The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Fiona Shipwright: In your current exhibition, Reconnaissance, you’ve made use of lenticular printing to create work that shows the “gap” that can exist between networked objects and our experiences of them, in this case the before and after satellite views of sites such as data centers and server farms, which for many years were obscured from view via deliberate Google Maps “glitches,” an approach present in much of work: making visible gaps that reveal certain glitches, which in turn reveal what is actually happening.
Seen straight on, the lenticular images almost look like glitches in themselves and remind me of a quote by the German dramatist, Heiner Muller: “…the only hope is in error because when all the technological systems work—we are lost.” Can you talk a little about working with and within that gap?
Ingrid Burrington: That’s a great quote. A lot of my work over the past couple of years has been looking at layers of physical infrastructure systems. A common phrase often applied to that kind of thing is that it’s stuff “you only notice when it breaks.” Once something stops working you start to better understand who it works for, or in certain situations what working even means. That’s a big part of how I think through making things in general.
Ingrid Burrington, Stennis Space Station (30.386088, -89.628402), 2015, lenticular print, 100 x 100 cm
FS: The Reconnaissance works employ the top down, bird’s eye or “god” view; once a much longed for “magical” perspective, now the mundane, standard view we use to plot our everydays. Over the past couple of years some of your work has explicitly referenced magic—such as the project you presented with Meredith Whittaker as part of Seven on Seven, The Realm of Rough Telepathy. What is its appeal as a tool?
IB: There's a long history of technology being rhetorically intertwined with magic—it shows up in technical jargon and product names, people lionize programmers as wizards and ninjas, that sort of thing. But everyone has their own points of reference for and their own definitions of magic, which means that when you start to talk to people about technology and magic in the same context, there's a bit of a personal stake put into it. It's done with a bit of ambivalence. Pushing technical jargon to a magic extreme (like in the Seven on Seven project) is a way of demonstrating how arcane and myopic communities around things like internet standards and core infrastructure can be, but it also is an attempt to translate what sounds like really dry, boring technical arguments into a language that gives it higher stakes. Magic becomes sort of a translation tool for conveying both the significance of seemingly mundane things and for poking fun at the self-importance that puffs up around some of those mundane things.
It’s also kind of interesting to see how magic becomes mundane? Understanding how things become quotidian is a good way to think about how future systems work. I saw Nick Foster, a designer with Near Future Laboratory, give a talk in which he was talking about the history of lighters and how when they were invented it was this insane idea: you literally have a button in your pocket that you press to make fire! It was this thing that human civilization had taken centuries to achieve but now you buy them for less than a dollar at a corner store. He was saying that a good way to think about the future of a technology is by trying to imagine what it will look like when it’s really cheap and no one cares about it. That’s also a good way to think about how that technology might come to betray you or how can it can be manipulated. When things become ubiquitous they become a lot more powerful.
This is something I’ve been thinking a lot in relation to history of technology. I went to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California earlier this year and was really struck by the fact that they have almost nothing about manufacturing. There are a lot of individual examples like the first computer, a piece of the SAGE system… But the thing that makes the personal computer powerful isn’t just that being able pack a lot of things in a tiny box; it’s that you can make a million of them.
Ingrid Burrington and Meredith Whittaker, Realm of Rough Telepathy (2016)
FS: You often work with fragments as means of addressing what appears to be the insurmountable totality of networks, for example your project 1,033 Objects, an online tool that pulls up a random selection of 1033 items distributed through the Pentagon's controversial 1033 program, a pile of objects you once described as “the exhaust of the War on Terror”. Was this work a way of apprehending the potency of this program, which might otherwise be flattened by the totality of the whole catalogue?
IB: A lot of the things I work with are “hidden in plain sight.” Sometimes it’s a matter of taking those things and finding a new framing for them. The 1033 data had been mostly put in the service of public interest, as part of journalistic sort of project akin to “see what your police department got,” a browsing interface for identifying specific concerns you would have in your particular area—which is a totally worthy pursuit—but what I was interested in was trying to represent it in such a way that you could get your head around the scale of the thing.
The choice of 1033 as number is obviously cheeky and specific but it’s trying to show you something in such a way that you get just a glimpse of this really large thing, if you try to take on the whole totality of the thing you might actually miss the point. It reminds of the standard crime drama cliché of the “wall of evidence” for tracking down a serial killer—but no one ever looks at that and thinks, “I’ve got it! Now the puzzle is complete!” In reality it’s a process of working through all the bits and staring long enough at something until it makes sense. Which is maybe how I work through a lot of things.
I also think there’s something to be said for understanding the costs of warfare in terms of the really mundane stuff. Because some of it is really boring stuff, like…shirts. There are a lot of rifles and things you actually should be very worried about but then there’s a lot of this other kind of…stuff. That’s why the “exhaust” description seemed appropriate. I remember after Hurricane Sandy, in a lot of the donation centres there would be these huge piles of “stuff,” more stuff than anyone really needed; it was this weird fallout or remainder of a disaster or a catastrophe. The War on Terror was a different kind of catastrophe, but it similarly required a surplus of stuff.
Ingrid Burrington, 1,033 Objects (2014)
FS: Your work deals with both the manifestation and perception of infrastructure, typically the concern of geographers, engineers, and urbanists. Often art that address infrastructure is about documenting its effects, Edward Burtansky style, whereas your work seems to be more about process. Rather than just pointing out infrastructure, is it your intention that the viewer joins up the dots themselves?
IB: Putting things in a larger context is definitely part of it. One of my big reference points for thinking about artists looking at infrastructure is Robert Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic. I remember seeing it when I was an undergrad and realising, “oh okay, you can just do that.” Which, sure, you can just do that if you’re Robert Smithson and you’re a man and it’s the late 1960s, but more broadly it was realising the ways in which can see a system differently when you start to incorporate it into a language or a context that seems wholly inappropriate in a way. It’s a useful trick, something that Smithson did very well and that particular essay is like a standard for it: “I went to a weird place and I didn’t understand what I saw and then I wrote about it.” He nails it.
In terms of thinking about the shift from the “here’s a thing” framing, I think it’s the result of the increase in obscurity of the infrastructures that make everyday life possible in the Western world. Sometimes I think that one of the reasons that people were very interested in the Networks of New York field guide and the premise of being able to “see” the internet on the street wasn’t necessarily because they were all that interested in the street, but because of an anxiety that there is nothing to hold in relation to how we live with technology. This feeling of “I don’t know what Facebook’s doing, I don’t know what Google’s really doing, I don’t particularly feel that I can just trust these systems and there’s nothing tangible to connect back to or point at.” That’s something James Bridle has said a lot, that “we need to things to point at!” because the network isn’t some massive abstraction that can only be comprehended by wizards—these are objects, these are systems, and there are human beings who are responsible for these objects and systems.
Ingrid Burrington, pages from Networks of New York (Melville House, 2016)
FS: I understand you have a fascination with what you’ve termed the “Eye of Sauron” genre of clip art and the stock photo imagery of “computers in clouds” that tends to accompany reporting on those very objects and systems. What’s your interest in these “placeholders”?
IB: I really started paying attention to that particular aesthetic when a lot of the Snowden stories started dropping because not only were the news reports using the bad clip art but also these images of “guys staring at a screen” where it’s always dark and the lights are always green. The failure of a lot of that imagery is partly the fact that you’re dealing with a really large abstract thing. So asking the internet, “show me clip art of capitalism! Or globalization, as a whole!” isn’t going to work—it’s always going to over simplify. Pointing at a data center is also a bit of an over simplification. My bigger concern has less to do with the simplifying, and more with the ways in which such imagery can make things seem intimidating to the point of disinterest. There’s a danger of ending up with a monolithic placeholder that indicates either “this not for you to understand” or “this impossible to comprehend.” This sort of “infrastructural sublime” aesthetics ends up working in a similar way and, the satellite vantage point definitely lends itself to. I think it’s worth sitting in the tension of it.
FS: In a catalogue conversation with Charlie Loyd (a satellite imagery specialist and engineer working for Mapbox, an open source mapping company) you allude this notion of “collapsed histories” and the assumed causality of events that satellite imagery can engender now that we have decades’ worth of it. You’re talking about the documentation of physical landscapes but doesn’t this also apply to our lives as recorded in the digital landscape?
IB: When considering the causality of histories in a digital landscape I would be more inclined to think about interfaces and the historical occasions that relate to that. Facebook itself did not facilitate the Arab Spring and Facebook could not have foreseen the possibility that anyone would use its platform as a tool. This after all was something made by a white guy to judge women. The same can be said for a lot of other social media platforms—their intended uses have been subverted in many cases. There’s a relation between this and the assumption of a line of logical progression in technology history. The decision for the world to be increasingly glommed into Facebook is not a logical next step of evolution of the internet; it’s a thing that has happened as result of a lot of other contingencies but it’s not a landscape that is shaped according to a particular destiny.
Location: New York City
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology: I guess 2009? That’s when I finished undergrad, but I started working with technology more as a means to an end—I didn’t set out to do it. I’m not one of those artists who can say, “here’s a photo of me using Visual Basic when I was five!” I grew up in Silicon Valley but my parents didn’t work in tech. That didn’t mean that I wasn’t exposed to it from an early age, it’s just that I didn’t have a rapturous relationship with it. Around 2009 I had a project I wanted to do, which involved scripting a website. I didn’t know how to do it, so I had to figure out how to do it.
Where did you go to school and what did you study? I went to the Maryland Institute College of Art, which is a medium-sized art college in Baltimore and my undergrad degree is in printmaking.
What do you do for a living/what occupations have you held previously? The main thing I do to make money is writing. In terms of institutional support, I’m currently an artist in residence at a think tank called the Data and Society Research Institute, which is based in New York. Every couple of months the self-published version of my book will get a handful of orders and that’s a nice tiny way to pay the bills.
What does your desktop/worktop look like?
Header image: Ingrid Burrington, Submarine Cable Taps (2014)