Bilderfahrzeuge Lecture Series: The Planetary Experiment at the Warburg Institute


Orit Halpern(Concordia University Montreal)

01 — 01 12 2021

Bilderfahrzeuge Lecture Series: “Pattern Recognition”

Prof. Orit Halpern (Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University, Montreal): ‘The Planetary Experiment’

On April 10, 2019, the first image of a black hole(Opens in new window) appeared to humanity. To produce this miracle demanded that scientists and engineers from a team spanning the globe turn the Earth itself into a vast sensor to gather data from black holes: the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Only a dish the size of this planet could create a sensor sensitive enough to collect weak electromagnetic signals from more than 50 million light years away in order to provide, at long last, empirical evidence supporting Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The opening question is how did we come to envision the entire planet as a medium for computation and as a sensor for data collection? And how might we reflect on this condition and its implications for our present? This talk will visit the landscape of the Atacama desert to probe the integration of high technology, experimentation, and new forms of extraction to plot a road map to our planetary and post-planetary future imaginaries.

This annual lecture series is organised by the international research project Bilderfahrzeuge: Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology. The term “pattern recognition” owes its ubiquity across a wide range of sciences to advances in fields like computer programming, statistics and cybernetics after the Second World War. Yet the basic process of ordering raw data or visual images into identifiable structures has existed for much longer, also within traditionally humanistic contexts. Aby Warburg’s multidirectional and nonlinear science of images (Bildwissenschaft) began with the research of patterns and ‘pathos formulas’ in the historical record of European and Near Eastern art. Today, as our interactions with images are increasingly shaped by nonhuman intelligences, the practice of visual pattern recognition offers new ways of historicizing the changing relationships between psychology and technology, intuition and automation, cognition and control. This lecture series explores how pattern recognition has functioned and continues to function as a distinct modality of image-based knowledge production, from the study of global ornaments in the nineteenth century to digital surveillance and profiling in the twenty-first.