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Slow Violence – No Man’s Land

My short essay-booklet A Slow Contemporary Violence came out in 2016 in the Sternberg Press series The Contemporary Condition that is continuing in full swing. Below is a short excerpt from my contribution to the series. The excerpt is the passage on Güven İncirlioğlu’s photograph installation touching on the 100th anniversary of WWI. One can consider it still as rather apt timing, including how it speaks about the war that never ended and in its own way, continuing themes that relate to Rob Nixon’s thesis about slow violence which is also one of the reference points for my whole essay.

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I want to address the idea of temporal conglomerations and deep times of contemporary geopolitics as slowness or long term durations that unfold as not immediate for the human perception. I want to start by way of photographic art.

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Fig. 1: A close up of “Her Taraf – No Man’s Land” by Güven İncirlioğlu. Used with permission.

As part of a selection of works from the 3rd and 4th Çanakkale Biennial in Turkey,Güven İncirlioğlu’s installation piece “Her Taraf – No Man’s Land” from 2014 is one of the many art and culture commentaries about the Gallipoli campaign, also known as Dardanelles Campaign, that took place on Turkish soil during the First World War. The events have been commemorated over the past times on many occasions and by many institutions from official governments to universities to cultural institutions. The war and its relation to modern Europe and global geopolitics has multiple narratives, and for historians of media and technology, it has been marked as a turning point of the twentieth century. The war was also a mobilization of new technologies including the wristwatch and different solutions for wireless communication on the front line; the media connections were important in military operations, but they also started to enter the private sphere of the domestic life. In addition, the chemical technologies presented a more efficient way of destruction from the air both as planes and as chemical warfare, which was employed on the European front effectively; such also formed the backbone of the pesticide-enhanced agriculture of the twentieth and twenty-first century.

Many of the military operations and events took place on the outskirts of our current version of Europe, including Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. A hundred years after the war, and a hundred years after the start of the naval assault by Britain and France, on 25 April 1915, the digital photographs in the installation tell a partial historical story about what remains after the war and its devastation. The images do not, however, feature the usual iconography of human memory: of old photographs juxtaposed with other objects of memories; of faces as souvenirs of the old grainy image era transported in photography. It is a story not so much of faces but of landscapes of war and technology, of chemistry and destruction.

The photographic installation is a mini-landscape that occupies one wall. The images commemorate the First World War as an event of technological warfare of massive ecological scales. But it also becomes clear that the commemoration works in alternative ways; it is less as a celebration of the Ottoman victory than a subtle sort of a monument that entangles social history and natural history, and acts as a conglomeration of different temporal regimes. Even this distancing from the nationalist narrative is worthwhile noticing in the midst of the years of strong religiously tuned nationalist rhetoric and policy measures of current day Turkey. But the temporal politics of the images works differently. Enhanced by the atmosphere of silence surrounding the digital images placed on the walls of the Depo-gallery, İncirlioğlu’s piece is described as a commentary on the two times of “human life and the time of nature,” as the accompanying text on the wall informs. A usual historical narrative builds the memory around the 100 year milestone from the events, but the piece reminds of the multiple ways of narrating and recording time — not a passing of time, but a slow chemical sedimentation of time; it reminds how time is not merely a passing of events, but a milieu of multiple ways of accounting for it in the midst of human and non-human agents. It expresses a landscape of time, but not a landscape of the usual mastery through which we have been accustomed to think of nature in art history. It is a landscape, which we are still involved in.

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Fig. 2: Installation view at Depo Gallery of “Her Taraf – No Man’s Land”. Used with permission.

The title “No Man’s Land” refers to the contested zone between the trenches that during the long months until January 1916 changed occupation many times. It brings to mind the various historical narratives of human misery that the existential non-space of the trench meant — both in terms of anxiety of waiting, the deadly warfare and also the stink of diseased bodies.

For material stories of the war, writers have addressed “bunker archaeology”5 as the architectural legacy of war that transforms into the concrete aesthetics of the Cold War that still lingers on in port and other towns bombed down during the latter of the two world wars, and replaced by Brutalist building blocks in many of their central quarters. But İncirlioğlu extends from the social and human history of ruins to what lies beneath the architectural as its ground, the soil and the seabed. His photographic installation talks of the invisible chemical traces of dead bodies, body parts, barbed wired, gun shells, mines, dead trees, and flora — a natural history of the intensity of the war localized back then in Çanakkale but one that seems in its own way planetary. The geopolitical aim of landing through Çanakkale to reach Istanbul never succeeded according to the plans, but the geophysical legacy of such warfare in the age of advanced machinery left its concrete trace in the soil. İncirlioğlu’s meditation is not, however, only about that particular piece of land, the landing site and its territories formed of trenches, blue waters giving way to the war ships that connected to the supply routes, distant ports in England and other places, and many other operations; it also includes a global perspective.

He continues by way of a short biospheric meditation of technical war: “Today, it is possible to say that the global state of war that also encompasses the biosphere has been going on for a century.”6 İncirlioğlu continues referring to the annihilation of masses in the Middle East, Africa, Asia — an extension of the continued war; on the other, the “total destruction of human habitats, rivers, forests and the biological-mineral world is being processed on by the neo-liberal policies worldwide. In this context, today’s Istanbul’s northern forests, quarries, African gold mines, vast territories of fracking in Canada and all other sites of destruction […] resemble the scene of a ‘no man’s land’.”7

The story told was not after all a commemoration of a war that ended but the war that never ended ; the war that facilitated an entry of new sorts of technical forms of control,  regulation, production of chemicals and more — an apt theme considering we are living in a sort of a continuous Cold War8 defined by territorial claims, energy wars, realpolitik of terrorism entangled with geopolitics, movements of biomass that expresses itself as the human suffering of forced refugee movements. Beginnings and endings become only temporary markers for narratives that are insufficient for the complexity of this time. The sort of a war we are addressing does not lend itself to easy stories of ideological oppositions but to complex networks, which entangle strategies and tactics with environmental realities and the finitude of the world of energy and materials. These sorts of wars are geopolitical in the fundamental sense, and do not involve just the two sides of troops in trenches. Indeed, it moves the focus from the human actors, soldiers, tragedies of personal, family and other scales to those of soil, the ground, the air — an elemental tragedy that is the backdrop in which a drama of the Anthropocene might unfold. It is also a tragedy that comes out clearest in its slowness.

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Antropobsceno

The Anthrobscene, the short booklet originally published by University of Minnesota Press, is now available in Spanish. Published by the Centro de Cultura Digital (in Mexico City) as Antropobsceno it is also now available as free e-pub download. The booklet was published in Portuguese in Brazil earlier this year.

Here’s Nora Khan’s earlier review essay about the Anthrobscene.

 

Narratives of a Near Future: Air

February 13, 2018 Leave a comment

In December 2017, I gave one of the invited talks at the Geneva art school, HEAD. Under the main rubric of Narratives of Near Future, we were invited to address the Anthropocene. Mousse magazine wrote a review of the event and m y talk on air (and featuring a bit of Talking Heads) is now online and found here:

The Anthrobscene in Portuguese

November 14, 2017 Leave a comment

The short booklet the Anthrobscene has been translated into Portuguese in Brazil. The essay that  was a sort of a single release of the later A Geology of Media now features as part of the Open Access collection Configurações do pós-digital: arte e cultura tecnológicas, edited by​ Pablo Gobira & Tadeus Mucelli. The book’s foreword is written by Lucia Santaella.

With the new translation, I was also again left thinking  the title, the neologism it carries. Besides the obvious Baudrillard-connotation that was not supposed to be the main thrust of the term, an alternative link that I was reminded about today comes through Ian Sinclair’s discussion of the fringes of London as obscenery instead of scenery. In Esther Leslie’s description, Sinclair’s obscenery is somewhat rather apt concerning also the Anthrobscene picking up on the wastelandscape imageries: “..contained in that word [obscenery] is the sense of being off-scene, off the stage, out of sight and out of mind. Sinclair describes places of no memory, forgotten places, places where memory is expunged in waves of rebuilding, re-destroying, places of transit, places, such as the London Orbital motorway, the M25, designed to pass through and keep moving.” (Leslie, in Synthetic Worlds.)

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You can download the book here.

Recently another Brazilian collection included some of my writing (as well as other translations and texts by Brazilian colleagues) on media archaeology. You can find more information about A(na)rqueologias das Mídias online.

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Insect Media, the Polish Translation: Owady i media

With a beautiful yellow cover, Insect Media comes out as a Polish translation: Owady i media! The translation is published by the Krakow based press Księgarnia Akademicka and the “Interpretations” series focusing on cultural studies, performance studies and new historicism. The series has published books such as Hans-Thies Lehmann’s “Postdramatic Theatre”, Erika Fischer-Lichte’s “Transformative Power of Performance”, Judith Butler’s “Antigone’s Claim”, Thierry Bardini’s Junkware and Freddie Rokem’s “Performing History”. A massive thanks to the series editors and the translators professor Małgorzata Sugiera and Dr. Mateusz Borowski for their work on the translation!

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Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology (2010, University of Minnesota Press) is part of the trio of books that came out in English between 2007 and 2015, including also Digital Contagions (2007, 2nd. new edition with a preface by Sean Cubitt in 2016, Peter Lang Publishing) and A Geology of Media (2015, University of Minnesota Press). Insect Media won the 2012 Anne Friedberg Award for Innovative Scholarship (Society for Cinema and Media Studies, SCMS). Eugene Thacker kindly wrote about the book: “With Insect Media, Jussi Parikka offers a theory of media that challenges our traditional views of the natural and the artificial. Parikka not only understands insects through the lens of media and mediation, he also unearths an insect logic at the heart of our contemporary fascination with networks, swarming, and intelligent agents. Such a project requires the ability to interweave cultural theory with a deep understanding of the sciences—something for which Parikka is well-suited. Most importantly, Insect Media reminds us of the non-human aspect of media, communication, intelligence. Insect Media is a book that is sure to create a buzz.”

Some earlier reviews of Insect Media:

Theory & Event
Mute Magazine
Rhizome
WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly [PDF]

 

 

 

On Media Meteorology

I wrote a short text for J.R. Carpenter’s just recently published book The Gathering Cloud (Uniformbooks), a book of which engages with the history of meteorology and various archival material about the weather and clouds in hendecasyllabic verse. The Gathering Cloud came out also as web-based work that you can find here but I warmly recommend the book itself too. Do also get in touch if you are interested in reviewing her book.

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Below my short introductory-kind of a text, published with permission by the press.

On Media Meteorology

Every time it rains, media history soaks into our skin. Clouds and their seemingly light ephemeral nature are full of the chemical remnants of the on-going industrial age, what some call the Anthropocene . Human science and technology have penetrated the hard geological substrates of our culture and made the air part of our chemical cultural history. Many prefer too think of the current informational culture as one of light, marked by the weightlessness of fibre optics and the speed of digital transactions, and yet it is also one of weight – of minerals, metals, energy consumption, and entropy.

The weather comes and goes but our enthusiasm for it persists. To speak of weather is to articulate a continuum between humans and their environment. It’s what’s high above our heads and what sustains life beneath our feet that should concern us most. A breath of air. We inhale the weather. We exhale it. We measure it, we paint it, we verbalize it, we speak and write poetry about it.

J.R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud is both a condensation of media history and a comment on the current environmental weight of clouds. This book reminds us that cloud computing is one of the backbones of contemporary culture. The particularly interesting thing about cloud computing is that it is so heavily about climate control: server farms are carefully managed environments that cater to the well-being of the machines that ignorantly and yet with high-speed accuracy convey the things we talk about online, from #lolcats to emails, from memes to alternative facts. Of course, clouds were technological long before cloud computing. As Carpenter writes, J.M.W. Turner’s painting “Rain, Steam and Speed” (1844) is about the meeting of a new technological world with the air of the planet: the exhaust of steam trains and of the massive factories that define the particular clouds of our climate change era mix with air to create vast fields of waste, both visible and invisible.

Clouds are painted, engraved, and increasingly now also computed in weather simulations and forecast models that both the holiday goers and the military are constantly keenly following. Clouds and the weather have been continuously remediated through a history of visual technologies and strategies of representation, and still, as Carpenter points out, they resist a stable ontology. They resist a lot of things: they are made of constant perturbations, micro-movements, dynamic turbulence. This struggle with representation is not just about showing what’s up there but also bringing it back down here as material for analysis: nowadays, clouds are simulated and again, and so return to digital cloud (computing) platforms.

Carpenter evokes the Greek history of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) as part of media and visual history. As such, her project relates to recent work in both contemporary technological art and cultural theory interested in the environment. She draws upon John Durham Peters’ The Marvellous Clouds that starts investigations of media from their elemental existence as nature. As Peters argues, the sky has been for a long period considered as a place of media. Read as signs by Ancient Babylonians, as exhalations by Ancient Greek Philosophers, only in our age of technical media has the sky become the object of another sort of analysis. The sky is where visual media starts, as light filtered through the atmospheric levels. But light is not the only element of interest. The other chemical realities of clouds must also be included in this story.

The Gathering Cloud presents a series of material transformations that are made visible through a media history executed as digital collage and print publication, hendecasyllabic verse and critical essay. Carpenter’s methodology as a writer is closely linked to the field of media archaeology (a field interested in artistic, surprising, experimental, and sometimes imaginary ways of understanding contemporary media culture though the past). But it would be as fair to call her work a poetic media meteorology: it shows passionate ways of writing the sky, the digital cloud, and the climate changes that we live in, revealing gaps between our concepts and realities of the environment. And don’t be mistaken by airy the connotations of the word – the cloud is already well deep in our lungs as well as our minds.

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A still from J. R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud http://luckysoap.com/thegatheringcloud

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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