On the Network
Let’s start from the focus of your audiovisual project: the network as a concept and dispositif. What is the reason for focusing on the network as both an organisational process and a theoretical concept?
It was once possible to consider the network, its contents and contexts, separate from the physical world. The two were fairly distinct, with the network, contained in cables, intruding on the physical world only through fixed terminals. Of course the cables cut through or were submerged beneath the material of the physical world, but the network data was contained, and constrained, within them.
Wireless technology changes this, as do mobile or other, smaller, connected devices. An increasing amount of “things” able to talk the wireless language exist today, often perceived as magical and secure. While perhaps not technically in-secure, wireless things carry the promise of ease of use, the luxury of immediate set-up and the lure of affordability. They do not require a raising of technical skills, and the consequent awareness of how to shield from external ears. They multiply and through them the network is released.
The realities of the network become a part of the realities of the physical world. Instant and often free access to information and communication whenever, wherever are shadowed by the heightened possibility of surveillance and tracking. The positive and negative effects of wireless networks become inherent, somewhat functionally imperative, part of everyday life: “Free Wifi here”, a smart fridge, Siri & Alexa.
Throughout this, the network, the delivery medium of the internet, remains largely hidden. The stack of technologies on which web pages and emails rest precariously is deep and obscure, while that which is experienced as text, image or sound is constructed as it bubbles up through numerous technological layers. This complexity and prevalence, along with its global nature, puts the network on a similar level to the forces of nature, the wind and waves that surround us. There is something similar in its unpredictability, its constant change, its potential impact: beautiful or devastating.
The network, then, is a man-made natural force, a chaotic structure through which we pass and which, wirelessly, passes through us, but it is silent and for the most part invisible. To put it somewhat differently the network can be seen – following Keller Easterling – as a consequential infrastructure space of its own, exerting control and shaping flows of power. The project asks, what if we could experience the network, this infrastructure space? Not its results – the messages, videos, articles – but its actions: the transmissions and transformations that carry and assemble these results.
The WiFi, as well as being one of the key parts of the network also provides opportunities for investigation. It is in some respects the accessible crest of the larger infrastructure offering connection through personal devices or networks within buildings to the deeper layers, such as internet exchanges or submarine cables. That it offers this, with only a requirement of proximity, not physical connection, makes it a useful point of entrance and departure from which many paths can be taken.
On experimental tools
A unique aspect of the project is the custom-building and self-initiated production of data-collection tools and assembling software operating them. Why this choice?
We create tools as an initial research process. The necessary starting point is looking and listening. Donna Haraway puts it disarmingly simply: research is knowing a bit more in the evening than you did in the morning. We often align a number of readily available hardware and software tools and create assemblages through which we gather information in multiple ways.
Through this initial process we come to know a bit more about [network] data, the structures that produce it, the conditions which create it and which it creates in return. Once an assembled tool is completed or consistently usable [tools are never completed – only ever abandoned] there comes the process of operating it, exploring with it.
We create tools as a refining process. We suspend our disbelief, adopting an approach similar to dowsing: a type of divination employed in attempts to locate hidden materials without the use of a scientific apparatus, and without a full understanding. If we waited for a full and complete understanding, we would be paralysed in the face of complexity. Dowsing into the unknown, we gradually improve our divining rods in an iterative fashion. In this case, looking at and listening to the urban environment and the WiFi data found within it refine our tools and, in return, our understanding of those networks and their operations.
We create tools as a necessity, stemming from an inability to access existing tools, whether due to the structures of control around them, their complexity or the fact that a tool for a particular task does not exist. In this case, tools exist to read networks, and tools exist to make sound, but a tool for both has to be bespoke.
We create tools as a tactic. Different situations call for different approaches, particularly when collecting data in sensitive locations. In this case, software tools operating within a laptop allow for covert data collection, preventing scrutiny when on a plane, in an embassy or by a governmental building.
We create tools as an open box, so that they be pulled apart and understood, visually if not physically. Enough with black boxes and impenetrable assemblages: our most successful machines should be structured to describe their machinations. In this case the NE3, a tool to turn WiFi packets into a source of data-noise, is conceived as a compact board where all components are exposed and their connections visible, facilitating an initial understanding of how information flows within it. There are, of course, further levels of complexity within this – within a world of software and microprocessors it is not necessarily possible to fully expose the workings of an active object, but we hope that its presentation in this way encourages questioning and exploration.
We create tools in the attempt to produce unique, beautiful artefacts. Sometimes this presupposes the establishment of a visual system. In this case, a symbolic representation of network activity was conceived: a set of icons screen-printed on the original Network Ensemble machines visually describe six categories, or network slices, within which WiFi packets are found. The same icons become the vehicle of audiovisual experimentation during the Network Ensemble performances, establishing a different network aesthetic.