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The Residual Media Depot summer school

I had the pleasure of being one of the participants in the Media Archaeology summer school in Montreal at the Residual Media Depot (Concordia). Invited by Darren Wershler, and teaching alongside also Lori Emerson, we had a wonderful group of participants from Canada, Finland, USA, UK and Spain whose own projects and their work at the Depot during the week demonstrated a fantastically broad spectrum of what media archaeology can perform.

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I could not emphasise the word perform enough: while we engaged with the theoretical limits and limitations of theoretical work in and around media archaeology, including how it interfaces with for example infrastructure studies, the various probes the students presented and the hands-on work in the Depot investigated the idea of collections as part of the methodology. The performative aspect of media archaeology – and theory broadly speaking – allows to both see it as a situated practice that benefits from its access to institutions and collections as well as creates the space for such to exist: to imagine a media archaeology lab or a collection becomes also a projective way of engaging with the current themes of reshifting humanities infrastructure and institutional changes. As Wershler and Lori Emerson, the director of the Media Archaeology Lab at Boulder, Colorado, also underlined, it is through the particular materiality and access to collections that one can think differently in relation to what are often deemed objects of (media) cultural heritage.

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Relating the course’s themes to also his own research, Wershler explained how his interest in the cultural life of signals builds on work in the Depot too. To engage in the work of assembly through old but still functioning systems one is led to understand the various ways the life of signals is constantly constructed and re-constructed across multiple fields of agency from hobbyists to the mini-industry building the various technological tools for an afterlife of for example consoles.

Media archaeology embodies multiple temporalities. The different theoretical frameworks from Erkki Huhtamo to Siegfried Zielinski to Wolfgang Ernst are different solutions to the problem of time – how to approach time differently in methodological ways and in ways that understand technical temporality. For example, Ernst’s ways of approaching time criticality and temporal operationality are something that both offer a different ontological take on technology and also can act as interesting guides in how we work with collections such as the Depot.

In my view, the Residual Media Depot was a perfect platform for the workshop. Wershler had designed the week as a mix of theoretical investigations, student probes and practice-based work that functioned somewhere between maker methodologies, art practices and an archival interest in collections that are important for media theory too. The collection is focused on cultures and technologies of gaming with a special focus on consoles, but as Wershler emphasises, it is not a game archaeology depot. The consoles and the material around them is an entry point to media history and signal culture.

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In several ways, the Depot’s work aligns nicely with the Media Archaeology Lab but also with our AMT group: to establish a framework and an enabling situation for a research-teaching continuum that is interested as much in practice-based work as it is in explicating what practices of theory are. All of this feeds also as part of the Lab Book we are writing together.

You can find more information about the Depot on their website and on the same site you can find all the student probes from our week of Media Archaeology.

The Residual Media Depot (RMD) is a project of the Media History Research Centre in the Milieux Institute at Concordia University.

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Towards 2048, Erkki Kurenniemi*

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.

Archaeology

January 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Siegfried Zielinski asked me to write a very short dictionary type of entry on “Archaeology” for an exhibition catalogue. The exhibition will take place at Edith Russ Haus for Media Art in 2014 and they are  going to do an exhibition  on Zielinski’s AnArchaeologies and Variantologies, including some artistic positions by David Larcher, Herwig Weiser, Anthony Moore and others. Below my contribution.

Archaeology

The 19th century disciplinary invention of “archaeology” has had major impact in and out of academia. Besides the specific methods for investigating the material remains of human cultures, of building on the fragments to create collections, narratives and modes of preservation for a varia of objects and documents, the archaeological imaginary penetrates our audiovisual culture. It persists as an imaginary of itself: the narratives and images of hidden treasures waiting to be ungrounded. And it persists as the conceptual legacy that comes not only from archaeology proper, but also from Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s idea of philosophical archaeology itself ungrounded the idea of conceptual work building on the ruins of earlier philosophers. As Giorgio Agamben argues, this lead to the more fundamental notion of arkhé that refers not to origins, but to command and commencement. In a way that resonates with the media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst’s understanding of the “arche” in (media) archaeology, this archaic moment is less the historical than the conditioning beginning of any analytical and genealogical investigation. For Agamben “[a]rchaeology is, in this sense, a science of ruins, a ‘ruinology’ whose object, without constituting a transcendental principle properly speaking, cannot really claim to be there as an empirically given totality.”

Such an understanding shifts from archaeology proper to the archaeology of knowledge in Michel Foucault’s sense. It displaces archaeology restricted to material excavations and works it into a method of archival and philosophical conditions of knowledge – its objects, statements and assumptions. With media archaeology as practiced by a variety of scholars from Siegfried Zielinski to Erkki Huhtamo, Thomas Elsaesser to Wolfgang Ernst, and even with Friedrich Kittler’s earlier writings, the material returns at the centre of the archaeological dig. It has many different meanings and ways of adopting to the object of investigation but it insists on irreducibility to the textual.

Indeed, what in archaeology are the methods necessary to approach the time before writing and the document pertains for media archaeologists both to the pre-cinematic as a similar rhetorical field of investigation and to the ontologically important idea of the arche as a command – even a technological command as the starting point for ungrounding media cultural ruins still present.

A Pioneer of Finnish Media Studies

September 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Aivokuvia sounds much groovier in Finnish than in English; the translation to the word would be “Images of the Brain”. But it also resonates with theJukka Sihvonen idea of “brain scans”, making the term more interesting in English too; a nod to Deleuze’s film theory, but also to the fascination with the materiality of the corporeal brain, interconnected with possibilities of perception and sensation, but also with the cultural-technological framing of it.

Professor Jukka Sihvonen, whose 60th birthday is celebrated by a seminar as well as the launch of his new book Aivokuvia, has always been someone who  in his writing incorporated a fantastic sense of the potentials in Finnish language and how to bend it as an active medium itself for the writing of media and film theory. Sihvonen is a major figure on the Finnish scene as well as for my personal development: he was the one who introduced  so many of us at the University of Turku, 1990s and onwards, to the theoretical figures of Paul Virilio, Gilles Deleuze, Friedrich Kittler and others. Besides proper names and theorists, he inspired us to engage in a certain mode of thinking: rigorous, but creative; refusing the most obvious questions and answers; a style of thinking in the Deleuze-Guattarian sense of the word. After his Deleuze-course, we spent several extremely long houred sessions with Teemu Taira and Pasi Valiaho excavating A Thousand Plateus in our reading group. Sihvonen spoke about Virilio and video games; he suggested to read Kittler, and made us ponder what this odd German theorist was trying to say in his Kittler-deutsch. Some of us went on to participate in Kittler’s seminars, some in Wolfgang Ernst’s, both at the same address of Sophienstrasse 22. I myself owe so many of my research ideas to his inspiration – insects, for instance. Sihvonen’s interest in Cronenberg was probably initially behind that route.

A bit in tongue in cheek (yes, do not take such branding exercises ever seriously)I have also called him one of the master minds behind a “Turku School of Media Studies“.

The new book Aivokuvia is exemplary of his interests over the years. It is more of a film theoretical book: Aivokuvia ties together the films of Tarkovsky, Bigelow and Cronenberg with the philosophical engines of Deleuze and others. Besides this new book, it is still Konelihan varina [The trembling of the machinic flesh] which is my favourite book of his, and  which really as a student inspired me to dive in to theories of media and technology enmeshed in a cultural historical context.

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University of Turku is organising the celebration seminar Video: media, taide, teknologia [Video: media, art, technology] as well as the launch of Aivokuvia, published by Eetos-association. I wish I could be there to celebrate. Warm congrats to Jukka. Looking forward already to the next book of his.

Moving Panoramas, Curiosity Cabinets

Huhtamo wrote a book on the moving panorama – Illusions in Motion – and here is an interview with him. So if media archaeology is what keeps you up all nights, dig in.

And if you are a lucky one, and in Paris, here is something connected. Below a press release of an exhibition endorsed by Huhtamo. The text below is from his keyboard.

Virtualia:

Where Curiosity Cabinets, Dioramas, and Augmented Realities Meet (Erkki Huhtamo)

If you happen to be in Paris between now and the end of June, make sure not to miss the exhibition Virtualia: Fééries Numeriques, an unusual event featuring works by Jean-Paul Favand, collector, artist, “natural magician,” and the founder of the Musée des Arts Forains (Museum of Fairground Arts, Paris – Bercy). For years, Favand has been designing extraordinary exhibits for his huge museum. Using original objects from his collection as backdrops and projection surfaces, he has been turning then into magnificent animated spectacles by means of digital projections, or “video mapping.”

With his team of technical experts, Favand has created an outstanding mastery in this emerging field. However, there has been a problem: Musée des Art Forains is a private museum. Although it is open for banquets and organized events all year around, the general public is only able to visit it a few times a year on special occasions. It is therefore not so easy to experience its sumptuous displays that combine traditional fairgrounds and digital magic in the spirit of the Cabinets Fantastiques of the past.

For the first time, Favand has brought his imagination out of the museum, displaying his creations at the Centre des arts d’Enghien-les-Bains near Paris (a 15-minute train ride from Gare du Nord). What one experiences at Enghien-les-Bains, an idyllic lakeside resort town that seems very far from the French capital, is a series of curious and inspiring works one is tempted to call media archaeological. Although they use ideas of Favand’s museum displays and exhibits, that are also entirely new.

At first look the exhibition seems eclectic, but one soon discovers the common spirit behind everything. There are found objects like a Japanese doll, unusual pieces of wood, and a Chinese stone slab inserted in a wooden frame, all animated by projections. There are also two unique diorama canvases from Favand’s collection. They were originally displayed by a nineteenth-century touring show named Théatre Mécanique Morieux de Paris. Its remains were discovered some years ago and bought by Favand. A once so popular but lost medium re-emerges at Enghien-les-Bains, restored by Favand’s team of experts. Already experiencing the dioramas and their effects is worth the visit.

But there is more: the exhibition also includes a mechanical spectacle named La Fete du Soleil (the Festival of the Sun), also from the repertory of the Théatre Morieux. Ingenious mechanical marionettes traverse the scene, brought to life by digital projections. It is not possible to discuss all the exhibits here, but I would like finish be mentioning a favorite of mine, an interactive display that allows the visitor to manipulate a digital 3D simulation of a seemingly ordinary stone, much like the stones that form the pavements of Village de Bercy, a popular destination in the heart of Paris. No-one seems to pay any attention to them, except Favand.

This exhibit takes us to the heart of Favand’s art: whether it uses antique objects, found pieces of naturalia, or digital and interactive displays, it constitutes an extended act of looking. Favand persuades the spectator to stop and wonder. He seems to say: there is nothing prosaic or boring; everything is saturated with meanings and experiences; the task is to stop, pay attention, and wonder. Virtualia does exactly that. Its exhibits are not as spectacular as the ones at his museum (the exhibition hall at Enghien-les-Bains is rather limited), but the spirit animating them is the same. Go and see yourself!

For more, see the website http://www.cda95.fr/fr/content/virtualia. The exhibition is open until June 30, 2013. See also: www.arts-forains.com, www.pavillons-de-bercy.com  

A Media Archaeological Office

March 7, 2013 1 comment

Not every professor has an office like this. Peep into Erkki Huhtamo’s (UCLA) media archaeological office through this video, and get a taster of his enthusiasm as a collector: zoetropes, mutoscopes, kinetoscope. It demonstrates the curiosity cabinets of media history but also the need to train specialists who are able to maintain these instruments as part of the living heritage of media cultures outside the mainstream. The devices prompt us to ask questions concerning difference: how different media culture could be, and has been.

The video  is a good insight to the just released Huhtamo book on the moving panorama: Illusions in Motion, just out from MIT Press.

What is Media Archaeology, beta definition ver. 0.9

December 16, 2012 3 comments

What is Media Archaeology? gives no direct answer to the question that it poses. Instead, it gives a map – a cartography of how to see the field of media archaeology defined by various theories and directions, that help us to go to places – and think things. However, I remember trying to think through definitions of media archaeology – a useful task to bring clarity. I originally doodled something like this for my working blog for that WiMA book, but let’s return to that now. This thinking aloud was partly triggered by my soon to be new colleague Sunil Manghani’s question…so how does media archaeology differ from media history.

Here is one attempt to give a definition – sort of coordinates, although this does not exhaust the richness of MA and its various traditions.

Media archaeology can be understood as a heterogeneous set of theories and methods that investigate media history through its alternative roots,  forgotten paths,  neglected ideas and machines. It explicitly challenges the supposed newness of digital culture. Media archaeology gives new ideas to understand media cultural temporality. The definitions have ranged from emphasising the recurring nature of media cultural discourses (Huhtamo) to media archaeology as an-archaeology, or variantology (Zielinski) which in its excavation of the deep time layers of our means of seeing and hearing  tries to find an alternative route to dismantle the fallacy of linear development.

Furthermore, I see media archaeology as a joint history & theory venture in which temporal excavation of media functions as a theoretical force as well; it can be characterised as a reading of old media and new media in parallel lines. Media archaeology is decisively non-linear, and rigorously theoretical in its media historical interest of knowledge. In a Benjaminian vein, it abandons historicism when by it is meant the idea that the past is given and out there waiting for us to find it; instead, it believes in the radical assembling of history, and histories in the plural, but so that it is not only a subset of cultural historical writing. Instead, media archaeology needs to insist both on the material nature of its enterprise – that media are always articulated in material, also in non-narrative frameworks whether technical media such as photography, or algorithmic media features such as databases and software networks – and that the work of assembling temporal mediations takes place in an increasingly varied and distributed network of institutions, practices and technological platforms.

Indeed, what media archaeology investigates are also the practical rewirings of time, as is done in media artistic and creative practice work, through archives digital and traditional, as well as DIY and circuit bending which recycle, and remix obsolete technology as much as they investigate aesthetic and political economic conditions of technical media.

Media archaeology takes place in artistic labs, laboratories where hardware and software are hacked and opened, but also in in conceptual labs for experimenting with concepts and ideas.

So as you can see, it moves into certain material characteristics that I want to keep close to media archaeology. It does not mean that this it the only to approach MA. For instance, here is what Huhtamo wrote.