BIT Plane and Soothing Cat Massages

by Will Brand on December 6, 2011 Business/Pleasure

Still from "Bit Plane", Bureau of Inverse Technology, 1999

A lot of my favorite art is of the Hold up, what?” variety: taking something I’ve never thought to question and putting it under a microscope. It’s something art’s good at right now; while the virtues of indeterminacy and open-endedness and “prompting dialogues” have allowed a lot of bullshit, they’ve also allowed a unique space where we can recognize things as weird and comment-worthy without getting too preachy.

That’s a paragraph that’s been written before, and I’m as sick of it as anybody. Works like the Bureau of Inverse Technology’s Bit Plane, though, remind us why that truism is so true. For Bit Plane, the semi-anonymous collective attached a camera to an RC plane and flew it over the secretive high-tech compounds of Silicon Valley, recording the video as well as broadcasting it onto local television frequencies. Most of the video consists of military-looking aerial landscapes of parking lots and nondescript office buildings, but occasionally on-screen text reminds us of the techno-utopian public face of the valley – “Prestigious think-tank Xerox PARC, birthplace of the modern mouse & home to the slogan ‘The Best Way to Predict the Future Is to Invent It'”, “AS SEEN FROM THE AIR THE SILICON VALLEY DELIVERS THE FUTURE”. This is all accompanied by the weight of the area’s numerous no-photography areas: many of the buildings photographed require elaborate security procedures to enter, and photography is often specifically prohibited in any capacity to protect both government and trade secrets; BIT broke numerous laws in recording these images at all.

In an accompanying statement, which is refreshingly to-the-point, the artists identify the assumptions involved in prohibiting photography:

Cameras are not permitted into the corporate research parks in the Valley on the logic that visitors could steal intellectual property by taking photographs of it. This reveals an assumption about what information is – that it is something that you can take a photograph of, a thing – not the product of a community of expertise or social network of shared discourse, but something you could go in and steal with a camera.

There’s no preaching here; there’s no call for a radical openness of high-tech firms or a freeing of the airspace above for citizen use. Simply declaring this secrecy unnecessary or misguided would be uninteresting. Instead, what’s delivered is something a documentary or essay might have had trouble with: a simple revelation of assumptions. Why are these images illicit? Watching the video, you search for the traces of some new and strange technology on the ground. Part of that search is figuring out what you might be looking for, and you naturally come to realize that most of the technology being developed below operates on too small a scale or in too complex a manner to understand from the air, or perhaps with any photograph whatsoever.

Without declaration or exhortation, BIT guide us to our own conclusions about the spaces below, reintroducing mystery to an area that PR and regional branding had transformed into a closed symbol of unquestionable technological progress. I like it.

By the way, the result of all this secret technology is that we can share videos of cats getting sensual massages.

Business/Pleasure is Will Brand's new daily column of the best of Video Art and YouTube crap. Most days have one business video and one pleasure video. Got a tip? E-mail it to

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