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).
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.
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).
Water Serving Automaton,The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices (1206) (Topkapi Sarayi Libray, Ahmet III, Ms. 3472).
Update: This text is published inGerman in the Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft‘s blog, translated by Florian Sprenger. It is also published in Turkish in Biamag, translated by Doğan Terzi. Here is the original English version, which is also published on the Theory, Culture & Society journal’s blog.
Earwitnesses of a Coup Night: The Many Media Infrastructures of Social Action
The particularly cruel scenes in Ankara and Istanbul from July 15th and 16th circulated quickly. From eye witness accounts to images detached from their context, media users, viewers and readers was soon seeing the graphic depictions of what had happened with the added gory details, some of them fake, some of them not.
Still and moving images from the hundreds of streams that conveyed a live account of the events left many in Turkey puzzled as to what is going on. Only later most were able to form some sort of a picture of the events with the coherence of a narrative structure. By the morning the live stream on television showed military uniform soldiers raising their hands and climbing down from their tanks. What soon ensued were the by already now iconic images of public punishment: the man with his upper torso bare and the belt as his whip, the stripped soldiers in rows shamed and followed up by the series of images of expressions of collective joy as most of Turkey was relieved again. The coup was over. The unity in resisting the coup was unique. As it was summarised by many commentators: even the ones critical of the governing AK Party’s politics agreed that this was not a suitable manner of overthrowing an elected government.
However, what became evident immediately in the wake of the actual events was the quick spread of narratives and explanations about the coup night and its extent. As one journalist aptly and with a healthy dose of sarcasm put it:
Also some rather established organisations like Wikileaks got quickly on the spectacle-seeking bandwagon of the coup attempt’s repercussions. Turkish journalists and activist soon read and revealed that the so-called “AKPleaks”-documents were not really anything that interesting as it was advertised to be. As Zeynep Tufekci summarised: “According to the collective searching capacity of long-term activists and journalists in Turkey, none of the ‘Erdogan emails’ appear to be emails actually from Erdogan or his inner circle” while actually containing information that could be considered harmful to normal Turkish citizens instead.
Of course, besides commentators inside and outside Turkey, there was no lack of people with first-hand experience. Besides the usual questions that eyewitnesses were asked in many news reports about “how did things look like”, another angle was as pertinent. How did it sound? The soundscape of the coup was itself a spectacle catered to many senses: the helicopters hovering around the city; the different calibre gunfire that ranged from heavy fire from helicopters to individual pistol shots; individual explosions; car horns; sirens, and the roaring F-16 that descended at times so low so that its sonic boom broke windows of flats. Such sonic booms have their own grim history as part of the 21st century sonic warfare as cultural theorist Steve Goodman analysed the relation of modern technologies, war and aesthetics. As has been reported for years, for example Israeli military has used sonic noise of military jets in Palestine as a shock technique: “Palestinians liken the sound to an earthquake or huge bomb. They describe the effect as being hit by a wall of air that is painful on the ears, sometimes causing nosebleeds and ‘leaving you shaking inside’.”
In the midst of sonic booms, a different layer of sound was felt through the city: the mosques starting their extraordinary call to prayer and calls to gather on the streets. The latter aspect was itself triggered by multiple mediations that contributed to the mobilization of the masses. Turkish President had managed to Facetime with CNN-Turk’s live broadcast and to call his supporters to go on the streets to oppose the coup attempt. By now even the phone the commentator held has become a celebrity object with apparently even $250,000 offered for it.
But there was more to the call than the ringtone of an individual smartphone. In other words, the chain of media triggers ranged from the corporate digital videotelephony to television broadcasting to the infrastructures of the mosques to people on the streets tweeting, filming, messaging and posting on social media. All of this formed a sort of a feedback-looped sphere of information and speculation, of action and messaging, of rumours and witnessing. Hence, there was more than just traditional broadcast or digital communication that made up the media reality of this particular event.
The mosques started to amplify the political leadership’s social media call by their own acoustic means. Another network than just social media was as essential and it also proved to be irreducible to what some called the “cyberweapon” of online communications. As one commentator tried to argue commenting on the events in Turkey: “But, this is the era of cyberpower. Simply taking over the TV stations is not enough. The Internet is a more powerful means of communication than TV, and it is more resilient — especially with a sophisticated population.” However, there were also other elements in the mix that made it a more interesting and a more complex issue than merely about the “cyber”.
Turkish artist and technologist Burak Arikan had already in his earlier work mapped the urban infrastructure of Istanbul in terms of its mosques, malls and national monuments. “Islam, Republic, Neoliberalism” (2012) employs his critical mapping methodology to visualise how structures of power are part of the everyday whether we always realise these relationships or not. Based on his research, Arikan devised three maps of those architectural forms and how they connect. According to Arikan, the “maps present a comparative display of network patterns that are formed through associations linking those architectural structures that represent the three dominant ideologies –Islam, Republic, Neoliberalism– in Turkey.”
During the coup weekend, it was the network of the mosques and their minarets that became suddenly very visible – or actually, very audible. While the regular praying times have become such an aural infrastructure of the city that one does not necessarily consciously notice it, the extraordinary calls from imams reminded how dense this social, architectural fabric actually is. The thousands of Istanbul mosques became itself an explicit “sonic social network” where the average estimated reach (300 meters) of sound from the minarets is too important of a detail to neglect when one wants to understand architecture as solidifying social networks in contemporary Turkey. In the context of mid-July it was one crucial relay of communication between the private sphere in homes, the streets and the online platforms contributing to the mobilization of the masses. The musicological perspective has highlighted how sound and noise negotiate conflict across private and the public and we can extend this to a wider media ecological perspective too. This is where art and design practices can have an instrumental role to play in helping us to understand such overlapped media and sensorial realities.
Artists such as Arikan have investigated the ways how online tools and digital forms of mapping can connect to issues of urban planning and change. The visual artwork helps us to also understand how there are other social realities, less front of our eyes even if they are in our ears. This expands the wider sense of how media is and was involved in Turkey’s events, and it gives also insights to new methodologies of artistic intervention in understanding the coupling of media, architecture, visual methods and the sonic reality of urban life. And in this case of the bloody events of the coup weekend, much of the personal experience of “what happened” is now being narrated in Turkey in terms of what it sounded like – another aspect of the media reality of the coup attempt’s aftermath.
During Sunday breakfast which for every Turk is the main five hours of the week, my partner suddenly turned towards me: “You know, nobody is safe, Turkey is not safe for anyone anymore. People like us are not safe.” The sense of not belonging to your own country had slowly infiltrated several people’s mood, and the fear that many ethnic and sexual minorities had felt for ages was becoming part of the more general middle-class sentiment too.
It was a sort of calm, yet melancholically perfect summary of some of the moods in Turkey as confused people witnessed the events unfold in the news, on social media, through various streams and live feeds, personal stories and telephone calls to friends and relatives.
The footage has varied from official talking heads of politicians promising to “exterminate anyone against us” (as the Turkish Prime Minister vowed in his live address) to shaky clips of different events across the cities, of people chasing other people without really being able to tell why and who, of tanks and military personnel, hands up and consequently beaten and later the numerous images of celebrations of a country that is, again, covered in the red-white Turkish flag. The attempted coup day is promised to become a national holiday, a day of democracy. And yet, many are more conflicted about the celebrations. Not because they supported the coup – far from it, as all the opposition parties too voiced their disapproval – but because fearing that the country will be far from safe that is the business-as-usual state of things when it comes to the normalised atmosphere of violence that is at times physical, at times mental.
The events over the past days and especially the coup night of Friday turning to Saturday were a properly frightening spectacle. Especially in Ankara and Istanbul, people were for the first time set in the midst of what was nothing short of a war scene.
Besides a visual description of events, many will remember it by how it sounded. The soundscape of a coup was the low flying F-16, at times even breaking windows of flats. It included the helicopter buzz, the sirens and then the calls from the massive network of mosques not only for prayer (outside the usual Muslim prayer times) but to go the streets to stop the coup. President Erdogan’s message reached quickly the loyal supporters who flooded the streets. Suddenly rescuing democracy (even using corporate social media platforms) was ok.
The next day, everything was calmer. While the mosques’ call continued throughout the day, you could again hear birds singing and life seemed almost idyllic with the usual sort of background you would expect to hear on a Saturday morning: Turkish families’ breakfast noises, tea glasses clinking, casual street corner chats. A lot had however changed. Much of the events that followed can be seen as a direct consequence of the spectacle that took lots of lives that today are visible in the pictures of coffins and funerals. Judges fired, threats of revenge, even mentioning the option of a death penalty while closing alternative media outlets like Medyascope, Gazeteport, Karşı Gazete, Aktif Haber, etc.
After the spectacle, the slow, quiet violence of the everyday resumed. During my morning trip to buy breakfast cheese I also happened to witness the all too usual scene of a Turkish husband shouting violently to his wife, with physical threats. Men kill more women than many of the legitimate institutions of violence have done the past years, and this is not a consequence of the current government or the AK Party but a feature that runs across the social life and has done so for a long time.
The post-coup attempt day became filled with other sorts of anecdotal stories that are the more mundane side to the story than warplanes above the Istanbul sky. And many fear this is the increasingly normalised side of life in Turkey: religious people attacking partygoers who were drinking alcohol, intolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities and a general tightening of the implicit rules of what is morally acceptable behaviour or clothing.
After the 6000 arrests that range far beyond the military personnel directly involved, more will be on the way. As the case of Turkey has for years proven, anyone can be branded as a terrorist. The cleansing of universities and other institutions has already been happening for a while. After the failed coup, these operations intensify with the opportunity to get rid of anyone undesired, and now there is a further perceived mandate to remove unwanted opponents of the government, and to replace them with loyalists. Luckily the violent coup is over and the everyday continues, but for many it has not been safe so far anyway.
Istanbul is most often commented for its stunning beauty in a manner that approaches a modern touristic version of orientalism. For sure it is stunning, but the other side of Istanbul, as real but less visible, is the barbed wire protecting upper middle class & luxury housing areas, security cameras, traffic queues, and TOKIs. Indeed, urban planning and Istanbul is such a rich case study not merely if one is interested in Turkey but global capitalism and megacities in general.
To quote a recent MoMA-exhibition Uneven Growth:
“TOKI development parallels the emergence of a new middle class in Istanbul for whom a TOKI flat is part of a dream of car and house ownership, even if this brings social isolation, long hours in traffic, and long-term debt.”
(Image from Moma/Uneven Growth.)
In the midst of the past (less than) 24 hours of Turkey’s Twitter-blockade, we have seen a flood of tweets, comments, analysis and information – a lot of them, paradoxically, from Turkey. Some operators might not have yet been quick enough to shut down access, and at the same time people have found access via alternative means. The situation has again meant an increase in people’s understanding of the internet and looking into how DNS works as well as VPN’s. Indeed, tips were spread online to assist Turkish people – such as the three simple methods. And information was passed offline too – demonstration of a yet another connection of the streets and the online.
That people are able to bypass the DNS-based censorship is one thing to ponder about – especially because the new internet law in Turkey would allow other measures too. But what Geraldine Juárez pointed out on Twitter was of course this: 184.108.40.206. points to Google Public DNS. Corporate freedom services, the rhetorics of net freedom, etc. play as part of this wider scenario where alternatives to authoritarian nationalist politics seem to be the Corporate system. And that it’s pretty odd/scary/eerie that this gets rather automatically picked up as the political alternative, even to the extent of Google becoming infrastructurally used as the politically “open alternative” – or just more bluntly, as “Freedom”:
In such situations, one does need quick and dirty solutions – infrastructural affordances, whether corporate or not, need to be taken into use for short-term goals; but in terms of the wider political situation of networks – networkpolitics on the level where infrastructure meets the political imaginary – this leads into rather an odd choice between “closed” and “open” that does not imply as clear of a choice as one would assume based on the older political vocabularies. This is indeed not to downplay the significance of this sort of activism – distributing DNS information on streets, as in the image below. It is just to ask the fundamental questions regarding political choice, alternatives and how much the lack of alternatives is increasingly attempted to be hardwired into a material actualisation of the lack of political imaginary: “no choice but”.
Update [March 22, 2014]: Turkish government has now blocked access to Google Public DNS too.
– related reading includes (of course)
Evgeni Morozov’s analysis of network politics and its relation to Silicon Valley but also Benjamin Bratton’s work on “the stack” and the changing political nomos in the age of planetary computation.