Art & Infrastructures: Information


Kevin Hamilton, Guest Editor

Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, College of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Terri Weissman, Guest Editor

Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, College of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

This issue is the second of two on the topic of art and infrastructures. The first, “Art and Infrastructures: Hardware,” edited by Kris Paulsen and Meredith Hoy, focused on the physicality of infrastructures. The current, “Art and Infrastructures: Information,” addresses the knowledge structures, epistemes, and archives upon which infrastructures depend.

For those in power at least, infrastructures typically hide in plain sight, invisible to the point of ephemerality. In her introductory essay for the first issue, Paulsen challenges the misleading language of immateriality often used to describe infrastructure. [1] By pointing to influential theorist and artist Roy Ascott, she reminds us just how prone new media artists have been to these anti-corporeal tendencies. Paulsen identifies in such language an unhelpful separation of information from materiality, of consciousness from bodies.

If new media art, or at least some of it, too often contributes to a discourse of “disembodied knowing,” then the work included across these two issues might be understood as something of a corrective, a reminder of the crucial role of atoms and history in information flow, and in consciousness. The scholars and artists across these two issues reverse, critique or reveal the processes by which, in the words of N. Katherine Hayles, “information lost its body” in much of the language we use to describe technology. [2] In the first issue, authors trace, map, and narrate the material and physical elements that make the flow of information possible. In this second issue, authors examine how information flow depends not only on copper, fiberoptic, or concrete, but also on flesh and blood, language and sociality.

This turn to bodies, and to the social, aligns the present issue with efforts from a very different context – that of critical race theory. Writing almost twenty-five years ago, Cornel West also took disembodied knowing to task:

To tell a tale about the historical character of philosophy while eschewing the political content, role, and function of philosophies in various historical periods is to promote an ahistorical approach in the name of history. To undermine the privileged philosophic notions of necessity, universality, rationality, objectivity and transcendentality without acknowledging and accenting the oppressive deeds done under the ideological aegis of these notions is to write an intellectual and homogeneous history, a history which fervently attacks epistemological privilege but remains relatively silent about form of political, economic, racial and sexual privilege. [3]

In the same way that West critiques historical philosophies that fail to incorporate asymmetrical power relationships, the authors in this issue explore the ways in which, race, class, and gendered bodies are reflected in and produced by software, and the languages of technology.

West’s strong words for those who stop only at examining “epistemological privilege” resonate with Orit Halpern’s brief critique of “infrastructure art” in her essay for this issue. Before moving into an examination of early research by Nicholas Negroponte, Halpern contrasts “the current fetish for or showing power lines, pipelines, ports, and other sites of ‘infrastructure’” with the work of artist Harun Farocki, whom she describes as approaching infrastructure not just as a black box to be heroically opened, but “as a question of organizing sensation, and something that can never be directly apprehended through representation.”

“Not only hardware,” wrote Paul Edwards in a foundational text for infrastructure studies, “but organizations, socially communicated background knowledge, general acceptance and reliance, and near-ubiquitous accessibility are required for a system to be an infrastructure.” For Edwards, it’s through the epistemological and social aspects that infrastructure acquires its dimension of “systemic, society wide control over the variability inherent in the natural environment.” [4] In Edwards’ analysis, such control manifests itself not in a closed “black box,” but in an entirely “closed world,” one that defines modernity for those within and without. (Notably, SAGE, the military computerized command-and-control system that serves as Edwards’ key example, later finds commercial application in SABRE, an early airline ticketing system that sees the first public instance of commercial price fixing through algorithm tampering. [5]) Infrastructures constrain as they enable, promoting some interests at the expense of others.

This issue thus departs from some of the approaches typical of what Stephen Graham has called the “infrastructural turn” in scholarship on technology and society. [6] The essays included here address systems, taxonomies, labor relations, storage and retrieval protocols, and generative algorithmic processes. We collect these examples here not in opposition to the mined, synthesized and discarded elements of physical systems, but as an insistence on such systems’ co-existence with social life. If cables, transmitters, switches, and roads serve as stages for the performance of infrastructural worlds, the social elements emphasized in this volume serve as scripts in such performances. In this way, perhaps infrastructures are not, to borrow a popular phrase, “turtles all the way down,” but rather interplay of figure and ground, script and stage.

It is thus fitting that bodies surface throughout this volume – bodies of dancers, operators, and tinkerers, human and animal. The body, feminist scholars of technology and phenomenology from Grosz to Suchman remind us, is where the co-presence and co-construction of the social and technical is most insistent.

The artists and scholars in this issue remind us of this through performance, play, and close reading of the particular bodies involved at historical and contemporary infrastructural sites. As such, this compilation serves as a survey of processes by which regimes seal infrastructural “black boxes” through the hard separation of the technological and the social – processes that artists reveal, critique, and reverse. Included here are examples that span the worlds of design, telecommunication, and university research, museums and consumer electronics. Artists at their best in these instances do not stand outside infrastructures, pulling back curtains to reveal secret knowledge, but rather implicate themselves in these processes, reminding us, through infrastructural successes and failures, of just how inseparable the social and technical have always been.

The editors wish to acknowledge the faculty and students of the Learning to See Systems initiative at the University of Illinois for the invaluable conversations that informed the formation of this issue. They also thank the contributors to a related panel at the 2014 Annual Conference of the College Art Assocation,“Beyond Big Data: the Politics of Vision in Complex Systems.”



  1. Kris Paulsen, “Introduction (Part I) By Land, By Sea, By Air: The Physical Structures of Networked Art,” Media-N v.10 n.1 (Spring 2014).
  2. See, for instance, N. Katherine Hayles, How we Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
  3. Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 208.
  4. Paul Edwards, “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems,” in Modernity and Technology, ed. Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg (Cambridge: MIT, 2003), 189.
  5. Christian Sandvig, Karrie Karahalios, and Cedric Langbort, Uncovering Algorithms: Looking Inside the Facebook News Feed, in The Berkman Center Seminar Series: Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, Accessed July 22, 2014:
  6. Stephen Graham, Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails (New York: Routledge, 2010).



Kevin Hamilton is an artist and researcher with the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. There he also serves as a Co-Director of the Center for People and Infrastructures in the Coordinated Science Lab, and leads Learning to See Systems, a new interdisciplinary research and training effort funded through the Graduate College. Long-term collaborative projects include historical and theoretical work on cybernetics, interface representations, and the ethics of algorithmic Internet news, search, and social media sources. His primary current project: a collaboration with Ned O’Gorman, examines the role of film and photography in America’s nuclear weapons programs.

Terri Weissman is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art and the History of Photography at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of The Realisms of Berenice Abbott: Documentary Photography and Political Action (UC Press, 2011), and co-author of American Modern: Documentary Photographs by Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White (UC Press, 2010). Her articles and reviews have appeared in journals such as Visual Resources, ArtNexus, SCOPE, and Third Text. Her essay “Freedom’s Just Another Word,” appears in Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present (ed. Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson), and relates to her current project, which examines the visual culture of social movements after 1980.