by Simon Bland

‘This series is about trying to depict landscapes, both the landscapes we see and those that are hidden and not physical,’ says digital artist Evan Roth. These intangible vistas Roth speaks of form the backbone of Red Lines, his project which invites users to welcome the internet into their home in a new and unusual way. By doing so, Roth aims to question our collective relationship with the tool we all can’t live without and see what we can learn from viewing this ethereal asset through a practical lens. To create the piece, Roth travelled to physical locations of the internet, visiting over 53 landing sites where fibre-optic cables emerge from the land or sea and translating his experiences into a series of mesmerising infrared videos, each revealing a different hidden source of the world wide web. From there he released it to the world, allowing users to tune in on their mobile or desktop device at home, wherever they are in the world. 

Artangel Everywhere, which Roth won, is an award celebrating innovative network projects that can be experienced worldwide—however, according to Roth, the project almost didn’t happen. ‘I’d reached a point where I was really questioning whether I wanted the internet to retain a central focus in my art practice,’ says Roth, recalling his journey from budding architect to netart activist. ‘This series was meant to be a reset moment where I was trying to think differently about what the internet was, underneath all these viral videos and cute cats,’ he laughs. ‘I needed to understand more about it as a way to retain agency within that system. That’s when Red Lines started.’

Taking its name from The All Red Line—a submarine cable telegraph system used to connect British colonies during the early 20th century that has expanded to form a vast web of fibre-optic cables connecting us all to the internet—Red Lines was initially conceived as a piece of online activism. But it quickly developed into something more, ultimately becoming a tool that helps us to see through the digital noise and access a much needed moment of reflection. ‘It was a step away,’ explains Roth. ‘This work is me struggling to figure out what the answers to the problems of the internet were, rather than acting like I knew them. Red Lines required me to do these trips where I would visit landscapes where the fibre-optic cables were and they were almost always in very remote spots. This provided a nice sanctuary for slowing down and so the work then became about that,’ says Roth. ‘It wasn’t about seeing the cable and reporting back on it—Red Lines put me in these remote places and allowed me to think about the network in different ways, slower ways and ways that were more informed by the pace of nature rather than the pace of social media.’

However despite his tranquil surroundings, Roth was never too far away from the allure of his iPhone. ‘I had all these experiences while filming that changed my way of thinking—like my inability to be still,’ he says. ‘I had the self-disappointment of being behind the camera in these amazing locations and—even with everything I know about how I’m being manipulated by various online systems—still reaching into my pocket to check email or Instagram’. Instead of being deterred, Roth decided to see this shortcoming as an opportunity to learn more about the ways in which users interact with his new concept. ‘I wanted to embed these moments into the work as part of the viewing process. Some people turn push notifications off while using Red Lines, some people don’t. You’re sitting there trying to look at this landscape and all these systems from silicon valley are trying to pull you away and back into their ecosystem. I think that’s a totally valid way of living with it.’

Roth’s pilgrimages took him all over the globe to film at landing sites in South Africa, Argentina, Hong Kong, Sweden and the United Kingdom. It was a process that came hand-in-hand with a wealth of picturesque scenery. ‘Most of the sites were on private properties,’ says Roth of the project’s shoot. ‘I did some very minor trespassing but if I hopped any fences, they were very low fences,’ he laughs. As for the footage itself, Roth feels its beauty and subtext allow it to transcend genres: ‘I like placing it somewhere between netart and the history of landscape image making, particularly romance period. I think it sits somewhere between those two,’ he suggests. Then there’s the stuff that’s harder to spot: ‘There’s so much flowing through landscape like WIFI, radio and 3G—they’re here and part of the landscape too,’ he adds. ‘I was looking to try and represent what we can’t see with our eyes.’

With Red Lines currently on display at museums and galleries across the UK, it’s Roth’s hope that audiences will go one step further and invite it into their personal lives too. It’s a concept that raises even more interesting questions, like why are we so quick to adopt the internet of things into our homes whenever it is of practical use but hesitate to do so when asked to appreciate it as an art form? It seems that when it comes to the internet, Alexa is a fine housemate but video art? Not so much.

‘It’s interesting, I think there’s an unexplored opportunity with netart. Living with artwork has a bad rap because it usually implies ownership and privilege. Netart isn’t devoid of privilege but the barriers are a lot lower to allow you to live with the work, I felt like this was an opportunity for some people to live with artwork for the first time and so focusing on the home was definitely intentional.’

To combat this bad rap, Roth’s is willing to help viewers get started should you need it. ‘You have to figure out how it can integrate with your life in the same way you integrate any addiction you have, like coffee or listening to the radio,’ says Roth. ‘It doesn’t have a push notification reminding you to turn it on which means you have to opt into it and I like that. I’m going to start doing home visits where I use my Instagram account to book visitations,’ he reveals. ‘I’ll come to your home, help you set it up and show you how to develop habits and use the work. That feels really good,’ he smiles. ‘The person-to-person communication is a nice antidote to the way artwork usually gets communicated now,’ continues Roth. ‘I hope Red Lines can be an example of not just putting on a tinfoil hat and running away from the network but proof that we can still make it ours,’ he adds. ‘My hope is that there’s a thread of optimism in there.’

Simon Bland writes about films for places like The Guardian, The Telegraph, Little White Lies and Shortlist.