they had picked this remote and inhospitable spot. I traced the line of the flights, all four. I watched a dozen small children, arms outstretched, coats hoisted around their shoulders, race the flight lines, shouting with joy and whirling like spinning tops. I saw the exhibit where a tiny part of the Kitty Hawk’s wing had been taken to the surface of the moon, drawing a clear symbolic line between one incredible moment for man and another.
In the Wright Brothers collections, I found references to ballooning, and realised for the first time, that the first flight took place in a silk paper sphere over Paris. I immersed myself in the Gaston and Albert Tissandier archive, hunting for the clues that led up to the first human flight. And there I found all sorts of long-forgotten wonders: the zeppelins of the inter-war years; the extraordinary inventions of the Victorian-era aeronauts; a Confederacy balloon made from ladies’ silk dresses, used for spotting enemy troop manoeuvres; utopian dreams of La Minerve, a model city inside a balloon; the fantastic account of America’s first flight in Philadelphia and it’s promise of an unsung slave prisoner guinea-pig; the thrilling Channel crossing in which the heroes were saved from crashing by stripping and emptying their bowels over the waves; and still further back, balloons made of silk paper and animal bladders, pursued by the farmers of Gonesse who feared they were devils. I read of the moment that the Montgolfiers were inspired to build a contraption, after Joseph observed his wife’s silk bloomers rising when filled with hot air in during laundering. It was a rather more intimate beginning than the official version of him trying to intellectually solve the problem of an air-borne assault upon Gibraltar.
I discovered the story of the Graf Zeppelin on its round-the-world voyage, with was intrigued by images of it near the Capitol and on 13th Street, an image which must have been taken from right outside the Museum for Women In The Arts.
The final piece of the jigsaw of questions, inspirations and connections was CP Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series published between 1940 and 1974. In his 1964 installment Corridors of Power, Snow deals with questions of political and personal integrity and the mechanism of the exercise of power. Concerned with the attempts of an English MP to influence national policy on nuclear weapons in the 1960s, Snow analyses the professional world, scrutinising microscopic shifts of power within an enclosed setting. The book may no longer appear on lists of essential reads, but his phrase for places where powerful leaders work and rule has passed into common language, and regularly appears in journalism as a short-hand for the heart of government.
Around this time, a Cooper’s Hawk took up residency in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress. For a few days, the airwaves were full of witty references to the Hawks and Doves of Congress, and to the idea of a bird’s eye view of Washington. Familiar with the uses of pigeons fitted with miniature cameras during both First and Second World Wars, I began to piece together some ideas about aerial photography, political divisions, spaces of national symbolism, the use of these famous terms. I started to investigate federal power structures within the city, their architecture, and how as a non-American and a symbol of former colonial rule I might respond to them. I started with the space I was inscribed in, the Library of Congress, the formal symbol of American knowledge, created to provide specialist advice on a vast number of given subjects to America’s decision-makers, a repository that had emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of the original library burnt by the British. I elected to use small dirigibles of the kind often seen at sporting events, fitted with tiny cameras, to investigate some of these spaces in a way which has never been seen before. Using both old and new technologies enables me to tease out hidden connections between dead and future medias, and suggest alternate narratives for both. With these ingredients in place, and corridors of power in my mind, the project began to expand.
The concept of corridors of power is at the core of this new work, Hawk & Dove, which sees key iconic spaces in Washington DC infiltrated by floating symbols of partisanal politics and opposing political philosophies. The piece was inspired not only by the commentary surrounding the unexpected residency of a Cooper’s Hawk in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, but by my burgeoning awareness of the use of hawk and dove terminology, not only to describe modern positions on the political discourse, but growing from game theory and strategy developed by the Pentagon, and ultimately having it’s roots in the 12th Congress that advocated war with the British in 1812. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in a city whose existence owes everything to the exercise of political power, the terms hawk and dove operate as site specific to Washington DC, and act as an invocation of the city and it’s federal function. The bird’s eye view clearly connects with my doctoral research, allowing me to twin the pervasive eye of government with it’s own vulnerability to polarisation.