July 08, 2014

Letters from the Balloon I: Arago, Events, and the NSA

Dear Friends,

On a warm summer's evening in the 1830s, the novelist Victor Hugo was walking with his friend François Arago through the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Arago was one of the most famous scientists in France at the time - a time of passion for science, exploration and adventure. He contributed fundamental discoveries in the fields of electromagnetism, optics and geodetics - his name still appears on the medallions set into the ground along the Paris meridian, which he recalculated to greater accuracy than any which preceded it, and craters on the moon and Mars, and a ring of Neptune were named after him. An avowed Republican, he was briefly Prime Minister of France in 1848 - but resigned immediately on being required to swear allegiance to the government of Louis Napoleon.

His political attachments, however, made him a fast friend of Hugo. The celebrated novelist and radical would himself be exiled for his political beliefs in 1851, some twenty years after the publication of Notre-Dame de Paris and Claude Frollo's portentous declaration, looking from book to cathedral, that "This will kill That": the well-distributed word was coming to bring down the edifices, just as Hugo believed that art could undermine the tyranny of the state.

It was from exile in Guernsey in 1856 that Hugo wrote an open letter to the French press, acclaiming the photographer Nadar's book "The Right To Flight", and telling the story of his walk through the Luxembourg Gardens with Arago. It was the eve of a public holiday, and as they walked along the l'allée de l'Observatoire, a large hot air balloon flew overhead, having just lifted off from the Champ de Mars. Hugo and Arago stood transfixed by the "truly majestic" sight, the great sphere gilded by the rays of the setting sun.
I said to Arago: 'There is the floating egg which is destined to become a bird! That bird is still inside the egg. But it will soon emerge!' Arago seized me by both hands and fixed me intently with his large, luminous eyes. 'On that day,' he murmured, 'Geo will become Demos - the Earth will belong to the People!'

Friends, thank you for subscribing to the Letters from the Balloon, part of The Right To Flight, the 2014 commission for Bold Tendencies.

The balloon has been flying several days a week for two weeks now, and I hope some of you have had the opportunity to visit it. If you have not yet, or if you would like to come again, a perfect opportunity to do so presents itself tomorrow night, Wednesday the 9th of July, when we shall play host to two distinguished artists, Jananne al-Ani and Mishka Henner, for a discussion on the uses and abuses of surveillance, aerial imagery, satellites, surveillance and Google Street View. It is sure to be a stimulating evening. You can find out all about the events programme, and sign up for the events (all of them free) at right-to-flight.com/events.

In the first two weeks, we have accomplished no less than eight test flights, achieving an altitude no lower than 200 feet about the streets of London, and have lofted both cameras and darknet wifi routers. You can find out more about the tech programme online, witness the first flight in video, and see photographs of the research station.

We have also been experimenting with footage from the balloon, attempting to transform surveillance imagery into art, reducing its utility as a technology of control, while emphasising how it is constructed, viewed, and consumed. The first results are currently on view in the exhibition space at the rooftop research centre, you can view an excerpt here, online.

This experiment continues from the Rorschmap project, an online exhibition building on Google Maps, Street View, and New York surveillance cameras, exploring the technological gaze and the automation of image gathering.

In other balloon news this week, Greenpeace and the Electronic Frontier Foundation flew a blimp over the NSA's data centre in Utah, to protest against the US government's illegal programme of online mass surveillance. As Britain's Internet service providers take GCHQ to court over their interceptions of our communications, how long before we see balloons over Cheltenham? Nadar would be proud...

Thank you again for following along the project, and you will be hearing from us again soon. Please do check out, and come to, the events, look out for schools and family workshops being announced soon, and follow @righttoflight on Twitter to keep up with balloon launches and other news.

Yours, from Geo but embarked for Demos,

James Bridle and the Right To Flight Crew