Maja Bak Herrie – Elusive Borders: Aesthetic Perceptualization and the Space-Time of Metadata

At Wikipedia one can read that a border in the legal sense denotes, “geographic boundaries of political entities or legal jurisdictions, such as governments, sovereign states, federated states, and other subnational entities”. Whereas some borders are open and unguarded, other borders are partially or fully controlled and may be crossed legally only at designated border checkpoints (Wikipedia). However, the border, given as a geographic boundary between two entities, can be defined in a more formal or mathematical way, for example the Euclidean or Newtonian definitions would demarcate space as proximity or metric closeness, or, more simply, as a spatial distance. The differences between the legal and the mathematical approaches seem to outline a very distinct quality of the phenomenon: It occurs between an actual locality with or without a physical barrier, and a legally determined space with or without an executively enforced barrier. Issues around borders seem to represent exactly this: One can be at the doorstep of Europe, metrically only a few meters from touching the soil of a European country. Yet the border forms an even more fundamental spatiality, namely one of possibility. In Euclidean space, two locations might be quite proximal to one another, but because of the presence of fences and borders drawn onto a map, it can become difficult to reach a particular location.

We know this from the on-going refugee crisis. The borders can be said to exercise certain gravity on movement that affects social relations. While, in Euclidean space, the refugees may be metrically much closer to the Greek border than I am, I am spatially and temporally much closer to the Greek border than the refugees in lived space and time, because I can travel unrestricted, whereas the refugees must pass through various forms of control to cross the border. The border of Europe functions as a spatio-temporal gravitational field warping the possibility of movement in a variety of ways, impacting the ability to move to and live in certain spaces. As Levi R. Bryant writes, “space and time are not the same everywhere, and movement is not materially possible in all directions” (Bryant 28).

Physical borders are well-known phenomena. What about borders in cyberspace, what about the fences and walls affecting the infrastructures of online activities? Taking my point of departure from these very general considerations via Bryant and his idea of restricted movement, I will look into the infrastructures of information; infrastructures that are characterized chiefly by their capacity to disappear under the ground, in the air, or behind interfaces. Yet even ‘cloud computing’ requires vast amounts of infrastructure. The artworks, I will examine, offer a graspable basis for a critique of the politics of data addressing exactly the ambivalences between relations and matter, data flows and bodies, and transactions and the place of things (Fionn). A crucial question is, whether artistic strategies of perceptualization of hidden infrastructures can in fact help us address the complicated issues concerning the materiality of objects that facilitate and determine everyday life.

 

Constituting a space-time of the information flow: Subterranean cables

The first example, I suggest involves a process of perceptualization, is the Swedish artist Nina Canell’s subterranean cable project. Included in this project is the series Mid-Sentence and Shedding Sheaths, both from 2015. Canell’s practice takes its basis in subterranean cables of different sorts: Optic fiber cables used for long distance telecommunication or for providing high-speed data connection between different locations, electricity and communication cables, as well as a variety of sheathings, designed for applications, for example in power lines, or when installing under the sea. The works allow the viewer to perceive normally imperceptible dimensions of reality, as mediums for transmission of energy flows are exposed by aesthetic means (Černiauskaitė). Following the material qualities of the works, more than a discussion of exclusively ‘the digital’ is needed, or, as the Jussi Parikka describes it: It is urgent to, “pick it apart and remember that also mineral durations are essential to it being such a crucial feature that penetrates our academic, social, and economic interests” (Parikka 5).

In relation to the subterranean cables series, Canell has transformed her and her artistic partner Robin Watkins’ website into a live server monitor tracking and exposing the routing information and length of cables used for transmitting data from her atelier in Berlin to the visitor’s local server. Following Bryant, one could regard the cables as path systems enabling or excluding flows of data or electricity to transfer from one part of the world to another. Through an analogy to Einstein’s theory of relativity, Bryant proposes the concept of ‘gravity’ to denote how material entities – like Canell’s cables – influence the movement of subjects and collectives in time and space. Loading the website, one becomes aware of these paths as the servers involved in the transmission of the data are uncovered. The content of the website is only visible because of thousands of kilometres of subterranean cables constituting a network of data. Without this complicated network of cobber and plastic sheathings, there would be no flow of information. Space-time does not pre-exist things, but rather arises from things (Bryant 12).

 The situation is comparable to signs and messages. As infrastructures tend to disappear under the ground or behind interfaces, signs too draw our thought beyond the vehicle that carries them. As Heidegger famously observes, the wearer of spectacles tend to focus on the picture on the wall rather than the glass, “sitting on his nose”, though it is, “environmentally more remote from him than the picture” (Heidegger 141). We sometimes forget that the signs, in order to refer to something beyond their ‘content’, have to themselves be material entities. In other words, like any other entity, signs must be material entities that travel through time and space, and that are limited by time and space (Bryant 22). Canell points to these media with her works making them perceptible to the recipient and thereby possible to discuss and criticise. However, allowing the subterranean cables to be perceived, Nina Canell has to unearth them from their locations, to dislocate and interrupt their functionality. In order to make her critique, she has to amputate the objects in a way. Their original function – communication – is interrupted, almost violently cut (Černiauskaitė). It is like examining a screen that is turned off, or, following Bryant; one could argue that the qualities of the cable are now emphasized more as properties than activities in this practice, as something a thing has rather than something it does (Bryant 27).

 

Metadata and the ‘aboutness’ of signs: Autonomy Cube

The following example of artistic practice is somewhat opposed to Canell’s cables. It links techniques of encryption and privacy issues with the impact on everyday life while offering a portal to the ‘darknet’ allowing visitors to jack into an anonymous and un-surveilled system. However, the artist Trevor Paglen and the computer security activist Jacob Appelbaum’s practice is also closely connected to questions concerning exposure of hidden infrastructures. With their installation Autonomy Cube (2014), Paglen and Appelbaum address issues of surveillance, as they refer to the Internet as, “the most effective instrument of mass surveillance and potentially one of the greatest instruments of totalitarianism” asking if we, “can imagine a different kind of network” pointing to the artwork as a ‘way out’ when trying to make alternatives imaginable (Paglen and Appelbaum).

Autonomy Cube is an installation designed for art museums, galleries, and civic spaces. Several Internet-connected computers create a Wi-Fi hotspot anyone can join. All Wi-Fi traffic is routed over the Tor network, a global network of thousands of volunteer-run servers designed to help anonymise data. In addition, Autonomy Cube is itself a Tor relay, and can be used by others around the world to anonymise their Internet use (Paglen). Tor encrypts the metadata surrounding the actual content of the information sent. The data is encrypted several times, and is sent through a random selection of Tor relays. Each relay decrypts a layer of encryption to reveal only the next relay in the circuit in order to pass the remaining encrypted data on to it. The final relay decrypts the innermost layer of encryption and sends the original data to its destination without revealing, or even knowing, the source IP address (torproject.org).

The notion of metadata is of special importance here. The metadata constitutes the milieu of the content revealing the ‘surroundings’ of the data. This ‘data about data’ is crucial when the original data is put to use, as it emphasises the material aspects of the data production. We have a tendency to focus on the aboutness of messages, when we talk about transmissions between entities, forgetting that these signs are not simply about something, they are something as well (Bryant 20). For the activists behind the Tor movement it is the metadata that gets attention; it is context rather than content that is of importance. Using Tor, it is as much your location and identity as your content, you want to be private about.

Metadata is both the cause of and the solution to the problem: Whereas a normal router would use the shortest way from A to B using the metadata to decide the most efficient path, the Tor router uses a random path leaving no trace and no metadata, as it is continually peeled off. In dealing with the problems of privacy, the people behind Tor uses the ‘virtual’ space to overcome the problems of proximity, but at the same time adopts the benefits of the physical space by avoiding any traces. In this way, Tor’s use of metadata can be seen as a mediator between two kinds of spatialities; it determines the direction of the message in physical space being as a kind of envelope for the mailing system, but it does so based on a principle of randomness sustaining a borderless space. Instead of adding more and more metadata, Tor disposes of the used envelopes when the message has reached the next checkpoint in its travel, revealing the next envelope below and thereby the next destination while throwing away the information on the previous envelope, which is the identity and location of the previous checkpoint. Whereas Canell’s subterranean cable project exposes the infrastructures of the data transmission providing transparency and accuracy, Paglen and Appelbaum’s Wi-Fi hotspot uses the opportunity of secrecy: They use the limited infrastructures of the physical space to create an autonomous and borderless space. And whereas Canell’s artworks serves as an example of a peculiar interruption, of unearthed cables no longer functional, Paglen and Appelbaum’s work is one of flux – it shows the process of the infrastructure as a running printing press connecting, transmitting, and receiving.

 

Elusive borders

I will conclusively return to the opening question of law and mathematics in relation to borders; the mathematical definition based on proximity and the legal definition relying on the idea of enforcement as a constitutive power necessary when laying out borders and barriers. Space, as we perceive it, is not an operational input for a machine. It can only process metadata, and thereby suggest a location of a server. The computational formation of borders is mechanical: With 100% probability the computer can determine an exact location – that does not happen to be yours. If you browse Canell’s homepage through a Tor relay, the server monitor will suggest locations and cables from all over the world. Metadata points to a locality somewhere in the global network of thousands of volunteer-run servers and relays, and thereby it becomes both the repression of this narrative and its emancipation; both the physical space with fences, walls, and barriers, and the borderless, un-surveilled, un-tracked space.

A concluding point is that the infrastructures of cyberspace are just as restricting, forming, and determining as the ones of borders and walls in physical space, because they are deeply integrated in the infrastructures of everyday life. The two artistic practices are dealing with the very material aspects of the infrastructures of data transmission, storing, and reception – and a central question is, whether these artistic strategies of perceptualization can help us address issues concerning the materiality of objects that facilitate and determine everyday life. They both expose the physical and digital infrastructures, which constitute the network albeit in two different ways: Whereas Canell’s cables offer a surgical dissection of the body of the network, Paglen and Appelbaum show the operationality of these cables, as they transmit packages of information. Autonomy Cube inverts the process, which enables Canell’s homepage to lay out the entire scope of the physical infrastructure used for sending a package from one destination on the network to another. Instead of ‘snowballing’ information in form of metadata, Tor creates a layered construction of encrypted metadata to begin with, which is peeled off as the message traverses the network. In this way, the artwork operates as a mediator between physical and digital spatialities exploiting precisely this intersection.

 

Works cited

Bryant, Levi R. “The Gravity of Things. An Introduction to Onto-Cartography.” Ontological Anarché: Beyond Materialism and Idealism special issue of The Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies Journal, no 2, 2013: pp. 10-30. Web.

Černiauskaitė, Neringa. “Nina Canell, Moderna Museet.” Review of Mid-Sentence by Nina Canell, Artforum, vol. 53, no. 7 Mar. 2015. Web.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Harper San Francisco, 1962. Print.

Meade, Fionn. “Every Distance is Not Near.” Solo, no. 3, AMC Collezione Coppola. 2012. Web.

“Optic fiber cable.” Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_fiber_cable. Accessed 28 Sep. 2016. Web.

Paglen, Trevor. ”Autonomy Cube.” Trevor Paglen http://paglen.com/index.php?l=work&s=cube. Web.

Paglen, Trevor and Appelbaum, Jacob. “Theory + practice” Interview in Bomb Magazine: http://bombmagazine.org/article/7700229/trevor-paglen-and-jacob-appelbaum. 2015. Web.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis and London: Electronic Mediations Series vol. 46, University of Minnesota Press, 2015. Print.

“Tor: Overview.” Torproject.org: https://www.torproject.org/about/overview.html.en. Accessed 28 Sep. 2016. Web.

 

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this text Maja, I really enjoyed it – it brought to mind a couple of things. Firstly, the various US trade embargoes that also prohibit digital commerce (for instance, iTunes mp3 downloads) currently enforced against Sudan, North Korea, and Syria. Iran and Cuba have only in the last couple of years had this trade embargo lifted – the correlation between geographic and digital borders here is quite clear! Secondly, it makes me think of the cables running across oceans and over land – in a way, this physicality still surprises me when I think of the monumental task of laying and maintaining these cable networks. It seems that we are in an era where US Big Tech is seeking more ethereal techniques (balloons, solar-powered drones, etc) to spread access to the internet – I wonder what the ‘mobile’ nature of these systems might mean for the cyber-border in the near future? Will the balloons and drones migrate according to the geopolitical will of their parent state, bound by emergent trade embargos?

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  2. Hello Maja, thanks a lot for bringing up the issue of the political imagination of networks. It seems to echo some themes also present in Martino and Roels’ text https://machineresearch.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/marino-monti-roel-abbing/
    And I guess we will have the possibility to experience such ideas directly as usually Constant proposes workshop settings that include the creative inclusion of local networks and writing tools.
    I also really like how you contextualize the question with this introduction on what distance means and Bryant’s notion of the restriction of movement. See you soon.

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  3. hi Maja —

    I’m very interested in your framing of borders along these euclidean vs political dimensions. Wendy Chun’s recent thinking has been about the latent racism in big data and its algorithms, and I wonder if some of that resonates here — classification of personal metadata determining physical possibility in architectural and urban spaces. also, I dont fault your example, but I find that Applebaum + Paglen piece very frustrating — they are relatively famous people presenting preexisting software as an authored piece of art, which seems like they are capitalizing on the protocol for the financialism of the art market. I love much of Paglen’s work, but it is so overwrought.

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  4. Hey Maja, indeed I see quite some interesting overlaps, thanks for bringing up Canell’s website.
    On the relation between “cyberspace infrastructure” and physical national borders, I would like to point to a sort of inversion I see.
    I think the national borders have much more of a virtual aspect to them, as the refugee situation you mention shows. They represent a symbolic limitation, which needs additional (police) enforcement to actually bring the space-time warping of one’s movement possibilities.
    For cyberspace infrastructure instead, it’s in its materiality that we find the conditions which allow movement (?) and therefore the possible limitations to it, which makes it much less virtual than a national border.
    For another example of a great symbolic border of that kind, please make sure to check the painted red lines you find at the entrance of some Bruxelles metro stations, which determine whether you are in an area where a ticket is required or not!

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