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Earth/Sky exhibition opening talk

With Ryan Bishop we wrote the following short oral presentation as part of the opening panel of the Earth/Sky exhibition that is on at the Calit2 gallery at UC San Diego! Please visit the show if you are in the region and for those interested, below the short opening introduction.

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Ryan Bishop and Jussi Parikka

March 7, 2019, UC San Diego

Earth/Sky exhibition – introductory remarks

Where the vertical X line meets the horizontal Y line in the X/Y axis is called the origin. Although we are not going to pursue myths of origins in this panel, that intersection is certainly the origin of inspiration for our exhibition and the works that comprise it.

What is the relationship between the X/Y axis and the horizon? Where is the horizon in the X/Y axis and how is it constructed, reconstituted, erased, or negated by the visualizing technologies these artists deploy, explore, exploit and query? The question of the horizon in relation to technology emerged in its contemporary guise in the aftermath of WWII and remains with us, cast by Martin Heidegger as “the age of the world picture “. The telecommunications technologies developed to provide constant real-time surveillance of the earth necessary to conduct the Cold War and enforce the Truman Doctrine simultaneously converted the earth into a globe (a bounded sphere visible at all times) as well as into a flattened world without horizon (due to the use of “over the horizon” visualizing technologies and complete surveillance of the entire planet all at the same time).

It found visual form in two works produced about the same time as Heidegger was writing: Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map, and Jasper Johns’ large-scale painting for the Montreal Expo ’67 inspired by Fuller’s map (and installed in Fuller’s massive geodesic dome erected there for the expo). The multi-pieced and multi-shaped canvas painting measures more than 30 feel long and over 15 feet high. As with Fuller’s cartographic vision, the icosahedron Dymaxion map created by Johns could be disassembled or assembled at will. Fuller’s map could be folded together to create a sphere or unfolded, origami-like, to be a flat two-dimensional object. Co-created with Shoji Sadao, Fuller’s map provided the model for the interactive, data-driven version used in his real-time teletechnological teaching tool called the World Game. Fuller and Sadao’s map moved easily, then, between 3-D and 2-D representations of the earth’s continents. These were represented in size based on population distribution and resource usage instead of the standard cartographic nod to physical coverage. While Fuller’s optimistic vision of the map’s pedagogical elements was at odds with Johns’ more pessimistic view of the geopolitical agonism that marked the moment, the map mimetically reproduces fully “the age of the world picture”. The globe as stage for Fuller-inflected neighbourliness also became a site of contiguous land masses locked in Johns-depicted animus: 3-D holistic vision coupled with 2-D Cold War strategically-generated economic inequities.

The cultural politics of Heidegger’s interpretation of modernity’s generated metaphysics can be charted in the capacity for representation to equate with both experience and the real, for the map to create the territory and the technological means for cartographic representation to become the tools for human crafting of the earth as globe, as flat observable plane or, as Fuller termed it, Spaceship. The visualizing teletechnologies on display in the Dymaxion Map, as well as the works in our exhibition here, are just such tools, for they chart a trajectory in which the world travelled from being construed as plane to orb to globe to flat, surveilled entity again. Our capacity to see and render the planet whole erased the horizon of the world and made it capable of being held in our collective teletechnological grasp. This is the “negative horizon” theorized by Paul Virilio: the conversion of the surface of the earth to pure surface, pure plane, to salt flat deserts and “mineral cemeteries” (141), a screen for projections and visions, a platform for unfettered terrestrial and aerial acceleration and optical realization. The age of the world picture is evoked in these maps made by Fuller and Johns, and it is so in the means by which we have enframed, delineated and curtailed potential futures, realized or not.

This leads us to our works on display in the exhibition (as well as the one screened as part of this opening panel, Susan Schuppli’s vertical cinema piece Atmospheric Feedback Loops). Schuppli’s audiovisual installation “Nature Represents Itself” presents the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in its legal and aesthetic form to propose the ecological site as a material witness capable of representing its own damaged condition. This auto representation of environmental disaster posits a new medium unique to the components of the disaster; in many ways, it is a visual analogue to Reza Negarestani’s philosophical fiction writing that fabulated the non-human revenging force of petroleum in Cyclonopedia. Furthermore, it taps into the multiple camera angles of the Anthropocene: the live feed of the underwater oil leak, the aerial view of the region as a massive size oil painting (as Ubermorgen, art group, coined it), the cultural politics of TV footage, the scientific imagining, and so forth.

Concerns about the horizon are omnipresent in the name of the documented disaster: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with its connotations of X and Y in itself as well as the dimension of depth as the passage to the underwater realms that link from Jules Verne’s fictional Captain Nemo’s megalomanic world tour to the as megalomanically disastrous seascapes of drilling and deep sea mining. While the melting arctic ice that will flood vast coastal areas and towns presents its own new northern passages as well as oil and mineral opportunities, we are left with the archive of disasters that already took place across the petrocultural century. Deepwater is one where the various axes are again brought together both as its spatial coordinates and as part of visual culture of disasters.

The Gulf of Mexico was made an unintentional canvas of human intervention and failure, as seen in the many images of the disaster taken by NASA’s pertinently named Terra satellite. The visual register on screen in Schuppli’s work is that of the accident, which is a recurring feature of that axis where visual culture and technological infrastructure and political decision-making meet. As Paul Virilio reminded us, the invention of any technology is also the invention of its failure, of its accidents. The technology in its operation and its failure provide equally fodder for planning, speculation and aesthetic production. This also applies to the speculative side in more ways than one: not merely inventing technologies, but inventing their accidents around which technological systems can be laid out as large scale systems. Virilio in fact posited that the history of technology could better be queried and understood through a Museum of Disasters than our usual technolophillic celebratory institutions. If such a site were to be built, Schuppli’s work could take a proud place there as one example of the long term legacy of petroculture as itself an invention of an accident around which modern culture takes place, from transport to industry, from lifestyle to the variety of materials that sustain our sense of the everyday.

Another kind of an accident lurks in Herregraven’s “Sprawling Swamps,” a series of fictional infrastructures dispersed within the cracks of the contemporary financial geography that operate on a technological, legal and social level. Herregraven’s focus is on the littorals, the ambiguous shifting zones where sea and land interact, the port and the portal interface. These ambiguous and ambivalent spaces, gaps between economic and environmental certitudes, speak to Paul Gilroy’s arguments for a “critique at sea level”. Picking up from Gilroy, Francoise Verges asks: how do we develop cultural theory that starts from water, the sea, the oceans – from the middle passage, but then also the northern passages, the various forms of colonial and other kinds of disasters, including contemporary ones that take place across liquid and swampy landscapes? What is sea level in the current moment and in this moment of warming currents? Increasingly land can become water, arable land can become desert, etc. in the weird mixes of the classical four elements; as Gary Genosko puts it, these four elements are not however anymore the stable sort of earth-water-fire- air. A longer quote from Genosko (in the Posthuman Glossary) gives a clear picture of the new synthetics of elements:

The new fundamental elements… EARTH : dust; WATER : blood; AIR : lethal fogs; FIRE :flammables. Wrapped around these elements is the planetary phylum, a great tellurian cable bunch with its own products: EARTH : electronics; WATER : liquidities like water bottled in plastic, which throws forward diagrammatic intensities in the explosion of plastic debris; AIR : gases (green house); and FIRE : smouldering car tyres, slashed rainforests and seasonal wild fires in the great northern forests. However, as we have seen, the new elements combine both in existing directly – blood mixed with dust in the extraction of conflict minerals and oil fields, or methane, a flammable unnaturally mingled with the water supply, and which contributes to the green house gas effect – and by means of especially communicative matters, like microscopic fragments of plastics that perfuse the oceans and get into the food chain, and constitute fine dusts that affect respiration, settling among the fogs, gases and lethal clouds.

The Ovid-like metamorphoses of nature, of bodies changed, operates in pre-socratic thought in relation to the elements with the universe composed of these elements battling or playfully transforming into one another, as Empedocles theorized. But from Empedocles, we should move further to the chemical period of the past 200 years of chemistry and its multiple forms of interaction and escalation of planetary deposits. What we are witnessing now is a rapid reshaping of the elements of the planet, some by design but most not, some by human actors and some by technological systems working autonomously or in tandem with others in unintended ways. The dynamic nature of matter, and of nature, finds form in precarious legal, financial and governmental infrastructures poised along the liminal littorals. Nonetheless urban human forms as a guiding set of imaginaries are seemingly impervious to the vicissitudes of unstable ecologies, in spite of high winds, hurricanes, typhoons, floods and drought.

Visualizations of the XY axis rarely show the air or the sky. The seeming transparency of atmospheres is however a source for another sort of “light media” and “sky media” that is often crystallised in technological figures such as drones or satellite infrastructures or then in the toxic legacies such as smog. It also includes the longer legacy of the aerial perspective – sightlines lifted from the ground.

We most often see the earth as surface (with the X line being the literal line of sight). The horizon is usually implied, what we know lies beyond the frame. Heba Amin’s lyrical and witty projection piece, “As Birds Flying,” allows views of the sky, the earth, the horizon, savannahs and wetlands, settlements and aviary migrations, which in turn allude to human migrations on the rise throughout the world. Her use of found footage and non-human surveillance techniques, in this case mistakenly believed to be strapped to a migrating stork, reveals horizons of visualization, tracking and the continual geopolitical struggle for contested terrain. This view is not stable but one in movement; a survey of landscapes and velocity, of movement and tracking, of cinematic visions projected onto daily existence.

It is worth noting in closing that the aerial views on view in the show now are visible by humans but the majority of the images of the earth’s surface being produced today are by machines for machines: they are not representational but informational and automated; this is what Harun Farocki coined as the world of operational, or operative, images, which also includes an increasing amount of environmental imaging. These are also a dominant strand of the Earth/Sky and X/Y axis visualizations of the present that expands from aerial views to soil analysis, and to interplanetary visual cultures as with the recent Mars Rover images too. These images as measurements are used for their data despite the at times glamorous views we get a glimpse of. That which isn’t visible can be translated into data visualizations that help feed a vast machine of charting, control and most importantly prediction.

In so doing the X-Y axis extends to include the Z axis, and enters into predictive temporalities: planning, investment, policing, and so forth. The role of AI techniques of prediction in the futures markets results in manipulation and prediction that links governmental sovereignty to data visualization technologies and their capacity to shape and generate financial systems and markets. The particular surfaces that are catered as massive datasets are the past archive for the hypothetical future-nows that open up a new horizon. Questions surrounding the large-scale production of premediated near-future predictive strategies linking geomedia to algotrading speeds up the earth as the manipulation of its materials for control and gain set the data-gathering agenda in spite of the many admirable and altruistic projects that may complement it. In this way, the images and the predictive data scraped from them replicates bureaucratic tools of domination past. Sean Cubitt writes: “That trinity of fundamentally bureaucratic media—databases (filing cabinets), spreadsheets (ledgers) and GIS (maps)—still operates, not least at the level of companies and institutions, where it continues to provide the backbone of a residual early-modern biopolitics.” These instances of administration , Cubitt continues, “were the dominant media of the early 21st century, because they were the media of domination.” The techniques and technologies have changed but the larger cultural technics and their ontological rationale have not.

The origin of the X/Y axis remains literally and figuratively in place, if not accelerated and exacerbated by our visualizing technologies.

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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.

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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Towards 2048, Erkki Kurenniemi*

May 2, 2017 1 comment

Erkki Kurenniemi (1941-2017),  a pioneer of electronic music, technological inventions and imaginaries, has passed away. He can be characterised by lists that catalogue his interests and skills, lists that are eclectic, fragmented but also about enthusiastic curiosity: a filmmaker, creative music technologist, roboticist, tinkerer as well as “perennial dissident” (as Erkki Huhtamo quipped). He was of the generation who used computers before they became personal; computers were odd experimental machines found at university departments and sometimes banks. Perhaps part of the trick was also to remind oneself of computers as something you could build yourself, and use for all sorts of wrong purposes.

The Finnish technologist recorded his life with the meticulous intent of an admistrative worker, a scribe – notebooks, audio recordings, video clips, collections of ephemera. A large part of Kurenniemi’s life was a sort of durational performance art piece that aimed to gather bits of human life, memorabilia, towards the point (around 2048) at which computational capacities are efficient enough to model and simulate human life.

He also took the liberty to write his own premature obituary: “Oh, Human Fart” some 13 years before his actual death. The text starts like this:

“I was five when the ENIAC electronic computer was started. During the fifties, as a schoolboy, I read about computers and electronic music. Max Mathews used the computer to generate music. With my father, I visited the Bull computer factory in Fance and I was sold.”

In many ways, Kurenniemi himself wrote what others should write and think about him. After that self-defined ur-scene, many devices, sounds and ideas followed like the Dimi-series of synthetizers where in some cases also touch and movement became sound.

Kurenniemi’s way of narrating his own life emphasises the role of technology, which is not a surprise. One can say that he is a symptom of the particular period, the post-World War II and Cold War age of computer technologies, experimental technological arts, as well as the  discourse of cyborgs and the technological singularity.

But all this was also situated in the more mundane the entry of technologies in institutions: university departments, companies, socio-technical infrastructures from telephony to gaming to automation of factory production.

Kurenniemi’s work became a reference point that was rethought, reinvented, remixed, and re-performed in various contexts in electronic music. It was not merely to be replayed but acted as a reference point and as a resource for experiments. Florian Hecker discussed Kurenniemi’s work also as part of the wider culture of experiments in sound from Cage to Xenakis: “Kurenniemi showed progression from one register to the next, the period of his musical instruments was followed by a study of tuning systems and theoretical conceptions on neural networks; it’s essential to do something else with all that material, rather than a mere scholarly reactivation or reorganization.”

Cue in, Pan Sonic with Kurenniemi.


From sounds and performance to contemporary art, Kurenniemi’s work has been featured in various exhibitions, including at dOCUMENTA (13), Kunsthall Aarhus and Kiasma in Helsinki. Curators such as Joasia Krysa have been especially active in articulating Kurenniemi’s work in the context of contemporary technological arts. His archival project can be perceived as an archival fever that was partly triggered as part of digital culture. However for Kurenniemi, this was always in the context of imagining the coming AI future but without the fallacy that this machine intelligence would be humanlike. Why would it want to model and imitate something so “slow, imprecise, forgetful, and easily fatigued” (Kurenniemi’s words)? Kurenniemi’s vision of the future was based on I.B.N.: info, bio, nano, the three defining scales of social change.  The future did not match particularly well with the human form or size. Oh human fart.

Reading Kurenniemi’s life, try approaching it as rewind and fast forward. Time-axis manipulation: backwards, he is part of a cultural history of computing, of early computer experiments with visual arts such as computer animations; and then the other way, he is also a forward-dreaming, sometimes hallucinating, writer of the imaginary of a technological next step that takes a singular turn.

A switch.

Electronics are the backbone of this imaginary, both as visuals and as sounds, but despite his seemingly at times focused vision of the coming quantum computer future, perhaps it was never  exactly sure even to him as to what was to come: perhaps these ideas, snippets, machines, were all little probes into what is possible? Of course, he was convinced that certain technological advances will happen but perhaps as interesting as the wild imaginaries were the ways in which he worked closely with machines throughout his life, as one sort of a companion to his own meat-based existence.

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It was not merely about knowing what’s coming but experimenting about how to know what’s to come and educating that sort of a way of thinking to others too. There’s of course a strong hint of the particular optimism that characterised the spectacles of technology in the 1950s and 1960s in the US and Europe as well. The Eames Office was offering its own version of the visual communication in the age of information and many other institutions from MIT to AT&T, EAT, etc. participated in the new institutional entry of technological arts as part of world fairs and other events. The avant-garde was – and has since been – closer to the corporations of technology so that it became perceived as a natural step Silicon Valley took over the role of offering imaginaries of technological future. But sometimes instead of elon musks, it’s more interesting to read the erkki kurenniemis and their much earlier visions that are not solely a corporate fantasy brand line or a TED talk. Sometimes it is more interesting to look at what was going on in the seeming peripheries, like the Nordic countries, to get a sense of a slightly alternative way to understand this story, rewinding and fast-forward.

After Kurenniemi’s death, what’s left is a collection of his recordings and other materials, housed at the Central Art Archives of the Finnish National Gallery (and thanks to a lot of work by Perttu Rastas and others). It is a mixed collection of technological dreaming that at times seemed more interesting when it was not focused on trying to invent a new thing but just speculating, like this one sound recording of Kurenniemi’s. This is where the technological imaginary does not follow a straight geometric line, but goes off on a tangent and towards escape velocity.

“(00:00:00) (Click click, radio signal, blows in the microphone five times, click, blow)
One, two, three, puppadadud. Fuck, fuck, fuck, this is sensitive. There we go.
(blow) Yeah, a dreaming computer… will be the last human invention. Well not the last one, but… the last invention. Because a dreaming computer will already have dreamt up
everything. Prior unconscious. Well, no. Dead computers may only be in two spaces: in an idle loop waiting to be interrupted or in a conscious space receiving and handling external information, printing it. A sleeping computer is not in an idle loop. Yeah, well of course it is, it does ask questions and wakes up when needed but otherwise it dreams. It is organizing its files, optimizing, associating, organizing, thinking, planning. And only when called upon, it interrupts its sleep for a little while to answer a question.

(The sound of the microphone being touched, cut) (Kurenniemi C4008-1 1/11)”

___

More on Kurenniemi and texts by Kurenniemi in English:
Erkki Huhtamo’s Preface “Fragments as Monument” can be read online.
Mika Taanila’s film about Kurenniemi: The Future Is Not What It Used To Be.
The Wire wrote a short obituary about Kurenniemi.
* Note also that “Towards 2048” is the title of the earlier Kiasma exhibition on Erkki Kurenniemi.

On Lunacy – a radio piece

January 12, 2017 1 comment

I was one of the Nordic artists (even if as a theorist) commissioned for the 2017 Works for Radio for the radio station The Lake. Based in Copenhagen, and transmitting via the Internet, the station asked the four commissioned artists to produce a piece between one and eight minutes in length and to relay the invite to four other Nordic artists.

The works are launched on Saturday 14th of January in Copenhagen and can be then listened as part of the programme flow at http://www.thelakeradio.com/.

You can download my piece, On Lunacy, here.

The original call for artists described the idea behind the commission:

“Radio art as a genre has a long tradition in the European public service institutions. Especially in the 1960s, the different national broadcasters commissioned new works from artists, writers, and composers made specifically for radio. This practice has declined over the years, and in Denmark it is almost lost. As a radio station The Lake wants to revive this tradition! Furthermore we want to bring more sounds into the aether, that are not necessarily music. How can art for radio sound? Through the project Works for Radio, The Lake is commissioning eight new sound pieces from Nordic artists.”

A short context for my piece is described below.

On Lunacy

The piece is a speculative theory performance for radio. Jussi Parikka’s text and reading together with artist, researcher Dr Jane Birkin (Southampton) starts with a reference to the German media theorist Walter Benjamin’s (1892-1940) radio play Lichtenberg (1933). On Lunacy is less a commentary on Benjamin’s play than an attempt to bring some of the themes into a discussion with contemporary issues of politics, technology and ecology. It starts with the roar of approval at the Tory conference in October 2016, after the prime minister Theresa May dismisses the work of human rights lawyers and activists. This roar is chilling and it resonates across many countries as a wave of populist, destructive contempt that takes different, varying forms in Europe, the USA, Russia, Turkey, etc.

On Lunacy discusses the media technological conditions of politics of voice and lack of voice, of what is heard and what is too painful to listen to. It enters into a discussion with a range of current debates about media technological transmission and interception, as well as nods to many relevant contexts in the history of radio too – from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds (1938) to the satellite broadcasts since the 1960s. I also had in mind the various sonic and artistic voices of past decades; from Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon (1970) to the various sounds of Afrofuturism since the 1970s to name some even if they do not feature as explicit references in this work.

Radio is approached not merely as a medium of entertainment but one of military communication as well as the tactics of misinformation, confusion and mind control. Radio persists and is constantly reinvented, and the signal worlds persist in and out of the planet. The narrative trope of the moon and the interplanetary play a key role in this theoretical voice piece, but also offers a way to resurface back to the contemporary politics that features the return of the mainstream acceptance xenophobia, racism and politics of violence against particular ethnicities as well as the ecocide that haunts the contemporary moment.

On Lunacy ends with the recurring, burning question of politics (that also for example the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari posed): why do people desire their own enslavement?

Stephen Cornford offered assistance in editing and post-production of the sound. Thank you also to Ryan Bishop, the co-director of AMT research centre, who offered key thoughts on the cold war contexts of satellites and sound transmission.

The work stems from the new research and practice platform Archaeologies of Media and Technology (AMT) at Winchester School of Art.

Cue in Gil Scott-Heron, Whitey on the Moon.

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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.

And the Earth Screamed, Alive

October 17, 2016 Leave a comment

Emma Charles’ exhibition opens in London. It includes a multiscreen version of the White Mountain to which I wrote the text (and performed live at the Miracle Marathon just recently at the Serpentine in London). Please find more information below. The exhibition runs from 21 October to 12 November, with the PV on 20th of October.

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South Kiosk is pleased to present And the Earth Screamed, Alive*, a solo exhibition by Emma Charles, featuring a multi screen expanded installation of her 16mm film White Mountain. This fictional documentary focuses on the Pionen Data Center in Stockholm. In 2008, this former Cold War-era civil defense bunker was redesigned by architect Alber France-Lanord as a data center to house servers for clients, which at one point included Wikileaks and The Pirate Bay. By revealing these unseen spaces and people, Charles work explores an understanding of how contemporary life is structured, managed and secured.

Starting by surveying the rough topography of the surrounding Södermalm landscape, Charles gradually pushes beneath the surface, illuminating the ordinarily concealed network infrastructure. As the camera idles on the florescent-lit server stacks, issues of privacy, surveillance and digital sovereignty inevitably emanate. Located 30 meters under the granite rocks of Vita Bergen Park in Stockholm, the hydrogen bomb proof subterranean hub has been constructed with direct references to science fiction films such as Silent Running, and the classic Ken Adams designed Bond-villain lairs.

Playing on the science fiction aesthetic, White Mountain uncovers the varying forms of temporality brought about through an exploration of data space and geology. After a summer punctuated by a constant stream of high-profile hacks the impenetrable steel door and
fortified walls of Pionen now seem like outmoded, symbolic defenses, ineffective at curbing the allpervading data anxiety brought about by the relentless assault of cybercriminals, spammers and clandestine state-agents.

South Kiosk has invited Emma Charles for And the Earth Screamed, Alive to
transform its space and take the viewer on a journey through the concealed and protected architecture of the data center, through an immersive projection of White Mountain and the display of a further collection of her artwork, this solo presentation focuses on the handling of digital information, the aesthetic that arises from its protection and the engagement and critique that art can perpetuate of these architectures.

For images and further information please contact Toby Bilton info@southkiosk.com

*“And the Earth Screamed, Alive” Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media, University of Minnesota Press (2015).