How do three ageing satellites orbiting overhead prompt reflections on humanity’s place in the cosmos? Kate Gu delves into Xin Liu’s interactive work The Earth Is an Image, examining humanity's relationship to Earth and our view of it from above, drawing inspiration from traditional Chinese philosophical perspectives.
Approximately four times every day, three satellites operated by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States—NOAA-15, NOAA-18, and NOAA-19—pass over Hong Kong en route to the South Pole. Launched between 1998 and 2009, they capture high-resolution images of the Earth’s atmosphere for weather forecasting. Over decades of operation, various instruments on the three satellites have deteriorated, failed, or become obsolete. Their service periods are expected to end between 2023 and 2024. When decommissioned, they will be ‘deorbited’, incinerated while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Although in a state of half-retirement, the satellites are still dutifully transmitting climate data back to Earth.
To artist and engineer Xin Liu, the life of the satellites is a melancholic thrum, metal-clad bodies orbiting, camera eyes shuttering, in vacuum solitude awaiting their fate to arrive. To unfurl their stories, Liu created the web-based M+ digital commission The Earth Is an Image (2021) with an antenna installed by Hong Kong Amateur Radio Transmitting Society in their local compound. Once the three NOAA satellites enter the range of antenna reception, the website turns into a live streaming audiovisual experience where satellite images, sounds of analogue signals, and an imaginary conversation with a personified satellite are interweaved. The work hopes for viewers with patience to partake in the journeys of these estranged bodies.
Despite this poetic sensibility, The Earth Is an Image is not a romanticised take on advanced technology. On the contrary, it is an attempt to demystify the standard, sleek visual of Earth, which is digitally rendered by stitching together pictures taken by satellites. Behind the amalgamation of the perfect ‘Blue Marble’ image is a desire to forge the representation as well as the concept of Earth, as if with the hands of the Almighty. The Earth Is an Image criticises this superior conception of Earth from a viewpoint in outer space, a display of human hubris. The work also serves as an invitation to perceive Earth differently and imagine alternative relationships among humans, Earth, and the universe.
In ‘Sounds of the Universe’ (2021), his science fiction story responding to Liu’s commission, writer Chen Qiufan depicts a lunatic who claims the ability to communicate with the universe, therefore convincing himself that he is the saviour of the world. Having sensory-enhancing body implants, he hears voices from space via satellite signals. The piece riffs on Lu Xun’s 1918 seminal short story ‘Diary of a Madman’, whose jittery narration of a cannibalist village reprimands Chinese feudal society. Similarly, through the blather of the protagonist, Chen resists the sort of Sinofuturism that aspires to the accelerationist development of contemporary society fuelled by technology.
The story also recalls the traditional Chinese concept of tian ren gan ying (天人感應). Tian (sky) could refer to nature, transcendence, and personal god. In this idea, ren (humans) resonate and communicate with tian through a compatible, coordinated, and consistent system. Ultimately, tian ren he yi (天人合一), a harmonious union of people and the heavens, is achieved.
Tian ren he yi has a long history in Chinese philosophy, with traces to be found in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, which transfused and coalesced into traditional Chinese intellectual thought. Derived from an agrarian culture in need of observing and following natural cycles, the concept of tian ren he yi developed into different theories over time. In Mencius and Neo-Confucianism, tian ren he yi encourages moral introspection to improve and elevate one’s humanity. In the worldview of Xunzi, a Confucian philosopher in 300 BC, one should study and obey the rules of nature in order to thrive. For the Han Dynasty philosopher and politician Dong Zhongshu, tian and ren become one by falling into a cosmological network where everything—nature, personal gods, humans, even familial relationships and political systems—is interdependent and contains dialectical conflicts and harmonies. Individual entities facilitate and restrain each other to reach stability; they are in constant flux, feeding back into the totality to adjust and restore balance. It should be emphasised, however, that this complex cosmic order also serves a top-down ruling system that solidifies domineering power to the emperor.
Liu’s satellites reflect on their inhabitance in outer space and their omniscient viewing position: the perspective of ‘god’. Their monologue calls into question our history of using technology to conquer nature. Since the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century Europe, which witnessed the birth of the steam engine, human activities have made tremendous imprints on the planet’s geology and ecosystem, precipitating the Anthropocene. We didn’t stop at the terrestrial bound. Better telescopes are built, the latest being the James Webb Space Telescope that can see deeper and clearer into the cosmos than ever before, and further space expeditions are made to occupy and gain god-like access to the universe. This is another type of tian ren he yi, but one about expansion, extraction, and subjugation.
In The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2021), scholar Yuk Hui articulates the need to renew philosophical thought in relation to contemporary technological activities in China by examining traditional Chinese cosmology. Hui describes the potential to bridge the cultural, intellectual, and discursive gaps between ancient Chinese cosmology and Western modernist ideas of technology forcefully introduced to China since the Opium War. In order to surface a new technical consciousness that diverges from the current practices of accelerationism, capitalist globalisation, and oppressive surveillance, both Liu and Chen hinted at a new reading of tian ren he yi—one that is holistic but non-hierarchical. Therefore, the philosophy should be updated to value a symbiotic and self-regenerative homeostasis of all beings. It can dissolve boundaries and reconcile differences, share and cherish resources, and improve lexical and spiritual comprehension of the universe to build planetary and cosmic conviviality. In this new paradigm, technology defies neocolonial influences of control and manipulation and the subsumption into old technocracies that haphazardly burden humanity with anthropocentric catastrophes. Instead, technology collaborates with other constituting organisms to a state of tian ren he yi, just like the satellites in Liu’s work. Rather than being weaponised for military research, these satellites are used to elicit reflections on humanity’s relationship to the planet and sustainable living. They remind us of our humble position and infinite curiosity towards the universe every time we look up into the sky.
‘Currently flying’, National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), NOAA, accessed 30 January 2023, https://www.nesdis.noaa.gov/current-satellite-missions/currently-flying.
Li Zehou, Zhongguo gudai sixiang shilun [On Traditional Chinese Intellectual History] (Taipei: San Min Book Co., Ltd, 2022), 391.