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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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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).

 

The Earth (for the Posthuman Glossary)

November 12, 2015 Leave a comment

I am writing some entries (“Anthropocene”, “Medianatures”, “The Earth”) for the forthcoming Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova. The project and some of the entries were the topic of seminars during May/June in Utrecht in a row of seminars, and the book I believe is expected to be out later in 2016.

Here’s one of the text – although in draft form (and not copy edited); a short text on the Earth. One can say topical for so many reasons: issues of climate change/disaster, as well as the perhaps linked enthusiastic discovery of Earth-like planets outside our solar system – a recurring theme in our current public discourse about space and science.

 The Earth

The Earth is a planet, of an age of about 4.54 billion years and defined by its geological formations, density, biosphere, hydrosphere and an atmosphere that sustains life. It’s more than a world for humans but an Earth that is defined by its life-sustaining conditions and its planetary relations (Woodard 2015). On a planetary level, it is one complex dynamic system where biosphere, atmosphere and many of the geological spheres interact; on an extra-planetary level it is as dynamic, part of the gravitational pull, periodic rotation, cosmic rays and the radiation of the sun. Buckminster Fuller coined it “spaceship earth” marking the speculative beginnings of post-planetary design: ‘We are all astronauts’ (Fuller 1969: 14) who spin in space traveling 60 000 miles an hour, in the midst of rich non-human life as well as the intensive relations to other planets and the sun.

The Earth is also a complex ecosystem where one should never mistake humans to be the centre of action but merely one part in a larger loop of processes. One way to refer to it is by way of a ‘holarchy arisen from the self-induced synergy of combination, interfacing, and recombination’ (Margulis and Sagan 1995:18).

Besides the life of the organic and the inorganic spheres, it is also a mediasphere by which we don’t have to think only of the Jesuit fantasies of the immaterial reality of cognition such as Teilhard de Chardin did–or what cyber culture then rehashed with a dose of Silicon Valley excitement–but the different visualisation systems that give us operational representations of the planet. This is the view of the Earth since the Vostok I-space flight in 1961: the first human that is orbiting the planet and able to describe the ground-detached view. It’s the Earth that features in the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalogue in 1968, and in the inside pages hailing the imagery of the satellite era: the necessary coffee table book of 243 NASA images, in full color, from the Gemini flights in 1965—for only $7. The Earth furnishes the home.

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Our understanding of the Earth is mediated by a variety of representational techniques and is itself a product of the technological era. ‘They alone shall possess the earth who live from the powers of the cosmos, quoted Walter Benjamin (2008: 58) in his short text ‘To the Planetarium’ from 1928, analysing technological ways of organising the physis – both the gaze upwards, and from up there, back downwards. The satellite based images of the Earth since 1960s and leading to the famous Blue Marble of 1972 (Apollo 17-flight) mark subsequent examples in the series of images that define the Earth from the space. The escape velocity (Virilio 1997) that allows accelerating objects from airplanes to space ships to leave the Earth’s gravity bound surface is also what then allows us to see the Earth from above. The old etymology of the Earth as eorþe referring to something different from the heavens and the underground gives way to a dynamic of vectors where the Earth becomes defined from the heavens. The energetic powers of acceleration transform into the visual survey from above. As Fuller puts it, writing in late 1960s, ‘However, you have viewed more than did pre-twentieth-century man, for in his entire lifetime he saw only one-millionth of the Earth’s surface.’ This media-enhanced understanding of the Earth seeps into the biological work of Margulis and Sagan even, when they narrate the new metamorphosis of visual epistemology that this technological thrusting and imaging brings about. It brings forth an imaginary of the orbital that is shared by satellites and astronauts: ‘As if floating dreamily away from your own body, you watch the planet to which you are now tied by only the invisible umbilicus of gravity and telecommunication.’ (Margulis and Sagan 1995: 18). They use such images and narratives to contribute to the idea of holarchic view where the human is part of the micro- and macrocosms. For them, the event is a sort of a planetary level mirror image that carries Jacques Lacan concept from babies to space: to perceive ‘the global environment’ as the ‘mirror stage of our entire species’ (Ibid.)

Much more than an echo of psychoanalytic stage for the planetary design, the mediated vision turned back on the earth itself was instrumental to a range of political, scientific and military considerations. Seeing the Earth from space was one such thing that had an effect on climate research (also impacted by the nuclear testing, see Edwards 2010). It had an effect on military planning and geopolitical evaluation. It opened up again a holistic view of the planet as one although at the same time as a complex system of non-linear kind. It contributed to a variety of cultural moods and movements. Even the gaze to the otherworldly away from the Earth was a way to sharpen the focus on the planet; But the technological gaze toward deep space with telescopes such as Hubble was never just about space and the interplanetary worlds. Geographical surveys benefited from the developed lenses and image processing of satellite-enabled remote sensing. (Cubitt 1998: 45-49) The perspective back to the Earth has enabled the fine-tuning accuracy of corporate digital maps such as Google Earth and a massive military surveillance system too.

The Earth is constantly targeted by satellites and remote sensing systems such as the Planetary Skin institute. The institute is one among many systems that offer polyscalar view of multiciplity of processes for analysis. It boasts with the ideal of reading these as “scalable big data” that benefits communities and can “increase, food, water, and energy security and protect key ecosystems and biodiversity” (quoted in Bishop 2016). Alongside systems as the Hewlett Packard’s Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE) it creates real-time surveillance systems that intend more than mere observation. As Ryan Bishop (ibid.) argues, these are massive level systems for constant data-based interpretation of the various scales of the Earth that indeed define a specific corporate-security angle on a planetary scale.

Our relations with the Earth are mediated through technologies and techniques of visualization, sonification, calculation, mapping, prediction, simulation, and so forth: it is primarily through operationalized media that we grasp the Earth as an object of analysis. Even the surface of the earth and geological resources used to be mapped through surveys and field observation. But now this advances through remote sensing technologies (see also Parikka 2015). One can argue that they are in a way extensions of Leibniz’s universal calculus, which offered one way to account for the order of the earth, including its accidents like earthquakes (such as the infamous 1755 in Lisbon). But as the architect-theorist Eyal Weizman argues, this calculation of the Earth is now less organized according to the divine order of Christian Deity and more about the “increasingly complex bureaucracy of calculations that include sensors in the subsoil, terrain, air, and sea, all processed by algorithms and their attendant models.” (Weizman, Davis, Turpin 2013: 64) Also practices of meteorology are to be understood as such cultural techniques and media operations that order the dynamics of the sky as analyzable data. The terrestrial opens up through what circulates above it, the atmosphere becomes a way to understand the ground and the orbit is where the understanding of the Earth begins by way of massive data-driven remote sensing systems. The nomos of the Earth that defines its geopolitics is one that reaches out to the heavenly spheres as much as to the multi-scalar data-intensive operations (see Bratton 2015).

References

Benjamin, W. (2008) ‘To the Planetarium.’ In Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 58-59.

Bishop, R. (2016) ‘Felo de se: The Munus of Remote Sensing’. Boundary2, forthcoming (estimated 2016).

Bratton, B. (2015) The Stack. On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Cubitt, S. (1998) Digital Aesthetics. London: Sage.

Edwards, P. (2010) The Vast Machine. Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fuller, B. (1969) ‘Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth’ Online at http://designsciencelab.com/resources/OperatingManual_BF.pdf (originally published in 1968).

Margulis, L. and Sagan, D. (1995) What is Life? New York: Simon & Schuster.

Parikka, J. (2015) A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Virilio, P. (1997) Open Sky. Trans. Julie Rose. London: Verso.

Weizman, E.; Davis, H. and Turpin, E. (2013), “Matters of Calculation: Eyal Weizman in Conversation with Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin,” in Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Design, Deep Time, Science, and Philosophy, ed. Etienne Turpin. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Open Humanities Press, 63-82.

Woodard, B. (2015) ‘Less World to be Ourselves. A Note on Postapocalyptic Simplification’ E-Flux Supercommunity, August 6, http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/less-world-to-be-ourselves-a-note-on-post-apocalyptic-simplification/.

” The Anthropocene: Looking for the Emergency Exit”

September 17, 2015 Leave a comment

I will be in Bristol on October 1st to talk about Geology of Media. The presentation part of a very nice looking talk series organised by colleagues at UWE, “The Anthropocene: Looking for the Emergency Exit“. I am also pleased that the talk is chaired by Michelle Henning!

On a related note, on the fantasy of planetary exists, Benedict Singleton’s “Maximum Jailbreak” is a good read!

Geology of Media reviews and more

The first reviews of A Geology of Media are out! Some links here if you are interested in the first reception of the book:

Sean Cubitt reviews it in Theory, Culture & Society;

J.R.Carpenter wrote the review Massive Media for Furtherfield.

ArtReview did a short review in their May 2015 issue:

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In addition, Kunstkritikk published an interview with me on the themes and topics of the book!

Geology of Media Launch Events

April 28, 2015 1 comment

unnamedThere will be some launch events/book talks for A Geology of Media especially in the latter part of May. Here’s a brief schedule of different locations, often in connection with an event, sometimes as stand-alone book launch! Below you will find also a Press Release that our University Media Team put together.

13/5, Wednesday, at Winchester School of Art, in the gallery starting at 17.00. Wine will be served, and Professor Sean Cubitt (Goldsmiths, London) will open the event.

15/5, Friday, at Central St. Martins, at 17.30. The book launch is moderated by Dr Betti Marenko and it follows a day-seminar on Technology as Magic. After the short conversation in the Lecture Theater, we will continue to the Platform Bar at CSM. Some drinks are sponsored by University of Minnesota Press!

20/5, Vienna, Austria, at the Natural History Museum at 18.30 in connection with the Rare Earth-exhibition at Thyssen-Bornemisza-gallery. The day is in combination with a tour of the museum and the gallery on the theme of minerals.

21/5, Utrecht, Netherlands at BAK (around 17.30).The book launch follows the day seminar on Anthropocene/Capitalocene (Posthuman Glossary) at BAK.

30/5, Stockholm, Sweden, at the Index-gallery 16.00, an evening of talks with Lori Emerson and the launch of the book.

Other events later this year in Brazil, the US, Canada and possibly some other countries. Details tba and I will update the list.

Press Release

Media history – more geology than technology?

The geological history of media comes under close scrutiny in a new book by Professor Jussi Parikka who contends that media history may be millions, even billions, of years old – especially when you revisit the full story of the raw materials that are used to make the countless media devices we’ve ‘consumed’ for centuries and increasingly rely upon in the 21st century.

In his new book ‘A Geology of Media’ (University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 978-0-8166-9552-2) Parikka, Professor in Technological Culture and Aesthetics at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, argues that to adequately understand contemporary media culture by thinking about media and its past in geological terms, focusing on Earth’s history, geological formations, minerals, and energy. The book is the third part in the media ecology-trilogy following Digital Contagions (2007) and Insect Media (2010), which won the Anne Friedberg Award for Innovative Scholarship in 2012.

Exploring the resource depletion and material resourcing required for us to use our devices to live networked lives in today’s society, Professor Parikka grounds his analysis in Siegfried Zielinski’s widely discussed notion of deep time—but takes it back millennia. He argues that these raw materials are the physical origins of media technology and by understanding their transformation, eventually from useful tool to e-waste, can aid us all in having a better understanding of the implications that media has for society.

Not only are rare earth minerals and many other materials needed to make our digital media machines work, he observes, but used and obsolete media technologies return to the earth as residue of digital culture, contributing to growing layers of toxic waste for future archaeologists to ponder. Professor Parikka shows that these materials must be considered alongside the often dangerous and exploitative labor processes that refine them into the devices underlying our seemingly virtual or immaterial practices.

“One could call this approach a media history of matter: the different components, minerals, metals, chemicals and other things involved in media are considered essential to media history and archaeology,” says Professor Parikka. “Geology and various related disciplines and fields of knowledge such as chemistry and, indeed, ecology, frame the modern world and give it one possible scientific structure.

“Such disciplines are strongly implied in the emergence of the technological and scientific culture which feeds to our media cultural practice,” he continues. “It is in this sense that I am interested in finding strains of media materialism outside the usual definition of media; instead of radio, I prefer to think what components and materials enable such technologies; instead of networking, we need to remember the importance of copper or optical fiber for such forms of communication; instead of a blunt discussion of ‘the digital’, we need to pick it apart and remember that also mineral durations are essential to it being such a crucial feature that penetrates our academic, social and economic interests.”

“A Geology of Media demonstrates that the environment does not just surround our media cultural world—it runs through it, enables it, and hosts it in an era of unprecedented climate change,” Professor Parikka concludes. “While looking backward to Earth’s distant past, it also looks forward to a more expansive media theory—and, implicitly, media activism.”

Deep Mining, Deep Time by Nora Khan

March 4, 2015 2 comments

Nora Khan has written a lovely review of the Anthrobscene. She picks up on the implications for a material theory of media, and elaborates how “In a stunning essay-book titled The Anthrobscene, Jussi Parikka argues that our media era is fundamentally geophysical, that geology itself is a media resource […]”.

Khan elaborates on this aspect of the material off-screen digitality through great references: “as Marvin Jordan and Mike Pepi recently wrote, ‘the most interesting things are happening off screen: in cables and wire, in climate-controlled data centers, in mySQL and at DLD, in Hadoop and MapReduce'”.