The text below an abstract, something I promised to present at the forthcoming Istanbul-conference on Cloud And Molecular Aesthetics. It riffs on my earlier post on smog as part of environmental art history, an ecological art history/aesthetic set of terms.
Media Moleculars of Smog Culture: An Alternative Aesthetic
Speaking of molecules, photochemical smog that covers so much of our surroundings especially in dense urban areas consists of Nitrogen Oxide (NO), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Ozone (O3) and Volatile organic compounds (RH). This is the elemental media condition across aesthetics of contemporary landscapes of industrial and post-industrial life. An urban screen, hovering above cinematic places of Los Angeles, etc. The sunlight reacts with the pollutants, resulting in a weird set of visual media: photochemical smog.
A matter of concern for inhabitants and of course biochemists, it however is also an issue we can address in our context of aesthetics, imaging and visual culture. This talk proposes to address smog – and more widely environmental issues from pollution to issues of geophysics – as relevant parts of our visual culture, proposing another sort of an angle to the “molecular”. Indeed, the constituent definition of molecular that one inherits from Deleuze and Guattari sits in relation to the ontology of perception. This molecular becomes more than a chemical description and a way to address the dynamic constitution of the (molar) individual. As Tom Conley explains, this is a sort of a “chemical animism” speaking of the elemental molecular conditions that constitute systems of “complex interactions”.
The molecular is an ontological angle that for Deleuze presents a world of “tiny perceptions” which are not only small in size but qualitatively present a different view to the whole. Hence emerges the whole agenda of micropolitics of perception and what could be called a chemistry of individuation. However, in the context of this talk, I won’t go into a detailed discussion focusing on Deleuze so much as hint towards speculative ideas of a media history of smog, environmental pollution and the technologies of tele-sensing /smog sensors as constituting a different sort of a visual culture of “new media” of mixed temporalities: the ancient rays of sun, the modern fumes of the city, and the emerging technologies of tele-sensing. I argue that such topics bring an additional angle to the already important extension of aesthetics in the realms of biotechnologies, the molecular vision, and the new diffentiating scales at which perception is constituted. Perhaps it’s the smog screens, reacting with sun light, that execute the truly ancient new media environment of post WWII culture as a sort of a non-human staging of the environmental catastrophy as well as an art historical period outside the usual categorisations.
The news about the (re)discovered Andy Warhol-images, excavated by digital forensics means, has been making rounds in news and social media. In short, a team of experts – including Cory Arcangel – discovered Warhol’s Amiga-paintings from 1985 floppy discs. As described in the news story: “
“Warhol’s Amiga experiments were the products of a commission by Commodore International to demonstrate the graphic arts capabilities of the Amiga 1000 personal computer. Created by Warhol on prototype Amiga hardware in his unmistakable visual style, the recovered images reveal an early exploration of the visual potential of software imaging tools, and show new ways in which the preeminent American artist of the 20th century was years ahead of his time.” The images are related to the famous Debbie Harry-image Warhol painted on Amiga.
The case is an interesting variation on themes of media art history as well as digital forensics. As Julian Oliver coined it in a tweet:
The media archaeological enters with a realisation of the importance of such methods for the cultural heritage of born-digital content, but there’s more. The non-narrative focus of such methodologies is a different way of accessing what could be thought of as media archaeology of software culture and graphics. The technological tools carry an epistemological, even ontological weight: we see things differently; we are able to access a world previously unseen, also in historical contexts.
But there is a pull towards traditional historical discourses. The project demonstrates a technical understanding of cultural heritage and contemporary software culture but rhetorically frames it as just another part of the art historical/archaeological mythology of rediscovering long lost masterpieces of a Genius. This side still needs some updating so that the technical episteme of the excavation, detailed here [PDF] can become fully realised. Techniques of reverse engineering as well as insights into image formats as ways to understand the technical image need to be matched up with discourse that is able to demonstrate something more than traditional art history by new means. It needs to be able to show what is already at stake in these methods: a historical mapping of the anonymous forces of history, to use words from S. Giedion.
Scholars such as Matt Kirschenbaum have already demonstrated the significant stakes of digital forensics as part of a radical mindset to historical scholarship, heritage and media theory and we need to be able to build on such work that is theoretically rich.
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.
Winchester School of Art are one of the partners of the transmediale-festival, which takes place again in January/February 2014 in Berlin. This short text below is a sort of a trailer to our bit for the event: the text is co-written by myself and Ryan Bishop and the the contribution to tm14 is likewise co-curated by us. The text gives an indication of some of the themes we will discuss during the festival and conference week, and it draws on some of our work on these topics: Ryan’s writing on the four elements and contemporary aesthetics, and my work-in-progress book project on “geology of media” and what I pitch as the anthropobscene – a new geological era catalysed by the corporate capitalist measures of depletion and exploitation.
Ryan Bishop and Jussi Parikka:
The Elemental Media Condition
Ever since such early geologists as James Hutton and Charles Lyell voiced a distance from biblical time, the Earth has had a proper history. The natural historical durations of the Earth have, despite academic disciplinary divisions, always intertwined with human history. In the current moment, the complex interactions of the two seem more prescient than ever. To follow in the footsteps of Dipash Chakrabarty, the horizon of the anthropocene forces historians to think of durations of nature as entangled with social history, and the historiographical functions of temporality need to be considered alongside such vectors that acknowledge the work of capitalism as a specific epoch. In this sense, we would like to refer not only to the anthropocene as the debated new geological era in scientific classification, but also what can be called the anthropobscene. This portmanteau word combines anthropocene with obscene, thus highlighting the vicious exploitative actions of corporations, governments and other agencies operating on different levels: from human individuals to multigovernmental organisations and transnational corporations. In much the same manner that Jean Baudrillard reconfigured the subject-object relationship placed within a scene as a network-screen relationship in the obscene, the anthropobscene reconstitutes the relationship between human scales of intervention into those of the geological. Thus, amongst other things, it refers to the obscenity of heavy pollution of the earth and the air, bringing back discussions of the four elements as found in the Pre-Socratic thinker Empedocles, whose writings strike both ancient and contemporary chords. Cultural theorists, such as Gary Genosko, have voiced an urgency for a renewed consideration of the elements.
For Empedocles, humans, nature and the universe contain the same elements. Flesh and blood are composed of approximately equal parts of earth, fire, water, and aether: the four elements that constitute the universe. The entire material world for Empedocles comes from the mixture and amounts of these four elements, the mixing of which he likens to paints on an artist’s palette with their different effects due to combinatory portions. This insight of multiple and diverse substances generated through combinations and proportionality becomes a cornerstone of modern science and chemistry. The harmony of Love and the discord of Strife result from the proportionality of the elements with each constantly changing and warring with the others. The Empedoclean elements of this cosmogony and in nature constitute both media and content. They make, transform and destroy at the same time.
Empedocles’ writings use physics to derive an understanding of ethico-political, even moral, laws. In the teaching of Empedocles the problem of substances as they present themselves to us takes a specific form: how do the Many come from One and One from Many? The primary and ultimately determinate forces behind the various manipulations, combinations and transformations of the elements in Empedocles are in the standard translations Love and Strife, which move in cycles of harmony and disharmony that reign over all of nature, including humans, fish, beasts and birds. But the elements are not simply passive recipients of the forces of Love and Strife. They can and do themselves act as causal agents, influencing the waxing or waning of Love or Strife.
Contemporary media culture can be opened up through such a consideration of elements. Indeed, as the philosopher Erich Hörl has argued, the technological is one crucial condition for the discourse – and practical existence – of this hypothetical anthroposcene – and anthropobscene, we might add. For artists such as Robert Smithson in truly Empedoclean fashion, the tectonic realms of the Earth and the mind are interconnected. Smithson’s account amounts to a critique of the McLuhan-focussed idea of technology as extensions of Man. Instead, for Smithson, writing in 1968 in Artforum, it is elemental. One is here tempted to think it is elemental in the sense of the Pre-Socratic four elements, as well as elemental in the sense that those elements are more crucial than ever for a consideration of the biopolitical condition. Such aspects range from the materiality of data mining to environmental exploitation.
3-2-1 the whistle blows. Click-click-click-click…
It’s image making but not just photography – instead, it provides an alternative route for histories of media; instead of a preference for the centrality of the seriality of the moving image, try starting from the cybernetic. “The cybernetic hypothesis”, as Alex Galloway coined it in his talk at the Winchester Centre for Global Futures that was a kick-starter for the project.
The whistle, the 24 cameras, set around a circular studio, a rotunda on which a stool for the model – an assemblage that connects the early 1860s with the 2012 reconstruction inside which I too sat to be photographed, and to be sculpted from those 24 shots. Originally this was Francois Willeme’s photosculpture, a curious arrangement and a patent from 1860s Paris that defined what Galloway calls one early model for parallel media.
Winchester School of Art Fine Art undergraduate students took up the original blueprints and the idea as their own model for a project led by Ian Dawson and Louisa Minkin and produced a fantastic remake of the Willeme-device. Inspired by Alex Galloway’s talk, and partly framed as a media archaeological project, it presents indeed a very inspiring way to address sculpture, parallel imaging and informational culture. Like so many media archaeological art works, it suggests how you can presence old media ideas – often not very mainstream – in current settings; like taking an alternative viewpoint not only to media art history, but also to current image cultures.
The photosculpture – which indeed as sculptural mediates the imaging into physical three dimensional objects and presents a sort of an archaeology of 3-D digital imaging/modelling – shifts our perceptual coordinates. It forces itself as a rather (in a good way) weird part of the cultures of digital imaging with its historically “out-dated” way of understanding media. That is the beauty of the device and the arrangement; it is a historical and media archaeological exercise in practice-led activity that investigates the conditions of visuality and perhaps even cybernetic culture, as Galloway claims.
“A sculptor and the sun will become collaborators working together to fashion in 48 hours busts or statues of a hitherto unknown fidelity of such great boldness in outline and admirable likeness.” Those were the words of the journalist Henri de Parviel, describing the original piece by Willeme. You can see how it describes the emerging business in quickly produced, sculpted visuality – a bust in “admirable likeness” in no time! The WSA project taps into the way in which visual technologies were starting to be mobilized into consumer products and services, but old media ideas can be cheap R&D too (to use the phrase by Garnet Hertz) for artistic ideas and reappropriations, and engage with the multiple medialities that our media technologies consist of: it’s not only about the photographic visuals, nor just sculpture, nor just a genealogy of the informatics, but a folding of various medialities. Even a single technological assemblage and practice can contain so much, as the project demonstrated. Media are never about single objects, devices or apparata – but a multiplicity of techniques and technologies assembled. Hence, a hands on assembling is itself a process of thinking through this multiplicity of media and arts apparata in order to get a sense of the delicate materialities and techniques which they enable, and how they are themselves enabled.
(For further reference, a film from 1939 from the Pathe archives, with Marcus Adams in his studio demonstrating the photosculpture)
Some years ago, probably in 2008 or so, I remember pitching with another writer a book proposal to a publisher. It would have been a short introduction to “new materialism”, a theoretical wave that argued/s for there to be much more in the world than representations, signifying structures and ideologies — that non-human things exist, independently of us, and that for us to understand matter and embodiment, we need to see it as active, dynamic and stemming from the primacy of relations. Well, the proposal did not get too far. The other reviewer was more or less puzzled about the whole existence of the term, writing that it was just invented for the purposes of the proposal and did not have currency outside in academic debates — in other words, new materialism does not exist (despite the proposal flagging that it is not only Manuel Delanda who had used the term but also Rosi Braidotti, with significant theoretical debates in material feminisms of for instance Grosz and Barad, and of course theoretical ideas since Lawrence Grossberg to the very different ideas of matter and the non-human by Latour and even Kittler!).
Only within months books with “new materialism” in their title, or with allusions to it, like Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, started to come out and even more strongly identify a field and a wave of interest. This theoretical discourse has been recently continued with publications such as New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. For me, it is important to really understand the multiplicity in debates concerning matter, the real and non-human — something that at times get understood very narrowly and in a very recent context, despite the longer roots of such ideas. Dolphjin and van der Tuin write nicely that “Our proposition is that new materialism is itself a distinctive trend, both in feminist theory and in cultural theory more broadly, and a device or tool for opening up theory formation.” (100)
Another book discussing new materialism – especially in art theory and practice – is now out. Edited by Barbara Bolt and Estelle Barrett Carnal Knowledge: Towads a New Materialism Through the Arts engages with a range of practices and artistic media, from painting to video, film to dance in order to elaborate new vocabularies of materiality. I have not seen the whole book yet, but I myself co-authored a piece on dance — on a fantastic choreography performed by himself, Tero Saarinen: a modulation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, now called Hunt. The media artist Marita Liulia did the visuals. The piece is explosive. The angle of the text is on dynamics of movement, primacy of relations and biopolitics of dance.
Jack White might not agree but White Stripes’ “Rag & Bone” goes at the top of my list for the theme tune for zombie media and media archaeology. Listen to it.
If you don’t want it, we’ll take it; if you don’t want to give it to us, we keep walking by.
Keep going, we’re not tired.
Got plenty of places to go, lots of homes we ain’t been to yet.
West side, southwest side, middle-east, rich house, dog house, outhouse, old folks house, house for unwed mothers, halfway homes, catacombs, twilight zones.
Looking for techniques, turntables to gramophones.
So take a last lick of your ice cream cone.
And lock up what you still want to own.
But please be kind.
And don’t rewind.
All of your pretty, your pretty little rags and bones.
All that obsolete stuff and junk, piled up, ready to be used, reused, modified and reappropriated – your rags and bones that fill the attic, the junkyard, the garage.
Of course, this applies to Jack White/White Stripes more generally too. He might not acknowledge that also the pre-digital is technological but still, this is where it actually gets interesting. For instance recording in non-digital studios (Elephant was recorded in London, at Toerag Studios):
It’s all tech, and scholars of music technologies and sound recording could tell much more about that. For Kittler, of course, it was about the reuse of war technologies in the studio, from Stockhausen’s late 1950s use of “the pulse generator, indicating amplifier, band-pass filter, as
well as the sine and square wave oscillators “, all remnants “ discarded U.S. Army equipment” (1999: 97) to Abbey Road . Microphones and tape technologies, all points to the primacy of the studio as this set, place of experimental modes of time axis manipulation and hence reality manipulation. Continuing with Kittler: “Berliner’s primitive recording technology turns into a Magical Mystery Tour. In 195 4 , Abbey Road Studios, which not coincidentally produced the Beatles’ sound, first used stereo audiotapes; by 1970 eight-track machines had become the standard; today discos utilize 3 2 or 64 tracks, each of which can be manipulated on its own and in unison.226 “Welcome to the machine, ” Pink Floyd sang, by which they meant, “tape for its own ends-a form of collage using sound .” In the Funkspiele of the Abwehr, Morse hands could be corrected; in today’s studios, stars do not even have to be able to sing anymore. When the voices of Waters and Gilmour were unable to hit the high notes in “Welcome to the Machine,” they simply resorted to time axis manipulation: they dropped the tape down half a semitone while recording and then dropped the line in on the track.” (109)
Similarly, it’s the operative technics that allows Jack White to do his rag & bone sort of technicity, completely technological too, and why not even a bit of zombie mediaesque in some of its valorisation of the media archaeological moment. Obviously, part of the narrative of rock is the insistance on the authencity which itself is consolidated through technical media.
And that is the trick. In the perceptive note by Ryan Bishop and John Phillips, in their book on avantgarde aesthetics and military/modern technologies they write of this constitutive role of media as environments for such a narrative that keeps on recurring — and is itself recursive in relation to the technological platform sustainining it: ” […] recording technology – like military surveillance technology – is designed to reduce the evidence of the technology itself, bringing the performance into your living room or bar, replacing “live” music, perhaps to the detriment of live performers.” (2011: 89).