Points of Presence
Iceland/United Kingdom/Australia, 2017 | Adam Fish, Bradley Garrett, and Oliver Case
Apart from the adapters we use to charge our devices, internet networks mostly appear as wireless technologies in everyday use. Points of Presence invites us to consider the material wiring that enables the internet to work over greater distances. Subterranean cables are buried in the ground. Below the surface of the oceans lie thousands of kilometers of cables, mostly linking the wired world of the North Atlantic (North America and Europe) and the North Pacific (East Asia and North America), but also linking almost every place else through a complex system of nodes. Approximately 99% of international internet traffic is carried by submarine cable.
The experimental documentary takes the term “point of presence” as a starting place. Defined as both an interface between two communicating entities and as a local access point to the global internet, a point of presence hides the visible and material qualities that enable its functionality. The film reveals rarely seen material elements of the internet in Iceland, located strategically between Canada and the United Kingdom. Other scenes were shot in the Faroe Islands (Denmark) and Shetland Islands (Scotland), showing more of the physical infrastructure needed to connect the world.
Points of Presence brings into focus what the filmmakers describe as the “symbiotic relationship between information infrastructure and the geographic, geologic, oceanographic, and atmospheric elements.” Crosscuts between a rural waterfall in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland and a circuit board evoke the invisible geographies of the internet. Rippling water and entwined cables are aesthetically pleasing in their own ways and also necessary for human life insofar as that which they carry is vitally important. Much like air, water, and shelter, internet access has increasingly been recognized as an essential resource or even a human right. A station on Landeyjarsandur (Sand Islands, Iceland) adds another feature to a place whose name literally means “land island sand.” One of the film’s closing images shows networks of traffic, circulating around the Telehouse in London (United Kingdom), whose façade is designed like a stylized circuit board.
Jon Christopher Nelson’s score weaves music with the sounds of electronic signal calls and even dial-up modems when they reach unavailable or busy numbers; documentary images of cables and scientists are flashed with images and clips of streamed video on web browsers — everything from charts and animation to home movies and professional erotica, to night-vision scenes of military operations and recruitment videos for terrorist groups, to interviews with technology celebrities.
Men uncoil and stretch cable, repair heavy circuit boards, and enter gated stations —revealing the manual labor involved in making information available through both haptic and touchless interfaces on our consumer devices. Documenting these scenes are cameras, handheld or mounted on drones, the shadows of which reveal “points of presence” between documentarian and subject that are often erased in observational and expository modes. As Fish, Garrett, and Case make clear, “the internet is a material political object intertwined with the natural environment, human labour, and the mobility of data.”