Can The Artist Help Counter the Delusion of a Wireless Communications Network?
How has the digital communications matrix relocated the role of the artist?
MA FA pt2 Theory Essay •Camberwell / Chelsea College of Art • 21 January 2013
Table of Contents
The wireless Communications Network 3
Delusion and Reality 3
The physicality of the network 5
Materials and Methods 5
Copper Mines 5
Submarine Cables 7
Data Centers 9
Limitations to development 12
Invisible agents 14
In conclusion 16
Additional Reading 19
After assessing the current understanding of our digital communications network and contrasting it with the physical realities required to facilitate the networks we take for granted, three contemporary works of art by three artists have been critiqued to study how they engage with this dichotomy.
An appreciation of concerns addressed by these artists reveals the importance of continued awareness of the consequences of our demands for faster and wider connectivity.
The wireless Communications Network
Delusion and Reality
As we in the western world travel from our home wi-fi network to our work wi-fi hotspot we stay connected to our data en route by the mobile network. The transition is seamless, and all our information is available to us at all times if we require it. Our employers, public institutions and schools all make their information remotely available to us online, and we can use mobile maps to navigate as we go along. The advent of some of these services being branded as ‘cloud’ based further contrives to convince us that our emails, address books and friendships exist out there in the ether, one click away. A mobile phone network is just that – it can come with us anywhere, even on holiday, so we can stay in touch wherever we go. We don’t even need to take responsibility for backing-up our files any more, as it is all done for us if we check (or fail to un – check) the right box when we log in. This has resulted in our complete disencumberment, or rather, disempowerment.
By becoming disempowered from the management of our own data and communications, we have handed over the responsibility to the network operators. We pay our subscription or contract fees, we purchase our digital equipment from manufactures, and we access the network and our information. This is incredibly convenient, and the knowledge that our files and communications are held remotely reassures us. We no longer feel responsible for the system which enables all this.
This responsibility is now shared between the agencies who supply and operate the global infrastructure we depend on for our communication. This ranges from the mines which produce the raw materials, the manufacture of the cables, networks and equipment, and the installation and operation of the systems themselves. Many of these operate today on a grand scale.
The privatisation of information and infrastructures erodes the democratisation of information, despite early aspirations. In a 1945 article for Wireless World, Arthur C Clarke proposed the idea of satellites in geosynchronous orbit remaining stationary above Earth and providing relays for radio transmissions. Commentators often referred to him as the “father of the communications satellite” after this became a common technology twenty years later.
With uncanny foresight, Jenks and Silver wrote in 1972 about concerns of the fast approaching digital age.
‘With an electrified consumer democracy, the time spent and the cost of consumption would plummet, and the impersonal subsystems of large corporations would be repersonalised by combining them ad hoc towards specific ends’ p.55
These concerns were voiced even more bluntly in Radio 4s recent ‘Digital Human’ Series. Dave White states that social media sites where we share information have ensured they have the rights to exploit our information and tailor their service ‘to conflate the idea of the individual and the stuff that they own and buy’. Thoughts, opinions and information we present to the world is backed up or archived. This transaction no longer happens from one person to another, as it once did in sealed letters, nor via an extra telegraph operator, but is now processed via the huge data centres and is subject to interception at any time. Whilst this is presented to reassure us about the safety of our data, this also ensures that our digital footprint in permanent. In the program Sherry Turkle points out that ‘anyone can make a mistake, but online one slip of the thumb is forever.’
‘The present environment is tending towards both extreme visual simplicity and extreme functional complexity. This double and opposite movement is eroding our emotional transaction with and comprehension of objects.’
(Jenckes, Silver, 1972 p.73)
More pertinently ‘..research shows that online communication has made us less empathetic. We’re more connected, but the connection is arguably more superficial’ (Alloway, 2012)
The physicality of the network
Materials and Methods
The main element employed to conduct our dataaround us is copper. Open-cast copper mining is industrial scale extraction of copper ore from the earth. The scale and affect of the operations on landscape and the environment mean that these typically occur in areas with very low population rates such as can be found in remote areas of South America, Central North America, Australia and China. European copper mining has largely ceased due to the economic benefits of scale. Previously, the UK and in particular Cornwall was a main producer. The rich mineral deposits found in Cornwall’s mines provided rich amounts of employment for the local population, and rich rewards for the nation’s trade. Though more commonly accepted as a producer of tin and china clay (a main incentive for the expansion of the Roman Empire to the British mainland), Cornwall’s copper production supplied the original communications revolution and played a vital role in the development of our digital industries today.
The decline of the Cornish mining industry is addressed in the above artwork, The Abolition of Work, by Cornford and Cross. The floor of a Cornish art gallery is presented carpeted wall to wall with coins. They were laid by hand, heads or tails up, as they landed. The artists asked for their fee and materials budget to be delivered to the gallery in one pence coins, and enlisted numbers of volunteers to help lay them by hand. In my interview with him, David Cross talked about the space becoming ‘filled with the coins’, as their metallic odor mixed with the sea air, as they reflected light onto the walls and ceiling around them. This material presence, and the small workforce who installed it refer to Cornwall’s mining history and workforce.
As a much-valued metal, copper is routinely scrapped and re-machined. As the market value of copper has risen, the value of a 1 pence coin became greater than 1 pence in copper. Subsequently, our ‘coppers’ were replace by copper-plated alloy coins in 1971. Incidentally, this increased market value of copper may be the catalyst needed to restart some of the mining operations in Cornwall. ‘Market viability’ and economic demands may result in improving the condition of the jobs sector in Cornwall. By presenting us with a room of coins which seen as a whole become reunited as one material, the artists invite us to consider copper as a metal, and hints at it’s other uses. Prompts such as location and production underline this.
Money may be the standard definition of currency, but materials, information, objects, places and even people can also become a currency: at a given moment they may have a value, but this may not last… (Mònica Gaspar, 2010)
The Exchange Gallery in Penzance is located in the old postal exchange building, utilising a space rendered obsolete by modern technological demands. A few kilometers along the coast lies the Porthcurno cable station, which was the landing site of one of the first main submarine copper cables laid at the end of the 1800s. This was the era when we began to lay copper cables across the sea bed linking continent to continent to transmit telegraphs. This physical connection to the rest of Europe and the wider world was the so-called ‘Nerve Center of the Empire’
Taken in perspective, todays technologies are viewed with disproportionate detachment in comparison to the physical impact they have:
‘Just before the start of the trans-Atlantic wired telegraph service in 1866 it took about three weeks to send a message to the other side of the ‘pond’ – the time it took to cross the Atlantic by sailing ships. With the telegraph, the transmission time for a 300 word message was reduced to 8 minutes. The internet reduced it to 2 seconds.. this is only a reduction by a factor of 5… Compare that to the 2500 – time reduction achieved by the telegraph.’
(Chang, 2011, pp. 37-38)
Those responsible for the submarine cables face a conundrum: The locations of the landing stations are highly sensitive, vulnerable targets, to be protected. This protection needs to extend to accidental damage too – hence the conundrum. Local fishermen and utility companies who use the areas are usually kept informed by locations marked on sea-charts rather than roadmaps.
The role copper plays in our communication today goes largely unnoticed, as we become disconnected from wires in the western world in particular, relying on wi-fi networks to connect to each other. In his 2012 article (Warning: Do not Dig: Negotiating the Visibility of Critical Infrastructures http://vcu.sagepub.com/content/11/1/38) Nicole Starosielski examined how modern technology intends to become invisible, either by being obscured – which is increasingly interpreted as secured today – or so seamlessly integrated into our everyday lives as to become imperceptible.
In The Abolition of Work, by providing the visible physical presence of the material and documentation of the dirty hands of the volunteer workforce after installation, Cornford and Cross invite us to reconsider the coin. By dismantling our expectations of the object, the artists allow us to consider the material and frees us to disconnect from our assumptions about money.
In his book on everyday objects Steven Connor writes,
‘..we seem not to be able to do without the sense of physical involvement with wires. .. Telephones are linked to touching in a way that radio is not: your interlocutor seems still to be at the end of the line.’
(Connor, 2011, p.211)
Communications hubs are centralised now, forming huge campus developments. Employees can move around them on branded scooters, and they often feature their own bespoke power supplies. The locations of these centers are as sensitive as the cable landing stations. The recent release of official images by Google made headline news around the world, helped in no small part to their consistent branding.
The contrast between these huge developments which are the reality of today’s communications and the Exchange Gallery in Penzance can be used to read further into The Abolition of Work.
Location, material and context are key to the work of Cornford and Cross. In 2007 when this piece of work was made, wi-fi internet was widely available and smart phones were newly introduced. The location and past use of the building were key. Ways of connecting and communicating had changed, though while public wi-fi access in hotels and pubs was common, David Cross described an evening during the inception of the work which seems particularly pertinent:
‘After our first day in the Exchange Gallery, Matthew and I went to a pub one evening to finish working on some aspect of the project. It didn’t seem too odd to be working on my laptop in the pub, until someone started playing a guitar, and someone else started singing; pretty soon an impromptu band had formed. The notion of digital technology as an adequate form of connection looked absurd, and our focus on work felt dysfunctional, so we put the laptop away and got the beers in!’ Interview with David Cross, Cadi Froehlich, Oct 2012, London.
As communication expands, so does the need for capacity to carry it. This has led to our network expanding as far off our planet as under our seas. Our skies are now host to a multitude of manufactured satellites. These contain not only copper but many rare-earth minerals, which are effectively leaving our planet. It is surely only a matter of time before the obsolete out-of-service satellites are also a commodity to be ‘mined’.
‘We know that the processes of global technology and capitalism produce waste and wastelands: an objects excess or unproductive expenditure – not reducible to commodification… A continuous production of otherness’
Limitations to development
The industrialisation of production and consumption continues apace, creating a closed circle of demand for resources and expansion of infrastructure to support it. The mechanisation of systems has largely removed our hands from the tasks, and handed them over to machines, from mining equipment for digging to mobile phones for talking. This disconnection places trust in the technology to overcome any obstacles to this development. As these obstacles become harder to overcome, the solutions become harder to find, science falters. Concerns are picked up on by us, the humans in the system, when they begin to affect our lives directly.
Changes to our economy and our climate are undeniable. The economic model for growth is unsustainable, and todays zeitgeist places responsibility for finding solutions back onto our shoulders. The limitations of natural resources, from ores, to water are becoming economic realities.
The artist Simon Starling addresses the limitations of economic growth in his 2006 work Autoxylopyrocycloboros.
In a performance on Loch Long as part of his Cove Park Commission in Scotland, Starling renovated a small pleasure boat which was salvaged from the bottom of Lake Windemere. The boat was fitted with an original boiler engine which was fueled by wood cut from the structure of the boat itself. This ultimately led to the boat taking on water, the flames being extinguished, and the whole craft sinking back to the bottom of the sea.
In this determined and ultimately futile endeavor, the artist presents us with a view on industrialisation and human endeavor. He compromises his personal safety and the role of a boat to investigate the limitations of resources. We question the material of the boat itself, and the planned destination of the crew. This is unsettling and literal, and takes in the finer points of the labour involved in renovating the vessel, transporting it across half the country, and losing it once more. The name of the boat was ‘Destiny’, leaving us in no doubt that this is a possibility for our future being played out before us. In Art and Research, Starling said that he’s ‘always tried to find ways to use .. outmoded, outdated technologies and conversations and ideas and tried to give them some new life in relation to a contemporary understanding.’
Our relationship with the materials and objects we come into contact with daily are examined by both Starling and Cornford and Cross. They provide us with space in time to pause and consider the stuff of our daily existence. The visible signs of our employment of natural resources to sustain our growth.
The consumption of natural resources such as wood is a daily reality for most of humanity, for fuel or for object-based supports. We accept that trees provide a vital link in the ongoing supply of the air we breathe, yet we employ them for short-term gain. This could be likened to eating a chicken rather than it’s eggs.
We also accept the rising costs of living as we are told of the increased costs of materials we need, from food to steel. In 2007, when China was building the Olympic stadium known as the Birds’ nest, they purchased so much steel that it affected global supply, pushing up prices of the metal and products made from it all over the world. This model of supply and demand was the basis of Adam Smiths’ economic theories of 1776, and is still the basis of todays markets.
Having been presented with the possibility of considering the materiality of our money by Cornford and Cross, and of our industry by Simon Starling, the artist Svein Flygari Johansen contrasts the idea of pre-industrialism with the highly conceptual financial markets in his work Call of the Wild.
In this installation shot from Verführung Freiheit at the DHM in Berlin the lighting is clear, but the accompanying audio is not: A chrome representation of a campfire site is presented complete with toasting stick and support. The spotlight is on this manufactured version of man’s first interaction with technology: fire. Situated as it is in an exhibition in an art institution, the work is detached physically from it’s source reference. However, on approaching it the audio becomes discernible. The sound of a babbling brook and wind in the trees locates the metallic objects back into nature where we might usually find them a campfire. The audio fades in and out, the volume being manipulated. The mechanism for this manipulation is a real-time link to the world stock market. As it strengthens, the volume increases, and decreases if the market falls. This intrusion into a primal memory of the modern forces which now affect us much more than the babbling brook or the wind in the trees is jarring.
The companies which work with market forces are the same agencies which provide the infrastructure on which they depend. Service providers, engineers and miners alike are part of all our societies. The responsibility of managing these services falls to the private sector. The responsibility of regulation falls to government. Our elected officials dictate as best they can how the organisations who control the assets must act. These actions can be seen affecting us very directly, such as disruption caused to our rail services by copper thefts, or by instructing mobile network providers to limit service in areas with military intentions: In November 2012 Pakistani authorities suspended mobile phone networks to some areas as officials say ‘more than 90% of bombs are detonated by mobile phone’ (BBC, 2012)
Here in the UK ‘Infrastructure company Network Rail wants a change in the law to make it more difficult for thieves to sell cable and scrap to dealers.
A spokesman said: “Thieves, particularly those stealing cable, deny passengers the service they rightly expect and, through the massive cost to the industry, deny everyone improvements to rail services as funds have to be diverted from enhancing the railway to tackling crime.”‘
(BBC news, 2 January 2012)
Art provides us with opportunities for reflection and direct engagement with materials.
‘It is as though objecthood alone can, in the present circumstances, secure something’s identity, if not as nonart, at least as a neither painting nor sculpture; or as though a work of art- more acurately, a work of modernist painting or sculpture- were in some essential respect not an object. (p.310)
The ‘Obdurate Identity’ of a specific material, like the wholeness of the shape, is simply stated or given or established at the very outset, if not before the outset; accordingly, the experience of both is one of endlessness, or inexhaustibuility, of being able go on and on letting, for example, the material itself confront one in all its literalness, its ‘objectitivity’, its absence of anything beyond itself.
(Fried, 2009 p. 320))
“Material matters” when the environment and the economy are considerations in the production process. (Veiteberg, 2010)
The artist is in the unique position of being able to access the different systems across society, from science to environment to health. Taking inspiration from technology and the environment creates possibilities of communications across systems, communicating current concerns more effectively.
‘Your roles as artists is to present the unavoidable temptation for people to see the world as other than it is’
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BBC News. “Pakistan suspends mobile networks over fears of attacks” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-20469493 2012
BBC News. “Thieves stole £13m of metal from railways”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16382806 2 January 2012
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Cross, David “Interview proposal with David Cross of Cornford and Cross concerning ‘The Abolition of Work’ installed at the Exchange Art Gallery, Penzance in 2007.” Cadi Froehlich, London, 2012 (appendix I)
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Gaspar, Mònica, “The currency of craft”, Think Tank 2010
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Starling, Simon. “Art and Research” (volume 1, no.1, winter 2006/2007 ISSN 1752-6388)
Starosielski, Nicole “Warning: Do not Dig: Negotiating the Visibility of Critical Infrastructures” Journal of Visual Culture, 2012
Veiteberg Jorunn. “Being in circulation: Materials and values.” Think Tank, 2010
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Bennett, Jane, Vibrant matter :a political ecology of things, Durham, N.C. ;London :Duke University Press,c2010.
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Cherry, Colin, `’On human communication :a review, a survey, and a criticism““’, Cambridge, Mass :MIT Press,c1978.
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Kettles Yard, Beyond Measure, conversations across art and science, University of Cambridge, 2008
McLuhan, M and Fiore, Q “The Medium is the Massage” London: Penguin, 1967
Miller, Daniel, “Material culture and mass consumption”, Oxford :Blackwell,1991, c1987
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Pearson, Nicholas, The material object: sculptures by Tom Bills, Roni Horn, John Gibbons, Nicholas Pearson, Massachusetts Hayden Gallery,
- Interview proposal with David Cross of Cornford and Cross concerning ‘The Abolition of Work’ installed at the Exchange Art Gallery, Penzance in 2007.
For my essay I am researching the physicality of our digital communication, and our apparent detachment from the apparatus and infrastructure which go into supporting it. In consideration of the value placed on current consumer electronics, including production and disposal, I was reminded of the work Abolition of Work by Cornford and Cross. This work engaged with local traditions of international trade and the local mining industry in Cornwall.
I have already been considering the trans-Atlantic cables which exist, providing physical connections between continents of the world. For geographical reasons, Cornwall has a long history of hosting these cables and their landing sites.
Contemporary culture and industry relies on these cables, so it is understandably hard to access current data regarding locations and capacities. We can, however, see where main sites existed in recent history. One of these sites, Porthcurno, is 9 miles from Penzance where The Abolition of Work was installed. I am interested in finding out more about the prominence of the local shipping history within the inspirations for the project, and whether the history of submarine cables can be related to that.
- The documentation I have read regarding the installation has included multiple photographs of the installation process. I am aware of your previous works, and how integral the production is in your work. Having not seen the actual work myself, I can only imagine the atmosphere in the space. In particular I wonder what you could tell me about the acoustics of the room and the smell of all the coins? Did you notice a difference after installation?Yes — when the installation was complete, the layer of copper coins seemed to sharpen the acoustics in the otherwise empty gallery. Perhaps it was a form of synasthesia, but I felt that the shimmering of the light on the surface of the coins lent a rustling or whispering quality to the sound echoing round the space. When we began the installation, the gallery was filled with the sour cream smell of new emulsion paint, and the bitter aroma of fresh coffee; when the wind blew in from the sea, these smells mingled with the heady tang of salty, fishy air. As the space became filled with coins, the smell I was most aware of was the metallic odour of copper made acrid by contact with the oil and sweat of human skin.
- I have read that your hands got filthy dirty, and you were prompted to think about the story each coin had lived out. Were you expecting that, and did you feel the presence of all the former hands to have touched the coins there with you?
I had read a pamphlet “Wages, Price and Profit” by Karl Marx, which showed that the total number of notes and coins in circulation was so small as to be minute compared to the total volume of trade. In Marx’s description I glimpsed the idea that money functions like a social catalyst by releasing the energy stored in materials and labour, but that this release only happens when money changes hands. A presenter on a London radio show once took a bank note from his wallet, and read out its number on air. He then went into the market outside, introduced himself to the trader and spent the note. Each time the bank note changed hands, the person spending it was asked to phone in to the radio show and say what they had bought and where. Gradually, the note moved further away from the place of the first transaction, I imagine till it was beyond the radio show’s reception area. In Wilkie Collins’ novel ‘The Woman in White’, the narrative is structured through a sequence of individuals each telling their story, which connects by intersection, ‘handing over’ to the next protagonist in the tale. In making ‘The Abolition of Work’ I was intrigued by the idea that what seem to be individual ‘stories’ of economic exchange might equally be seen as elements in an ebb and flow of human interaction.
- Considering the local traditions of mining and trade in the area, and highlighting their current state in the economy, were the volunteers made up of locals?
Yes, I think the people who gave their time freely lived locally. Unlike the usual closure of a gallery space during the preparation of a show, in Penzance people seemed free to wander in and out of the gallery while we were working. As our materials and processes didn’t present any risks around Health & Safety, or security, no-one seemed interested in the usual rules and documentation. Some people wanted to chat, while others seemed content to help out in silence. Most preferred to remain anonymous. So we could only thank by name a fraction of the people who helped.
- Were you aware of Cornwall’s recent history as a communications hub, as well as a trade hub? Did you have a sense of being connected to the world from where you worked- did that linger from before or did it exist because of the geographical features (miles from rest of UK therefore closer to everywhere else?)
Paddington is at one end of the rail line, Penzance is at the other; which gives the train journey an unusual feeling of inevitability and completeness. Arriving in Penzance the sea air and light, and the vast expanse of ocean made me acutely aware of the distance from the continent of North America, and from the dense and polluted mass of London, where I have lived since I was an art student. After our first day in the Exchange Gallery, Matthew and I went to a pub one evening to finish working on some aspect of the project. It didn’t seem too odd to be working on my laptop in the pub, until someone started playing a guitar, and someone else started singing; pretty soon an impromptu band had formed. The notion of digital technology as an adequate form of connection looked absurd, and our focus on work felt dysfunctional, so we put the laptop away and got the beers in!