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:
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.
“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.
“We have never been human: between animality and techne” is the new special issue of Angelaki. It is released just now and features a range of exciting articles – thanks to Ron Broglio for his work in getting this edited together.
More seriously, it is about visual and non-visual cultures of the eco crisis, and aesthetic epistemologies and ontologies of it all. It also elaborates on the term “medianatures” that I have been using recently. An abstract below.
This text focuses on how to think the visual culture of disappearance – more closely, disappearance of animals. It takes as its starting point the Ernst Jünger novel The Glass Bees from 1957 in order to start an excavation into obsolescence, animals and the ecological crisis. The aesthetic themes of visibility/invisibility are entangled with the ecological questions of disappearance and pollution. This sort of media ecological question is unravelled, furthermore, with examples concerning the mass extinction of bees, also discussed in Lenore Malen’s video installation The Animal That I Am (2009–10). In this way, it argues for a media theoretical understanding of the visual culture of ecocrisis as well as the complex question of epistemology of such a visibility/invisibility.
There are no clouds, just data centres. But suddenly they tickled the science-fictional nerve again when Google released its “inside view” to their factories of data: it has colours! The rather glitzy pictures showed this seeming transparency and the spatial sense of data management. Besides space, it’s about the elements. Air, water plays a crucial role.
In a great phrase in Andrew Blum’s book Tubes, a Facebook data centre manager (Ken Pratchett) sums it up: “This has nothing to do with clouds. It has everything to do with being cold.” Cool, cold data is not just a linguistic or visual metaphor, despite that elegant modernism that still lives inside the architectures of data places: Mondrian as data. Instead, it has to do with climate control. Ecology. Air. Coolness is not a media theoretical attitude in this context but a media management issue that ties the earth to the escape velocity of data.
Data needs air. “Cool outside air is let into the building through adjustable louvers near the roof; deionized water is sprayed into it; and fans push the conditioned air down onto the data center floor” , explains Blum. Coolness of cyberpunk transforms into coolness of building’s climate control. Fans surround the terabytes of data. Pratchett continues about the building: “The air hits this concrete floor and roils left and right. This whole building is like the Mississippi River. There’s a huge amount of air coming in, but moving really slowly.”
It’s important to notice the persistence of issues of ecology from air to the soil as well as non-cognitive work: that we still talk of factories and rather physical processes having to do with our hardware and how we manage and work with data in its material level.
Blum: “The cloud is a building. It works like a factory. Bits come in, they get massaged and put together in the right way and sent out.”
A different sort of steam punk for the 21st century.
A collection that looks really exciting: Depletion Design: A Glossary of Network Ecologies, edited by Carolin Wiedemann & Soenke Zehle. I was happy to be involved with a tiny text on dust and new materialism. A lot of my recent writing and interests have had to do with depletion, exhaustion, and things dead or discarded – as with zombie media. More things (texts) grim and grey forthcoming.
You can download the book here. Below a blurb about its contents.
“We, or so we are told, are running out of time, of time to develop alternatives to a new politics of emergency, as constant crisis has exhausted the means of a politics of representation too slow for the state of exception, too ignorant of the distribution of political agency, too focused on the governability of financial architectures. But new forms of individual and collective agency already emerge, as we learn to live, love, work within the horizon of depletion, to ask what it means to sustain ourselves, each other, again. Of these and other knowledges so created, there can no longer be an encyclopedia; a glossary, perhaps.”
Contributors: Marie-Luise Angerer (Cyborg), Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (Exhaustion, Soul Work), David M. Berry (On Terminality), Zach Blas (Queer Darkness), Drew S. Burk (Grey Ecology), Gabriella Coleman (Anonymous), Heidi Rae Cooley (Ecologies of Practice), Sebastian Deter- ding (Playful Technologies, Persuasive Design), Jennifer Gabrys (Natural History, Salvage), Johannes Grenzfurthner & Frank A. Schneider (Hackerspace), Eric Kluitenberg (Sustainable Immobility), Boyan Manchev (Disorganisation, Persistence), Lev Manovich (Software), Sonia Matos (Wicked Problems), Timothy Morton (Ecology without Nature), Jason W. Moore (Cri- sis), Anna Munster (Digital Embodiment), Brett Neilson (Fracking), Sebastian Olma (Biopoli- tics, Creative Industries, Vitalism), Luciana Parisi (Algorithmic Architecture), Jussi Parikka (Dust Matter), Judith Revel (Common), Ned Rossiter (Dirt Research), Sean Smith (Informa- tion Bomb), Hito Steyerl (Spam of the Earth).
This is another interview, and audio recording now available, that I did in Berlin in 2011. It is my chat with Martin Howse, of microresearch, and the project(s) together with Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan: decrystallisation, recrystallisation and the later Crystal Worlds in Berlin and London. We talk of what the crystal project means, ideas related to art methods, and ending up with evil media.
Apologies for a bit lousy quality of the sound in my recording.
I am here recapping some ideas from an earlier post, but I wanted to flag this as a separate theme…
I want to pick up on Siegfried Zielinski’s notion of deep time of the media – not straightforwardly media archaeological, but an anarchaeological call for methodology of deep time research into technical means of hearing and seeing. In Zielinski’s vision, which poetically borrows from Stephen Jay Gould’s paleontological epistemology at least in its vision, the superficiality of media cultural temporality is exposed with antecedents, hidden ideas, false but inspiring paths of earlier experimenters from Empedocles to Athanius Kircher, Johann Wilhelm Ritter to Cesare Lombroso.
Zielinski’s excavations are not content to stay within the regime of media archaeology, but want to uncover a non-linear layering of variations. Indeed, in a manner that seems to be borrowing from a Deleuze-Guattarian ontology of nomadism and the primacy of variation (I don’t however think that Z makes the link to DG explicit), Zielinski’s methodology is in this sense a refusal of any master plans of media development and a plea against both the drive towards psychopathia medialis (the standardization and uniformity as well as illusions of teleology). Instead, the paleontological conceptualisation of a media history of variations finds surprising case studies of aberrants paths for hearing and seeing, of optics and acoustics, of technical means of guiding, misguiding, educating and mocking the senses.
And yet, as an alternative deep time, I suggest that instead of male heroes, we approach a more geologically tuned deep time – deep in various senses, down to mineral excavation, and picking up some themes of media ecological sort. I want to speculate with a more geologically oriented notion of depth of media that is interested in truly deep times – of thousands, millions, billions of years and in depth of the earth; A media excavation into the mineral and raw material basis of technological development, through which to present some media historical arguments as to how one might adopt a material perspective in terms of ecological temporality.
For instance for the European Union, the future of information technology has to be planned starting from a material level up: The EU does not hold much in terms of critical raw material resources when it comes to advanced technology that are identified crucial for a longer term socio-economic change. Obviously, such issues are always voiced with a concern for the geopolitical-economic consequences. In short, this refers to the crucial status of China, Russia, Brazil, Congo and for instance South-Africa as producers of raw materials, and an alternative material future of technological culture. This connects to a realisation: the materiality of information technology starts from the soil, and underground – 500 meters, and preferably (for the mining companies) lower as the earth’s crust is dozens of kilometres deep.
Cobalt —- Lithium-ion batteries, synthetic fuels
Gallium —- Thin layer photovoltaics, IC, WLED
Indium —– Displays, thin layer photovoltaics
Tantalum —- Micro capacitors, medical technology
Antimony —– ATO, micro capacitors
Germanium —– Fibre optic cable, IR optical technologies
Niobium —– Micro capacitors, ferroalloys
Neodymium —- Permanent magnets, laser technology
From animals to nature as a resource, a material ecology for media is an increasingly important topic. This is the double bind that relates media technologies to ecological issues; on the one hand, acting as raw material for the actual hardware, from cables to cell phones; on the other hand, as an important epistemological framework whether in relation to mapping of climate change or in terms of further resources for exploitation, as in the recent proposal not just for Internet of Things – but Internet of Underwater Things.
Perhaps an alternative sort of a deep time of the media is needed – one that does not excavate deep times of human inventions, successful or just imagined, but deep times of animal and geological sort, and the cultural techniques that are affiliated with such non-human regimes? This could be a further advance to consolidate the work of media ecology and zootechnics (cf. Sebastian Vehlken’s recent work in this area, as well as Insect Media).