Essay

The Single Object: The internet cable that connects us to the rest of the world

There’s a disconnection, I’ve found, between how we think the internet works and how it works in reality. With terms like “the cloud” it’s easy to imagine the internet floating above our heads in the atmosphere, but it turns out we’re looking in the wrong direction. It actually travels through cables, buried underground and laid along the ocean floor.

During the dawn of the internet age Aotearoa was reliant on a single submarine cable system: the Southern Cross Cable Network (SX). From the year 2000 the SX carried 98% of New Zealand’s international internet traffic, making it the nation’s primary communications line with the outside world (a second cable eventually arrived in 2017, and others since). As one major New Zealand internet agency, InternetNZ, put it: “If Southern Cross were to be disrupted… it would jeopardise the nation’s functioning, especially as most internet content originates offshore and users’ access to basic services is dependent on international links.”

The scale of the SX is staggering in a way that verges on the sublime. It’s about the same thickness as a garden hose and travels more than 30,000km, plunging to 7km below the surface of the Pacific Ocean on a journey that leads from Takapuna Beach to Hawai’i, the US mainland, back through Hawai’i, Fiji, Sydney and Muriwai Beach. Inland, stations at Northcote and Whenuapai connect it with local networks. It’s an object – albeit a vast one – that has changed Aotearoa in more ways than we can count.

I first came across this cable while researching my PhD in Fine Arts. I was interested in the relationship between Aotearoa’s jurisdictional boundaries, and the seemingly borderless internet: that mysterious, ethereal force that has, for the last 30 years or so, been seeping into more and more aspects of our lives. 

In the early days, internet proponents were excited about its potential to provide universal access to information; to level the playing field of public communication; to bring people together and lead us into some sort of glorious Star Trek-esque utopian future. In Aotearoa, it was promoted as a solution to our ongoing struggle with geographical isolation (and the resulting inferiority complex, at least in Pākehā national identity). 

We bought into the dream in droves. Statistics from 2016 found that 94% of New Zealanders check the internet daily and a third are constantly connected, placing New Zealand’s internet-engagement-per-capita alongside other highly connected populations like the US, Canada and the UK. In a nation of 4.9 million people, this equates to roughly 4.6 million people engaging with the internet on a daily basis.

But the dream, like most utopias, eventually began to crumble. Edward Snowden, The Moment of Truth, “fake news”, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and more recently the Christchurch Call have exposed the internet’s dark side to mainstream audiences. We use it because it’s impossible to function otherwise, but we’re increasingly weary of what’s going on behind the scenes. Shoshanna Zuboff put it well in her book Surveillance Capitalism: we have become “trapped in an involuntary merger of personal necessity and economic extraction”. Despite this, an Internet NZ study released in February suggests that 90% of New Zealanders think the positives of the internet outweigh the negatives.

As an artist, much of my work has been fuelled by interests in new technologies, the power dynamics controlling knowledge and information, and the construction of national identity, particularly in the context of Aotearoa. In 2005, my major project in my last year of a Bachelor of Fine Arts was a series of drawings about ideas of truth and fiction on the internet called Virtually Maybe. Nearly ten years later, I found myself making artwork about the internet again. But instead of looking at what was happening online, I extracted myself from screens and instead focused on the infrastructure, regulations, and power dynamics that make it all happen in New Zealand.

I was surprised to find that, despite our heavy reliance on the SX system, hardly anyone knew about it. In order to rectify this glaring omission in the Hall of New Zealand National Icons, I set off on a mission to reconnect the people of New Zealand with knowledge of this engineering wonder, resolving to create a series of artworks about the physical sites of the cable in New Zealand.

In mid-2013 I was working on a project with public art commissioners Letting Space and international advertising firm JWT (John Walter Thompson) for the firm’s office space in Auckland. My accepted proposal had specified an interest in the SX landing points in the Auckland region, and this opportunity enabled me to begin my investigations. 

The resulting project, Te-Ika-a-Akoranga, sought to restore, digitise, and revive the long-forgotten mural by E. Mervyn Taylor, Te Ika-a-Maui (1962). This ceramic tile mural had been commissioned by the New Zealand government to commemorate a cable that was a predecessor to the SX: the Commonwealth Pacific Cable (COMPAC). It had been installed in the COMPAC landing station in Northcote, in the same complex where the SX Northcote landing station is today. After asking to view and photograph the mural I was told that it had been removed from its original site. Further inquiries revealed that it was now being stored in cardboard boxes in the landing station. 

As I dug deeper into the context of its story, the mural became a symbol of the dramatic shifts that had taken place since its commissioning, in terms of both New Zealand’s international communications infrastructure and its concept of national identity. Despite the wide uptake of the domestic telephone network during the 1950s, New Zealand’s expensive international telecommunications infrastructure only heightened a sense of geographic isolation among its residents. The Commonwealth Pacific Cable (COMPAC) was a new telephone cable introduced to address this problem. It was celebrated as a triumph for the small nation that craved more reliable links to the rest of the globe, particularly for Pākehā settlers who, despite their ‘nation-building’, were still looking abroad for cultural validation.

COMPAC stretched across the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean, reinforcing geopolitical ties that were strengthened during World War II and linking New Zealand with its Commonwealth counterparts Australia, Fiji, and Canada (via Hawai’i), then via the CANTAT cable with the United Kingdom. COMPAC was an exercise that physically connected the political, social, and economic systems of the Commonwealth, and was implemented as a collaborative inter-governmental project.

A publicity unit was formed to manage the public communications around the project, and a series of promotional objects and events were produced to mark the occasion. These included town hall celebrations, publications, photographs, stamps, films, poetry and Wedgewood plates, as well as Taylor’s mural.

Some years later on 30 November 1984, COMPAC (and its station) was decommissioned. Two years after that, the State-Owned Enterprises Act 1986 came into effect. A landmark piece of neoliberal legislation, it split the New Zealand Post Office into three new enterprises: New Zealand Post, Telecom New Zealand, and the Post Office Bank. The station was designated as being under the remit of Telecom, which was then sold to two United States-based telecommunications companies in 1990 – Bell Atlantic and Ameritech – symbolising the beginning of the privatisation of New Zealand’s communications systems. The telcos went on to list the company on the New Zealand, Australian and New York stock exchanges in 1991, and it became a publicly-traded company or ‘public enterprise’. It was around this time a high-security perimeter fence was built around the COMPAC complex, cutting off public access to Taylor’s mural.

COMPAC was heavily funded by public money which no doubt influenced the project’s approach to public engagement. By comparison, the SX’s development was largely funded by corporate investment so any sense of duty to inform and engage the public in its development was significantly lessened, despite the cable’s national significance. And while COMPAC was celebrated in a highly public manner, managers of today’s cable stations tend to want to keep them as inconspicuous as possible.

Concerned about New Zealand’s poor public knowledge of our communications infrastructure, and inspired by the example of COMPAC and Te Ika-a-Maui, I developed concepts for a series of site-specific art installations at the most prominent sites of the SX in Auckland, connected through a tour guide. After an initially positive response, the proposal was turned down due to concerns the increased attention could put the security of the stations at risk. 

The more I thought about this response the stranger it felt. Would public knowledge of cable stations really put them at risk? Is public awareness a threat to the cable? I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d got it wrong and if, instead of being a threat, the public could in fact act as a potential protective measure for the cable.

Let us imagine for a moment that a conspiratorial individual or group was attempting to sabotage the Southern Cross Cable. With its inconspicuous presence, its only line of defence would amount to the various surveillance and security technologies installed at the landing stations, a human security guard or two, the fact that cutting a cable underwater would result in a fatal electric shock, and whatever intel all that GCSB surveillance might capture.

If, on the other hand, people living around the stations knew it was there and believed in protecting the internet, they might report any suspicious activity: a friendly community can, after all, act as an extra layer of security. Ironically, cable managers are also responsible for warding off accidental damage by raising awareness of cables among maritime communities (and as such produce promotional gear emblazoned with “Catch Fish Not Cables”). This approach has also led to posts being installed at beach landing sites with warnings such as “CABLE” and “DO NOT DIG”. So it seems that public knowledge of the presence of cables is permitted at sea and on beaches, or at least tolerated for reasons of practicality. After all, it’s pretty hard to conceal a cable’s presence when forces of nature conspire to uncover it.

Although my proposal was declined, I wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, I adapted my original concepts for an exhibition at City Gallery Wellington. 

In 2015, during a test drive of the tour, I stood on the sands of Muriwai Beach where the SX comes ashore. Muriwai Beach embodies near-mythic status in Aotearoa New Zealand. This dramatic site, renowned for its wind, wild surf and black sand, is peppered with histories of landings, deaths, and burials. Landings include the accidental landings of whales and boats, and the purposeful landings of gannets and communications cables. Burials relate to plant roots, whale carcasses, the area’s urupā, and communications cables. Deaths include those of stranded whales, unfortunate sailors, and the victim of a great white shark attack. Colin McCahon picked up on this theme too, responding to the death of his friend James K. Baxter with the painting Walk (Series C): an imagined walk along Muriwai beach. The decommissioning of a communications cable could also be seen as a kind of death. 

The SX cable is buried on Auckland Council land, under the beach access road at the end of Coast Road, adjacent to Woodhill Forest and south of Okiritoto Stream. While Takapuna Beach sports a convenient marker triangle that declares “CABLE”, the Muriwai path of the SX can be identified by three high-voltage marker posts warning the public not to dig due to risk of electrocution. They are spaced along the beach access way on Coast Road, with an additional post near the entrance to Woodhill Forest marked ‘NZPO’ (dating back to the era when the New Zealand Post Office managed these cables). Painted white and weathered by the elements, the posts feature signs that begin with a faded “DANGER” heading and warn “HIGH VOLTAGE: TELECOM CABLE: DIAL 124 BEFORE YOU DIG”. 

In total, seven communications cables have landed at Muriwai: the Trans-Tasman Connection (1912–1964); the Australia #2 telegraph cable (1932–1956); the COMPAC cable (1962–1984); the Tasman 1 cable (1976–2001); ANZCAN (1984–2002); Tasman 2 (1992–2017); and the Southern Cross Cable (2000–present). All of them have come ashore at (or near) the same site, and after being switched off, decommissioned cables are often left to lie there dead and buried – mostly. 

From the point where the SX comes ashore, a 200-metre stroll up the beach leads to the mouth of Okiritoto Stream. There, reaching out of the water and into the sandbank, is an old communications cable. Curious to know which one had been exposed, I contacted the manager of the SX cable in New Zealand. He thought it might be the COMPAC cable, but other sources suggest it is the Australia #2 telegraph cable. 

In 2018 I installed a multi-platform installation, The Southern Cross Cable: A Tour, at City Gallery Wellington as part of the exhibition This Is New Zealand (2 March–29 July 2018). This installation consisted of four works marking each of the four main sites of the SX in New Zealand. The works were tied together, and augmented with, a published tour guide directing travellers to the landing sites of the cable. 

For Takapuna Beach I learned to scuba dive and filmed myself diving to hold the cable in the Hauraki Gulf. Northcote was represented by the fully restored Te Ika-a-Maui mural and Whenuapai by a video exploring the Five Eyes tapping of the SX. The work for Muriwai, titled The Long Walk to Northern Waters, was the only one that stayed true to the original concept of creating site-specific artworks. I wanted to mark the history of the site in a way that functioned as a subtle addition to the landscape, so created a set of seven wooden marker posts that mimic the cable marker posts. Each is engraved with the name and lifespan of one of Muriwai’s seven cables. 

In August 2014, when I was working on Te Ika-a-Akoranga, the Australia #2 cable (aka the Trans-Tasman Telegraph Cable Numbers 1 and 2) was added to the IPENZ Engineering Heritage Register. The heritage assessment report notes that, when the cable was relocated from Titahi Bay to Muriwai Beach in 1932, Muriwai became the landing point for all subsequent submarine communication cables connecting Sydney and Auckland. This included COMPAC and the SX. 

But the tide is turning: the Tasman Global Access Cable landed at Raglan in 2016, and in 2018 the Hawaiki Cable landed at Mangawhai Heads. The Southern Cross Cable is currently predicted to last until 2030, and its successor ‘Southern Cross Next’ looks set to avoid Muriwai altogether, with Takapuna Beach its only landing point in Aotearoa. Is this the end for Muriwai as a landing site for cables? 

In March 2019, Te Ika-a-Maui was reinstalled as a public artwork inside Takapuna Library. Perhaps one day the Muriwai posts will similarly find a home, and be installed at Muriwai as originally intended: a public reminder of the important role these cables have played in shaping our national identity.

This content was created in partnership with The Spinoff.

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Bronwyn Holloway-Smith is an artist, author, and parental unit currently in lockdown with her husband, three co-workers, and three chickens in Te Whanganui-a-Tara.

Pages from the Official Compac Booklet issued by The New Zealand Post Office. Courtesy: Archives New Zealand (R21682129).

A historic cable, emerging from the sand above the Okiritoto Stream, Muriwai. Photo: Bronwyn Holloway-Smith, 2015

The Official Southern Cross Cable Network Map. Image: Southern Cross Cables Ltd.

“Do not dig” marker posts at Muriwai Beach. Image: Bronwyn Holloway-Smith, 2015.

Te Ika-A-Maui, Compac Terminal. Image: K. V. Lunn, 1975. Courtesy: Archives New Zealand (R20940427).]

Bronwyn Holloway-Smith at work creating paintings of the 16 missing tiles in the Te-Ika-A-Māui mural. (Image: Courtesy Creature Design)

The Southern Cross Cable: A Tour, installation showing (L–R) The Long Walk to Northern Waters; The Southern Cross Cable: A Tour (publication); and a Power Troubles the Still, City Gallery Wellington, 2018.