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Webs as traps, networks as infrastructure – a cultural history of nets and networks

February 24, 2015 2 comments

Napoleon III’s wife was filled with awe. “De ma vie, je n’ai vue rien de plus beau”, voiced Eugenie de Montijo at the opening festivities of the Suez Canal. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful.

As Sebastian Gießmann notes about the scene, it was such a crystallisation of aesthetic sentiment with colonial aspirations, something that set the bar for the 19th century technological enthusiasm for progress and the planetary projects that defined a new global order. It was, after all, that the ceremonial boats passing through the canal were followed up by one last one; the one that lay down the telegraphic cable. Lewis Mumford’s later analysis coined already the late 19th century’s material basis as not national not continental but planetary – and this drive was visible in many of the transport projects and technological engineering too; planetary but always tied to a variety of geopolitical interests.

51oyZwp8gYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Gießmann’s extensive Die Verbundenheit der Dinge [rougly translates as the “connection of things” but there are many nice connotations for the word Verbundenheit in German, from proximity to affect, communion and bond] narrates such scenes but more broadly speaking the study functions as an inspiring cultural history of nets and networking. Even if “network theory” has been debated for 10-15 years, Gießmann is able to bring interesting angles to the material, symbolic and imaginary aspects of a truly historical view to webs, nets and more. Besides being highly readable, Die Verbundenheit der Dinge works through interesting case studies from classical literature and the history of nets in hunting, as traps, also to the legal aspects of “binding” contractual states; to spiders and webs, infrastructural networking such as canals, and onto the more computational 20th century. The diagrammatics of operational research offer a pre-internet view to how information handling was to be rationalised in visual circuits; connections of nodes and switches. Gradually the management of optimised information messages became the focus of the technical diagrams.

The book has a wonderful way of being able to account for the material and yet also aware of the cultural history of the concept in its changing forms from visual to the informatic. Gießmann is drawing on the cultural techniques-tradition of German theory in many ways. However, what distinguishes the book are the specific examples elaborated. Through addressing such historically far-reaching plans of planetary networks as the canals of the 19th century etc., the book is able to remind that at its core, networking is also currently about big infrastructural projects; Gießmann notes the early use of “networks” in the 1827 planning of Paris watersystems and it is clear that this is a lineage that is of important focus: the infrastructural engineering both of the urban realm and the connections across national interest space but also in close relation with non-governmental corporations. In many ways Gießmann’s book speaks to the same themes as recently translated study by Markus Krajewski, World Projects.

Die Verbundenheit der Dinge acknowledges the importance of mathematics and geometry in the modern history of networks, but does not cave-in to the a-historical definitions of networks that we have grown accustomed to hearing; nodes and edges might be important but also need to be historicized as the specific epistemological frameworks in which such connectivity becomes mobilized over the past 200-250 years.

Networking divides into a variety of constitutive cultural techniques such as synchronisation and switching; there is a technical element well presented in this analysis, which accompanies the political and social history. The technological becomes embedded in a history consisting of various scales of agencies. The partly automated networking finds one of its important historical events in the 1890s with the patent for Automatic Telephone-Exchange, which with the help of the switching cylinder slowly replaces the parasite in between – the telephone operator girl.

Indeed, Die Verbundenheit der Dinge alludes to how things are not purloined by humans anymore- like in the much often quoted Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter as one ur-scene of communications. Letters and messages get lost in other ways than human hands in the technological networks by way of transmission problems as an effect of the automated situation over noisy lines. Information theory but also concrete engineering solutions emerge as one key switch in the history of networking. From capture of animals the emerging networks and later the web become an infrastructural arrangement that now sets the tone for the Internet of Things as capture.

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Media archaeology of the social graph? 1930s sociological research into social relations and structures presented in the form of connection-diagrams.

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UNSW Distinguished Scholar Visit

February 19, 2015 Leave a comment

I am pretty chuffed about this visit: I received one of the University of New South Wales (Sydney) Distinguished Visiting Scholar awards and will be giving some talks and a workshop, as well as meeting loads of people during  my time in the Southern hemisphere.

It’s not a big surprise that my talks and workshop will focus on media theory, materiality and history. In the workshop, or “master class”, we will be reading key texts of German media theory, especially focusing on the concept of cultural techniques.

One of my talks (on March 17) will be on the geophysical materialities of media in art and technology, “a story less about extensions of Man than extensions of the planetary.” It’s a preview of the forthcoming book A Geology of Media.

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In addition, another one of the talks (March 16) is an early attempt on what might become a research/book project together with Lori Emerson and Darren Wershler on humanities labs/media archaeology labs. Below is the abstract for that. Thanks to Tom Apperley at UNSW for coordinating and facilitating the visit. For any queries related to the talks, contact Tom.

A Laboratory Practice? Media Archaeology Labs and Humanities Knowledge as Creation and Hacking

This talk will address media archaeology but from the angle that considers it as a spatialised, institutionalized practice. By addressing existing and emerging media archaeology labs such as in Berlin, Boulder (Colorado) and other places, it aims to offer ideas how to contextualize the idea of “labs” in contemporary humanities. Media archaeology labs are often pitched as a way to think cultural heritage and contemporary technology outside the more established institutional practices of archives and museums. Instead, the labs seem to have become sites of “hacking”, opening up technologies and pedagogical ways of appropriating past technologies as epistemological ways of understanding modern technological culture. Besides offering examples and introduction to some key ideas and practices, the talk aims to expand to artistic practices and other cross-disciplinary ways of humanities knowledge-creation.

Made By: The Finnish Institute

February 18, 2015 Leave a comment

The Finnish Institute in London has an interview series “Made By”. Alongside earlier interviews with designers, artists, etc., they did a little chat with me which you can find here.

Around the same time as this came out, early February, we had a conversation event at the Institute on historical knowledge, technology and the digital humanities. Notice the Finnish design and wooden materials that characterize the space – a sea of Aalto waiting for the audience.

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A Parisian Affair: Archéologie des médias et histoire de l’art

February 16, 2015 1 comment

France has not really been known for any particular warm academic embrace of media studies despite the otherwise interesting legacies of theories of technology. However, Sorbonne at Paris 3 is running now a seminar on media archaeology, more specifically called “Archéologie des médias et histoire de l’art” convened by Larisa Dryansky together with Antonio Somaini and Riccardo Venturi.

Their list of speakers is very exciting and for its own part demonstrates that there is a body of really interesting work on new technologies and media archaeology in France. A lot of scholars all around the country are working actively on philosophical and historical themes that pertain to media histories and contemporary culture. The Sorbonne series is part of the National Institute of Art History (INHA) and you can download the full programme (as PDF) here.

Besides individual researchers’ work and the recent MCD special issue, also future translations of work such as Friedrich Kittler’s is bound to have an impact on the conversations happening in French. Two Kittler translations are expected to come out in 2015.

Digital Thought Deserter: An Interview in e-flux

February 5, 2015 Leave a comment

In the new e-flux issue #62 you will also find an interview Paul Feigelfeld conducted with me: “Media Archaeology Out of Nature“. It focuses primarily on the themes of media theory, ecology and interfaces also with the work we do with the emerging Consortium (with WSA, University of California San Diego and Parsons School of Design, New School); synthetic intelligence, the planetary media condition, remote sensing, etc.

With a focus on the “media ecology”-trilogy of Digital Contagions, Insect Media, and the forthcoming A Geology of Media, the interview maps topics related to the ecopolitics of technological  culture. A warm thanks to Paul for the interview and supporting my aspirations to be a digital thought deserter.

“Media theory would become boring if it were merely about the digital or other preset determinations. There are too many “digital thought leaders” already. We need digital thought deserters, to poach an idea from Blixa Bargeld. In an interview, the Einstürzende Neubauten frontman voiced his preference for a different military term than “avant-garde” for his artistic activity: that of the deserter. He identifies not with the leader but rather with the partisan, “somebody in the woods who does something else and storms on the army at the moment they did not expect it.”7 Evacuate yourself from the obvious, by conceptual or historical means. Refuse prefabricated discussions, determinations into analogue or digital. Leave for the woods.

But don’t mistake that for a Luddite gesture. Instead, I remember the interview you did with Erich Hörl, where he called for a “neo-cybernetic underground”—one thatdoes not let itself be dictated by the meaning of the ecologic and of technology, neither by governments, nor by industries.”8 It’s a political call as much as an environmental-ecological one—a call that refers back to multiple (Guattarian) ecologies: not just the environment but the political, social, economic, psychic, social, and, indeed, media ecologies.”

Besides that longer e-flux text, two other short texts appeared the same day: a general audience text on media and the Anthropocene in Conversation and also a mini-interview conducted by the Finnish Institute in London as part of their Made By-series.

Three Questions on Media Criticality (#tm15)

February 1, 2015 1 comment

I was asked to participate in this short online Q&A on “Three Questions on Media Criticality”. It is presented at transmediale 2015 on this Sunday (1/2/15).

The responses were to be very short and focused. As I cannot make it to the panel myself, here are my very short responses to questions posed by Jamie Allen and his team.

Submission Date 2015-01-05 10:28:47/Jussi Parikka

What are promising modes of critique today?
I am interested in critique that produces something. In other words, a critique that sets itself not merely as oppositional but alternative; it produces alternative worlds alongside the ones it wants to depart from. Critique is creative – critique creates; this is not meant as a fluffy “everything goes”-sort of an embracement of the world but as acknowledgement of the various modalities in which critique can work, across different media practices.

What is critical about media technologies?
Media technologies offer the critical situation in which issues of power and knowledge are constantly operationalized. In other words, while we have to learn to be critical of media in the sense of media literacy, we also have to see how media IS critical; it divides and differentiates; it grounds and processes distinctions that are fundamental to cultural formations even if not always anymore even perceptible to us. After phenomenology, media ontology.

What comes after critique?

While there are good reasons to move on from critique as automatically assumed primary method and rhetorical form of theory, we have to recognize that also “critique” is a historical, changing form of a cultural technique. It has to become mediatic, executed in different materials and modalities. Critique that distances in order to keep the world (humans or non-humans) at arms length does not interest me as much as critique entangled with the world

Waves – Strings Attached

January 19, 2015 1 comment

Curated by Dr Ebru Yetiskin, the exhibition Waves (Dalgalar) is definitely worth the visit at Blok Art Space in Istanbul. The exhibition features several of the key emerging names in the Istanbul technological art scene; beautifully installed across fitting space, Waves includes an implicit media historical reference in the midst of new works of rhythm, interaction and indeed, plenty of strings attached. The theme of strings comes out beautifully in how some of the work is installed, especially Candaş Şişman’s Re-conn-act with its vertical string pillars that offer a collective acoustics space and invite to touch this vibrating environment.

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By addressing the ubiquity of the wave form as a key symbol from sound waves to brain waves, financial cycles/fluctuations and social movements, Yetiskin aims to present an aesthetic entry point to the contemporary world and its modes of representation. One key reference point across the works resides in physics and the tension between waves and particles. One could also ask in the context of the works whether this tension is nowadays, or in the context of technical media, to be described as one of waves and discrete symbols (the Turing age)? The energetic waves and their rhythms are tightly interlinked with the discrete principles of computation. Or in media historical terms; the wave is build up of many layers, from the handwritten continuity of text, to physics experiments and models such as Helmholtz’s in the 19th century; to the principles of analog computation; the curves of mathematics and waves of sine and cosine, etc. : the ubiquity of the wave is actually part of a media archaeology of various stages, itself a wave, a recurrence.

One could even use this quote by Helmholtz as one sort of a motto for this exhibition, demonstrating a link to the psychophysical and rational aesthetics that stems as part of the 19th century already:

“Aesthetics seeks the essence of the artistically beautiful in its unconscious rationality. I have… sought to reveal the hidden law that determines the mellifluousness of harmonic tonal connections. Actually, this is something that happens unconsciously as far as the overtones are concerned, which are indeed perceived by the nerves but do not usually come forth into the domain of conscious ideation; nevertheless, their pleasantness or unpleasantness is felt without the listener knowing where the grounds for such feelings lie.” (Helmholtz, Über die physiologischen Ursachen der musikalischen Harmonie, lecture from 1857, published in Vorträge und Reden in 1896 90).

Of course it has to be noted that in the case of the Waves-exhibition, often this “unconscious rationality” is algorithmic or in reference to the world of modern (quantum) physics.

In a sense, one can approach the pieces of the exhibition as implicitly illuminating the various stages where waves appear and disappear in history. Some of the work is more tightly “media archaeological” such as Erdal Inci’s reanimation of the loop – GIF animations filmed in the real world, both representing a link to pre-cinematic short loop entertainment such as mutoscope reels and the digital short format as well. Many of the work, such as Korhan Erel’s “Findings”, investigates another media historical theme, i.e. the graphical print form of sound waves; intermedia on the level of spectral signatures of frequency/time. In general, the several pieces work nicely together.

Besides the exhibition, the Waves-programme includes talks that range from physics to philosophy.

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Büşra Tunç’s Sinusoid – a still from the moving image sculpture.

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