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The lab as a symptom

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.

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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.

Shannon Mattern at WSA

April 17, 2016 Leave a comment

We are happy to host Shannon Mattern at the Winchester School of Art. She is giving a talk on Infrastructural Tourism on May 3rd, at 12 – details below! The talk is organised by our Centre for Global Futures and the emerging new research group AMT – Archaeologies of Media & Technology, about which more information later.

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Here’s the information about the talk:

Abstract: Infrastructural Tourism

We seem to have come to a sudden recognition that the Internet is a place made of countless material things – cables and data centers and rare earth minerals. We’ve witnessed a dawning realization that our Amazonian consumptive appetites are dependent on similarly heavy logistical systems and exploitative labor practices. We’ve surrendered to the reality of the Anthropocene and its precarious infrastructural, environmental, political, and ethical futures. This emergent infrastructural intelligence has spawned an explosion of infrastructural “literacy” and engagement projects that seek to “make visible the invisible,” to call out the unrecognized, to bore into the “black-boxed.” Grand Tours of nuclear infrastructures and key sites in telecom history have inspired many a recent Bildungsroman, in myriad mediated forms. Apps and data visualizations, sound walks and speculative design workshops, DIY manuals and field guides, urban dashboards and participatory mappings, hackathons and infrastructural tourism – strategies employed by artists and activists and even some city governments and federal agencies – all seek to “raise awareness” among a broader public about infrastructure’s existence and its politics. They aim, further, to motivate non-specialist communities to contribute to infrastructure’s maintenance and improvement, to inspire citizen-consumers to advocate for more accessible and justly distributed resources, and perhaps even to “engineer” their own DIY networks. In this talk I’ll explore various pedagogical strategies, representational techniques, and modeling methods that have been employed to promote “infrastructural intelligence” — and consider what epistemologies, ontologies, ethics, affects, and politics are embedded in those approaches.

Bio

Shannon Mattern is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School. Her writing and teaching focus on archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. She is author of _The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities_ and _Deep Mapping the Media City_ (both published by University of Minnesota Press), and she writes a regular column about urban data and mediated infrastructures for _Places_, a journal focusing on architecture, urbanism, and landscape. She has also contributed to various public design and interactive projects and exhibitions. This spring she is a senior fellow at the Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. You can find her at wordsinspace.net.

Timescales: A CFP for a Conference

April 13, 2016 Leave a comment

This might interest many of you: a conference at UPenn on Timescales. Organised by the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, the event promises to talk about much more than just the term Anthropocene and to address the multiple temporalities that constitute our contemporary condition.

To quote the CFP:

“Ecological crises demand collaborative solutions across distant disciplines. New models for grappling with environmental disruption must account for the interaction of human and non-human systems—infrastructures that are both efficient and ethical, philosophies shaped by geological data, basic science that is informed by artistic expression. In recent decades, concepts like “Anthropocene” and “slow violence” have emerged in response to an increasing need to address the temporal aspects of global ecological concerns: Where in time do we place the origin of anthropogenic environmental change? How quickly (or slowly) do environments toxify, adapt, transform, or heal? How soon before we exceed irrevocable concentrations of atmospheric CO2, and what then?”

I am excited to be invited as the keynote and please find the Call for Papers on the Conference website (deadline for submissions is on May 2nd).

 

Reviews and More

Some quick updates on new reviews and other news about some recent books, first starting with A Geology of Media. Our university PR-team did a short news item about it being selected on the Choice-magazine list of “Outstanding Academic Title for 2015“.

It was reviewed in a couple of places including Contriver’s Review: “An Archive Beneath“. Kyle Bickoff writes in his review: “Parikka describes his book as part of the material landscape it defines, leaving little room for misinterpretation about the ubiquity and consequent exigence of his topic. This is clearly evident in the text’s construction, from its precisely demarcated, stratified chapters, to the coherence of the argument within each layer; the book, indeed, has a geology of its own.”

Also Leonardo ran a review of it. Gabriela Galati’s text gives an overview of the book, highlighting some key themes and questions too.

In addition, also our other recent new book that we launched in a couple of places (including Kiasma (Helsinki), Montreal and London) Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History: Erkki Kurenniemi in 2048 was recently reviewed. The short review in Neural summarises the book as follows: “The book challenges the reader to interpret Kurenniemi and his symbolic involvement in different disciplines, including his feverish daily archiving activities and the (re)invention of audio visual machines. The impact of this work is amplified, implicitly reinforcing both present complexity and future uncertainty.”

An interview on pattern, materiality and data: Rossella Biscotti’s artistic practice

March 31, 2016 Leave a comment

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Bibliography

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.

A Museum of Viruses

February 23, 2016 Leave a comment

I just submitted to the publisher the new, 2nd and revised edition of Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses, a book that came out for the first time with Peter Lang in 2007. Around the time of submission, the new Archive.org online museum of computer viruses was launched and made rounds in the popular press too.

Already in 2002, Museum for Applied Art in Frankfurt am Main, Germany engaged in exhibiting viral art its I Love You-Exhibition. Curator Franziska Nori expressed the importance of this topic: museums and cultural centres need to engage with this new form of cultural activity that tells the story of hackers and programming skills. The museum was to become also a laboratory where new cultural phenomena of digital culture are given a voice.

I wrote a general audience piece about the new Malware museum for The Conversation. For those of you who read German, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote a piece “Unterhaltsame Viren“. The new edition of Digital Contagions should be out by late 2016, or early 2017, just suitably to celebrate its 10th year!

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Graph Commons & Critical Mapping

February 12, 2016 Leave a comment

For some years now, Winchester School of Art has been a (university) partner of the transmediale art/digital culture-festival. We took part this year again, with several panels and other events as part of the Conversation Piece-theme.

One of them was the two day-workshop with artist, designer Burak Arikan (tr/new york) who ran a Graph Commons-workshop.

We also had a longer conversation about his work, critical & collaborative mapping and more. You can listen to it as a podcast now.

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