Geert Lovink [c] on Wed, 2 Nov 2005 14:27:50 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Interview with Lisa Parks [u]

	Subject:  Interview with Lisa Parks
	Date: 	  1 November 2005 2:49:46 PM

Out There: Exploring Satellite Awareness
Interview with Lisa Parks
By Geert Lovink

In her book Cultures in Orbit (2005), media theorist Lisa Parks describes
satellite technology as a 'structuring absence'. Satellites play a key role in
today's global news industry and its "spotlighting of the apparatus" (Elsaesser).
However, the key ingredient of the global live connection remains invisible. This
is reflected in most of the studies of 'the televisual', as Parks calls the
infrastructure behind the channels we watch. With Cultures in Orbit, Parks
established herself as probably one the first 'satellite theorists' who analyses
this technology from a critical, cultural perspective.

The book opens with a chapter on the 1967 global TV show called Our World, that
explicitly featured the satellite and promoted the idea of 'global presence'. Even
though the event was neither live nor global, according to today's standards,
debates around the early satellite days remind of the current Internet Governance
discussions, which take place around the World Summit on the Information Society.
In the same year, 1967, UN members signed the Outer Space Treaty, prohibiting
national appropriation of outer space, while discussing the role of third world
countries, which, at the time, did not possess satellites at all. A chapter about
the Australian Imparja TV and aboriginal TV initiatives is also included. A
different use Parks found in Alexandria, Egypt, where satellite pictures were used
in the excavation of Cleopatra's place.

The most interesting piece of Cultures in Orbit forms a reconstruction of the role
that satellite 'witnessing' pictures played in the immediate aftermath of the 1995
Srebrenica mass killings in Bosnia.  Remote sensing evidence of mass graves,
broadcast on the US networks, contributed greatly to US military involvement and
the following Dayton agreements. In 2001 Lisa Parks went to Bosnia, to shift her
position, "to move my eyes from the orbit to the ground," experiencing a "fantasy
of proximity." The story illustrates how easy it is to visit a historical location
and yet how difficult is it is to bring together techno proximity with the
materiality of the actual location, symbolized by a shoe she finds in the fields.
Parks' case studies show the potential of thinking through certain technologies,
instead of merely watching the final products that we, media consumers, are being
offered. Without a trace of techno-determinism, Cultures in Orbit proves that it
is possible to tell stories and develop new media concepts.

Lisa Parks, PhD, is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at the
University of California at Santa Barbara. She is co-editor of Planet TV: A Global
Television Studies Reader (NYU Press 2002) and has published essays in several
book collections and in such journals as Screen, Television and New Media, Social
Identities, and Ecumene. She has taught as a visiting professor in the School of
Cinema-TV at USC and at the Institute for Graduate Study in the Humanities in
Ljubljana, Slovenia. Parks teaches courses such as global media, television
history, new media theory, video art and activism, war and media, advanced film
analysis, and feminist media criticism. She is also co-producer of "Experiments in
Satellite Media Arts" with Ursula Biemann at the Makrolab (2002) and "Loom" with
Miha Vipotnik (2004), and has been a co-investigator in international funded
projects including the Missing Links Research Project (UCSB-Utrecht) and the
Transcultural Geography Project (Zurich-Cologne-Ljubljana). She has just started
to direct the Global Cultures in Transition research initiative at UCSB's Center
for Information Technology and Society and is currently a research fellow at the
UC Humanities Research Institute.

GL: So far, the satellite has barely existed as an object of interest, not even
within television studies or media theory. Though widely used, the apparatus
remains invisible, in the background. As a consequence we don't know much about
its inner architecture. You've been engaged for years with satellites. Did you get
to know them?

LP: I have always been interested in the insides of machines because they confound
me. I?m much more of a media and cultural analyst than a historian of technology,
though, so the knowledge I have about the engineering and design of satellites is
somewhat limited. Each satellite has its own technical and socio-cultural history
and it is difficult to make generalizations, but I think of them as floating balls
made up of combinations of coordinated systems involving energy (solar panels and
batteries), communication (antennae and transponders), optics (cameras and
sensors), and navigation (thrusters). I would love to visit a clean room where a
satellite is being assembled and I once met a man on a plane who gave me a photo
of himself embedding a part in a satellite and invited me to visit his facility. I
have yet to track him down. Rather than focus on inner architecture in my book I
wanted to explore the satellite?s outer effects. There are many books about
satellite engineering and design but very few about satellites and society or
culture -- what does this suggest?

GL: So how could we get a sophisticated satellite theory?

LP: First we need more description and analysis of the ways satellites have been
used. We know they are used for signal distribution, remote sensing, espionage,
global positioning, astronomical observation, and so on, but we still don?t know
satellites by name. So in addition to delineating their uses in greater detail
perhaps could begin to refer to satellites by name and know who owns them and how
they are used. For instance, we could discuss a communications satellite like
Hotbird 3, which was manufactured by a UK company called Matra Marconi, is owned
by French company Eutelsat, and was launched on September 2, 1997 by the Ariane V
99 rocket. It?s footprint covers Europe and North Africa and extends as far east
as Moscow and Dubai. Which signals pass across its transponders? Where do they
emanate from and where do they end up?  Hotbird 3 carries hundreds of television
and radio channels from countries including Italy, Syria, Yemen, India and
Thailand just to name a very few. (For a list of all signals carried by Hotbird 3
see In short, before we get to a sophisticated
satellite theory we need to do the grunt work of mapping out and understanding the
material conditions of the satellite economy.  Then we can begin to postulate
theories about the ways satellite technologies restructure global time/space and

We could do the same kind of thing with a remote sensing satellite.  Remote
sensing and satellite espionage are not just scientific or military practices ?
they have social and cultural implications. Who is taking photos of the earth? How
are those photos being used to produce knowledge about the planet? Who is using
the earth?s surface to generate profit? Who is using it to produce spheres of
influence? There is a need to re-examine the global material conditions through
the rubric of satellite technologies. We need new world maps that show how
footprints override nation-state boundaries, how transponders create new
neighbors, how orbital views generate fields of political activity, and how the
perimeter of the earth is trafficked.

GL: I understand we need more raw data before the real theorization can take off.
But could we perhaps speculate and propose to read satellites as metaphors, as a
new type of technological mirror? Could it be that we have entered a new
collective 'mirror stage'? The lack of common awareness seduces us to return to
psychoanalytic terms and for instance speak of the satellite as an unconscious
apparatus. Or should we rather not go in that direction?

LP: To think about satellites and the unconscious is interesting, but I haven?t
developed any work along those lines. I think it?s intriguing to think about
satellites as metaphors for a collective mirror stage, but such propositions would
need to be worked through more carefully.  Maybe we need a conference on
satellites, culture and power to begin to collectively addressing some of these

GL: Two instances cross to my mind: the launch of the first satellite, the
Soviet-made Sputnik in 1957, at the height of the cold war, which caused a mass
panic about the possibility to drop nuclear weapons out of space (instead of
launching them with missiles). The second wave of heightened satellite awareness
perhaps was during Reagan's launch of the Star Wars program, in the mid eighties,
when people realized that objects in outer space have the potential to strike the
earth. Apart from these exceptions, satellites have been invisible... until
migrants installed the dishes on their balconies. But let's return to your book. 
In Cultures in Orbit you have chosen to describe the spectrum of satellites in
terms of the (tele)visual. Telecommunications satellites are absent. Why? Aren't
all satellite digital these days? Television satellites 'reflect' data, much in
the same way as telecom satellites do. They all 'sense' or 'reflect', more than
they 'see' or 'listen'.  What was your reason to focus on the (tele)visual?

LP: I focus on the televisual because I was trained in the field of television and
cultural studies and I have always thought that we have accepted too narrow a
definition of what ?television? is or could be.  In my book I analyze different
sites of convergence to argue that the televisual is not only as a system of
global commercial entertainment or national public broadcasting, but a set of
technological potentials that involve seeing, hearing and knowing from a distance.
This is an attempt to bring the satellite and computing together with discussions
of television and to challenge determinist logics that attempt to fix the meanings
and potentials of technologies. Television is not only defined through its
technical or internal structures but is also interwoven with language, culture and
socio-economic systems that are historically contingent and as such can become
sites of contestation.  Developing a more discursive definition of television
allows us to imagine struggling over and re-arranging these potentials rather than
abandoning them in favor of a digital euphoria, which, at least in the early days,
tended to ignore the historical patterns by which decentralized network
communication infrastructures (whether telephony, radio, or television) had been
co-opted by state, military and commercial enterprises. So, dealing with the
televisual is a way of inscribing historical struggles over past network
technologies within the more recent initiatives to keep digital technologies as
open, undefined and flexible as possible.

In response to the last part of your question I would say that satellites are
always connected to something somewhere on earth -- so they do see and listen for
some one and it?s a matter of investigating in whose interests they see and hear
for and to what end. There is an entire field of satellite studies possible, just
as we have seen radio, film and television studies develop, and more recently
cyber studies and mobile phone studies. Why not satellite studies? Satellites are
not just reflectors in orbit -- they are actively implicated in a system of global
power relations. They are tethered to institutions, places, bodies, and agendas.

GL: This again leads us again to the question why satellites are the blind spot of
international media theory. Is the link to the military industrial complex a clue
here? On the other hand, we could say that commercial satellite business is
already 40 or so years old. So perhaps we cannot use the argument, time and again,
that satellite information remains a military secret.

LP: I don?t think satellite information remains a secret. It has just not been a
site of study in media studies like the screen has been. In media studies we tend
to gravitate toward objects that are visible and audible, but there are barely
perceptible objects like satellites that are certainly worth considering. The
research that has been done is largely aligned with the history of technology or
international relations and does not necessarily engage with critical theory.

GL: Should we read your approach as a call to develop a materialist theory of the
televisual? The current cultural studies literature is focusing almost exclusively
on representation and identity.

LP: I guess this could be one way of putting it, though scholars that focus on
identity and representation often describe their work as a material-semiotic
approach. There are also earlier television scholars whose work is very much
invested in materialist history and criticism.  Simply put, I?m interested in
examining media technologies through their uses. It?s important not to draw a hard
line between technologies and representation since technologies are not just
physical artifacts but they are also made up of imaginaries, discourses and power
relations. The technical form of television is not fixed -- it shifts historically
and so the televisual can be imagined and materialized in different ways. I try to
stay flexible and non-essentialist in the way I imagine it as a site of history
and criticism. Also, I don?t focus only on television in my research. I try to
think across different audiovisual media and distribution platforms. Lately, I?ve
become more preoccupied with grounded and embedded hardware. Maybe it?s a reaction
to working on orbital cultures. But I did find myself writing about e-waste this
past year and thinking about structured obsolescence, media ruins, and
re-purposing. This involved treating the salvage yard as a site of media studies.
I think there is an important challenge embedded in your question -- what kinds of
different materialities can be found in and around media technologies? Also, how
can we continue to expand the scope and sites of media studies research beyond the
screen and the living room?

GL: You have written about artists and activists appropriating the satellite
technologies. One could mention Deep Dish TV, but also B92 in Serbia and Marko
Peljhan's Makrolab. Have you ever heard of people 'hacking' satellite channels? In
the nineties there were rumors about defunct Soviet satellites, that could be
'squatted' before they would tumble down. Would it make sense, in your view, for
alternative media to own their own satellites?

LP: I wanted to write an entire chapter on Deep Dish TV because it?s such an
important story about alternative media?s appropriations of satellite technology,
but I didn?t do so in part because the activists involved in Deep Dish have
written about it extensively. I did write about Marko?s Makrolab a bit in the
conclusion of my book as well as Brian Springers? excellent video, Spin, which
exposes what happened on satellite backhauls in the age before signal encryption.
Yes, it would be great if alternative media owned their own satellites, but given
the expense that?s unlikely. There were a handful of media artists in the 70s and
80s including Nam Jun Paik, Douglas Davis, Sherrie Rabinowitz, Kit Galloway and
others who leased time on satellites to stage inter-continental performances and
events. I have an essay coming out in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video in
2006 about this topic.

GL: Recently, BBC News announced that it has installed a new 'delay' technology in
order to monitor incoming live feeds. From now on even live television can be
controlled without the viewer having an idea about it. This happened in response
to the uncensored broadcasting of the bloody Beslan school siege in Russia by
Chechen fighters. Doesn't this signal the end of the satellite age? Isn't the
'live' aspect a crucial part of our global television age?

LP: The meanings of ?liveness? have been regulated and controlled since the
earliest days of television and arguably since the age of telegraphy. Many ?live?
media events are carefully planned. Perhaps a more interesting issue to bring up
here is the idea that we have the capability for constant monitoring of the earth,
but there is such an enormous volume of data whether live television feeds coming
from various locations or remote sensing and espionage imagery that it is
impossible to put this ?live coverage? to use without sophisticated sorting and
filtering technologies. What this means is that data mining is now necessary for
live media to be of any real value. We have reams of ?live media? that go directly
to enormous supercomputers where they are archived so that they can be used
retrospectively. Perhaps in the digital age retrospective media will replace live
media. With the omnipresence of the camera both on earth and in orbit, we will
move into a situation where there is bound to be some coverage of any given event
happening on the earth, it?s just a matter of retrieving it.

GL: I am curious about the link between satellites and the Internet. Is there any
particular relation between these two in your mind? We all probably know that
Internet traffic through satellite is still expensive, much in the same way as
satellite telephone.

LP: This is an interesting topic that could go in different directions.  The rates
for satellite internet services are starting to drop and are becoming competitive
with ground-based ISPs. A use model for this in the US comes from the retired RV
enthusiasts who mount their dish on their vehicle everywhere they go. They have
mobile subscriptions to satellite television and satellite Internet services and
can roam while viewing TV and surfing the web and don?t need to find WiFi
hotspots.  There are a bunch of companies trying to lure DSL customers away from
the major ISPs including Spacenet, Starband, Skycasters, Infosat, VisualLink,
Quiksat. (This, the by way, is analogous to the historical and ongoing battle
between cable and satellite television operators in the US.) Satellites are now
being manufactured for specific Internet service capacities. On August 11, 2005 a
Thai company launched Thaicom 4, called ?the biggest satellite in the world? and
made by SpaceSystems/Loral in Palo Alto, California, in part to provide broadband
Internet service throughout the Asia Pacific, Australia and New Zealand. It has a
bandwidth capacity of 45 gigabytes per second and will route data through 18
gateways. As the capacity onboard satellites expands, the prices for satellite
internet service will likely drop.  And as users grow more accustomed to
high-bandwidth there will be greater demand for services in which there are no
dead zones.

There are other ways to talk about satellites and the Internet as well.  Satellite
images, for instance, would not have been mass circulated in the same way without
the web. There are portals, mapping services and archives that make satellite
images more widely available. Consider how google maps has hardwired satellite
images into its service. It is also possible to track satellites in orbit at a web
interface, to find lists of television signals carried on a particular satellite,
or to learn of future launch dates. So the web has become a gateway for learning
more about satellite technology and the practices that help shape it.

GL: Could you tell us something about your engagement in Eastern Europe? How do
look at 'New Europe' from the frontiers of former times, California, where you
teach? Do you find it hilarious, perhaps comfortable to spend time amongst the
former Yugoslavs? It is a theory-rich region. Can you use certain concepts from
there in your own work?

I first went to Bosnia in 2001 to do research for chapter three of Cultures in
Orbit, which examines the US?s circulation of satellite images of mass graves in
Srebrenica. It was a difficult trip, but I met some dear friends along the way and
became more aware of my own need to track and study what the US does in countries
elsewhere. I have been back to the region many times since then and have lived in
Slovenia and Croatia during the summers. I have been researching US/NATO
destruction of the Yugoslav broadcast and telecom infrastructure and the
replacement of it with ?liberalized? and ?democratic? media systems largely owned
by Western (US and European) conglomerates. I became interested in the region in
part because of its political history. It amazed me that ethnic communities came
together to form Yugoslavia after the horrors of WWII. The country also remained
non-aligned movement during the Cold War and developed a unique version of
socialism. The recent war was tragic and discussion of it in the US has been
largely eclipsed by Afghanistan and Iraq. I see these wars as interrelated,
however, and as part of an episodic pattern of US aggression and sabotaged

You?re right to say that it is a theory-rich region and I hope concepts will
inform my future work. I don?t find it ?hilarious? to spend time with former
Yugoslavs. I find it energizing. There is definitely a long distance between
former Yugoslavia and California, but such distances can be illuminating.
California is not just America?s playground as it may sometimes appear. It is a
state with an enormous industrial sector, ethnic communities from around the
world, and complex systems of class stratification. In Los Angeles there are
ethnic tensions that may parallel the kind that led to war in Yugoslavia. It?s
interesting to think about what prevents war from erupting in this country. The
boundaries of Europe are certainly changing, but from the perspective of the US
(and perhaps from other former colonies) they have never appeared as fixed since
European extensions and migrations led to the formation of our country. I had
never thought about it in the terms you pose, but perhaps it is true that I am
sitting in the ?American frontier? (now governed, ironically enough, by a
Schwarzenegger from the heart of old Europe), reflecting upon the new frontiers of
Europe.  What would happen if formerly socialist states in Eastern Europe
collectively decided to become a federation rather than to become part of the EU
and NATO? I realize this is a far-fetched idea, but is conformity with Western
Europe necessarily the most desirable goal? To what extent are Eastern Europeans
involved in determining the processes and parameters of their integration? How
will difference be preserved across the New Europe? What borders and regulatory
systems are defining the New Europe? How are media cultures and technologies
implicated in their implementation and maintenance? Working between California and
former Yugoslavia has given me an oblique perspective on these issues, and has led
me to understand ?New Europe? not only as a set of material conditions on the
continent across the Atlantic, but also as an ongoing conceptual challenge to
those who are imagining, creating and/or reforming political administrations in
the world.

GL: Where would you ideally like to take your work on satellites? Are you working
on a next book? I could imagine that you have moved on a fair bit in your thinking
from Cultures in Orbit.

LP: I am working on an essay about the lives of three different satellites,
comparing their histories, uses, positioning, effects, and evaluating why they are
such obscure objects in media studies. I also just finished a project called
Postwar Footprints about the way satellite and wireless footprints have been used
to re-map parts of former Yugoslavia and link these regions to conglomerates in
Western Europe and the US as part of European integration. This research is part
of an art exhibition that opens at KW in Berlin on December 17, 2005. In some
respects the detachment and invisibility of satellites has led me to become more
interested in physical infrastructures. I?m writing a new book called Mixed
Signals: Media Technologies and Cultural Geography, which explores emerging media
systems in fringe areas -- areas on the edges of urban space and networked
infrastructures. Some of these places might show up as dark zones in a composite
satellite image of the earth at night. I?m interested in exploring the different
atmospherics that form in areas that are either heavily networked or not very
networked at all. Perhaps this is because I am fundamentally suspicious of
integration as a political, economic and cultural goal and I think there is much
to learn from areas that maintain some detachment and autonomy in a world that can
be interconnected. I might even call these areas satellites in a kind of
metaphoric way in that they exist around and in relation to centers of power
(whether financial, technological, or cultural), but are distinct from them. So
the satellite will definitely remain in my work, but it will inevitably mutate and
take on different (sometimes metaphoric or metonymic) forms.


Lisa Parks, Cultures in Orbit, Satellites and the Televisual, Duke University
Press, Durham/London, 2005.

Selected links:


Censored 2006 yearbook:

Transcultural Geographies:

UCSB Transliteracy project:

Deep Dish grassroots satellite project: plus a bit of
its history:

Marko Peljhan's Makrolab: 

UCSB's Center for Information Technology and Society:

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