Outside In

by Rebecca O'Dwyer

I remember smartphones were still new, luxurious, and fairly lawless — 2009, maybe 2010. I was standing at a party in my apartment, when a man I vaguely knew, at that point a well-to-do weed dealer, beckoned me towards a quiet corner to show me something on his smartphone. Looking at it, I observed a surging row of bushy marijuana plants, growing back in his rural HQ. At the bottom of the small screen, a series of numbers indicating pH and moisture levels communicated how they were getting on his absence. Lit up in artificial blue UV light, the plants’ grainy likenesses were being sent in real-time via a number of encrypted VPNs and apps, right into the palm of his hand. Clearly proud, he told me he could monitor and even feed them from my kitchen. Between the somnolent tempo of nature, and the increasingly frenetic velocity of the new technology that was now communicating and monetising it, I sensed a pathetic sense of misfit. 

I suspect it is a sense of discomfort that leads me to recall this this incident, now, as I spend some time with Evan Roth’s Red Lines. With both incidences, I am struck by the unease between nature and its technological encapsulation; by an idea of nature rationalised by the technological, either to a lesser or greater degree. I look at Red Lines at various points during my day, turning my gaze towards the upper surface of a bedroom chest of drawers, where the feed plays on my laptop stood on its side like a permanently opened book. Because I only have one computer, I am writing this longhand in a notebook—something, I notice, I rarely if ever do. 

Initially, Red Lines simply presents a welcome visual distraction to my working space, a window into another world, something like an aesthetically pleasing and pleasingly undemanding TV. Comprising a set of films shot in infrared, they show locations from around the world where the internet comes ashore. At these sites, physical cables transmitting data make land, before being put on their varying paths around the world. What they really show, then, are the sites that actually allow me to now look at them. Very important sites, then, not that you’d discern this from their appearance: observing Red Lines, the overriding sense is stillness, despite intermittent stops and flashes to black that denote a new film and location. One interchangeable location slips into another.  

Unlike the plants, the films here are pre-recorded; the images being streamed already lost to the past tense. Aside from the act of being filmed by Roth, the locations—remote corners of Australia, China, New Zealand, South Africa and elsewhere—could never have been observed in real-time in the way that I am looking at them now. Instead, a voracious technological eye reports back to me, steady and wide but always contingent upon physical and temporal distance. What it transmits is nothing much of anything, but, I think—all of it. In this, the films share something of the plants’ pathos — a quality probably the result of them, finally and weirdly, ending up here in this room, and elsewhere. Framed abruptly by the aluminium perimeters of my laptop screen, something about living with Red Lines unnerves me. We are pushed into uneasy proximity. It strikes me that I am there, as much as they are here. In fact, I believe I am running riot under the surface of this faraway stillness. I watch or I don’t watch, it doesn’t really matter: I participate in hurtling these films around the real world. Like them, I am here, there, and at every node along the network. I don't really fit anywhere either.  

There is a meme doing the rounds at the moment: fifteen years ago, it says, the internet was an escape from the real world; today, by contrast, the real world is an escape from the internet. Red Lines troubles this binary, these ideas of distinction and escape. The outside world is brought in, both in a physical and metaphorical sense, and the boundary between outside and inside becomes moot. On the screen, in the past before I could ever see it, tree leaves flicker gently in the wind, and a group of men run up a slope, either in pursuit or away from something—but, even as I write this, they are doing exactly the same thing, where I am now. Roth’s real world is broken up into packets of data and passed around both the real and technological world, becoming dispersed and lacking in any one source: a world being constantly shared, disassembled and put back together. Still, using the internet, I too mostly revel in a process that is making the idea of any escape more or less obsolete. Living with this belated outside, inside, makes perfect if not exactly comfortable sense.

Rebecca O’ Dwyer is an Irish art writer, critic and editor based in Berlin. She holds a PhD from the department of Visual Culture at the National College of Art & Design in Dublin. Her writing has appeared in Art Review, frieze, Apollo, and elsewhere.