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Marie Sommer

Artist and researcher
Summer 2024

  • Visual Arts
  • Washington, DC

“By conducting an archeological study of a specific image capture device and its particular operation, my project seeks to ascertain what meaning is derived from displaying the images and artefacts of military surveillance in archives and museum institutions.”

My work as an artist and researcher focuses on concealed or neglected environments; obsolete architecture and technology; and how these environments, spaces, and technologies connect to the living world. By taking photographs and videos in conserved or ruined spaces, and by reinterpreting archives, I explore various systems of images to question their role in our perception of history.

Through my participation in residencies and research programs since 2009, I have investigated many sites that lie beyond the visible realm, in Germany, Spain, Canada, and Japan, among others. I follow an exploratory approach motivated by the in-situ experience and situated viewpoint that arise from encounters and narratives. My creation is interwoven into my research work.

This project developed alongside Villa Albertine is part of a wider, three-stage research-creation project bringing together three spaces and devices of pre-digital surveillance that were rendered useless by the end of the Cold War. The first work, in 2018, was a video installation exploring the museumification of the East-German Stasi ministry and the fate of the personal records held there. Next was a project that I began in 2020, involving a publication and installation on the DEW Line. The still-intact structures of this system have been hidden from view, now echoes of a fruitless attempt to colonize the Arctic. Lastly is the Vertical Archive chapter, which is what I will develop with Villa Albertine. This phase explores the vestiges of CORONA, the United States’ first satellite surveillance devices, which have the particular characteristic of being analog. Addressing the history of remote sensing technology and the appropriation of extraterrestrial space, this project will bring the trilogy to a close.

Marie Sommer is a photographer and video artist whose work has been exhibited at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg, the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, the Château de Rentilly, among others, and in festivals, such as the Rencontres d’Arles, Photo Espana, Photo Ireland, Planche-Contact Deauville, the European Month of Photography, and Kyotographies. Her artist’s residencies include Casa Velázquez in Madrid, the Centre Photographique d’Île-de-France, the Cité des Arts in Paris, and Centre Vu in Quebec. She is a laureate of the Le BAL/ SFR Prize, the White House Photography Award, and the European Photography Exhibition Award. Her work was published in Teufelsberg (Filigranes & Le BAL, 2010), Une île (Filigranes, 2020), and Dew-Line Sites (CAN, 2021). She is an artist-researcher at UQAM as part of Archiver le présent, an international, interdisciplinary research group that explores notions of exhaustiveness in contemporary cultural productions.

The Vertical Archive project revolves around CORONA—the United States’ first surveillance satellites—and the analog images produced by this system. It invites a reinterpretation of the history of overhead surveillance using a little-known technique, but one that underpins an essential technology of the present day: remote sensing. In order to delve into the origins of space reconnaissance technology, it is important to consider it as a forerunner to the mechanical eye, and examine its implications on the monitoring of spaces and bodies. The project also questions the materiality of spatial images and devices, which is to say their remnants and the conservation thereof.

By capturing and replicating photographs and artefacts, and by examining their use in archives and museums, my goal is to reveal a device that is hidden and yet remains current. I will gather records of the practices and handling of these space photographs as carried out by remote sensing agents, archivists, historians, curators, researchers, geologists, and so forth in order to form a constellation of situated knowledge. This knowledge will then be collated into a work of photography and video.

The starting point of my project is a particular device once used for covert space surveillance. The device in question captured analog photographs on long film rolls, which traveled from space in capsules to be consulted and conserved. In this way, the image embarked on a journey that could lead to its potential destruction. Since their declassification, the now-visible remnants (both satellites and captured images) have been acquired by archives and museums in Washington, DC, thereby taking on uses that differ from their intended purpose. By conducting an archeological study of a specific image capture device and its particular operation, my project seeks to ascertain what meaning is derived from displaying the images and artefacts of military surveillance in archives and museum institutions.

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