Infrastructure as Experience

NRO (Trevor Paglen)

I'm giving a talk in Dublin next week. Announcement here: 

Infrastructure as Experience, or: Visualizing Networks After Snowden

18:30, February 2nd 2016, Neill lecture theatre (Trinity College Dublin)

How do we visualize digital networks? While traditional media, such as film, television, or dance, feature visual components, the visual dimension of digital networks is less obvious. Informatics has long seemed immaterial, with the stuff of big data and algorithms circulating through fiber optics and microchips at scales and speeds outside human perception. Since the Edward Snowden leaks, however, it has become clear that this non-visibility of networks is also a political matter. Indeed, the obfuscation of digital networks of communication fits economic and political strategies that maximize surveillance capacities by minimizing citizens’ and consumers’ abilities to track or observer the very networks that are tracking and observing them. In this perspective, writing the history of digital non-visibility, and providing means for its contestation, is a necessary part of locating the digital within the contemporary political order.

This talk considers recent art projects that visualize the digital and its networks through a strategy of “infrastructural aesthetics.” These works include the sculptural installation Breiteby Ulrich Brüschke at the Federal Intelligence Service in Berlin, grassroots artistic creations arguing for the recognition of software as political speech, and the photography of US surveillance installations by geographer Trevor Paglen. By bringing the material apparatuses of digital networks into the spheres of aesthetic experience, these projects contest the insidious politics of invisibility that surrounds surveillance and big data. While contributing towards a wider infrastructural turn in the arts and humanities, these works’ phenomenological underpinnings produce modes of visualization unavailable to scholarly representation and more classical networks simulations. These artistic works’ attention to the material and obdurate elements of networks restores a sense of place and worldliness to the global networks that pervade contemporary life. Here the event of infrastructural disclosure via aesthetics anchors networks to the world, invites spectators into that world, and creates a more definite social relationship to networks. These works thereby offer a partial and initial answer to the question of how to visualize networks after Snowden.