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Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology

January 16, 2018 2 comments

I wrote a paper some years ago on media archaeology (esp. imaginary media research) and speculative design, to put the two parallel fields in closer dialogue. The text will be featured in a book that is still in preparation and because the first version was written some three-four years ago, I thought at least to add a couple of the first lines online. This is still the version that is not copy edited, but hopefully out one day too! Here’s the start. For the full draft version, please get in touch.

Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology

  1. Introduction: Imaginary Media as Impossible Yet Necessary Techniques

To be able to start with the non-existent, sometimes even the absurd, is a skill in itself. It can be a methodological way of approaching reality not as ready and finished but produced and open to further variations, potential and a temporality that includes the possibility of something else. Like with all methods, the skill of thinking the non-existent needs practicing. It also needs institutional contexts that are able to support such an odd task that seems devoid of actual truth value and easily dismissed as not incorporating the epistemological seriousness required of the academic subjects. Despite the difficulty of giving a good one-liner definition that could cover all aspects of different traditions of media archaeology, it is safe to say that it has been able to create an identity as a field interested in the speculative. This has meant many things from mobilisation of media history executed by way of surprising connections across art, design, technology and architecture to acknowledging the unacknowledged, a sort of a search and rescue-operation for devices, stories, narratives, uses and misuses left out of the earlier registry. Archaeology has been sometimes used as a general term for the way in which we investigate the conditions of existence of media culture, and the media technical conditions of existence of cultural practices – two things that are closely connected, with the two aspects in co-determining relations: media technology and cultural practices. And it also bends our notions of history and time itself. As Thomas Elsaesser (2016, p. 201) puts it, it is a symptom of a very different sort of a relation to the past: ‘on the one hand, it suggests a freeing up of historical inevitability in favour of a database logic, and on the other hand, it turns the past into a self-service counter for all manner of appropriations.’

Already, early on, imaginary media was one part of the media archaeological body of research. It had the clear aim of reminding scholars and artists that media technological reality was not to be restricted to what actually is. It was not to be contained by the histories of technological achievement but meant to relate to the broader cultural and artistic history, which technology can be imagined, and where it returns as imaginary attachments to values, affects, aspirations and dreams. Eric Kluitenberg (2011) articulates that such shifts are sometimes almost as if seamless, something rather prescient in the marketing discourses of digital culture. We feel constantly even emotionally attached to dream devices of corporations, carefully framed by their sales pitches as part of a wider infrastructure of desire. While such an attachment is odd enough, broadly speaking the discourses of imaginary connections constitute also our cultural topoi (Huhtamo 2011a), which then become the environment for recursive dreaming that characterizes consumer culture and production of reality.

But how boring it would be to restrict oneself to what is actual. A variantology of imaginary media, as Kluitenberg puts it (2011, p. 57) can reach out to theological discourses, aliens and the dead, to things untrue and yet so impactful for any account of cultural history. Such imaginations are ways to rethink the usual coordinates of time and space – the time of not merely a past-that-was, but a past-that-could-have been; a future imagined as one recurring fantasy of rejigging the time we are in now. These are the places that are not only distant but sometimes impossible. How liberating this feels instead of buying into the ready-made dreams. No wonder such strategies can be connected to a wider political imaginary that includes geographical, racialized and gendered others. Artists such as Zoe Beloff have set scenes for alternative media histories through the silent mediums themselves – female protagonists, written into the stories. Kluitenberg points to afrofuturism as one particularly interesting political imaginary. Indeed, as the director John Akomfrah puts it in an interview with Kluitenberg, afrofuturism and other imaginary media practices are not mere mental refuge. They produce and sustain new cultural practices and spaces in which black science fiction carves its own collective existence but also facilitates relations with, for example, gay and women’s movement including in the science fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. What is being approached is a black techno-cultural imagination where also music plays a key role in how pasts, presents, and futures co-determine each other in new ways: ‘Black science-fiction culture, especially music, figures the past in the present by matching the quest for ‘outer’ space with new journals into the inner “technological tape” space of black sound itself via the digital utopias of jungle and techno.’ (Kluitenberg and Akomfrah 2006, p. 293). Even if also imaginary media is at times defined as ‘untimely’ (Zielinski 2006, p. 30; Kluitenberg 2011, p. 56-57), it remains actually an interesting situated practice that is aware of geographies and can challenge the Eurocentric focus of some of the speculative design discourse and practice. Hence, the more interesting of such fabulations actually become ways to imagined situated critiques by way of imaginary. In some recent work, afrofuturism has also been connected to issues of cultural heritage as a project between speculative futures and records of the past (see Nowviskie 2016).

So what does it mean to think of media archaeological and imaginary media projects in the context of speculative design? The question itself acts as a conceptual probe that searches for specific practices in both media and design. Furthermore, it is also a probe that scans the disciplinary relations of two sets of discourses about the past and the future. As two parallel fields with not much contact in the past, speculative design and imaginary media research are interested in how alternative worlds might be created and how temporal, social, and technological fabulations situate coordinates of past-future in alternative ways. I will discuss different art and design projects, cross-fertilising the two traditions of media and design theory and practice, and aim to elaborate ways how media archaeology could contribute to speculative design and to some contemporary issues in critical design. There are some earlier ideas that have suggested how this might work. For example Bruce Sterling’s idea of ‘paleo-futures’ as ‘the reserve of historical ideas, visions and projections of the future—a historical futurity of that prospective’ (Hales 2013, p. 7) is one example of the shared suitably complex time-scales of overlapping design and media archaeological imaginations, but this chapter teases out further contexts for such reserves of historical ideas.

 

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A Surface Keynote

December 9, 2017 Leave a comment

In talk news, I will be delivering a keynote at the Apparition: The (Im)Materiality of Modern Surface-conference in March. The CfP is still open until December 16.

Right after the Leicester event, I will be giving some talks at UPenn in Philadelphia, including on the current Lab Book-project. More information online here.

Besides some other near future talks in Helsinki and Geneva, I will be in Istanbul in January for the Istanbul-launch of the Turkish translation of What is Media Archaeology?, Medya Arkeolojisi Nedir?

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On Disobedient Electronics

Here’s a short manual to what design can – and perhaps often, should – be about: “how to punch Nazis in the face, minus the punching”.

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Garnet Hertz’ new critical design zine Disobedient Electronics is a quick and rough, inspiring and useful manual for the Trump, Brexit, post-truth era that needs to address forms of actually working resistance that don’t however merely function only in the realm of already designated possibilities. Hence, throw in a good chunk of speculative design imaginary.

The protest zine is a collection of feminist and other social justice driven projects that carry forward a particular legacy of speculative design that is, in Hertz’s words, slightly less RCA/Dunne & Raby-style than it is confrontational and imaginary in the manner of the Critical Art Ensemble and the Yes Men. The selected projects cut through issues that tell a particular story about North America but also other geographic regions and political realities: issues of gun control and campus carry, gender pay gap, street protest kits, right to abortion, digital privacy and encryption feature centrally. Many of the projects appropriate a seemingly militant form: the Transparency Grenade, the sound cannon in the Device for The Emancipation of the Landscape and the I.E.D. (Improvised Empathetic Device) carry references to forms of violence that are however overturned into devices of creating alternative worlds. Sometimes the devices cross borders such as the Abortion Drone (Women on Waves & Co.) as a particularly inspiring way of diving into the issues of women’s rights across what is far from a unified political space of Europe.

The style of design proposed through the zine and the projects leads the reader to think of Brian Massumi’s ontopower: “a power that makes things come to be: that moves a futurity felt in the present, into a presence in the future.” This sort of a stance to design is useful as well as speaks to the sort of experiments Disobedient Electronics employs. And the projects that are featured are in many cases experiments in their own right – not only in terms of a device that is pitched and presented but as experiments in collective forms, imaginaries and situations. In many ways, you can observe how this fits in with the wider context of Hertz’ own work and The Studio for Critical Making at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, which he describes as a lab of sorts that combines research, humanities and building in ways that results in “technology that is more culturally relevant, socially engaged, and personalized.” Disobedient Electronics is a good example of such work that the project supports both in the space of the studio and in the context of wider discussions about the role of speculative critical practice.

 

AMT: An Office Manual

June 5, 2017 2 comments

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Together with Ryan Bishop we wrote this short Office Manual as a short introduction to some of the work at AMT.

Ryan Bishop and Jussi Parikka:

AMT: An Office Manual

The abbreviation of Archaeologies of Media and Technology, our research group, is AMT. This is not accidental, but for those picking up the German connotations, it also becomes “office”: das Amt. But why an office? An office for media theory and speculative practice? What follows is a brief manual for the Office at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.

Alongside the factory and the laboratory, the office is a place of modern media par excellence. Information travels through the office. Addresses are managed. Memos are written, passed on, transmitted, received, acted upon, archived. Some of this information is produced in the office; some comes from outside of it. Data becomes information in the office. Technologies of writing form the office as a site of media: the typewriter among the most central ones, as an office technology that transforms the inscription of meaning across the 20th century. The typewriter goes “click”, as Vilém Flusser reminded us, articulating it as the sound of mechanical operations. The typewriter, and the world it represents, leads to the centrality of calculation: “We are therefore forced to calculate rather than to write, and if we insist on writing, we have to go ‘click’”.

Besides typewriters, it’s the dictaphones, calculating machines, adding machines, telegraphs, printers, computers, filing cabinets, faxes, teletypes, telephones, photocopiers and other technologies – some more grey than others – that are the backbone of the administrative infrastructure of modern culture. Hence instead of asking “why office?” it is more apt to ask if you did not receive the memo: technical media was always centrally about the office anyway. At the beginnings of the entry of modern technologies of calculation, transmission and control stood the office and the office clerk, something that great documenter of modern bureaucracy Franz Kafka knew all too well.

Offices occupy the university too. The centrality university spaces revolve around the office, the seminar room, the lecture hall, the studio, the library and a couple of other places but in the administrative organisation of what goes where, the office is central. As one of the three institutions in the West that have survived since the Middle Ages (in addition to the Church and the Military), the university generates offices that in turn generate the university. To speak of media technologies through the office rather than the usual media vocabularies of mass media reminds of us of this other, extended definition of media: techniques and technologies of inscription, transmission, analysis and backbones of various imaginaries that situate contemporary culture in a broader historical context. The office is out of joint. Give me an office and I will raise a world.

Our Office, AMT, is a place of connections. It is a platform for that space where the studio meets the library, the archive meets the lab; these disciplinary spaces are in conversation in ways that underscore the ineluctable continuum of theory and practice. Our Office is interested in the practices of theory in technological culture as much as it is working through projects that are practice-led and feed conceptual work too. We are always interested in the inseparable relations between the material and the immaterial, the synchronic and the diachronic. Our Office is large. It contains multitudes.

The Office also operates as a speculative platform. The media-supported backbone of culture is also one of imaginaries and speculative practices that often look like an avant-garde arts version of a writing machine. Office projects engage with technologies of inscription but not merely traditional writing. The work of image sensors, for example, often operates as an important but less investigated element in digital visual culture. Similarly visual planetary remote sensing as an extension of non-human locations of seeing, processing and transmitting images outside the human operator or analyst is an exceptionally powerful, ubiquitous and complex set of technologies of inscription. Besides visual forms of knowledge in technological culture, we have examined what digital data does to cultural institutions; how infrastructures reinscribe forms of public and private; how the internet of things prescribes also the internet of cultural things. In other projects the archival image is investigated through art practices, forms of description that also expand to Situations of Writing, a project led by our colleagues in the Critical Practices group.

It’s all part of post-digital culture – a topic of investigation as well as a reality in which the Office is situated. Our Office also works with other institutions, such as our partner transmediale.

The Office, of course, does practice media archaeology: investigations into the historical conditions of existing technologies and their practices, uses, misuses, abuses, missed opportunities and potential speculation about art, science, technology, hyphenated together. The Office Manual consists of techniques of tactical misunderstanding and misuse, of wrong paths that produce much more interesting meeting agendas than the assumed routes. The linear narratives of many technological emergences, just as those for scientific discovery, often discount the accidents, blocked pathways and fortuitous combinations that often result in teleological triumphalism. The Office urges those complications to the heroic narrative to be accounted for and considered. Because, as we have to acknowledge, only what can be typed, tabulated and filed exists: before any narrative, there is a technology and a clerk performing the work of inscription.

AMT Logo // thank you to Dr Jane Birkin

After Arikan: Data Asymmetry

December 20, 2016 Leave a comment

After our succesful exhibition of Burak Arikan’s work, Data Asymmetry, I am posting some of the interviews and material that came out of the exhibition.

Here’s a video interview we did with Arikan setting up the exhibition in the Winchester gallery in November 2016:


And then there’s the interview(s) in Furtherfield: Carleigh Morgan interviewed Burak in the part 1 of the interview about Data Asymmetry and myself in part 2 of the interview. The interview(s) address mapping as a collective experiment,  networks as events, (art) methodologies of working with data and a lot of other topics related to internet culture.

 

 

A Media Archaeology of Ingenious Designs

October 19, 2016 Leave a comment

The Istanbul Design Biennial launches this week and we are glad to announce to be one of the invited participants. Our project with Ayhan Ayteş on the Middle-East legacy of technology and design is exhibited in the Studio X space. Besides featuring objects from this particular historical period of approximately 800-1200, the idea is to make this heritage enter into a conversation with speculative design, an alternative geopolitics of technology and  imaginaries of design and media. This is executed in the form of seminar with Laura Marks and Azadeh Emadi (19th of November) and a workshop (November 20) on the design fictions and media archaeological imaginations of past futures, and imaginary realities of Middle East and technology. A lot of our thinking behind this programme has been influenced by the Variantology-project (Siegfried Zielinski et al).

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The Elephant Clock, from The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices (1206), (Topkapi Sarayi Library, Ahmet III, Ms. 3472)

Below is the short text we wrote for the catalogue of the Istanbul Design Biennial.

Jussi Parikka and Ayhan Aytes
A Media Archaeology of Ingenious Designs

Modern European culture has positioned early mechanical clockworks as key contraptions and symbols of the machine age of industrialism, later computer culture, and of the old new media of visual technologies (microscopes, telescopes and more). European humanism prescribed a mastery over technological culture while building automata as luxury machines intended to amuse and awe. This technological culture also resulted in questions about what the human is. But answering the question are we human? necessitates the further questions of when are we human, and where are we human?

When instead then? What if you start this story in an alternative fashion, in a different time and at a different place? What if you start with a speculative mind-set relating to existing but often forgotten histories of the design of the human and its doubles: technologies of automata and of the measurement of the world, alternative cosmologies in which advanced media machines are born as part of Muslim culture?

An alternative modernity: Baghdad since the ninth century and the Bayt-al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) supported by caliphs and their viziers as a special place of scientific knowledge. Nowadays we would call this an interdisciplinary laboratory for science, design and technology. Translations of texts and an enthusiastic interest in mathematics, logic, medicine and other sciences mix with innovations in design. A world of musical automata that work instead of humans; design prototypes for various machines that reach a sort of apex in Al-Jazari’s celebrated Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206), which functions not only as a historical source on this rich culture of invention but also as a speculative design manual for an alternative technological culture.

In The Difference Engine, their 1990 science fiction novel, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson pitched a similar sort of idea relating to 19th century Victorian culture as part of a steampunk imaginary: what if the modern age of computation had already started then, a hundred years earlier than thought? Rewind further back in time: What if the age of programmable machines and advanced technologies could be said to have started in the “Arab-Islamic Renaissance” of 800-1200? We could then look at early devices like astrolabes as instruments of planetary design that mediate an understanding of the positions of the sun and the stars in relation to human practices such as prayer times. Besides technologies of time and location needed for the structure of everyday religion, programmable machines functioned as prototypes for computing by way not only of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī’s “algorithm” but also the The Banū Mūsā brothers’ programmable musical machine.

Such examples beg us to alter our historical focus to a different age and a different region. Automata mirror and deflect, distort and circulate as machines of imaginary and real extensions of the supposedly human. They also question how human practices can be automated in the uncanny lives of technological artefacts. Automata are machines that situate questions of the human and its others as part of a deep-time media archaeology of robots and automata, and alternative geographies of design culture. Ask what the human is, and you also implicitly ask: what is not human, what is just about human, and what is barely human.

Sources:
Marks, Laura, Enfoldment and Infinity. An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010).

Nadarajan, Gunalan “Islamic Automation: A Reading of Al-Jazari’s The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206) “ in MediaArtHistories, ed. Oliver Grau (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), 163–78.

Zielinski, Siegfried and Peter Weibel (eds.), Allah’s Automata. Artifacts of the Arab-Islamic Renaissance (800-1200). (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2015).

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Water Serving Automaton,The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices (1206) (Topkapi Sarayi Libray, Ahmet III, Ms. 3472).

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Media Theory in Transit – a symposium at the Winchester School of Art

October 6, 2015 2 comments

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Media Theory in Transit: A one-day symposium at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton,

November 24, 2015.

organised by Jussi Parikka and Yigit Soncul

Media theory is in transit: the concepts travel across space and time, claiming new meanings for new uses along the way. We are not dealing with a static body of knowledge, but a dynamic, situated process of articulating knowledge and perceiving reality. Media theory crosses both geographical and disciplinary boundaries. It trespasses the border between Humanities and Sciences, and is able to carve out new sites of knowledge. It moves across conceptual lineages from human to non-human, and supposedly distinct senses such as sight, hearing and smell. Media theory is not merely a reflection on the world but an active involvement that participates in creating the objects of interest.

This event investigates such conceptual, geographical and sensorial passages of media theory. The talks address contemporary media theory and issues that are now identified as urgent for academic and artistic practices. The speakers represent different fields of arts and humanities as well as media theory, and engage with the question: how does theory move, and itself occupy new areas of interest, across academic fields and across geographies, in which theory itself is set to be in movement.

The event is supported by the Santander-fund, via University of Southampton and the Faculty Postgraduate Research Funds.

Media Theory in Transit is open and free to attend but please register via Eventbrite!

Schedule

The PhD Study Room (East Building)

10.30 Introduction by Yigit Soncul and Jussi Parikka

10.40 Erick Felinto (State University of Rio de Janeiro, UERJ): “Vilém Flusser’s ‘Philosophical Fiction’: Science, Creativity and the Encounter with Radical Otherness”

11.30 Joanna Zylinska (Goldsmiths, London): “The liberation of the I/eye: nonhuman vision”

12.20 lunch break

14.00 Shintaro Miyazaki: (Critical Media Lab, Basel): “Models As Agents – Designing Epistemic Diffraction By Spinning-Off Media Theory”

14.50 Seth Giddings (WSA): “Distributed imagination: small steps to an ethology of mind and media”

15.20 Jussi Parikka (WSA): “Labs as Sites of Theory/Practice”

15.50 short summary discussion

16.10-16.30 Jane Birkin (WSA) “The Viewing of Las Meninas (performance)