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).
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.
Aivokuvia sounds much groovier in Finnish than in English; the translation to the word would be “Images of the Brain”. But it also resonates with the idea of “brain scans”, making the term more interesting in English too; a nod to Deleuze’s film theory, but also to the fascination with the materiality of the corporeal brain, interconnected with possibilities of perception and sensation, but also with the cultural-technological framing of it.
Professor Jukka Sihvonen, whose 60th birthday is celebrated by a seminar as well as the launch of his new book Aivokuvia, has always been someone who in his writing incorporated a fantastic sense of the potentials in Finnish language and how to bend it as an active medium itself for the writing of media and film theory. Sihvonen is a major figure on the Finnish scene as well as for my personal development: he was the one who introduced so many of us at the University of Turku, 1990s and onwards, to the theoretical figures of Paul Virilio, Gilles Deleuze, Friedrich Kittler and others. Besides proper names and theorists, he inspired us to engage in a certain mode of thinking: rigorous, but creative; refusing the most obvious questions and answers; a style of thinking in the Deleuze-Guattarian sense of the word. After his Deleuze-course, we spent several extremely long houred sessions with Teemu Taira and Pasi Valiaho excavating A Thousand Plateus in our reading group. Sihvonen spoke about Virilio and video games; he suggested to read Kittler, and made us ponder what this odd German theorist was trying to say in his Kittler-deutsch. Some of us went on to participate in Kittler’s seminars, some in Wolfgang Ernst’s, both at the same address of Sophienstrasse 22. I myself owe so many of my research ideas to his inspiration – insects, for instance. Sihvonen’s interest in Cronenberg was probably initially behind that route.
A bit in tongue in cheek (yes, do not take such branding exercises ever seriously)I have also called him one of the master minds behind a “Turku School of Media Studies“.
The new book Aivokuvia is exemplary of his interests over the years. It is more of a film theoretical book: Aivokuvia ties together the films of Tarkovsky, Bigelow and Cronenberg with the philosophical engines of Deleuze and others. Besides this new book, it is still Konelihan varina [The trembling of the machinic flesh] which is my favourite book of his, and which really as a student inspired me to dive in to theories of media and technology enmeshed in a cultural historical context.
University of Turku is organising the celebration seminar Video: media, taide, teknologia [Video: media, art, technology] as well as the launch of Aivokuvia, published by Eetos-association. I wish I could be there to celebrate. Warm congrats to Jukka. Looking forward already to the next book of his.
Nathaniel Stern’s book Interactive Art and Embodiment is out! If you want a one-liner what the book is about, this does the job effectively: “How do interactive artworks ask us to perform rigorous philosophies of the body?“
It already reveals the maint thrust of the book, having to do with practices of contemporary digital art and theoretical insights into embodiment – for instance the concept of the implicit body.
Nathaniel Stern’s book is a marvellous introduction to the thinking and practice of this innovative new media artist, and to the work of others in the same field. Philosophically informed and beautifully written, it is sensitive to the many complex issues involved in making such work. –Charlie Gere is Professor of Media Theory and History in the Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University, and author of Digital Culture, Art, Time and Technology, and Community without Community in Digital Culture.
In Nathaniel Stern’s Interactive Art and Embodiment, Stern develops a provocative and engaging study of how we might take interactive art beyond the question of ‘what technology can do’ to ask how the implicit body of performance is felt-thought through artistic process. What results is an important investigation of art as event (as opposed to art as object) that incites us to make transversal linkages between art and philosophy, inquiring into how practice itself is capable of generating fields of action, affect and occurrence that produce new bodies in motion. –Professor Erin Manning, Concordia Research Chair, Faculty of Fine Arts, Concordia University, author of Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy, Director of the SenseLab and series co-editor of Technologies of Lived Abstraction.
In his very intelligent book, Nathaniel Stern shows how dynamics work: he mobilizes a range of theory and practice approaches so as to entangle them into an investigation of interactive art. Stern maps the incipient activity and force of contemporary art practices in a way that importantly reminds us that digital culture is far from immaterial. Interactive Art and Embodiment creates situations for thought as action. –Dr Jussi Parikka, media theorist, Winchester School of Art, author of Insect Media.
No smoke without fire, although with the tear gassed Istanbul, Ankara and numerous other cities, one should say: no smoke without tears.
While things are unfolding on the streets of Turkey, the international audience of the events are trying to figure out: what is going on. Who are the demonstrators? Hence, kicks in the usual suspects of repertoire of explanations: is this like Occupy Wall St.? Is this the Turkish version of Arab Spring? Are the demonstrators a vocal minority, and we are just misperceiving lots of social media traffic as a major event?
Perhaps the question itself should be differently posed. There are lots of great commentaries floating around, longer texts with already now some excellent contexts of the events. Some of it suggests in a rather good way that we need alternatives than just choosing one existing model of explanation.
Perhaps what is unfolding in front of the international community is what Turkish people already knew: a corrupted and authoritarian culture of politics and business where having firm relations with the ruling party AKP is a benefit for a variety of jobs and economic success for private sector companies (see here for some context); lack of transparency in political decisions that however affect the majority of the people, such as the building of the third bridge or for instance in this Istanbul case, the demolition of Gezi park. The sentiment of dissatisfaction was there already in a way that was not just about secular vs. Islamists.
What is already being voiced is that “This is not about secularists versus Islamists, it’s about pluralism versus authoritarianism,” (quoted in The Economist).
Besides internally about Turkey, the events reveal a lot about the logic of capital: it benefits from authoritarian state measures and tight security controls. As for the case of Turkey, things are supposed to be fine on the economic front.
Interestingly, The Economist writes:
“Like most people, Turks tend to vote with their pockets. A decade of AK rule has brought unprecedented prosperity. Per-capita income has trebled, exports have increased nearly tenfold and Turkish banks are in good health”
But the problem is how much of this growth is exactly focused on the banks as main benefactors and how much of the consumption and investments is done only on credit money. If there is a major economic (read: construction business) bubble growing in Turkey and it bursts, things might very soon be very different – economically and politically. Even a lot of the middle class is actually still, despite university degrees and stable jobs, in a precarious situation.
In any case, the question “Occupy or Tahrir” is actually: what is the specific case of Turkey? Besides revealing details of more global trends of how capitalism enjoys authoritarian regimes (see Zizek on this point) it demands the continuous question of what then is happening specifically in Turkey.
Discussing with my friends in Istanbul, one thing popped up when they narrate the events of the past days: even they, participating, just don’t know everything. They are not sure how things will develop, but they remain hopeful. There is a sense of momentum and an affect that binds across groups, but also the question “who are we”, referring to the protestors, is an open one. Perhaps it is open for a good reason, summarised in one of the placards from Istanbul.
It refers to the various attempts by the prime minister to publicly discredit the demonstrators. But it also gives an affective response, one example of the various texts and visuals that express a strong positive sentiment.
We are not sure who we are, but we will be the people.
A placard from Istanbul:
Day 1 we were the terrorists
Day 2 we were the provocateurs
Day 3 we were the protestors
Day 4 we became the people
Photograph by Baris Safran (via Jodi Dean).
“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.