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Creating INSULAE

Artist Nye Thompson talks us through the process of creating INSULAE, a major moving image artwork that featured as part of the You and AI: Through the Algorithmic Lens exhibition

Nye Thompson


I created INSULAE (Of the Island) back in 2019. It was actually my first major moving image work, and was a joint commission between The Barbican, Sky Arts 50 and Lumen Art Projects. INSULAE is a perpetually looping digitally-reconstructed tour of the waters just off the British coastline. The piece circles right round the British mainland, and is about 6 hours long. 

This work was created in the final months before the shambolic tragedy of Brexit, and while making it I was contemplating the impact of island geography on the British sense of national identity. The ocean forms a buffer between the UK and the rest of the world, and the viewer is taken on an endless journey, obsessively patrolling our watery borders. In the work, the deeply emotive concept of the national border is re-framed as aesthetics through the distancing godgaze of the satellite imagery.

INSULAE was initially designed to be shown in a very particular space in the Barbican, and the dynamics of this public space had a big impact on the work. I wanted to create something that a viewer could enjoy just for a minute as they walk by or could be watched for long periods over a drink – something that could be meaningfully encountered at any stage in the cycle. This intended relationship between work and viewer was a key factor in my adopting a kind of anti-narrative format for the work.

INSULAE at the Barbican. Image credit: Geoff Titley.  

I created INSULAE with footage generated in Google Earth, and in a way the work actually represents a form of drawing:  I drew a long composite line that went right around the British coastline – close to the shore but never quite reaching it. I then set a virtual camera to journey along this drawn line a section at a time, generating footage as it went. All this footage was then brought into post-production to create the finished 6 hour film. 

The Google Earth platform is a source of material that I just keep coming back to. I’m kind of obsessed with it and what it represents: this epic act of digital colonisation of the world, cultural aesthetics powered by government and military mapping technologies. The way it generates a new shared reality overlaying and conflated with the physical world. It makes new means of world exploration publicly available, while at the same time taking ownership of the visible appearance of the worlds and controlling what can and can’t be seen. 

INSULAE is a meditation on the sea within a particular social and political framework, and at the same time, it’s a demonstration of the constructedness of this imagery which makes claims at representing reality. This Google Earth satellite imagery has the quality of looking like ‘reality’ but in fact it is a patchwork of data from different sources, processed, visually enhanced, artificially beautified and reconstructed by Google and the major satellite imaging suppliers. Some objects will have been removed or obscured behind the scenes at the request of governments with sufficient political clout. While making INSULAE one of the reasons I found the Google Earth sea footage so fascinating is that it is kind of marginal data – a place where people don’t normally look. So this constructed nature of this world is so much more apparent than you’d find for example if you were looking at the streets of London. When you watch INSULAE you will see all these ‘data borders’ – lines where 2 or more separate sets of satellite imagery are joined together. And then there is a perimeter – another border – where the fairly high resolution imagery stops and becomes a blurred approximation of sea water. I find this really interesting as a tracer of strategic attention-paying. So it was important to me not to alter the quality or nature of the footage – the colours, distortion, artificial borders and glitches are all products of the original satellite imagery and the way that this has been handled and re-constructed at source.

I also wanted to create a very particular experience for the viewer, something on a more physical level. We are all so over-stimulated all the time – especially by digital media – that I wanted to create something that was cognitively quite quiet. A piece of work where nothing much happens for large periods of time and the viewer is just waiting. I’m interested in that state of anticipation. Because then when something does happen – when something new glides into view – you are able to give it a much higher degree of attention, and I think there is something very emotionally rewarding in that.

Recently I’ve started working on an updated version of INSULAE. The image data Google Earth uses to recreate the world is constantly being updated so I was very interested in documenting that evolution. I see this as a project that could continue indefinitely. So I’ve been remaking that original virtual camera journey using the newest data. For this version, in keeping with the developments in AI-driven 3D reconstruction I have changed the camera angle so that the horizon is in view. I think there is something really interesting in the idea of moving towards a horizon, there is a sense of striving that adds a new dimension to the journey. 

Nye’s INSULAE installation featured as part of the You and AI: Through the Algorithmic Lens, an immersive and interactive experience exploring how algorithmic systems are constructed and defined and how they impact society and our perception of the world. First commissioned in June 2021 by Onassis Foundation and premiering at Pedion tou Areos in Athens, and presented again in October at Maker Faire Rome.

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