We used to walk on the East and West sides of the world at once, my mum and I. We'd place one foot in each with the gold line of Greenwich Mean Time down the middle. We'd tip one way or the other and curl inside the dark room of the camera obscura, bumping into each other as our eyes adjusted, the faint grey blur on the table gradually becoming clearer. We'd watch 360 degrees of the park, seeing strangers scuttling around like tiny ants. We felt like gods, like witches, like magic. We’d follow the figures until they walked to the edge of the table and watch as they fell off the frame.
Now we’re on the other side of the world, watching a glowing red screen as every so often a group of strangers passes by a mountainside; witches once again.
If I were to make visible the workings of the internet, it would be chaotic, overwhelming and a little lonely. It would look like long lost friends and family gatherings I can’t attend. It would look like a square photo of the night out I missed, like that person I want to impress and like a whole host of dogs I’d like to meet. It would look like everyone was having a great time, all the time. It would look like my grandma's chin as she leans into the screen, and like my mum's ear as she presses the video button by accident. It would look like one blue dot on a map and another three mid-type. It would look insular, interior, unnatural; the bubble of my life, its limits almost tangible.
Evan Roth’s Red Lines looks underneath all that. By framing the points where fibre-optic cables emerge from the ocean in infrared, Red Lines makes visible the landscape of the internet. It gives the internet a physical location, anchoring what I’ve always thought of as ethereal, and reveals the power structures at its core. Red Lines is not what I expected the internet to look like; it is elemental and airy, slow and calm. It is also huge; the impossibly wide socio-historical and geographical context of the internet held within a handful of frames of nature. So much of our use of the internet is personal, perhaps even selfish. Red Lines reminds us of its broad scope and wide reach.
Mum and I are in India. I’ve been away for several months and mum has joined me for the final fortnight. We spend one night in Delhi, two weeks in the Himalayas and another night in Delhi before heading home. For the fortnight in between we have no internet connection. For the nights in the capital, Red Lines sits loaded beside us, its red glow constant among the books and clothes we throw about whilst repacking.
Red has always been the colour of empire; when maps were drawn up for the British Empire, colonised countries were shaded in red. Because of this, and because we’re here, the colour takes on the weight of power, wealth and ugly domination. Today, India is independent, but memories of colonisation linger. Just because the red lines are gone, it doesn’t mean they are forgotten.
The internet holds a different kind of threat. It can overwhelm, overrule and overpower. Its potential is as yet unknown; it can be used for all kinds of modern cruelties.
But for me, in most forms, the internet is a safety net. Perhaps it’s because it’s always been a link back to family, no matter where I in the world I am. My mum is a geographical pinpoint, you see; she carries home within her. If I'm on the phone to her, on a video call or just scrolling back through photos she's sent, a part of me is home too.
She's sitting across from me now. It's the last night and she's turning the page of a book. I almost feel as though I’m seeing in double vision; this picture of her reading is a landscape I am so used to, yet we are somewhere utterly foreign to us both.
Next to her, Red Lines shows a mountain. A cluster of trees sway gently in front of it, the movement almost imperceptible. It's a waving reminder of where we've been. Two people enter the screen, dawdling and chatting. The phone jumps as I move books around the bed and the hikers start walking upside down. They reach the edge of the screen. They vanish.
The internet looks different to me now. It looks like my mum reading on her bed. It looks a maze carved out of trees. It looks like a witches cauldron conjuring ghosts. It looks like power and wealth and inequality. It looks like the camera obscura. It looks like home and away. It looks like the outside: open and endless. Now, if I close my eyes, the internet looks like a mountain, bathed in red.