Here’s a short interview chat we had with Neal White on art practices in and out of the lab, the office and more:
Neal White runs the Office of Experiments, a research platform that “works in the expanded field of contemporary art.” The Office employes methods of fieldworks and works with a range of partners including scientists, academics, activists and enthusiasts, and described as exploring “issues such as time, scale, control, power, cooperation and ownership, highlighting and navigating the spaces between complex bodies, organisations and events that form part of the industrial, military, scientific and technological complex.” Neal White is also starting as Professor at Westminster University, London.
This interview, conducted via email in June and July 2016, was set in the context of the What is a Media Lab-project and aims to address the questions of artistic practice, labs and the (post)studio as an environment of critical investigations of technological and scientific culture. Another,longer, interview with Neal White, conducted by John Beck, is published in the new edited collection Cold War Legacies (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).
JP: Can you start by describing what the Office of Experiments does? I am interested in its institutional form in the sense also Gilles Deleuze talks of institutions as “positive models for action” in contrast to law being a limitation on action. The Office also carries the legacy of modern institutional form par excellence – not the artist’s studio with its romantic connotations, not the laboratory either with its imaginary of science, but the office as an organizational site. Why an office?
NW: The Office of Experiments makes art through a process of collaboration in which all of those who undertake research, make or apply thinking to a project can be credited. We bring together artistic forms of research with experimental and academic research in the field, undertaking observational analysis, archival research, road trips, building platforms and prolonged formal visual studies that reflect the complexity of the subjects we approach. Our approach is to build a counter rational analysis or account of the world in which we live. To move this away from any poetic vision, we draw on ideas from conceptual art, and disciplines such as geography and science studies, architecture and political activism, as well as looking at physical space, data, and the material layer which connects the observatories, global sensors etc of our contemporary world; the interface between the technological and material world.
Having some formative education in Digital Arts, an MA in 1997 and then running a successful art and technology group in Shoreditch, London, in late nineties and up to 2001 (Soda), my experiences collaborating with others was critical to how I work now, and the work of others that interests me. As I wanted to deliberately move away from the hermetic space that media / digital art was creating for itself – the Lab, and to set up an independent contemporary art practice, that moved across spaces, enclosures, archives, in and out of galleries, often working in situ, and which was networked, I needed to find a way of working with others that was neither exploitative nor driven by serving another discipline or field.
Having opened conversations with John Latham in 2002-3, the now late British artist, I was introduced to Artist Placement Group. I was strongly influenced at this point both by Latham’s ideas of time/temporality (as applied to institutions) as well as incidental practices, and I applied those in an instituent form (Raunig) as Office of Experiments. The Office was therefore the solution to working collaboratively as an artist in a critical way, so that credit would be spread, and all those collaborating within each project get something out – whether as art or as an academic output/text, relevant to their individual discipline.
I was attracted to the term Office initially as it holds some idea of power, when thinking of a government department or Bureau, but is also instrumental – something that I felt was and is increasingly asked of art (evaluating audiences for funding etc). However, Office alone does not work, it is too close to that which it is critical of, so it is only when used with the term experiment, and the ideas of experimental systems (Rheinberger), which were also key to my work at this time, that an agonistic dichotomy comes to the fore. This works for me, as we could say the terms are counter-productive, the name undermines itself linguistically (i.e. As Robert Filliou put it “Art is what makes life so much better than Art’). In this respect, it serves the ideas that shape our research, to create a form of counter-enquiry that can hold to account the rational logic of hard scientific enquiry, ideas of progress, the ethical spaces of advanced industry and scienc
The link to post-studio practices and discourse is a thread that runs through the projects. Can you talk a bit more about the other sorts of institutional spaces or experiments in and with regulated spaces such as the laboratory that your work has engaged in?
To give some concrete examples, OoE was founded when working on an experimental platform, which was based on the design of a planetary lander, but we designed it for ‘on earth’ exploration; Space on Earth Station (2006), with N55 (DK). Later, OoE challenged the ethical space of clinical research in a project that used restricted drugs to explore ‘invasive aesthetics; The Void’ in which participants urine is turned blue. Our aim to move the site of the artwork to inside the body. We then explored the history of psychopharmacology and the use of so-called ‘truth serums’ in psychology of torture by the US military. More recently the Overt Research project made visible and navigable the concealed sites, laboratories, infrastructures, networks and logistical spaces of the UK’s knowledge complex, part military, part techno-scientific, a post-industrial complex. In Frankfurt, Germany, OoE acquired a piece of network infrastructure, – a cell phone tower in the shape of a palm tree, whilst we researched quantum financial trading networks and conspiracy theories based around Frankfurt itself. Currently, we are working on data from a globally distributed seismic sensor used to monitor the test ban treaty on nuclear weapons, and have used the data (which is not straightforward to acquire) from this vast instrument to create resonant physical audio experiences around what we call hyper-drones. In many of the cases, projects lead to engagements with society and the public on subjects of concern, whilst also providing tools, resources and shared knowledge with other researchers, enthusiasts and artists.
Considering art history and history of science, the studio and the lab can be seen as two key spaces of experimentation and the experiment, following their own routes but in parallel tracks as well. Does a similar parallel life apply to the post-studio, and the post-lab in contemporary context? In your view, what are the current forms that define the lab?
Starting with any lab today, we could perceive a hyper-structure (Morton) – that is a lab networked to other lab space, and not something discrete or visible as an observable object in the singular. To this extent, labs are also entry points connecting physical and digital layers; they reveal regulatory and permission based cultures in which ethics, health and safety, security and received opinion (Latham)/knowledge assert control. The idea of a lab therefore for art or media art, with any kind of techno-scientific logic not only implies but actually enforces limits (Bioart so often falls down in these terms). Whilst a studio gives an artist working within the constraints of their ability/media a private space to think and work, I find both underline both certain kinds of limits and a tradition of building through a controlled approach to both the experiment and experimentation.
In terms of the post-studio / lab, the ‘social’ (Latour) framing of art in the contemporary field of relations, social engagements and critical practices, experiments are produced through a scale of 1;1, but are also modelled in new ways. So this implies, that we not only need to find a new way to work, but to be present somewhere/somehow else.
So, if Office of Experiments projects explore space and time as dimensions of practice, then it is reflective of these shifts, being made up of a group or number of individuals, we are arguably post-studio in form. Where we might be sited is fluid too, but we do share an enthusiasm for working together by being situated in fieldwork, exploring places and non-sites, as well as complex infrastructures, some which are legally ‘out of bounds’ or ‘off limits’. So we have often worked together to produce platforms for research in the field that include methods as much as architectural projects, as well as resources such as archives and databases, to enable our activities to take place.
Whilst the work we have produced is shown inside leading galleries internationally, as performances, video, visual artwork and installation, we have also produced a number of bus tours, installations, temporary monuments and projects beyond these enclosures, in public space, the landscape or framed by urban and suburban life. So the spaces, or non-sites we work in are also the places in which we exhibit the work, including across media – on the scale of 1:1.
However, the idea of a scale of 1:1 I have wrestled with since reading Rheinbergers work on experimentation, as you could argue that it does not apply to the non-material word we inhabit. Perhaps it is more accurate to say, I have been looking at contemporary forms of production, rather than simply experiments, to think about or challenge these models of working as an artist in a social or collaborative context. For example, what happened in the lab can now be modelled inside the computer, across the network etc. And what was fabricated in the studio for the gallery, can be outsourced and produced by artisans to a better standard, or scanned, modelled and printed, for display across a range of spaces, real or not.
Art has therefore been subject to de-materialisation that started in the 1960’s (see Lippard), but as with so much of late capitalism and scientific and computational processes, it is no longer simply invisible but reduced to the indivisible, distributed and then reassembled. And the site of the reassembling is multiple, as are we.
Update: This text is published inGerman in the Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft‘s blog, translated by Florian Sprenger. It is also published in Turkish in Biamag, translated by Doğan Terzi. Here is the original English version, which is also published on the Theory, Culture & Society journal’s blog.
Earwitnesses of a Coup Night: The Many Media Infrastructures of Social Action
The particularly cruel scenes in Ankara and Istanbul from July 15th and 16th circulated quickly. From eye witness accounts to images detached from their context, media users, viewers and readers was soon seeing the graphic depictions of what had happened with the added gory details, some of them fake, some of them not.
Still and moving images from the hundreds of streams that conveyed a live account of the events left many in Turkey puzzled as to what is going on. Only later most were able to form some sort of a picture of the events with the coherence of a narrative structure. By the morning the live stream on television showed military uniform soldiers raising their hands and climbing down from their tanks. What soon ensued were the by already now iconic images of public punishment: the man with his upper torso bare and the belt as his whip, the stripped soldiers in rows shamed and followed up by the series of images of expressions of collective joy as most of Turkey was relieved again. The coup was over. The unity in resisting the coup was unique. As it was summarised by many commentators: even the ones critical of the governing AK Party’s politics agreed that this was not a suitable manner of overthrowing an elected government.
However, what became evident immediately in the wake of the actual events was the quick spread of narratives and explanations about the coup night and its extent. As one journalist aptly and with a healthy dose of sarcasm put it:
Also some rather established organisations like Wikileaks got quickly on the spectacle-seeking bandwagon of the coup attempt’s repercussions. Turkish journalists and activist soon read and revealed that the so-called “AKPleaks”-documents were not really anything that interesting as it was advertised to be. As Zeynep Tufekci summarised: “According to the collective searching capacity of long-term activists and journalists in Turkey, none of the ‘Erdogan emails’ appear to be emails actually from Erdogan or his inner circle” while actually containing information that could be considered harmful to normal Turkish citizens instead.
Of course, besides commentators inside and outside Turkey, there was no lack of people with first-hand experience. Besides the usual questions that eyewitnesses were asked in many news reports about “how did things look like”, another angle was as pertinent. How did it sound? The soundscape of the coup was itself a spectacle catered to many senses: the helicopters hovering around the city; the different calibre gunfire that ranged from heavy fire from helicopters to individual pistol shots; individual explosions; car horns; sirens, and the roaring F-16 that descended at times so low so that its sonic boom broke windows of flats. Such sonic booms have their own grim history as part of the 21st century sonic warfare as cultural theorist Steve Goodman analysed the relation of modern technologies, war and aesthetics. As has been reported for years, for example Israeli military has used sonic noise of military jets in Palestine as a shock technique: “Palestinians liken the sound to an earthquake or huge bomb. They describe the effect as being hit by a wall of air that is painful on the ears, sometimes causing nosebleeds and ‘leaving you shaking inside’.”
In the midst of sonic booms, a different layer of sound was felt through the city: the mosques starting their extraordinary call to prayer and calls to gather on the streets. The latter aspect was itself triggered by multiple mediations that contributed to the mobilization of the masses. Turkish President had managed to Facetime with CNN-Turk’s live broadcast and to call his supporters to go on the streets to oppose the coup attempt. By now even the phone the commentator held has become a celebrity object with apparently even $250,000 offered for it.
But there was more to the call than the ringtone of an individual smartphone. In other words, the chain of media triggers ranged from the corporate digital videotelephony to television broadcasting to the infrastructures of the mosques to people on the streets tweeting, filming, messaging and posting on social media. All of this formed a sort of a feedback-looped sphere of information and speculation, of action and messaging, of rumours and witnessing. Hence, there was more than just traditional broadcast or digital communication that made up the media reality of this particular event.
The mosques started to amplify the political leadership’s social media call by their own acoustic means. Another network than just social media was as essential and it also proved to be irreducible to what some called the “cyberweapon” of online communications. As one commentator tried to argue commenting on the events in Turkey: “But, this is the era of cyberpower. Simply taking over the TV stations is not enough. The Internet is a more powerful means of communication than TV, and it is more resilient — especially with a sophisticated population.” However, there were also other elements in the mix that made it a more interesting and a more complex issue than merely about the “cyber”.
Turkish artist and technologist Burak Arikan had already in his earlier work mapped the urban infrastructure of Istanbul in terms of its mosques, malls and national monuments. “Islam, Republic, Neoliberalism” (2012) employs his critical mapping methodology to visualise how structures of power are part of the everyday whether we always realise these relationships or not. Based on his research, Arikan devised three maps of those architectural forms and how they connect. According to Arikan, the “maps present a comparative display of network patterns that are formed through associations linking those architectural structures that represent the three dominant ideologies –Islam, Republic, Neoliberalism– in Turkey.”
During the coup weekend, it was the network of the mosques and their minarets that became suddenly very visible – or actually, very audible. While the regular praying times have become such an aural infrastructure of the city that one does not necessarily consciously notice it, the extraordinary calls from imams reminded how dense this social, architectural fabric actually is. The thousands of Istanbul mosques became itself an explicit “sonic social network” where the average estimated reach (300 meters) of sound from the minarets is too important of a detail to neglect when one wants to understand architecture as solidifying social networks in contemporary Turkey. In the context of mid-July it was one crucial relay of communication between the private sphere in homes, the streets and the online platforms contributing to the mobilization of the masses. The musicological perspective has highlighted how sound and noise negotiate conflict across private and the public and we can extend this to a wider media ecological perspective too. This is where art and design practices can have an instrumental role to play in helping us to understand such overlapped media and sensorial realities.
Artists such as Arikan have investigated the ways how online tools and digital forms of mapping can connect to issues of urban planning and change. The visual artwork helps us to also understand how there are other social realities, less front of our eyes even if they are in our ears. This expands the wider sense of how media is and was involved in Turkey’s events, and it gives also insights to new methodologies of artistic intervention in understanding the coupling of media, architecture, visual methods and the sonic reality of urban life. And in this case of the bloody events of the coup weekend, much of the personal experience of “what happened” is now being narrated in Turkey in terms of what it sounded like – another aspect of the media reality of the coup attempt’s aftermath.
Here’s Faxbook, a media archaeologically pertinent alternative to Facebook brought to you by Garnet Hertz and The Studio for Critical Making! The “social” and its current techniques like “sharing” was not invented only by the latecomer digital social media platforms and through the design intervention that Faxbook rescales the techniques to a different media technological system.
Quoting Hertz below:
“Faxbook is now live, with the first transmissions sent out this afternoon. I’m limiting the system (a bit like Brucker-Cohen‘s Bumplist) to only 16 users, and there are a couple of spots left – if you want to join, send a fax that includes your fax number (with country code) to +1-604-630-7427. The algorithm will do the rest.”
During Sunday breakfast which for every Turk is the main five hours of the week, my partner suddenly turned towards me: “You know, nobody is safe, Turkey is not safe for anyone anymore. People like us are not safe.” The sense of not belonging to your own country had slowly infiltrated several people’s mood, and the fear that many ethnic and sexual minorities had felt for ages was becoming part of the more general middle-class sentiment too.
It was a sort of calm, yet melancholically perfect summary of some of the moods in Turkey as confused people witnessed the events unfold in the news, on social media, through various streams and live feeds, personal stories and telephone calls to friends and relatives.
The footage has varied from official talking heads of politicians promising to “exterminate anyone against us” (as the Turkish Prime Minister vowed in his live address) to shaky clips of different events across the cities, of people chasing other people without really being able to tell why and who, of tanks and military personnel, hands up and consequently beaten and later the numerous images of celebrations of a country that is, again, covered in the red-white Turkish flag. The attempted coup day is promised to become a national holiday, a day of democracy. And yet, many are more conflicted about the celebrations. Not because they supported the coup – far from it, as all the opposition parties too voiced their disapproval – but because fearing that the country will be far from safe that is the business-as-usual state of things when it comes to the normalised atmosphere of violence that is at times physical, at times mental.
The events over the past days and especially the coup night of Friday turning to Saturday were a properly frightening spectacle. Especially in Ankara and Istanbul, people were for the first time set in the midst of what was nothing short of a war scene.
Besides a visual description of events, many will remember it by how it sounded. The soundscape of a coup was the low flying F-16, at times even breaking windows of flats. It included the helicopter buzz, the sirens and then the calls from the massive network of mosques not only for prayer (outside the usual Muslim prayer times) but to go the streets to stop the coup. President Erdogan’s message reached quickly the loyal supporters who flooded the streets. Suddenly rescuing democracy (even using corporate social media platforms) was ok.
The next day, everything was calmer. While the mosques’ call continued throughout the day, you could again hear birds singing and life seemed almost idyllic with the usual sort of background you would expect to hear on a Saturday morning: Turkish families’ breakfast noises, tea glasses clinking, casual street corner chats. A lot had however changed. Much of the events that followed can be seen as a direct consequence of the spectacle that took lots of lives that today are visible in the pictures of coffins and funerals. Judges fired, threats of revenge, even mentioning the option of a death penalty while closing alternative media outlets like Medyascope, Gazeteport, Karşı Gazete, Aktif Haber, etc.
After the spectacle, the slow, quiet violence of the everyday resumed. During my morning trip to buy breakfast cheese I also happened to witness the all too usual scene of a Turkish husband shouting violently to his wife, with physical threats. Men kill more women than many of the legitimate institutions of violence have done the past years, and this is not a consequence of the current government or the AK Party but a feature that runs across the social life and has done so for a long time.
The post-coup attempt day became filled with other sorts of anecdotal stories that are the more mundane side to the story than warplanes above the Istanbul sky. And many fear this is the increasingly normalised side of life in Turkey: religious people attacking partygoers who were drinking alcohol, intolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities and a general tightening of the implicit rules of what is morally acceptable behaviour or clothing.
After the 6000 arrests that range far beyond the military personnel directly involved, more will be on the way. As the case of Turkey has for years proven, anyone can be branded as a terrorist. The cleansing of universities and other institutions has already been happening for a while. After the failed coup, these operations intensify with the opportunity to get rid of anyone undesired, and now there is a further perceived mandate to remove unwanted opponents of the government, and to replace them with loyalists. Luckily the violent coup is over and the everyday continues, but for many it has not been safe so far anyway.
The site for our new research group, AMT (Archaeologies of Media and Technology) is now live: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/amt/.
Directed by myself and Ryan Bishop, AMT is located at the Winchester School of Art and is an “office for media theory and speculative practice in art & design”.
We are on Twitter as @amt_office and here’s the short description of what AMT stands for:
Amt – (German) an administrative unit, office
Also: Airy Mean Time, a time standard used for timekeeping on Mars
Archaeologies of Media and Technology (AMT) is a research group that approaches technology and media writ large through their links to science, art, visual culture and critical theory with a strong emphasis on artistic practices. We investigate the conditions of existence of contemporary media technologies through design and art, in relation to both contemporary culture and cultural heritage with an eye toward the future.
The group will kick off with a range of activities after the summer including a small launch event planned tentatively for October even if we are already now involved in many things happening. The group builds on earlier work we have done with the transmediale-festival as well as many other links both in the School, in the UK and internationally. We have hosted various talks in these fields in the past years, including by Shannon Mattern, Alex Galloway, Lawrence Grossberg, Laurence Rickels, Olga Goriunova, Tony Sampson, Joanna Zylinska, Shintaro Miyazaki, Victor Burgin, Esther Milne, Pasi Valiaho and many others. We have hosted events such as Media Theory in Transit and The Image of the Network.
This week Linda Hilfling is giving an artist talk “Adding to the Paradox.”
We will post more info during and after summer with events at WSA and through projects with our international friends and partners!
I am giving a talk on Laboratory Fever in Amsterdam later in May and I am currently drafting some notes for that. This talk is part of the larger research and book project with my colleagues Lori Emerson and Darren Wershler, and most of our research process is documented on the What is a Media Lab-website. Below however a short excerpt from the forthcoming Amsterdam talk, and relating to a passage about (culture/humanities) labs as places of making, and the lab as a symptom.
In her historical contextualisation of the laboratory (“The Laboratory Challenge”), Ursula Klein puts it in rather clear terms: the laboratory was not merely a place of pure science and before the institutionalisation of the site since the 19th century as part of the scientific set up, it had many artisanal connotations as well. The lab was anyway part and parcel of a set-up of making and things, where knowledge was produced in material settings. Indeed, her interest is articulated relating to this “laboratory tradition that meshed studies of nature with technological innovation.” Now, I wonder, how much could we gain and how far could we venture with the poached idea if we did a sort of a minor tweak and see how it sounds when considering the rhetorical promise as well as conditions how we think of labs in the humanities interested in culture and making?
“the laboratory tradition that meshes studies of culture with technological innovation”.A simple and elegant hack, and an update of the scientific lab to a more humanities one? Acknowledging both the relation to “critical making” and also the nexus of culture and technology? Would this solve some of our problems and establish a seeming relation to the scientific labs as labor and elaboration of nature?
But too easy quips aside, there is something in the ways in which the lab as a site of technological making and artefactuality, in some ways, can be seen relating to the arguments by historians of science. Indeed, have we arrived at a situation where we return to the pre-scientific contexts of experimentation and wonder, where also romantic poetry is pitched as such a mode of experimentation, as Novalis once had it, and cultural realities can also found their sites of tests and experiments? Is the lab the neo-romantic but also the pre-scientific lab – a place of making and apparatuses, a place happy to borrow from the scientific aura of the science lab but not merely as an imitation of that model, but a sort of a institutional move that fits in with the issues of basic funding for departments too? Some might critique it as exactly a nostalgic move: at a time when most technocultural processes seem to be escaping the horizon of phenomenological perception and the tool-making Man’s hand, we establish sites of such nostalgic proximity to individual technologies that are merely at most interfaces to the massive planetary level technological infrastructures. And yet, establishing concrete sites might be one way of interfacing not only with technologies but educational possibilities of intervention with that technological reality.
Because of the magnitude of questions “the lab” triggers, the number of separate and distinct labs there exists, and that every lab could produce their own particular answer, I would suggest that it is more fruitful to consider the lab not so much as a solution but as a symptom itself; just like Thomas Elsaesser (2016) recently asked about the discipline of media archaeology the question: instead of what is, we should ask why now? And we can extend the same logic of questioning to labs: not just what is a lab but why now? What is it about the lab not merely as an internal place of new methods or new forms of creative or academic activity but as a fold between such techniques and external political and economic conditions of current institutions that makes it a symptom? What are the sort things that temporalise this spatial setting as a question of the now – a question that defines it as a contemporary setting for particular experiments in not only academia or creative industries, but in “political anthropology of new institutional forms” to use Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter’s ideas.