Winchester School of Art PhD students have a lovely exhibition up at Hartley library in Southampton. Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research features the range of practice-based research we engage in at the School but also underlines more broadly connections of theory and practice. Curated by Jane Birkin, the pieces illuminate through various different materials the critical audiovisual, installation and time-based mobilize as insights to cultural reality. From archives to gender culture, to non-Western perspectives, contexts of religon and culture and in general, image-text relationships, the pieces are themselves ways in which to unfold the methodologies of practice at a research-led art school (WSA is part of the Russell Group University of Southampton).
“Notes on Practice” the first pages of the short catalogue leaflet promises. “To text experimentally, to put to test; n. the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it; v. to perform an activity or exercise a skill repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency.” The dictionary definition resonates with the manner of doing things as research. But the exhibition also reminds that theory itself is a practice that unfolds through its engagements – the necessity to stay open to the encounter of – the world in its audiovisual, affective materiality.
Art schools occupy an interesting role in post World War II Britain, addressed also in John Beck and Matthew Cornford’s Journal of Visual Culture-text “The Art School in Ruins“. Indeed, it’s an important realization that with the increase in generalised discourse about “creativity” which penetrates the social and economic fabric – including business-talk – the waning of art schools has been ensured by lack of public funding. It is telling of a current odd ideological production of reality of creative culture. In current contexts of importance of art and design, it is encouraging to see how notions of art practice emerging in a university context too can inform the wider set of academic and critical questions in visual culture and design; textile and fashion; as well as gender and political reality (of for instance post-Communist era as in one of the pieces).
Perhaps photochemical smog is the only true new visual media of post World War II technological culture. It represents the high achievements in science and technology, combined with (synthetic) chemistry and sunlight. It modulates the light like advanced visual media should and embeds us in its augmented reality as we suck it into our lungs.
It encapsulates the mediatic cities of Los Angeles and Beijing, as encompassing surely as Hollywood’s machinery. Just like the material basis of technical media of more conventional kind – such as photography and film – it is chemical based. It is media the same as any photochemical process is about how light gets absorbed on our planet’s atoms and molecules.
But it’s new media, particular to the modern industrial age and the chemical reactions of more recent history. It feeds of industrial pollution and modern transport. It is about the screen as well – how the sunlight is offered this massive living chemical molecular screen on which to project its energetic images. A molecular aesthetics of an ecology of a dying planet.
Friedrich Kittler’s words seem prophetic, telling the story of metadata and its politically sustained unreachability: “Maybe Jagger was wrong. We can always get what we want, from CDs to cable TV. Just not what we need: information on information. The fact that currents of media desires flow camouflages a situation in which information technology is strategy.
Paul Feigelfeld has done a great thing and translated Friedrich Kittler’s text “No Such Agency” from 1986 into English. What seems a rather visionary move – to talk of the NSA technological surveillance activities in the 1980s already – is just a proof of the German media theorists ability to perceive the intimate link modern forms of intelligence and technology have. Below our short intro to the translation, written together with Paul:
Introduction to Kittler’s “No Such Agency”
by Paul Feigelfeld and Jussi Parikka
German media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s short text on the NSA (National Security Agency) titled “No Such Agency” was originally published in 1986. The German newspaper and online publication TAZ decided to publish the piece from its archives in January 2014, after months of heated discussion about the NSA after the Snowden leaks. What the piece reveals is less the idea that Kittler should be branded a visionary, but that the NSA has a long technological history.
The text is a sort of a review of, or at least inspired by, James Bamford’s book The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization (1983) and its German translation, NSA. Amerikas geheimster Nachrichtendienst, which came out in German in 1986.
At the time, Kittler had just fought through Aufschreibesysteme: 1800-1900 as his habilitation, and Gramophone, Film, Typewriter was looming. More significantly, however, he had just bought his first computer and taken up programming. Like Kittler, the Arpanet was slowly switching to UNIX and C as a technical standard, before the internet of the 1990s. In Germany during the 1970s, BKA chief Horst Herold had implemented “Rasterfahndung” or dragnet policing as a countermeasure to the RAF (Red Army Faction) threat. And as Kittler demonstrates in his text, the NSA’s role of power in information infrastructures was not a reaction to the internet, but an act of design within those systems.
The piece shows Kittler’s interest in secrecy and the military basis of media technologies – but significantly, it reminds us that the media theorist was always as interested in institutions as their technical networks of knowledge.
Photographer Trevor Paglen, famous for his photographic mapping of networks and sites of power in the post 9/11 US, and recently his NSA photography, argues how “secrecy ‘nourishes the worst excesses of power’” . But for Kittler, one could say that secrecy is power: the technically mediated possibilities of circulation, restriction and gathering of information way before the Internet and much before Edward Snowden was able to give us a further insight into the extensive contemporary forms of surveillance excessively interested in us humans. For Kittler, however, this already marks the possibility that the information gathering and processing machines are at some point not anymore even interested in human targets: “With the chance of forgetting us in the process.”
Read Kittler’s “No Such Agency” here.
I am pleased to announce that I have signed a contract with University of Minnesota Press for a new book tentatively called A Geology of Media.
Planned for 2015, A Geology of Media forms the third, final part of the media ecology-trilogy. It started with Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007) and continued with Insect Media (2010). This book on the geophysics and the non-organic ground of media complements the earlier takes by offering a media materialism from the point of view of geological resources, electronic waste and media arts. Through engaging with several contemporary art and technology projects it provides a media theoretical argument: to think of materiality of media beyond the focus on machines and technologies by focusing on what they consist of: the chemistry and geological materials of media, from metals to dust.
In short, I am interested to see if what pejoratively sometimes is called “hardware fetishism” is not hard enough, and even media and cultural theorists need to focus on the rocks and crust that make technical media possible. Earth history of deep times mixes with media history, which becomes a matter of not only thousands, but millions of years of non-linear history (to modify Manuel Delanda’s original idea). This way media materialism becomes a way to entangle media technologies, environmental issues and themes of global labour. Perhaps instead of the Anthropocene, we should just refer to the Anthropobscene.
I’ve been in recent talks and short posts been addressing the geological in media, and my piece in The Atlantic offered a short preview of what’s to come. In addition, below a very tentative table of contents. This project (and the Erkki Kurenniemi book I am working on with Joasia Krysa) will keep me busy for a while.
A Geology of Media
1) Introduction: Grounds of Media/Culture
2) An Alternative Deep Time of the Media
3) Psychogeophysics of Technology
4) Dust and the Exhausted Planet
5) Media Fossils
“Zombie Media”, by Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka
Siegfried Zielinski asked me to write a very short dictionary type of entry on “Archaeology” for an exhibition catalogue. The exhibition will take place at Edith Russ Haus for Media Art in 2014 and they are going to do an exhibition on Zielinski’s AnArchaeologies and Variantologies, including some artistic positions by David Larcher, Herwig Weiser, Anthony Moore and others. Below my contribution.
The 19th century disciplinary invention of “archaeology” has had major impact in and out of academia. Besides the specific methods for investigating the material remains of human cultures, of building on the fragments to create collections, narratives and modes of preservation for a varia of objects and documents, the archaeological imaginary penetrates our audiovisual culture. It persists as an imaginary of itself: the narratives and images of hidden treasures waiting to be ungrounded. And it persists as the conceptual legacy that comes not only from archaeology proper, but also from Immanuel Kant.
Kant’s idea of philosophical archaeology itself ungrounded the idea of conceptual work building on the ruins of earlier philosophers. As Giorgio Agamben argues, this lead to the more fundamental notion of arkhé that refers not to origins, but to command and commencement. In a way that resonates with the media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst’s understanding of the “arche” in (media) archaeology, this archaic moment is less the historical than the conditioning beginning of any analytical and genealogical investigation. For Agamben “[a]rchaeology is, in this sense, a science of ruins, a ‘ruinology’ whose object, without constituting a transcendental principle properly speaking, cannot really claim to be there as an empirically given totality.”
Such an understanding shifts from archaeology proper to the archaeology of knowledge in Michel Foucault’s sense. It displaces archaeology restricted to material excavations and works it into a method of archival and philosophical conditions of knowledge – its objects, statements and assumptions. With media archaeology as practiced by a variety of scholars from Siegfried Zielinski to Erkki Huhtamo, Thomas Elsaesser to Wolfgang Ernst, and even with Friedrich Kittler’s earlier writings, the material returns at the centre of the archaeological dig. It has many different meanings and ways of adopting to the object of investigation but it insists on irreducibility to the textual.
Indeed, what in archaeology are the methods necessary to approach the time before writing and the document pertains for media archaeologists both to the pre-cinematic as a similar rhetorical field of investigation and to the ontologically important idea of the arche as a command – even a technological command as the starting point for ungrounding media cultural ruins still present.
One of the low points of architecture in 2013 was architect Zaha Hadid’s football stadium in Qatar. Designed for the forthcoming games of 2022, the main part of the discussion has been about whether it resembles a vagina or not.
Besides reducing architectural discourse to a pretend shock about female genitalia, the case is emblematic of how design is detached from the actual world conditions. Instead of engaging in any way with the reports about abusive working conditions in the construction sites of such stadiums for Qatar 2022, we are left debating the building’s pinky Freudian connotations. Despite the pseudo-feminist debate it raised, a rather sad moment for design. It actually just flags detachment of both architectural popular discourse and architects such as Hadid from a connection with things that might have some material meaning or a meaningful impact for those whose lives this has a direct lived relation.
The underbelly of star designers are: “long working hours, hazardous working conditions, the workers being unpaid for months, had their passports confiscated, forced to live in overcrowded labour camps, denied the right to form unions, and without access to free drinking water in extreme heat”.
But the creative industries backed discourse of stars and creativity demands this underbelly of grey abusive low-paid and globally displaced hard work that is sustaining the fluffy public discourse about design.