Media Theory in Transit: A one-day symposium at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton,
November 24, 2015.
organised by Jussi Parikka and Yigit Soncul
Media theory is in transit: the concepts travel across space and time, claiming new meanings for new uses along the way. We are not dealing with a static body of knowledge, but a dynamic, situated process of articulating knowledge and perceiving reality. Media theory crosses both geographical and disciplinary boundaries. It trespasses the border between Humanities and Sciences, and is able to carve out new sites of knowledge. It moves across conceptual lineages from human to non-human, and supposedly distinct senses such as sight, hearing and smell. Media theory is not merely a reflection on the world but an active involvement that participates in creating the objects of interest.
This event investigates such conceptual, geographical and sensorial passages of media theory. The talks address contemporary media theory and issues that are now identified as urgent for academic and artistic practices. The speakers represent different fields of arts and humanities as well as media theory, and engage with the question: how does theory move, and itself occupy new areas of interest, across academic fields and across geographies, in which theory itself is set to be in movement.
The event is supported by the Santander-fund, via University of Southampton and the Faculty Postgraduate Research Funds.
Media Theory in Transit is open and free to attend but please register via Eventbrite!
The PhD Study Room (East Building)
10.30 Introduction by Yigit Soncul and Jussi Parikka
10.40 Erick Felinto (State University of Rio de Janeiro, UERJ): “Vilém Flusser’s ‘Philosophical Fiction’: Science, Creativity and the Encounter with Radical Otherness”
11.30 Joanna Zylinska (Goldsmiths, London): “The liberation of the I/eye: nonhuman vision”
12.20 lunch break
14.00 Shintaro Miyazaki: (Critical Media Lab, Basel): “Models As Agents – Designing Epistemic Diffraction By Spinning-Off Media Theory”
14.50 Seth Giddings (WSA): “Distributed imagination: small steps to an ethology of mind and media”
15.20 Jussi Parikka (WSA): “Labs as Sites of Theory/Practice”
15.50 short summary discussion
16.10-16.30 Jane Birkin (WSA) “The Viewing of Las Meninas” (performance)
I am very glad to announce that Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History: Erkki Kurenniemi in 2048 is out from the printers, hot off the (MIT) Press! Edited with curator, writer Joasia Krysa, the book focuses on the Finnish media art pioneer Kurenniemi, and is the key international collection on the curious thinker, sound and media artist-tinkerer, who became known for his remarkable synthetizers and archival futurism. Kurenniemi has gathered attention in the electronic music circles for a longer period of time, and with Documenta 13 he become known in the international art world too. His thoughts and work resonate with the work of other early pioneers; Simon Reynolds once called him a mix of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Buckminster Fuller, and Steve Jobs. In 2002, Mika Taanila directed the film The Future is Not What It Used to Be about Kurenniemi.
The book includes foreword by the eminent media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo and a range of critical essays on digital culture, archival mania and media arts. Key academic and art writers address Kurenniemi’s work but also more: the condition of the archive and sound arts, sonic fiction and speculative futures of singularity are some of the key themes that run through the book with contributions by many established names in media studies, art and sound technologies. In addition, we included many of Kurenniemi’ own writings over the decades, including some interviews that elaborate his wider computational views of the world, including his thought: by 2040s, the human brain can be completely simulated. His archive plays a key role, like an actor in itself: the archive also featured as a key “object” as part of the earlier Kiasma exhibition and we included some snippets, as well as an extensive visual section.
Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History sits as part of the Leonardo-book series, edited by Sean Cubitt. The book was started by Krysa through her curatorial work at the 2012 Documenta 13 exhibition. It is thanks to Joasia that I am part of the project and she deserves major praise for her amazing eye for detail, enthusiasm and energy in driving this project, from a major exhibition to a book, and more.
Here’s a preview of the book’s table of contents and Huhtamo’s Foreword.
For review copy requests, or other questions, inquiries about the book, please get in touch! We are hosting some book events in Montreal, Helsinki, Berlin and London over the coming months but more info on those separately.
Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History: Erkki Kurenniemi in 2048, eds Krysa and Parikka
Over the past forty years, Finnish artist and technology pioneer Erkki Kurenniemi (b. 1941) has been a composer of electronic music, experimental filmmaker, computer animator, roboticist, inventor, and futurologist. Kurenniemi is a hybrid—a scientist-humanist-artist. Relatively unknown outside Nordic countries until his 2012 Documenta 13 exhibition, ”In 2048,” Kurenniemi may at last be achieving international recognition. This book offers an excavation, a critical mapping, and an elaboration of Kurenniemi’s multiplicities.
The contributors describe Kurenniemi’s enthusiastic, and rather obsessive, recording of everyday life and how this archiving was part of his process; his exploratory artistic practice, with productive failure an inherent part of his method; his relationship to scientific and technological developments in media culture; and his work in electronic and digital music, including his development of automated composition systems and his “video-organ,” DIMI-O. A “Visual Archive,” a section of interviews with the artist, and a selection of his original writings (translated and published for the first time) further document Kurenniemi’s achievements. But the book is not just about one artist in his time; it is about emerging media arts, interfaces, and archival fever in creative practices, read through the lens of Kurenniemi.
“Sex, annotation, and verité totale: Kurenniemi is a missing mixing desk between so many interesting aspects of late-twentieth-century culture. No wonder he ends up offering us a new archival futurism!”
—Matthew Fuller, Professor, Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London
“Providing a long-overdue critical and historical introduction to the amazingly multifaceted work of media pioneer, visionary thinker, and self-archivist Erkki Kurenniemi, this book becomes both a media-archaeological excavation and engaging reflection on the challenges of writing media art history. The range of Kurenniemi’s fascinating practice—including electronic music composition, experimental filmmaking, robotics, and curation—defies traditional classifications, and calls for new historical narratives of media art. Started as a compilation of the long-term research that went into the exhibition of Kurenniemi’s work at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, the volume combines highlights of his own writings and interviews with excellent contributions by scholars, contextualizing his archives, art, music, and vision.”
—Christiane Paul, Associate Professor, School of Media Studies, The New School; Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts, Whitney Museum
“This book is a major contribution not only to the unprecedented scientific and artistic imagination of Erkki Kurenniemi, but also to the whole research on media and ‘real time.’ The text unveils and critically presents the reader with a series of complex technological and artistic systems exploring the man-machine relationship under the assumption both do have consciousness. Kurenniemi’s work provides us with one of the most solid grounds to examine perception, the brain, the will to speculate and travel back and forth between several realms of knowledge. Kurenniemi is bold; this text is bold and a great contribution to new forms of studying risk taking in art and science.”
—Chus Martínez, Head of the Institute of Art, FHNW Academy of Art and Design
We are happy to announce that the AHRC has granted funding for our Internet of Cultural Things (IoCT) project, a one year research partnership between Kings College London, Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton), and the British Library.
The project examines the cultural dimensions of data via the born-digital material generated by the British Library, ranging from items ingested to reading room occupancy to catalogue searches. Through practice-informed research we engage this otherwise hidden cultural data, and hold a series of pop-up installations to make it visible and interfaced with the public to think through our data interconnectedness. By focusing on cultural institutions, we can move beyond the integrated operating system of the ‘Internet of Things’ and its purported productivity gains, efficiencies. Instead, we will use critical creative practice to rethink cultural institutions as living organism of data that is both dynamic and recursive. We propose the IoCT as a concept to discuss this new situation of digital data and cultural institutions.
The project starts in September 2015, and is led by Dr Mark Cote (KCL) as the PI and Prof Jussi Parikka (WSA/Southampton) as the CO-I with partners from the British Library (Jamie Andrews) and collaborating with the artist Dr Richard Wright (London).
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.
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:
Winchester School of Art PhD students have a lovely exhibition up at Hartley library in Southampton. Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research features the range of practice-based research we engage in at the School but also underlines more broadly connections of theory and practice. Curated by Jane Birkin, the pieces illuminate through various different materials the critical audiovisual, installation and time-based mobilize as insights to cultural reality. From archives to gender culture, to non-Western perspectives, contexts of religon and culture and in general, image-text relationships, the pieces are themselves ways in which to unfold the methodologies of practice at a research-led art school (WSA is part of the Russell Group University of Southampton).
“Notes on Practice” the first pages of the short catalogue leaflet promises. “To text experimentally, to put to test; n. the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it; v. to perform an activity or exercise a skill repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency.” The dictionary definition resonates with the manner of doing things as research. But the exhibition also reminds that theory itself is a practice that unfolds through its engagements – the necessity to stay open to the encounter of – the world in its audiovisual, affective materiality.
Art schools occupy an interesting role in post World War II Britain, addressed also in John Beck and Matthew Cornford’s Journal of Visual Culture-text “The Art School in Ruins“. Indeed, it’s an important realization that with the increase in generalised discourse about “creativity” which penetrates the social and economic fabric – including business-talk – the waning of art schools has been ensured by lack of public funding. It is telling of a current odd ideological production of reality of creative culture. In current contexts of importance of art and design, it is encouraging to see how notions of art practice emerging in a university context too can inform the wider set of academic and critical questions in visual culture and design; textile and fashion; as well as gender and political reality (of for instance post-Communist era as in one of the pieces).