Network Studies explore the invisible communication infrastructure that permeates urban spaces through sound, graphs and distorted visuals.
In it, physical walks, virtual fly-overs and network and State forces collide, showing patterns of wireless data covertly collected while walking in locations where network infrastructure and structures of power intersect.
Using custom software running on a laptop, data is collected as a locality is explored. The transcript of network activity is later converted into a sonic signal that varies according to the nature and intensity of the data, and visualised as a textual overview, a taxonomy or an aggregate of captured data packets.
The walk undertaken is replicated through online maps, obtaining an approximated visualisation of the region explored. This virtual fly-over is visually warped by the same data, bringing the networked record of space together with the spatial record of the network.
These experiments are collected in the limited-edition SD Card release Selected Network Studies. Among them are:
Network Study I – Docklands
The area northeast of Canary Wharf is inhabited by large, anonymous buildings, their imposing grey exteriors surrounded by multiple layers of metal fencing and countless security cameras. This especially militarised part of London houses the city’s most important node of the internet: LINX, the London Internet Exchange. In these buildings, over 500 UK network operators and providers connect and exchange traffic. Network Study I follows the path of the underground cables as they connect London, and the UK, to the global Internet.
From the same militarised area shine the towers of Canary Wharf. As one of the most important European financial hubs, housing the headquarters of banks such as HSBC, Barclays and CitiBank, this location is no coincidence: the financial services and fast-trading algorithms thrive on the speed, performance and scalability offered by proximity to the one of the most important node of the Internet, fed by the world’s fastest telecommunication cables.
Network Study VII – Vatican City
The only officially recognised absolute theocracy in the world, Vatican City has its own nature and accompanying mystique. In a place where incredible amounts of power and secrecy, influence and lobbying, sovereignty and religion collide, the invisible forces of the network are easily forgotten.
Nonetheless, while walking through the columns of Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican City, an unusual amount of activity is monitored: the data is collected from both the large number of visitors and the administrative buildings of the Vatican City. Among these is the Telephone Service, which maintains a complex infrastructure of data networks for the telecommunications of the Holy See and the Vatican Radio, transmitting God’s word at a speed roughly 1500 times slower than that at which WiFi packets travel.
The network is furious within the walls of the Vatican City, and it has been for many decades. It is here that in 1933 radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi built the first stable shortwave radio transmission system in the world.
Network Study VIII – US Embassy
In 2013, reports looking into covert collection systems operating from US Embassies across major world cities were published on a number of newspapers. Using documents leaked by Edward Snowden, journalists revealed how the NSA’s STATEROOM program (the same covert operation used, famously, to tap the phone of Angela Merkel) is targeting many capitals. The electronic collection of data happens on the roof of the Embassy buildings located in the centres of the world’s capitals. The equipment and staff assigned by the US government to such secret operations hide behind “false architectural features” such as roof maintenance sheds.
Network Study VIII focuses on the US Embassy conveniently housed in Rome’s Palazzo Margherita, in close proximity to many administrative buildings of the Italian government. Secured behind diplomatic immunity and the curtains of a fake roof maintenance shed, a large antenna spies on the communication of Italian statesmen.
Network Study XI – Stansted Airport
As the hub airport for budget carrier Ryanair, London Stansted Airport plays host to some of the cheapest flights in the country. Although this price point is achieved via some questionable employment practices and dubious customer service techniques, it makes it the largest European airline.
At the other end of the scale, for both price and frequency of flight, Stansted is the departure point for flights with an average fare around 125 times that of Ryanair: chartered deportation flights. At the behest of the UK government, and through an outsourced network of private companies, carrier Titan Airways operates flights forcibly removing people from the country. Often running under cover of night, these chartered flights take off amongst freight planes, from a relatively hidden part of the airport.
Taken by coach from detention centres, with their mobile phones confiscated, people may have to wait up to 12 hours before being boarded onto the flight. Before this moment they may not know the exact time or destination of the flight. Many will not fly at all: the Home Office often takes more people to the airport than will fit on a flight to ensure that, in the case of someone receiving a last-minute injunction to stay, these expensive flights remain full.
There is minimal opportunity to contest deportations such as these. Although government guidelines require 5 days notice for people to build a case, this is not always given, making it difficult if not impossible to raise funds or build a case. In response to contestations that removing people deteriorates families, the government has advised that relationships should be carried out on the network.