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How to practice variantology of media?

December 17, 2019 Leave a comment

I was commissioned to write a short popular audience piece on Siegfried Zielinski for the Korean article series “The Front Lines of the 21st Century Humanities and Social Sciences”. The series has featured many theorists from Kittler to Haraway, Barad to Latour, as well as one article on my work. The text on Zielinski is now published and I wanted to post the original English text (not copy-edited, apologies for awkward language hiccups) here. Please find it below. The short text was also written to note the just published volume of Zielinski texts, Variations on Media Thinking (University of Minnesota Press, 2019.)

Siegfried Zielinski: How to practice variantology of media?

One way to understand a theorist’s work is to look at how she or he is being talked about. What do your friends or enemies say? What are the concepts, ideas, or generic style of a theorist that catch wind and which ones are left to the side? While Siegfried Zielinski has become known for his significant work as one of the early theorists of media archaeology and as a poetic palaeontologist of deep times of art and science, it is curious to have a peek at the little book Objects of Knowledge – a Small Technical Encyclopedia that functioned as a Festschrift, a celebration of Zielinski’s 60th birthday, written by his colleagues and peers. In the eyes of his friends, Zielinski’s work extends to a whole glossary of odd objects, things, and speculations that reveals the influence he has had in extending the discussion of media to clearly things not usually considered media. A wild list of “media” objects constitutes the book’s entries: basket, bathtub, book destruction machine; Dried Food, Filmoscope, Fountain Pen, and Geiger Counter; Hand, Line, Phenakistoscope; Sardine Can, Side Scan Sonar, Slide Rule, Typewriter, and Wall Socket are some of the examples of where we end up when riding with Zielinski’s mind set.  While Zielinski himself has recognized that perhaps media, as a term, has become superfluous, this also was one form of a liberating feeling: finally we are not stuck with only mainstream set of a focus on media as entertainment, media as pleasing viewers and customers.

In this manner, one would do justice to the broad career of the German media theorist and professor Zielinski by calling him a variantologist of media. True, he has mobilized a range of terms that speak about deep times and palentology of media, suggesting that our usual historical timeframe is not sufficient to understand the longer histories of art and science collaborations. And true, he has engaged in the alternative histories of media – something that ties him into the field of media archaeology interested in these unknowns or forgotten paths of past media practice– when discussing the hegemonic histories of television and cinema perhaps only as entr’actes in the wider cultural history of audiovisions. This is the exciting bit for anyone bored of the usual media studies discussions of only television, film, internet, computers – indeed, the “audiovisual overlaps with other specialist discourses and partial praxes of society, such as architecture, transport, science and technology, organisation of work and time, traditional plebeian and bourgeois culture, or the avant-garde.” That, already, then tells us one firm thing: media studies is truly cultural studies is truly interdisciplinary studies. Variantology is then one name for this drive to look beyond disciplinary conventions and boundaries, and look at the most mundane with new eyes: the usual household item of the video-recorder becomes in Zielinski’s writing a time machine in the fundamental sense, a suburbian living room equivalent of time/space manipulation.

On can say that Zielinski’s constantly overarching approach has been to look at the variations – the non-normative, the alternative, the minor, and the differing practices that define technological arts and mediations of seeing and hearing. This idea is also present in the name of the most recent English translation of his works: Variations on Media Thinking. Of course, his earlier book Deep Time of the Media stands out as almost programmatic declaration. The book moves from Antique Greece philosophy of perception (Empedocles) to the Jesuit priest Athanius Kircher’s explorations of “light and shadow” in the 17th century. Early versions of all sorts of audiovisual but also cryptographic, hence algorithmic, techniques of media emerge from that story, argues Zielinski with a poetic touch. It illustrates a different understanding of technology than the current market and economy oriented focus on Silicon Valley and consumer gadgets. For our current media culture so determined to believe in the all-saving grace of new technologies as the solutionist  credo this twists things around somewhat ingeniously: to look for the old in the new, and the new in the old, to use Zielinski’s own phrasing.

Besides Zielinski’s objects of knowledge and wonders that Deep time of The Media book and others chronicle – Kircher’s arca steganographica (a machine for encrypting and decrypting letters), Martin van Marum’s 1785 “electrification machine”, or the “Self-writing wonder machine” by E. Knauss’s automata from 1764 – one can find an interesting program for variantology as an approach. In other words, this is not merely a collection of interesting discoveries in an alternative archive of art, science and media, but an inquiry into an-archaeologies.

Variantology is thus slightly anarchic in its pursuit of discourses and practices of magic, science, technics and media in history. It defies the hegemonic forces of what Zielinski coins the psychopathia medialis: the drive towards homogenising uniformity in media practices and discourses that characterises the capitalist culture of media understood as entertainment. Instead, the task of the variantologist is to dig out moments of difference, resistance, and experimentation that help us to imagine things differently.

Furthermore, there is an important methodological cue when Zielinski notes that we also need to shift the focus of our interest. Instead of the usual Western stories and capital cities of media production, we need to look South and East: Zielinski wants thus “to advocate a two-fold shift of geographic attention: from the North to the South and from the West to the East” which leads into a program of excavating histories of art, science, and media, stories and practice of alternative techniques from Far East, Mediterranian, Asia Minor, Greece, Middle-East, and South America.

This programmatic call was partly realised then in the Variantology-book series he set into motion with other editors, leading into volumes that offered case studies of such alternative stories. So while Zielinski’s own work and theoretisation emerged from 20th century core set of experimental practices and histories – from Godard to Virilio, Bauhaus to Lynn Hershman Leeson, from theorists of 1968 to the media theoretical boom in Germany since the 1980s – he also was able to shift the focus to collaborations with a much wider geographical and intellectual reach. Even if Zielinski’s 2011 book After the Media takes account of contemporary forms of media thinking from a self-declared Berlin perspective, he is still adamant the this is only one situated perspective as part of a wider cartography of media: “comparable thematic genealogies need to be written by authors who bring in their own cultural and intellectual experiences and areas of competence, before we can bring them together at scales of greater dimensions and can explore and try out their compatibility in the long term.” Also theoretical work has its own geography, and theoretical work has its own deep time.

Is this excavation in some sense also political? Can one say that this is a more activist way of doing media archaeology? While his compatriot Friedrich Kittler became famous for his insistent way of changing humanities agenda through technological knowledge, Zielinski’s work emerges with an emphasis on the artistic, which is reflected in his own personal history as part of some key art institutions of Germany, including in Berlin, Cologne, and Karlsruhe. For Zielinski, then, the question is not only about technology – even if he never dismisses knowing about technologies and engineers – but about potentials of experimentation and change: “to create a better world than the one that exists”, as he writes. Indeed, this is what connects to his pursuit of imaginaries of media, which itself is not merely personal fabulation but a systematic strand in history of thought.  In a pithy fashion, Zielinski states: “Imagination and mathematics have never been irreconcilable opposites and will not be so in the future.” Deep times also link to alternative futures, against psychopathia medialis.

Operational Images project funding

March 21, 2019 Leave a comment

Some news: I am happy to announce that we have won a large grant for our proposal “Operational Images and Visual Culture” with colleagues at FAMU, photography department, part of the Academy of Performing Arts, Prague. Funded by the Czech Science Academy, our research team will engage with contemporary visual culture, photographic theory and the notion of operational images that stems from Harun Farocki’s work. The project is not solely focused on Farocki but the concept of the operational – sometimes translated as operative – image becomes one of the guiding lines of inquiry that facilitates useful, interesting and alternative ways to understand media archaeology of technical images (as patterns, as measurement, as instructions etc.) and contemporary practices of photography. Automated, instructive, algorithmic, measuring and non-representational images are here part of our focus that stems from some of the discussions of past year’s of media, film and visual theory.

FAMU has a great reputation, not least as a renowned film school and I have had the pleasure of collaborating especially with Dr.  Tomáš Dvořák over the past year on other projects already. Stay tuned for updates from our Operational Images project and please get in touch if you have any questions!

The Project’s FAMU website for further info.

Sacred Channels

November 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Editing our Recursions book series is fun – both for the sake of getting to work with Anna Tuschling and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and because we are able to help in getting great books in media theory into the world.

The most recent one is the just published translation of Erich Hörl’s Sacred Channels: The Archaic Illusion of Communication. I believe the endorsement by Michael Wutz is a perfect summary of the book’s significance:

“Erich Hörl’s Sacred Channels is as original and innovative as they come. The book articulates an archaeology of modern notions of the sacred and the primitive and draws upon a wide-ranging theoretical framework that includes philosophy (phenomenology, Heidegger, and deconstruction), anthropology, media theory, and breakthrough developments in modern science. The substantial preface by Jean-Luc Nancy, and the excellent translation by Nils. F. Schott, make Sacred Channels(by now a classic in the German-speaking world) a groundbreaking book finally available to an English-speaking audience.” – Michael Wutz, Weber State University

The website includes also a free preview PDF of Nancy’s preface and the table of contents (link opens as PDF).

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Qu’est-ce que l’archéologie des média?

January 22, 2018 3 comments

The French translation of What is Media Archaeology? is now out. Titled Qu’est-ce que l’archéologie des média? it is translated by Christophe Degoutin and also includes a new preface by Emmanuel Guez from the PAMAL (media archaeology lab) in Avignon.

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cover image from Haroon Mirza’s installation.

In his introduction to this book in the context of contemporary media theory, Guez nicely picks up on how my interest is not in building systems nor in ontological definition that nails down media archaeology for good. Instead, the book is a cartography of theoretical and methodological potentials, of paths taken and potentials for development, of necessary cross-fertilization and being aware of the blindspots. Hence this cartography (picking on Deleuze’s writing on Foucault and Rosi Braidotti’s apt ideas) is interested in positions, effects, operations and how media archaeology is exercised – a topic that I have been wanting to engage more recently through the current collaborative work on media (archaeology) labs as places of situated and institutional practice. And in the French context, it surely will resonate with a different set of theoretical heritage, current practices and media discourses than in some other contexts.

Apt timing, the French translation of Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film and Typewriter is the same month of January 2018 as well.

For more information and to order the book, see the publisher’s website.

For a recent interview in French, see “Zombies, virus et pollution : comment l’archéologie des médias imagine notre futur.”

For an earlier French translation of the conversation between me and Garnet Hertz on media archaeology, see “Archéologie des media et arts médiaux.

1:1 and Cartographic Operations

March 11, 2017 2 comments

Cartographic Operations-exhibition is on at the Level 4 gallery in Southampton (Hartley Library). Supported by AMT, it features work from Winchester School of Art practitioners addressing maps. Jane Birkin, Abelardo Gil-Fournier, Sunil Manghani and Ian Dawson’s pieces address the main theme: “In Bernhard Siegert’s ‘The map is the territory’, he refers to the idea of ‘cartographic operations’. The suggestion is that our way of seeing the world is not simply represented in maps, but that map-making is itself a play of competing signs and discourses producing our subjecthood. These are the coordinates we come to live by, which in turn influence the marks and signs at our disposal when we seek to make and share representations of the world.”

One of the pieces is Jane Birkin’s 1:1 which is described and show below. It opens up the exhibition space to the depth of the surface by making visible the electric current and metal inside the wall. While it can be read in relation to some earlier pieces of contemporary art it also speaks to the current work in critical practices of infrastructure.

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From the catalogue text:

Jane Birkin’s 1:1 is a direct mapping of infrastructure behind the white space of display. It is ­a piece produced by performative procedure: a regulated operation where authorial control is established at the outset and rules are strictly followed. Electric current and metal are plotted using a DIY store metal/voltage detector and the information transferred simply to print.

There are literary precedents for mapping at this scale. In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story On Exactitude in Science cartography became exactingly precise, producing a map that has the same scale as its territory. And, in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, a German professor tells how map-makers experimented with the use of ever larger maps, until they finally produced a map of the scale of 1:1. ‘It has never been spread out, yet’, said the professor. ‘The farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight!’ In this case, the gallery wall is covered, shut off from light and eyes. Although 1:1 is an impassive engagement with the rule-based activity of cartography, it simultaneously performs an affective act of display.Birkin 1 to 1 detail_med.jpeg

 

 

 

 

What is AMT? A video and an interview

December 10, 2016 Leave a comment

In this video, myself and Ryan Bishop talk a bit more about what the new research group (or office) Archaeologies of Media and Technology does and how it sits as part of the research and practice at Winchester School of Art.


In addition, a new interview with me (conducted by Thais Aragão) is now online and available in English and in Portuguese. The interview is focused on AMT as a platform for practice and theory and how it connects to themes in media archaeology and digital culture research.

You can find AMT online at: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/amt/

and on Twitter at @amt_office

AMT – Archaeologies of Media and Technology

June 13, 2016 1 comment

AMT3.jpg_SIA_JPG_fit_to_width_INLINEThe site for our new research group, AMT (Archaeologies of Media and Technology) is now live: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/amt/.

Directed by myself and Ryan Bishop, AMT is located at the Winchester School of Art and is an “office for media theory and speculative practice in art & design”.

We are on Twitter as @amt_office and here’s the short description of what AMT stands for:

Amt – (German) an administrative unit, office
Also: Airy Mean Time, a time standard used for timekeeping on Mars

Archaeologies of Media and Technology (AMT) is a research group that approaches technology and media writ large through their links to science, art, visual culture and critical theory with a strong emphasis on artistic practices. We investigate the conditions of existence of contemporary media technologies through design and art, in relation to both contemporary culture and cultural heritage with an eye toward the future.

The group will kick off with a range of activities after the summer including a small launch event planned tentatively for October even if we are already now involved in many things happening. The group builds on earlier work we have done with the transmediale-festival as well as many other links both in the School, in the UK and internationally. We have hosted various talks in these fields in the past years, including by Shannon Mattern, Alex Galloway, Lawrence Grossberg, Laurence Rickels, Olga Goriunova, Tony Sampson, Joanna Zylinska, Shintaro Miyazaki, Victor Burgin, Esther Milne, Pasi Valiaho and many others. We have hosted events such as Media Theory in Transit and The Image of the Network.

This week Linda Hilfling is giving an artist talk “Adding to the Paradox.”

We will post more info during and after summer with events at WSA and through projects with our international friends and partners!

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