Lisa Parks



Affiliation(s):


University of California Santa Barbara

Department:


Department of Film and Media Studies

Role(s):


Author and Speaker/Presenter


Writings and Presentations:


Title: Around the Antenna Tree: The Politics of Infrastructural Visibility
Writing Type: Essay
Author(s):
Exhibition: SIGGRAPH 2007: Global Eyes
Abstract Summary:

With the globalization of mobile telephony during the past two decades, cell towers have sprouted up across different parts of the world. The “unsightliness” of these towers has resulted in responses ranging from neighborhood protests to manufacturers’ concealment strategies. This essay explores the installation of towers in different locations from urban spaces to national parks and considers how their emergence relates to a set of concerns about technology, knowledge, and power.

In addition to examining cell towers in different environments, I describe various “concealment strategies,” including covering towers in tree camouflage, mosque minarets, flagpoles, birds’ nests, and other hiding places. I explore what is at stake in hiding infrastructure and how such practices end up trading technological awareness for a highly synthetic version of “nature.” By disguising infrastructure as part of the natural and/or built environment, such strategies keep citizens naïve and uninformed about the network technologies they subsidize and use. Finally, I consider whether it might be possible to develop modes of affective engagement with infrastructure sites such as cell towers by discussing the work of artists such as Robert Voit (Enchanted Wood), Marijetica Potrc (Permanently Unfinished House with Cell Phone Tree), and Olaf Nicolai (Antenna Tree).

Communication infrastructures are frequently visualized as flow diagrams designed to approximate the spatial relations of a network. As a result, there is a tendency to overlook the uniqueness of particular nodes in a network: their physical form, the stories of their development, or the practices that surround them once they are activated. The antenna tree, I want to suggest, represents the potential to develop a more nodecentric and materialist approach to the study of infrastructure. As a cell tower disguised as a tree, the antenna tree draws attention to the materiality of infrastructure in the very process of trying to conceal it. People often chuckle at these uncanny objects that have been designed to soften the severity of the steel tower with botanical plastics. This tower in disguise not only relays signals, but it is implicated in an array of industrial, legal, and socio-cultural relationships. Each antenna tree can be understood as a symptom of processes of fabrication and installation, state and local regulation, community deliberation, and urban transformation. Thinking around the antenna tree, then, involves considering the fields of negotiation that are produced as an effect of infrastructure development and placement.

In this essay, I describe the emergence of cell-tower concealment strategies and discuss art works by Robert Voit (Enchanted Wood) and Marijetica Potrc (Permanently Unfinished House with Cell Phone Tree) that integrate antenna trees and provoke discussions of infrastructural in/visibility. I explore what is at stake in hiding infrastructure and how such practices may end up trading technological awareness for a highly synthetic version of “nature.” By disguising infrastructure as part of the natural environment, concealment strategies keep citizens naïve and uninformed about the network technologies they subsidize and use each day. We describe ourselves as a “networked society,” yet most members of the public know very little about the infrastructures that support that designation in broadcasting, web, or wireless systems. This issue of infrastructure literacy becomes more prescient as we enter an era of ubiquitous computing in which many different kinds of objects and surfaces will be used as relay towers and/or web interfaces. Since infrastructure sites are becoming more pervasive and less invisible, the work of visual artists can be extremely important in drawing our attention to them and triggering conversations about their design, placement, and effects.

[Download PDF]