The art of infrastructure
Location British Museum - Studio
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 11:00
Sessions 3


  • Pauline Destree (University of St Andrews) email
  • Hannah Knox (University College London) email

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Short abstract

This panel looks at the relationship between art and infrastructure, and the political possibilities opened up by their intersection.

Long abstract

The current ‘infrastructural turn’ in anthropology has cast fresh light on materiality, mediation, and mobility. Ethnographic attention to the social and cultural relationality of infrastructures – from information systems, to roads, to energy networks, (cf Star 1999) has expanded the definition of infrastructure away from the narrow confines of technical or functional concerns, to consider infrastructures as socio-material and political assemblages that enable the circulation of goods, services, knowledge, people, matter, energy and forces (cf Graham and Marvin 2001; Larkin 2013; Lockrem and Lugo 2012) and are thus firmly embedded in anthropological questions of materiality and representation.

This panel considers a call to study infrastructures as “aesthetic networks” involved in the circulation and production not just of people and things but also of images, illusions, desires, and in/visibilities (Larkin 2013). Infrastructures, as technologies of enchantment (Harvey and Knox 2012), provide a fertile ethnographic terrain for re-appraising anthropological theories of art concerned with representation, materiality, and agency. This panel explores what happens when infrastructure and art come together, exploring the artistic practices, performances, and artefacts that infrastructures make possible. What kinds of artistic formations emerge from an engagement with infrastructural networks? How does infrastructure, with its close relationship to design and architecture, inform creative practices?

In particular, this panel will explore the political possibilities opened up by a conversation between art and infrastructure. Do infrastructural publics (Collier et al. 2016) mark the emergence of new forms of political consciousness for art today? How do conceptualisations of infrastructure as a public good define a new civil contract (Azoulay 2008) for artistic practices? How do the visual, material and digital politics of infrastructure reconfigure art spaces, audiences and curatorial roles?

This panel welcomes ethnographic accounts of, and creative engagements with / through / about infrastructure, that speak to anthropological theories of materiality, agency, and the politics of representation.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Selfies of the State: The Aesthetics of Infrastructural Repair in Kampala

Author: Jacob Doherty (University of Pennsylvania) email

Short abstract

Visual self-representations of statecraft in Kampala, Uganda, focus on routine infrastructural repair, not spectacular visions of the city. They disclose the political logic of a novel mode of rule, maintenance space, being charted by Kampala's newly created and avowedly anti-political government.

Long abstract

Typically, infrastructures are either spectacular or invisible, but in contemporary Kampala, Uganda, the municipal government publicizes extremelybland images of infrastructural maintenance. Why? This paper examines the aesthetics of statecraft in Kampala to suggest that images of garbage trucks, paved roads, and trimmed hedges enchant via their mundanity, aspiring to assemble an urban public on the anti-political terrain of routine repair. Established in 2010, the Kampala Capital City Authority has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since, accused of being high-handed in its treatment of the city's informal sectors and anti-democratic in its very nature. The KCCA's aspirations are self-identified as anti-political, seeking to construct a clean and green Kampala by eradicating the populism and corruption of previous, elected, regimes. In this context, the municipality depicts itself as busy with the mundane and everyday work of infrastructural upkeep, making an explicit contrast with the aesthetics of the city they inherited. Images of garbage and waste management in particular have been central to establishing the legitimacy and political authority of this new mode of rule, theorized in this paper as 'maintenance space.' The municipality's representations of the city under-repair are selfies, performative representations of a new urban government in the making.

The Intimate Poetics of Large Dams and Settler Common Sense

Author: Michael Truscello (Mount Royal University) email

Short abstract

This paper is based on a forthcoming book from MIT Press, Infrastructural Brutalism. "Drowned town" fictions in American and Canadian literature often exhibit white settler nostalgia in the context of large dam construction, what Mark Rifkin calls nonnative quotidian "settler common sense."

Long abstract

This paper is based on a chapter from a forthcoming book from MIT Press, Infrastructural Brutalism: Art and the Necropolitics of Infrastructure. "Drowned town" fictions, a literary subgenre that portrays the deliberate flooding of towns and landscapes for the construction of hydroelectricity assemblages, in American literature from the most active period of the Tennessee Valley Authority (1930s to the 1970s) often exhibit white settler nostalgia in the context of large dam construction, perpetuating the performance of what Mark Rifkin calls nonnative quotidian "settler common sense." As in Rifkin's theory, the nostalgia of these settlers for a mythical landscape or agrarian culture before the flooding performs the reproduction of naturalizing "settler jurisdiction" and other quotidian modes of occupation without explicitly engaging with the dispossession of indigenous peoples. The aesthetics of settler common sense are essential to the socio-material assemblage of large dam hydropolitics, as they create a public more amenable to profound industrial projects. Large dam assemblages are notable for their temporality: as Christopher Sneddon describes this phenomenon, "large dams generate and hold together assemblages of geopolitical and technological networks—among others—that linger." Literature provides an ideal discourse for the encounter with these lingering networks of parastatal organizations, capitalist industries, symbolic registers, and river basin ecologies, precisely because literature need not respond to contemporary political or economic demands; literature can reveal overlapping temporalities, imaginative discourses, and material impacts, from micropolitical to macropolitical, that would otherwise be invisible to nearsighted political entities, profit-driven capitalist industries, or racist colonial violence.

Picturing the State. Political Representation, Infrastructure, and Visual Culture in Kuwait

Author: Laura Hindelang (Freie Universitaet Berlin) email

Short abstract

This paper analyses illustrations of infrastructures built during the 1950s on Kuwaiti postage stamps and paper money of the 1950s and 1960s as new political iconographies of an emerging petro-state, combining recent art historical and anthropological theories.

Long abstract

Following the argument that infrastructures can be ascribed a political function beyond or even irrespective of their technological functionality, I propose that their significance can be assessed based on their aesthetic (architectural) form or based on their negotiated representation in visual culture. As a case study, this paper analyses the first Kuwaiti postage stamps (1959) and first national paper money (1961), of which the majority displayed illustrations of infrastructural projects completed during the 1950s. Considering the project of decolonial nation building in Kuwait at the time, the paper discusses how political claims are expressed in visual representations of infrastructural projects on stamps and paper money, two elements often considered benchmarks of sovereignty and mobile carriers of political messages. Methodologically, I use an interdisciplinary approach combining art historical formal analysis of stamps and paper money in the tradition of a political iconography (Warnke 2010, Fleckner/Wagner/Ziegler 2011) with the theoretical framework of an anthropology of infrastructure. Thus, stamps, coins, and paper money are conceptualized as infrastructures themselves, objects that enabling the systemic movement of values and images. I will argue that the illustrations of infrastructures on these stamps and paper money became new political iconographies of the emerging petro-state of Kuwait. By being displayed on stamps and money that circulate in everyday life, these objects materialized a new infrastructure of the emerging state.

The Art of Postindustrial Infrastructure: Jerusalem's Railway Park

Author: Juliana Ochs Dweck (Princeton University) email

Short abstract

Examining artistic practices that have emerged out of a new postindustrial urban landscape in Jerusalem, this paper investigates infrastructure as both subject and effect of politically-engaged Israeli art.

Long abstract

This paper studies a postindustrial urban landscape in Jerusalem as an infrastructure created and sustained by artistic practices. In 2012, out of the Ottoman railway built in 1892 between Jerusalem and Jaffa, a new linear landscape emerged in Jerusalem. The highly-designed assemblage of site-specific plantings, railway remnants, and concrete boardwalk thick with pedestrian traffic overlays seven kilometers of original iron ties. Over the course of 100 years of Turkish, British, then Israeli rule, the railway functioned as a political border, an artifact of war, and vehicle for nation-building. Now, in this space where landscape architecture and planning politics mediate the postmodern citizenship of Israelis and Palestinians, the new urban bionetwork (of greenspace, water, transport, capital) is both an icon of Jerusalem's future and a microcosm of its tensions. Despite its municipal veneer, the new pathway was fueled by collaborative art 'happenings' and has been continuously reinterpreted by local artists. Through ethnographic case studies of three contemporary works of performance art and installation bound with Railway Park, this paper investigates the role that infrastructure plays in politically-engaged Israeli art—a fragile field newly riddled with the threat of Israeli state censorship of the arts. How is infrastructure both subject and effect of artistic practice within this contested landscape? At the intersection of art and infrastructure there emerges an aesthetic of temporality that not only creates a dialogue between nineteenth century modernity and 21st century postindustrial citizenship but also contributes to new political consciousness of the civic potentiality of materiality-beyond-landscape.

Large Dams as Affectively Charged Entities: The Art of Making the Nation

Author: Aybike Alkan (Koç University, Istanbul) email

Short abstract

This paper analyses how large dams in Turkey are infused with affect and how Occidentalism provided the basis for the mobilization of affect through particular designs and representations.

Long abstract

In addition to their technical abilities in terms of facilitating the movement of people and resources, infrastructures also mobilize ideas, symbols, and discourses through their aesthetic aspects. The aesthetic dimension of infrastructures makes them affectively charged entities and thereby constitutes an important part of their political effect (Larkin, 2013).

In the context of Turkey, the aesthetics of infrastructures are strongly tied to their enormous size. The right-wing tradition in Turkey aimed to mobilize the senses of pride and fascination through the largeness of infrastructures among which the dams have been the source of special interest. The height and number of dams have been transformed into a political erotic that has also spoken to the strength of the nation (Bora, 2016). During this transformation, the politicians and experts used "the west" as a reference point and introduced the dams in comparison to the "western" dams based on their largeness.

Therefore, the dams of Turkey epitomize the Occidentalism, "a fantasy of authenticity and sovereignty as nationalism, all through the performance of Western forms of modernity" (Ahıska, 2010:45).

In this paper, I focus on how Turkish State Hydraulic Works, the main technical institution responsible for the water infrastructures in Turkey, infuses the dams with affect when comparing them with the western infrastructures. I conduct an ethnographic analysis on social media accounts of the institution to show how dams are represented in visual and textual materials and how this representation tells about the decisions related to the design of dams in Turkey.

Fog harvesting as trapping: the art and infrastructure of fog capture in Peru

Author: Chakad Ojani (University of Manchester) email

Short abstract

In the face of inequality in access to water infrastructures, NGOs in Lima attempt to engage vulnerable communities in fog harvesting practices. By using the concept of the trap, this paper seeks to design an anthropological enquiry into the generative capacities of fog capture.

Long abstract

In the face of aridity and inequality in access to water infrastructures, NGOs in Peru attempt to engage vulnerable communities in fog harvesting practices. By using fog catchers to tap into a formerly overlooked water resource, people living in foggy areas are being made attentive to the abundance of water suspended in the air.

In this paper, I discuss what the concept of the trap might do for an ethnographic study of fog catchers in Lima. By suggesting that the trap links these practices to both art and infrastructure, I show how the framing of fog harvesting in terms of trapping serves to design a study that may generate insights into emergent forms of relationality, representation, as well as material and environmental engagement.

I make my case by accounting for the way in which anthropological interests in traps have shifted from a concern with human-animal relations to one with non-organic agency, description, and knowledge. While a concern with traps as carriers of human intentionality and interpretation might encourage us to treat them as artworks from which to abduct the agency or subjectivity of the trap-maker, recent attention to the productive capacities of traps have suggested that we extend the concept also to studies of how traps bring forth ontological and epistemological effects. Fog catchers might not only be dependent upon, but also be generative of ecological infrastructures and knowledges of the worlds that they entangle and relate to one another.

Infrastructure of inspiration: success and style in the production and distribution of mobile applications in Accra, Ghana.

Author: Tessa Pijnaker (University of Birmingham) email

Short abstract

Approaching infrastructure as style, this paper explores how Ghanaian technology entrepreneurs use the production and distribution of mobile applications to become successful in the globalized technology industry in Accra, Ghana.

Long abstract

Current anthropological research has approached infrastructures as the invisible enablers of the circulation of things, people and aesthetics (Star 1999, Larkin 2013). This paper explores how style, as a shared forming form, is reproduced through and shapes infrastructure, creating 'invisibility' (Meyer 2011, 2012). It zooms in on how Ghanaian technology entrepreneurs style themselves and their mobile applications to achieve success in the globalized technology industry in Accra, Ghana. Technology entrepreneurs are young middle-class Ghanaians who (aspire to) own their own technology company or work for one. Based on five months of ethnographic fieldwork, this paper will show that mobile applications, technology hubs and incubators and technology events are shaped by and shape a 'style of inspiration'. This style revolves around certain notions of what it means to be African and to have 'global' and 'inspirational' success. First, this paper explores how this style is mediated through the design and structure of technology hubs and incubators: places run by NGOs that offer Ghanaian technology entrepreneurs office space and funding, network and skill development opportunities. Second, it will pay attention to the styled infrastructure of technology events like hackathons and app challenges. At these events, often organized by NGOs and international corporations, technology entrepreneurs pitch their applications to an international jury. Last, this paper suggests that the way in which technology entrepreneurs shape themselves and their apps, illustrates the power dynamics between entrepreneurs and NGOs in Accra's technology industry.

Performing Infrastructure: A dialogue between Anthropology, Art and Activism

Authors: Hannah Knox (University College London) email
Britt Jurgensen email
Jonathan Atkinson email

Short abstract

This paper describes a collaborative research project involving an artist and activist and an anthropologist in order to reflect on the role of performance in making and transforming infrastructure.

Long abstract

In this presentation we explore the role of performance in bringing infrastructures into being. The presentation brings together three perspectives - that of an anthropologist, a performance artist and an activist. We begin with reflections from anthropology on the way in which infrastructures are sustained by the performative displays of experts and politicians through ceremonies, displays and rituals. We then describe how performance art can work to create an opening for alternative stories about infrastructure to be told, with potentially transformative effects. Finally we present a project which the three of us have been involved in that has been using creative processes to intervene in a proposal to transform electricity provision in the city region of Greater Manchester. We describe how techniques of mapping, walking and pre-figuration have created opportunities for intervention, and reflect on the capacity of art practice to transform speculative futures into concrete realities.

Infrastructural crisis in Accra's contemporary art

Author: Pauline Destree (University of St Andrews) email

Short abstract

Contemporary art in Accra invokes a particular infrastructural imagination that speaks to political shortcomings, as well as developing around parallel spaces that supplant, complement, and challenge the infrastructural deficits of the city.

Long abstract

In this paper, I explore the political relation between infrastructure and contemporary art through the work of three Ghanaian artists: Ibrahim Mahama's public and monumental coal sack sculptures, Jeremiah Quarshie's "Yellow is the colour of water" painting series, and Serge Attukwei Clottey's concept of 'Afrogallonism'. In their work, infrastructure doesn't simply become the image content of artworks, but its catalyser, asking us to rethink the urban publics of artistic creation and curation. Based on 15 months of ethnographic research in Accra on the electricity crisis and encounters with artists whose work speaks directly to various infrastructural issues, this paper explores the relation between artistic production, crisis and infrastructural forms, prompted by sculptor Ibrahim Mahama's declaration that in Ghana, "Art is born out of crisis". It analyses what satirist Bright Ackwerh calls "violent knowledge" - the realization that crisis, as a trend, in its altered relation to the real and the banality and everydayness of its violence, forces one into comical urgency and political address. It explores the "parallelism" of art and infrastructure in Ghana today, as material domains that frequently interchange and supplement one another in the context of a state deficit in the delivery of basic needs and a lack of investment in cultural capital and accessible institutions.

Creativity, infrastructure and critique in Dakar

Author: Branwyn Poleykett (University of Exeter ) email

Short abstract

Artistic production in Dakar is distinctively entangled with infrastructural critique. This paper examines artistic practice in the context of intersecting verbal and visual genres of denunciation.

Long abstract

Artistic production in Dakar is distinctively entangled with infrastructural critique. From the popular ecology movement 'Set Setal', which blended cleaning and purging of the urban environment with projects of aesthetic embellishment to contemporary photographers who document the city exhaustively for social media audiences, the city's material excesses and infrastructural failures have consistently inspired creative and aesthetic engagement. Drawing upon ethnographic work with Senegalese artists and a close reading of Laboratoire Agit'Art's 2017 installation 'Dakar: Ville Anarchitecturale', this paper examines this social practice in the context of verbal and visual genres of denunciation.

Infrastructural Bricolage: politics and the absence of arts infrastructure

Author: Evangelos Chrysagis (University of Edinburgh) email

Short abstract

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork on DiY music and art practices, and consultancy work on culture and development, this paper conceives of arts infrastructure, and lack thereof, as a form of bricolage by exploring the political configurations and modes of ethnographic representation it enables.

Long abstract

This paper considers the political salience of infrastructures in art practices. In doing so, it engages in cross-cultural examination of physical and intangible infrastructural networks through the juxtaposition of a consultancy project on culture and development, and ethnographic fieldwork on Do-it-Yourself (DiY) music and art practices in Glasgow, UK.

Based on anthropological research on DiY and how the ethnographic record has represented the nexus between art, infrastructure and development, what seems to pervade the complex interrelationship between art practice and infrastructure is creative improvisation (Hallam and Ingold 2009), an unfinishedness (Biehl and Locke 2017) that enacts diverse artistic possibilities and associated processes of political subject-formation. This is especially true in development contexts as well as 'DiY culture' (McKay 1998), where the lack of physical infrastructure and resources has political resonance and usually encourages the constitution of novel socio-material frameworks that sustain artistic practices. Such formations can be perceived as 'infrastructural bricolage': put together from a limited amount of material resources and not necessarily defined in terms of a project but by its potential use (Lévi-Strauss 1966).

The notion of infrastructural bricolage underscores the absence of arts infrastructure, thus exemplifying creativity as a process of 'making do' through the deployment of various 'tactics' (de Certeau 1984). What forms of political subjectivity does the lack of arts infrastructure make possible? Conversely, what are the implications when arts infrastructure is provided and managed by national or international cultural organisations?

Bringing publics into existence: plans, contestation and urban governance in Beirut

Author: Alice Stefanelli (Durham University) email

Short abstract

This paper examines the role of urban plans as visual and political artefacts that might help bringing infrastructural publics into existence, through the ethnographic example of architects-turned-campaigners in Beirut, Lebanon.

Long abstract

This paper examines contestation to state-led urban redevelopment in Beirut, Lebanon, accepting Collier et al.'s (2016) invitation to look at the interplay between the manner in which infrastructure is planned and constructed and the manner in which publics are gathered, particularly in relation to the promotion of specific kinds of public interest.

It does so by exploring ethnographically the case of a group of local architects-turned-civic campaigners who have been successfully opposing the construction of a highway bridge through an historical neighbourhood by proposing the realisation of a public park on the same site.

Starting from the premise that if planning is a promise (Abram and Weszkalnys 2013), plans as artefacts are the visual and material representation of the political project that lies behind that infrastructural promise, this contribution focuses on plans and other visuals that campaigners have produced for promotional material and public exhibitions to support their cause.

Here, plans themselves reveal an alternative political vision that is disseminated through those images and that, it is promised, could exist in place of the plans promoted by authorities.

The paper thus argues that plans are primary techno-political artefacts through which campaigners in Beirut materialise and communicate their alternative political vision to larger civic publics, and which extends their reach, or agency, to them (Venkatesan 2009). Ultimately, these plans emerge as the primary vehicle through which a small, professional public that has 'chose to be united' (campaigners) attempts to 'call into being' a larger infrastructural public of citizens.

Ironic Infrastructures: Roadsides and the Aesthetics of Laughter

Author: Silke Oldenburg (University of Basel) email

Short abstract

Taking up the panel's call to study infrastructures as "aesthetic networks", I aim at depicting Eastern Congo's roads as a socio-political, economic and artistic mosaic of potentialities by having a closer look on practices of humour.

Long abstract

As infrastructures are the constitutive fabric of both cities (and non-cities), they enable exchanges of knowledge, resources, practices, and people. Zooming into questions of urban infrastructure in DR Congo, where state administration has retreated from much of the public domain, allows for studying the intimate relation between the politics and aesthetics of infrastructures. Goma, the provincial capital of the North Kivu province has not only been shaped by protracted violent conflict but also by the eruption of a volcano in 2002. These man-made and natural events made roads in the lived experience of Goma's population "objects of both fascination and terror" (Masquelier 2002). From temporary roadblocks to military parades through the city, from popular protest to flight, they offer a useful starting point for the exploration of current and locally specific socio-political conditions of inclusion and exclusion while being related to infrastructural governance at the same time.

There is a lot of everyday talk about the state of "art" of Goma's roadsides. In my talk I want to illustrate one particular artistic formation that is humour. As a social commentary and critique it stipulates processes of political reflection about the visible and invisible dimensions of the urban context. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Goma since 2008 and by the concrete example of one local comedian, I highlight different forms of using the road artistically which, I argue, generate a mosaic of potentialities of contesting urban government, providing amusement and raising economic opportunities for the comedian himself.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.