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November 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Visual culture nowadays.

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The Mediocene And the Lab Scene

May 14, 2017 1 comment

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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Underground the White Mountain

October 30, 2016 Leave a comment

I was invited to talk at the Serpentine Gallery’s Miracle Marathon this year. My take on the theme was to talk of the underground and the occult worlds of the long legacy of the Cold War. I performed with Emma Charles’ film White Mountain. Here’s the video of the talk.

 

More about Charles’ film in a short story in the new magazine issue of Postmatter.
The same magazine issue includes a new interview with me: Fossils of the Future.

Data Asymmetry – a Burak Arikan exhibition in Winchester

October 5, 2016 Leave a comment

monovacation-teaser-3x2_en-jpg_sia_jpg_fit_to_width_inlineI 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.

The Consortium: On Autonomous Sensing

January 6, 2015 1 comment

Last Spring we at #WSA started a consortium partnership with two other universities: University of California (San Diego) and Parsons School of Design (New School, NYC). Together with Jordan Crandall and Benjamin Bratton from USCD and Ed Keller from Parsons we are addressing themes such as machine perception, remote sensing, synthetic intelligence, etc. We are also organising a panel for transmediale 2015 – and Jordan Crandall will be in performing his drone performance Unmanned.

But already before transmediale at the end of this month, we are organising a group meeting and a public panel this week in San Diego under the rubric of “Autonomous: Sensing“.

Last Spring, we organised a panel in Winchester on Design and Contemporary Technological Realities and we aim to continue these meetings alongside some publications and curating exhibitions with the consortium partners.

— update —

Below some pictures from the San Diego-event and our panel.

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Smog: Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics

June 4, 2014 4 comments

The text below an abstract, something I promised to present at the forthcoming Istanbul-conference on Cloud And Molecular Aesthetics. It riffs on my earlier post on smog as part of environmental art history, an ecological art history/aesthetic set of terms.

Media Moleculars of Smog Culture: An Alternative Aesthetic

Speaking of molecules, photochemical smog that covers so much of our surroundings especially in dense urban areas consists of Nitrogen Oxide (NO), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Ozone (O3) and Volatile organic compounds (RH). This is the elemental media condition across aesthetics of contemporary landscapes of industrial and post-industrial life. An urban screen, hovering above cinematic places of Los Angeles, etc. The sunlight reacts with the pollutants, resulting in a weird set of visual media: photochemical smog.

A matter of concern for inhabitants and of course biochemists, it however is also an issue we can address in our context of aesthetics, imaging and visual culture. This talk proposes to address smog – and more widely environmental issues from pollution to issues of geophysics – as relevant parts of our visual culture, proposing another sort of an angle to the “molecular”. Indeed, the constituent definition of molecular that one inherits from Deleuze and Guattari sits in relation to the ontology of perception. This molecular becomes more than a chemical description and a way to address the dynamic constitution of the (molar) individual. As Tom Conley explains, this is a sort of a “chemical animism” speaking of the elemental molecular conditions that constitute systems of “complex interactions”.

The molecular is an ontological angle that for Deleuze presents a world of “tiny perceptions” which are not only small in size but qualitatively present a different view to the whole. Hence emerges the whole agenda of micropolitics of perception and what could be called a chemistry of individuation. However, in the context of this talk, I won’t go into a detailed discussion focusing on Deleuze so much as hint towards speculative ideas of a media history of smog, environmental pollution and the technologies of tele-sensing /smog sensors as constituting a different sort of a visual culture of “new media” of mixed temporalities: the ancient rays of sun, the modern fumes of the city, and the emerging technologies of tele-sensing. I argue that such topics bring an additional angle to the already important extension of aesthetics in the realms of biotechnologies, the molecular vision, and the new diffentiating scales at which perception is constituted. Perhaps it’s the smog screens, reacting with sun light, that execute the truly ancient new media environment of post WWII culture as a sort of a non-human staging of the environmental catastrophy as well as an art historical period outside the usual categorisations.

The Warhol Forensics

April 27, 2014 6 comments

The news about the (re)discovered Andy Warhol-images, excavated by digital forensics means, has been making rounds in news and social media. In short, a team of experts – including Cory Arcangel – discovered Warhol’s Amiga-paintings from 1985 floppy discs. As described in the news story: ”

“Warhol’s Amiga experiments were the products of a commission by Commodore International to demonstrate the graphic arts capabilities of the Amiga 1000 personal computer. Created by Warhol on prototype Amiga hardware in his unmistakable visual style, the recovered images reveal an early exploration of the visual potential of software imaging tools, and show new ways in which the preeminent American artist of the 20th century was years ahead of his time.” The images are related to the famous Debbie Harry-image Warhol painted on Amiga.

The case is an interesting variation on themes of media art history as well as digital forensics. As Julian Oliver coined it in a tweet:

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The media archaeological enters with a realisation of the importance of such methods for the cultural heritage of born-digital content, but there’s more. The non-narrative focus of such methodologies is a different way of accessing what could be thought of as media archaeology of software culture and graphics. The technological tools carry an epistemological, even ontological weight: we see things differently; we are able to access a world previously unseen, also in historical contexts.

But there is  a pull towards traditional historical discourses. The project demonstrates a technical understanding of cultural heritage and contemporary software culture but rhetorically frames it as just another part of the art historical/archaeological mythology of rediscovering long lost masterpieces of a Genius. This side still needs some updating so that the technical episteme of the excavation, detailed here [PDF] can become fully realised. Techniques of reverse engineering as well as insights into image formats as ways to understand the technical image need to be matched up with discourse that is able to demonstrate something more than traditional art history by new means. It needs to be able to show what is already at stake in these methods: a historical mapping of the anonymous forces of history, to use words from S. Giedion.

Scholars such as Matt Kirschenbaum have already demonstrated the significant stakes of digital forensics as part of a radical mindset to historical scholarship, heritage and media theory and we need to be able to build on such work that is theoretically rich.