Typology of Topologies (+ Hearing and Smelling Infrastructure) (2016)

In February 2016 I joined Tyler Coburn, Ian Hatcher, Nicole Starosielski, and Lance Wakeling on an excellent panel at the Pratt Upload conference. We talked about “infrastructural aesthetics.” Here’s Tyler’s provocative prompt:

In the recent past, we’ve seen art projects exploring sophisticated (often covert) systems, from military black sites to the electromagnetic signals that suffuse our everyday life. While their subjects vary, these works speak to a broader concern with contemporary “infrastructure”—a term, geographers Steven Graham and Simon Marvin note, that doesn’t just describe what “runs ‘underneath’ actual structures,” but the “multiple, overlapping and perhaps contradictory infrastructural arrangements” of politics, technology and economy. “Infrastructure” here departs from its conventional definition, becoming a relational field that various agents can potentially influence. The neologism “Infrastructural Aesthetics” is a prompt to consider the artist’s position within this field and the strategies available to her. How, for example, can art engage with systems that rarely have singular forms, but concatenate physical, immaterial and asignifying processes? Is the efficacy of representation thrown into question, and what forms of artistic practice might better speak to our imbrication in contemporary infrastructure? Finally, can art play a role in fostering literacy about this subject, to greater political effect?

I focused primarily on the “typology of topologies” — maps, diagrams, field guides, etc. — we’ve constructed to make sense of infrastructure, to aestheticize it and render it sensible. I then talk about the limits of representation and propose two other affective, process-oriented, aesthetic means of engagement: listening to and smelling infrastructure. Here‘s my talk.