John Palmesino / Territorial Agency – London

Observing Transformations

17.5.2011 19:00 / HfG Karlsruhe ArchStudio223



One of the most radical transformative moments in the history of inhabited territories is marked by the appointment of Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren as Surveyors of the City and of the King respectively, following the Great Fire of London in 1666. The immense survey would combine the measurement of land plots, management of tenders and building schedules for the rapid reconstruction of the destroyed city. Through the deployment of the new optical instruments for measurement and governance technologies for one of the most daring construction projects in Europe, a new dynamic relation between knowledge production and form of the inhabited space was set in motion, one that would reassert the relation between polity and space. The conjunction between the new remote observation technologies and sciences (from the telescopic observation of the skies to the minute biological insights of the microscope) and the imperial sweep of management and economic techniques gave rise to London as a World City and to a reinvigorated set of development forces based on surveying technologies, land usage governance, land subdivisions, enclosures, taxation techniques and new infrastructures. These were in turn accompanied by the establishment of new professional categories and connections between spatial, legal and economic practices. We could argue that the history of the transformation of modern territories and that of experimental remote observations is a complex mixture of human and material processes, linking the measurement of the world to ist dominion. The lecture investigates two distinct contemporary strands of this development: on one side it inquires into how new remote-sensing technologies are shaping and carving contemporary spaces of operation and sovereignty, and on the other side we will focus on the agency that these new technologies elicit and entail.


A. Observations

The lecture will focus on sets of new image-making and processing technologies and their link to the space of law, the space of finances and the space of inhabitation. The rise of new possibilities of measuring and describing the complex systems that form the Earth has unexpected connections with contemporary reshaping of the notions of sovereignty, exclusive economic licensing and more in general on notions of inhabitation. The research will single out a series of contemporary situations and will trace the complex links and exchanges between the production of new images through remote sensing and the outline of new legal and governmental issues. A first example is the usage of submarine sonar imagery for the production of complex representations of the continental shelves which gives rise to unexpected new sovereignty claims and redefinitions of international laws (i.e. the link between remote sensing of the depths of the oceans and the many rounds of revisions of the UNCLOS-United Nations Commission on the Law of the Seas). The new possibilities offered by remote sensing technologies envisages a redefinition of the continental shelf extension and the linked exclusive economic usage and licensing rights (as in energy and mineral resources).


B. Transformations

A second example of knowledge production is the usage of high-resolution satellite imagery in human rights campaigns and in international diplomacy. Recent developments in remote sensing techniques has allowed a number of international actions to be undertaken against regimes that systematically violate human rights. The new imagery that is made available by these new technologies allows to gather information and evidence in cases of forced relocation, ethnic cleansing and violent actions in the inhabited space. Often the difficulty of access to direct testimony and observations hinders the cases against the perpetrators of human rights violations. Through the sophisticated analysis by means of remote sensing, and pre-post comparative inquiries, these difficulties can be overcome. High-resolution images of a settlement in Zimbabwe have been collected by the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and provide evidence that the Government of Zimbabwe has engaged in violent forced relocation as part of a campaign aimed against political opponents.



John Palmesino is an architect and urbanist. He is co-founder of Territorial Agency, an independent organisation that works for integrated spatial transformations combining contemporary architecture, urbanism, advocacy and action. He is Unit Master at the AA Architectural Association in London and Research Advisor at the Jan Van Eyck Academie in Maastricht. He is currently pursuing his PhD research on the implications of neutrality on the transformation of contemporary territories at the Research Architecture Centre, Goldsmiths, where he also leads the MA seminars. Previously he has been Head of Research at ETH Zurich– Studio Basel Contemporary City Institute. He is a founding member of Multiplicity, an international research network that works at the connection between architecture, geography, contemporary art end general culture.