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.
We are happy to announce the launch of #WSAgmm — or MA in Global Media Management! Thanks to the work by our developers Sean Cubitt and Paul Caplan, we got approval to run this starting from September 2012. At Winchester School of Art, of course.
Pretty exciting idea, to think global media but not only the corporate side — instead, developmental, NGO and open projects as constituting futures of global media – managed slightly differently than what the 20th century taught us.That gives us room to both tackle with critical approaches to media and develop those ideas through constant practical engagement with networks, organization and management.
For the best intro to the new course, here is Paul Caplan, the Pathway Leader for WSAgmm explaining:
On our webpage
Something warmly recommended – organized by my colleague and film scholar Tina Kendall with partners – and that has a nice media archaeological quality to it: revisiting the origins of cinematic cultures, through the late-Victorian and Edwardian cultures of performance. While this resonates with our current enthusiasm with performance, liveness and embodiment, it also is a wonderful time trip to early cinema contexts.
Friday 13 May, 7.00pm
Cambridge, UK – Anglia Ruskin University
Curated and hosted by Professor Vanessa Toulmin (the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield), join us for an evening of cine-variety and spectacular entertainments. Featuring early films with live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne, vintage ephemera from the British Library’s Evanion collection, and performances by internationally renowned artists including Olivier award winning showwoman and artiste Marisa Carnesky, Swordswallower and eccentric comedienne Miss Behave, Hoola Hoop legend Marawa the Amazing, and fire eater Tim Cockerill appearing as The Great Inferno. Don’t miss this extravagant showcase of neo-variety acts and the late-Victorian and Edwardian performance cultures that inspire them!
Developed in collaboration with Anglia Ruskin University, The British Library, and the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield. Films preserved by the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-visual Conservation.
Tickets: £9.00 (£7.00 concessions, £3.00 Anglia Ruskin students)
“Sonic Alchemy” – an interview with Aleks Kolkowski on his media archaeologically tuned sonic art methods
London-based musician and composer Aleksander Kolkowski occupies himself with the sound of the obsolete. This means working both with techniques and technologies of sound recording from past times, as well as investigating the nature of sound cultures through creative clashes between the old and the new. He has a long and extensive career as musician and performer, and has recently in his performances engaged with such technologies as Stroh instruments, wind-up Gramophones, shellac discs and wax-cylinder Phonographs. Aleksander Kolkowski also ran workshops at the Science Museum as part of the Museum’s Oramics-project.
The interview (March 2011) w as conducted to elaborate Kolkowski’s artistic methods and interests, especially in relation to “media archaeology” as a creative form of crossbreeding and producing hybrids from old and new media innovations and artistic experiments. Juss i Parikka was affiliated with the Science Museum early this year as a short term research fellow, working on his new book on media archaeological theory and methods.
Jussi Parikka: Aleks, a big thank you for having the time to this interview. I am fascinated in how your work is very much embedded in old media – an inventive engagement with old recording technologies from wax-cylinders to gramophones and with instruments such as the Stroh violin. Why engage with old media? Can you tell a bit more about your “artistic methodology”?
Aleksander Kolkowski: Thank you for asking. I’m reminded of a quote by David Tudor, the New York avant-garde musician and John Cage’s muse, who in response to being asked about the then late ’80s electronic music scene said ” if you look at the background of the analog technology, there are marvellous things from two centuries ago that are worthy of being investigated.” For creative musicians, old recording technologies and related instruments are rich veins from which to draw from, but this has as much to do with current artistic practices and handling of modern technology as it has to do with an interest in the past.
In today’s culture, computers, turntables, electronic devises and smartphones can all be considered as ‘instruments’ for music-making, that’s to say they are being played with or manipulated, rather than passively emitting or processing sounds. Additionally, the noises produced by altered or malfunctioning media, be it hacked electronics, feedback, scratched records or skipping CDs, have been used as material by artists for sometime now. It’s in this same spirit of actively engaging and interfering with media technology and re-purposing it, rather than merely consuming it, that we can re-examine the media technology from the distant past and use it creatively. I’ll add that this has nothing to do with nostalgia, but with a belief that we can use these bygone technologies to offer an alternative perspective in our digital media-fixated society – to listen to the present through the pioneering audio technologies from well over a hundred years ago.
While there is a delight in playing with old machines and instruments, bringing them ‘back to life’ and engaging with the past through a mixture of research and practical experience, there is a feeling that this somehow challenges the very notion of their obsolescence. It has something to do with a reaction to consumerism and to the disposable nature of current media technology, its intangibility and limited shelf-life.
I began this work twelve years ago and I suppose it started as a personal response to the techno-fetishism that was prevalent in much of the experimental music-making at the time. Instead of electronic interfaces, I performed with wind-up gramophones, phonographs, and a mechanically amplified violin in unusual ways to make what sounded like contemporary electronic music, but using no electricity whatsoever. Since then I’ve been incorporating modern digital as well vintage analogue electronics in my work. Software programs have become important tools in my recent compositions and installation work where the historic and the modern are combined.
In a way, you work as a creative researcher, a historian, or an archaeologist, then?
Research played a part from the very beginning, investigating the origins of the Stroh violin is what really got me started on this journey. So histories to do with sound recording and its reproduction and early recordings became integrated in the fabric of the work I’ve produced at every level, from the concept stage, as narratives to provide structure right to the actual content itself, be it treating the first ever recordings of music as the basis for acoustic and electronic explorations or using the first morse code telegraph message to create rhythmic structures in a composition.
These creatively inspired explorations have actually led, in recent years, to more conventional, academic research (at Brunel University) into little known forms of mechanical amplification and an involvement with artefacts from museum collections in the UK and abroad.
You do not only tinker with old technologies but perform music with them live as well. How do people react to your work and instruments?
The reaction of audiences has had quite an important effect on my work. I found that people would marvel not only at the sight of these splendid old instruments and machines, but where captivated by the sound in interesting ways. Playing back a newly recorded wax cylinder on a phonograph to a modern audience is taken by many as a kind of sonic alchemy, and it requires a very different kind of listening than what we’ve all become used to. Rather than hearing a virtual copy, it’s closer to a memory of something. So it seemed possible to work with the relationship of sound and temporality by ‘ageing’ sounds using old technology, to be transported back in time, then forward to the present through the sound recording media of the past.
Do you think there is currently a wider artistic and sonic interest in going back to the pre-electronic age?
Probably not to the same extent as in literature, film or fashion, that’s to say the Steam Punk movement which has more to do with fantasy and science fiction. There are musicians releasing limited edition cylinder records, artists building machines, and composers utilising the pianola, but I’d mention the sound art of Paul DeMarinis to do with ‘orphaned technologies’ from the pre- and early electronic era as being the most significant example I can think of in this field. He is a true scientist of sound who has delved into seemingly obscure forms of communications technology and created some highly interesting and accessible works.
Certainly a lot has been published over the past few years concerning 19th century science, histories and theories of technology and communication, especially with regard to sound and the history of recording, which must be indicative of something, so yes, there is a wider interest, but then artists have always foraged the past. What’s special at this point in time, is the speed and severity at which digital media is replacing the analogue and which is conversely breathing new life into all forms older physical media, be it film, chemical photography, the cassette tape and even the wax cylinder.
I saw you recently (February 2011) do a workshop with the Science Museum together with Katy Price (Anglia Ruskin University). The workshop was part of a Science Museum Youth and Public Engagement to support their Oramics (Daphne Oram) project. Could you tell a bit more about this and the workshop where you recorded short pieces of creative fiction written by the students onto Edison cylinders and other old media?
In this case it was to show that the origins of Daphne Oram’s sound painting can be traced back to 19th century advances in capturing, visualising and reproducing sound through the phonoautograph and subsequently the phonograph and gramophone. We were also treating groove-based sound recording as a form of inscription, as sound-writing. It seemed fitting that the creative writing resulting from Katy’s sessions around the Oramics Machine and related artefacts in the Science Museum collection should be rendered onto physical storage media in this way. They could then be played back on the same cylinder phonographs and gramophones the participants had written about and even become objects that furnish an exhibition.
The fundamentals and science of sound recording are vividly demonstrated through mechanical devices, through objects you can touch and sound inscriptions you can see and hear played back via styli, vibrating diaphragms and horns. As well as showing how our forefathers experienced recorded music, it also offers us a different kind of listening experience as I’ve mentioned before. It helps us to examine our relationship to recorded sound, the antiquated sound-engraving processes add distance to the newly recorded voices, allowing us to reflect more profoundly on what we hear.
I am trying to find the irony in writing recently about computer forensics and thinking about the archive in the digital age — and then being the one whose hard drive gets in such a shape it does not boot, and all my analytical eye for computer forensics and media archaeology turns to hours of panicking.
After extensive, non-analytical and very affective panicking, lots of traveling around Berlin for cure and a new Mac, I was able to restore most of my files, with something lost still.
One cannot hence help thinking the words of Matt Kirschenbaum (thanks to Shintaro Miyazaki for reminding me of the quote):
“Thus the cold truth of modern data storage: given sufficient resources — that is, elite technological and financial backing — data can be recovered from media even under the most extraordinary conditions.”
Information is rarely lost, as it is, after all, material and physical. The spinning hard drive tells usually a lot more than our ways of accessing files tell us, and it is on this physical level that the ephemeral has a materiality – even if fleeting, and very time-dependent (both in terms of its durability as well as its operationality as dynamic, in movement).