Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology

January 16, 2018 2 comments

I wrote a paper some years ago on media archaeology (esp. imaginary media research) and speculative design, to put the two parallel fields in closer dialogue. The text will be featured in a book that is still in preparation and because the first version was written some three-four years ago, I thought at least to add a couple of the first lines online. This is still the version that is not copy edited, but hopefully out one day too! Here’s the start. For the full draft version, please get in touch.

Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology

  1. Introduction: Imaginary Media as Impossible Yet Necessary Techniques

To be able to start with the non-existent, sometimes even the absurd, is a skill in itself. It can be a methodological way of approaching reality not as ready and finished but produced and open to further variations, potential and a temporality that includes the possibility of something else. Like with all methods, the skill of thinking the non-existent needs practicing. It also needs institutional contexts that are able to support such an odd task that seems devoid of actual truth value and easily dismissed as not incorporating the epistemological seriousness required of the academic subjects. Despite the difficulty of giving a good one-liner definition that could cover all aspects of different traditions of media archaeology, it is safe to say that it has been able to create an identity as a field interested in the speculative. This has meant many things from mobilisation of media history executed by way of surprising connections across art, design, technology and architecture to acknowledging the unacknowledged, a sort of a search and rescue-operation for devices, stories, narratives, uses and misuses left out of the earlier registry. Archaeology has been sometimes used as a general term for the way in which we investigate the conditions of existence of media culture, and the media technical conditions of existence of cultural practices – two things that are closely connected, with the two aspects in co-determining relations: media technology and cultural practices. And it also bends our notions of history and time itself. As Thomas Elsaesser (2016, p. 201) puts it, it is a symptom of a very different sort of a relation to the past: ‘on the one hand, it suggests a freeing up of historical inevitability in favour of a database logic, and on the other hand, it turns the past into a self-service counter for all manner of appropriations.’

Already, early on, imaginary media was one part of the media archaeological body of research. It had the clear aim of reminding scholars and artists that media technological reality was not to be restricted to what actually is. It was not to be contained by the histories of technological achievement but meant to relate to the broader cultural and artistic history, which technology can be imagined, and where it returns as imaginary attachments to values, affects, aspirations and dreams. Eric Kluitenberg (2011) articulates that such shifts are sometimes almost as if seamless, something rather prescient in the marketing discourses of digital culture. We feel constantly even emotionally attached to dream devices of corporations, carefully framed by their sales pitches as part of a wider infrastructure of desire. While such an attachment is odd enough, broadly speaking the discourses of imaginary connections constitute also our cultural topoi (Huhtamo 2011a), which then become the environment for recursive dreaming that characterizes consumer culture and production of reality.

But how boring it would be to restrict oneself to what is actual. A variantology of imaginary media, as Kluitenberg puts it (2011, p. 57) can reach out to theological discourses, aliens and the dead, to things untrue and yet so impactful for any account of cultural history. Such imaginations are ways to rethink the usual coordinates of time and space – the time of not merely a past-that-was, but a past-that-could-have been; a future imagined as one recurring fantasy of rejigging the time we are in now. These are the places that are not only distant but sometimes impossible. How liberating this feels instead of buying into the ready-made dreams. No wonder such strategies can be connected to a wider political imaginary that includes geographical, racialized and gendered others. Artists such as Zoe Beloff have set scenes for alternative media histories through the silent mediums themselves – female protagonists, written into the stories. Kluitenberg points to afrofuturism as one particularly interesting political imaginary. Indeed, as the director John Akomfrah puts it in an interview with Kluitenberg, afrofuturism and other imaginary media practices are not mere mental refuge. They produce and sustain new cultural practices and spaces in which black science fiction carves its own collective existence but also facilitates relations with, for example, gay and women’s movement including in the science fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. What is being approached is a black techno-cultural imagination where also music plays a key role in how pasts, presents, and futures co-determine each other in new ways: ‘Black science-fiction culture, especially music, figures the past in the present by matching the quest for ‘outer’ space with new journals into the inner “technological tape” space of black sound itself via the digital utopias of jungle and techno.’ (Kluitenberg and Akomfrah 2006, p. 293). Even if also imaginary media is at times defined as ‘untimely’ (Zielinski 2006, p. 30; Kluitenberg 2011, p. 56-57), it remains actually an interesting situated practice that is aware of geographies and can challenge the Eurocentric focus of some of the speculative design discourse and practice. Hence, the more interesting of such fabulations actually become ways to imagined situated critiques by way of imaginary. In some recent work, afrofuturism has also been connected to issues of cultural heritage as a project between speculative futures and records of the past (see Nowviskie 2016).

So what does it mean to think of media archaeological and imaginary media projects in the context of speculative design? The question itself acts as a conceptual probe that searches for specific practices in both media and design. Furthermore, it is also a probe that scans the disciplinary relations of two sets of discourses about the past and the future. As two parallel fields with not much contact in the past, speculative design and imaginary media research are interested in how alternative worlds might be created and how temporal, social, and technological fabulations situate coordinates of past-future in alternative ways. I will discuss different art and design projects, cross-fertilising the two traditions of media and design theory and practice, and aim to elaborate ways how media archaeology could contribute to speculative design and to some contemporary issues in critical design. There are some earlier ideas that have suggested how this might work. For example Bruce Sterling’s idea of ‘paleo-futures’ as ‘the reserve of historical ideas, visions and projections of the future—a historical futurity of that prospective’ (Hales 2013, p. 7) is one example of the shared suitably complex time-scales of overlapping design and media archaeological imaginations, but this chapter teases out further contexts for such reserves of historical ideas.



A Surface Keynote

December 9, 2017 Leave a comment

In talk news, I will be delivering a keynote at the Apparition: The (Im)Materiality of Modern Surface-conference in March. The CfP is still open until December 16.

Right after the Leicester event, I will be giving some talks at UPenn in Philadelphia, including on the current Lab Book-project. More information online here.

Besides some other near future talks in Helsinki and Geneva, I will be in Istanbul in January for the Istanbul-launch of the Turkish translation of What is Media Archaeology?, Medya Arkeolojisi Nedir?

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The Anthrobscene in Portuguese

November 14, 2017 Leave a comment

The short booklet the Anthrobscene has been translated into Portuguese in Brazil. The essay that  was a sort of a single release of the later A Geology of Media now features as part of the Open Access collection Configurações do pós-digital: arte e cultura tecnológicas, edited by​ Pablo Gobira & Tadeus Mucelli. The book’s foreword is written by Lucia Santaella.

With the new translation, I was also again left thinking  the title, the neologism it carries. Besides the obvious Baudrillard-connotation that was not supposed to be the main thrust of the term, an alternative link that I was reminded about today comes through Ian Sinclair’s discussion of the fringes of London as obscenery instead of scenery. In Esther Leslie’s description, Sinclair’s obscenery is somewhat rather apt concerning also the Anthrobscene picking up on the wastelandscape imageries: “..contained in that word [obscenery] is the sense of being off-scene, off the stage, out of sight and out of mind. Sinclair describes places of no memory, forgotten places, places where memory is expunged in waves of rebuilding, re-destroying, places of transit, places, such as the London Orbital motorway, the M25, designed to pass through and keep moving.” (Leslie, in Synthetic Worlds.)


You can download the book here.

Recently another Brazilian collection included some of my writing (as well as other translations and texts by Brazilian colleagues) on media archaeology. You can find more information about A(na)rqueologias das Mídias online.



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November 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Visual culture nowadays.

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What is Media Archaeology? in Turkish

October 2, 2017 Leave a comment

The Turkish translation of What is Media Archaeology? is out this week! Koc University Press are publishing the translation Medya Arkeolojisi Nedir? by Ebru Kılıç and you can  order the book and find more information in Turkish online.

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I am extremely happy about the translation as well as the fact that it coincides with my Bilkent University visit in Ankara where I am part of the Play/Pause, FF/Rewind-week of events on “Shared Practices & Archaeologies of Media.” The event is part of the launch of the new media archaeological space that colleagues at Bilkent have been working on. The lab will be the first of its kind in Turkey. The week of talks and activities will finish on Friday with a launch of Medya Arkeolojisi Nedir? in Ankara at the Erimtan Arkeoloji ve Sanat Müzesi at 6 pm.

An Istanbul launch of the book is in planning for a later date in the Autumn.

For review copy and other requests regarding the Turkish translation, please get in touch with me or directly with the Press (Berkan Simsek).

The publisher’s page for Medya Arkeolojisi Nedir?

Eski ven Yeninin Kartografileri – a sample from the translation online.

The Office Manual is out

September 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Our summer project, the AMT Office Manual is out. Consisting of short texts and practice-based expositions, the contributors consist of colleagues in Fine Art, Design, Media and Visual Culture as well as some of AMT research group‘s affiliated scholars such as Shannon Mattern and Darren Wershler. The manual opens up with our short intro: “The Office Manual.”


Designed by Dr. Jane Birkin, the publication is a mix between a zine and a manual, but with a media archaeological, practice-based and indeed, grey bent.

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The texts address the imaginaries, technologies, techniques, pencils and furniture of the office – the key site of technological work and art.

Indeed, only what can be typed, tabulated, filed and stamped exists: before any narrative, there is a technology and a clerk performing the work of inscription.


The Manual cannot be purchased and is available only through AMT field officers.


Urban Technologies and Air Pollution

August 1, 2017 1 comment

I have a new article out in Fibreculture-journal’s new special issue Computing the City. My text “The Sensed Smog: Smart Ubiquitous Cities and the Sensorial Body” addresses questions of environmentality and media, and mediated environments through the perspective of smog and air pollution. Data about air pollution functions in various ways in the construction of the subject in infrastructures of the technological city, but the broader context of air and technology is approached also in  speculative ways. To quote a short passage:

“For a sketch of an alternative ecological art history (on art and the Anthropocene, see Davis and Turpin, 2015), one could claim that ozone depletion relates to radical molecular art since the 1970s. The 1970s mark a visual art historical period caused by photodissociation of key chemical agents such as CFCs, freons, halons as well as solvents, propellants, etc. It is a weird period when one starts to consider it from this perspective: problems of refrigeration and the invention of products such as freon have their residual aftereffects in the upper atmosphere which, as historian John McNeill notes, have not really until now featured as an important role in human history. Usually things that concern us have happened in the lower spheres of the planet (McNeill, 2000: 52). History has been atmospherically biased towards things much closer to human headspace. But the modern historical period rather concretely consists of carbon dioxide, ozone and sulphur dioxide (McNeill, 2000: 52), too, and this is not a feature restricted to that one particular narrative-atmospheric space. The massive increase in CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) amounts has resulted in what could be called the ‘ultraviolet century’ (McNeill, 2000: 114). The effect of the ozone depletion as we have grown to know it, is the increase in penetration of UV-light/radiation through the stratosphere, resulting in a different light balance from the 1970s to approximately to the year 2070 (as the restoration of the ozone protection layer is a slow process). This form of art historical period is registered on the skin and the organisms of humans as increased cancer rates; in animals such as whales as similar epidermal reactions (Thomas, 2010); in plants and crops, etc. Smog itself is also visible in the increase in cardiovascular diseases, asthma and lung inflammations, asthma for example.”

You can find the article and the whole issue here. Computing the City-special issue is edited by Armin Beverungen, Florian Sprenger and Susan Ballard.