Since at least the nineteenth century, artists have observed changing processes of communication, manufacturing, and transport, sometimes registering the impact of these changes on the natural world, as well as on human social and cultural life. My research on art and infrastructure, however, deals specifically with developments after the late 1950s, and seeks to reconsider histories of Land art, Minimalism, cybernetics, institutional critique, relational aesthetics, and post-internet art from an explicitly infrastructural vantage point. 

In the course of this research, I have identified three intersecting currents or tendencies. The first current centres on ‘infrastructure-as-object’ and gives rise (in curating as well as art practice) to an overt focus on the physical remnants of outdated infrastructures, particularly those associated with communications, manufacturing, or transport. The second tendency, which centres on infrastructure-as-process, privileges the social, political, and organisational aspects of communications, manufacturing, and transport, and is more likely  to involve interactions with functional (or quasi-functional) facilities, services, and systems. The third tendency, which I have termed ‘becoming-infrastructural’, is of most interest to me. Diachronic in form, it emphasises developments over time that are articulated, materialised, and preserved in and through art objects and processes, and involves an orientation towards the future, as well as a consciousness of the past. To become infrastructural is to also recognise, and reflect upon, the ways in which artists (and others) are constituted as infrastructure, and to consider how human experience might somehow be imagined from the vantage point of infrastructure.

Art’s potential to articulate, materialise, and historicise infrastructural change is important precisely because, while infrastructure is both essential and ubiquitous, it tends to be ignored or overlooked until the point at which it fails or becomes obsolete. According to historian Paul N. Edwards, ‘The word “infrastructure” originated in military parlance, referring to fixed facilities such as air bases.’ He continues, ‘The American Heritage Dictionary defines the term as (1) “an underlying base or foundation, especially for an organization or a system,” and (2) “the basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society, such as transportation and communications systems, water and power lines, and public institutions including schools, post offices, and prisons.”’ [1] In this model, the material and social dimensions of infrastructure are actually impossible to pull apart, and the infrastructural is simply so pervasive and ubiquitous that its multiple forms and operations are taken for granted, right up to the moment of their collapse. 

When infrastructure fails or becomes obsolete, it can sometimes become more visible ‘as object’ than ‘as process’. Sudden and spectacular failures of physical infrastructure – such as collapsing bridges, falling airplanes, overturned ships – figure very prominently in disaster films, for example. Obsolete remnants of infrastructure-as-object also acquire a less spectacular (but perhaps more enduring) monumental visibility as they are put to new uses in urban design and forms of place-making intended to support investment, employment, and tourism. Hence, large fragments of obscure loading and transport machinery are very often preserved in the waterside streetscapes of former dockland districts, while huge chimney stacks are commonly retained as landmarks. Similarly, it is not unusual to find abandoned airports, post offices, or train stations being used as temporary spaces of display and entertainment in art biennials and cultural festivals.

The history of contemporary art has also been marked by a fascination with infrastructure-as-object and the coming of the freeway gave rise to new experiences of objecthood during the 1950s and 1960s. Michael Fried’s hugely influential ‘Art and Objecthood’ reads ‘literalist’ (or Minimalist) art as symptomatic of an altered relation between art and the beholder, in which the art object must compete for attention with infrastructure, citing artist and architect Tony Smith’s recollections of travelling with his students at night on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. [2] While Fried’s text does not directly address the relationship between art and infrastructure, he tacitly acknowledges the artist’s role in mediating and materialising the experience of infrastructural change. The freeway itself also exemplifies the complex entanglement of infrastructure-as-object and infrastructure-as-process, since it is both a massive physical object and a standardised, regulated system for the circulation of bodies, matter, and information. [3]

If Minimalist artists tended to engage with infrastructure primarily as object, then many other artistic practices emerging in the 1960s focused directly on infrastructure as process, while also attending to its material and embodied forms. An engagement with infrastructure as process is evident, for example, in numerous projects by artists associated with the Artist Placement Group (APG), several of whom undertook ‘placements’ within communication or transport organisations. [4] Other relevant works include FOOD (1971–74), the New York restaurant co-founded by Gordon Matta-Clark, Tina Girouard, and Carol Goodden, and Touch Sanitation (1979–80), a year-long performance by Mierle Laderman Ukeles in response to the work of the New York Department of Sanitation. FOOD was created as a support for artists, providing a place for them to work and eat, so it was intended to stand in for an absent (or failing) infrastructure. Touch Sanitation, in contrast, proposed to radically alter the cultural status of an existing and fully functional infrastructure, dedicated to waste management. This project developed from a series of earlier works by Ukeles in which she publicly performed ‘maintenance’ tasks, such as sweeping and cleaning the entrance to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. [5] In Touch Sanitation she acknowledged the infrastructure labour of others, producing a series of photographic portraits that documented her shaking the hands of individual sanitation workers. 

Artists have continued to work with infrastructure-as-process, but often in ways that reveal the entanglement of object and process. [6] These projects have generally been framed as contributions to the social architecture of the art museum, but since they frequently take the form of material objects they can be integrated into the economy of the art market to a greater extent than performances (such as Touch Sanitation) or material-based projects realised outside the physical setting of the gallery or museum. [7] But the 1990s also witnessed a resurgence of discursive and performative approaches to the museum as social architecture, including critical responses to changing institutional infrastructure. In 1994, artist Andrea Fraser and curator Helmut Draxler established Services, described as a ‘working group’, [8] to analyse the changing conditions for artistic labour and production in the emergent project-based cultural economy. In a series of discussions and an exhibition project with contributions from Hans Haacke, Mark Dion, Group Material, Louise Lawler, and Julia Scher, among others, Fraser and Draxler suggested that artists were increasingly required to taken on quasi-infrastructural or ‘service’ roles.

This brings me to the third current, which I have termed ‘becoming-infrastructural’. I use this term to describe practices that are historically informed and self-reflexive in their exploration of infrastructural form, which respond critically to the changing demands placed upon workers in the project-based cultural economy. One of my key points of reference in conceptualising this mode of practice, and its dual orientation towards past and future, is Support Structure (2003–9), a research collaboration between architect and artist Céline Condorelli and artist-curator Gavin Wade. [9] Encompassing many different activities, this collaboration culminated in the publication of a manual/reader (Support Structures, edited by Condorelli) and the founding of Eastside Projects, the Birmingham-based artist-run organisation directed by Wade. Condorelli’s own exhibition practice also exemplifies many of the characteristics of becoming-infrastructural. Her 2014 exhibition in the Chisenhale Gallery focused on friendship as a condition for working together, and (in addition to many other elements) included a subtle intervention into the everyday institutional operations of the gallery. For the duration of the exhibition, the doors to the gallery and the office were propped open, using wooden blocks repurposed from the building’s roof, redirecting air and sound, and attention, from the gallery towards less publicly accessible office spaces, housing the ongoing work of managing, producing, and supporting the gallery’s programme (past, present, and future). [10]

A dual orientation – towards past and future – is equally manifest in the work of Andrea Zittel. Since the early 1990s, Zittel’s practice has been concerned with the material, social, and organisational resources needed to sustain life (both human and nonhuman). Although she regularly makes habitat-like objects for display within galleries, she does not seek to investigate or alter the social architecture of the museum. Her exhibitions tend instead to function as displays of structures that have been produced to sustain remote living, in several senses, and her art objects form part of an economy of practice that includes collaborative non-profit initiatives such as the High Desert Test Sites, based primarily in Joshua Tree, California. Zittel’s practice is clearly informed by a knowledge of the specific cultural history of post-war mobility in the United States, as well as histories of Minimalism and Land art, yet in keeping with the logic of becoming-infrastructural, she is also focused on things to come, continually exploring and testing strategies for environmentally sustainable remote living.

For me, the quality of becoming-infrastructural is manifest in Zittel’s practice as a whole, rather than in any one individual work. But other artists have, on occasion, produced specific works that seem to articulate this dual orientation towards past and future. Trevor Paglen’s Autonomy Cube (2014), a collaboration with technology activist Jacob Appelbaum, incorporates several internet-connected computers and it functions as an open Wi-Fi hotspot whenever it is installed. The mode of connection is unconventional, particularly for a publicly funded institution, because Autonomy Cube routes traffic over the volunteer-run Tor network, associated (in part) with activist critiques of corporate and government surveillance. In this work, Paglen and Appelbaum offer a service that emphasises anonymity, devoid of the institutional branding and mediation that tends to accompany the ‘free’ Wi-Fi access provided by art institutions. Through both its title and form, Paglen and Appelbaum’s work clearly references Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963–65), a canonical example of cybernetic art. Devised for exhibition within a museum context, Haacke’s Plexiglas cube contains water that turns to vapour, condensing into droplets, in response to environmental changes such as heating, lighting, and the proximity of bodies. Both ‘cubes’ can clearly be described as functional. But while Condensation Cube was devised to manifest the organisational and material interdependency of artwork and art institution, Paglen and Appelbaum’s project is more focused on the visitor as a service ‘user’, who is addressed and constituted as a node in a networked system that extends well beyond the physical boundaries of the museum.  

Becoming-infrastructural as an artist necessitates engaging directly with histories of art and cultural production, as they intersect with forces and processes of infrastructural change, and may involve thinking about strategies of refusal and withdrawal as well as adaptation. In her film The Invisible Limb (2014), Sarah Browne enacts an imagined dialogue with deceased German artist Charlotte Posenenske, known both for her embrace of mass-production techniques and her later rejection of art practice to pursue sociological research on factory-work conditions. Browne contrasts this truncated artistic trajectory with the path followed by an Irish artist of the same generation, placing documentation of Posenenske’s objects (being manipulated by overall-clad performers) in dialogue with semi-staged footage of the Irish sculptor Cynthia Moran, carving stone in her studio and responding to coastal rock formations in the present day. The Invisible Limb forms part of Browne’s larger investigation of art’s position within – and contribution to – changing economies of consumption, production, and distribution, spanning the exploration of nineteenth-century textile craftwork in Something from Nothing (2014), and contemporary academic institutional conditions in Report to an Academy (2016). Through her interactions with disparate media and technologies, and exchanges with collaborators that include choreographers, composers, and cinematographers, Browne consistently questions what it might mean for a body (human or otherwise) to operate infrastructurally. [11]

Like Browne, Charlotte Prodger has referenced the production practices of other women artists, most explicitly in Northern Dancer (2015). This audio and video installation fuses the names of racehorses from a single bloodline with fragments of an essay on Gertrude Stein, who was forced by her jealous lover Alice B. Toklas to excise the word ‘may’ from her writing, because of an imagined connection to a prior lover (May Bookstaver). [12] Northern Dancer is presented on cube monitors that were originally devised to be used in retail settings, assembled into video walls for advertising displays. Prodger instead arranges the monitors on separate metal stands, placed slightly apart from each other as though echoing the gaps in Stein’s text and the leaps in logic and time from one horse’s name to another. Her use of the cube monitor forms part of an ongoing exploration of relationships to changing media-industry standards and formats. [13] Prodger’s single-channel film Stoneymollan Trail (2014) incorporates deteriorating fragments of video from her personal archive of miniDV tapes, shot between 1999 and 2003, many of them documenting hikes or walks in remote locations. The audio track is composed from multiple textual sources, including Prodger’s email exchanges with friends, such as the artist Ian White, excerpts from a 1977 Artforum text written by Nancy Holt on the construction of her work Sun Tunnels, and an account of queer cruising at truck stops from the autobiography of African-American science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. These image, text, and media fragments together constitute the ‘trail’, a term that I understand to describe both a process and a physical object, which leads into the future as well as the past. 

Anne Tallentire’s work, while rarely explicit in its referencing of contemporary-art history, echoes Touch Sanitation’s concern with the invisibility of service labour. In Drift (2002–6), a video installation with a quasi-modular form, Tallentire documents tasks – such as the repairing and marking of roads, or the cleaning of office interiors and exteriors – that are ubiquitous in urban space, but organised to facilitate other (less-marginalised) forms of labour. Tallentire also draws apparently discrete histories of infrastructure into close proximity, particularly in Shelter (2016). This temporary work, conceived for a disused army barracks in Derry, explored the relationship between historical and contemporary ‘emergency’ infrastructure, often built in response to authorised or unauthorised mass movements of people. Shelter involved seven carefully orchestrated transpositions of construction materials into the former parade grounds of the barracks, where they were arranged according to schematic diagrams before being returned to the gallery for display and storage, alongside video documentation of the parade ground actions. Like many of Tallentire’s works – and in keeping with the logic of becoming-infrastructural – Shelter contains within itself a record of its own making and unmaking. Here, as in previous works, Tallentire situates her actions within a precise historical and spatial framework, enacting and temporarily materialising her relationship to processes of infrastructural change.

Maeve Connolly is a Dublin-based researcher, focused on changing cultures and economies of art and media practice. She is a lecturer in the Faculty of Film, Art & Creative Technologies at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology, Dublin.

* This essay first appeared in the PVA publication Everything Is Somewhere Else (2020), edited by Dennis McNulty. Further information on the publication can be found here.

Notes

[1] Paul N. Edwards, ‘Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems’, in Modernity and Technology, ed. Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 186–87.

[2] See Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’, Artforum (Summer 1967):12–22.

[3] The federally funded and regulated interstate highway system was also an important cultural and political reference point in the development of newer technologies of communication, cited by advocates of the ‘information superhighway’ in the United States. See Ralph Lee Smith, The Wired Nation: Cable TV; The Electronic Communications Highway (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

[4] Details on the various projects realised via the Artist Placement Group can be accessed at http://www.ravenrow.org/exhibition/artist_placement_group/ as part of a collection of materials assembled for the Raven Row exhibition The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966–79, which took place from 27 September to 16 December 2012. 

[5] Laderman Ukeles published ‘Manifesto on Maintenance Art’ in 1969. This preceded her Maintenance Art Performance Series (1973–74), documented in Commerce by Artists, ed. Luis Jacob (Toronto: Art Metropole, 2011), 46–53.

[6] For example, Bik Van der Pol, Angela Bulloch, Liam Gillick, Dan Graham, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno, Tobias Rehberger, and Gabriel Sierra have devised structures for seating, display, or viewing, intended either for temporary or longer-term use. Many of these artists are discussed in Ina Blom, On the Style Site: Art, Sociality, and Media Culture (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2007).

[7] Rirkrit Tiravanija, Apolonija Šušteršic, and, more recently, Otobong Nkanga are among the many artists who have devised infrastructural entities beyond the confines of the museum. See also various practices documented in Locating the Producers: Durational Approaches to Public Art, ed. Paul O’Neill and Claire Doherty (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2011).

[8] See Andrea Fraser, ‘Services: Working-Group Discussions’, October 80 (Spring 1997): 117–18; and Andrea Fraser, ‘Serving Audiences’, October 80 (Spring 1997): 130–39. 

[9] Support Structures was first published by Sternberg Press in 2009. Eastside Projects was co-founded by Céline Condorelli, Gavin Wade, Ruth Claxton (currently the Associate Director), Simon Bloor, Tom Bloor, and James Langdon.

[10] The 2014 exhibition Céline Condorelli was commissioned as part of ‘How to work together’, a shared programme of commissioning and research organised by Chisenhale Gallery, The Showroom, and Studio Voltaire. In recent years, the Chisenhale Gallery programme has also encompassed several other exhibitions exploring economies of labour and support, within and beyond the art field, including Yuri Pattison’s exploring of co-working environments in user, space (2016) and Maria Eichhorn’s 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours (2016), which required Chisenhale Gallery workers to withdraw their labour and to close the building for the duration of the exhibition.

[11] I discuss Browne’s practice more fully in ‘Choreographing Women’s Work: Multitaskers, Smartphone Users and Virtuoso Performers’,  in Women Artists, Feminism and the Moving Image: Contexts and Practices, ed. Lucy Reynolds (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).

[12] Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).

[13] In 2014, Prodger collaborated with The Block, an organisation that acquires and restores discontinued Hantarex and Sony CRT monitors, on the exhibition Markets at Chelsea Space, London.