Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A Prague-based artist composes sculpture that examines how urban technology spreads like its own life form.
Groups of satellite dishes and security cameras have invaded parts of Europe, clustering like seagulls around beach rocks and growing like barnacles on the sides of buildings.
These aren’t installations by any government, but rather works by Prague-based artist Jakub Geltner—part of a series called “Nest.” Geltner started the project in 2011, using strategic groupings of man-made technology to explore how humans and their machines have “infested” all kinds of spaces.
Right now, there are six installations on view, most of which can be found throughout the Czech Republic. Some are in popular spots, like Prague’s Vltava waterfront; others are tucked into more obscure places, along the walls of former schools and churches. Geltner’s latest piece, installed this year in Arhaus, Denmark, perches a collection of security cameras on top of rocks by the North Sea.
“The urban landscape is our modern nature,” Geltner says, in that there’s always a rivalry between planned and random growth. Buildings, for example, are like trees that have been purposefully placed in a specific area. In nature, trees are spontaneously adorned with birds’ nests or lush moss. Random growth on buildings, however, comes from humans who crowd the exteriors with all sorts of appliances for surveillance, entertainment, and communication.
Geltner took inspiration from his trips around the world, where he saw satellites hovering like birds atop buildings in Morocco, and air conditioning units cover apartments in Hong Kong like lichens.
Geltner’s use of cameras and satellites is in part a statement on the growing surveillance of our cities. It’s never been easier to monitor public spaces.
He says people often ask him whether the cameras are on—always wondering if they are being watched. That “banal uncertainty,” as he describes it, is the tension between privacy and surveillance in the modern city.
Geltner’s work speaks to just how much technology has bled into the urban (and natural) landscape. His sculptures are beautiful, confusing, and discomfiting— exactly the kind of tension he wants his audience to consider.