Sewage systems, urban traffic grids, data centers, transcontinental railways, underwater cables, the cloud. Pervasive infrastructures present a problem of mediation: they are remain in the background or out of sight and they are difficult to make legible because of various spatial, historical, or geopolitical restrictions. Taking seriously Tung-Hui Hu’s provocation that infrastructural studies requires engaging simultaneously with their virtual and material aspects, this panel investigates how infrastructures “come to life” through a series of digital image-making practices. If infrastructure is not only “the stuff you can kick” but also “the living mediation of what organizes life,” how does infrastructure animate particular forms of engagement with the world? In turn, how are these infrastructures animated by conflicting technical or political impetuses?
These questions undergird the presentations of Animating Infrastructures, the panel I will be chairing this month at the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. The papers in this panel mobilize the heuristic “animating infrastructures” to foreground and critically engage with issues of media access, interactivity, and ontology, as well as the relations of power that (often literally) shape material structures.
Bringing together the concepts of animation and infrastructure reveals, on the one hand, how animated renderings of infrastructures help apprehend or mobilize these structures and, on the other hand, how digital media technologies facilitate a distinct engagement with infrastructures in the offline world. David Colangelo’s presentation, for instance, considers two projects where lights and digital graphics installations give new life to city structures. By making buildings and underpasses playful, interactive, and relational, these urban projects facilitate a poetic, civic-minded engagement with public space.
At stake in this panel’s presentations is examining the question of scale, physical or datalogical, and how digital media both aids and hinders its comprehension. My own work examines why news organizations and government institutions variously choose to depict narco-tunnels through animated renderings. If the clandestine and subterraneous nature of these structures impedes regular access, how do stakeholders make intelligible the tunnels’ reach, sophistication, and implications for the regulation of space?
Decisions about these issues are inherently political, whether they concern civic engagement, il/licit transit, or cross-cultural solidarity. Addressing these concerns, Meryem Kamil’s paper analyzes how Palestine is animated beyond its physical boundaries. Considering both a 3-D reconstruction of a destroyed Palestinian village and a virtual reality tour of the Dome of the Rock, Kamil notes that digital animation engenders particular forms of transnational solidarity and speculative action.
With their emphasis on transmedial connections, each respective paper questions whether we require new language for describing duration, editing, and the rendering of space and time. They also consider how media infrastructure studies can inform and question the concept of animatedness. In this regard, Tung-Hui Hu challenges the perception that online networks are in a constant state of activity. Through his analysis of artworks that change the temporal status of data, Hu argues that, in fact, it is the infrastructure that puts data in “suspended animation” which lies at the very heart of digital networks.
Finally, the panel offers a transnational perspective on the issue of animating infrastructures. Kamil’s presentation examines the reception of a Palestine-based project in the diaspora. Colangelo focuses on public art projects in two Canadian metropolises, Toronto and Montreal. My own work deals with animations of the U.S.-Mexico border produced in Taiwan. In tandem, these distinct case studies illustrate how the animation of infrastructures subtends and enables global circulation.
Bringing together the contrasting connotations of infrastructures (as passive background) and animation (as active foreground), Animating Infrastructures illustrates how contemporary media flourishes at the confluence of stasis and flow, inter- and in-activity, liveliness and life itself.
Animating Infrastructures will take place on Saturday March 25 at 3:00 PM at the SCMS Annual Conference in Chicago. It is sponsored by the Animated Media; Media, Science and Technology; and the Urbanism/Geography/Architecture scholarly interest groups.