Infrastructural Tourism

Communication infrastructure access; from Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors, a documentary by Ben Mendelsohn. [Image: Ben Mendelsohn and Alex Chohlas-Wood, courtesy of Ben Mendelsohn]

On a warm late summer evening a few years ago, I gathered with a group of graduate students on a sidewalk outside 195 Broadway, in Lower Manhattan. We were there to meet journalist Andrew Blum, then in the midst of researching his book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Blum walked us over to 33 Thomas, then on to 60 Hudson Street and 32 Avenue of the Americas, with stops at various manholes along the way. It took us almost three hours to traverse the 1.2-mile route because Blum kept stopping to tell us riveting stories about the mysterious and fantastical goings-on inside nondescript office buildings and beneath the busy sidewalks. My media studies class and I were “visiting the Internet,” the physical environs where it actually lives in Lower Manhattan: the specific rooms where numerous networks’ servers physically connect with one another, the basement portals where cables breach the foundation walls, the subterranean conduits stuffed with optical fibers.

It’s all these tubes and cables that enable us to connect “wirelessly” to the Internet from our apartments and houses, our classrooms, offices and cafés; and so our evening stroll clarified an important fact: that connectivity is neither as untethered nor ethereal as wifi implies. As the sociologist Adrian Mackenzie argues in Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures:

While the notion of wireless networks implies that there are fewer wires, it could easily be argued that actually there are more wires. Rather than wireless cities or wireless networks, it might be more accurate to speak of the rewiring of cities through the highly reconfigurable paths of chipsets. Billions of chipsets means trillions of wires or conductors on a microscopic scale. 1

And, as Blum recounts, it also means millions of wires at the global scale, traversing continents and oceans, and serving as the “fundamental medium of the global village.” 2

Why “visit” the Internet? Why contemplate the intercontinental and nano-scale mechanisms through which it operates? In part because our ostensibly “wireless” networked-ness constitutes nothing less than a new human experience — as Mackenzie describes it, an experience “trending toward entanglements with things, objects, gadgets, infrastructures, and services, and imbued with indistinct sensations and practices of network-associated change. Wirelessness affects how people arrive, depart, and inhabit places, how they relate to others, and indeed, how they embody change.” 3 What’s more, as Mackenzie argues, wirelessness constitutes a distinctive way of being — an existence somewhere between the material and immaterial, the empirical and theoretical, the place-bound and the placeless, the local and the global. To visit the sites that are producing our networked experiences is thus an attempt to understand these new entanglements, sensations and practices, these network-associated changes — this new way of being.

Mapping Infrastructure

Blum and Mackenzie are in good company these days; many writers and scholars are now exploring the new ways of being that are resulting from ontologically slippery communication networks. Media scholar Lisa Parks, in her pioneering work on satellite television, has described satellite transmission as paradoxical — both distant and proximate, separate and connected, imaginary and real; she characterizes it as a “technology of knowledge,” an “epistemological system structured in part through the technologization of sound and vision.” 4 At a recent meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Parks argued further that a focus on infrastructure encourages media scholars to think more “elementally” about “what media are made of”; to foreground processes of distribution, which are often overlooked in favor of production and consumption; and to recognize the myriad biophysical resources necessary for that distribution, including the “trees that power poles are made of [and] the aluminum of a satellite dish.” Such an approach suggests too that the field of media studies might collaborate more closely with disciplines like environmental studies, geography, science and technology studies, as well as architecture, urban studies, engineering and information science.

Of course, the environmental design disciplines have been thinking a lot about infrastructure. 5 Urban designers and historians have recognized that remote and often hidden technologies dramatically inform how we design cities, manage natural resources, interact with other living creatures and inanimate objects, and understand our place in the universe. What’s more, the cities, landscapes, objects and systems that we design often interrelate with each other independent of human involvement or awareness. At the very least, then, we humans can become involved as external observers, and seek to understand the material and immaterial workings of these interconnected systems — not only how soil is dredged and landscapes are reshaped, or how traffic and waste are streamed through the built environment, but also how an email travels from New York to Lagos, or how a television program is beamed into our living room or onto our computer screens.

Lisa Parks suggests that it is our duty as infrastructural “citizen/users” to be aware of the “systems that surround [us] and that [we] subsidize and use,” and she proposes that we “devise … ways of visualizing and developing literacy about infrastructures and the relations that take shape through and around them.” In her study of so-called “antenna trees” — cell phone towers tricked up to look like trees — she wonders: “Are there ways of representing cell towers that will encourage citizens to participate in sustained discussions and decisions about network ownership, development, and access?” We might pose similar questions about other infrastructures. Can we devise ways to map these systems so as to reveal, as Parks suggests, how they inform “neighborhood aesthetics, health and property values,” and environmental protection; how they permit or deny access to resources; and how they shape our daily experience — and even structure a new mode of infrastructural existence?

English tourists gather around the generators at Hoover Dam, ca. 1940; an example of what historian David Nye has described as our longstanding fascination with the “technological sublime.” [Image: Bureau of Reclamation, via Wikimedia Commons]

We should consider too the variety of infrastructures we citizen/users need to be aware of and to understand. First used in the mid-1920s to refer to roads, tunnels and other public works, as well as permanent military structures, the term “infrastructure” is often instantiated as the asphalt roadways and steel rails that were typically national (often military) initiatives, and which ultimately broadened into systems that connected entire continents. By the late 1990s, according to a U.S. Presidential Commission, the term came to encompass “man-made systems and processes that function collaboratively and synergistically to produce and distribute a continuous flow of essential goods and services” — systems like transportation, oil and gas distribution and storage, water supply, emergency management, government services, banking and finance, electrical power, and information and communications. 6.

Geographers Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin identify infrastructures as “the largest and most sophisticated technological artifacts ever devised by humans” 7; and sociologists Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker remind us that infrastructures also extend to intellectual and institutional operations, including measurement standards, naming conventions, classification systems, technical protocols and bureaucratic forms. 8 Star and Bowker suggest too that infrastructure is inevitably a flexible term, often defined with regard to context and situation. They describe infrastructure as “that which runs ‘underneath’ actual structures … that upon which something else rides, or works, a platform of sorts”; but then acknowledge that “this common-sense definition begins to unravel when we … look at multiple, overlapping and perhaps contradictory infrastructural arrangements. For the railroad engineer, the rails are only infrastructure when she or he is a passenger.” In other words, Infrastructure can easily flip between figure and ground. Quoting Gregory Bateson, Star and Bowker suggest that an infrastructure is a “relationship or an infinite regress of relationships. Never a ‘thing.’” 9

How to map such large and sophisticated phenomena — such “non-things”? In Alien Phenomenology, the media scholar/game designer Ian Bogost recommends several ways to describe our new networked, infrastructural existence, including ontography, which can encompass “the many processes of accounting for the various units that strew themselves throughout the universe.” To create an ontograph, Bogost says, you need “to [catalogue] things” — through verbal and visual lists, for instance — and “also [to draw] attention to the couplings and chasms between them,” thus revealing how these things “exist not just for us but also for themselves and for one another.” 10 As examples of ontographs, Bogost offers a wide range, from the photographs of Stephen Shore — which depict “ordinary” scenes in great detail — to exploded view diagrams to games like Scribblenauts and In a Pickle. Lisa Parks has been studying various techniques for visualizing satellite technologies — for cataloguing and diagramming the relationships among satellites in orbit, and between those satellites and terrestrial dishes, antennas, cables and related elements; she questions the rhetoric and politics of images taken by satellites, as well as visualizations of the satellites themselves and their processes of operation, including maps of satellite footprints and signal distribution. 11 And in one of my own graduate classes, students think critically about the use of diverse media — photographs, video, audio, data visualizations, etc. — to map historical communication infrastructures, ranging from newspaper delivery to carrier-pigeon dispatch to telephone switching.

We might also explore whether there are other ways — again to reference Bogost — to account for infrastructural units and operations that don’t easily translate into more conventional, or visual, graph formats. In one of his last books, the planner Kevin Lynch suggested that the landscape, through “graceful land management,” might open itself up to scrutiny and accounting. Planners might ensure that the “inner workings” of various “functional element[s] … are there to be seen if one is interested.” More specifically Lynch envisions “guidebooks to the sewer system, with instructions on how to read the season and the time of day by watching the flow. 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.” 12

Invisible-5, scenes from Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. [Images from Invisible-5, created by Amy Balkin, Tim Halbur, Kim Stringfellow, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, and Pond: Art, Activism & Ideas]

Touring, Collecting, Documenting Infrastructure

Kevin Lynch died almost three decades ago; but lately a number of artists and activists have in essence taken up his challenge, deploying diverse pedagogical techniques and representational strategies with the goal of “making some process perceptible,” of enhancing our understanding of the infrastructures that surround us and upon which we depend. For instance, in a special issue of Art Journal devoted to “Land Use in Contemporary Art,” the artist-academic Emily Eliza Scott discusses Invisible-5, a self-guided audio tour of Interstate 5 in California between Los Angeles and San Francisco. According to its creators — artists Amy Balkin and Kim Stringfellow, producer Tim Halbur, and the organizations Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Pond: Art, Activism & Ideas — Invisible-5 aims to “investigate the stories of people and communities fighting for environmental justice along the I-5 corridor, through oral histories, field recordings, found sound, recorded music, and archival audio documents.” The tour’s 24 tracks — moving south to north from “Boyle Heights – East LA” and “Los Angeles River” to “West Oakland” and “Bayview Hunters Point – SF” — are synched with visible markers along the highway. And while the cues to push PLAY are hard to miss, each track focuses not on what you can see through the windshield of your car but on what you cannot: in Scott’s words, “airborne toxins, diseased bodies, displaced native populations, covert operations, stories underrepresented in the media, and flows of labor and capital.” Thus the stops on the audio tour highlight not the usual city or landscape sites but rather the “underbelly, circuitry board, and dumping ground — sites of extraction, exchange, and expenditure, the Other to those of capital’s obvious accumulation.” 13.

Scott describes Invisible-5 as an example of what the architectural theorist Jane Rendell calls “critical spatial practice” — a project that seeks “to produce effects beyond the art world — on the ground, so to speak.” She also references the curator Nato Thompson, and his 2008 exhibition Experimental Geography: Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography and Urbanism, and argues that projects like Invisible-5 should be evaluated not only on the basis of their aesthetic value, but also for their “material consequences” and their ability to “translate into radical action.” In this sense Invisible-5 is not simply about “making visible the invisible” — not just about focusing our attention upon the oil derricks and cattle ranches, the pesticides and pollutants; as Scott says, the tour attempts to link “those who travel along the interstate corridor to those who live there”; the ultimate goal is “to intervene in the unjust conditions at hand.” 14

How does that linking happen? Scott suggests that a conventional map would not have sufficed, in part because one of the goals of Invisible-5 is, in her words, to “disrupt coherent representations of space, simultaneously highlighting the fragmentary nature of knowledge itself and critiquing, for instance, the God’s-eye view inherent to traditional maps.” 15 Invisible-5 highlights what usually remains “at the periphery of visibility,” what seems illegible or even un-mappable, what might be evoked instead by the sounds bubbling below the surface, or by the personal narratives of those palpably harmed by imperceptible dangers. And by capturing its audience in motion, in an automobile with a gas-fueled, oil-burning engine driving down the expressway, Invisible-5 “implicates the user directly in land-use politics explored during the tour”; the motorist/user is, in short, perpetuating the problem.

Top: Kettleman City, Chemical Waste Management Facility, LANDSAT map, courtesy of Invisible-5. Middle: Los Angeles, Official Map and Guide, from Los Angeles Urban Rangers. Bottom: Interstate Road Trip Specialist Field Kit, from Los Angeles Urban Rangers.

“We might,” says Scott, “think of Invisible-5 as a form of alternative pedagogy or creative-critical tourism, aimed at stimulating heightened and self-reflexive observation.” We might think much the same of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers, an art collective co-founded by Scott that develops “guided hikes, campfire talks, field kits, and other interpretive tools to spark creative explorations of everyday habitats.” The Urban Rangers’ mission is at once political and ontological. In a recent article, Scott and co-founding Ranger Nicholas Bauch explain it this way: “Our practice upsets the handed-down ontological categories of nature and culture. The acting out of this categorical disruption is the sine qua non of our identity.” One of their interpretive tools is to create maps that mimic the style of the U.S. National Park Service, but which aim not to clarify the geography of natural locales but instead to reveal the “tangled legal, environmental, and social histories” that shape our “natural” and cultural landscapes. 16

In a 2006 project on the Interstate Highway System, for instance, the Rangers created a kit and a field guide; although modeled upon children’s activity books, the kit and guide were intended not to combat travel-induced boredom but rather to “facilitate sharpened observational skills for reading 21st-century roadside geographies” — e.g., to encourage engagement with the road, the car traversing it, the landscapes it passes through, the people in that landscape, etc. 17 The kit and guide contained the following:

  • car-mapping exercise (to encourage travelers to consider the mobile viewing devices (a.k.a., cars) that frame our interaction with the environment);
  • windshield framing device (to highlight how travel speed influences our observations);
  • color swatch of the American landscape (to spur travelers to think about individual hues and discern the countless objects and materials, e.g., vegetation, concrete, brick, asphalt, metal, etc., that constitute the landscape);
  • field observation log (to stimulate critical awareness of the road, local cultures and physical environments, and one’s own body);
  • photo scavenger hunts (to train travelers’ attention on various thresholds, including those between city/non-city, between states, and between landscapes);
  • list of prompts for roadside interviews;
  • a set of highway-themed mad libs;
  • specimen collection system with variously sized containers, customizable labels, and pre-printed word tags (the former, to give users the freedom to select many different items; the latter, to force users to fit diverse objects into fixed classifications).

In all these ways the American Road Trip kit and guide work to frame the “highway system” as consisting not only of long ribbons of macadam and on/off ramps, but also trees, mountains, rocks, people, restaurants, signs, laws, windshields, gas mileage, standards — and the list goes on. The Rangers deploy similar methods for their other “field sites,” which include Downtown L.A., Malibu Public Beaches and — the only non-U.S. site to date — SITE2F7 Ontdekkingstocht, the “last urban wilderness in the hyper-planned” Dutch city of Almere. “It is conceivable that our analyses of urban places and landscapes could be communicated solely through written publications,” write Bauch and Scott. “However, the process of bringing people to the places we study … teaches people through direct corporeal experience … in a way that is impossible from reading alone.” 18

Sensing Infrastructure

The kind of “direct corporeal experience” that the Rangers encourage often escapes, or exceeds, our sense of sight. Can we imagine tasting infrastructure and its effects in the water supply or food chain? Certainly we know that we can smell air pollution and organic byproducts in the waste-removal system; and as Nicola Twilley regularly points out in her blog, Edible Geography, olfactory perception is a key dimension of food production and distribution infrastructures. Mineral deposits in drinking water, chemical contamination of water or air, malfunctioning refrigeration on a shipping container — all have potentially sense-able consequences. At home and work we can feel the effects of our HVAC systems, and an experienced technician can sense when a cable is improperly threaded through conduit, or when a transformer is overheating.

The Internet itself is more multisensory than the sounds and images it summons to our devices. In the course of dozens of visits to exchange points and data centers, Andrew Blum became aware that “the Internet had a smell, an odd but distinctive mix of industrial-strength air-conditioners and the ozone released by capacitors.” 19 He describes it also as haptic and audible: “Data centers are kept cold to compensate for the incredible heat emitted by the equipment that fills them. And they’re noisy, as the sound of the fans used to push around the cold air combines into a single deafening roar, as loud as a rushing highway.” 20 Exploring the senses of infrastructures can reveal not only how those systems indicate their functionality for us — via blinking lights, beeps, etc. — but also their own operational modes and logics.

For the past several years I’ve been studying what we can learn about infrastructures by listening to them. 21 Sound serves as a useful diagnostic tool; we can often hear infrastructural malfunctions — like clanging pipes or a stuttering computer hard drive — that aren’t visible on the surface. Some artists use contact microphones to pick up on movements within infrastructure — the flexing of a plate-glass window on a windy day, or the straining of a bridge under the weight of traffic — that are imperceptible to the naked eye. For decades sound artist Bill Fontana has been recording the sounds of bridges and trains and water, and often “relocating” those sounds by broadcasting them in other areas. In 1983, for example, for the centennial of the Brooklyn Bridge, (which then still had its original steel grid roadway), he mounted eight microphones under the bridge and broadcast the sounds to the plaza of the World Trade Center, via speakers embedded within the facade of One World Trade Center.

Electrical Walks, art project by Christina Kubisch. [Images courtesy of Christina Kubisch via Networked Music Review and Digimag]

Sound can give a kind of presence to infrastructures we’re unaware of, even when we’re inhabiting them. Consider the work of composer/sound artist Christina Kubisch, whose Electrical Walks use specially designed headphones to translate electromagnetic signals into sounds, making “real” the myriad waves and particles that make possible, for instance, ATM transactions, wifi connectivity, and building security systems, and that envelop and penetrate our bodies when we walk down the street or withdraw cash from the bank or open our front doors. Sound is also a useful index of the rhythmicity of mechanical movements. Consider the rhythm of a printing press or a fabric loom or a rail locomotive, or even the beeps and alarms of air traffic control towers or nuclear power plants, and how these compel their human attendants to leap to action.

For several years now architect Nick Sowers has been traveling the world, examining space — particularly military landscapes — through the medium of sound. “Sound has become my medium of choice,” he explains. “Recording sound as a means of observing spatial conditions de-emphasizes the visual realm and opens up another dialogue with place, one that is haptic and time-based.” In a project published in this journal, focusing on the acoustic ecology of unoccupied World War II bunkers along the coast of France, Sowers aims to capture the sounds of his approach to the concrete fortifications — to convey how the structures are sited — and the sounds within the bunker. As he writes, “In bunker space, the visual limitations of vanguard/rearguard give way to a stereophonic redistribution of space.” Might these disparate modes of looking and listening have some significance for military strategy? 22 In his exploration of the “subterranean architectonics” of warfare, the sound artist and researcher Will Schrimshaw contrasts the convention of visual domination and its implied vertical, view-from-above organization, with auditory perception and its associated horizontal on-the-ground action; he notes its particular relevance to our own era of terrorism: “Insurgency forces a loss of vertical domination and the disorganisation — if not dissolution — of ubiquitous, centralised vision.”

Playing and Performing Infrastructure

Infrastructural systems are not necessarily static; often they are even mutable, portable, transient; and so some infrastructure engagement projects focus on processes or events. Games, for instance, can effectively convey the temporal dimension of an infrastructure; board games like Rush Hour and video games like Sim City and Civilization model the complexity of urban systems. In Alien Phenomenology, Bogost discusses some of these games, and describes a few interactive projects that make manifest the mechanical functions and web protocols that enable them to function. I am TIA, which Bogost created himself, demonstrates how an Atari VCS “sees” its own screen, while Ben Fry’s Deconstructulator opens up the Nintendo Entertainment System to reveal its software and hardware operations. Likewise, in his own work, architect Morgen Fleisig also seeks to “open the black box” and to reveal “the aesthetics of computation”; as a graduate student in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, he set out to model, or perform, the most basic of computational operations: the opening and closing of relays. To do this Fleisig constructed a one-bit computer, “an electro-magnetic sculpture in which every part is composed of readily recognizable objects, and the transfer of signal from one element to the next is accompanied by a humanly intelligible sign, whether acoustic or visual.” His goal was to make “humanly sensible the protocols of information management.”

Scenes from Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructures: Top left, Yucca Mountain. Top right: High-level waste storage lockers, West Valley, New York. Bottom: RH-72B, a lead-lined cask used for shipping transuranic waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. [All images from Smudge Studio]

Smudge studio, a collaborative project of the New York-based artist-scholars Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, grapples with infrastructures on a much larger scale: the geologic, from the age-old human quest to move mountains to the deep time of radioactive waste. In their recent work, Ellsworth and Kruse approach both landscape and infrastructure not as discrete objects or places “but rather as streaming phenomena to be experienced as events.” 23 They take care to avoid hubristic attempts to model or map events that span millennia, focusing instead on “signaling” forces that “unfold at scales that can exceed human cognitive capacity.”

One of these forces is that of atomic power, which Ellsworth and Kruse explore in Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructure. The central element of the project, which they launched in summer 2012 at the Proteus Gowanus gallery, is a deck of 42 cards, intended to be played — or “activated” — by motorists on U.S. highways. Featuring information on various topics like uranium tailings, cooling processes, storage infrastructures and the like, and modeled on World War II-era spotter cards, the deck is, as Smudge says, “designed to help you spot and identify today’s temporary solutions for the storage of radioactive waste, as you pass by them on the highway, or as they pass by you.” Smudge explains the significance of that “temporary” designation:

Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was our nation’s best attempt to store and contain high-level waste. In 2010 the site was deemed unsuitable and the project’s funding was eliminated. No permanent storage options are expected to be available for the next 100 – 300 years. In 2004, the EPA determined that high-level radioactive waste will remain dangerous to humans for 1 million years. [The agency] stipulated that any repository for high-level waste will have to meet the unprecedentedly long-term safety goal of 1,000 millennia. As of 2011, about 66,000 metric tons of spent fuel were being held at power reactor sites in 33 states. Each year, this amount increases by another 2,000 metric tons.

Spotter cards, part of Smudge Studio’s project Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructures. [Image courtesy of Smudge Studio]

Repository’s card deck includes several “Key Cards” that provide contextualizing information. (The resonances with Invisible-5 are strong.) Say we spot one of the trucks specially designed to carry nuclear waste on a highway somewhere in California or Utah or Nevada; the matching Repository card will tell us that the truck has 192 wheels and travels at an average speed of 15 miles per hour; it will also signal the “long now” of the radioactive materials contained in the truck. According to the artists, some motorist/players report keeping the deck handy, in their glove compartments; the project has been added to the collection of the Atomic Photographers Guild and displayed at the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum in Arvada, CO. Yet the text-heavy design often complicates attempts to read the cards quickly, on the road, or to engage with them in an exhibition. As a result Smudge has decided to extend the project into other forms. To better capture the “aesthetic, sensory experience” of the movement of nuclear materials, Ellsworth and Kruse are now creating a video, which will travel to various exhibition venues near key nuclear sites.

Meanwhile, Bryan Finoki, Nick Sowers and Javier Arbona of Demilit, a research/art/design collective dedicated to “decoding military landscapes,” have created a game called Terra Incognita, in which players are encouraged to explore their cities, ideally on foot, and “identify conflicts and fissures … explore unknown neighborhoods … solve evolving mysteries, and fantasize about hidden geographies.” The object of the game, which appeared in the puzzle-themed Istanbul-focused issue of New City Reader, is to create cartographic puzzles that reveal the myriad interlocking networks and forces that shape urban space. The point is not really to solve the puzzle, but to perceive the city as an infinitely expanding assemblage of puzzles. For instance, an individual or group might create a puzzle focusing on, in the words of the creators, “… the spaces of the founding myths of the city; the new musical sub-cultures; the personal knowledge and memories of urban spaces; the sensory aspects of space; the militarization of everyday life; the geology and hydrology underneath your feet; the air space; surveillance; neighborhood concentrations of interesting hairstyles; the metaphors of the city; the spaces of falling in love.” Demilit suggests that such playful, map-based explorations, drawing obvious inspiration from psychogeography, may be our best way to understand some of the forces — financial, political, military, etc. — that shape our “landscapes of secrecy and violence,” since these forces are often imperceptible, “spectral abstractions,” in Demilit’s phrase. 24

Terra Incognita, created by Demilit, on view in Istanbul. [Image from New City Reader]

From Perception to Awareness … and Action

The methods of engagement employed in projects like Invisible-5 or Repository could easily be adapted to diverse infrastructures. We could develop a field kit to trace our cell phone infrastructures, or organize a safari to track e-waste, or follow our noses to sniff out myriad nodes in global food or chemical distribution networks. But then what? What might happen after all the touring and mapping, the listening and smelling, the playing of games? What do we do with all that we have discovered and identified and sensed? So you know where your Internet lives … now what?

The ambitious intentions to “make visible the invisible” and raise awareness of imperceptible systems, much like Situationist-style dérives or interventions, can too often become ends in themselves. There’s been debate about the effectiveness of these awareness-raising art and design projects, including critical spatial practice. In their book series on critical practice, architects Nikolaus Hirsch and Markus Miessen wonder whether space can truly function as a medium for political activism. And philosopher Jacques Rancière, writing about critical art practice, argues that “understanding does not, in and of itself, help to transform intellectual attitudes and situations”; and more, he posits that efforts to unveil the secret, or unearth the buried, might ultimately “kill … the strangeness” of the forces and phenomena we want to transform. 25

What kinds of impact can we reasonably expect from these infrastructural literacy projects? Emily Eliza Scott of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers puts it this way: if the group’s hikes and field kits and safaris “can get people to question, and to be more self-reflexive, for instance, about what it means to travel along a particular infrastructure, and about how it delimits our perceptions and experiences of the landscape, then I think that’s enough.” 26 Ellsworth and Kruse, of Smudge, differentiate their work from consciousness-raising practice, which they see as presumptuous; instead they see infrastructures and landscapes as always in flux, which in turn requires us to continually adapt our perceptual capacities and design parameters in order to understand and shape those landscapes. 27 Thus they hope their projects will generate not just awareness about existing infrastructures but also the capacity to imagine potential ones.

But again: what then? As Hannah Arendt argued decades ago, political efficacy requires concerted action, or praxis — so what kinds of action does infrastructural literacy beget? Scott admits that it’s “hard, maybe even impossible, to know exactly if, when, and how critical thinking will translate into action, or take some tangible form.” To this same point, the liberal arts in our contemporary universities are struggling to prove (as they’re often asked to do given the current “culture of assessment”) that the development of critical thinking or global consciousness has any measurable impact on students’ lives, particularly in the form of job prospects or salaries; those of us who teach in the humanities occasionally turn to case studies or even anecdotes to affirm the long-term positive influence of our pedagogical efforts. Scott offers her own anecdote:

One of the most gratifying bits of feedback I ever received from one of my Ranger projects came from a 60-something woman who’d attended a campfire program on freeway landscapes in Los Angeles. Months later, she told me that she never looked at a freeway in the same way. Who knows what this kind of change in perception might ultimately lead to?

Who knows indeed? Over the years hundreds of people have signed up for the Los Angeles Urban Rangers’ safaris. Invisible-5 has achieved a wide reach, and many of the groups featured in the tour have adopted it as a teaching and training tool. The more people who participate in and experience these kinds of projects, the more various will be the possible outcomes. And I would argue too that these projects create their own infrastructures — informational, social, political, creative, etc. — for further action. Mapping-as-method, touring-as-method, sensing-as-method, signaling-as-method, playing-as-method — all represent the ontological complexity of various forms of infrastructures, and encourage us to translate heightened knowledge into real meaningful action.

  1. Adrian Mackenzie, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 64–65.
  2. Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (New York: Ecco, 2012), 193.
  3. Mackenzie, Wirelessness, 5.
  4. Lisa Parks, Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 169.
  5. See, for instance, William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton 1991); Thomas Parke Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Paul N. Edwards, “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems,” in Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey & Andrew Feenberg, Modernity and Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press 2003), 185-225; Kazys Varnelis, ed., The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles (New York: Actar, Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, and The Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University, 2009); and InfraNet Lab/Lateral Office, Coupling: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism, Pamphlet Architecture 30 (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011): 6-9.
  6. See the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, Critical Foundations: Protecting America’s Infrastructures (Washington: The President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, 1997).
  7. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, eds., Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (New York: Routledge, 2001).
  8. Susan Leigh Star & Geoffrey C. Bowker, “How to Infrastructure,” in Leigh A. Lievrouw & Sonia M. Livingstone, eds., Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences of ICTs (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006): 230–44.
  9. Star & Bowker, 230, 246.
  10. Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 50, 51.
  11. Parks, “Obscure Objects of Media Studies: Echo, Hotbird and Ikonos,” Mediascape 1:3 (2007). Parks and colleague Nicole Starosielski, who studies transoceanic cables, have each experimented with various techniques of visual presentation. See their Signal Traffic research collective. For related work, see also The Institute for Infinitely Small Things (2006), as well as the work of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University, and the Center for Urban Pedagogy. The activities of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, for another example are focused on its online “Land Use Database,” but it also organizes exhibits that make use of a variety of representational media and hosts a residency program for artists, researchers, designers, theorists, etc., to “support the development of new interpretive methodologies and ideas” regarding land use, including infrastructural projects.
  12. Kevin Lynch, Good City Form (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 312–313
  13. Emily Eliza Scott, “Field Effects: Invisible-5’s Illumination of Peripheral Geographies,” Art Journal 69:4 (Winter 2010, 42–43.
  14. Emily Eliza Scott, “Field Effects,” 39, 40. Several related spatial-justice-oriented projects – focusing on such themes as prisons, migration, economic and environmental justice, public health, race, and land claims – were featured in the Just Space(s) exhibition and symposium, hosted at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in 2007.
  15. Emily Eliza Scott, “Field Effects,” 40–43.
  16. Nicholas Bauch & Emily Eliza Scott, “The Los Angeles Urban Rangers: Actualizing Geographic Thought.” Cultural Geographies 19:3 (2012): 403, 407. Research and design collective SPURSE, which employs many similar performative, field-based methodologies, likewise advocates that we “drop the concept of Nature,” which “posits that there is a world “out there,” removing us from the world we claim we engage with.” See also Stephanie LeMenager, “The Los Angeles urban Rangers, Trailblazing the Commons,” in Joni Adamson and Kimberly Ruffin, eds., American Studies, Ecocriticism, and Citizenship: Thinking and Acting in the Local and Global Commons (New York: Routledge, 2012): 220 –235.
  17. Emily Eliza Scott, Interview with the author, May 27, 2013. See also Sarah Kanouse, “A Post-Naturalist Field Kit: Tools for the Embodied Exploration of Social Ecologies” in Sébastien Caquard, Laurene Vaughan & William Cartwright, eds., Mapping Environmental Issues in the City: Arts and Cartography Cross Perspectives (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2011): 160-7; as well as SPURSE’s sans terre project (2004-5), which involved the collection of samples and the creation of maps and an archive, in order to explore the boundaries between urban/rural and nature/culture in the rural area of North Adams, MA, and the urban region of Mexico City; Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley’s Venue project, “a portable media rig, interview studio, multi-format event platform, and forward-operating landscape research base” created to explore the American landscape and sponsored by the Nevada Museum of Art; and the Dredge Research Collaborative’s DredgeFest, which featured a symposium and New York harbor tour exploring the “human accumulation of sediments.”
  18. Bauch & Scott, 406 – 407.
  19. Blum, 44.
  20. Blum, 95
  21. See Shannon Mattern, “Hearing Urban Infrastructures, from the Voice to Sonic Warfare.” Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal, Canada, 14 June 2012; Shannon Mattern, “Sound Matter,” CUNY Center for Humanities Panel Discussion. “No Thing Unto Itself: Object-Oriented Politics.” The City University of New York, New York, 20 October 2011; and Shannon Mattern, “Resonant Texts: Sounds of the American Public Library,” The Senses & Society 2:3 (2007): 277-302.
  22. See Sowers’ Soundscrapers, Bryan Finoki’s Subtopia and Eyal Weizman’s work on architectures of occupation as well as his contributions to the forensic architecture research collective, for more on how bunkers and other militarized spaces condition our perception and behavior, and shape both military strategy and everyday practices.”
  23. Interviews with the author. July 18, 2012; May 26, 2013. In the interest of full disclosure, both Ellsworth and Kruse are friends and colleagues from The New School.
  24. DEMILIT, Untitled Manuscript, Volume, forthcoming 2013. Demilit argues further that the infrastructures of “military urbanism …. operate under cloaks of [both] invisibility as well as hypervisibility. Where one cannot be seen, the other remains so obvious that it is strategically placed in the open to be simply overlooked.” We do not perceive the online data trails we leave across the websites we visit, for instance, yet we are aware that our urban wanderings are being tracked via ubiquitous surveillance cameras. Demilit intends for Terra Incognita to engage their participants in mindful walking to encourage them to open up their senses, and to become affectively aware of “shadowy outlines of … power” and spaces of secrecy.
  25. Jacques Rancière, “Problems and Transformations in Critical Art” In Aesthetics and Its Discontents (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009): 45.
  26. Emily Eliza Scott, Interview with the author, May 27, 2013.
  27. Smudge, Interview with the author, May 26, 2013.
Shannon Mattern, “Infrastructural Tourism,” Places Journal, July 2013. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 07.02.2013 at 12:53

    I wonder at what point this current design craze towards fetishizing infrastructure, especially the internet, is a reaction to the weightlessness nature of that industry. As of now, internet companies live as infrastructural parasites, living on the outside of town with data centers elsewhere, a fact that Blum or anyone else is slow to mention for fear of offending our digital overlords. We can understand them more, but we aren't really meant to experience them; we are meant to experience them from our laptops.
    Perhaps the most impressive system is the sewer, a place so unglamorous that even the hippest bloggers will never go.

  • 07.05.2013 at 17:20

    Really loved this piece, thank you so much. I studied landscape architecture and the many types of "invisible" layers of infrastructure were brought up frequently in our theory course; I think using creative means to engage people to start looking around (and ultimately questioning) the world around them by making the 'invisible' visible is fascinating and valuable.

    @Glas there is actually a movement devoted to exploring underground sewer systems, called Urban Exploration. I don't know too much about it, but I know there is a following.