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The internet can seem ubiquitous and invisible at once, but it relies on an elaborate infrastructure that’s sometimes buried just below our feet. Author and artist Ingrid Burrington has created a field guide to the visible evidence and reminders of the internet in the New York City urban landscape.
Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide is currently on view at the Eyebeam 2015 Annual Showcase, and available to preorder. Burrington was a 2014 Eyebeam resident, and the field guide is a physical manifestation of her Seeing Networks project.
“Over the last two years it seems like there’s been this slow-growing public recognition that the internet isn’t really separated from everyday life — ‘online’ and ‘IRL’ aren’t really separate spaces, and they never really were,” Burrington told Hyperallergic. “To some extent, that assumed separation is tied to how people tend to interface with the internet as a black box that serves them things. The geography and the infrastructure are (understandably) obscured. Seeing the physical realities of the internet just walking down the street in New York doesn’t unravel the entirety of ‘how the internet works,’ but it is a reminder of all the stuff of the internet that’s been obscured and how much the internet already permeates our physical world, whether we notice it or not.”
Burrington’s website and the field guide include illustrations and descriptions of various manhole covers, antennae, architecture, and street markings, sourced by researching Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) guides as well as franchise agreements and telecommunications companies. Other times she just spoke with people working under the manhole covers. Among the things she found: “CATV” scrawled on the ground means cable television, while “FO” refers to fiber optic. Subway wifi devices hide above commuters’ heads underground, and up on top of buildings are little groups of cell towers, which often connect your phone to the internet. There’s also the Empire City Subway manhole covers, representing a company founded in 1891, originally for telegraph and telephone cables. Burrington notes that “new infrastructures have a tendency to inherit the homes of past infrastructures, and the internet is no exception.” The giant Art Deco structures at 60 Hudson Street and 32 Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue) (recently profiled in the short documentary “Urban Giants” by Davina Pardo and Andrew Blum) were both initially built for telegraph service.
Much of city infrastructure is designed not to be noticed, whether it’s the sewer system or the miniature weather stations. Alongside the overlooked telecommunications topography, Burrington includes the surveillance systems we’re unwittingly hooked up to, suggesting that the more aware we’re of what’s around us, the more we understand how constantly connected we are to this hidden yet pervasive physical network.
Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide is on view in the 2015 Eyebeam Annual Showcase at Gallery 216 (111 Front Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through February 21.