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The Mediocene And the Lab Scene

The Mediocene conference takes place later this month in May in Weimar. Organized by the IKKM, the conference picks up on the Anthropocene from a specific media-focused vantage point. In the organizers words, “The concept of the Mediocene […] sees media and medial processes as epoch-making. As a determining force, they leave their permanent imprint on the world, affecting animate and inanimate nature alike — human existence, technology, society, and the arts as well as the shape, organization and history of the global habitat itself.”

My take draws on our current laboratory-project, and below is a short (draft!) text of the beginning of the talk still in the process of writing and without a full range of references. The idea of the talk is to set the laboratory as this particular term, an imaginary and a fever around which multiple scales of planetary media come to the fore. It will also discuss topics especially in the art and technology-nexus including briefly the emergence of art labs in the Cold War institutions of technical media (a topic that will be well covered by Ryan Bishop and John Beck in their new work), as well as experimental work in the arts about the lab, including Bureau D’Etudes on the Laboratory Planet as well as probably such work as Neal White’s on post-studio. Any further thoughts, tips and ideas are warmly appreciated.

The Lab is the Scene

One could be forgiven for thinking that the world’s nothing but a lab. From endorsing the centrality of the factory as a key site to understand modernity and as the site of production, material transformation, commodity culture, labour relations, pollution and what not, the laboratory seems to have in some accounts taken a similar role. It speaks to a range of topics of media and culture: historically, a central place of inventing and engineering technical media; thematically, one crucial vantage point for the multi-scalar operations that define the tie between the planetary (dis)order and its situated practices. It does however come with a legacy that is only partly about the science lab. Indeed, the other important lineage relates to the technology, engineering and design/art labs that throughout the 20th century started to offer a parallel narrative: experimentation, a demo or die-attitude (at the MIT Media Lab, see for example Halpern 2015), prototyping, and more. Hence this lab story of experimental culture is not restricted to the science lab as if a separate entity from the arts and humanities; and in any case, the science labs of many kinds have already had their fair share of attention from social scientists and humanities scholars, even post-studio artists up until the recent days with the continuing enthusiasm for CERN residencies.

The proliferation of laboratories outside the strict confines of the science lab seems to have taken place with the entry of a range labs of different kinds: design labs, maker labs, hack labs, media archaeology labs, studio-labs, digital humanities labs, humanities, critical humanities labs, media labs and critical media labs – and then, fashion labs, brew labs, coffee labs, gadget labs, creativity labs, the list goes on. The usual thought would be that this is part of the metaphoric inflation of the meaning, site, scientificity of the laboratory that brands a particular attitude to postmodern culture. Of course, as Henning Schmidgen echoing the likes of Peter Galison and others points out, “the laboratory is undergoing a process of dissolution and dispersal,” with the massive distributed networks that constitute the laboratory now (think of the Human Genome project, think of CERN) but this dissolution and dispersal happens on other levels too, as the examples pertaining to humanities and media labs demonstrate. There’s almost nothing that could not be a lab. But perhaps the lab is itself symptom more than the answer, and as such, a trigger to consider issues of the mediocene in art and technology; issues such as scales of data, infrastructure and different methodologies. It becomes itself a rather fluidly moving term not merely designating a particular specialist place but also a particular project about the lab imaginary. Here, the notion of the project is crucial due to its future-oriented sense.

A focus only on the most recent would miss the point how the laboratory was already early on a contested term – especially when going on in the pre-scientific laboratories and their heterogeneous sets of spaces and practices that avoid too easily to be pinned down only as steps towards the perfection of a form – but the problem about the term persisted also later, during the emergence of the science laboratory.

As historians of science have noted, the lab as elaboratory was one formative way of understanding what then went on in the early modern spaces preceding labs. Elaborating materials for medicine and chemistry, working with the variety of materials in ways that was not merely under human control: the) elaboratory was a place where to let things go their way, even if offering a stage by way of the thermomedia control (see Nicole Starosielski’s work on temperatures and media) that allowed the transformations to be accelerated from earth time to lab time. Interestingly enough, such a broader understanding of labs and elaboration in relation to natural formations persisted; Sir Humphry Davy’s voiced in 1815 that “the soil is the laboratory in which the food is prepared.” In 1860 in a very different scientific context regarding the Physical Geographies of the Sea, Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury spoke of the sea as the “a laboratory in which wonders by processes the most exquisite are continually going on”, as a sort of an model for understanding atmospheric movements even.

Indeed, reverse from our current laboratory fever some 100 years and a bit more, and shift the focus to Bangor in Wales where Sir William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin of, indeed, the kelvin fame of temperature measurement but also having worked with maritime compasses among any other things crucial for planetary media. Thomson opening the new spaces of physics and Chemistry labs in 1885 at University of Bangor seemed to be offering a rather extended way of understanding the topic. Let’s quote him:

“The laboratory of a scientific man is his place of work. The laboratory of the geologist and naturalist is the face of this beautiful world. The geologist’s laboratory is the mountain, the ravine, and the seashore. The naturalist and the botanist go to foreign lands, to study the wonders of nature, and describe and classify the results of their observations.”

Thomson was no mere romantic fool of course, but a man of modern science. He was not haunted by a romantic longing to a past of gentleman travels across the planet observing this beauty of nature but more of a pragmatist. Also the field research must be tightly linked to the possibilities of the lab, its equipment and its techniques, so as to ensure there is a tight connection between the insides and the outsides (Gooday 790). A properly equipped lab is what ensures that the field itself becomes an extended part of the technical apparatus, a laboratory that spans across the territories of the planet. A lab is where scales meet, to remind of the ways in which Bruno Latour spoke of Louis Pasteur for example.

For a longer period medicine, chemistry and metallurgy, and then of course physics remained the central disciplines of the laboratory (see Gooday, Schmidgen 2011). 20th century brought technological laboratories into the scene: engineering and material labs, electronics labs to the varieties of other forms of centralised facilities that systematised the production of engineered culture. Much before there were things called media labs, labs were essential to media to become what they became in relation to the actual apparatuses as well as their impact on the thresholds of perception. Labs were one sorts of conditions for much of that work that came to be called media. Many of the labs in engineering were the institutions central to the backbone of various national and international infrastructures such as the Bell Labs, the centrality of “innovation labs” from Menlo Park to many others, and of course, the centrality of the art and technology labs of the Cold War that themselves were the grounding of so much of what we call now “media arts” and where the particular techniques of speculative, experimental use meet up with the other sort of speculative that is attached to forms of value creation.

The lab as place, invention and extension of “media” is part of the continuum of the technological work in labs and the artistic practices as one background to the notion of experimentation. The media and arts approaches produce a particular discourse, a particular stance on the experiment, but also in some cases a corporate take on a speculative mapping of scales that reach out spatially to planetary infrastructures as much as local scales as well as to the future-oriented dimension. Here, I believe there’s a way in which it resonates with the question of the Anthropocene as one of scales that map out the lab as something of an epistemological and medial arrangement that spans further than its space. This happens both discursively and in terms of its objects of knowledge: emerging from the Cold War period art-technology labs, or the studio-lab, it also becomes a scene where the continuum between technological culture and its creative practices are put into a conversation, creating the particular scene and the fantasy of visionary future-oriented experimental work inventing the media worlds to come. The Mediocene is this particular aesthetic-technological framing of scales (temporal, spatial, potential, not-yet actualised, speculative) and quite often, also in this arts-technology nexus it does happen through the hinge of the lab. Now, using the term, as is clear from already now, I am forced to ignore many current examples that also use the term in other ways that I will narrate in this talk. The term has multiple uses and as such, my version does not do justice to the full plethora of labs of critical, experimental practice as much as it connects the term to a particular different sort of a genealogy. Hence, bear with me, as I sketch some ideas.

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What is AMT? A video and an interview

December 10, 2016 Leave a comment

In this video, myself and Ryan Bishop talk a bit more about what the new research group (or office) Archaeologies of Media and Technology does and how it sits as part of the research and practice at Winchester School of Art.


In addition, a new interview with me (conducted by Thais Aragão) is now online and available in English and in Portuguese. The interview is focused on AMT as a platform for practice and theory and how it connects to themes in media archaeology and digital culture research.

You can find AMT online at: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/amt/

and on Twitter at @amt_office

AMT – Archaeologies of Media and Technology

June 13, 2016 1 comment

AMT3.jpg_SIA_JPG_fit_to_width_INLINEThe 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!

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Corporate University Life UK

August 26, 2013 1 comment

Times Higher Education has published a very good piece on the corporate university, UK. This does not refer to any particular university (despite this being a personal narrative of one person, opting to quit because “universities are killing off integrity, honesty and mutual support”) but the corporatization of the UK system.

What the piece does so well is showing the transversal links between macroeconomic policies and the microsociological everyday life at universities. The economic free market principles (which actually are not just about free markets, but to me about more meticulous wealth accumulation and political credit accumulation) are also felt in the various affective responses and moods that characterise university life.

Corporate capitalism works through a modulation of affects, and it does not feel particularly good. Read the piece to get one excellent insight to UK academia.

The Elegance of Bureaucracy

August 17, 2013 Leave a comment

I am reading a lovely book which in proper summer reading style is not directly linked to anything I am working on at the moment. It is more about the luxury of reading something interesting.

Jonathan Bloom’s Paper Before Print (ironically “out of print”) focuses on paper especially in the early Islamic world, and hence besides expanding the narratives of writing, textuality and mediality outside the usual story of the West, it also goes deeper into questions of materiality.

For us, the question of matter of media is one of chemicals and scientific processes. This also includes the story of paper, whcih besides the platform of modern bureaucracy is also one of environmental pollution and waste.

Bloom’s book is a great read and reminds of something rather pertinent, considering the book in relation to materiality of the medium of writing but also to the question of bureaucracy. Indeed, it was in the context of bureaucratic necessity that the Muslim world turned to paper – the increasing need to write things down. As such it relates to a longer history of cultural techniques of notating systems where the symbolic act of writing expands to the wider milieu in which writing can become possible – but it also expands to the cultural techniques of administration and bureaucracy.

So unlike our modern sphere of admin, Bloom reminds on one important thing. For instance in the growing bureaucratic mechanism of the Abbasid Empire since the ninth century, with its centre in Baghdad, administration was a style. It had to have style. In Bloom’s words, reminding of what we have lost in our repetitious, grey, in a different way standardised world of everyday writing: “In this bureaucratic world, official documents were increasingly judged not only by their contents but also by the elegance of the wording and the cleverness of hidden allusions in the text.” (106)

Imagine an admin email from the Faculty Human Resources written in astonishing beauty, and with that witty little allusion between the lines; imagine if there would be rhetorical style and the thrill of reading while indulging in Module Report Forms; what if your manager would next time surprise with such cunning puns that you could not but eagerly wait for the next top-down announcement?

Oh corporate bureaucracy. You are so horrible but why are you also dull and uninspiring?

Object-Oriented-Madness

With tongue in cheek, I call it object-oriented-madness. Collections of lists, notes, polaroids: of objects, newspapers, series after series, accompanied with measuring devices of various sorts (time measurement, geiger counter, and so forth). Even empty places, room corners, merit wide explanations and commentaries.

Horst Ademeit’s Secret Universe is like a diary of madness, illustrating some of the classical symptoms found often in medical case studies – and of continous interest to media theorists: they are not only personal/social symptoms, but socio-mediatic symptoms, as with Dr Schreber, or for instance Victor Tausk’s study of “influencing machine” concerning delusional schizophrenia – as well as broadcasting media (see Jeffrey Sconce’s article in Media Archaeology).

On the Hamburger Bahnhof-website the project is described as follows:

“This artist has devoted more than 20 years of his life to the photographic documentation of what he   called “cold rays” and other invisible radiation that he thought harmed him and his environment. In the complex reference systems developed by Ademeit, certain motifs play a constant role: electricity meters, peepholes, building sites, electric cables, collections of bulky trash or bikes. Ademit began to cast the flood of images he produced in a concrete form in October 1990: he arranged measuring instruments and a compass on a newspaper and photographed them with a Polaroid camera. Over the course of 14  years, he made 6006 numbered Polaroids.”

Watching the hundreds, perhaps thousands of polaroids, meticulously commented one thinks of archival lists, notes, and notation systems themselves as tightly coupled with measurement systems. It’s curious how so many of the pictures were focused on electricity systems, part of wider electricity networks of course. But also indeed trash, miscellaneous objects in a manner that reminded me of some of the object-oriented ontology and vibrant matter theorists interest in hoarding and the life of objects. Jane Bennett talks of hoarding and “thing-power”, Paul Caplan has aptly talked of similar themes in relation to data and object-oriented philosophy approaches. What I want to point towards more widely is how the metaphysical idea of agency

Series

of things, and matter is inherent so well in mental disorders, which themselves can be seen as wider mediatic phenomena (well, also part of capitalist consumer society). As such, there is an inherent link between this technical media-capitalist context, and object-oriented approaches, if understood more widely. This brings specificity to the context in which the wider interest in thingsirreducible to discourses and human practices emerges. It is parallel to the observational power of the paranoid schizophrenic, who believes in thing-power — or that things have agency, connected to wider networks. Such paranoia is  an observation of power, and of things empowered. Furthermore, watching the series of meticulous organisation (labeled, serialized also by numbering) of for instance newspapers to show the repetitious elements in layout etc. one cannot but think of the digital humanities projects concerning serialisation…could we find a geneaology even for that in the madness of painstaking serialisation?

Office-Divaesque



In order to keep sane in the midst of marking, I want to write a post that I have been thinking for a while. Now that I have been banned of going on about Lily Allen as the softcore consumerist critique on the footsteps of Ballard (don’t ask), I have focused my energy on another new personal discovery: Client. Well, again, I noticed I am somewhat several years late, so that something new to me has been around for a long time.

Client mixes through its music and visuals a touch of Kraftwerk with Depeche Mode, but in a manner that I would describe as creating a mesmerizing feel of detached, cold, minimalist erotics. Hence, the adoption of themes that all refer to the key modern institutional language of corporations, admin and offices is an ingenious one and amounts to creating an image of the lead singer, Client B, as the Office Diva.

The repetitious catchy music is emblematic of such urban spaces in a similar manner as Kraftwerk tapped into the technological fantasies of modernity on the brink of post-fordist culture. The influences are clear as well. A certain flirtation with Germany; with songs such as Köln; and Drive (ref. Autobahn). The highly rationalized urban spaces and organizational grids of driving culture are opened up to afford also lines of flight as when Client B sings “White lines on a motorway/I’m alive/I’m alive”.

Direct references to erotics are continuously present but again on the fine border between passionate and cool, detached, as their uniforms promise. Its the style of erotics that stems from Xerox Machines:

“Let’s get together before it’s too late/ Collect up the ideas and duplicate/ Filling in the forms/ send ‘em off tonight/ And you’ll be the owner/ of the copyright/ Of the copyright, of the copyright.”

Desire is machinic, and machines can be the object and relay of desire; this is a key modern theme that actually is the cultural historical background for the fetishistic desire for technology. Cool, detached, uniform; the fetish par excellence. Yet, the gender aspect is not neglected, and the male fantasy where machines/women are conflated is exposed: “You said you want to set my soul free/but I’m just an object of your fantasy.” (“Lights go out”). The banal cultural theoretical observation gains its true strength from the ritornello, the returning rhythmic elements of urban alienation.The true gem from a media theorists position is of course Radio.

The post-punk alienation is strengthened by the banality of “radio” as the thematic tie between the bored-oh-so-bored singing voice and the externalized world glassed out through the television screen and voiced out through radio “news”. (“They call it news/its not to me/The world’s a mess/ on my TV”). Again, the banality of the lines is only understood through the middle-classed-office-divaesque mannerism and voice of Client B. The broadcast media of the modern age is also the relay for the private (but hence so easily approachable in the age of mass reproduction) angst of Client. Customizing Adorno?

I have been thinking — mostly as a joke — a new research project on “Admin Culture”; if that would ever actualize in any way, I would definitely include Client there, and offer a much more insightful approach to their sonic art.

Categories: admin culture, client, office