What lies beneath

Webchat: Emma Charles and Sarah Williams discuss unseen infrastructures and the Anthropocene

Emma Charles is a London based artist. She presents her photo series The Straightest Path Allowed by Law, an exploration into the relationship between trading routes and the phenomenon of the American landscape. In 2010, the Allegheny mountain region of Pennsylvania was drilled through to make way for a private fibre-optic cable line, constructed to speed up high-frequency trading times between New York and Chicago by a matter of milliseconds. Tracing this route along small paved roads, bridges and railroads, Charles examines what it represents as a topographic survey of economics, uncovering the invisible presence of financial markets in a seemingly vernacular landscape.

Activating the digital side of the exhibition, she participated in an online conversation with Sarah Williams, gallery manager and curator at Jerwood Visual Arts, London. Streamed live at the ICA Studio on 24th July at 11am GMT, we now present it online and unedited.


Emma Charles: Hello!

Sarah Williams: Hi Emma!

SW: This conversation extends from the thematic of the fig-2 POSTmatter exhibition, an investigation into the environment and digital landscape, you are one of five exhibiting artists.

anxSW: We have previously worked together on an exhibition at Jerwood Space titled ‘Surfaces of Exchange’ and this seemed like a good place to start a conversation.

EC: I think so

SW: In your work you document the unseen physical manifestation of digital culture – the wires, cables and servers that allow us as individuals to stay connected, the architectural spaces that house these, the hidden workings behind digital activity for example the work in the ‘Surface of Exchange’ exhibition shows images of the London Internet Exchange.


You document the unseen physical manifestation of digital culture – the wires, cables and servers that allow us as individuals to stay connected, the architectural spaces that house these, the hidden workings behind digital activity


EC: Yes, both 'Surfaces of Exchange' and video work 'Fragments on Machines' explore the physical world of an infrastructure that is often thought about as existing nowhere, or in the ether...

EC: But with both works what I was specifically drawn to was their location in relation to economics and finance

EC: These spaces often constructed not to far from financial districts

SW: And the title of your film ‘Fragments on Machines’ references Karl Marx’s concept of general intellect. Can you talk a bit about this reference point?

EC: When making this film my research at the time was very much concerned with the relationship between productivity and labour

EC: And I was interested in how these buildings which were built in the early 20th century for heavy manufacturing where now the homes to post industrial finance capital in which minimal physical labour and maximum productivity is paramount

EC: Marx discusses this relationship between materiality and labour in his writing 'the fragment on machines'

EC: So I used this idea as a loose starting point

EC: And as a structure for the video work I also broke it up into three fragments or chapters

SW: These ideas reflect in your images, which uncover the little seen world of a server storage at the Verizon building in New York. You reveal architecture and infrastructures that appear stark, cold and mechanical and there is a distinct lack of human presence. In one of the sections titled ‘FLOOD’ shows damage to servers caused by flooding and in a sense highlights our reliance on connectivity and technology is incredibly vulnerable to the natural elements – weather, natural disaster.

SW: Here is a link to the film: https://vimeo.com/68769316

SW: The commentary brings out a kind of anxiety around technology and was influenced by an interview you conducted with Mitchell Moss, Professor of Urban Policy and Planning, and Director of the Rudin Center for Transportation New York

SW: Can you talk a bit about how you constructed this element of the film?

EC: The narration that accompanies the imagery was at its basis  and piece of fiction

EC: Drawing on interviews such as the one you mentioned with Mitchell Moss and general themes I had been thinking about- I collaborated with writers Jen Calleja and Richard Phoenix to almost respond to these themes

EC: And the structure of the writing was fragmented in such a way that it could be chopped up while making the video edit

SW: These themes continue in your work in the current Fig-2 exhibition titled ‘The Straightest Path by Law’ which looks at the impact of trading routes on the landscape and comprises a mixed media installation of images taken in the Alleghemy mountain region of Pennsylvania along the New York to Chicago trade route. Fibre optic cables were routed through the mountain range to create a new network that would speed up high-frequency trading times by a matter of milliseconds and yet has had a huge impact on the physical landscape.

EC: I was interested in bringing in elements of science fiction

SW: There is certainly a sci-fi feel to the commentary which looks to a future of inhabiting technology with the self

SW: Ah!

EC: Yes, on the subject of the new photographic series, the real impetus for making this work was that I had read a lot about these fibre optic lines in which data travels at the speed of light

EC: But I couldn't visualise it, and so I set out on a kind of blind journey to document this landscape


The real impetus for making this work was that I had read a lot about these fibre optic lines in which data travels at the speed of light


SW: Can you describe what you found and whether it was what you expected?

EC: I think the element that stuck out for me the subtlety of this particular construction

EC: It is all underground, the wires not needing to be more than a few inches wide

EC: The only signifiers or markers being the small white and orange polls every few hundred meters

SW: Am I right in thinking the building of this line took place in secret?

EC: And when passing through the largely rural towns, the local community largely had no idea about what running beneath

EC: Yes it was all top secret in order for competitors not to catch on

EC: The company that constructed the line are called Spread Networks

SW: I read somewhere that there is a rumour that another line is being planned that will go further underground

EC: Ironically not long after the line was completed, firms has already moved ion to a much faster solution which was using microwave signals instead of fibre

EC: Oh I don't know about that one :)

SW: The internet is full of rumour :-)

EC: It's endless

EC: Coming back to your comment about the self...

EC: Another element of this new work which is not exhibited at fig-2 was a piece of creative writing which explores my own personal journey to find this line

EC: And ideas of anxiety and apprehension towards time and speed are very much present here

EC: Trying to make sense of a world which is not visible

SW: Anxieties around technology largely stem from the unknown - for example when Google revealed images of its vast server farms in 2012 there was an element of awe and also an element of panic around storage of personal data etc


Anxieties around technology largely stem from the unknown - for example when Google revealed images of its vast server farms in 2012 there was an element of awe and also an element of panic around storage of personal data etc


SW: Developments like the ‘internet of things’ where everyday smart objects feedback information to the ‘cloud’ will become more and more commonplace but in a way  the potential for this technology is a terrifying thought

EC: Yes and even the idea of companies constantly striving for zero latency in there service for high frequency trading firms  I think reflects a global contemporary condition of always needing to bring in the instant

EC: Ie. Live web chats at the ICA!

SW: Ha!

SW: Before we finish Emma, I’d be keen to hear more about your creative writing projects and what are you currently working on?

EC: Yes it is kind of love thinking about the vastness of space which always makes me feel like my brain is going to implode

EC: ...if I think about it too much

SW: The ‘digital landscape’

EC: The creative writing was something I had not done before

EC: But I felt that I wanted to explore the personal journey through this landscape which resulted in a written text but actually for the exhibition at South Kiosk gallery where the project was first show it became a sound piece

EC: I am currently working a a new moving image work in 16mm which is based in Sweden

EC: This film will be much more of a move into science fiction

SW: It sounds intriguing!

EC: But an area of research I am fascinated by is this concept of the 'Anthropocene '

EC: It's a name scientist and geologist have given to our current geological time in which humans have become the most important influence on earths biological, geological and atmospheric processes.

EC: So this of course includes data networks

SW: I am looking forward to seeing how this project manifests!

SW: Thanks Emma for such a good discussion. I look forward to seeing you in person (offline) soon!

EC: Thanks Sarah!

EC: Great to have such a public chat :)


Sarah Williams is a curator, writer, artist and is currently Head of Programme at Jerwood Visual Arts. The Straightest Path by Law by Emma Charles is presented as part of the POSTmatter x fig-2 exhibition, on display at ICA Studio, London, until 26th July 2015.

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