> Blue Skies and Error Screens in David Birkin’s Documents of the New York Skyline

Henrietta Landells / Blue Skies and Error Screens in David Birkin’s Documents of the New York Skyline

March 2017


To see one’s own sight means visible blindness’ (Smithson, Robert)

When Sartre first arrived in New York, his characteristic evocations of existential nausea, of philosophical vertigo, were articulated via a description of the city’s peculiar spatial qualities.  He wrote of the discombobulation and loss of orientation, of a ‘New York sickness’, resulting from the absence of navigable clusters of built form which characterise the more organically developed European city, and which ‘protect against space’.  Specifically, here, he was referring to the vast urban stretches of the Manhattan grid (which he subtitles the ‘Great American Desert’), where there is ‘nothing to focus on but the vanishing point.’[1] The extended space and great perspectives feared by the acrophobic here span upwards to include the vertiginous reaches of the skyscraper: the sky itself seemed to be pushed higher.[2]

This disorienting sky is utilised as a medium in a number of photographic works by artist David Birkin, whose performance-based projects explore the violence of redaction, of an absence of photographable, or linguistic, evidence. 


In an apparently spontaneous apparition, the words ‘EXISTENCE OR NONEXISTENCE’ emerged over the skyline of New York City on Memorial Day weekend, 2014. This aerial poetry, commissioned and photographed by Birkin, was in fact taken ad verbatim from a CIA-penned letter, addressed to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), refusing public access to records regarding drone-deployed strikes overseas:

‘…the CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request.’

The crystalline-clear blue skies of a Severe Clear day formed the title of the work, and allowed it to be viewed across the city. A multitude of smartphone snapshots were swiftly uploaded into cyberspace, multiplying and dispersing the performance. These images, their words partially dissolved or cropped, or even inverted (as in a desert mirage), were accompanied by a variety of hashtag addenda in their journey through social media (ranging from ‘Idontknowwhatthemessageis’ and ‘seize the day’ to ‘UFO’, ‘afterlife’ and ‘cloudporn’). The photographs are collectively viewable on the artist’s Tumblr page, and were displayed via an iPad screen in his 2015 solo exhibition Mouths at the Invisible Event at the Mosaic Rooms, London. These atomised perspectives accompany the artist’s own photograph: an aerial panorama of the performance, anchoring the work to the city’s iconic horizon-line, guiding and orienting our vision.

In the rotation and swirl of publicly produced images, another shared horizon-line of orientation – language – is refracted, multiplied, problematised. The phrase amounts to a form of hermeneutic vertigo: in stating that all possibilities are existent, it effectively tells us nothing. It presents a contemporary form of censorship which operates via an excess.   An excess which amounts to a void, an abyss – akin to the excessively clear blue skies into which the puffs of smoke, arranged in a dot-matrix, fade. Like pixels on a giant error screen.

Commercial skywriting’s brief heyday, in the early 20th Century, was driven by military technical innovation. In 1922, a young RAF captain named Cyril Turner experimented with the technique – developed during WW1 – to write ‘Daily Mail’ over the Epsom Downs. This soon led to the founding of the Skywriting Corporation of America. In the 1940s, ‘Drink Pepsi Cola’ appeared no less than 2200 times across various American states. The phenomenon heralded warnings of skies flooded with ‘celestial vandalism’, and even triggered Parliamentary hearings regarding the restriction of textual air traffic.[3] With the rise of broadcast television (and radio), mass advertising was swiftly displaced to private screens and spaces – where novelty and distraction continued unabated. The skies were once again clear – yet today the very clarity of a blank, blue sky has taken on new military associations. It is the latter which Birkin’s textual displacement and photographic rendering opens up.

Cemented by photography, Birkin’s performances perhaps have more in common with the burlesque antics dreamt up by Marinetti’s Futurist ‘aeromythologies’ than they do skywritten advertising. The former’s manifesto called for air-borne explosions of ‘words-in-freedom’ – a flight of fancy which inspired the creation of concrete poetry, where words floated ‘free’ upon the page, their shape and structure drawing out latent meanings and associations. Paul Virilio saw this aerially inspired poetic mode as a mergence of technology and vision which foreshadows the computer screen, in a ‘fusion-confusion of perception and object’. [4]

In a second performance from the Severe Clear project, the ‘skywritten’ proclamation takes the more concrete form of a banner. Another circularity is set up, as the phrase ‘THE SHADOW OF A DOUBT’ is repeatedly towed around the Statue of Liberty, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the values embodied by Libertas and her Torch. The work elliptically points to the increasingly elastic nature of what is taken to constitute ‘reasonable doubt’ in a war waged against an unknowable enemy, at a distance. Like the first performance, it is enacted on a day of national commemoration (Veterans Day, 2014) of the deaths of US soldiers. We are reminded of the problematic absence of memorials to those sacrificial (often civilian) deaths abroad which are enacted in the name of homeland security. Photographs (and a looped video of the event) activate further associations with that which lies at the very edge of (public) visibility.

The aesthetic force of absence (of evidence, of people) pushes at the threshold of what we understand violence to be. The blank surficial screen (here, the blue colour field of the sky) is a familiar motif from Birkin’s earlier projects – gesturing towards that which cannot be directly photographed, or simply exposed. In Profiles, a series of red ‘screens’ – 10 x 8 photographic transparencies displayed on hospital X-ray light boxes – present ‘failed portraits’ of Iraqi victims of war. They constitute a visual translation of six-digit alphanumerical identification numbers from the Iraq Body Count database, exposed as digital photograms. Such works present the photograph as an abstraction, though are not entirely ‘abstract’, as they still – through non-figurative means – point towards something.

In Severe Clear, the blue (digitalised) colour field is a more diffuse abstraction – pointing to multiple other screens, and the vertiginous or long-distance realities to which they are connected: from the interfaces of the drone ‘kill-chain’ to the circulation of images of war. The term Severe Clear is used by aviators to refer to ideal weather conditions for flying (and skywriting), where vision is literally improved. These are thus also ideal conditions for surveillance, or bombing. In regions subject to the hovering eye of the drone, blue sky symbolism is warped by apprehension and fear, given the increased likelihood of a strike. In New York too, the expression ‘9/11 blue’ carries associations with that void out of which the attacks on Manhattan’s own skyline emerged. Like the duplicity and ambiguity of Birkin’s legalese pyrotechnics, these blue skies apparently contain their own chromatic doublespeak – they symbolise clarity, often optimism, yet here this is melded with uncertainty, even terrorism, presenting a paradox.

In an essay on the development of colour concepts, Walter Benjamin wrote that by adulthood, colour is conceptualised as an additive layer, as a ‘deceptive cloak’ layered over the reality of matter.[5] Yet colour’s evidentiary qualities appear to have varied remarkably throughout history. Whilst scholars have long argued that cultural differences in colour terminology may affect what is perceived, they have been particularly puzzled by the absence of some colour terms altogether – most strikingly, the absence of the colour blue from many ancient vocabularies.

William Gladstone suggested that the ancient Greeks were entirely blue-blind, given that Homer’s prolific writings apparently failed to refer to it even once. It is now generally agreed that this was in part a product of the colour’s rarity (blue dyes hadn’t yet entered the region, and it was a colour – blue skies aside – seldom found in natural flora, fauna and other earthly materials). More recent linguistic analysis adds nuance to this explanation, noting that colour itself was understood somewhat differently. Rather than an abstract category, or some magical surface, colours were seen and described as just one of many phenomenological textures, yoked together by terminology that was primarily metaphoric, or which referred to specific overlapping experiences. Homer’s ‘wine dark’ sea, for example, evoked the disorienting and dangerous sensations of stormy water aboard a ship. The word caeraulus also referred to the texture and colour of water, and to cloudy or dark skies. A clear blue sky was simply ‘air coloured’. Empty atmosphere.[6]

Art historians have long associated the colour with rarity and religious reverence, from the Virgin Mary’s lapis lazuli-drenched drapery to International Klein Blue. Even in a world where the colour appears ubiquitous, it holds ties to transcendence and new forms of invisibility, visualised. It is through the cool blue hue of the digital screen which Birkin’s Severe Clear blue skies are viewed (both in exhibition and online) – a ‘digital blue’ which embodies the work’s reference to the screen of the drone pilot. Had the metaphoric idiosyncrasies of Classical texts’ mapping of colour continued today, ‘digital blue’ might provide an apt metaphor for the ambiguous conflation of depth and surface inherent to screen-mediated culture, and screen-mediated warfare. The atomised proximity of inter-connected screens, and the complex networks to which these surfaces relate as a visual surface is an aesthetic vastness paralleled only by the infinitude of the clear sky. The warping of colour symbolism described above might also be considered part of broader slippages between military and civilian ways of seeing and knowing – both linguistic and technological.[7]

Frederic Jameson writes that a new aesthetic experience, one he terms the ‘hysterical sublime’, has emerged in response to this changed architecture of vision – where proliferating screen-surfaces constitute a visual shorthand for the networked immensity of economic, informational and military systems. Yet the computer screen, like the reflective glassy walls of the high-rise corporate block, does nothing to represent the spatio-temporal circuits to which it is linked. Kantian sublime incomprehension at that which lies beyond our ability to perceive, or to articulate, is compounded, rendered ‘hysterical,’ by the flat anti-anthropomorphic screens through which we glimpse and attempt to understand this reality. Like Bowie’s character in The Man Who Fell To Earth, who lies watching 57 television screens at once, an excess of surface is presented, which serves to conceal and disorient more than inform.

The skies in Severe Clear ask us to conceive of a multi-directional perspective. Looking up and down at once, or looking at and beyond a blank. As with Sartre’s ‘New York sickness’, the symbolism of freedom embedded within New York City’s monumental spatial arrangement is transfigured here from an assertion into a question. In the aerial panorama captured atop the vertiginous heights of the Empire State Building, or distanced photographs of the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan’s iconic skyline is used to visibilise certain forms of blindness. This draws the work into dialogue with an earlier project – a photogram, also produced atop the Empire State, which ‘documents’ this panorama as ‘viewed’ by the blind and deaf activist and author Helen Keller.


In 1932, Keller visited the newly-erected Empire State Building, enraptured by the suggestion of machine-powered flight atop the 86th floor of a structure which ‘scrapes’ the sky itself.[8] Asked by a doctor ‘What did you think ‘of the sight’ when you were on the top of the Empire building?’ her lyrical, auratic response melds a romantic view of American idealism with the experience of vertical ascension, admonishing those who criticise the country’s drive to ‘the superlative in everything.’ It begins, ‘I was so entranced “seeing” that I did not think about the sight.’[9] This insightful phrase is embossed in braille upon the undulating, sculptural surface of a photogram produced by Birkin – a meditative piece entitled by these same words.

Re-tracing the position in which Keller stood atop the Observation Deck, the artist held a piece of gelatin silver photographic paper to face the downtown Manhattan skyline, producing a conceptual time-lapse between 1932 and 2012. The black photogram – overexposed by the bright sunlight atop the Empire Building – bulges beyond the two-dimensional remit of the frame, surpassing the flatness that normally characterises the photographic image. Birkin purposefully omitted the final stage of processing the fibre paper (the heat press) allowing it to retain this material, sculptural quality. Its reflective, tactile surface alludes to the photographic print, vulnerable yet enticing to the touch. As well as evoking the haptic qualities of vision (perhaps more extreme in the world of the blind), it calls upon us to participate with its inverted presentation of vertiginous ‘seeing’.

The work perhaps echoes Derek Jarman’s film Blue – where a textual account of his fading ability to see runs over its visual correlate – a blue colour field which he termed ‘darkness made visible.’ In discussion, Birkin notes the influence of Broomberg and Chanarin’s use of the photogram as an ‘action photograph’ in their performative deconstruction of ‘embedded’ photojournalism, The Day Nobody Died. The image, one in a series of abstract photographs produced during the deadliest month of the war in Afghanistan, evades the rules, regulations and censorship to which the embedded photographer is subject today. Blacks and blown-out whites are contrasted with kaleidoscopic streaks – blues, purples, greens, reds and yellows, which might be read as affective signals. The viewer latches onto their ambiguous significance, as points of differentiation amidst immersive fields of colour (like Barnett Newman’s ‘zips’). The work indexes an ‘exposure’ to violence so elliptical, so abstract, that its representation becomes more one of ‘seeing’ than of any particular ‘sight.’ Birkin’s monochromatic work is markedly devoid of such contrasting chromatic signals. Yet the visual blank is similarly melded with a sense of sublime obfuscation – an awareness of that which lies just beyond our ability to describe or image – amplified by the dually surficial and void-like qualities of the photographic material.

During the 1950s and 60s, many artists returned to the shadowy imprints of the photogram – the first ‘sun pictures’ – as an alternative investigatory mode. Relative opacity and transparency were values used to see with rather than through the photographic material. Moholy-Nagy in particular celebrated this reorientation away from conventional visual values and linear perspective towards a ‘new vision’ of multi-dimensional space. In ‘I Was So Entranced Seeing That I Did Not Think About the Sight’ the ‘seeing’ investigated is that of vertical perspective; of verticality collectively materialised in tall buildings and forms of idealism this perspective embodies. Prior to Jameson’s postmodern lament of the disorienting screen-surface, in the early 20th Century, amidst the disorienting haze of trench warfare, the mobile aerial view of the aviator emerged – like the God’s-eye-view of the urban planner – as a new collective vision, and source of orientation. Yet the information gathered from on high is frequently rather nebulous. In collapsing multiple perspectives into one, this orientation is more ideational than actual: tracing a legacy from the military photo-mosaic to the blurry drone images captured by pilots in Nevada.[10]

Birkin’s black rectangle shifts between absolute abstraction, and a concrete reference to a specific view, of a specific skyline. This oscillatory double-vision is described by Roland Barthes as inherent to the aerial panorama (he calls it ‘concrete abstraction’), in his mythology of the Eiffel Tower as a ‘monument to verticality’.[11] Atop the tower, we embody the thrill of ascension, and take in the city as an abstract tableau. This ‘euphoric’ vision of visual excess presents a new, transcendent view of surface relations, yet one which rarely tells us more about what we see.

Barthes argues that this double vision, as we flip flop between aesthetic reverie and attempts to decipher these views, possesses oneiric qualities. Our own memory and knowledge are called upon as part of this ‘historical panorama.’ In a mode paralleling his writings on the photographic image, Barthes suggests that the view triggers ‘a kind of spontaneous anamnesis… [where] the mind finds itself dreaming of the mutation of the landscape.’[12]

The spectral skyline captured in the time lapse between 1932 and 2012 – as in Severe Clear – makes an implicit reference to the 2001 attacks unavoidable. We remember too the ephemeral blue lights, beamed a mile into the sky by LaVerdiere’s 2002 Memorial of Light, which preceded the emergence of the Freedom Tower. The works hold in tense constellation the changing nature of verticality’s symbolism, and the now-strange (or at least problematic) dialectic between towers erected as monuments to ‘Freedom’ and to ‘Empire’.

The mutation of the landscape ‘viewed’ in this work, and in Severe Clear, is also the landscape of photography itself. It becomes a stand-in for the thresholds of vision. In somehow externalising this threshold, the role of abstraction in all the works presents what Smithson termed ‘visible blindness’ – the experience of seeing ourselves seeing. These photographs activate and point towards the undisclosed. Yet they leave double vision and doublespeak untranslated, mirroring the realities to which they speak. Unsettling and somewhat absurd, they condone Kafka’s suggestion that it is only through diving into the vertigo-inducing abyss, to ‘sink into the depths’, that we may subsequently arise ‘laughing and fighting for breath – to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.’[13]


  – essay by Henrietta Landells

[1] Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Manhattan: The Great American Desert’ (1946), in Alexander Klein, ed., The Empire City (New York: Rinehart, 1955), pp. 455, 456-7

[2] The terms ‘anablepophobia’ and ‘batophobia’ both reference a sense of vertigo triggered by looking up at tall buildings, usually skyscrapers (occasionally tall ceilings).  A P Kahn et al., The Encyclopaedia of Phobias, Fears and Anxieties, Third Edition, New York: infobase, 2010.

(A P Kahn et al., The Encyclopaedia of Phobias, Fears and Anxieties, Third Edition, New York: infobase, 2010)

[3]; Benjamin De Casseres, ‘ADS THAT ARE WRIT IN AIR,’ The New York Times, June 17 1923; In 1932 a House of Commons Committee was created ‘to consider the use of appliances for projecting writing or other displays on the sky,’ (‘The Sky Writing Report,’ Flight, 8 July 1932, pp. 617-8; cited in D. Graham Burnett, ‘Notes Toward a History of Skywriting,’ Cabinet, issue 60, p.31)

[4] Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (Indiana University Press, 1994) p. 29

[5] Walter Benjamin, “A Child’s View of Color,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, Selected Writings, trans. Livingstone et al., ed. Marcus Bullock et al., 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1996–2003), 1:50

[6] Mark Bradley, ‘Colour as Synaesthetic Experience in Antiquity,’ ch. 9 in Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses, eds. Shane Butler and Alex Purves (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 1994)

[7] An interesting precursor is found in an earlier work, Pieta (2012), where a ‘screen’ of lapis lazuli paint obscures a 1992 AP wire-photo depicting an Afghan mother at the funeral of her infant child in Kabul; empathy via iconographic parallels is denied – instead, the obfuscation of the ‘blue screen’ (again accompanied by a limited section of text) activates an awareness of that which evades the viewfinder.

[8] Though originally conceived as an office block, its primary economic driver soon came to be tickets to the Observation Deck.


[10] The latter might be said to continue the legacy of what has been called the ‘cubist war’ (WW1) in light of the rebirth of soldier as aviator, when pilot training manuals even referenced the analogy between futurist and cubist visions, and aerial photography. See John Welchman, ‘Here, There and Otherwise,’ Artforum International, September 1988, p. 18, cited in Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought (California: University of California Press, London, 1994), p. 214.

[11] Roland Barthes, ‘The Eiffel Tower,’ in The Eiffel Tower, and Other Mythologies (California: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 3-17.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Franz Kafka, Janouch, 1971: 154-55.