Steve Rowell

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© 2020 Stéve Röwëll

Uncanny Sensing, Remote Valleys
2013-2020


Uncanny Sensing, Remote Valleys is a project aimed at investigating ecology and post-natural landscapes. It is about the rise of the machine in the age of the Anthropocene and how we understand, perceive, and experience the environment using technology – giving us a view of a life-supporting Earth that is digital, synthetic, strange, uncanny.
Nonhuman photograph captured by motion sensor trail cam of a female wolf in the Fort McCoy Barrens State Natural Area, Wisconsin.

Through the use of autonomous aerial cameras, air-monitoring sensors, and sound detectors, I present media and data gathered in the field documenting animal behavior, plant cycles, waste, displacement, erosion, and other elements of the human-altered landscape. Some of this material I’ve collected myself, some has been appropriated from various sources: federal and municipal agencies, the US military, watchdog non-profits, university research groups, and from members of the public.

The title of the project is a reconfiguration of the terms:
remote sensing a method of data collection from the physical world via sensors and other remote technology and uncanny valley the cognitive dissonance caused by lifelike replicas of living things. First discovered by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, The uncanny valley is defined as a level of realism in which the human observer has a negative reaction. Any less realistic and we feel empathy; any more realistic and we can't distinguish that it's artificial. the valley in between produces repulsion, disgust, fear, etc.

Do we experience the uncanny valley when encountering nonhumans, those of flesh and blood or built in a lab?

Do other beings sentient or not experience the uncanny valley when encountering us or the devices and remnants we scatter across the landscape?

Have we become undead to them?


Note: Excerpts reel above contains some sequences to be shown on floors or walls vertically using projectors and screens in portrait mode.
Imagery from the NASA Scientific Visualization Studio, used with permission and for informational purposes.


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Currently in production as a series of regional prototype exhibits and fieldwork experiments, is scheduled to premiere in 2020 as a multi-screen, immersive video and sound installation. Uncanny Sensing, Remote Valleys is supported from a 2013-14 Creative Capital award and a 2019 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship.

Sites of fieldwork, interviews, sensor deployment, and location filming include:

  • Remnants of primeval forest and geologic-time resource exploitation (frack-sand, glacial till, aquifers) in Wisconsin
  • Industrial plants, sinking neighborhoods, synthetic airspaces, and doomed wetlands along the petrochemical Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana
  • Sites of refuge from global warming and direct action history in the Pacific Northwest
  • Techno-institutional landscapes of transhumanists / futurists in the Silicon Valley
  • Archival footage and sound recordings of extinct and critically endangered animals (Macaulay Library, Cornell U)
  • Interviews with climate change deniers (e.g. Florida, Washington D.C.)
  • Remote sensing laboratories at federal sites (NASA JPL, USAF, USNAV)
  • Geoengineering efforts at institutional sites (CALTECH, Arizona State)
  • DARPA supported robotics, autonomous tech, and artificial intelligence projects (Boston Dynamics, undisclosed private corporations)
  • Remote sensing sites at sea (various off west / east coasts)
  • The Arctic and Antarctic (Beaufort Sea, Alaska; Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica, Svalbard, Norway)

    Project prototyping schedule
    March 2015: Uncanny Sensing (TX Prototype), part of Placing the Golden Spike: Landscapes of the Anthropocene group show, INOVA Gallery, Milwaukee
    April 2014: Uncanny Sensing (TX Prototype), part of CounterCurrent 14 festival, Mitchell Center for the Arts, Houston
    June-August 2013: Uncanny Sensing (WI Prototype), solo show at INOVA, Milwaukee

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    "The Uncanny Valley Is in Fact a Gigantic Plain,
    Stretching as Far as the Eye Can See in Every Direction"

    - Timothy Morton, January 2015 lecture, Rice University, Houston



    Example of a regional investigation: Evidence of subsidence in the coastal areas of the Gulf Coast is clearly seen from the perspective of a drone. Here, what's left of the subdivision of Brownwood (formerly housing Exxon executives) is literally sinking into the rising waters of the Houston Ship Channel. The neighboring Exxon-Mobil petrochemical refinery, the 2nd largest in the US, can be seen to the right. The oil giant literally undermined its own employees. Subsidence in the Houston metro-region is caused by the extraction of water, gas, and oil from underground salt domes which formed during the early Cenozoic Era over 50 millions years ago. The unbridled extraction of fluids and gas has, in turn, caused the entire coastal plain of Texas and Louisiana to tilt more than it would naturally, subsiding (or sinking) this synthetic, anthropic landscape of hydrocarbon splitting furnaces. In some cases, this subsidence has occurred more than 10 feet over the past half century. As the sea rises, due of manmade climate change, flooding will accelerate and entire neighborhoods, towns, wetlands, and ecosystems will be submerged beneath the murky, sub-tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf is now altered on the molecular level after more than a century of petrochemical leaks and dumping from a largely deregulated petroleum industry, the most powerful in the world.


    A river in the Mark Twin National Forest in the Missouri Ozarks has been turned into a flowing waste stream of effluent from a zinc and lead mine.
    Nothing lives in this swath of death.


    A howl box, outfitted with parabolic microphones, waterproof speakers, and recording/playback equipment, used to monitor wolf migration in the forests of north Wisconsin.


    Premiere of the regional exhibition: Uncanny Sensing, INOVA, Milwaukee, June-August 2013.