Introduction (Part I) By Land, By Sea, By Air: The Physical Structures of Networked Art

Kris Paulsen

Assistant Professor, Department of History of Art & Program in Film Studies, The Ohio State University

On February 12, 2012, the hacker network Anonymous posted a call for its members to “shut the Internet down” to protest SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. [1] “Operation Global Blackout” named the 13 root Domain Name System (DNS) servers as the primary target of the March 31 software attack. By bogging down the servers with forged User Datagram Protocol (UDP) packets and DNS queries, hackers could generate huge amounts of traffic on the root servers, slowing Internet service to a crawl. [2] Anonymous’s proposed strike would have used software to dam the flow of data and grind the gears of international big business to a halt. While there is no evidence that the call was earnest, and not an April Fool’s Day hoax, the announcement prompted a rapid effort to defend the Internet’s infrastructure. [3] The attack never happened, and Anonymous denied any involvement with the original post, claiming on Twitter that it would be very difficult to compromise the Internet in this way. The provocation and the rapid response to reinforce the security of those servers did, however, point to potential weaknesses in the infrastructure of the Internet. [4] The design and technology blog Gizmodo followed up the “Operation Global Blackout” prompt with detailed instructions on how one could actually shut down the Internet (though they ask the reader not to do so). In “How to Destroy the Internet,” author Sam Biddle writes that the first step is to make a mental and perceptual shift: “We need to begin by no longer treating the Internet like a ghost. It’s made of more metal, plastic, and fiber than you can fathom – and it’s spread across the whole world, a monster machine that hugs the entire globe.” [5] Shutting down the Internet would require literal, physical hacking through wires, cables, and into securitized buildings. The Internet is not just a physical thing; it is a visible and available thing that can be touched and manipulated with one’s own hands.

The physicality of the Internet, as well as our other communications networks, is easy to forget. We often think of it as being immaterial – of invisible information traveling through the air across ‘wireless’ networks and gathering into ‘clouds’ of data. The way we talk about digital networks traces a fine line between physicality and ephemerality. The language of physicality – of packets, clouds, “damming flows of information,” and so on – appears to be metaphorical, aimed at helping us conceptualize something that does not seem to have solid or sensible form. But rather, it is the talk of immateriality – of ‘wirelessness’– that is misleading. The language of immateriality distracts our attention from the physical infrastructure that supports and sustains this illusion. N. Katherine Hayles has traced the origins of the separation of materiality and information back to the ancient Greeks, who privileged the abstract over the earthly. Following Platonic logic through information theory of the mid-century, Hayles argues that over time “information lost its body” and became “conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms in which it is thought to be embedded.” [6] And this immateriality spread. As a continuation of the Western philosophical tradition that made consciousness rather than the body the root of being and human identity, the rhetoric of immaterial data dissolves the physical body in the age of networked interaction. This posthuman logic is present in Roy Ascott’s early accounts of networked art. In 1984, that year of dystopian futures, Ascott described networked interaction favorably as an “out-of-body experience, joining up with others in the aetheric, electronic, and totally timeless space.” [7] The capacity for instantaneous telecommunication robs the categories of space and time of the roles they once played in structuring our embodied, lived experience. Plugging into the network – be it telephonic, televisual, or fiber-optic – “fragment[s] and disperse[s]” the user’s corporal being into the placeless place of the Internet. For Ascott, this process is a welcome form of evolution that fulfills a basic human wish to “transcend the limitations of the body… to expand our consciousness by a dissemination of our presence, to distribute the self into a larger society of mind.” [8]

The illusion of immateriality, and the interactive pleasures it provides, is sustainable until something breaks down. When undersea cables are cut – by mislaid anchors, vandals, or long-term sea floor friction – service slows as new pathways are remapped around the global network of wires. The Internet can survive such breaks – such as when three men allegedly cut the SE-WE-ME-4 cable that connects Egypt to Europe in March 2013 – because its infrastructure is so huge, so manifestly and overwhelmingly physical, that traffic can be rerouted across other, more circuitous pathways. [9] It is the physicality and physical redundancy of the Internet that allows us to so easily imagine it and its contents as ‘immaterial.’ To be ‘wireless,’ is to be supported by heavily redundant wiring; to be ‘immaterial’ is to be sustained by tons of metal, machinery, and architecture constantly consuming physical resources. As Hayles reminds us, for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium,” and that medium is always physical. [10]

Laura U. Marks writes that seeking out a materialist understanding of “virtual media” is both a “Marxist remedy for reification” and a “phenomenological interest in the immediacy and irreducibility of lived experience.” In doing so, she writes, we valorize “embodiment over disembodiment” and “restore the complexity of these interconnections to the false transparency of digital media.” [11] The essays in the first section of this special issue of Media-N on Art & Infrastructures: Hardware shift attention onto the physicality of the networks that convey ‘immaterial’ information, and the aesthetic and social experiences they structure. To think about networked art and its immaterial, disembodied, and virtualized effects requires an archaeological investigation into the physical components that enable these very effects. The authors included in this section describe and analyze new and old infrastructural networks that both create sensory experiences and also take phenomenal form themselves. Nicole Starosielski’s photo essay, “Signal Tracks,” for example, seeks out underwater telephonic and fiberoptic cables where they land on shore. Discursive engagement with network infrastructure, she writes, typically ends after the cables have been laid: “There is no ‘after’ to the cable landing… the line sinks to the seafloor, infrastructure recedes from view.” Starosielski tracks operational, active cables to “the edges” of the network, far removed from urban centers, to exotic beaches and remote rural environments. Her photographs bring the underwater network and its entanglement with the natural, ecological environment into sharp focus.

Architectural historian John Harwood also turns his attention to physical structures that support invisible communications while going unnoticed and unanalyzed in the landscape. In his essay, “Wires, Walls and Wireless: Notes Toward an Investigation of Radio Architecture” looks to the architectural forms that enabled and sustained radio as a technology and a medium. While radio was colloquially known as ‘the wireless,’ it was, in fact, a medium that was heavily and dangerously wired, needing even more infrastructure telephone networks of the same time. “It is almost as if the magic of the medium,” Harwood writes, “the legerdemain that allows invisible waves to transport electricity and sound from one place to another via the ‘ether,’ has obscured the history of the architectural component of the radio apparatus—studio, station, home, vehicle—from view,” despite the importance of the architecture for producing the technical effects of broadcast and doing so safely, with every wire insulated, grounded, and cooled by massive architectural supports.

Tung-hui Hu’s essay, “Truckstops on the Information Superhighway: Ant Farm, SRI, and the Cloud,” excavates an early history of the Internet that exposes its secretly ‘goofy’ structure. He argues that Paul Baran’s clean, elegant diagrams of network structures, made in the late 1960s while developing the early structures of the Internet as a Cold War security system, have been misinterpreted as literal illustrations and historical narrative, rather than, say, rhetorical illustrations. Hu looks toward contemporaneous attempts to form distributed networks that emphasize the loopy structures of networked communication. The members of the video and architecture collective Ant Farm and a team of engineers from the Stanford Research Institute separately took to the open American roads in retrofitted “media vans” to map out new forms of networked connectivity on the old, twisted networks of the interstate highway system.

Brian Michael Murphy, too, digs for forgotten infrastructural systems that now sustain contemporary digital culture. In “Bomb-proofing the Digital Image: An Archaeology of Media Preservation Infrastructure,” Murphy examines the repurposing of massive, Cold War era bomb shelters into secure data storage facilities. The digital files that seem to circulate “fluidly, effortlessly, ‘immaterially,’ and perpetually in the global image environment,” he explains, are actually supported by Cold War infrastructure married to contemporary digital technology. Structures that were built to ensure the seamless continuity of government in the event of nuclear war, now sustain and protect the continuity of our image environment, which is equally important for maintaining order and control.

Brooke Belisle takes up the astro-photographic work of Trevor Paglen in her essay “I see the Moon, the Moon Sees Me: Trevor Paglen’s Satellite Images.” Paglen uses telescopic, computer-guided cameras to photograph the satellites that circle the globe. This practice, Belisle argues, reveals an extensive infrastructural system that is in place to facilitate sight but largely escapes our own vision. Paglen, she writes, “presents a visual technology and reality that hovers outside our awareness even as, and perhaps because, it so thoroughly surrounds and encloses us, so pervasively mediates and structures the way we see our world and imagine beyond it.” By bringing these technologies of vision into vision, Paglen’s work exposes the material presence of the United States in space and “how this presence enables colonizing forms of military power on Earth.”

The final essay in this section also addresses satellite technology and how it can bring unseen phenomena into vision. “Solar Wind Harp: Exposing the Gap in the Map”
describes an artwork by David Fodel and George Millward that visualizes and sonifies data appropriated from satellites that track solar winds. In mapping the data, the collaborators found strong resemblances between their data structures, and those of the mind. Their work analogizes the gaps between solar events and their technological receptors with the synaptic leaps between sensations and thought that structure the mind. By representing invisible, cosmic phenomena, they simultaneously model another set of events that escape human vision.

Cables run through the walls of our homes, burrow just underground, snake along the ocean floors, and surface on sandy beaches, only to go underground again. Broadcasting stations are heavily wired ‘radio cities’ occupying whole urban blocks. Just above our heads, running parallel to the network of streets, roads, and interstate highways, telephone and electrical wires snap and pulse with surges of energy and information. And even higher up, satellites silently spin and blink in the stratosphere, beaming our messages back and forth to towers hiding in our neighborhoods, disguised as palm and fir trees. Just because the infrastructure is hidden from our sight, located beyond unaided vision, or because its ubiquity makes it ‘invisible,’ does not mean that it is ‘immaterial,’ or that its materiality does not have economic, social, political, and aesthetic consequences. Our communications networks are, as Biddle describes, machines that “hug the globe.” When we emphasize the physicality of these structures over and against the rhetoric of dematerialization that informs the discourses about their use and effects, we will have to revisit Ascott’s question of the experience of disembodied networking: “is there [still] love in the telematic embrace?” [12]


1. Anonymous, “Operation Global Blackout,” February 12, 2012, accessed February 18, 2014,
2. Ibid.
3. Somini Sangupta, “Warned of an Attack on the Internet, and Getting Ready,” The New York Times, March 30, 2012, accessed February 26, 2014,
4. Jacob Kleinman, “Anonymous Denies ‘Operation Global Blackout’ on Twitter,” International Business Times, February 17, 2012, accessed February 26, 2014,
5. Sam Biddle, “How To Destroy the Internet,” Gizmodo, May 23, 2012, (Accessed February 26, 2014).
6. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), 2.
7. Roy Ascott, “Art and Telematics: Towards a Network Consciousness (1984),” in Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness,” ed. Edward A. Shanken (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 190.
8. Roy Ascott, “Connectivity: Art and Interactive Telecommunications,” Leonardo, Vol. 24, No. 2 (1991), 116.
9. Charles Arthur, “Undersea Internet Cables Off Egypt Disrupted as Navy Arrests Three,” The Guardian, March 30, 2013, accessed March 3, 2014,
10. Hayles, 13.
11. Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensuous Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 178-179.
12. Roy Ascott, “Is there Love in the Telematic Embrace,” Art Journal, Vol. 49, No. 3, Computers and Art: Issues of Content (Autumn, 1990), 241-247.