The Istanbul Design Biennial launches this week and we are glad to announce to be one of the invited participants. Our project with Ayhan Ayteş on the Middle-East legacy of technology and design is exhibited in the Studio X space. Besides featuring objects from this particular historical period of approximately 800-1200, the idea is to make this heritage enter into a conversation with speculative design, an alternative geopolitics of technology and imaginaries of design and media. This is executed in the form of seminar with Laura Marks and Azadeh Emadi (19th of November) and a workshop (November 20) on the design fictions and media archaeological imaginations of past futures, and imaginary realities of Middle East and technology. A lot of our thinking behind this programme has been influenced by the Variantology-project (Siegfried Zielinski et al).
Below is the short text we wrote for the catalogue of the Istanbul Design Biennial.
Jussi Parikka and Ayhan Aytes
A Media Archaeology of Ingenious Designs
Modern European culture has positioned early mechanical clockworks as key contraptions and symbols of the machine age of industrialism, later computer culture, and of the old new media of visual technologies (microscopes, telescopes and more). European humanism prescribed a mastery over technological culture while building automata as luxury machines intended to amuse and awe. This technological culture also resulted in questions about what the human is. But answering the question are we human? necessitates the further questions of when are we human, and where are we human?
When instead then? What if you start this story in an alternative fashion, in a different time and at a different place? What if you start with a speculative mind-set relating to existing but often forgotten histories of the design of the human and its doubles: technologies of automata and of the measurement of the world, alternative cosmologies in which advanced media machines are born as part of Muslim culture?
An alternative modernity: Baghdad since the ninth century and the Bayt-al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) supported by caliphs and their viziers as a special place of scientific knowledge. Nowadays we would call this an interdisciplinary laboratory for science, design and technology. Translations of texts and an enthusiastic interest in mathematics, logic, medicine and other sciences mix with innovations in design. A world of musical automata that work instead of humans; design prototypes for various machines that reach a sort of apex in Al-Jazari’s celebrated Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206), which functions not only as a historical source on this rich culture of invention but also as a speculative design manual for an alternative technological culture.
In The Difference Engine, their 1990 science fiction novel, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson pitched a similar sort of idea relating to 19th century Victorian culture as part of a steampunk imaginary: what if the modern age of computation had already started then, a hundred years earlier than thought? Rewind further back in time: What if the age of programmable machines and advanced technologies could be said to have started in the “Arab-Islamic Renaissance” of 800-1200? We could then look at early devices like astrolabes as instruments of planetary design that mediate an understanding of the positions of the sun and the stars in relation to human practices such as prayer times. Besides technologies of time and location needed for the structure of everyday religion, programmable machines functioned as prototypes for computing by way not only of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī’s “algorithm” but also the The Banū Mūsā brothers’ programmable musical machine.
Such examples beg us to alter our historical focus to a different age and a different region. Automata mirror and deflect, distort and circulate as machines of imaginary and real extensions of the supposedly human. They also question how human practices can be automated in the uncanny lives of technological artefacts. Automata are machines that situate questions of the human and its others as part of a deep-time media archaeology of robots and automata, and alternative geographies of design culture. Ask what the human is, and you also implicitly ask: what is not human, what is just about human, and what is barely human.
Marks, Laura, Enfoldment and Infinity. An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010).
Nadarajan, Gunalan “Islamic Automation: A Reading of Al-Jazari’s The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206) “ in MediaArtHistories, ed. Oliver Grau (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), 163–78.
Zielinski, Siegfried and Peter Weibel (eds.), Allah’s Automata. Artifacts of the Arab-Islamic Renaissance (800-1200). (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2015).
Water Serving Automaton,The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices (1206) (Topkapi Sarayi Libray, Ahmet III, Ms. 3472).
Emma Charles’ exhibition opens in London. It includes a multiscreen version of the White Mountain to which I wrote the text (and performed live at the Miracle Marathon just recently at the Serpentine in London). Please find more information below. The exhibition runs from 21 October to 12 November, with the PV on 20th of October.
South Kiosk is pleased to present And the Earth Screamed, Alive*, a solo exhibition by Emma Charles, featuring a multi screen expanded installation of her 16mm film White Mountain. This fictional documentary focuses on the Pionen Data Center in Stockholm. In 2008, this former Cold War-era civil defense bunker was redesigned by architect Alber France-Lanord as a data center to house servers for clients, which at one point included Wikileaks and The Pirate Bay. By revealing these unseen spaces and people, Charles work explores an understanding of how contemporary life is structured, managed and secured.
Starting by surveying the rough topography of the surrounding Södermalm landscape, Charles gradually pushes beneath the surface, illuminating the ordinarily concealed network infrastructure. As the camera idles on the florescent-lit server stacks, issues of privacy, surveillance and digital sovereignty inevitably emanate. Located 30 meters under the granite rocks of Vita Bergen Park in Stockholm, the hydrogen bomb proof subterranean hub has been constructed with direct references to science fiction films such as Silent Running, and the classic Ken Adams designed Bond-villain lairs.
Playing on the science fiction aesthetic, White Mountain uncovers the varying forms of temporality brought about through an exploration of data space and geology. After a summer punctuated by a constant stream of high-profile hacks the impenetrable steel door and
fortified walls of Pionen now seem like outmoded, symbolic defenses, ineffective at curbing the allpervading data anxiety brought about by the relentless assault of cybercriminals, spammers and clandestine state-agents.
South Kiosk has invited Emma Charles for And the Earth Screamed, Alive to
transform its space and take the viewer on a journey through the concealed and protected architecture of the data center, through an immersive projection of White Mountain and the display of a further collection of her artwork, this solo presentation focuses on the handling of digital information, the aesthetic that arises from its protection and the engagement and critique that art can perpetuate of these architectures.
For images and further information please contact Toby Bilton firstname.lastname@example.org
*“And the Earth Screamed, Alive” Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media, University of Minnesota Press (2015).
Over the past decade, studies of culture have crystallized around the elements, as scholars have endeavored to think with material substances. The classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire for example, have inspired several recent books, including Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media (2015), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone (2015), and Thinking with Water, edited by Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod, and Astrida Neimanis. Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff drawing together histories of fire, cultural theories of the sun, and pyrotechnics, have proposed that a “generalized study of combustion” is key to understanding human energetic exchanges. More broadly, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert recently published a collection driven by all the classical elements, assembling elemental criticism as an explicitly ecological project: Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. Other forms of matter, from ice to plastics, are forming new centers for emerging environmentally-oriented conversations. And we expect that more scholars will undertake projects focusing on the chemical elements of contemporary science, as carbon, rare earth minerals, and polymetallic sulfides—entangled in climate change, ocean acidification, terrestrial mining and deep sea mining—become the focus of scientific, ethical, and political concerns.
Book series tend to be bound by geographic areas, disciplinary focus, a shared set of theoretical questions, and objects of study. The Elements series would include texts with a commitment to examining social and cultural processes in relation to particular forms of matter, regardless of disciplinary approach. We imagine that the series will include historical texts that explicate discourses and knowledge about the elements, ethnographies that track how the elements are socially engaged and culturally constituted, studies of scientific knowledge of the elements, and works that think through the representation and material role of the elements in the production of art, texts and technologies. Regardless of their site, we welcome texts in which the elements, whether as part of the waves of the ocean or the circulations of the atmosphere, are not a neutral background, but lively forces that shape culture, politics, and communication. We are interested in manuscripts that track the elements in their classical sense, that follow particular scientific elements, molecules, and materials, or that offer inventive sites for rethinking what constitutes the elemental.
The elemental approach has reached the point where researchers have begun to offer philosophies and paradigms for its analysis, including David Macauley’s Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas (2010), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert’s edited collection, Elemental Ecocritcism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire (2015), and John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of ElementalMedia (2015). These works offer a number of strategic reasons to adopt the elemental as a framework for ecological analysis, rather than concepts such as “environment” or “nature.” Macauley writes, for example, that understanding the elements does not entail “referring back to ‘Nature’ itself as an entirely stable sphere of meaning—a repository of the ontologically pregiven—so much as gesturing forward (sideward and wayward) to the possibility of discovering a more fluid, open and unfolding philosophical framework and ecological field.” Although many of the elemental works mentioned above have been motivated by a need to better understand the ecological crisis, many others do not fit within existing ecocritical and environmental frameworks. And similarly, just as many of these works are informed by work in the new materialism, not all operate under this rubric.
As is true of the elements themselves, the books we witness engaging them, and which we would feature in this series, are not always neatly constrained in a particular field such as geography, history, anthropology, literary criticism or philosophy, nor within areas such as digital media or new materialism, even as their study has profound implications for all of these fields. In assembling diverse inquiries into particular forms of matter, we hope that the series will be a meeting ground for work on earth, water, air, chemicals, minerals, fuels, plastics, and other such substances as they circulate and interact with and as part of environmental, technological, cultural and political formations. Our interest is not in creating a set of definitions for what the elemental might be, but to open a space for such innovative work at Duke University Press. Duke’s strengths in theory, cultural analysis, environmental studies, and science studies, and the fact that the Press has already published many works emerging around this topic, make it an ideal location for these exchanges.
In order to maintain a distinctive focus on the Elemental, we are not soliciting projects that lack sustained attention to substances and materialities. While the books in the series will all be theoretically informed—and some may be primarily theoretical—all of the projects should still engage, in a serious and sustained way, with the elements—broadly conceived.
Each book in the Elements series will go through the standard submission process of Duke University Press and will be approved by the series editors. For consideration in this series, please email proposals, sample, chapters, or completed manuscripts to Nicole Starosielski and Stacy Alaimo: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Proposals may also be sent directly to Courtney Berger at Duke UP: email@example.com; see also https://www.dukeupress.edu/Authors/
[1}Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff, “Combustion and Society: A Fire-Centred History of Energy Use,” Theory, Culture & Society 31 no. 5 (September 2014): 203-226; See also: Kerry Ryan Chance, “Where there is Fire, there is Politics”: Ungovernability and Material Life in Urban South Africa,” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 3 (2015): 394-423; Nigel Clark, “Fiery Arts: Pyrotechnology and the Political Aesthetics of the Anthropocene,” GeoHumanities 1, no. 2 (2015): 266-284.
 Jennifer Gabrys, Gay Hawkins, and Mike Michael, eds. Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic (New York: Routledge, 2013).
 David Macaley, Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010), 4.
Last year I was contacted by the publisher of Digital Contagions, which was my first book in English: the commissioning editor proposed to edit a new, upgraded version of the book. Yesterday, the final product arrived and I am happy to tell that with a new cover, with some new text and in general edited, pruned and much more smoothly flowing, it is out – again! And I very excited that it has Sean Cubitt’s new preface too.
The new cover is from Eva and Franco Mattes’ installation Perpetual Self Dis/Infecting Machine (2001-04): a Custom made computer infected with the virus Biennale.py.
Here’s the back cover with a summary and some nice endorsements from Tiziana Terranova, Charlie Gere, Alex Galloway and Sean Cubitt!
You can find the book on Peter Lang website and on Amazon and hopefully other online bookshops. Please contact me if you require a review copy.
And as a blast from the past, here’s an interview Matthew Fuller did with me around the publication of the first edition.
I am happy to announce that the Turkish artist, technologist Burak Arikan’s exhibition Data Asymmetry opens in November at the Winchester Gallery (at the Winchester School of Art).
The exhibition addresses critical mapping as a way to understand data culture. The pieces raise questions about the predictability of ordinary human behavior with MyPocket (2008); revealing insights into the infrastructure of megacities like Istanbul as a network of mosques, republican monuments and shopping malls (Islam, Republic, Neoliberalism, 2012) ; remapping and organising recurring patterns in the official tourism commercials of governments with Monovacation (2012); exploring the growth of networks via visual and kinetic abstraction with Tense Series (2007-2012); and showcasing collective production of network maps from the Graph Commons platform. As the works emphasise, the aim of the Graph Commons is to empower people and projects through using network mapping, and collectively experiment with mapping as an ongoing practice.
Previously Arikan has had his work shown at venues such as the Museum of Modern Art New York, Venice Architecture Biennale, São Paulo Biennial, Istanbul Biennial, Berlin Biennial, Ars Electronica and many others.
The exhibition opens November 10.
In addition to the exhibition in the Winchester gallery, Arikan is organising a workshop on critical mapping and network graphs at the Winchester School of Art.
Arikan’s visit also includes another workshop in London at the British Library and as part of the Internet of Cultural Things-project. The visit to Winchester is also supported by the AMT research group at WSA.
For more context on Arikan’s art practice, please find here an audio interview I did with Arikan on stage at transmediale 2016 in Berlin.
For information and queries, please contact me: Contact details.
One of the milestones in our Internet of Cultural Things-project (AHRC: AH/M010015/1) was the launch of artist Richard Wright’s Elastic System. With an interesting media archaeological angle, the art project creates an alternative visual browsing/search/request system on top of the existing British Library one. As an experimental pilot, this interface (an installation and soon an online version) returns the library to an age of browsable, visual access to books.
While still in the middle of the 19th century the library space could be seen more as a public space with visual access to the collections, the modern storage and delivery systems at the BL created a different sort of a spatial setting. The sheer increase in the number of items in its holdings necessitated this change that could be easily seen as a precursor to the issues the more recent information culture has had to face: lots of stuff that needs to be stored, equipped with an address, and locatable. The short animation Knowledge Migration by Richard Wright is one way to visualize the growth in acquisitions on a geographically mapped timeline. The video is a short animation made by Richard Wright, showing “each item’s place and date of publication (or date of acquisition where available) since the library’s foundation in 1753.” Knowledge Migration used a random sample of 220,000 records from the print catalogue.
The current reality of the British Library as a data institution can be approached through its infrastructure, also the many datasets and systems, including the ABRS (Automated Book Requesting System); this infrastructure includes both the data based systems and digital catalogues, online interface and searchable collections, their automated robotic systems in Boston Spa storage/archive space and also the important human labour that is part of this automated system.
The Elastic System project introduction by Wright states:
“ELASTIC SYSTEM is a database portrait of the librarian Thomas Watts. In 1838 Watts invented his innovative “elastic system” of storage in order to deal with the enormous growth of the British Library’s collections.
The mosaic image of Watts 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. Each one is connected live to the library’s electronic requesting system.
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. When a book is requested it is removed from the “shelf” to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library’s underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.”
You can view and use the installation system at the British Library in London until September 23, 2016 – it is located at the front of the Humanities Reading room (during library opening hours).
The online version will be launched in the near future.
Here’s Richard Wright’s blog post about his artistic residency at the British Library as part of our project: Elastic System: How to Judge a Book By Its Cover.
We are discussing these themes in Liverpool on September 14, 2 pm, at FACT – this panel on cultural data is part of the Liverpool Biennial public programme.
A thank you to Aquiles Alencar-Brayner (BL, Digital Curator) for the snapshots of the texts above.
A new MA course at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton is now validated and online. The course, jointly run with Politics department, will run starting in 2017. You can find more information about the course here. The journal Cultural Politics (Duke University Press) is already now partly run from WSA (with John Armitage and Ryan Bishop as editors) and this MA course can nicely consolidate some of our research interests in media, art/design and politics in the form of a new exciting cross-discplinary MA course. If you want more information about the MA, please do get in touch with us.