“Yes I will” – “No, it is not something worthwhile”.
I’ve been going back and forth for a while whether I will try to expand my ideas concerning “geology of media” into some sort of a book or not. Without having reached a conclusion, I have however been giving talks on the topic the past times. Here is one – as video – from Bochum from the very good General Ecology-event Erich Horl organised.
There is a very nice brief biography of Gilbert Simondon online now. Besides shedding light on some aspects of his life, I was struck by this wonderful nugget of information. “In a technology workshop he created a television receiver in the basement of the school, which existed from 1953 to 1955.” We dont know if it worked, or to what channel Simondon tuned into but perhaps that is less of a concern.
What makes the case Simondon even more interesting is this involvement with hands-on tinkering. This was during his period as a teacher Lycée Descartes in Tours, where besides philosophy the thinker of individuation seemed to be interested in getting the channels in proper receiving order. What’s fascinating – and surely a good research topic for someone media archaeologically inclined – is this entanglement of philosophy with concrete technological practice in some thinkers’ lives. It was a surprise to some that Friedrich Kittler had built his own synthetiser in the 1970s but even more so one would imagine this piece of information about Simondon and TV.
With a bit of meditation, of course this is not so surprising. He was interested and researching various scientific topics, such as psychophysiology. He knew his mechanics and thermodynamics. And as we know, his philosophy is so centrally about technics. His research encompassed also more scientific aspects and he was able to install an electrocardiogram by himself. And yet, it was not that he was all completely about scientism. Quite the contrary, when you consider this lovely quote from him:
“At the level of method, science is never a feudal lord ruling over a vassal philosophy; rather, it is a relation between the spontaneous and the reflective. The spontaneous governs the reflective, as in scientism, only when the reflective activity is not contemporaneous with the spontaneous activity.”
But of course in the light of debates about knowledge and practice, we need to think what forms of alternative “philosophy” such experiments in technology could be. Can we think of extending philosophical investigations into practices of engineering and technology — with media archaeological inspiration for modern day critical engineers and circuit benders to be found in such philosophical tinkerers? Besides the focus on individuation as a key, leading theme of his writing, this attitude can also lead to insights on how to think technology. In his later research Simondon was engaged in laboratory work, where also issues of how to understand technology popped up. Besides his own extensive writings on the topic, consider then how the Lab definition of the term might be seen as a creative way of orienting ones thoughts:
““(…) This topic has been proposed for reflection by the members of the seminar to try to reach a logic of technology that is neither an empirical technique or a science, but an understanding of normal and accidental functional relationships.”
Perhaps there is something there already — in the idea of variation hidden inside that definition. Perhaps there is something in the logic of technology that resonates with the immanent conditioning forces of technology in relation to capacities of perception, sensation and memory – a whole field of interest not only the media archaeologist but also to the analyst of cultural techniques of cognitive capitalism.
Erkki Huhtamo once referred to Paul Demarinis as a thinkerer – a neologism that combines tinkering and thinking. I think the term could be broadened out to figures such as Simondon too: a thinkerer-media theorist.
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!
Neural – one of my favourite publications in the media arts, theory and sound field – published a short review of my What is Media Archaeology? Read it now online.
One of my interests of the recent times has been “microtemporality”. This interest has been spurred both by Wolfgang Ernst’s media archaeological theory and publications such as Axel Volmar’s 2009 edited volume on time-critical media. Indeed, notions of microtemporality offer ways to understand the technical conditioning of social/cultural processes on a level that is irreducible to the phenomenological. With different emphases to those of Ernst’s I know that for instance Katherine Hayles is nowadays looking at algorithmic trading from the temporal perspective too and Mark Hansen is from a more Whitehead perspective investigating ubiquitous media environments and that what escapes conscious cognition. See also Shintaro Miyazaki on these topics through the concept of Algorhythmics in Computational Culture.
In the midst of my own research into different temporalities that media archaeology offers, as well as network times/politics, I wanted to conduct a mini-interview with Wolfgang Ernst. Hence, please find below Wolfgang Ernst, responding to my question “what is time-critical media and microtemporality?”
“Technological media have a distinct quality: They are in their medium-being only in operation (“under current”). This specificity makes them especially sensitive to micro-temporal intrusion, irritation and manipulation – much more than previous cultural techniques like alphabetic writing which became time-critical only when electrically coded into telegraphy.
It was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing who in his treatise on the comparative aesthetics of poetry and visual arts Laokoon in 1766 identified what the called the “pregnant moment” in the representation of action. In electronic television the exact synchronisation, thus timing, of signals becomes crucial for the human aisthesis of image perception indeed. With techno-mathematical computing where minimal temporal moments become critical for the success of the whole process of internal calculation and human-machine communication (“interrupt”), time-criticality becomes a new object of epistemological attention in the economy of knowledge. When culture is rather counted than narrated, time-criticality needs to be focussed by process-oriented (thus dynamic) media archaeology.
Time-criticality in its media-technological context does not refer to a philosophical or critique of contemporary politics or ethics but rather to a special class of events where exact timing and the temporal momentum is “decisive” for the processes to take place and succeed at all. In its ancient Greek sense, crisis refers to the chances of decision, with its temporal form being an impulse rather than a duration or narrative – kairotic time. Kairos – the ancient Greek god of the decisive moment – becomes proverbial in post-modern just-in-time production in both industry and technologies, as well as in deadly situations like antiaircraft prediction in Second World War.
In its etymological roots, “time” itself refers to divisions of continuity, to the cutting edge. Apart from its long aesthetic tradition, the cultural impact of time-criticality escalates with (and within) technological media, starting from photographic exposure time which almost shrank towards zero. Signals which are operated with electronic speed can hardly be followed by human consciousness like, for example, symbols (printed letters) in textual reading. When signal transfer happens below human sensation, it can be spotted only by time-critical observation. For subliminal events the true archaeologist of time-critical knowledge are technical media themselves; only with the emergence of hightly sensitive measuring instruments since the 19th century time-critical processes like the runtime of signals within human nerves became analyzable at all.”
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.