Exhumation as Artistic Methodology

This is the short intro/intervention, from my second Transmediale 2012-talk on the Search for a Method-panel, organized by Timothy Druckrey, involving in addition to me Inke Arns, Siegfried Zielinski and Wolfgang Ernst. The images are from the Crystal World workshop, also Transmediale 2012.

In order to kick off the panel and discussions, we were asked to pick examples of current media artistic practices, and proceed from there.

My thoughts were soon obviously on some themes and problems that I had been occupied with. More or less, such have included speculative materialities, work often dealing with the various spectra of hearing and seeing, of light and sound, of electromagnetism; works that map the non-solid based materialities that are increasingly important in order to understand how bodies react, and are governed, managed, experienced, in urban and technological settings.

Hence, I might have wanted to address Will Schrimshaw’s Atmospheric Research and Subliminal Frequencies. To me, the project is a mapping of the subconscious affective, embodied states where architectural arrangements are as important as the informational ecology; it maps the events that happen below the threshold of consciousness, for instance through ambient light as a regulator of “hormone secretion, body temperature, sleep and alertness”.  As such, it is a practice based excavation into the physiological and technological constitution of experience, but also the possibilities of producing and governing experience; something related to my earlier talk on the “media archaeology of cognitive capitalism”.

Or then, another possibility would be to have looked at the various projects and the work of Critical Engineer, as expressed by Julian Oliver, in the manifesto co-written with Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev. The notion of the artist-engineer might not be new, having a longer history in terms of media arts, but at the same time the manifesto and works capture something crucial about the methodology of such a practitioner, through an expanded understanding of what the machine is (across devices, bodies, agents, forces and networks, as the Manifesto lists) and how that expanded notion of the machine lends itself to a work of exposing; imbalance and deception become driving forces in a mapping of such relations, often in work that engages with wireless network technologies, rethinking visual and urban media, and more. The various projects at Weise7/Labor8 exhibition downstairs, at Transmediale 2012, are good examples.

Without being just software studies, such Critical Engineering engages with code, but in the manner how it regulates, governs, manages and in the right hands, distorts, perverts, misguides, cheats. This list that sounds a whole lot like from Matthew Fuller’s and Andy Goffey’s evil media theory.

So far, the two themes that emerge show the need to 1) account for such materialities that are not directly, necessarily humanly perceptible but completely real; and 2), the need to account for practices of perversion. Altering and corrupting as more interesting technical methods than just the smooth operationality often mistaken as the essence of technological practices.

Instead, I want to briefly to mention the work of Microresearch Lab/Martin Howse, Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan, and especially the Recrystallization and Decrystallization workshops that took place in London and Berlin last year, and now during Transmediale The Crystal World Open laboratory.

The workshops used various methods to crack open and chemically process information technology in order to expose and address such constitutive processes what referred to as crystallisation. The term was partly adopted from J.G.Ballard, continuing an even earlier style of artistic practice of the Microresearch Lab, where software and hardware practices find a resonance with fiction, paranoid, speculative narratives of writers such as Thomas Pynchon (always dear to anyone interested in the 20th century articulations of power, science and engineering). As for crystallisation, with a nod towards Ballard indeed, the notion of the crystal becomes a conceptual lead in terms of a speculative materialism, described in these words:

recrystallization was convened around the premise that while life itself starts from aperiodic crystals that encode infinite futures within a small number of atoms, the digital crystallization of the flesh by capital limits these futures to the point of exhaustion.

If computers and the minerals from which they are made are considered as equally crystalline, then their recrystallization is only possible through the introduction of vigorous and noisy positive feedback loops. “

In terms of media art histories, dead media and other theoretical and methodological approaches, the work of de- and recrystallization involved such techniques as “earth computing, mineral precipitation, high heat synthetic geology and inductive crystallography, DIY semi-conductor fabrication, water crystal cryptography, anthropocenic fossilizations, kirlian photography, hi-voltage fulgurite construction ”; Listing such, however, one however has to note quite soon that well, it is not exactly media archaeology as we used to think about it. Having said that, the notion of media archaeology in creative computing and related perspectives is taking us increasingly to such techniques as computer forensics, digital archaeology, and other modes of disgorging machines where art practices meet up with DIY and perhaps indeed critical engineering.

Speculative (media) archaeologies work crudely – but crude only in the sense of hacking open, disgorging, salvaging, melting, chemically processing in order to extract the minerals and such that on a material level compose our information technology. With an increasing political economic interest in the long networks of media production and discarded media, we have a better spatial understanding of the grim labour, electronic waste and other neo-colonialist emphasis of digital economy. The workshops tapped into this field directly as well, using such practices that mimicked human labour in extraction of valuable components and material from abandoned technology. What I want to propose is that such projects are emblematic of speculative media archaeologies and such artistic practices that combine a poetic-technological take on deep times, but ones that are such in a material sense too – not just written histories, but archaeologies of soil and history of the earth. Such speculative crypto histories of the earth refer to the concrete sedimentations of minerals and rocks, that act as re-sources for further development.

The Crystal World mineral cabinet

Where such methods fit in terms of media art vocabularies might remain unclear, but it is certain that they extend the practices often discussed in media art (histories) into a resonance with speculative materialism, new materialism, media archaeology but executed in highly original ways. We can talk of crystal materialities; materialities of minerals, information technology, and materialities of dangerous inhuman labour.

Indeed, to briefly elaborate on “exhumation” as a parallel concept to that more often mentioned of autopsy (also voiced by Tim Druckrey in his opening words) I will make a detour through Reza Negarestani. Cyclonopedia – a work of theory-fiction – speculates about the petropolitical deep layer, the living soil of Middle east, and we can point towards the work of Microresearch lab and these workshops as chemical and material deep layers that go two ways: not just the route of media archaeology interested in obsolescence, abandoned tech, and things old; but the other sort of descent too, to adopt Michel Foucault’s idea, perhaps implicitly part of some methodologies of media art histories and media archaeology. I am referring to a descent inside the machine, into the technical infrastructures, layers, city-like scapes of circuits and components. This kind of technical exposes a material, abstract level of connections, affordances and capacities. In such a methodology, the topology extends across materialities –from the fictional narrativisation to the hardware materiality and the long duration of mineral elements that entangle with that of human energy exploited for the excavation.

As a topological figure, and interested in this poetic and speculative materialism, allow me to end through a longer reference to Negarestani. What if such speculative media archaeologies and artistic methodologies are something that share methods with archaeologists but also with “cultists, worms and crawling entities”; not just a sublimated view of technological progress, but an interested in scars and half-lifes, of multiplication of surfaces, and creation of vermiculation; a new hole into solid, contained bodies of consumer technology.

“If archeologists, cultists, worms and crawling entities almost always undertake an act of exhumation (surfaces, tombs, cosmic corners, dreams, etc.), it is because exhumation is equal to ungrounding, incapacitating surfaces ability to operate according to topologies of the whole, or on a mereotopological level. In exhumation, the distribution of surfaces is thoroughly undermined and the movements associated with them are derailed; the edge no longer belongs to the periphery, anterior surfaces come after all other surfaces, layers of strata are displaced and perforated, peripheries and the last protecting  surfaces become the very conductors of invasion. Exhumation is defined as a collapse and trauma introduced to the solid part by vermiculate activities; it is the body of solidity replaced by the full body of trauma. As in disinterment — scarring the hot and cold surfaces of a grave — exhumation proliferates surfaces through each other. Exhumation transmutes architectures into excessive scarring processes, fibroses of tissues, membranes and surfaces of the solid body.”

This transmutation, and distribution of new surfaces is where such familiar notions of art and culture theory vocabulary as trauma are transported into material methodologies in order to excavate the stratification of such as part of mixed materials. The “novel crystal earth geologies” extend the work of material recovery and reuse into “psychophysical distortions and contingencies” in a gesture which elaborates an enthusiasm for multiple ecologies. Media art practices that are not merely to be fitted into media art histories and genres, but themselves create new openings to times and spaces of media objects, components, times.

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