Sacred Channels

November 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Editing our Recursions book series is fun – both for the sake of getting to work with Anna Tuschling and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and because we are able to help in getting great books in media theory into the world.

The most recent one is the just published translation of Erich Hörl’s Sacred Channels: The Archaic Illusion of Communication. I believe the endorsement by Michael Wutz is a perfect summary of the book’s significance:

“Erich Hörl’s Sacred Channels is as original and innovative as they come. The book articulates an archaeology of modern notions of the sacred and the primitive and draws upon a wide-ranging theoretical framework that includes philosophy (phenomenology, Heidegger, and deconstruction), anthropology, media theory, and breakthrough developments in modern science. The substantial preface by Jean-Luc Nancy, and the excellent translation by Nils. F. Schott, make Sacred Channels(by now a classic in the German-speaking world) a groundbreaking book finally available to an English-speaking audience.” – Michael Wutz, Weber State University

The website includes also a free preview PDF of Nancy’s preface and the table of contents (link opens as PDF).

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A Lab of Labs

October 28, 2018 Leave a comment

AMT was again part of the Istanbul Design Biennial, this time together with Bilkent University (Ankara) hosting a workshop and a panel. We responded to the main theme of School of Schools with our own emphasis: a lab of labs. In other words, working with the Bilkent Media Archaeology Lab (led by Andreas Treske) we organised a two day event that performed a lab in as a method to investigate it as a assemblage of methods, techniques, affordances of the lab in an urban environment and in the context of Istanbul, a city with a long heritage of crafts, workshops, and design irreducible to a sanitized design thinking discourse.

Benefiting from the experience of Ege Berensel and Başak Altın we engaged in workshopping that included 8 mm found footage (home films) and motherboards (as a source of circuit bending and tinkering). While Ebruk Kurbak joined us to talk about her work in textiles, computing and material methodologies in speculative design, and Tuğçe Karatas shared her views as an independent curator, our special surprise guest was the local TV repair shop expert who gave us a two hour crash course into his work and electronics! The lab includes many kinds of expertise.

The workshop was also part of the research for #TheLabBook – online at What is a Media Lab?.

DSC_2338.JPGAndreas Treske’s opening words, together with Björk’s poetic exploration of the television.

DSC_2340.JPGBaşak Altın and Ege Berensel, artists from Ankara, were part of the work. Here Basak narrating a short visual history of motherboards.

DSC_2351 (1).JPGAn unpicking of a video projector into its material-epistemic components, measurable as objects of interest, unfolding multiple levels of media archaeology. #OfficeTruisms

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Labs as hands-on practice.

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A short introduction to electronics – from the perspective of repairing televisions and other appliances.

On Paul Virilio

September 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Paul Virilio (1932-2018) passed away recently in September. We wrote a short piece with Ryan Bishop about him – Blitzkrieg Baby.

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The Elastic System launches online

September 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Richard Wright’s art project the Elastic System has launched now online too. Originally commissioned as part of our AHRC funded project Internet of Cultural Things, the piece was first a temporary installation at the British Library (and subsequently touring to Hartley Library, University of Southampton where it was presented with support from Dr Jane Birkin and AMT).  Please find below the Press Release for the online launch. I myself am currently writing a text on art practices, library infrastructures and contemporary cultures of data in cultural institutions.

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Press Release

www.elasticSystem.net

Follow: https://twitter.com/ElasticSystem

You are invited to visit the new high resolution version of the ELASTIC SYSTEM, an artwork by Richard Wright in collaboration with the British Library.

The ELASTIC SYSTEM was produced during a year-long artist-in-residency at the British Library and is the first artwork to be given access to their core electronic networks and databases.

The work takes the form of an interactive portrait of the C19th librarian Thomas Watts, an obscure but important figure in the early history of information technology. In 1840 Thomas Watts invented his “elastic system” of storage for the British Library to cope with the enormous growth in their collections that was threatening to overwhelm them. This photomosaic has been generated from 4,300 books as they are currently stored in the Library basements at St Pancras, an area not normally accessible to the public. The “Elastic System” functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library’s collections, something which has not been possible since Watts’ time. Furthermore, each book is connected live to the Library’s electronic requesting system. By clicking on a book you can find out more about the item and how to request it from the Library. If you do request a book, it is removed from the mosaic to reveal a second image underneath. This image is a portrait of the staff who work in the underground storage basements, the hidden part of the Library’s modern requesting system.

In order to create the second image, the artist spent two days working with the basement staff at the St. Pancras site, taking hundreds of photographs. With a collection as large and as diverse as the British Library’s, its successful functioning depends on a well tuned human element, which although it is as essential as the electronic networks, is less visible and less appreciated.

After being exhibited as an installation at the British Library, the Hartley Library and the Digital Catapult centre, the “Elastic System” has now been optimised and rebuilt at double the resolution. It is being released as a public web site on September 9th to mark the anniversary of the death of Thomas Watts in 1869.

This work is part of an AHRC funded research project called “The Internet of Cultural Things”, a partnership between the artist Richard Wright, Dr Mark Cote (KCL) and Professor Jussi Parikka (Winchester School of Art) with wide representation from the British Library including Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning, Dr Aquiles Alencar Brayner and Dr David Waldock. The aim is to use digital data and the creative arts to transform the way people and public institutions interact. The “Elastic System” uses Watts early C19th insights into database access to create a new catalogue out of visual metadata (digital photographs), making it a portrait that is also an extension of his work.

Richard Wright is an artist working in animation, moving image and interactive media. An archive of his work can be found here: www.futurenatural.net

Email: contact@elasticsystem.net

The artist has written three blog posts about their research behind this project:

https://internetofculturalthings.com/2016/06/08/where-is-the-library/

https://internetofculturalthings.com/2016/06/18/what-can-you-do-with-a-library/

https://internetofculturalthings.com/2016/09/01/elastic-system-how-to-judge-a-book-by-its-cover/

Google Photos: https://tinyurl.com/ElasticSystem-images

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Machine Learned Futures

September 6, 2018 3 comments

We are with Abelardo Gil-Fournier writing a text or two on questions of temporality in contemporary visual culture. Our specific angle is on (visual) forms of prediction and forecasting as they emerge in machine learning: planetary surface changes, traffic and autonomous cars, etc. Here’s the first bit of an article on the topic (forthcoming later we hope, both in German and English).

“’Visual hallucination of probable events’, or, on environments of images and machine learning”

I Introduction

Contemporary images come in many forms but also, importantly, in many times. Screens, interfaces, monitors, sensors and many other devices that are part of the infrastructure of knowledge build up many forms of data visualisation in so-called real-time. While data visualisation might not be that new of a technical form of organisation of information as images, it takes a particularly intensive temporal turn with networked data that has been discussed for example in contexts of financial speculation.[1] At the same time, these imaging devices are part of an infrastructure that does not merely observe the microtemporal moment of the “real”, but unfolds in the now-moment. In terms of geographical, geological and broadly speaking environmental monitoring, the now moment expands in to near-future scenarios in where other aspects, including imaginary are at play. Imaging becomes a form of nowcasting, exposing the importance of understanding change changing.

Here one thinks of Paul Virilio and how “environment control” functions through the photographic technical image. In Virilio’s narrative the connection of light (exposure), time and space are bundled up as part of the general argument about the disappearance of the spatio-temporal coordinates of the external world. From the real-space we move to the ‘real-time’ interface[2] and to analysis of how visual management detaches from the light of the sun, the time of the seasons, the longue duree of the planetary qualitative time to the internal mechanisms of calculation that pertain to electric and electronic light. Hence, the photographic image that is captured prescribes for Virilio the exposure of the world: it is an intake of time, and, an intake of light. Operating on the world as active optics, these intakes then become the defining temporal frame for how environments are framed and managed through operational images, to use Harun Farocki’s term, and which then operationalize how we see geographic spaces too. The time of photographic development (Niepce), or “cinematographic resolution of movement” (Lumière), or for that matter the “videographic high definition of a ‘real-time’ representation of appearances”[3] are part of Virilio’s broad chronology of time in technical media culture.

But what is at best implied in this cartography of active optics is the attention to mobilization of time as predictions and forecasts. For operations of time and production of times move from meteorological forecasting to computer models, and from computer models to a plethora of machine learning techniques that have become another site of transformation of what we used to call photography. Joanna Zylinska names this generative life of photography as its nonhuman realm of operations that rearranges the image further from any historical legacy of anthropocentrism to include a variety of other forms of action, representation and temporality.[4] The techniques of time and images push further what counts as operatively real, and what forms of technically induced hallucination – or, in short, in the context of this paper, machine learning – are part of current forms of production of information.

Also in information society, digital culture, images persist. They persist as markers of time in several senses that refer not only to what the image records – the photographic indexicality of a time passed nor the documentary status of images as used in various administrative and other contexts – but also what it predicts. Techniques of machine learning are one central aspect of the reformulation of images and their uses in contemporary culture: from video prediction of the complexity of multiple moving objects we call traffic (cars, pedestrians, etc.) to satellite imagery monitoring agricultural crop development and forest change. Such techniques have become one central example of where earth’s geological and geographical changes become understood through algorithmic time, and also where for instance the very rapidly changing vehicle traffic is treated alike as the much slower earth surface durations of crops. In all cases, a key aspect is the ability to perceive potential futures and fold them into the real-time decision-making mechanisms.

The computational microtemporality takes a futuristic turn; algorithmic processes of mobilizing datasets in machine learning become activated in different institutional context as scenarios, predictions and projections. Images run ahead of their own time as future-producing techniques.

Our article is interested in a distinct technique of imaging that speaks to the technical forms of time-critical images: Next Frame Prediction and the forms of predictive imagining employed in contemporary environmental images (such as agriculture and climate research). While questions about the “geopolitics of planetary modification”[5] have become a central aspect of how we think of the ontologies of materiality and the Earth as Kathryn Yusoff has demonstrated, we are interested in how these materialities are also produced on the level of images.

Real time data processing of the Earth not as a single view entity, but an intensively mapped set of relations that unfold in real time data visualisations becomes a central way of continuing the earlier more symbolic forms of imagery such as the Blue Marble.[6] Perhaps not deep time in the strictest geological terms, agricultural and other related environmental and geographical imaging are however one central way of understanding the visual culture of computational images that do not only record and represent, but predict and project as their modus operandi.

This text will focus on this temporality of the image that is part of these techniques from the microtemporal operation of Next Frame Prediction to how it resonates with contemporary space imaging practices. While the article is itself part of a larger project where we elaborate with theoretical humanities and artistic research methods the visual culture of environmental imaging, we are unable in this restricted space to engage with the multiple contexts of this aspect of visual culture. Hence we will focus on the question of computational microtime, the visualized and predicted Earth times, and the hinge at the centre of this: the predicted time that comes out as an image. The various chrono-techniques[7] that have entered the vocabulary of media studies are particularly apt in offering a cartography of what analytical procedures are at the back of producing time. Hence the issue is not only about what temporal processes are embedded in media technological operations, but what sounds like merely a tautological statement: what times are responsible for a production of time. What times of calculation produce imagined futures, statistically viable cases, predicted worlds? In other words, what microtemporal times are in our case at the back of a sense of a futurity that is conditioned in calculational, software based and dataset determined system?

[1] Sean Cubitt, Three Geomedia, in: Ctrl-Z 7, 2017.
[2] Paul Virilio, Polar Inertia, London-Thousand Oaks-New Delhi, 2000, S. 55.
[3] Ebenda, S.61
[4] See Joanna Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography, Cambridge (MA) 2017.
[5] Kathryn Yusoff, The Geoengine: geoengineering and the geopolitics of planetary modification, in: Environment and Planning a 45, 2013, S. 2799-2808.
[6] See also Benjamin Bratton, What We Do Is Secrete: On Virilio, Planetarity and Data Visualisation, in: John Armitage/Ryan Bishop (Hg.), Virilio and Visual Culture, Edinburgh 2013, S. 180–206, hier S. 200-203.
[7] Wolfgang Ernst, Chronopoetics. The Temporal Being and Operativity of Technological Media, London-New York 2016.

Slow Violence – No Man’s Land

My short essay-booklet A Slow Contemporary Violence came out in 2016 in the Sternberg Press series The Contemporary Condition that is continuing in full swing. Below is a short excerpt from my contribution to the series. The excerpt is the passage on Güven İncirlioğlu’s photograph installation touching on the 100th anniversary of WWI. One can consider it still as rather apt timing, including how it speaks about the war that never ended and in its own way, continuing themes that relate to Rob Nixon’s thesis about slow violence which is also one of the reference points for my whole essay.

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I want to address the idea of temporal conglomerations and deep times of contemporary geopolitics as slowness or long term durations that unfold as not immediate for the human perception. I want to start by way of photographic art.

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Fig. 1: A close up of “Her Taraf – No Man’s Land” by Güven İncirlioğlu. Used with permission.

As part of a selection of works from the 3rd and 4th Çanakkale Biennial in Turkey,Güven İncirlioğlu’s installation piece “Her Taraf – No Man’s Land” from 2014 is one of the many art and culture commentaries about the Gallipoli campaign, also known as Dardanelles Campaign, that took place on Turkish soil during the First World War. The events have been commemorated over the past times on many occasions and by many institutions from official governments to universities to cultural institutions. The war and its relation to modern Europe and global geopolitics has multiple narratives, and for historians of media and technology, it has been marked as a turning point of the twentieth century. The war was also a mobilization of new technologies including the wristwatch and different solutions for wireless communication on the front line; the media connections were important in military operations, but they also started to enter the private sphere of the domestic life. In addition, the chemical technologies presented a more efficient way of destruction from the air both as planes and as chemical warfare, which was employed on the European front effectively; such also formed the backbone of the pesticide-enhanced agriculture of the twentieth and twenty-first century.

Many of the military operations and events took place on the outskirts of our current version of Europe, including Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. A hundred years after the war, and a hundred years after the start of the naval assault by Britain and France, on 25 April 1915, the digital photographs in the installation tell a partial historical story about what remains after the war and its devastation. The images do not, however, feature the usual iconography of human memory: of old photographs juxtaposed with other objects of memories; of faces as souvenirs of the old grainy image era transported in photography. It is a story not so much of faces but of landscapes of war and technology, of chemistry and destruction.

The photographic installation is a mini-landscape that occupies one wall. The images commemorate the First World War as an event of technological warfare of massive ecological scales. But it also becomes clear that the commemoration works in alternative ways; it is less as a celebration of the Ottoman victory than a subtle sort of a monument that entangles social history and natural history, and acts as a conglomeration of different temporal regimes. Even this distancing from the nationalist narrative is worthwhile noticing in the midst of the years of strong religiously tuned nationalist rhetoric and policy measures of current day Turkey. But the temporal politics of the images works differently. Enhanced by the atmosphere of silence surrounding the digital images placed on the walls of the Depo-gallery, İncirlioğlu’s piece is described as a commentary on the two times of “human life and the time of nature,” as the accompanying text on the wall informs. A usual historical narrative builds the memory around the 100 year milestone from the events, but the piece reminds of the multiple ways of narrating and recording time — not a passing of time, but a slow chemical sedimentation of time; it reminds how time is not merely a passing of events, but a milieu of multiple ways of accounting for it in the midst of human and non-human agents. It expresses a landscape of time, but not a landscape of the usual mastery through which we have been accustomed to think of nature in art history. It is a landscape, which we are still involved in.

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Fig. 2: Installation view at Depo Gallery of “Her Taraf – No Man’s Land”. Used with permission.

The title “No Man’s Land” refers to the contested zone between the trenches that during the long months until January 1916 changed occupation many times. It brings to mind the various historical narratives of human misery that the existential non-space of the trench meant — both in terms of anxiety of waiting, the deadly warfare and also the stink of diseased bodies.

For material stories of the war, writers have addressed “bunker archaeology”5 as the architectural legacy of war that transforms into the concrete aesthetics of the Cold War that still lingers on in port and other towns bombed down during the latter of the two world wars, and replaced by Brutalist building blocks in many of their central quarters. But İncirlioğlu extends from the social and human history of ruins to what lies beneath the architectural as its ground, the soil and the seabed. His photographic installation talks of the invisible chemical traces of dead bodies, body parts, barbed wired, gun shells, mines, dead trees, and flora — a natural history of the intensity of the war localized back then in Çanakkale but one that seems in its own way planetary. The geopolitical aim of landing through Çanakkale to reach Istanbul never succeeded according to the plans, but the geophysical legacy of such warfare in the age of advanced machinery left its concrete trace in the soil. İncirlioğlu’s meditation is not, however, only about that particular piece of land, the landing site and its territories formed of trenches, blue waters giving way to the war ships that connected to the supply routes, distant ports in England and other places, and many other operations; it also includes a global perspective.

He continues by way of a short biospheric meditation of technical war: “Today, it is possible to say that the global state of war that also encompasses the biosphere has been going on for a century.”6 İncirlioğlu continues referring to the annihilation of masses in the Middle East, Africa, Asia — an extension of the continued war; on the other, the “total destruction of human habitats, rivers, forests and the biological-mineral world is being processed on by the neo-liberal policies worldwide. In this context, today’s Istanbul’s northern forests, quarries, African gold mines, vast territories of fracking in Canada and all other sites of destruction […] resemble the scene of a ‘no man’s land’.”7

The story told was not after all a commemoration of a war that ended but the war that never ended ; the war that facilitated an entry of new sorts of technical forms of control,  regulation, production of chemicals and more — an apt theme considering we are living in a sort of a continuous Cold War8 defined by territorial claims, energy wars, realpolitik of terrorism entangled with geopolitics, movements of biomass that expresses itself as the human suffering of forced refugee movements. Beginnings and endings become only temporary markers for narratives that are insufficient for the complexity of this time. The sort of a war we are addressing does not lend itself to easy stories of ideological oppositions but to complex networks, which entangle strategies and tactics with environmental realities and the finitude of the world of energy and materials. These sorts of wars are geopolitical in the fundamental sense, and do not involve just the two sides of troops in trenches. Indeed, it moves the focus from the human actors, soldiers, tragedies of personal, family and other scales to those of soil, the ground, the air — an elemental tragedy that is the backdrop in which a drama of the Anthropocene might unfold. It is also a tragedy that comes out clearest in its slowness.

Antropobsceno

The Anthrobscene, the short booklet originally published by University of Minnesota Press, is now available in Spanish. Published by the Centro de Cultura Digital (in Mexico City) as Antropobsceno it is also now available as free e-pub download. The booklet was published in Portuguese in Brazil earlier this year.

Here’s Nora Khan’s earlier review essay about the Anthrobscene.