This past weekend I joined Tyler Coburn, Ian Hatcher, Nicole Starosielski, and Lance Wakeling on an excellent panel at the Pratt Upload conference. We talked about “infrastructural aesthetics.” Here’s Tyler’s provocative prompt:
In the recent past, we’ve seen art projects exploring sophisticated (often covert) systems, from military black sites to the electromagnetic signals that suffuse our everyday life. While their subjects vary, these works speak to a broader concern with contemporary “infrastructure”—a term, geographers Steven Graham and Simon Marvin note, that doesn’t just describe what “runs ‘underneath’ actual structures,” but the “multiple, overlapping and perhaps contradictory infrastructural arrangements” of politics, technology and economy. “Infrastructure” here departs from its conventional definition, becoming a relational field that various agents can potentially influence.
The neologism “Infrastructural Aesthetics” is a prompt to consider the artist’s position within this field and the strategies available to her. How, for example, can art engage with systems that rarely have singular forms, but concatenate physical, immaterial and asignifying processes? Is the efficacy of representation thrown into question, and what forms of artistic practice might better speak to our imbrication in contemporary infrastructure? Finally, can art play a role in fostering literacy about this subject, to greater political effect?
I had returned from my fellowship in Germany just the day before, so, for the sake of efficiency, I “imbricated” some of my Holcim Forum paper into my introductory comments here. But I focused primarily on the “typology of topologies” — maps, diagrams, field guides, etc. — we’ve constructed to make sense of infrastructure, to aestheticize it and render it sensible. I then talk about the limits of representation and propose two other affective, process-oriented, aesthetic means of engagement: listening to and smelling infrastructure. Here ’tis:
Infrastructure feels very zeitgeisty. We’ve recently awakened to the realization that the Internet is a place made of countless material things – cables and data centers and rare earth minerals – along with lots of intellectual and political constructs, too. We’ve experienced a dawning recognition of our Amazonian consumptive appetites and their dependence on similarly heavy logistical systems, exploitative labor practices, and far-reaching waste streams. We’ve begun to wonder about the algorithms shaping our search results and Facebook feeds, and to worry about the digital exhaust we constantly leave in our wake. And we’ve surrendered to the reality of the Anthropocene and its precarious infrastructural, environmental, political, and ethical futures.
Such emerging cognizance is thanks in no small part to long-term, intensive ethnographic research by the likes of Nicole Starosielski, Lisa Parks, Susan Leigh Star, Geoff Bowker, Paul Edwards, Brian Larkin, Stephen Graham, Simon Marvin, Andrew Blum, and Christine Borgmann, among others. This emergent infrastructural intelligence is also inspired by, and has inspired, an explosion of infrastructural “literacy” and engagement projects that seek to “make visible the invisible,” to call out the unrecognized, to bore into the “black-boxed.” Grand Tours of nuclear infrastructures and key sites in telecom history are the new Bildungsromane of the blockchain age. Apps and data visualizations, soundwalks and speculative design workshops, DIY manuals and field guides, urban dashboards and participatory mappings, hackathons and infrastructural tourism – strategies employed by artists and activists and even some city governments and federal agencies – all seek to “raise awareness” among a broader public about infrastructure’s existence and its politics. They aim, further, to motivate non-specialist communities to contribute to infrastructure’s maintenance and improvement, to inspire citizen-consumers to advocate for more accessible and justly distributed resources, and perhaps even to “engineer” their own DIY networks.
The underlying assumption in many cases is that by making infrastructures visible or otherwise sense-able or experiential – in other words, aesthetic – those systems thereby become sensible, comprehensible, and perhaps even manipulable and hackable. Sensation translates into cognition, engagement, a sense of “ownership,” and, most ambitiously, technical competence and “emancipation.”
Visualization is certainly our main mode of aestheticization and enlightenment. We’re all about mapping and diagramming and trace-routing and video-documenting. The past couple years saw the release of publications informing us How to See the World and “How to See Infrastructure,” which harken back to George Nelson’s 1977 How to See: A Guide to Reading Our Man-Made Environment. We also got field guides helping us identify key visual markers of internet infrastructure and container shipping (as a footnote, I’ll mention also that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, reintroduced us to the Green Books, travel guides published from 1936 to 1949 to help African-American motorists find social and technical infrastructures that would enable them to avoid “difficulties” and “embarrassments” on their travels.)
We could organize these visualization strategies into a typology of topologies. In describing the rise of what they call “topological” culture, Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi, and Tiziana Terranova note the prevalent use of lists, models, networks, clouds, fractals, flows and assemblages to describe myriad contemporary cultural forms – from technology to financial markets to geographies transformed by dynamic forces and mobility. Infrastructures, as we know, elicit much topologizing. As media theorist Anna Munster says, “When we imagine a network these days, it is hard to stave off the flood of visualizations – tangled threads, fractal webs, uneven distributions of interconnected circles and lines – that populate our contemporary connectionist imaginary.”
This typology of topologies should make us wonder about the different epistemologies or “patterns of mind” embodied in each representational technique – and about how each strategy crystallizes a different ontology, or understanding of how infrastructures exist in the world. Lists and fractals, photographs and diagrams, maps of stasis and maps of flow – each embodies a different ontology of representation (a photo doesn’t exist in the same way that an illustration does, for instance). And each constitutes a different proposition regarding what infrastructures are. Munster discusses the particularly potent politics of the network diagram, whose link-and-node “uniformity”
makes us think that we perceive networks everywhere. Instead, via techniques such as data mining, networks have been computationally rendered as perceptible. Moreover, the frequent misalignment between ideas about human perception and models of computational learning and pattern recognition… has meant that what is perceptible comes to stand in for what is perceived.
Yet in rendering infrastructure, we often go after the imperceptible. We marshal all of these topological strategies to “make visible” our dynamic flows and forms. The implication here is that we’re fighting against invisibility – which tends to cultivate an air of the clandestine or the conspiratorial, and which in turn elicits what Ricoeur calls a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” In her recent book on the Limits of Critique, Rita Felski suggests that such a suspicious approach – which requires us to “dig down” beneath the surface (of a text or site), to de-naturalize its seemingly natural order – has become commonplace, scripted, even trite. “At this point,” she says, “we are all resisting readers; perhaps the time has come to resist the automatism of our own resistance, to risk alternate forms of aesthetic engagement.” Munster, too, exhorts us to consider “how networks might be understood differently.”
Despite a long history of critique surrounding the master-plan and conventional cartography and other institutionalized, naturalized modes of spatial and visual representation, today’s developers, civic officials, and corporate contractors – and many scholars and designers and artists – continue to pursue the comprehensive data visualization, the exhaustive network diagram, the completist map, the “seamlessly integrated” urban dashboard – the ideal means of representing their version of infrastructural intelligence. Theorist Alex Galloway suggests that we simply have yet to create “adequate visualizations” of our network culture and control society and the infrastructures that undergird them.
Or perhaps instead, representation itself is insufficient as a source of infrastructural intelligence. Architect John May proposes that pretty much all of our strategies for representing or mediating “infrastructural events,” including especially their moments of failure, are suspect: “Real time” mass media; the practices of scenario modeling and accident investigation; the managerial discourses of prevention, monitoring and response; public relations and engineering bravado” — all, he says, ultimately “reify and reinforce the grand theater of modern functionalism.” They suggest that the failures of containment, the leaks and glitches and inefficiencies, are the exception rather than the rule.
“So many of our unfolding catastrophes” – and even the mundane operations of infrastructural systems, I’d add – “are simply not amenable to the kinds of spectacular productions to which we have grown accustomed,” May says. Nor do they lend themselves to the de rigueur data visualization or map. May argues that the problem is scalar, both temporal and spatial: “the scale of their incidence renders them invisible to our methods of documentation”; invisibly small and slow phenomena accumulate over time into assemblages that are, “paradoxically, imperceptibly large.” Computationally-driven infrastructural operation, conversely, executes at a scale that is imperceptibly fast.
These failures of representation may in part explain why many promoters of infrastructural intelligence resort not to representation, but to sensation, affect, process. They recognize that there is intelligence in experience and practice, even if we can’t always diagram, map, or model it. I think the limits of infrastructural representation may be among its most illuminating dimensions: our failures to sketch out its contours show how the systems we create, as they intermingle and reshape one another, often grow beyond our perception and conception, perhaps taking on agency and intelligence of their own.
I explored these limits of representation, and other modes of aesthetically engaging with infrastructure – mapping, touring, hearing, smelling, signaling, playing, and performing – in a 2013 article on “Infrastructural Tourism,” a recent book on mapping infrastructure, and an infrastructural mapping class I’ve taught at The New School since 2010. In all of these projects, I’ve discovered that our prevalent ocularcentric “patterns of mind” often lead us to overlook infrastructures that are right in front of our eyes, on the surface we’re so busy digging beneath. Or they might be under our noses, or tangibly accessible. The “making visible” mandate primes us to experience and investigate through our eyes – yet aesthetics aren’t limited to visuality. Neither are our means of engaging with infrastructure. “Infrastructure, broken or not, often evokes a multiplicity of embodied sensations across the human sensorium,” anthropologist Christina Schwenkel argues. And engaging with that range of sensory experiences, she says, can “help to produce more culturally and historically specific accounts of encounters with infrastructure.”
I’ll offer just two examples, which we can discuss further in the discussion period, if you like. First, Listening: For the past several years I’ve been examining what we can learn by listening to infrastructure – from the work of sound artists like Christina Kubisch and Bill Fontana and the Institute of Algorithmics, to the field research of archaeoacousticians, to the oceanographers researching the impact of naval research on aquatic life, to the manufacturers of acoustic building materials, to the design work of acoustic engineers. I wrote about hearing infrastructure as a network-archaeological method in a special issue of Amodern for which Nicole was a co-editor.
Interestingly, just yesterday Loughborough University posted a PhD “studentship” focused on “listening to infrastructure”:
When structures within the ground move and deform they generate noise some of which propagates as stress waves, Acoustic Emissions (AE). This project shall develop techniques to use these AE to listen for deterioration of critical infrastructure assets to provide early warning of deterioration and facilitate targeted maintenance and renewal. The project has vast potential applications [for] the UK’s aging geotechnical assets: [rail track, petroleum pipelines, potable water pipelines (we can’t help but think of recent infrastructural disaster in Flint), offshore wind turbines, tunnels, bridges, and earth-retaining structures].
Second, smelling. Let’s take a familiar example: the Internet. It’s 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” (and of course data centers are haptic and audible, too). 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. 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.
Bruce Robbins writes of infrastructure’s “smell of corrosion, rust, and rottenness”; we can smell infrastructures, he argues, when they are unattended and uncared for, when they decay. Schwenkel describes the smell of leaks and mildew in socialist housing in her field site in Vihn City, Vietnam. In California, recent water-preservation efforts have resulted in insufficiently-flushed sewage systems – which have had some pretty profound olfactory consequences. Meanwhile, the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of Southern Central Michigan have banded together to fight farm pollution; they’re concerned about the spread of feed lots and their impact on the watershed – and, yes, the local olfactory conditions. To help manage the expectations of city-transplants looking for rolling hills and fresh air, Ottawa, MI, published an “If You Are Thinking About Moving to the Country” brochure, complete with a scratch-and-sniff manure sticker. And Penn State University’s Agriculture school has produced an “odor management” guide for farmers.
This is a digital art conference. Why am I talking about manure? Because some infrastructural events – like fertilizer day on a hog farm – defy representation. Because infrastructures are more than just visual; our engagements with them are multisensory and affective. Because infrastructure is more than the Internet and telecom; it’s also farm management and library classification and legal codes. And because closing my comments with cows is necessarily a humble ending, and I happen to think that both the art world and the academy could benefit from a great deal more humility – particularly when engaging with systems that, while potentially sexily clandestine and intriguingly corrupt, still constitute a public good and are the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and excretory systems of our Anthropogenic Earth.
 Daphne Dragona, “Counter-Infrastructures: Critical Empowerment and Emancipation in a Networked World,” Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus 10.3 (2014): accessed December 28, 2015, http://median.newmediacaucus.org/art-infrastructures-information/counter-infrastructures-critical-empowerment-and-emancipation-in-a-networked-world/
 Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, “Introduction: Becoming Topological of Culture” Theory, Culture & Society 29:4/5 (2012): 3-35; Shannon Mattern, “Gaps in the Map: Why We’re Mapping Everything, and Why Not Everything Can, or Should, Be Mapped” Wordsinspace (September 18, 2015): https://wordsinspace.net/shannon/2015/09/18/gaps-in-the-map-why-were-mapping-everything-and-why-not-everything-can-or-should-be-mapped/
 Anna Munster, An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): 1.
 Anna Munster, An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): 5-6.
 John May, “Infrastructuralism: The Pathology of Negative Externalities,” Quaderns 262 (2011): accessed December 28, 2015, http://quaderns.coac.net/en/2011/09/262-may/
 See Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space | Politics | Affect (New York: Routledge, 2008).
 Bruce Robbins, “The Smell of Infrastructure: Notes Toward an Archive” boundary 2 34:1 (2007): 25-35.
 Jenn Stanley, “California Cities Smell the Consequences of Saving Water” NextCity (September 1, 2015): https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/california-drought-water-conservation-consequences
 Christopher Weber, “Stink Wars: When a Foul Wind Wafts From a Farm, Is It a Problem” Modern Farmer (January 27, 2014): http://modernfarmer.com/2014/01/stink-wars-foul-wind-wafts-farm-problem/