Critical Infrastructure

Vitkova 293/2, Praha 186 00
Wed-Fri 13-19 Uhr Sat 14-18 Uhr

By definition, a critical infrastructure is one that is crucial for the operation of society and the economy.

If it is threatened, a crisis situation may arise. However, such situations undoubtedly accompany its planning and construction, which involve political negotiation, economic transfers and the distribution of human resources. The construction of infrastructure such as oil and gas pipelines or fibre-optic cable reflects the geopolitical situation of the time and influences the future, affecting the industrial production of the countries involved and the lives of many individuals, whether as experts or workers sent to remote foreign countries. Completed infrastructure then generates communities at the nodal points linked to its maintenance and operation. Infrastructure can be thought of as a network that “feeds” society, with society to some extent dependent upon this resource. This in turn renders infrastructure an instrument of power. Threatening the flow of “nutrients” from infrastructure becomes a stronger political argument than, for example, preventing human rights violations or maintaining peaceful relations. Despite its often robust physical form, when subjected to scrutiny critical infrastructure reveals itself to be a fragile tissue of interdependencies.

An example of such an infrastructure is the Druzhba pipeline, which was officially opened sixty years ago, in 1964. It was built between 1961 and 1971 and connects Russia to locations in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Its network today includes around 4,000 kilometres of pipeline stretching across several countries, with multiple junction points such as tank farms, oil terminals and service stations. In the Czech Republic, there are three service stations, two terminals and one tank farm on this branch of the pipeline, comprising approximately 350 kilometres of pipeline (excluding branch lines and duplications). The pipes, which are around 50 centimetres in diameter, are for the most part hidden underground, only surfacing in some places before once more disappearing.

The Druzhba pipeline has been the subject of research by the artistic couple Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas since 2003. They perceive the pipeline as embodying the distribution and organisation of power relations that change over time and in the physical space comprising several thousand kilometres of pipeline. They attribute to the monumental structure its own metabolism, as if it really were an organism that pumps, transforms, digests, distributes and regurgitates. In the installation they use information gathered from available archival materials or interviews and project it into texts, videos and objects. Their installations bear witness not only to the original intention to build a network that, notwithstanding the euphemistic name Druzhba (Friendship), employs strategies of colonisation and domination, but also to the impact the collapse of the Soviet Union had and is still having on such infrastructure and the communities linked with it. Subsequent privatisation has symbolically shifted what had been a state-controlled instrument of power into private hands, where it is completely beyond public control. The war in Ukraine being fought at present has rendered the potential for critical infrastructure to influence political events even more apparent.

Tytus Szabelski-Różniak views infrastructure in a similar way, as a tool for building trade relations and for waging conflict. The issue of the pipeline acquired special salience after February 2022, when Russia launched another phase of military aggression against Ukraine. The name of the pipeline seems especially ironic in this situation. Szabelski-Różniak’s photographs show a section of the pipeline running from Siberia to refineries in Płock, Poland, and Schwedt, Germany. The structure rises above the surface of the land where it crosses the River Narew, between the Zegrzyński reservoir and the town of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki. It is at this point that the strategic pipeline, which until recently transported oil from Russia to the European Union, became vulnerable to possible attacks. Characteristically of the present time, a transcontinental fibre-optic cable carrying huge amounts of data is also connected to the pipeline. Such infrastructure is sometimes referred to as “new oil”, and it is quite clear that the pipes are transporting yet another of the nutrients on which we depend. The composition accompanying the photographs is a recording of the local soundscape. It combines the sounds of nature with the roar of the engines of military helicopters and transport planes, as well as the sound of the pipeline itself, which became the subject of Hubert Karmiński’s music.

The theme of the pipeline led Jiří Žák and Rado Ištok to examine the involvement of the former Czechoslovakia in the construction of the foreign oil infrastructure. From the late 1960s to the end of the 1980s, Czechoslovak companies such as Chepos in Brno participated in the construction of fifty to sixty percent of Iraq’s oil infrastructure, including refineries in Basra and Baiji. Žák and Ištok’s video installation draws on archival material and focuses on a critical moment related to the unrealised refinery in Daura, which Czechoslovakia was supposed to participate in the construction of along with French, Italian and Japanese partners. In October 1989, just before the Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovak participation in the project was suspended by the last communist prime minister, Ladislav Adamec, because of Iraq’s mounting debt to Czechoslovakia. The debt was increasing mainly due to the purchase of Czechoslovak arms. In the installation, a model of the refinery thus materialises, pulsates and disappears once again, in the fate of which one can read the contradictory political and economic relationship of Czechoslovakia to non-communist oil-rich countries such as Iraq.

The exhibition Critical Infrastructures is part of the international project “Networks of Support” co-organised by the National Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning and co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland under the Inspiring Culture Programme, Ministry of Culture Czech Republic and City of Prague.