Infrastructure fiction: explaining infrastructure to artists and art to civil engineers

Paul Graham Raven's "Introduction to infrastructure fiction" is a great, 20 minute explanation of why infrastructure should matter to artists and why art should matter to civil engineers. The invisible ubiquity and vital importance of infrastructure means that it's something we should be talking about, and that we're not talking about.

The Someone Else’s Problem Field around infrastructure is, ironically enough, a measure of its ubiquity and success. You don’t think about it because you don’t need to; it just works, and when it doesn’t, there’s a phone number you can not bother calling, because they’ll only put you on hold anyway, and by the time you get through it’ll probably have fixed itself, so why bother? You pay for these things to work, and – most of the time – they do. You pay for them to be Someone Else’s Problem.

Being reminded of infrastructure is rarely pleasant. It’s no fun to turn your tap and have nothing come out. It’s a different sort of not-fun when you discover that a wind-farm, town bypass or high-speed train line is scheduled to materialise near your house, or when protestors camp out on your driveway to fight a fracking company. Infrastructure is meant to make life easier, not harder. The better it gets at the former, the more painful are the moments when it does the latter.

The golden age of British infrastructure was surely the Victorian era, thanks to a combination of ambition, new technological developments, and an exploitable underclass workforce. In those days, infrastructure primarily benefitted the middle and upper classes; if you were working class, you were likely one of infrastructure’s many unsung human components, and new infrastructure was far more likely to spoil your immediate environment than improve it. To the middle classes, though, infrastructure – especially the railways – was progress incarnate, a living force in the world. Victorian painting and literature is full of infrastructure, sometimes as hero, sometimes as villain, depending on the target audience: majestic bridges in oil on canvas for the gallery-goer, train-wreck penny dreadfuls for the proles. It was all new, and people wondered what it meant.

An introduction to infrastructure fiction — Improving Reality 2013

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