Points of Presence

 

Author: Adam Fish
Format: Experimental Documentary
Duration: 18’ 46”
Published: June 2018


Research Statement

Criteria

Assess the work as a video that creatively and interpretively maps the internet of the North Atlantic region.

Research Questions

Media studies scholars who favor empirical fieldwork methodologies encourage users of communication technologies to improve their “infrastuctural literacy” (Mattern 2013). This can be accomplished through visiting, seeing, and visually documenting the terrain-based systems of communication around us. Consider communications manholes in roads, cellphone towers, and the like. In so doing, it is hoped, citizens will become empowered to assume responsibility for governance of these important systems. Lisa Parks (2009), who has conducted fieldwork on cell towers disguised as trees and how satellites are visualized, implores us to begin to take responsibility for infrastructures, a process which starts with field visits and visual methods. Urban planner Kevin Lynch wants infrastructure to become open for citizen involvement by listing technologies of vision which may assist us in connecting to infrastructure: “guidebooks to the sewer system…. Signs, obscure marks, the traces of activity, listening devices, diagrams, remote sensors, magnifying glasses, slow-motion films, periscopes, peepholes–any of these may be used to make some process perceptible” (Lynch 1981: 312-313 in Mattern 2013). It is this call to action that motivates this project in citizen cartography. The video, which we call Points of Presence (PoP)—the actual technical title of the sites where undersea fibre optical cables come ashore and also a fitting reference to embodiment—is an attempt to creatively map the materiality of the internet as it connects Iceland to the United Kingdom through the Faroe Islands and Shetland Islands.

Using both aerial and terrestrial videographical systems, PoP questions whether seeing information infrastructure is enough? Desires to “make the visible the invisible” says Shannon Mattern, “can too often become ends in themselves” (2013). She quotes Jacques Ranciere saying: “understanding does not, in and of itself, help to transform intellectual attitudes and situations” (2009: 45). As public sphere theory states, political action must begin with knowledge which arises from deliberation on information which is build upon documentation, schemas, and models which are based on visual codes.

Does seeing actually make the opaque transparent?

The visual haunts the history of infrastructural studies. There is something there, we can feel it, but what we see is not it. Something else powerful and mysterious lurks below the surface, entangled in the wires behind your black box. Scholars have called this uncanny feeling the technological sublime (Nye 1994) and the digital sublime (Mosco 2004). Sometimes this mystery reveals itself through its rupture. Infrastructure only becoming visible when it breaks down, has been one of the major tropes of science and technology studies (Star and Ruhleder 1996: 113). Consistently we read about the application of visual methods in infrastructural studies as well as critical readings of the visual self-representations of infrastructural industries. Parks (2009) encourages cell phone towers to cease disguising themselves as trees so that we might see them as they are and proceed to have an honest discussion about their proliferation. Starosieliski (2012) investigates how submarine cables are visually mediated by government officials and corporations. Holt and Vonderau (2015) critically analyze the cheery self-representations of data centers in attempts at getting a clearer view at so-called corporate transparency. Garrett (2013) ascends and descends to places often quite illegally in order to examine and photograph how infrastructural developments are linked with the privatization of public space. These visibility and invisibility discussions articulate with other “digital dualisms” or we might call them “visual dualisms” that are prominent in contemporary media studies such as those between materiality versus immateriality and the actual versus the virtual. For these sociologists of media infrastructure, making infrastructure visible becomes the lynchpin of a politics of transparency–of central importance within hacker activism.

The experiments with drones and efforts to use the visual to challenge the myth of immateriality that you see in PoP, may bring one a bit closer to the locus of power securitized behind the walls of the data centers, points of presence, and undersea fibre optical cables. The reveal is about the opacity of communicative power, where it is centralized, and how ecologies and small islands are entangled in the production and circulation of this power.

Context

As I wrote above, there are several written accounts of the importance of seeing infrastructure. Fewer experiments in visualising infrastructure exist. I will briefly discuss two such projects, the work of Matt Parker and Lance Wakeling.

Matt Parker’s 2016 work The People’s Cloud (TPC) (http://www.thepeoplescloud.org/) is a five part video series about the internet as an ecological, socio-technical, and influential assemblage. It features Parker’s team making pilgrimages to several sites of internet materiality—data centers, historical computing systems, undersea cable landing zones, etc. Parker is an audiovisual artist and PhD student at the London College of Communication so he pays particular attention to sound, and has a fine grasp of the relationship between the internet and how its physicality impacts bodies and landscapes. He mixes the sense of awe and otherness associated with the internet with interviews with key personnel in-charge of governing and running the internet. PoP is like TPC in so far that particular focus is given to the non-human elements, the ecological and the technical, that constitutes the internet. I have decided, in this version of PoP, not to edit into the video the vast interview data I have collected, unlike Parker. My feeling is that the absence of the tenor of the human voice furthers destabilizes an anthropocentric viewpoint. In PoP you not only rarely see people but you also see through the optical system of a drone, piloted sometimes hundreds of feet away from the nearest person and certainly capable of more-than-human agency and foibles. Leaving the humans out of the picture, or in a diminished role, is an attempt to engender a “flat ontology” that seeks to not privilege any single viewpoint. Here humans are an afterthought, a product of the technical assemblage. I joke with Parker that if he were to instead call his video series, The Cloud’s People, that this title would indeed de-center humanity, making people not the cause but the result of the technology—a bit of technodeterminism about the historical linkages between technologies and human evolution. The title change to The Cloud’s People would also give the video series the acronym TCP—which also stands for Transmission Control Protocol—which is the basic language used for computers to communicate online to each other.

I see PoP in the tradition of video production also populated by Lance Wakeling (http://lancewakeling.com/)—I must thank Parker for leading me to Wakeling’s work such as his Views of a Former Verizon Building (2012) and A Tour of the AC-1 Transatlantic Submarine Cable (2011). These short travelogues features videography of the technical architectures of the above and surrounding sites and feature a digressive narrative that leaps from subject to subjects tangentially linked to the space of the information infrastructure. Wakeling works with the serendipity and temporal simultaneity made possible by visits to sites of network importance—anything can and may be traveling through these cables affording the videomaker opportunities to jump from material fact to virtual fiction in his voice-overs. His narrations are a grasping for meaning in the face of the unfathomable breadth of the internet. It is Wakeling’s Field Visits for Chelsea Manning (2014) that is most like PoP in terms of the political pilgrimage angle. In the video, Wakeling journeys to the sites where whistleblower Chelsea Manning was stationed and imprisoned, from Kuwait to Maryland, and builds a map of the movement’s of the Army soldier as well as the musings of the videomaker. This video’s method and content has a futility and sadness to it. Of course, Manning is not interviewed for the video; hidden as she is within highly securitized spaces. Like the big data within the spaces Wakeling investigates, this object of the study remains a mystery and the visual reveal is only partial. The video then becomes a macabre attempt to show something that never appears. In another key way, PoP was also initially inspired by Chelsea Manning. For it was in 2009 in Iceland that Wikileaks editor Julian Assange first received the files from Chelsea Manning including the infamous Collateral Murder video. Assange and his Wikileaks colleague at that time Birgitta Jónsdóttir began to imagine Iceland as a data haven, a country where leaked, hacked, whistleblown information pertinent to the public sphere could be legally and safely secured and the journalists working with the data could continue their labour without fear of retribution from a state. It was this concept that brought me to Iceland in 2015 to begin this project. I focused on the data centers and the information infrastructure into and out of Iceland in order to think materially about how the data haven would actually work. So in a way, Manning inspired PoP.

Methods

The methods used in PoP including aerial and terrestrial videography and qualitative interviews.

Outcomes

By watching the film and thinking more about the methodologies used in data collection, others might learn about both the bluster, as well as the pragmatics, associated with the use of new visual, aerial technologies. The video shows how drones may be used to contextualise, geographically position, and otherwise frame large-scale infrastructure in relationship to ecologies and settlements. But it also displays the great limitations of these methodologies because sometimes seeing from above is just another way of seeing from a distance, which is to say absent of intimacy. Nevertheless, while the limitation of such methods is clear, the subject matter—information infrastructure in the North Atlantic—is in fact depicted in their rich complexity, stretching from one rural island to another, for the first time. For this reason, I would hope that viewers wonder about the precarious and frankly profound techno-scientific efforts of the engineers who established the fragile internet in this often frigid part of the world.

Dissemination

This project has been fortunate to receive three external and six internal sources of material support for the data collection phases. External funding has come from the Leverhulme Research Fellowship (2017-2018); the European Cooperation in Science and Technology, COST Action IS1202, Short Term Scientific Mission (€2500); as well as the University of Iceland where I am a visiting professor and provided office space. Internal funding has come from Security Lancaster, Mini-Project Phase II, Radical New Ideas (£2747); two grants from the Institute for Social Futures (£2000 total); Centre for Mobilities Research, Pump Priming Fund (£500); Mobilities Lab, support through unmanned aerial vehicle purchases (£3500); and Lancaster University Research Committee Early Career Internal Grant (£3700). To date the Lancaster University has invested £12,447 amount in the project. This proposal seeks funds to maximize the impact of this research investment.

This is a new work and has been screened in three academic conferences and workshops:

Digital Ecologies and the Anthropocene Symposium, Bath Spa University, April 24, 2017.

Workshop on Methods for Digital Research, University of Stockholm, May 5, 2017.

Association of Visual Pedagogy Conference, Aalborg University, June 16, 2017.

The video is linked to written research which has been published in a book.

After the Internet (Pure ID 115250051), co-authored book, forthcoming early 2017 with Polity Press.

Concepts behind this project have been presented at three conferences:

Seeing Revolutionary Infrastructure (Pure ID 110297122), Keynote Talk, Data and Power Conference, University of Stockholm, Sweden, 17/03/16

Do Silk Roads lead to Data Havens? (Pure ID 119244920), Presentation, Annual Meeting of the Social Studies of Science, Barcelona, Spain, 09/01/16

Beneath the Clouds, the Beach (Pure ID 119244958), Presentation, European Sociological Association: Research Network 18: Sociology of Communications and Media Research, Lisbon, Portugal, 09/09/16

Impact

No impacts yet measurable.

References

Blum, Andrew. 2012. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York: Harper Collins.

Garrett, Bradley. 2013. Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. London: Verso.

Holt, J. and P. Vonderau. 2015. “Where the Internet Lives:” Data Centers as Cloud Infrastructure in Signal Traffic. Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. Ed. by Lisa Parks & Nicole Starosielski. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Lynch, Kevin. 1981. Good City Form. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Mattern, Shannon. 2013. Infrastructural Tourism. Places. https://placesjournal.org/article/infrastructural-tourism/

Mosco, Vincent. 2014. To the Cloud: Big Data in a Turbulent World. Boulder, Co: Paradigm Press.

Nye, David. 1994. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Parks, Lisa. 2009. Around the Antenna Tree: The Politics of Infrastructural Visibility. Flow. http://www.flowjournal.org/2009/03/around-the-antenna-tree-the-politics-of-infrastructural-visibilitylisa-parks-uc-santa-barbara/

Rancière, Jacques. 2009. “Problems and Transformations in Critical Art” In Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Starosielski, Nicole. 2015. The Undersea Network. Durham: Duke University Press.

Starr, Susan Leigh and Karen Ruhleder. 1996. Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information System Research. 7(1): 111-134.


Peer Reviews

Review 1: Accept work and statement for publication with no alterations

Adam Fish’s work in Points of Presence offers a timely and very affective reflection on the overland and underwater physical presence of our digital information infrastructure. It co-joins this project of audio-visual mapping with a visual reflection on something reminiscent of ‘landscape’, in the sense Anna Tsing mean it, as the haunted ‘overlaid arrangements of human and nonhuman living spaces’ (Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, 2017, G1.) The sonic effects of overlaying sounds of digital signals throughout the film – bleeding across from sounds of PC fans and the chirps of digital signals, to howls of wind and churning of the city – scramble visual experience with noises both familiar and yet strange; both modern and ancient. The result is a powerful alienation, yet one that culminates in a striking visual reflection on new infrastructural presence – neither fully material not immaterial – that sit at the heart of the Anthropocene.

Adam’s accompanying statement draws out some of this strange materialism in relation to media studies scholarship on ‘infrastructural literacy’. This is apt, as the film invites us to read the digital/human and non-digital landscape in a new way. Here Fish directs us toward the ‘opacity of  communicative power’ – or the lack thereof – while revealing a landscape ‘haunted’ by its presence.

At its heart, the work contributes to ongoing debates around documentary film and experimental cinema regarding representation and the un-representable; the hyper-objectivity, as Morton puts it, of global infrastructure, worked in concert with their ‘points’ physical presence. This struggle is dealt with well, in both the work and the statement, and raises questions central to the practice of experimental audio-vision in the Anthropocene.

I am very pleased to recommend this work for publication in Screenworks, without modifications.

Review 2: Accept work and statement for publication with no alterations

Points of Presence and its accompanying exegesis provide a rich exploration of the hidden terrestrial and undersea infrastructures of the internet, and a compelling attempt to grapple with the wider problem of how to visualize information flows. I have no hesitation in recommending publication in Screenworks – it will make a valuable contribution to the journal.

The 18-minute film takes the viewer on a journey through remote data centres and undersea cable landing points in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, tracing their routes all the way through to London. The extensive fieldwork underlying this research deserves commendation on its own terms; the film is clearly the outcome of a larger programme of research into these little-studied and inaccessible sites. Employing a mix of anthropological, media-arts and experimental techniques, the film juxtaposes sweeping drone-cam shots of landscapes with scenes of engineers working (and discussing their work) in the data centres. An additional sequence uses archival and found footage (news events, sports, etc) to visualize the flow of information through this vast infrastructure. This oscillation between three visual registers – the dramatic natural landscape; the banal, fluorescent mise-en-scene of the data centre; and the sublime complexity of information ‘flows’ – works effectively to evoke the complex of human, machine, and natural systems that underwrite our everyday online experiences.

I see Points of Presence as engaged with a larger problem in the contemporary arts and cinema – what Alexander Galloway refers to in his essay ‘Are some things unrepresentable?’ as the challenge of representing the complexity of information. The exegesis draws on contemporary media studies theory on data centres and information infrastructure (Park, Vonderau and Holt, etc) to elaborate an interesting proposition about infrastructural thinking as a way through the binary of materiality/immateriality. Like the film itself, the essay is articulate and carefully crafted. It was a pleasure to view this work and accompanying essay, and I look forward to its publication in Screenworks.

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