Heat Signature

Heat Signature, 2018

Site-specific media installation consisting of a military-grade infrared camera, electronic heaters and audio interviews.

Heat Signature is a timely investigation of privacy, intimacy and thermal surveillance methods. This site specific installation, which was commissioned for the space of Ludlow 38, explores the connections between Judeo-Christian ideology and the military-industrial complex. The work juxtaposes a design for the Great Seal of the United States that was unsuccessfully proposed to Congress by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in 1776 with a FLIR Systems Inc. military-grade thermal camera. Doing so, the work underscores inherent relations between American national myths, religious beliefs and quests for power and control. In Heat Signature, Jefferson and Franklin’s rejected design, which depicts the biblical story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt with America serving as the “New Zion,” is brought to life with an infrared camera and electric heaters. Temperature shifts translate into focus shifts in a monochromatic live video feed from the thermal camera, as the heaters turn on and off and the image of the Seal, which is embedded in the ceiling—unseen to the eye—heats and cools. The constant appearance and disappearance of the projected image, the tension between visible and invisible, asks the viewer to ponder the relation between militarized media perception and the racial and ethical meaning of ‘temperature seeing’. In Heat Signature, Jefferson and Franklin’s nationalist vision is recreated as a performative sculpture that explores the effects of thermal surveillance methods on bodies and mediascapes.

Testimonies by a drone sensor operator, a criminal defense attorney and a media scholar—voices reflecting on the new temperature-based visual regime—are presented by Keren in three audio-recorded interviews. Attorney Kenneth Lerner discusses the Fourth Amendment and thermal technology’s threat to privacy. Brandon Bryant, who served in the US Air Force, shares his daunting military experience using infrared cameras. Between infrared’s black-hot and white-hot polarities, Bryant describes humans transforming into targets, as if in shadow puppetry. MIT theorist Lisa Parks argues that a transition is taking place in which a visual regime based on visible light is shifting into a regime based on temperature, and considers how temperature-based optics affect conceptions of racial and ethnic difference and the registration and perception of violence and death.