I am writing a chapter for the Routledge Companion to British Media History. It’s on media archaeology, and I try to offer some insights to how we can decipher British media history through contemporary media arts. This is what I call a minor perspective to media history of Britain – often such a glorified master narrative.
This is just a brief glimpse to the beginning of the chapter. The book should be out in 2014.
Media Archaeology: From Turing to Abbey Road, Kentish Radar Stations to Bletchley Park
British media history has many great stories to tell. It has been one of the biggest inspirations for a range of accounts and for scholars that have tried to decipher the main trends of the media of modernity; from the nineteenth century establishment of standardized mail to the twentieth century Britain of the BBC that, for instance, for this author became a central symbol when he turned on the television in 1980s Finland. BBC content traveled across national boundaries, both in the structural form it provided for public broadcasting as well as through Bergerac and the FA Cup Finals over the years. British exports from television to microcomputing continued, and have established such a status that writing Britain into media history is rather redundant. It is already there, and always was there; even before actual media technologies became subsumed into the consolidated consensus about media as mass media emerged. Indeed, Britain was already there with its investment in transatlantic cables as well as pioneering scientific inquiries, in electricity and electromagnetism, prehistories of computing from Babbage to Turing and so forth. Early on, British media history was already transnational, like the transatlantic cables and telegraph clicks. It is irreducible to a simple national story, and more like something that presents an interesting case for consideration in relation to both the master narratives and the minor themes of media history.
If you are serious about speculative realism, or object-oriented, perhaps you should consider this instead.
Martin Howse, Diff in June, Link Editions, Brescia 2013. Soft cover, 740 pp., ISBN 9781291503593
Martin Howse’s weird data archaeology delivers its own set of speculations concerning a more media-specific non-human perspective that opens up the object in alternative ways. If the computer speaks it definitely sounds a bit different than narratives of philosophical discourse. This is data archaeology becoming media epistemology becoming a speculative artistic practice into onto-epistemologies. If this is forensics, it is a twisted sort where the computer self-records and narrates its own little day in the life.
“Diff in June” tells a day in the life of a personal computer, written by itself in its own language, as a sort of private log or intimate diary focused on every single change to the data on its hard disk. Using a small custom script, for the entire month of June 2011 Martin Howse registered each chunk of data which had changed within the file system from the previous day’s image. Excluding binary data, one day’s sedimentation has been published in this book, a novel of data archaeology in progress tracking the overt and the covert, merging the legal and illegal, personal and administrative, source code and frozen systematics.”
For those those interested in Howse’s earlier projects and collaborations, check out the interview we did in Berlin some years ago.
There is a new book on digital art, archives, preservation and memory out now. Edited by Annet Dekker, Speculative Scenarios, or what will happen to digital art in the (near) future? is an interesting and again timely take on some of the issues that connect media studies with archival specialists, cultural heritage with contemporary digital art practices. There are several great writers in the collection. You can find it online here and a printed version is out soonish too.
On the publisher website, the book is described as follows:
“There is a growing understanding of the use of technological tools for dissemination or mediation in the museum, but artistic experiences that are facilitated by new technologies are less familiar. Whereas the artworks’ presentation equipment becomes obsolete and software updates change settings and data feeds that are used in artworks, the language and theory relating to these works is still being formulated. To better produce, present and preserve digital works, an understanding of their history and the material is required to undertake any in-depth inquiry into the subject. In an attempt to fill some gaps the authors in this publication discuss digital aesthetics, the notion of the archive and the function of social memory. These essays and interviews are punctuated by three future scenarios in which the authors speculate on the role and function of digital arts, artists and art organisations.”
I was interviewed for the book and I talked about topics from zombie media to media archaeology & time, from the media archaeological fundus in Berlin to issues of the social. “In a way, practices – or one could say cultural techniques – of memory are actually what create the social. Perhaps the social doesn’t even exist without the various ways in which memory is sustained, articulated, archived, controlled, passed on, distributed, received, and remixed.”
“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!