Emma Charles’ Photographs Capture the Physical Elements Driving the Digital Age

Orderly ribbons of colorful fiber-optic cables, vents through which buildings breathe, after-hours workers in the financial industry—through photography and the moving image, artist Emma Charles sheds light on the unseen infrastructure that powers modern life.

 Based in London, Charles has documented the often unnoticed—but absolutely essential—engines of industry that hide in plain sight in the modern city, like the London Internet Exchange and New York’s Verizon building. She pays particular attention to the conduits of communication: the cables, wires, and switches that make up the internet. In her work, the tangible material that makes up the virtual world is made visible.

In Charles’ 2013 film Fragments On Machines, the artist seems to revel in the organized banality of the mechanisms that facilitate the high-frequency trading—the superhuman, computer algorithm-based engine of contemporary finance—of New York City’s financial district. Ironically, her work reveals, many of these hubs of cutting-edge technology are housed in elegant Art Deco skyscrapers, their exteriors revealing nothing about the cities of servers, mainframe computers, and cooling systems that “live” inside these buildings once populated by human activity. 

By illuminating the growing physical footprint of the technology that governs so much of our lives, Charles reveals an overlooked side effect of mankind’s ever-increasing reliance on and entanglement with technology. In this world without humans, the sterile lighting of a room full of supercomputers takes on a slightly sinister glow.

Heather Corcoran