An interview on pattern, materiality and data: Rossella Biscotti’s artistic practice
I was briefly interviewed by Anne Zeuthen and Maja Bak Herrie about Rossella Biscotti‘s artistic work, and the themes that emerge as part of her practice. Below this short chat that was done in December 2015. (Note: the interview has not been copy edited for language). All the image below are from the from the exhibition 10×10 (at Wilfried Lenz, Rotterdam, 2014).
Q1: How do you define the materiality of the digital, and in what ways does
this emphasis of the material constitute a critical potential?
JP: To think of the materiality of the computation especially in the context of Rossella Biscotti’s practice leads us into a complex entanglement of patterns and data. I’ve been fascinated by the question that seems paradoxical in the context of the legacy of informational culture. Information was supposed to be something different from the thermodynamically entropic materiality of the world and to be the organizational glue for an alternative reality of bits; information was to function in different ways, and it became a whole self-justifying mantra for a new socio-economic phase since the 1990s at least. Bits not atoms. And yet, all of the digital and all of the informational is underpinned by a range of processes that are energetic and material. But computation cannot be reduced to the digital informatics. And the patterns of informational processes, the abstractions, are entangled with the materials, which are infrastructurally necessary for the illusion of immateriality to exist.
The weaved pattern is famously a leading thread (indeed) in Sadie Plant’s fabulously poetic take on digital culture. To quote her: “Just as individuated texts have become filaments of infinitely tangled webs, so the digital machines of the late twentieth century weave new networks from what were once isolated words, numbers, music, shapes, smells, tactile textures, architectures, and countless channels as yet unnamed.” She continues about the yarn as “neither metaphorical nor literal, but quite simply material” suggesting that materiality is of a different order than what we have been accustomed to. I feel drawn to speak of materiality, instead of the “real” which still seems to hint of too much of epistemological evaluation between real and unreal. Instead, the notions of materiality that Plant and a lot of feminist materialism of past decades has inaugurated is something that speaks to this subtle sense of matter in movement, a dynamic matter that matters. This is a sort of a understanding of materiality that is at the same time sensitive to the patterns, the material threads they are made of as a tactile reality that escorts multiple meanings and yet also escapes into alternative sorts of sensorial experiences than merely just what meets the eye.
Think of it in terms of pattern, data, that is tactile; the sort of structurations Biscotti is after are data that is touchable and yet much of its layers of information escape touch too. It is not that you can reduce the work to the touch, and yet it is there. It has those multiple layers. I think Biscotti’s work is a great way of approaching materiality that always comes in multiple layers, dimensions; the organization and the materiality are entangled, weaved together. It speaks of data materiality as one of abstractions that are useful and necessary part of how information functions – abstractions are an effective way of managing information infrastructures, as Jean-François Blanchette, but there is in addition this sort of touchable materiality that comes out uniquely in Biscotti’s installations.
Q2: Previously you have identified your approach as ‘non-McLuhan’ since it
refrains from perceiving media as an expansion of the human body. Instead
you emphasise how media emerge from raw materials such as optical fibres
or copper. What status does that inscribe to the agency of media?
The legacy of Ada Lovelace, weaving and what Biscotti summons is rich in implications. One might easily object; what’s non-human about this? And yet, one can see how this sort of an understanding of the agential realism (Barad’s term) of the weaved pattern suggests a rich understanding of more than what emanates from the human body. As Barad suggests with her term, this sort of agency is not merely about the thing or a person that might have agency but the unfolding event of doing, in-action, that makes it into an agential form of becoming that weaves into its unfolding various sorts of humans and non-humans.
Instead of objects and subjects, we start to speak of entanglements. It becomes like a guiding line for a lot of material analysis and aesthetics. Recently, it featured as part of for example Patricia Pisters’ film theoretical development in an article of her’s; from interaction to the intraction of embodied brains with screen culture. Where human bodies end and start becomes a question of the wider assemblages in which multiple heterogeneous parts form the agential event. Pisters’ essay is part of a new really inspiring special issue of Cultural Studies Review on New Materialism, edited by Ilona Hongisto, Kaisa Kontturi and Milla Tiainen. It’s the whole body of new materialist thought that becomes here an exciting driving force for new ontological and aesthetic practices.
So for me, especially my work Insect Media was a sort of a non-McLuhan way of understanding media history. I meant it as a playful provocation, not a dismissal of McLuhan’s work at all. Instead of the Mcluhan mantra that media are extensions of man, one is tempted to ask the question: how about animals, and women? Sadie Plant’s feminist history of media and computing was a step in way of a new vocabulary of media and I wanted to complement some of the work in Insect Media by way of an alternative cultural history, or media archaeology, of media as extensions of the animal. I wanted to look at how insects and other forms of non-human animals were talked about but also taken as models, or even parts of the media assemblage in scientific and technological developments over the 20th century. This ranged from some artistic ideas in Surrealism; design thinking with animals in architecture; software swarms thought of in terms of natural formations; a whole plethora of distributed, alternative and sometimes multilegged, eyed agencies that are irreducible to the human. Insects feature in history of philosophy – from Heidegger’s notes to the famous tick of Deleuze and Guattari – and in addition, there is a media and technological side to such genealogies as well. More recently, I become interested in other sorts of threads: copper, fibre (optics) and other infrastructural dimensions of media culture. This extends again the idea of media as extensions of much more than just the man/human, and as part of even environmental questions: electronic waste for example.
Q3: Presuming that mediality of art cannot be thought independently of the
materiality in which it takes place, which roles do technologies play in your
conceptualisation of art and its creation of meaning?
This is indeed my approach; art is always modulation of perception, and this modulation is material in that way described above (through Barad, Pisters, and new materialism) briefly; art entangles with our bodies and brains, the percepts and affects tie us into these art works. This sort of agency is not restricted to an object or a thing but becomes the materiality of the relation, a sort of a fabric in motion.
And the entanglement goes deeper; what are the material conditions of art works and processes? These can be investigated by way of their media technological conditions and also infrastructural conditions. Some of recent art has actually turned to investigate their own conditions of existence, or let’s say, the infrastructural again. For example Jamie Allen has been rather inspiring for my work, similarly as the artist duo Cohen van Balen as well as Liam Young and Kate Davies’ design-oriented speculation but of course many many others too.
The name of my chair at Winchester School of Art is “Professor in Technological Culture & Aesthetics” and I like to think of it exactly in this extended way; not only about theories of art and beauty in the classical sense always, but the ways in which technologies are artistic already; ways of modulating senses, perceptions, relations. Art and technology go hand in hand. Questions of engineering become themselves turned into art methods, like the Critical Engineer-group suggested. We start to look at art in technological terms too, as Friedrich Kittler in his own way inspired. We are soon starting a new research group called AMT (Archaeologies of Media and Technology) at the WSA, and this sort of a cross-breeding of experimental practice and media theory is one of our core focuses.
Perhaps the connection between art and technology does also suggest new aesthetic vocabularies. I am thinking the way in which Matthew Fuller, in the book on Software Studies, suggests to think of the art of elegance in programming culture. Based on Donald Knuth’s Literate Programming, Fuller elaborates on elegance as a way to reach out from usual considerations; as a trajectory to new fields also even outsider software. One could say this implies an ecological realization underpinning elegance and software. In Fuller’s words: “A fine example of such elegance would be achieved if a way was found to conjoin the criteria of elegance in programming with constraints on hardware design consonant with ecological principles of nonpollution, minimal energy usage, recyclability or reusability, and the health requirements of hardware fabrication and disposal workers. Good design increasingly demands that elegance follows or at least makes itself open to such a trajectory. The criteria of minimal use of processor cycles already has ecological implications”.
It’s this reaching out, a trajectory of new connections as part of urgent social and political questions that makes any question of materiality of art and technology meaningful; both as bodies of theory and as artistic work.
Barad, Karen (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.
Blanchette, Jean-François (2011) “A Material History of Bits” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 62(6), pp.1042–1057,
Fuller, Matthew (2010) “Elegance” in Software Studies. A Lexicon, ed. Matthew Fuller. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp.87-92
Parikka, Jussi (2010) Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.
Pisters, Patricia (2015) “Temporal Explorations in Cosmic Consciousness: Intra-Agential Entanglements and the Neuro-Image” Cultural Studies Review Vol 21, No 2 (2015), special issue on New Materialisms, edited by Ilona Hongisto, Kaisa Kontturi and Milla Tiainen, online at http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/csrj/issue/view/334, pp.120-144.
Plant, Sadie (1997) Zeroes + Ones : Digital Women and the New Technoculture. London: Fourth Estate.