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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.

Reviews and More

Some quick updates on new reviews and other news about some recent books, first starting with A Geology of Media. Our university PR-team did a short news item about it being selected on the Choice-magazine list of “Outstanding Academic Title for 2015“.

It was reviewed in a couple of places including Contriver’s Review: “An Archive Beneath“. Kyle Bickoff writes in his review: “Parikka describes his book as part of the material landscape it defines, leaving little room for misinterpretation about the ubiquity and consequent exigence of his topic. This is clearly evident in the text’s construction, from its precisely demarcated, stratified chapters, to the coherence of the argument within each layer; the book, indeed, has a geology of its own.”

Also Leonardo ran a review of it. Gabriela Galati’s text gives an overview of the book, highlighting some key themes and questions too.

In addition, also our other recent new book that we launched in a couple of places (including Kiasma (Helsinki), Montreal and London) Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History: Erkki Kurenniemi in 2048 was recently reviewed. The short review in Neural summarises the book as follows: “The book challenges the reader to interpret Kurenniemi and his symbolic involvement in different disciplines, including his feverish daily archiving activities and the (re)invention of audio visual machines. The impact of this work is amplified, implicitly reinforcing both present complexity and future uncertainty.”

Mediaarthistories in Montreal: Re-Create

October 22, 2015 Leave a comment

I will be taking part in the Mediaarthistories 2015 conference soon (in November) in Montreal. Under the title Re-Create the event promises to be several days of exciting panels again with a good emphasis on practice-based research. We are participating with a panel on labs in humanities and media studies, addressing the practice and contexts of this interdisciplinary trend (incidentally, with Lori Emerson and Darren Wershler we are also working on a book and a project on labs; we will be also talking about this at Concordia University).

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In addition, the same day (Saturday 7th of November) we are with Joasia Krysa and Perttu Rastas launching the Erkki Kurenniemi-book that came out with MIT Press! This is one of several launch events. Please join us and come hear more whether about labs or Kurenniemi!

The programme of the conference is online here.

“Sex, annotation, and verité totale”: Kurenniemi’s Archival Futurism

September 18, 2015 1 comment

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 8.41.43 AMI am very glad to announce that Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History: Erkki Kurenniemi in 2048 is out from the printers, hot off the (MIT) Press! Edited with curator, writer Joasia Krysa, the book focuses on the Finnish media art pioneer Kurenniemi, and is the key international collection on the curious thinker, sound and media artist-tinkerer, who became known for his remarkable synthetizers and archival futurism. Kurenniemi has gathered attention in the electronic music circles for a longer period of time, and with Documenta 13 he become known in the international art world too. His thoughts and work resonate with the work of other early pioneers; Simon Reynolds once called him  a mix of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Buckminster Fuller, and Steve Jobs. In 2002, Mika Taanila directed the film The Future is Not What It Used to Be about Kurenniemi.

The book includes foreword by the eminent media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo and a range of critical essays on digital culture, archival mania and media arts. Key academic and art writers address Kurenniemi’s work but also more: the condition of the archive and sound arts, sonic fiction and speculative futures of singularity are some of the key themes that run through the book with contributions by many established names in media studies, art and sound technologies. In addition, we included many of Kurenniemi’ own writings over the decades, including some interviews that elaborate his wider computational views of the world, including his thought: by 2040s, the human brain can be completely simulated. His archive plays a key role, like an actor in itself: the archive also featured as a key “object” as part of the earlier Kiasma exhibition and we included some snippets, as well as an extensive visual section.

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Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History sits as part of the Leonardo-book series, edited by Sean Cubitt. The book was started by Krysa through her curatorial work at the 2012 Documenta 13 exhibition. It is thanks to Joasia that I am part of the project and she deserves major praise for her amazing eye for detail, enthusiasm and energy in driving this project, from a major exhibition to a book, and more.

Here’s a preview of the book’s table of contents and Huhtamo’s Foreword.

For review copy requests, or other questions, inquiries about the book, please get in touch! We are hosting some book events in Montreal, Helsinki, Berlin and London over the coming months but more info on those separately.

Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History: Erkki Kurenniemi in 2048, eds Krysa and Parikka

Over the past forty years, Finnish artist and technology pioneer Erkki Kurenniemi (b. 1941) has been a composer of electronic music, experimental filmmaker, computer animator, roboticist, inventor, and futurologist. Kurenniemi is a hybrid—a scientist-humanist-artist. Relatively unknown outside Nordic countries until his 2012 Documenta 13 exhibition, ”In 2048,” Kurenniemi may at last be achieving international recognition. This book offers an excavation, a critical mapping, and an elaboration of Kurenniemi’s multiplicities.

The contributors describe Kurenniemi’s enthusiastic, and rather obsessive, recording of everyday life and how this archiving was part of his process; his exploratory artistic practice, with productive failure an inherent part of his method; his relationship to scientific and technological developments in media culture; and his work in electronic and digital music, including his development of automated composition systems and his “video-organ,” DIMI-O. A “Visual Archive,” a section of interviews with the artist, and a selection of his original writings (translated and published for the first time) further document Kurenniemi’s achievements. But the book is not just about one artist in his time; it is about emerging media arts, interfaces, and archival fever in creative practices, read through the lens of Kurenniemi.

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Endorsements

“Sex, annotation, and verité totale: Kurenniemi is a missing mixing desk between so many interesting aspects of late-twentieth-century culture. No wonder he ends up offering us a new archival futurism!”
Matthew Fuller, Professor, Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Providing a long-overdue critical and historical introduction to the amazingly multifaceted work of media pioneer, visionary thinker, and self-archivist Erkki Kurenniemi, this book becomes both a media-archaeological excavation and engaging reflection on the challenges of writing media art history. The range of Kurenniemi’s fascinating practice—including electronic music composition, experimental filmmaking, robotics, and curation—defies traditional classifications, and calls for new historical narratives of media art. Started as a compilation of the long-term research that went into the exhibition of Kurenniemi’s work at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, the volume combines highlights of his own writings and interviews with excellent contributions by scholars, contextualizing his archives, art, music, and vision.”
Christiane Paul, Associate Professor, School of Media Studies, The New School; Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts, Whitney Museum

“This book is a major contribution not only to the unprecedented scientific and artistic imagination of Erkki Kurenniemi, but also to the whole research on media and ‘real time.’ The text unveils and critically presents the reader with a series of complex technological and artistic systems exploring the man-machine relationship under the assumption both do have consciousness. Kurenniemi’s work provides us with one of the most solid grounds to examine perception, the brain, the will to speculate and travel back and forth between several realms of knowledge. Kurenniemi is bold; this text is bold and a great contribution to new forms of studying risk taking in art and science.”
Chus Martínez, Head of the Institute of Art, FHNW Academy of Art and Design

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Kurenniemi – A Man From the Future

October 31, 2013 Leave a comment

Erkki Kurenniemi is a curious case in media art history. He is the “Finnish hybrid of Stockhausen, Buckmister Fuller and Steve Jobs” who offers an alternative insight to past decades of interactions between art, science and technology.

He was featured at Documenta 13, part of a great exhibition at Kunsthall Aarhus, and now  Kiasma (Helsinki) is running an exhibition focusing on his technological art practice.

With Joasia Krysa, we are preparing an edited collection for MIT Press on Kurenniemi’s work.

However, today is published a nice little collection of writings (in English) on Kurenniemi’s character and work: Erkki Kurenniemi – A Man From the Future! Do read and dip into an alternative insight to post World War II artistic cultures of science and engineering.

Kurenniemi: Electronics in the World of Tomorrow (1964)

Categories: Kurenniemi, media art