As early as the introduction of railroads and the telegraph system, the Western landscape has struggled with the aesthetics of convenience. From commercial interests like strip malls and billboards, to national systems like highways and telephone wires, to individual interventions like graffiti and public sculpture, the definition of “eyesore” is a constantly shifting target. In a new book, photographer Annette LeMay Burke has turned her eye to one of the latest incursions on the visual landscape: cell phone towers cosplaying as trees.
Over the course of 66 color landscapes, Burke explores scenarios which largely feature giant fake trees hosting a crow’s nests of cellular transmitters. Though the initial sense of FAUXLIAGE (Daylight, May 2021) is somewhat playful, because the subject matter is so profoundly absurd, the litany of images soon takes on a kind of Stepford Wives feeling of dread. There is something wrong with the trees that are not trees. Even driving by them at highway speed, there is a jarring disconnect as our eye sorts the organic from the imposter. Presented here for longer reflection, these towers shift from briefly visually dislocating to vaguely, then increasingly, disturbing.
In other images, churches boost their reception by secreting cell towers inside giant crosses, and an American Legion post attempts to doll up a tower by using it as a flag pole. Here, we enter a kind of uncanny valley as symbols of worship take on a surveillance role, transmitting not only our thoughts and prayers, but our data and location. We are used to symbols that signify; it is something else to realize that as we look to them, they look back into us.
In fact, the very nature of the towers’ use requires them to rise above the urban horizon. Burke has leveraged this, often framing towers to “peek” at the surrounding scene, which lends itself to the sense that we are being watched, constantly. Fauxliage, as the artist calls it, is the ghillie suit of surveillance culture, and Burke’s observations of these poorly concealed observers is canny, occasionally funny, and ultimately rather ominous.