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Issue 241

Meredith Lackey Makes the Internet Visible

A new film sees the director pursing the Huawei controversy and the potential ‘threat’ of 5G technology

BY Jonathan Griffin AND Meredith Lackey in Interviews | 22 MAR 24

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 241, ‘Outer Depths

In 2019, Meredith Lackey released a short film, Cablestreet, which documented the manufacture and installation of an undersea fibre-optic cable by the Chinese company Huawei Technologies. Cablestreet is much more than a documentary; it is a poetic speculation on the subjecthood of machines and the non-linearity of technological time. Lackey is now working on her first feature-length film, scheduled for release in 2025.

Jonathan Griffin We’re communicating via Signal – a secure messaging app I haven’t used before. Why do your activities necessitate this mode of communication?

Meredith Lackey My mentor, a former war reporter, trained me on encrypted comms and information best practices about a decade ago – particularly necessary in countries with low levels of information freedom, like China and Cambodia. Thanks to him, encrypted comms are now as routine as brushing my teeth. The same is true for many of the sources that I work with, including former members of the US intelligence community.

Meredith Lackey, Cablestreet, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

JG Much of the camerawork in Cablestreet evokes the furtive gaze of espionage. It made me wonder: how did you get access to these spaces?

ML Back when I began that project, around 2012, if you’d asked someone where the internet was, they would point to the sky. Thanks to Elon Musk, that’s now becoming a reality. But in 2012, civilian internet traffic was not routed via satellites. The internet was, and for the most part still is, cables underground and in trenches on the ocean floor, connecting countries. It’s these submarine fibre-optic cables that gave rise to the global internet.

There’s a website called Greg’s Cable Map that documents the existing network, as well as those cables scheduled to be installed. I started doing outreach to businesses affiliated with cables in development and eventually connected with an Angolan venture-capital firm that became my backdoor to Huawei. They put me in contact with a telecom company that was planning Cambodia’s first submarine fibre-optic cable, which would hook into a US-China cable system that lands in Morro Bay, California. When the physical work eventually began, I showed up to document it. The first shoot was in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Much to my surprise, the workers weren’t Cambodian; they were Vietnamese and Chinese, contracted and employed by Huawei.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that I set out to make a beautiful image of the physical internet and, along the way, happened upon unprecedented access to a Chinese telecom that became a sophisticated and ongoing threat to US national security.

Meredith Lackey, Cablestreet, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

JG Was Huawei concerned about the sensitivity of what you filmed? Especially as the film is now free to view on your website.

ML In general, my hosts seemed less concerned with security and more excited about the free publicity. But encrypted comms and burner phones were critical due to the constant fact of Chinese surveillance. If any footage had been seized, the project would have been conceptually incomplete. The biggest fear I had was failure.

JG The ocean – and, indeed, the sky – are metaphors here for the unfathomable boundlessness that we associate with the internet. There’s an irony that Cablestreet often describes ideas of non-linearity, concentric circles and the collapse of linear time, all while relying on this visual motif of a single cable snaking along the ocean floor.

ML Exactly. The film explores this tension between the material finitude of technology and its unmeasurable impact on our individual psychology and collective knowledge, on the ways we make money and how we wage war. The ocean and the sky become spaces that imply the latent opportunity for control. To these, I would add two battlespaces: the human psyche and the electromagnetic spectrum. Regarding the human psyche, the collective attention of a group of people becomes a very powerful vector that governments can use to wage information campaigns, especially through social media. And the atmosphere’s capacity for carrying radio waves has become an increasingly contested and congested space for orchestrating geopolitical control.

Truth-telling is prolonged dissonance resolving into a major chord. Meredith Lackey

JG Your new film deals with fears around the emergence of 5G technology.

ML It tells the inside story of the Huawei threat, against which the US Government took urgent and sweeping measures from 2017 to 2020, amidst the 5G rollout. The Huawei threat as understood by the US government is the film’s narrative through-line; running in parallel to that is the 5G threat – to health, the environment, etc. – as understood by ‘ordinary’ consumers.

JG What will this film look like? With Cablestreet, there was the obvious conceit that you were making the invisible visible, just before it became invisible again at the bottom of the ocean.

Meredith Lackey, Tower climbers remove Huawei antennas from cell tower in the American Midwest, 2023. Courtesy: the artist

ML The invisible force that this new film makes visible is the ‘threat’. I’m using tableaux, re-enactments and some B-roll of US companies ripping out Huawei gear from US networks. The thing about making a documentary is that, if you can’t get access to the real thing, the next best way to create drama or intrigue is to make something up. Not all documentaries are beholden to jour­nalistic standards of truth and fact-checking. But what’s even better is when you can get to the actual truth. In Cablestreet, I made up voices that were supposed to be the internet talking to itself, because I couldn’t interview actual Huawei employees. Nonetheless, I was able to document the physical internet, thus reaching an unfettered truth. In my current project, I’m working with human sources to get to the truth – eyewitnesses who give first-hand accounts of events as they unfolded in the US government. Getting to that level of truth-telling sounds like prolonged dissonance resolving into a major chord. It’s my raison d’être, it’s a culturally specific privilege and it’s one of my favourite parts of living.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 241 with the headline ‘The Secret World’

Main image: Meredith Lackey, Rural telecom company removes Huawei antennas from grain silo in the American Midwest, 2023. Courtesy: the artist

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.

Meredith Lackey is a filmmaker.