Rebecca Birch’s voice draws the hand drawing the landscape. It tells stories of trips and meetings, people and things. The projection of her unfolding drawing/narrating tells the story of her artwork in (auto)ethnographic style, and becomes an art performance itself. Birch’s work was recognized in Art Review’s March issue as one of the Future Greats and the magazine organised a party for her – addresses to a lichen covered stick.
A lichen covered stick was part of a particular roadtrip-performance-screening -project of Birch’s, and became the theme of the evening too. I was invited to be one of the speakers – addressing this assemblage and offering variations on the theme and Birch’s art. Below a short text based on my talk, one of several talks/performances alongside Francesco Pedraglio, Erica Scourti, Karen Di Franco and a playlist provided by Bram Thomas Arnold.
Imagine this talk voiced by an alter ego — a part real, part imagined Finnish lichenologist from the late 19th century, in his hallucinations of a future ecocatastrophy, and past earth times since the carboniferous era.
The memoirs of an aspiring lichenologist: media & ecology
In his short text about Rebecca Birch, Oliver Basciano gives us an image of her art works and refers to the capture of light as much as shadow through the role of the camera itself comparable to that stick covered in lichen.
“[the stick] acts as a sort of MacGuffin around which collaboration and conversation circle within the hermetic confines of a car. With this, one can perhaps understand the videocamera as taking a similar role – giving Birch the opportunity to embed herself in a community or situation that would remain closed otherwise”
Indeed, the stick persists as a thematic motif; it resides there as a silent interlocutor. The closed technological environment of the car hosts both human chatter as well as this stick of nature smuggled as part of the roadtrip.
The camera, the visual registers and works with light as well as lack of it – the shadow, darkness. In the context of lichen, consider another perspective too. Focus on the lichen as the first element that registers light, sound, movement, chemistry around it. It participates in Birch’s work so that it’s not only the camera, which registers the sounds and visions, but the lichen, a symbiotic organism itself. This refers to the scientific context of lichens as bioindicators – they register the changing chemical balance of the world. In short, lichen is a medium – a medium of storage, an inscription surface that slowly but meticulously and with the patience of non-human thing pays attention to the growth in air pollution. It’s symbiotic status is symbiotic in more than the biological way: it is involved in the material-aesthetic unfolding of ecologies social and nature.
It was a Finn, Wilhelm Nylander, who discovered in the 1880s details about the possibilities of using lichen as biodetectors; through experiments exposing lichen to chemical elements such as iodine and hypochlorite Nylander found out that one can “read” nature through this natural element. It meant a discovery of an important feature that tells a different story; it is less a narrative than a sensory registering of the environmental change that technological culture brought about gradually since the 19th century: atmospheric pollution, leaving its silent mark.
Lichen has over the years and years observed to be full of life and circuited as part of different ecologies. They have been not just objects of our attention, addressed by narratives and images but became part of the modern cycle of industrialised life. They silently observe our chatter, listen in, as well as through their earless senses know what we are doing to our surroundings. They provide housing for spiders and insects, but also some of lichens are (re)sourced as part of the high-tech industries for pharmaceuticals (antiobiotics) and cosmetics (sunscreen).
This participation in multiple ecologies, a cycle of different duration is a fascinating topic considering both our theme today as well as the broader discussions of past years concerning the anthropocene. In short, it is the discussion that started in contexts of geology and environmental debate about categorising our epoch as the Anthropocene – a geological period following the Holocene and branded by the massive impact humans, agriculture, geoengineering, and in general the scientific-technological culture has had on the planet. And now, it has gathered the wider scientific and arts/humanities community as part of the discussions that reflect a different , growing perspective to the environmental.
The anthropocene -and the obsceneties accelerating it as the anthrobscene – can be unfolded through lichen. In a rather important move, such Macguffins tell a hidden story of change. The technological culture in which nature becomes entangled with the human induced scientific changes. Visual, oral narratives give an image of this change. We tell stories of our nature, our interactions in ecology, in the environment with media which stores the remains of the planet as part of our human narratives- roadtrips, conversations, social events, accidental meetings, small details, landscapes – drawn by Birch in her performance that remediates the earlier.
In other words, lichen is besides a conversation piece also a medium. It saves this story through its biological means as storage that in our hands becomes memory – the scientific-aesthetic context of memory read through lichen. Even pollution becomes a sort of a mediated environment, like with photochemical smog. The lichenologist Nylander was on to something, more than observations about lichen. A lichenologist plays homage to the conversations lichen shares as it tells the story of a slow change since the coal pollution (sulphur dioxide) of England since the 18th and 19th century to the contemporary air of nitrogen compounds. So besides the conversation going on in Rebecca Birch’s car, there is this silent partner always present, as it has been for a longer while, and now also articulated in the visual arts/ecology-mix of an evening – Addressing the stick, but also: the lichen as the address which receives transmissions of industrial modern culture.
Nb. The party was sponsored by Absolut Vodka, with signature drinks:
Technicities is a new book series, edited at the Winchester School of Art by my wonderful colleagues John Armitage, Ryan Bishop and Joanne Phillips. The series is published by Edinburgh University Press, and is promising to “publish the latest philosophical thinking about our increasingly immaterial technocultural conditions, with a unique focus on the context of art, design and media.” Armitage and Bishop are two of the co-editors of Cultural Politics-journal, which should give some idea what sort of books they are looking for.
Erkki Kurenniemi is a curious case in media art history. He is the “Finnish hybrid of Stockhausen, Buckmister Fuller and Steve Jobs” who offers an alternative insight to past decades of interactions between art, science and technology.
He was featured at Documenta 13, part of a great exhibition at Kunsthall Aarhus, and now Kiasma (Helsinki) is running an exhibition focusing on his technological art practice.
With Joasia Krysa, we are preparing an edited collection for MIT Press on Kurenniemi’s work.
However, today is published a nice little collection of writings (in English) on Kurenniemi’s character and work: Erkki Kurenniemi – A Man From the Future! Do read and dip into an alternative insight to post World War II artistic cultures of science and engineering.
Kurenniemi: Electronics in the World of Tomorrow (1964)
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.
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.
Nathaniel Stern’s book Interactive Art and Embodiment is out! If you want a one-liner what the book is about, this does the job effectively: “How do interactive artworks ask us to perform rigorous philosophies of the body?“
It already reveals the maint thrust of the book, having to do with practices of contemporary digital art and theoretical insights into embodiment – for instance the concept of the implicit body.
Nathaniel Stern’s book is a marvellous introduction to the thinking and practice of this innovative new media artist, and to the work of others in the same field. Philosophically informed and beautifully written, it is sensitive to the many complex issues involved in making such work. –Charlie Gere is Professor of Media Theory and History in the Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University, and author of Digital Culture, Art, Time and Technology, and Community without Community in Digital Culture.
In Nathaniel Stern’s Interactive Art and Embodiment, Stern develops a provocative and engaging study of how we might take interactive art beyond the question of ‘what technology can do’ to ask how the implicit body of performance is felt-thought through artistic process. What results is an important investigation of art as event (as opposed to art as object) that incites us to make transversal linkages between art and philosophy, inquiring into how practice itself is capable of generating fields of action, affect and occurrence that produce new bodies in motion. –Professor Erin Manning, Concordia Research Chair, Faculty of Fine Arts, Concordia University, author of Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy, Director of the SenseLab and series co-editor of Technologies of Lived Abstraction.
In his very intelligent book, Nathaniel Stern shows how dynamics work: he mobilizes a range of theory and practice approaches so as to entangle them into an investigation of interactive art. Stern maps the incipient activity and force of contemporary art practices in a way that importantly reminds us that digital culture is far from immaterial. Interactive Art and Embodiment creates situations for thought as action. –Dr Jussi Parikka, media theorist, Winchester School of Art, author of Insect Media.