Napoleon III’s wife was filled with awe. “De ma vie, je n’ai vue rien de plus beau”, voiced Eugenie de Montijo at the opening festivities of the Suez Canal. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful.
As Sebastian Gießmann notes about the scene, it was such a crystallisation of aesthetic sentiment with colonial aspirations, something that set the bar for the 19th century technological enthusiasm for progress and the planetary projects that defined a new global order. It was, after all, that the ceremonial boats passing through the canal were followed up by one last one; the one that lay down the telegraphic cable. Lewis Mumford’s later analysis coined already the late 19th century’s material basis as not national not continental but planetary – and this drive was visible in many of the transport projects and technological engineering too; planetary but always tied to a variety of geopolitical interests.
Gießmann’s extensive Die Verbundenheit der Dinge [rougly translates as the “connection of things” but there are many nice connotations for the word Verbundenheit in German, from proximity to affect, communion and bond] narrates such scenes but more broadly speaking the study functions as an inspiring cultural history of nets and networking. Even if “network theory” has been debated for 10-15 years, Gießmann is able to bring interesting angles to the material, symbolic and imaginary aspects of a truly historical view to webs, nets and more. Besides being highly readable, Die Verbundenheit der Dinge works through interesting case studies from classical literature and the history of nets in hunting, as traps, also to the legal aspects of “binding” contractual states; to spiders and webs, infrastructural networking such as canals, and onto the more computational 20th century. The diagrammatics of operational research offer a pre-internet view to how information handling was to be rationalised in visual circuits; connections of nodes and switches. Gradually the management of optimised information messages became the focus of the technical diagrams.
The book has a wonderful way of being able to account for the material and yet also aware of the cultural history of the concept in its changing forms from visual to the informatic. Gießmann is drawing on the cultural techniques-tradition of German theory in many ways. However, what distinguishes the book are the specific examples elaborated. Through addressing such historically far-reaching plans of planetary networks as the canals of the 19th century etc., the book is able to remind that at its core, networking is also currently about big infrastructural projects; Gießmann notes the early use of “networks” in the 1827 planning of Paris watersystems and it is clear that this is a lineage that is of important focus: the infrastructural engineering both of the urban realm and the connections across national interest space but also in close relation with non-governmental corporations. In many ways Gießmann’s book speaks to the same themes as recently translated study by Markus Krajewski, World Projects.
Die Verbundenheit der Dinge acknowledges the importance of mathematics and geometry in the modern history of networks, but does not cave-in to the a-historical definitions of networks that we have grown accustomed to hearing; nodes and edges might be important but also need to be historicized as the specific epistemological frameworks in which such connectivity becomes mobilized over the past 200-250 years.
Networking divides into a variety of constitutive cultural techniques such as synchronisation and switching; there is a technical element well presented in this analysis, which accompanies the political and social history. The technological becomes embedded in a history consisting of various scales of agencies. The partly automated networking finds one of its important historical events in the 1890s with the patent for Automatic Telephone-Exchange, which with the help of the switching cylinder slowly replaces the parasite in between – the telephone operator girl.
Indeed, Die Verbundenheit der Dinge alludes to how things are not purloined by humans anymore- like in the much often quoted Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter as one ur-scene of communications. Letters and messages get lost in other ways than human hands in the technological networks by way of transmission problems as an effect of the automated situation over noisy lines. Information theory but also concrete engineering solutions emerge as one key switch in the history of networking. From capture of animals the emerging networks and later the web become an infrastructural arrangement that now sets the tone for the Internet of Things as capture.
Curated by Dr Ebru Yetiskin, the exhibition Waves (Dalgalar) is definitely worth the visit at Blok Art Space in Istanbul. The exhibition features several of the key emerging names in the Istanbul technological art scene; beautifully installed across fitting space, Waves includes an implicit media historical reference in the midst of new works of rhythm, interaction and indeed, plenty of strings attached. The theme of strings comes out beautifully in how some of the work is installed, especially Candaş Şişman’s Re-conn-act with its vertical string pillars that offer a collective acoustics space and invite to touch this vibrating environment.
By addressing the ubiquity of the wave form as a key symbol from sound waves to brain waves, financial cycles/fluctuations and social movements, Yetiskin aims to present an aesthetic entry point to the contemporary world and its modes of representation. One key reference point across the works resides in physics and the tension between waves and particles. One could also ask in the context of the works whether this tension is nowadays, or in the context of technical media, to be described as one of waves and discrete symbols (the Turing age)? The energetic waves and their rhythms are tightly interlinked with the discrete principles of computation. Or in media historical terms; the wave is build up of many layers, from the handwritten continuity of text, to physics experiments and models such as Helmholtz’s in the 19th century; to the principles of analog computation; the curves of mathematics and waves of sine and cosine, etc. : the ubiquity of the wave is actually part of a media archaeology of various stages, itself a wave, a recurrence.
One could even use this quote by Helmholtz as one sort of a motto for this exhibition, demonstrating a link to the psychophysical and rational aesthetics that stems as part of the 19th century already:
“Aesthetics seeks the essence of the artistically beautiful in its unconscious rationality. I have… sought to reveal the hidden law that determines the mellifluousness of harmonic tonal connections. Actually, this is something that happens unconsciously as far as the overtones are concerned, which are indeed perceived by the nerves but do not usually come forth into the domain of conscious ideation; nevertheless, their pleasantness or unpleasantness is felt without the listener knowing where the grounds for such feelings lie.” (Helmholtz, Über die physiologischen Ursachen der musikalischen Harmonie, lecture from 1857, published in Vorträge und Reden in 1896 90).
Of course it has to be noted that in the case of the Waves-exhibition, often this “unconscious rationality” is algorithmic or in reference to the world of modern (quantum) physics.
In a sense, one can approach the pieces of the exhibition as implicitly illuminating the various stages where waves appear and disappear in history. Some of the work is more tightly “media archaeological” such as Erdal Inci’s reanimation of the loop – GIF animations filmed in the real world, both representing a link to pre-cinematic short loop entertainment such as mutoscope reels and the digital short format as well. Many of the work, such as Korhan Erel’s “Findings”, investigates another media historical theme, i.e. the graphical print form of sound waves; intermedia on the level of spectral signatures of frequency/time. In general, the several pieces work nicely together.
Besides the exhibition, the Waves-programme includes talks that range from physics to philosophy.
The clip here is in Finnish but worthwhile a look. It features the scratch-it poetry table designed by the artist group IC-98 for the Frankfurt book fair. Muistikirjoituksia – Recollected Writings is a site-specific installation where Finnish contemporary poetry can be unfolded in ways that hark back to earlier days. In the short clip, one of the members of IC-98 Patrik Söderlund tells how this is a way to approach digital literature – or perhaps we should call this installation more accurately post-digital in the way Florian Cramer defines the term referring to uses where it dismisses “the idea of digital processing as the sole universal all-purpose form of information processing. Muistikirjoituksia frames materiality and pre-modern site-specific forms of engaging with literature in the public. Söderlund challenges us to think of new literature not only in the short time span of new digital technologies but asks to consider literature in a thousand year horizon.
More on IC-98-group here.
(I am personally excited to see Patrik Söderlund’s name pop up as he was the designer of the cover of my first book, Koneoppi. He also designed the covers of the Eetos-publication series we started in 2004.)
Technological change comes with the parallel pace of commentators identifying the change and with enthusiastic attempts to name the new.
Big data is perhaps the most recent of the revolutionary turns that wants to invent the conditions of its own newness, including writing its own short histories. However, most of modernity can be seen in terms of control and management (of things turned data, a theme that some media scholars such as Bernhard Siegert identify already in the 15th century emergence of double-entry bookkeeping).
Such a media history of management comes out well in such by now “old” classics as James Beniger’s The Control Revolution.
The book, from mid 1980s, also includes a useful list of the enthusiasm for the changes in rhetorics of social and technological change after WWII. The old new and continuous discursive revolutions of social change, technology, information and data merge into an annual cycle of invention of a new turn and concept of change:
Fill in the various revolutions post-1984.
The “Post-NSA”-world implies the question of the Pre-NSA; Post-Snowden Leaks imply also the Pre-Snowden-Era: investigations into the longer histories and panics about the interception capacities of COMINT-specialists extend further back in time. A sort of a media archaeology of SIGINT: the necessity to see the long term build-up of such organisations, logistics, infrastructures and political conditions where a massive level technological snooping is able to take place (after all, it did not emerge over night but is an aftereffect of World War II in many ways).
Kittler’s No Such Agency-piece is one key writing alongside a lot of texts on signal intelligence. I am currently continuing my own short blog post about Teufelsberg and the ECHELON-network into a longer academic essay, and as part of that, referring to the debate some 15 years ago after some ECHELON-network revelations. Here, a quote, even if only in German but it’s the Pynchonian version of 20th century: the paranoid-technological century (where paranoia becomes more than a state of the psyche; it becomes infrastructurally embedded).
Der Spiegel wrote on 21st of May, 1999 (as a reaction to STOA Interception Capabilities 2000-report): “Eine Vorstellung wie aus der Phantasie eines Paranoikers: Ob wir über Handy oder Festnetz telefonieren, E-Mail schreiben, Dateien übers Internet verschicken – kein Wort sei sicher vor dem Zugriff internationaler Geheimdienste, die systematisch und in großem Maßstab nahezu alle Wege, auch den zivilen elektronischen Datenverkehr, belauschen und für ihre Zwecke auswerten.”
The news about the (re)discovered Andy Warhol-images, excavated by digital forensics means, has been making rounds in news and social media. In short, a team of experts – including Cory Arcangel – discovered Warhol’s Amiga-paintings from 1985 floppy discs. As described in the news story: ”
“Warhol’s Amiga experiments were the products of a commission by Commodore International to demonstrate the graphic arts capabilities of the Amiga 1000 personal computer. Created by Warhol on prototype Amiga hardware in his unmistakable visual style, the recovered images reveal an early exploration of the visual potential of software imaging tools, and show new ways in which the preeminent American artist of the 20th century was years ahead of his time.” The images are related to the famous Debbie Harry-image Warhol painted on Amiga.
The case is an interesting variation on themes of media art history as well as digital forensics. As Julian Oliver coined it in a tweet:
The media archaeological enters with a realisation of the importance of such methods for the cultural heritage of born-digital content, but there’s more. The non-narrative focus of such methodologies is a different way of accessing what could be thought of as media archaeology of software culture and graphics. The technological tools carry an epistemological, even ontological weight: we see things differently; we are able to access a world previously unseen, also in historical contexts.
But there is a pull towards traditional historical discourses. The project demonstrates a technical understanding of cultural heritage and contemporary software culture but rhetorically frames it as just another part of the art historical/archaeological mythology of rediscovering long lost masterpieces of a Genius. This side still needs some updating so that the technical episteme of the excavation, detailed here [PDF] can become fully realised. Techniques of reverse engineering as well as insights into image formats as ways to understand the technical image need to be matched up with discourse that is able to demonstrate something more than traditional art history by new means. It needs to be able to show what is already at stake in these methods: a historical mapping of the anonymous forces of history, to use words from S. Giedion.
Scholars such as Matt Kirschenbaum have already demonstrated the significant stakes of digital forensics as part of a radical mindset to historical scholarship, heritage and media theory and we need to be able to build on such work that is theoretically rich.
When things break down, they are much more interesting than the gadgets that function, channel and regulate our lives. Broken things might poetically and with a Heideggerian hum say to reveal their essence. This is the other side of the apocalyptic – to be understood as “apo-kalyptein – an uncovering or disclosing of what had previously been hidden.” (Gere 2008: 13)
It is in this sense that we should talk of “downtime” not as an accidental misfortune, a temporary hiccup and denial of service of intentional nature or just infrastructural/hardware failure. Instead, it is part of how media, tech and things just are (in consumer cultures); that they break down, fail in their intended task, and refuse to switch on. Indeed downtime is the time of permanent breaking down, crisis and one is tempted to start unraveling a wider transversal notion of downtime from the microscale of technological circuits to macroscales of economy. But indeed, if it is a transversal notion it cuts across such traditional divisions of micro and macro and forces a different dimensionality. A molecular level of connections which forces the technological to be tightly articulated as part of political economy; an articulation of politics must take into account the technological conditioning of itself – the political action; the (media) technological sustains and operates the processes of subjectification; the social starts from the circuit.
An installation, Downtime (post-domestic fiction), I saw as part of Amber 2012 exhibition in Istanbul, November 2012, plays with the idea of broken down electronic and other gadgets, from scientific measurement units to an old telephone, television, kitchen utensils (a hand mixer) and an old Spectrum ZX computer. The practice relates to the recent years of circuit bending and hardware hacking, as well as critical design/(re)making, from Garnet Hertz to Benjamin Gaulon and glitchers Jon Satrom to Rosa Menkman, and it might be said to relate to zombie media too–repurposing discarded/dysfunctional gadgets.
For the group, “downtime refers to the period of time during which a system remains unavailable or fails to provide or perform its primary function.” The installation covers a wall with its recircuited works, reminescent of for instance ReFunct Media 2.0. Indeed, this is the interesting bit; it is not so much about the object, but the materiality of its dysfunctionality is articulated as a temporal relation; “the period during which…”. Even downtime unfolds as a duration.
I would argue that there is a twisted permanence, or at least a horizon, a duration, of such a downtime that is as significant as its functionality. “Through the active participation of the viewer, the objects are examined within a new context, in terms of how these are kept active and accessible by its reuse and manipulation”, the group writes. We of course need to investigate the wider sense and rationale of why things should be kept active, and the horizon of that. For me, the interesting bit is as said the temporal dimension, and the new materialist discourse and media technological theory needs to be able to tackle with this too. Whether it is about the temporality of the accident, or the break down, downtime — or then the microtemporality Wolfgang Ernst is after (see also Algorhythmics).
Indeed, the accident and downtime is not only an event that disrupts the running of temporality, but incorporates its own duration that we have to understand too. Downtime is a switch concept for notions of time – functional and dysfunctional, and as such tries to act as an anthropological operator for cultural techniques of temporality.