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The Materiality of Audiovisual Flow: Media Infrastructures and the Environment, 1950s−2020s

Discussions of audiovisual media in the post-war era, from the mass diffusion of television to online video platforms and streaming services, rarely account for the materiality of their underlying infrastructures. For instance, television’s history has predominantly been told from the perspective of its institutions, its program, and its location in domestic space. Concurrently, the increasing scientific interest in − and public concern for − the pollution generated by online digital video focuses almost exclusively on the present and the future, despite the continuities, competition, and hybridization between older and newer audiovisual media.

This panel seeks to shift the focus of analysis from the producers and the products of audiovisual content to the uncharted territory in-between: the antennas, cables, satellites, data centers and other material sites that made audiovisual media possible and continue to do so until today. These over- and underground technologies are more or less visible, but they all leave a “footprint” in the spaces in which they are placed. They change the aesthetics of landscapes, they interfere with the habitat of human and non-human animals, they use natural resources, they require energy, etc. This panel wishes to investigate the history of infrastructures and their impact on the environment by analyzing the representations, discourses, and politics of the material network that precedes and sustains the distribution of audiovisual content − whether television programs in the 1960s or digital videos in 2021.

Some recent publications offer valuable insights into such questions for Swiss history, such as the representation of environmental issues and protests in cinema and TV (Länzlinger and Schärer 2020) or the relationships between the building of data centers and, for instance, the lasting politics of hydroelectricity in the Alps (Dommann, Rickli and Stadler 2020). The panel takes these studies as an invitation to deepen our understanding of the entanglement of media histories and the environment in the Swiss context and beyond. Building upon further recent historical scholarship on media infrastructures (Parks and Starosielski 2015) and on computing and the environment (Ensmenger 2018), it suggests a displacement from the images of ecological degradation to the materials that make their circulation possible.

The panel is particularly interested to investigate the following topics, but remains open to other proposals:

- The history of audiovisual media infrastructures and their ecological footprints

- The evolution of the flows of energy and materials needed to build, maintain, and operate media infrastructures

- Urban planning, media infrastructures, and the organization of media events (i.e. Eurovision)

- The critical study of audiovisual media’s mise en scène of its own infrastructures

- “Infrastructural tourism” (Mattern 2013) and media

- The history of audiovisual media production from the perspective of use of natural resources

- Protests against infrastructures and their covering in mass media


Dommann, Monika, Hannes Rickli, and Max Stadler, eds. Data Centers: Edges of a Wired Nation. Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers GmbH, 2020.

Ensmenger, Nathan, “The Environmental History of Computing”, Technology and Culture, 59(4), 2018, S7‑S33.

Länzlinger, Stefan, and Thomas Schärer. Gifttod, Betonwüsten, strahlende Zukunft – Umweltbewegungen und bewegte Bilder in der Schweiz, 1940–1990. Reihe 4: Visual Environmental History: Vol. 1. Bern Open Publishing, 2020.

Mattern, Shannon. “Infrastructural Tourism.” Places Journal, July 2013.

Parks, Lisa, and Nicole Starosielski. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. Illustrated Edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

Planed paper:

Marie Sandoz, Université de Lausanne, Towards an Ecological History of Large Infrastructures: The First Satellite Ground Station in Switzerland

Two slots for paper presentations are still free.