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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.

 

Surface Prediction

April 14, 2018 1 comment

I am giving a talk in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure and using it as an opportunity to present some new work. This writing stems from some collaborative work with artist Abelardo Gil-Fournier with whom we ran a collective workshop at transmediale on Surface Value . The practice-led workshop was set in the context of our larger discussion on surfaces, media and forms of valuation that pertain both to military and civilian spheres of images (such as aerial imaging) and continuing it in relation to contemporary forms of machine learning and neural networks that take their data from geographical datasets. Hence we are working on this question of prediction as it pertains to geographical and geological surfaces and how these forms of images (from time-lapse to prediction) present a special case for both financial uses of such predictive services and also their experimental angle as forms of moving image – experimental “video” art on a large scale.

Here’s a further excerpt from the talk that also draws on work by Giuliana Bruno, Lisa Parks, Caren Kaplan, Ryan Bishop and many others:

What I want to extract from this research platform that Gil-Fournier’s work offers are some speculative thoughts. At the basis of this is the idea that we can experiment with the correlation of an “imaged” past (the satellite time-lapses) with a machine generated “imaged” future and to test how futures work; how do predicted images compare against the historical datasets and time-lapses and present their own sort of a video of temporal landscapes meant to run just a bit ahead of its time. Naturally would easily risk naturalising things that are radically contingent: mining operations, capital investments, urban growth and financial valuations, geopolitical events, and such. But instead of proposing this as naturalisation, it works to expose some of the techniques through which landscapes are flattened into such a surface of not only inscription of data, but also images in movement. Here,  the speculative is not some sort of a radically distinguished practice that stands out as unique aberration but increasingly the modus operandi and the new normal of things  (Bratton 2016, 2017). What’s interesting is that it spreads out to a variety of fields: the image becomes a speculative one, with interesting implications how we start to think of video; it is also a financial one, as such data-feed mechanisms are also part of what Cubitt describes as one of the forms of geomedia; and it is about landscapes, as they are part of the longer lineage of how we read them as informational signs.

It’s here that the expanded image of a landscape is also embedded in a machine learning environment which also feed as part of financial environments. There are multiple ways how the ecology of images in machine learning works with time – the form of moving image that is the timelapse is also faced with the temporal image of predictions. The technical basis of digital video becomes one reference point for where to start unfolding the other sides of AI as machine learning: this is post-digital culture also in this sense, where not only images of earth surfaces change in view of the data analytics, but the aesthetic contexts of analysis – namely, moving image and video that feed forward (cf. Hansen).

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[Image from Abelardo Gil-Fournier’s workshop materials].

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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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

J.R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud

November 12, 2016 Leave a comment

J.R.Carpenter’s new hybrid print and web-based work The Gathering Cloud unfolds as fittingly dreamy, beautiful piece with hypertextual hendecasyllabic verses that attach solidly to the undergrounds of contemporary data clouds.

Like her earlier work, it engages in a contemporary that is entangled between the past and the now. The topic of the cloud becomes the vehicle that drives the work, from Luke Howard’s “Essay on the Modifications of Clouds” (1803) to querying the environmental significance of any word, any seemingly fleeting moment captured as image, uploaded, and stored on the cloud as part of the transactions of data that are the humming backbone of our digital poetics.

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.