Photo or Silent Video // Media Ethnography
FMST 665 - 2020 Fall
Media Ethnography: Silent Video Project
Setting out to develop a silent video exploring a media infrastructure site seemed like a daunting task as the network seemed to be all encompassing and untouchable. Reading about fantastical undersea cables, secretive data centers, and camouflaged towers in “Signal Traffic”, I had not given the network that makes up my house and neighborhood any interesting thought.
Nicole Starosielski writes in “Fixed Flow” that “following the routes of our transmissions, we can understand how cables are viewed as and transformed into resources for media industries […] cable infrastructure both reflects investments in particular sites and increases these locations’ capacity for flow.” (Starosielski, 67). It was through this quote that I formulated my approach to making the video, which became an investigation into how far I could trace it. Following the cable trail from computer and router, to a terminal hanging above my neighborhood, and finally my neighborhood tower; I could physically see how my individual home is one node in a much bigger media infrastructure.
The most interesting discovery came at a park when I noticed one of the flood lamps of the tennis court had been transformed into a signal tower. It was the only one of its kind in the park and it was distinct because in my initial discovery of it on a calm night, I could hear motorized humming emanating from the rectangular box attached to it. In the introduction to “Signal Traffic”, Parks and Starosielski draw on a method of relationality to study media infrastructure. Quoting Jane Bennett, the authors write that “objects have a life […] because of their capacity to make a difference in the world and to have effects.” (Parks, Starosielski, 10). This transformed tower at once attempts to blend into the landscape of the tennis court and park, while its sonic nature defies its ability to do so. One becomes so deafened with motorized humming of processors inside the box, that night crickets fade. More surprisingly is the presence of a surveillance camera pointed directly at the tower from the adjacent park lamp. This solidified the relationality aspect of Parks and Starosielski’s introduction, where the nonhuman tower becomes an actant within the lived experience of the park, altering how we interact in this space with the presence of a surveillance camera. Unsure what the purpose of the surveillance camera was as it was the only one in the entire park, and located in a highly visible position, I studied it and the tower extensively. Twenty minutes later, public security arrived on the scene to ask what my purpose was in investigating the infrastructure. The officers refused to acknowledge whether the surveillance camera belonged to the city, or to Videotron (who owns the “tower”), only that “it’s there to protect everyone”.
The surveillance camera, much like the lamp’s transition into a media tower has largely gone unnoticed by everyone in the neighborhood. The public security officer could not understand why I was actually looking and taking notice of these fixtures that are otherwise invisible to everyone else. Parks and Starosielsky talk about how studying affect in media infrastructures “build[s] upon Wendy Chun’s crucial work on the Internet’s relation to control and freedom” (Parks, Starosielski, 16) Surveillance becomes a normalized behaviour as part of the greater connectivity that these infrastructures promise. My encounter with the surveillance camera was particularly uncanny both because it was unclear whose screen I appeared on, and it punished me for taking notice of it.
Parks, Lisa and Nicole Starosielski. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press, 2015. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/40091.
Photo or Silent Video
The Crystal Palace transmitter is a 719 ft metal structure that vaguely resembles the Eiffel tower. Built by the BBC in 1956 in South-East London, it transmits television and radio signals to all of London and beyond. Today, it is officially known as Arqiva Crystal Palace. Though I have been tapping into its signal for years, I only learned of its existence a few days ago. My complete ignorance of this significant media infrastructure reminded me of the arguments made by Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski in the introduction of their book Signal Traffic. For instance, they underscore the idea that “infrastructures are defined by their invisibility” (6). Similarly, in the article The Antenna Tree, Lisa Parks writes: “By disguising infrastructure as part of the natural environment, concealment strategies keep citizens naive and uninformed about the network technologies they subsidize and use each day”. But what does this mean in the context of the Arqiva tower, a media infrastructure that is seemingly anything but invisible?
When the tower was built in the 50s, there was a lot of public excitement. Indeed, its innovations made it technologically superior to previous television transmitters, and it was one of the tallest structures in London. The engineers involved in the project published several articles on the details of the construction and went so far as to publish and answer submitted questions from the public (McLean et al). This effort towards public involvement is also demonstrated in the 1957 film The Phoenix Tower, which documents the different steps of the construction of the tower, using simple language and animations to explain complicated engineering concepts.
Today, it has become a landmark of sorts with a surprisingly high user rating on Google Maps. It is still one of the tallest towers in London and transmits images to over 12 million TV sets. What appears to be different with media infrastructures in the 21st century is that, despite how implicated users are with them, and even despite how obvious their physical presence can be, they have become banal. Most recent innovations in the media infrastructure sector seem to make less of a difference for the average consumer than in past times. Looking back at Parks and Starosielski’s point, I started to see how the extremely visible Arqiva Crystal palace tower is not completely materialized when only the physical is considered. For even if its presence is noted within the space of the Crystal Palace Park, as some of my photos reveal, its actual entanglements with users and networks remain mostly unnoticed and underrepresented. The film The Phoenix Tower does attempt to contextualize the structure by placing it in relation to different environments, actors and materials. However, the film is dated and extremely hard to find. Ironically, it only ever aired as a color test transmission in the 60s.
In terms of aesthetic choices, I was influenced by the history of the site on which the tower is now situated. Indeed, the park used to be home to an actual palace known for its glass structure. At the beginning of the 20th Century, it was turned into an entertainment center. Once TV started to expand in England, a water-tower was built to the side of the palace, on which they placed and experimented with television aerials. At some point the complex housed a smaller transmitter and a television studio. Though Crystal Palace was destroyed by a fire in 1936, the layers of infrastructure somehow remain embedded in the site. In a way, the site-specific construction of the tower has helped resurface the history of media and infrastructure at Crystal Palace. For example, I found the theme of water to be particularly important, as there also used to be an aquarium where the tower now stands. To that effect, I decided to shoot on a rainy day, and edited my photos on Adobe Lightroom to enhance the blueness of the clouded skies. I tried my best to encapsulate the layers of history within the landscape of the Arqiva tower in my photos.
Parks, Lisa, and Nicole Starosielski, editors. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. “Introduction”, University of Illinois Press, 2015.
McLean, F. C. et al. "The authors' replies to the discussion on "the crystal palace television transmitting station", "the broadcasting house-crystal palace television link" and "band i television-transmitter design, with particular reference to the transmitters at crystal palace"," in Proceedings of the IEE - Part B: Radio and Electronic Engineering, vol. 103, no. 11, pp. 665-666, September 1956.
The Phoenix Tower, British Insulated Callenders Cables, 1957. Film. Accessed at
“New Television Transmitting Station at the Crystal Palace, London.” Nature, vol. 177, no. 4511, 1956, pp. 689–690.
Dowling, Jack. “The structures that power your television”, BBC News, July 2015. Accessed at
Critical Reflection for Photo Assignment
I took these pictures while walking. I wanted to illustrate the found-ness of these images in their composition—hence the slight blur from motion. I was not certain what it was I was looking at until researching later. To my frustration, all objects in these photos are part of the lighting system which marks the edges of the airfield and the beginning of the landing strip. How can something so simple as lights connected to wires feeding through the small outbuilding and then underground to the control station, be connected to media infrastructures?
Documenting the outer systems of the airport is something one can only do in passing. The private property is marked clearly with “no-trespassing” signs. However, there is a bike path that loops the entirety of this property. These technologies change the landscape and are in many ways crucial to consuming media especially because this airport is the only major airport on Vancouver Island.
Because I live in the suburbs surrounding Victoria, media infrastructures are a challenge to pin down other than the more obvious telephone poles. This is why I decided to discuss the photos I took on my first outing. I was interested in capturing and reflecting on something more challenging to connect with media infrastructures without leaving the media environment in which I am currently living.
Much like other island cities and places mentioned in Signal Traffic, on Vancouver Island things like storms and earthquakes could completely knock out our access to media. Since we are surrounded by the ocean, deliveries come by ship or by plane. So, in a way these lights and the system they are connected too is integral to our connectivity with the outside world. Although this seems a stretch, if we are to consider media infrastructures to be relational as Starosielski proposed in “Fixed Flow,” we can connect the ability of airplanes to land safely as a layer of media infrastructures which connects to our interaction with media and “global relationships of media power” (Starosielski). Moreover, if the plane delivering your laptop or modem did not land then how would you be able to connect to global media infrastructures otherwise?
Parks, Lisa, and Nicole Starosielski, editors. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Overgrown: Alternative Visions for the Apocalypse
A popular post-apocalyptic image is that of decayed infrastructure covered in overgrown weeds. When humanity is gone, and all the infrastructure breaks, plants will grow over the wires and the leftover technology. Popular depictions often displace this image, and the apocalypse, to the future, yet this apocalyptic aesthetics is in fact based on everyday spaces. For the TV left outside to decay, the end of the world is already here (see first photo, Overgrown). By documenting “moments of [infrastructural] breakdown and failure,” these photos relocate the apocalypse to the everyday (Parks 13). Inspired by Parks and Starosielski’s suggestion that we should take “infrastructural breakdowns…as opportunities for retooling social relations” and Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, these photos imagine new “possibilities of life” out of infrastructural catastrophe (Parks 4, Tsing 43).
The first photo, Overgrown attests to the “continuity...in the relationship of today’s information society to the past” (Holt 88). Looking at an older, broken down TV can help us “problematiz[e] [the] normalities of flow and circulation” and the functionality of current technologies (Parks 13). As Holt notes, moments of infrastructural breakdown are not exceptional. Infrastructure, that which is “rooted in excess, redundancy, contingency, governed by the looming specter of worst-case scenarios,” is in fact made to break (Holt 81). Infrastructure then has the apocalypse as a pre-condition (this is also expressed in the third photo, They’ve Wired the Sky). The TV photo opens the series with an image of an apocalyptic now where both infrastructure and nature has overgrown.
Second photo, Nest captures a wired cloud and a cyborg bird, revealing “infrastructures’ entanglements with [the] environment,” and restructuring the “aerial imagination” (Parks 4, Starosielski 54). The bird that makes a nest out of a wire is part cyborg, part animal. Blurring the boundaries between nature and infrastructure, the photo represents “nature itself” as having become “infrastructural” (Parks 14).
Fourth photo, Wireless, uses the absurdity of a wire out of place to question the overgrown infrastructuring of everyday life. Simultaneously, a wire out of place allows us to imagine new possibilities for infrastructure.
It is just these possibilities that the fifth photo, An Aesthetics for the Apocalypse, suggests. It presents a magical view of telephone cables where new wirings can become possible.
Photos 6 and 7 document the architecture surrounding those Bell telephone cables. Photo 6 shows the brick wall covered in plants that hides the underground telephone cables, revealed in Photo 7. The sign on the wall reads: “Keep this place clean”. The architecture that makes the infrastructure “invisible” also structures its surrounding environment: its claims to the space and the nature try to determine the behavior of both the people and the plants around it (Parks 16).
Holt, Jennifer, and Vonderau, Patrick. “’Where the Internet Lives’: Data Centers as Cloud Infrastructure.” Parks and Starosielski, pp. 71-93.
Parks, Lisa, and Starosielski, Nicole. “Introduction.” Parks and Starosielski, pp. 1-27.
Parks, Lisa, and Starosielski, Nicole, editors. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Starosielski, Nicole. “Fixed Flow: Undersea Cables as Media Infrastructure.” Parks and Starosielski, pp. 53-70.
Tsing, Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Emma Kredl & Alice Reiter
Media Spaces in Transition
Campus MIL is the new yet unfinished Universite de Montreal science complex. Its contemporary architecture sticks out on its building site, a vast area of empty land at the borders of Outremont, Ville Mont Royal, and Parc Extension neighbourhoods. The campus is characterized by liminality: it sits on the fringes of disparate areas of the city and remains empty, despite its stylish appearance that would usually indicate a bustling environment.
The understated atmosphere of Campus MIL was interrupted by a spontaneous large scale projection. This screen was clearly temporary: the images were being projected off a truck that had been driven into the middle of a barren field and the projector was very loud, unsuited to be a permanent presence at the campus. This ephemeral screen presentation -- which seemed to be a test run, given the nature of the images -- has not returned, and remains unexplained.
This brought us to think about Ambient Television , in which McCarthy investigates the ways in which television and architecture are colliding. In this text, she quotes Michael Sorkin, stating that the new [North] American city is "just like television." (6) With this in mind, we were fascinated by the fact that a projection with such a conspicuous presence managed to so effortly blend into the architecture. In fact, when passing through this rather puzzling space, one might not even notice the screen, if not for the loudness of the projector.
Within the context of Ambient Television , we also questioned the role of this screen as a television, as it seems so far removed from our definition of the concept. In exploring the nature of the contemporary televised space, McCarthy poignantly notes that “this ability to dissolve into a place’s structures… is a fact of TV technology.” (14) Considering the fact that architecture and television are in an impending state of collision, it is inevitable that our definitions of both will change alongside it.
The unfinished quality of both the projection and the campus led us to consider the ephemeral nature of both the contemporary city space and the media presence found within it.
Caroline Laurin-Beaucage and Chélanie Beaudin-Quintin
The Wires We Embody
In his video essay Touch, James J. Hodge talks about smartphone culture as something that keeps us attached. We are always "on", present and in demand. We are connected to online communities, but also to the network, to the internet, data and power provider, etc. Reflecting on this density of bonds, which goes from the private to the public domain, and back again, we have chosen to use the artistic gesture, the performative, to make a critical commentary on the distribution of media which is part of a system of power, “interwoven within political economic agendas” (Parks and Starosielski, 5). The use of mise-en-scène is then a "tactic", in the words of Michel de Certeau, to put forward the distribution chain and these big players who are very often invisible or forgotten when we use our smartphones.
Our journey to the heart of the distribution flow did not start with a stroll through the city, but rather a search within the system itself that we wanted to criticize, namely through an online search. Our journey was an ambitious one, punctuated by several stops, going from home, to different providers and internet distribution points, and then returning home. The symbolic starting point was this "something that keeps us attached", this thread that links and connects us to the big infrastructures, that interweaves the private and the public, that loses us in Ariadne's labyrinth. That's when our fingers typed into Google's search engine: "Cables, Montreal". The third proposed website was that of a company called "Câbles D.C. Cables", we couldn't find a better name to realize our photographs. So we took to the road a pink bathrobe - a metaphor of privacy - a box of internet cables, and our camera - a documentation tool. A road that was not going to be drawn from A to Z, but rather transformed by the encounters. Thus, the idea was to explore a mundane walking pattern, a wink at de Certeau’s reflection who suggests that footsteps could be the kernel's of three distinct fonctions: the believable, the memorable, and the primitive. (de Certeau, 105) Offering a counterpoint to the intricacy of the wires attached to the performing body, while practicing this simple activity.
“MacDougall maintains that film is less a communicative act than a form of commensal engagement with the world, and one that implicates subject, spectator, and filmmaker alike. This is a process that favors experience over explanation, and which proceeds more by implication than demonstration.”
Lucien Taylor (Transcultural Cinema, 12)
Our engagement with the world manifested itself in a fortuitous encounter, which came unexpectedly and unanticipated in our initial process. Without noticing we were unfolding a site-specific performance and surprisingly brought in relation subject, space and images as McCarthy would suggest. (McCarthy, 19) This meeting that we welcomed with open arms transformed our experience, but also our energy, our good mood. Thus, curious to see us
taking pictures near their store (and in a bathrobe), an employee came to ask us what we were doing. Enthusiastic about our answer, he tells his colleagues who then come to meet us. Among them, the owner of Les Câbles D.C. Ltée. explains to us that it was founded 30 years ago and that it is managed as a family business. He is enthusiastic about the idea of being part of our photographs and invites us to visit their office.
Our critique of large infrastructure - influenced by our reading and by words such as "[o]ne of the most distinctive aspects of media infrastructures is their scale: they span continents, oceans, and atmospheres, and can leave long-lasting traces" (Parks and Starosielski, 7) - loses drastically its scope and what we had imagined to be a foot, an arm or perhaps a finger of the Frankenstein of media distribution becomes human again and takes on the smiling and sympathetic face of Mr. Clark. A social relationship is produced in the photographic act and in the photography. We went from a desire for macroscopic criticism to a microscopic encounter and that reassured us, at least for a little while.
And what about the viewer as part of all this? Well, we decided to present this trip, which will not so much enlighten him.her on the media distribution network, it is not a thick description (Geertz), but will hopefully make him.her a pleasant encounter of this small business intertwining with our artistic gesture and imaginaries.
For this assignment, I decided to take video stills of the radio tower near my house, located on Seton Hall University. Standing at 80.5 meters (about 265 feet), the radio tower is used by the University to transmit its program, WSOU Radio. At the top of the tower stands a flashing light that can be seen for miles. Being located at the top of a hill, the grandiose structure can be seen for miles from every direction. The video features six stills, all shot at three different locations – right from under the tower, from a parking garage about 200 meters away, and from my backyard.
For many reasons, the conspicuous tower is a great site of focus. I live very close to the tower; I see it (intentionally and unintentionally) every day – and at night the flashing light finds its way through my windows subtly. Erected in 1948, the tower has been a part of the landscape, not as a nimby’s worst nightmare but as a casual addition to the backdrop, especially in the park adjacent to the University.
The tower’s presence inspires a question of what it symbolizes, other than the media infrastructure it serves. While it is impossible to become invisible (without dismantling it), it can be described in one way as an insignificant landmark. For example, I can think of various moments where, to clarify where I live, I’ve mentioned "the tower”. This resembles De Certeau’s description of how the normal or passive actions or people can manipulate and individualize physical objects. Thus, the first few stills of this video are not meant to represent the structure in the light of its utilitarian purpose, but rather the body by way of obfuscation.
More importantly, the structure represents a physical manifestation of a medium that is slowly shifting into obsoleteness, especially in more urban and heavily populated areas such as the one in which the tower is located. Like the undersea cables subjected to Nicole Starosielski’s discussion, the structure’s radio transmission is invisible; yet it is anchored in material coordinates. But unlike undersea cables or cloud centers which are made to be hidden (at least to their users), and continue to emerge globally, this is a structure that is impossible to hide, which will, in the near future perhaps, become a relic of an outdated media infrastructure.
Locations: Tianjin & Beijing
This short film was recorded over the last weekend of September as a friend of mine invited me to travel along with him from Beijing to Tianjin, a neighboring city in the south of Beijing and a part of the Jing-Jin-Ji Megalopolis. I recorded the footage on our way back to Beijing, documenting the presence of media infrastructures both in and outside the two cities. I was first fascinated by the ubiquity of surveillance cameras, Wi-Fi antennas, and cell towers that dominate the landscape of Tianjin. In the middle of the piece where I travel on the highway, I highlight the connection between the two cities through electricity grid, observing the wires getting more and more dense. The final section is me surveying my neighborhood in Beijing as I study the vicissitude of utility poles, satellite dishes, and a large outside screen beside the Olympic Center.
The entire piece is observational, but perhaps improbable to be categorized as an ethnographic film. As Weinberger suggests in his article "The Camera People," the practice of ethnographic films has been constantly flanked by two sides–the anthropologists and the aesthetes–and I find myself leaning toward the aesthetes. In fact, I applied the piece Jeux d'eau (performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet) from French composer Maurice Ravel as the background music to comment on my perception of invisible media and data transfers that resemble "flowing water" with high speed. In terms of cinematography, I drew some inspirations from sensory ethnographic films, Leviathan in particular, and utilized long takes and handheld cameras (my phone) in the highway scene. I captured the reflection of myself with a camera from the windows of a passing bus, which convinces MacDougall's concept that "filmmakers and their subjects are not entirely separate or autonomous entities" (MacDougall 12). Shots of a TV tower and an antenna spire disguised as a clock tower address the introduction of "Signal Traffic," where the author observes how media infrastructures can generate new market and economic potentials such as the water tower in Zambia. The shot of a large screen from a landmark building Pangu Daguan (盘古大观) serves to reflect on readings of Ambient Television and "Beijing en Abyme." My observation of two cities from vantage points delineates panoptic power that de Certeau has mentioned in his The Practice of Everyday Life, where the middle section of the piece seeks to visualize his "rhetoric in walking," and sporadically "the network of surveillance." My final comment is on the addition of shape mask from Final Cut Pro, this is an artistic choice that connects also to cinematic voyeurism mentioned by Taylor in his article "Iconophobia," and I intend to use the mask to remind viewers to be more as active observers rather than passive viewers.
Photos: Media Infrastructures
For our second assignment, I decided to go on a car ride with my mom around the South Shore of Montreal (specifically Brossard and Saint Bruno) and pay attention to the placement of electrical and satellite poles in that area. There is more vastness in the suburbs – open spaces that serve no particular purpose, flat parks with really short trees, parking lots…Perhaps it is this flat landscape that makes the infrastructure more visible there than when we are in the city. This kind of infrastructure in Montreal is usually situated in back alleys, and it doesn’t seem to draw attention to itself. In the suburbs, however, I noticed that very often electrical poles were right in front of houses, with cables hanging in plain sight, yet somehow not too visible thanks to these neighbourhoods’ attention to landscaping and greenery. With not much to do aside from driving or going for a walk around the block, one becomes a lot more aware of the environment.
Drawing from the introduction to Signal Traffic, I was drawn to Parks and Starosielski’s idea that infrastructures are defined by their invisibility: “most of us hardly notice them until they fail or break down” (6). Although infrastructure surrounds us, I didn’t immediately know where to begin my assignment or how to properly “capture” telecommunication networks. I wanted the pictures to be aesthetically pleasing, even though that is not the point of the assignment. How does one photograph media infrastructures and make them seem compelling? Sometimes I was drawn to the landscape so instead of zooming on my “subject,” I tried to capture the vastness of the space around it. Other times, I tried to zoom in on the details of the structure itself and its material reality. Unless using a drone or having access to climbing equipment, one cannot really get too close to these structures. They are, in a way, completely off limits to us, even though they are literally in our front yard. This once again brings up a discussion of knowledge and labour. As Starosielski and Parks put it, “Capitalist societies generally educate people to appreciate the “conveniences” and “choices” of modern consumer technologies, but to remain blind to the infrastructures that support them” (6). This results in abrupt infrastructural changes and citizens being informed of them on short notice, thus “short-circuiting [their] ability to participate in system development” (6).
For this assignment, I went into it thinking heavily about the connection between media infrastructures and their relationships to their surroundings. Specifically, I wanted to further explore the poignant image that Parks and Starosielski proposed of “mobile phone infrastructure […] bundled with water infrastructure” (3). To me, this image immediately brought to mind a parasitic relationship between media infrastructure and the outside world—phone towers are often erected atop mountains in order to be most effective, networks of cables are “[b]uried under soil and pavement [and snake] along the bottom of the ocean”, while CCTV cameras monitor the very buildings they are affixed to (53). And yet, we are reliant on these infrastructures, perhaps elevating them from the negative connotations of parasitism to one of symbiosis.
The terminology here I think is not insignificant, and I wanted to explore this idea further, of the interactions between media infrastructure and the natural world that it’s built into. My object of study was the CBC Transmission Tower and the peripheral media structures around it (another radio tower and several small antennae affixed to proximal buildings), as well as the surrounding park. To me, the juxtaposition of this centre of telecommunications positioned within such a vast green space is made strange specifically because its lack of disguise. There is no border between infrastructure and the surrounding nature, save for a pithy fence that is made small in the shadow of the towering frame above. Uninterested passers-by ignored the structure while I tried to capture it from every angle. This is not to say that I expected protests or gawking parkgoers, but rather it begs the question of what the perception is of such a visibly, tangibly prominent telecommunications tower, and how that conception is mitigated by its scenic surroundings.
Parks argues in her piece that “one of [the] effects [of concealing infrastructure] is to keep citizen/users naive about the systems that surround them and that they subsidize and use”, and while I do not think that such visible infrastructure as the telecommunications tower in question necessarily translates into a populace who are well-informed about the telecommunication structures around them, I think there is something to be said for it being the hub of distribution for all CBC radio broadcasts in English and French in the area (Around the Antenna Tree). To me, the not-insignificant nationalistic pride tied to the structure being painted a bright red and white, as well as being the centre for our national radio and television programming, creates an interesting comparison with Parks’ concealed infrastructure.
Parks, Lisa. "AROUND THE ANTENNA TREE: THE POLITICS OF INFRASTRUCTURAL VISIBILITY." 6 March 2009. Flow Journal. Web. <https://www.flowjournal.org/2009/03/around-the-antenna-tree-the-politics-of-infrastructural-visibilitylisa-parks-uc-santa-barbara/>.
Satarosielski, Nicole. "Fixed Flow." Parks, Lisa and Nicole Starosielski. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 53-70. Digital.
Inspired by some of the recent ethnographic films that we’ve watched in class, I decided to focus this video project on commuting. More people live away from their jobs than ever,1 making commuting a daily part of life for a lot of people. And as the pandemic rages on, the people making these daily trips to work are most likely low wage earners and/or working in essential services. While a truer depiction of the journey would be an hour or so long with lots of nothingness filled with occasional shuffling, this short video is meant to showcase the journey and the physical infrastructures that make it possible.
It’s easy to recognize a train station or a train itself as an infrastructure, but often overlooked are the wires and cables and signals that make the day to day functioning of these entities possible. Parks and Starosieski in the Introduction to Signal Traffic talk about shedding light on these overlooked infrastructures. While they focus on media infrastructure, the simple example of the metro stations can help us recognize these hidden infrastructural units that are engrained into our daily lives.
For my video, I wanted to use the device that lets me escape the long draining hours of commute, to capture the very experience of commuting. Initially I wanted this to be a visual representation of the modes of infrastructure that we encounter daily on our commute. However, as I started on the process of making this video, while the presence of television screens, speakers, etc. were interesting, it was the unseen infrastructures that makes daily commute bearable that I found even more intriguing. And it took a moment of not being able to access my cell service for me to notice it.
Parks and Starosieski’s write that “moments of failure” can help us look at both the “micro- and macro-level conditions” that make an infrastructure possible (13).2 The cell service and data connection that we take for granted in our daily commutes through the metro tunnels is not a reality even in all of Montreal today. Passing by De l’eglise station on the way to Angrignon, one would find the sudden lack of internet access and cell service very disconcerting.3
1 MacFarlane, John. "Public Transit, Suburban Travel Redefine Montreal's Typical Commute | CBC News."
CBCnews. December 03, 2019. Accessed October 04, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/commuterchanges-
2 Parks, Lisa, and Nicole Starosielski. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 2015.
3 "Mobile Network." Société De Transport De Montréal. Accessed October 04, 2020.
Tien Nhan Tran
The Wi-fi’s Presentation
In the article Hiding in Plain Sight by Steve Harris that was shown in class, the article presents telecommunication firms' attempt to hide cellphone towers from the surrounding landscape by camouflaging the towers to trees, flagpoles, or bell towers. Although the infrastructure plays an essential part in everyday utilities, some are purely functional, making their sight not fit into the landscape's aesthetic. The installation of the infrastructure not only happens on the corporate level of the infrastructure but can also be seen in the local attempts such as households, offices, or in the service sectors like restaurants and coffee shops. In this assignment, I try to capture pictures of how people place their wi-fi router in households, businesses, or offices, also as an important part of the network experience.
Aside from infrastructures like the cellphone towers installed by the corporations or governments, Wi-fi routers, which are mostly installed by individual entities, also play an important role in the access to the network in both public and private spaces. As the installations of the router are not uniform, the variations of the installation speak a lot of how one wants to communicate with the users of the network spatially. In other words, the routers' presentation demonstrates the different dynamics of the intimate relationship between the users and the owner of the network. For example, in spaces that have more appealing the public such as coffee, offices, or even households that usually have guesses coming, the routers are more concealed, or the presentations are paid more attention than places that the relationship people within the place is more intimate.
From the placement of the more localized infrastructure like the Wi-fi router, this can lead to more analysis on the relationship between the owners and the users of other infrastructures. The presentation of infrastructure is the demonstration of how intimacy plays out in the construction of infrastructure.
Harris, Steve. “Hiding in Plain Sight - Camouflaging Cell Sites and Antennas.” Orange Business Services, March 7, 2016. https://www.orange-business.com/en/blogs/connecting-technology/mobility/hiding-in-plain-sight-camouflaging-cell-sites-and-antennas.
For my assignment, I captured the cellphone tower in my video with Nicole Starosielski’s essay Fixed Flows in mind. I was particularly interested in investigating the ways in which the paradigm of ambiguous visibility its presence generates resonates with its vocation as a catalyst for institutional power. As laid out by Starosielski’s essay, media infrastructures exist simultaneously as resources as well as means for generating resources. (Starosielski 56) Components of these networks are instrumental to their deployment and reach across given portions of land. As such, their destruction, even partial, can potentially disrupt whole networks; and per extension the flows of information and data (resources) ensuring their growth and prosperity. As Starosielski mentions herself: “Media companies who rely on cable infrastructure have a major stake in its smooth operation, and their own reliability is jeopardized if cables do not remain secure.” (Starosielski 63) As hinted by her claim, the interruption of a given network also challenges the order paradigm it structures. Operating within a capitalist framework of growth, cellphone towers become catalysts for institutional power. For them to assert Empire’s hegemony over certain spaces, these infrastructures require the same degree of maintenance and protection than that of a pipeline or a bridge.
My piece as such aims at unveiling these layers of protection; showing the ways in which they manifest in being more or less so visible to us as we encounter them. Additionally, this piece seeks to investigate how the elusiveness of protective layers mirrors the sensible intangibility of the
media circulation they ensure. In its sequential development, the piece seeks to show these components from the most to the least visible.
Starting up-close to our subject, the video deploys a rapid and dissolving succession of images showing fences, padlocks and barbed wire guarding the perimeter; passive, yet identifiable and intentional means of biopolitical control in the ways in which they restrict access to the tower. The fleeting sense we get from the montage in this segment attempts to embody the elusive value of these resources; something which remains intangible despite our proximity with the tower.
Then, moving away from the tower, we venture in its surrounding vicinity. Incidentally, this area happens to belong to an SPVM police precinct, more precisely the cavalry. Although the overlapping of both areas appears to be coincidental, the presence of police around the tower embodies yet another level of protection. Active biopolitical agents ready to discourage and dismantle any attempts at disrupting the network the infrastructure upholds.
Finally, the closing segment of the video, shot in Cote des Neiges cemetery, attempts to embody the last layer of protection shielding the infrastructure; its strategic elevated location. Using the natural elevation of Mont-Royal, the infrastructure makes uses of the terrain’s difficulty to establish distance in between itself and individuals. The military memorial seen in the last shot ties in with the explicit articulation of biopower found in the previous segments.
Parks, Lisa and Nicole Starosielski. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press,
I approached this video project thinking about Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, in which he implores his reader to get out now, to “go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, walk around”. (Stilgoe, 1). So I walked around. I started with images; cable lines as gestures across the sky; a satellite appearing to signal to the moon. I wanted to capture the abstractness of these fixtures that have become apart of the landscape and the fact that most
people never consider their function or purpose at all. The photo story was meant to capture the abstractness of lines and reference some kind of ultimate mystical destination. (I added a few of the photos at the bottom to show my thought process here). But I walked around more, and as I was heading home for the evening I stumbled upon a total wonder—a sort of imagined archaeological dig revealing the veins of the anthropocene: underground cables.
I took Stilgoe’s advice in Outside Lies Magic to be a “risk-taking explorer”, I moved the metal fence aside climbed down into the muddy crater. I wanted to do a long take of tangle of cables and wires that seemed visual excess; “thick description” (Geertz). The mass was unearthed like something from an archaeological dig from the the future. It really does feel somehow archaic, this mess of wires. They felt sedimentary.
At night, the hole looked like a scene of like science fiction, disorienting and grotesque; during the day, I was amazed at the strange beauty of the sun playing off the muddy water in between the cables. At this moment, the wires felt in harmony with the earth into which it was thrust. Spending time here revealed some poetry.
In complete contrast to this moment of “hidden nature”, I opened the video with a shot of electronics repair store. With these two locations (which are both situated on the same block), I wanted to juxtapose the deliberately visible with the intentionally hidden in the cycle of media infrastructure, in what Starosielski calls “interconnected layers of digital system…and to “conceptualize the relationships between cascading layers of interlinked technological, social, and environmental systems” (Starosielski, 55).
The store window’s strobing lights quite literally demand looking, but this type of display is one that is rarely read. Its message verges on abstract. This variety of ‘electronics’ establishment is the quirky middle-man of media infrastructure—they fix televisions and broken i-phones, we depend on them when our televisions or laptops inevitably break. However, in the age of planned obsolescence and the ever-tightening grip of branded monopolies in the media sector, places like Yoni Electronics already seem like a dated phenomenon. Perhaps that is some of the psychology behind the 24hr flashing lights; a last-ditch effort to be seen.