Satellites over the Sundarbans

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter

Last week after playing trivia with some friends (shoutout to Trivia Mafia in Minneapolis which is doing free trivia games online pretty much every night during the pandemic) we were trying to find the Ganges delta on a map – this was after the game of course, no cheating here!  When we finally found it in Bangladesh I was surprised that I recognized it.  Specifically I recognized an Envisat Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar image of the delta that the indie band alt-J used as the cover of their 2012 album An Awesome Wave.  “alt-J” are the keystrokes for the delta symbol (∆), the satellite image is of a delta, I see what they did there.  I pointed this fact out to my friends and we moved on with our conversation.

Fast forward a couple of days and Disclosure comes out with their new album ENERGY and I’m intrigued so I look it up and BAM there it is again – the same shot of the Ganges delta on the album’s cover.  I should note that this part of the delta is called the Sundarbans.  It’s a huge protected mangrove forest in southern Bangladesh and it’s one of the only intact habitats for the endangered bengal tiger.  If you look it up, the protected forest stands out impressively against the farmland that makes up most of the rest of the region.  As a fun project I juxtaposed both album covers onto a map of the Sundarbans for you to see.  alt-J’s cover is the smallest, with the Disclosure album behind:

So why do these two bands both have the same shot of the same landscape on their album covers? For alt-J there are some pretty literal reasons: alt-J = ∆ = delta as I noted, and the abstracted colors of the satellite image indicate change in surface height over time and ∆ is used as a mathematical symbol to show change.  Similarly for the Disclosure album, the dynamic shot of all this water flowing from so many rivers into the Bay of Bengal does evoke the “ENERGY” of the album’s title.  But I think there’s something more here.

A satellite image is an abstraction of a place – it’s not an image that can be perceived by the human eye or even a bird’s eye.  The ways a satellite “sees” a landscape is not even analogous to a film or digital camera – instead the satellite uses an array of sensors, picking up visible light, infra-red, ultraviolet, and other spectra, laser inferred elevation data, and other kinds of data that can be just as readily run through an algorithm as compiled into an image.  That’s the reason the alt-J cover looks so strange, it’s not a photograph put through a filter, it’s a visual representation of a data set.

So here’s the leap I’m making: Just as a satellite abstracts a landscape into an evocative and alien image, alt-J and Disclosure are in the business of creating and selling evocative and abstracted images of otherness.

alt-J’s musical style is interesting, unique, and… exotic.  When I first heard singer Joe Newman’s voice on Fitzpleasure I, first of all did not realize he was speaking English (I still can’t tell what the lyrics are) but I also did not expect him to be a boring white British art kid.  Now I am not against white folks having unique singing voices but I think there’s a difference between folks like Joanna Newsome and Tom Waits and Newman’s suspiciously accented little-bit-of-everywhere-but-not-quite-anywhere intonation.  This coupled with the cover image of a culturally important river and the fact that the band was originally called Daljit Dhaliwal – borrowing the name of the former British news anchor for Al-Jazeera leaves me… skeptical.  Maybe it’s just me but it seems like the band was trying to surreptitiously wrap itself in this guise of vaguely south Asian-y or maybe middle eastern-ish vibe to give itself some flair.  Like Lady Gaga wearing a burqa vibes.

I love Disclosure’s new album. I’ve been listening to it nonstop these past couple of weeks but there are still some things that give me pause.  First of all, all of their features – and there are only three tracks and two “interludes” on the 20 track album that don’t officially have a feature – are from Black folks. I think this would be okay if they did it right, but there are some weird crediting things.  For instance, the lead single “My High” features two verses and choruses from Aminé and one verse from slowthai – but on the album only slowthai is credited – what’s up with that?  Additionally, the title track “ENERGY” includes a generous sample (read: the whole track is a sample) of motivational speaker Eric Thomas.  Disclosure also “sampled” Eric in their breakout album Settle on the tracks “Intro” and “When A Fire Starts to Burn,” but Eric Thomas isn’t listed as a feature on any of these tracks.  I know there’s a difference between a sample and a feature, but if Beyoncé can list Blue Ivy’s 6 year old baby babble as a feature and if Fiona Apple can credit her dogs by name for their backing barks on Fetch the Bolt Cutters then Disclosure should probably give Eric his due for launching their career.

The other thing about Disclosure that frustrates me is that they’re two white British guys making house music.  They credit Chicago house and Detroit techno as their early influences – both genres pioneered by Black folks – and their music is carried by the features and samples of Black artists.  For example, I love that there’s another track in the world with Fatoumata Diawara’s voice on it, but the packaging of the album decontextualizes and exoticizes her Bambara lyrics, reducing them to just their ~ ~ENERGY~ ~.

White artists like myself who benefit from centuries of slavery, colonialism, and oppression have to learn to ask ourselves hard questions about our work and the work of our peers.  Personally I often wonder what my training in the Black art forms of tap dance and jazz music mean for the art I make.  What does it mean that my training in both those practices came exclusively from white people?  When DJing I grapple with how and when it’s appropriate for me to include Black artists in a DJ set that then becomes my artistic product.  Should I be editing out the n-word when it comes up in a set or even just stick to mixing myself and fellow white artists?

These questions do not have easy answers and they have big implications on the work an artist makes.  I really like alt-J and Disclosure, and I think these albums are both worth engaging with and listening to – but I think both bands need to ask tough questions to separate their genuine artistic voice from the predatory guise of exoticism that uses others and otherness to generate artificial interest (in all fairness I think alt-J’s second album is a little further along on this trajectory.)  After all, what appears dynamic and complex from the eye of a satellite must be so much more so once you reach the ground.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *