Attending conferences such as the 2023 Transmediale A Model A Map A Fiction in Berlin is a type of privilege. In our oversaturated world, it is a privilege to be exposed to people who do the data-sifting for you and collectively fill out and reveal this endless web of connections. By this I mean the shadow power dynamics hidden in the information we consume, spread and eventually integrate as warped common knowledge. So I go and I sit and I listen but in my mind, it is as if I am walking a bridge to a new space, where the dots I am aware of are connected in eye-opening ways and the gaps I was unaware existed between them are filled out. And the feeling I sense is power because there is a power to information and access. That much is clear.
No surprise, then, when I attended the session titled On Seeing Where There’s So Much To See where the participants speak of the power of exposure and the restriction or access to knowledge, space and (re)sources. But this access and visibility are conditioned by the setup behind the seeing. The infrastructure and the technological base and bias of optical media are addressed, which they must be, because what else can be responsible for the gatekeeping of the seeing than the actual design of technologies we use to provide and sharpen sight? Sight is addressed as a technologically enabled and deeply political filter.
Solveig Suess, a researcher and filmmaker, shows archival photographs and part of a film she made, Little Grass. Suess guides us through her research, which is anchored around the intimate and proximate of her mother’s story. Suess’ mother was an optical engineer who developed lenses in China in the 1980s as the wider industry rushed forward to advance optical and network technologies. She speaks of the Chinese trying to catch up and ultimately surpass the West on the linear timeline of ideologically influenced engineering by advancing how far, linearly, as their vision reaches. Suess’ family history is thus placed within the wider geopolitical race to further sight, advance infrared technologies and instruments that make visible what is invisible to the human eye and provide clarity and perception in the darkest of nights.
Suess traces the empty spaces and the absence of vision as well, eloquently subverting the power of reach by feeling around the non-disclosure agreement her mother signed. The narrative of the intimate corresponds with the act of embracing the absence of quantifiable data. This process thickens time and topography and juxtaposes the urgent mechanical, institutional furthering of vision at all costs. I am reminded of how valuable it is to unsettle the close link between vision and militarization. As Paul Virilio writes in his essay Logistics and Perception: “…from the original watchtower through the anchored balloon to the reconnaissance aircraft and remote sensing satellite, one and the same function has been indefinitely repeated, the eye’s function being the function of a weapon.”1
Hence any practices that disrupt the linear logic of observation, visibility and access are counteracting the control and destruction that the advancement of optics implies. What ultimately provides the most control is that which directs, furthers and frames the gaze, be it an instrument or a movement. And this is why the participants of Transmediale were in fact brought together; the ability to trace, reorder and refine, fuse or block, but always redirect the stream of data we swim in as an essential act in subverting the power dynamics of a society where any logical and transparent distribution of (re)sources, sight and information, is a privilege rather than a right.
The collective eeefff, consisting of Dzina Zhuk and Nicolay Spesivtsev, explores the possibilities of algorithmic solidarity but also hacking, strikes and sabotage, challenging the framework and politics of data. Eefff presents a workshop where they interfere with the sensors on train tracks and cause them to come to unexpected stops or stalls, in some ways continuing the Belarusian partisan tradition of sabotaging railway infrastructure.2 This time, we witness an example of grassroots political engineering that makes space for an intimate intervention in a mechanized system through sabotage and pause. And it is funny to me – so fitting – that the train lines would be the target of sabotage because traditionally it is precisely the train that was used as a machine of coverage, speed and linear excavation, colonialism and capitalism. The reframing of temporality and time relations through standstills and accelerations is an act of protest.
Zhuk and Spesivtsev chose the name eeefff because it is the term for a specific colour scheme often used in website design. This name enables them to hide behind the existing search engine recommendation which proposes the colour rather than the collective, as a sort of network curtain. In their work, staying under the radar or not being visible can be an advantage. They speak of digital coalitions, and the myths and glorification of the infrastructure and software of the internet and other network technologies: hard to understand, let alone affect and adapt. They challenge its seemingly inaccessible processes by disturbing the existing cybernetic sequences, making or finding gaps and examining how to inhabit them and by doing so demonstrating insight and access through playful meddling.
The same can be said of the third project discussed, a film by Oleksiy Radynski. He reframes the temporal and geopolitical relations of the new hot Cold War by sifting through and editing a raw video dump of archival footage in connection with the construction and history of the Nord Stream 2. Radynski repurposes the somehow beautiful and washed-out videos of yellow aquatic machinery used to place the more than a thousand kilometres of pipes on the seabed, labs filled with computers that look futuristic and ancient at the same time and politicians being ominous on the tarmac. He speaks of the potential fallacies of data and how science can be twisted and shaped into a need that pushes specific agendas, examining the political implications of the construction of the pipelines, which has roots much further back than imagined.
Radynski reveals West German incentives for providing technology towards the construction of the first pipelines in the 1970s that connect Russian natural gas with Germany. He proposes that the ultimate rise of capitalism in the traditionally communist bloc was closely linked to (the infrastructure that enabled) the personal profits reaped by this historic energy union. Framed within the contemporary context of the Russian attack on Ukraine and the neo-colonial extractivism and fossil fascism3 driving the violence, a sinister image emerges of German political and engineering complacency and entanglement. Again, we are faced with the fact that infrastructure is not neutral, and engineering cannot not be ideologically driven. Thus, the questions and criticism of the debated pipelines.
THE NORD STREAM SABOTAGE – WHO DID IT?
When asked who sabotaged the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in September 2022, none of the panellists were able to answer the question. But whoever perpetrated the sabotage was congratulated in a line of the book How To Bomb a Pipeline. Since the Transmediale festival took place in early February 2023, new information surfaced regarding possible culprits. Seymour Hersh, an American award-winning investigative journalist, published an article in which he asserts, according to his solitary, anonymous but well-placed source (note the essential access to the source + extent of sources vision!), that the USA executed the Nord Stream bombings in order to prevent Germany from lifting the sanctions on Russian exports before the dreaded winter of 2022.4
I am interested in this question in the context of optics, access and visibility for obvious reasons; whoever bombed the Nord Stream pipeline proved an evident power of access by being able to somehow plant the bombs and set them off but also prevent any type of surveillance or network technologies to track this movement. Or, according to Hersh, the access was indeed tracked, and perhaps even enabled by multiple governments (Norwegian and Danish) while the traces were guarded against the public.
Although there was a significant amount of residual natural gas in the pipes at the time of the bombings, neither of the pipelines was strictly operational. Nord Stream 1 had already been fully shut off by Russia due to ‘maintenance’, with no immediate plan to reopen it, while Nord Stream 2 had in fact never entered commercial use at all despite its massive capacity (10 times that of the Baltic pipeline, which coincidentally opened just one day after the bombing).
Since the pipelines were not in flow, the 10% increase in gas prices post-pipeline sabotage was short-lived and speculative.5 By the time of the actual explosions in September 2022, the USA had already made quite a profit from the war in Ukraine under the guise of a Western energy union by selling upscale gas to Europe. Exxon Mobile, the largest exporter of American liquified natural gas, had increased its profits by 160% compared to the previous year.6
The intervention was, in my view, in the short term at least, a symbolic demonstration of access and ideological opposition, rather than fully financially motivated. Why else would, according to Hersh, have the plan for the sabotage been confirmed in December 2021, right before the beginning of the (second) invasion? To assert access to the energy lines for the purpose of future infrastructural control with the inevitable result of primarily political and energy authority and secondarily commercial benefit. In the context of the eeefff train intervention, for instance, an infrastructural strike also asserts primary control by demonstrating the right to act against what you don’t agree with, in the sense that the act itself is much more important than who stands behind it. For the sake of an overview, though, let us list alternative options of the culprit:
– The Russians, who might have done it to prevent being punished for not fulfilling their contractual obligations of natural gas supply (as suggested by NATO).
– Some type of Russian-Ukrainian non-state actor that aims to drive a deeper wedge between Germany and Russian energy entanglement (according to Germany).
– Ukraine, to prevent the future functioning of the pipelines that famously circumvent their territory (according to the USA).
– The calculative Americans to prevent Germany from lifting sanctions and benefit from selling gas to chilly Europe (according to Seymour Hersh and Russia).7
As I research this question of who did it, I wonder why the urgency of its answer somehow fades. As an underground engineering interference, the unidentified offender is congratulated. We wouldn’t want the activists to be identified publicly and prosecuted, and anonymity is an asset and a triumph. On the other hand, and rightfully so, if perceived as a geopolitical maneuver and financially incentivized by the distributors of the ‘freedom gas’8, then the act has a terroristic tone and the previously unnamed perpetrator must be revealed and punished. It boils down to if you trust your source of information and its extent of access and sight.
Probably the Americans were behind it, but that’s beside the point. Knowing that optic and network technologies are the result of an ideological and technocratic race I am faced with the fact that I must choose which line of vision I want to align with, by navigating the intimate data sets discovered along the way.
More on Klara Debeljak here: https://www.instagram.com/klara.deb/.
1. Quoted in Wolukau-Wanambwa S. (2021) Dark Mirrors, London: Mackbooks, p. 93.
2. See Borisionok A. (2022) Queer Temporalities and Protest Infrastructures in Belarus, 2020 – 22: A Brief Museum Guide, www.e-flux.com/journal/127/466031/queer-temporalities-and-protest-infrastructures-in-belarus-2020-22-a-brief-museum-guide/.
3. thezetkincollective.org. (n.d.) White Skin, Black Fuel: On The Danger Of Fossil Fascism, www.thezetkincollective.org.
4. Schneidler F, Seymour Hersh: The US Destroyed the Nord Stream Pipeline. In: Jacobin. www.jacobin.com/2023/02/seymour-hersh-interview-nord-stream-pipeline?fbclid=IwAR27AVGROeEuaO0vIQeFtAJH_PBYV_oPGnFv8Z2SPSpVIMp21X32J0dl9BA.
5. Wilkenfeld, Y. (2022) Europe and Russia without Nord Stream. GIS Reports, www.gisreportsonline.com/r/russia-without-nord-stream/.
6. Ambrose, J. and correspondent, J.A.E. (2023) Exxon CEO’s pay rose 52% to nearly £30m amid Ukraine war, figures show, In: The Guardian, April 13, 2023, www.theguardian.com/business/2023/apr/13/exxon-ceo-darren-woods-pay-rise-ukraine-war-oil.
7. Danner, C. (2023). Who Blew Up the Nord Stream Pipeline? Intelligencer, www. nymag.com/intelligencer/2023/04/who-blew-up-the-nord-stream-pipeline-suspects-and-theories.html.
8. Radynski, O. (2020) Is Data the New Gas? – Journal #107, in: e-flux, www.e-flux.com/journal/107/322782/is-data-the-new-gas/.