The text below an abstract, something I promised to present at the forthcoming Istanbul-conference on Cloud And Molecular Aesthetics. It riffs on my earlier post on smog as part of environmental art history, an ecological art history/aesthetic set of terms.
Media Moleculars of Smog Culture: An Alternative Aesthetic
Speaking of molecules, photochemical smog that covers so much of our surroundings especially in dense urban areas consists of Nitrogen Oxide (NO), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Ozone (O3) and Volatile organic compounds (RH). This is the elemental media condition across aesthetics of contemporary landscapes of industrial and post-industrial life. An urban screen, hovering above cinematic places of Los Angeles, etc. The sunlight reacts with the pollutants, resulting in a weird set of visual media: photochemical smog.
A matter of concern for inhabitants and of course biochemists, it however is also an issue we can address in our context of aesthetics, imaging and visual culture. This talk proposes to address smog – and more widely environmental issues from pollution to issues of geophysics – as relevant parts of our visual culture, proposing another sort of an angle to the “molecular”. Indeed, the constituent definition of molecular that one inherits from Deleuze and Guattari sits in relation to the ontology of perception. This molecular becomes more than a chemical description and a way to address the dynamic constitution of the (molar) individual. As Tom Conley explains, this is a sort of a “chemical animism” speaking of the elemental molecular conditions that constitute systems of “complex interactions”.
The molecular is an ontological angle that for Deleuze presents a world of “tiny perceptions” which are not only small in size but qualitatively present a different view to the whole. Hence emerges the whole agenda of micropolitics of perception and what could be called a chemistry of individuation. However, in the context of this talk, I won’t go into a detailed discussion focusing on Deleuze so much as hint towards speculative ideas of a media history of smog, environmental pollution and the technologies of tele-sensing /smog sensors as constituting a different sort of a visual culture of “new media” of mixed temporalities: the ancient rays of sun, the modern fumes of the city, and the emerging technologies of tele-sensing. I argue that such topics bring an additional angle to the already important extension of aesthetics in the realms of biotechnologies, the molecular vision, and the new diffentiating scales at which perception is constituted. Perhaps it’s the smog screens, reacting with sun light, that execute the truly ancient new media environment of post WWII culture as a sort of a non-human staging of the environmental catastrophy as well as an art historical period outside the usual categorisations.
We at the Winchester School of Art (#WSA) are hosting this lovely little event – with quite the trio: Benjamin Bratton, Jordan Crandall and Ed Keller are coming to Winchester for meetings and agreed to give a joint panel on Design, Biopolitics and Contemporary Technological Realities – and imaginaries we might want to add.
More info here, and below their titles for the short interventions in the panel:
Benjamin H. Bratton: “On Platform-Based on Robotics”
Jordan Crandall: “The Materiality of Drones”
Ed Keller: “Shadow Ecologies, An Alternate Biopolitical History”
We are proud to announce the launch of a new book series titled Recursions: Theories of Media, Materiality and Cultural Techniques. Placed with Amsterdam University Press, a publisher known for its strong track-record in film and media studies, the series will publish fresh, exciting and important books in media theory. This includes both translations and other volumes that address the core themes outlined below. I am very excited about this project and working with my co-editors Anna Tuschling and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. We have already some significant projects lined up for 2015 and more forthcoming that we will announce in the coming weeks and months. We are supported by a very strong international advisory board. Get in touch if you want to learn more but first read below for more information!
New Series Announcement
The new book series Recursions: Theories of Media, Materiality, and Cultural Techniques provides a platform for cutting- edge research in the field of media culture studies with a particular focus on the cultural impact of media technology and the materialities of communication. The series aims to be an internationally significant and exciting opening into emerging ideas in media theory ranging from media materialism and hardware-oriented studies to ecology, the post-human, the study of cultural techniques, and recent contributions to media archaeology.
The series revolves around key themes:
- The material underpinning of media theory
- New advances in media archaeology and media philosophy
- Studies in cultural techniques
These themes resonate with some of the most interesting debates in international media studies, where non-representational thought, the technicity of knowledge formations and new materialities expressed through biological and technological developments are changing the vocabularies of cultural theory. The series is also interested in the mediatic conditions of such theoretical ideas and developing them as media theory.
- Sybille Krämer – Medium, Messenger, Transmission: An Approach to Media Philosophy.
- Claus Pias – Computer Game Worlds.
- Jussi Parikka (University of Southampton)
- Anna Tuschling (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)
- Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (University of British Columbia)
- Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (Brown University, US)
- Geert Lovink (Hogeschool van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
- John Durham Peters (University of Iowa, US)
- Thomas Y. Levin (Princeton University, US)
- Marie-Luise Angerer (University of Arts Cologne, Germany)
- Eva Horn (University of Vienna, Austria)
- Markus Krajewski (University of Basel, Switzerland)
- Erick Felinto (State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
- Adalberto Müller (Federal University of Niterói, UFF, Rio de Janeiro)
- Eivind Røssaak (National Library of Norway)
- Steven Connor (Cambridge University, UK)
- Peter Krapp (UC Irvine, US)
- Antje Pfannkuchen (Dickinson College, PA, US)
- John Armitage (Winchester School of Art, UK)
- Till Heilmann (University of Siegen, Germany)
- Isabell Otto (University of Konstanz, Germany)
- Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky (University of Bochum, Germany)
- Sean Cubitt (Goldsmiths College, London, UK)
- Claus Pias (Leuphana University, Germany)
- Stefan Rieger (University of Bochum, Germany)
- Andrew Murphie (University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia)
- Axel Fliethmann (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia)
- Yuji Nawata (Chuo University, Tokyo, Japan)
Proposals for monographs or edited volumes should kindly follow the standard AUP Proposal Form (http://en.aup.nl/en/service/authors) and should also include the envisaged table of contents, an overview of the volume and abstracts of the proposed chapters or articles.
If you are interested in publishing a book with us please contact Jeroen Sondervan, Senior Commissioning Editor for Film & Media Studies at email@example.com or one of the series editors.
More information about Amsterdam University Press.
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.