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.
Aivokuvia sounds much groovier in Finnish than in English; the translation to the word would be “Images of the Brain”. But it also resonates with the idea of “brain scans”, making the term more interesting in English too; a nod to Deleuze’s film theory, but also to the fascination with the materiality of the corporeal brain, interconnected with possibilities of perception and sensation, but also with the cultural-technological framing of it.
Professor Jukka Sihvonen, whose 60th birthday is celebrated by a seminar as well as the launch of his new book Aivokuvia, has always been someone who in his writing incorporated a fantastic sense of the potentials in Finnish language and how to bend it as an active medium itself for the writing of media and film theory. Sihvonen is a major figure on the Finnish scene as well as for my personal development: he was the one who introduced so many of us at the University of Turku, 1990s and onwards, to the theoretical figures of Paul Virilio, Gilles Deleuze, Friedrich Kittler and others. Besides proper names and theorists, he inspired us to engage in a certain mode of thinking: rigorous, but creative; refusing the most obvious questions and answers; a style of thinking in the Deleuze-Guattarian sense of the word. After his Deleuze-course, we spent several extremely long houred sessions with Teemu Taira and Pasi Valiaho excavating A Thousand Plateus in our reading group. Sihvonen spoke about Virilio and video games; he suggested to read Kittler, and made us ponder what this odd German theorist was trying to say in his Kittler-deutsch. Some of us went on to participate in Kittler’s seminars, some in Wolfgang Ernst’s, both at the same address of Sophienstrasse 22. I myself owe so many of my research ideas to his inspiration – insects, for instance. Sihvonen’s interest in Cronenberg was probably initially behind that route.
A bit in tongue in cheek (yes, do not take such branding exercises ever seriously)I have also called him one of the master minds behind a “Turku School of Media Studies“.
The new book Aivokuvia is exemplary of his interests over the years. It is more of a film theoretical book: Aivokuvia ties together the films of Tarkovsky, Bigelow and Cronenberg with the philosophical engines of Deleuze and others. Besides this new book, it is still Konelihan varina [The trembling of the machinic flesh] which is my favourite book of his, and which really as a student inspired me to dive in to theories of media and technology enmeshed in a cultural historical context.
University of Turku is organising the celebration seminar Video: media, taide, teknologia [Video: media, art, technology] as well as the launch of Aivokuvia, published by Eetos-association. I wish I could be there to celebrate. Warm congrats to Jukka. Looking forward already to the next book of his.
Huhtamo wrote a book on the moving panorama - Illusions in Motion – and here is an interview with him. So if media archaeology is what keeps you up all nights, dig in.
And if you are a lucky one, and in Paris, here is something connected. Below a press release of an exhibition endorsed by Huhtamo. The text below is from his keyboard.
Where Curiosity Cabinets, Dioramas, and Augmented Realities Meet (Erkki Huhtamo)
If you happen to be in Paris between now and the end of June, make sure not to miss the exhibition Virtualia: Fééries Numeriques, an unusual event featuring works by Jean-Paul Favand, collector, artist, “natural magician,” and the founder of the Musée des Arts Forains (Museum of Fairground Arts, Paris – Bercy). For years, Favand has been designing extraordinary exhibits for his huge museum. Using original objects from his collection as backdrops and projection surfaces, he has been turning then into magnificent animated spectacles by means of digital projections, or “video mapping.”
With his team of technical experts, Favand has created an outstanding mastery in this emerging field. However, there has been a problem: Musée des Art Forains is a private museum. Although it is open for banquets and organized events all year around, the general public is only able to visit it a few times a year on special occasions. It is therefore not so easy to experience its sumptuous displays that combine traditional fairgrounds and digital magic in the spirit of the Cabinets Fantastiques of the past.
For the first time, Favand has brought his imagination out of the museum, displaying his creations at the Centre des arts d’Enghien-les-Bains near Paris (a 15-minute train ride from Gare du Nord). What one experiences at Enghien-les-Bains, an idyllic lakeside resort town that seems very far from the French capital, is a series of curious and inspiring works one is tempted to call media archaeological. Although they use ideas of Favand’s museum displays and exhibits, that are also entirely new.
At first look the exhibition seems eclectic, but one soon discovers the common spirit behind everything. There are found objects like a Japanese doll, unusual pieces of wood, and a Chinese stone slab inserted in a wooden frame, all animated by projections. There are also two unique diorama canvases from Favand’s collection. They were originally displayed by a nineteenth-century touring show named Théatre Mécanique Morieux de Paris. Its remains were discovered some years ago and bought by Favand. A once so popular but lost medium re-emerges at Enghien-les-Bains, restored by Favand’s team of experts. Already experiencing the dioramas and their effects is worth the visit.
But there is more: the exhibition also includes a mechanical spectacle named La Fete du Soleil (the Festival of the Sun), also from the repertory of the Théatre Morieux. Ingenious mechanical marionettes traverse the scene, brought to life by digital projections. It is not possible to discuss all the exhibits here, but I would like finish be mentioning a favorite of mine, an interactive display that allows the visitor to manipulate a digital 3D simulation of a seemingly ordinary stone, much like the stones that form the pavements of Village de Bercy, a popular destination in the heart of Paris. No-one seems to pay any attention to them, except Favand.
This exhibit takes us to the heart of Favand’s art: whether it uses antique objects, found pieces of naturalia, or digital and interactive displays, it constitutes an extended act of looking. Favand persuades the spectator to stop and wonder. He seems to say: there is nothing prosaic or boring; everything is saturated with meanings and experiences; the task is to stop, pay attention, and wonder. Virtualia does exactly that. Its exhibits are not as spectacular as the ones at his museum (the exhibition hall at Enghien-les-Bains is rather limited), but the spirit animating them is the same. Go and see yourself!
Not every professor has an office like this. Peep into Erkki Huhtamo’s (UCLA) media archaeological office through this video, and get a taster of his enthusiasm as a collector: zoetropes, mutoscopes, kinetoscope. It demonstrates the curiosity cabinets of media history but also the need to train specialists who are able to maintain these instruments as part of the living heritage of media cultures outside the mainstream. The devices prompt us to ask questions concerning difference: how different media culture could be, and has been.
The video is a good insight to the just released Huhtamo book on the moving panorama: Illusions in Motion, just out from MIT Press.
What is Media Archaeology? gives no direct answer to the question that it poses. Instead, it gives a map – a cartography of how to see the field of media archaeology defined by various theories and directions, that help us to go to places – and think things. However, I remember trying to think through definitions of media archaeology – a useful task to bring clarity. I originally doodled something like this for my working blog for that WiMA book, but let’s return to that now. This thinking aloud was partly triggered by my soon to be new colleague Sunil Manghani’s question…so how does media archaeology differ from media history.
Here is one attempt to give a definition – sort of coordinates, although this does not exhaust the richness of MA and its various traditions.
Media archaeology can be understood as a heterogeneous set of theories and methods that investigate media history through its alternative roots, forgotten paths, neglected ideas and machines. It explicitly challenges the supposed newness of digital culture. Media archaeology gives new ideas to understand media cultural temporality. The definitions have ranged from emphasising the recurring nature of media cultural discourses (Huhtamo) to media archaeology as an-archaeology, or variantology (Zielinski) which in its excavation of the deep time layers of our means of seeing and hearing tries to find an alternative route to dismantle the fallacy of linear development.
Furthermore, I see media archaeology as a joint history & theory venture in which temporal excavation of media functions as a theoretical force as well; it can be characterised as a reading of old media and new media in parallel lines. Media archaeology is decisively non-linear, and rigorously theoretical in its media historical interest of knowledge. In a Benjaminian vein, it abandons historicism when by it is meant the idea that the past is given and out there waiting for us to find it; instead, it believes in the radical assembling of history, and histories in the plural, but so that it is not only a subset of cultural historical writing. Instead, media archaeology needs to insist both on the material nature of its enterprise – that media are always articulated in material, also in non-narrative frameworks whether technical media such as photography, or algorithmic media features such as databases and software networks – and that the work of assembling temporal mediations takes place in an increasingly varied and distributed network of institutions, practices and technological platforms.
Indeed, what media archaeology investigates are also the practical rewirings of time, as is done in media artistic and creative practice work, through archives digital and traditional, as well as DIY and circuit bending which recycle, and remix obsolete technology as much as they investigate aesthetic and political economic conditions of technical media.
Media archaeology takes place in artistic labs, laboratories where hardware and software are hacked and opened, but also in in conceptual labs for experimenting with concepts and ideas.
So as you can see, it moves into certain material characteristics that I want to keep close to media archaeology. It does not mean that this it the only to approach MA. For instance, here is what Huhtamo wrote.
Much waited for… and soon out, Erkki Huhtamo’s massive study on the moving panorama: Illusions in Motion. Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles.
Forthcoming from MIT Press, watch out for this book by the leading media archaeologist. It really is such a meticulous study and massive source base through which he investigates one possible way to understand visual media culture. Oh and it’s a beautiful book, filled with images, nicely composed as part of the text.
“Pioneer of the media archaeological methodology, Huhtamo reveals in this book his roots as a cultural historian. Illusions in Motion is painstakingly well researched and meticulously composed. Besides excavating the histories of this neglected medium, the moving panorama, it offers an empirically grounded example of how to research media cultures. Huhtamo shows us what fantastic results patient research can achieve.”
Media archaeology takes place outside archives too; if for instance for theorists such as Wolfgang Ernst, part of his work is in conjunction with the Media Archaeological Fundus (Berlin) as a place of pedagogical dimensions for the operational media archaeological approach, then for Huhtamo, media archaeology can be performed too. Not in labs, but on stage:
In true Victorian traveling showman style, Huhtamo will perform in Los Angeles in early August!