Arteries of the Internet

by Anna Godfrey


In February, an uninvited reporter walked freely into the heart of some of the UK’s most vital infrastructure: a private farm on the north Cornish coast where three submarine internet cables emerge from the ocean. They snake across seafloors to provide internet access between continents and he wanted to expose its faultlines: the lax security at cable landing sites. These cables are the thick, heavy arteries in which the intangibilities of the internet–billions of daily searches and constant communication across the globe—are grounded. The Times journalist was able to walk unimpeded through the front door of the site which houses them, disproving the ‘first-class security’ boasted by the facility and reminding his readers of the internet's physical existence.

The American artist Evan Roth’s ‘Red Lines’ project further acquaints viewers with the internet’s physical foundations, closing the gap between individual user and infrastructure in a contemplative rather than investigative manner. His artwork is a network, entered through a weblink, which opens onto single-frame infrared videos of coastal landscapes; each video’s location chosen because it is the point at which the fibre-optic cables in that country emerge from the sea like animals in evolution. The near-stillness of the natural views—rustling trees, ebbing water—is saturated by an artificial, infrared hue, tipping the scene into something uncanny, parallel, subtly surreal.

In displaying the work, the phone, tablet, or computer takes on a single purpose: to connect to and exhibit the video. The screen no longer serves as a platform for instructive swipes — fingers flicking in rapid motion to ‘like’, ‘love’, ‘accept’, ‘reply’, ‘zoom’ — but is pared down to a simple portal into Roth’s pink panorama. Without room for customisation, we cannot interact with the artwork except for turning it on, turning it off and watching it. Rendered passive, a new form of technological engagement is demanded of us: we become witnesses. Despite this diminished interaction, there exists a sense of human connection. Although I cannot respond, cannot communicate a reaction to any other user, the work operates on a peer-to-peer network; each viewer acts to bolster the network and is shown the same video at an identical pace. In this way, a silent community of participants is constructed, their presence implied simply by an ability to enter the weblink.

Unlike traditional two-dimensional media—painting, drawing, and film–in which all of the image’s information is laid out across one plane, offered up for one fell swoop of visual devouring, ‘Red Lines’ is a video piece which occupies time more than it does space. The viewer is forced to strike a bargain in order to engage: to see more, spend more time. With over 50 videos at around 18 minutes each, the overall length of ‘Red Lines’ runs to more than 12 hours. Too long for a single viewing, Roth encourages us to live alongside the work: to prop a disused phone on a kitchen shelf and allow a swaying pink tree to catch our eye as we go about our lives. Engagement becomes momentary, fortuitous.

In this way, the piece chimes with other public artworks which seek to redefine viewer interaction—Tania Bruguera’s 2018 Tate Modern commission, ‘10,146,858’, the slow cinema of James Benning, and visual articulations of power of Forensic Architecture, or the Sensory Ethnography Lab amongst them. Like these, Roth’s piece requires us to reconsider the speed of our expectations. Patience is required and time takes precedent. ‘Red Lines’ keeps us at arm’s length, denying us the form of information—instant, summarised, conclusive—to which we have become accustomed. Instead, it simply plays, silent and slow-burning, on the repurposed screen.

Anna Godfrey is the editorial assistant to Damien Hirst and a freelance arts writer and editor. She has written for publications such as Financial Times, independent magazine, and Oh Comely.