In The Grid / Off The Grid - is publication consisting of a picture of a spider's web folded in 18 segments, a picture of urban infrastructures spread over 36 pages and a short text in a slip case. I produced it in collaboration with Indre Klimaite (design) and Andreas Folkers (text). It was published in an edition of 350 copies by me and gallery Bernhard Knaus and on occasion of an exhibition at space 291 in Seoul.
In The Grid / Off The Grid
When a spider weaves its web it seems to act like a system builder planning and constructing an infrastructural network from scratch. The fly resembles an infrastructural user. Though the fly is anticipated in the spider’s design the web remains invisible to it until it gets caught up in it, that is: until something bad happens, a breakdown, a disruption, a jamming of sorts.
Infrastructures like roads, bridges and hydraulic engineering works exist since the beginning of human civilization. Yet, what we today understand as infrastructure – large interdependent complexes of socio-technical networks – is a much more recent phenomena that emerged out of techno-political developments in the 20th century. With electrification and digitalization, infrastructure became an all-important feature of technology. Today almost every technological device relies on infrastructural networks: a train needs rails, a hairdryer needs electricity and a smart phone needs the internet. Yet, if even if the contemporary conception of infrastructure is technology’s child, it had military and political midwifes. The NATO introduced the term “infrastructure” in the 1950s in an effort to harmonize the military facilities of its member countries. The new term reflected the increased importance of socio-technical networks in the first and second World Wars. With the rise of aerial warfare military planners started to develop the doctrine of strategic bombing. Strategic bombing targets industrial and infrastructural facilities deemed vital to the enemies’ war making capabilities. The conquest of airspace served as a precondition for this new strategy in two respects: Not only was it now feasible to systematically target the supply lines and industrial centers of the enemy without “setting foot” on foreign territory. The bird’s eye view from the aircraft also allowed to identify weak points in the enemies infrastructure and thus to specify the targets for strategic bombing.
The “bombsight eye” (Peter Galison) that brought infrastructures as interdependent web of vital functions into view soon turned out to also be a mirror. Military planners had to face their own implication in and dependence on vital infrastructures. One of the strategies to respond to this vulnerability was the establishment of military and government fallout shelters that introduced a new infrastructural utopia during the cold war. These bunkers were located at remote places yet equipped with information technologies visualizing what was going on outside on the computer screens within the bunker’s confines. Like a baroque monad the windowless bunker contained the whole world. The bunker embodied two contradictory objectives: it was connected to a vast information infrastructure, yet physically isolated from the vulnerable infrastructure of the rest of the homeland. The bunker was simultaneously in and off the grid. This ideal of connected isolation fosters the old phantasm of the panopticon: to see without being seen.
This detour to the cold war stresses the intricacies of infrastructural perspectivism. Infrastructures both presuppose and deploy politically and aesthetically charged regimes of visibility. The webs and networks that comprise an infrastructure require complex visual arrangements – the bird’s eye view from an aircraft, the geographical and systemic mapping of infrastructural relations – to become visible as an interdependent whole. “Infrastructure” is an effect of perspective. But infrastructure is equally productive of certain regimes of visibility. High modern urban planning – like Haussmann’s Paris – reorganized the city according to a grid structure that should help the police to monitor the street life. It is not a coincidence that this structure resembles the grid used in renaissance painting. Both serve as apparatuses of a centralized vision: be it that of the sovereign state or the sovereign painter subject.
Contemporary networked and fragmented infrastructures deploy different designs and regimes of visibility. With the proliferation of information networks and the becoming “smart” of conventional infrastructures we can situated ourselves “in the grid” in real time: The smart phone map tells me which street I’m walking on, the navigation system tells me where to make the next turn and I can even track my parcel on its way through complex logistical networks. In today’s regime of networked surveillance you are no longer merely tracked down by the state’s police: you are a self-tracker. Welcome to the democratic panopticon! Infrastructures are no longer the invisible substrates of the world but serve as machines of visibility. Think of the pictures of the “blue planet” from “outer space” that require a complex technological arrangement of satellites, space stations and life support systems. Think of climate and earth system science that is only able to apprehend our planet, its vulnerabilities and possible future trajectories because it can resort to the “infrastructural globalism” (Paul Edwards) of scientific networks. We need dispersed weather stations, data centers and scientific models to know the planet we inhabit. Nature is no longer and has never been the great outdoors “off the grid”, but is always already included in it. You can’t go back to nature unless there is a road that gets you there. Being in the world of today means being in the grid. Don’t get caught up in it like the poor fly! Move through it with ease like the graceful spider or at least be the grit in the grid’s gears.