Here’s a short interview chat we had with Neal White on art practices in and out of the lab, the office and more:
Neal White runs the Office of Experiments, a research platform that “works in the expanded field of contemporary art.” The Office employes methods of fieldworks and works with a range of partners including scientists, academics, activists and enthusiasts, and described as exploring “issues such as time, scale, control, power, cooperation and ownership, highlighting and navigating the spaces between complex bodies, organisations and events that form part of the industrial, military, scientific and technological complex.” Neal White is also starting as Professor at Westminster University, London.
This interview, conducted via email in June and July 2016, was set in the context of the What is a Media Lab-project and aims to address the questions of artistic practice, labs and the (post)studio as an environment of critical investigations of technological and scientific culture. Another,longer, interview with Neal White, conducted by John Beck, is published in the new edited collection Cold War Legacies (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).
JP: Can you start by describing what the Office of Experiments does? I am interested in its institutional form in the sense also Gilles Deleuze talks of institutions as “positive models for action” in contrast to law being a limitation on action. The Office also carries the legacy of modern institutional form par excellence – not the artist’s studio with its romantic connotations, not the laboratory either with its imaginary of science, but the office as an organizational site. Why an office?
NW: The Office of Experiments makes art through a process of collaboration in which all of those who undertake research, make or apply thinking to a project can be credited. We bring together artistic forms of research with experimental and academic research in the field, undertaking observational analysis, archival research, road trips, building platforms and prolonged formal visual studies that reflect the complexity of the subjects we approach. Our approach is to build a counter rational analysis or account of the world in which we live. To move this away from any poetic vision, we draw on ideas from conceptual art, and disciplines such as geography and science studies, architecture and political activism, as well as looking at physical space, data, and the material layer which connects the observatories, global sensors etc of our contemporary world; the interface between the technological and material world.
Having some formative education in Digital Arts, an MA in 1997 and then running a successful art and technology group in Shoreditch, London, in late nineties and up to 2001 (Soda), my experiences collaborating with others was critical to how I work now, and the work of others that interests me. As I wanted to deliberately move away from the hermetic space that media / digital art was creating for itself – the Lab, and to set up an independent contemporary art practice, that moved across spaces, enclosures, archives, in and out of galleries, often working in situ, and which was networked, I needed to find a way of working with others that was neither exploitative nor driven by serving another discipline or field.
Having opened conversations with John Latham in 2002-3, the now late British artist, I was introduced to Artist Placement Group. I was strongly influenced at this point both by Latham’s ideas of time/temporality (as applied to institutions) as well as incidental practices, and I applied those in an instituent form (Raunig) as Office of Experiments. The Office was therefore the solution to working collaboratively as an artist in a critical way, so that credit would be spread, and all those collaborating within each project get something out – whether as art or as an academic output/text, relevant to their individual discipline.
I was attracted to the term Office initially as it holds some idea of power, when thinking of a government department or Bureau, but is also instrumental – something that I felt was and is increasingly asked of art (evaluating audiences for funding etc). However, Office alone does not work, it is too close to that which it is critical of, so it is only when used with the term experiment, and the ideas of experimental systems (Rheinberger), which were also key to my work at this time, that an agonistic dichotomy comes to the fore. This works for me, as we could say the terms are counter-productive, the name undermines itself linguistically (i.e. As Robert Filliou put it “Art is what makes life so much better than Art’). In this respect, it serves the ideas that shape our research, to create a form of counter-enquiry that can hold to account the rational logic of hard scientific enquiry, ideas of progress, the ethical spaces of advanced industry and scienc
The link to post-studio practices and discourse is a thread that runs through the projects. Can you talk a bit more about the other sorts of institutional spaces or experiments in and with regulated spaces such as the laboratory that your work has engaged in?
To give some concrete examples, OoE was founded when working on an experimental platform, which was based on the design of a planetary lander, but we designed it for ‘on earth’ exploration; Space on Earth Station (2006), with N55 (DK). Later, OoE challenged the ethical space of clinical research in a project that used restricted drugs to explore ‘invasive aesthetics; The Void’ in which participants urine is turned blue. Our aim to move the site of the artwork to inside the body. We then explored the history of psychopharmacology and the use of so-called ‘truth serums’ in psychology of torture by the US military. More recently the Overt Research project made visible and navigable the concealed sites, laboratories, infrastructures, networks and logistical spaces of the UK’s knowledge complex, part military, part techno-scientific, a post-industrial complex. In Frankfurt, Germany, OoE acquired a piece of network infrastructure, – a cell phone tower in the shape of a palm tree, whilst we researched quantum financial trading networks and conspiracy theories based around Frankfurt itself. Currently, we are working on data from a globally distributed seismic sensor used to monitor the test ban treaty on nuclear weapons, and have used the data (which is not straightforward to acquire) from this vast instrument to create resonant physical audio experiences around what we call hyper-drones. In many of the cases, projects lead to engagements with society and the public on subjects of concern, whilst also providing tools, resources and shared knowledge with other researchers, enthusiasts and artists.
Considering art history and history of science, the studio and the lab can be seen as two key spaces of experimentation and the experiment, following their own routes but in parallel tracks as well. Does a similar parallel life apply to the post-studio, and the post-lab in contemporary context? In your view, what are the current forms that define the lab?
Starting with any lab today, we could perceive a hyper-structure (Morton) – that is a lab networked to other lab space, and not something discrete or visible as an observable object in the singular. To this extent, labs are also entry points connecting physical and digital layers; they reveal regulatory and permission based cultures in which ethics, health and safety, security and received opinion (Latham)/knowledge assert control. The idea of a lab therefore for art or media art, with any kind of techno-scientific logic not only implies but actually enforces limits (Bioart so often falls down in these terms). Whilst a studio gives an artist working within the constraints of their ability/media a private space to think and work, I find both underline both certain kinds of limits and a tradition of building through a controlled approach to both the experiment and experimentation.
In terms of the post-studio / lab, the ‘social’ (Latour) framing of art in the contemporary field of relations, social engagements and critical practices, experiments are produced through a scale of 1;1, but are also modelled in new ways. So this implies, that we not only need to find a new way to work, but to be present somewhere/somehow else.
So, if Office of Experiments projects explore space and time as dimensions of practice, then it is reflective of these shifts, being made up of a group or number of individuals, we are arguably post-studio in form. Where we might be sited is fluid too, but we do share an enthusiasm for working together by being situated in fieldwork, exploring places and non-sites, as well as complex infrastructures, some which are legally ‘out of bounds’ or ‘off limits’. So we have often worked together to produce platforms for research in the field that include methods as much as architectural projects, as well as resources such as archives and databases, to enable our activities to take place.
Whilst the work we have produced is shown inside leading galleries internationally, as performances, video, visual artwork and installation, we have also produced a number of bus tours, installations, temporary monuments and projects beyond these enclosures, in public space, the landscape or framed by urban and suburban life. So the spaces, or non-sites we work in are also the places in which we exhibit the work, including across media – on the scale of 1:1.
However, the idea of a scale of 1:1 I have wrestled with since reading Rheinbergers work on experimentation, as you could argue that it does not apply to the non-material word we inhabit. Perhaps it is more accurate to say, I have been looking at contemporary forms of production, rather than simply experiments, to think about or challenge these models of working as an artist in a social or collaborative context. For example, what happened in the lab can now be modelled inside the computer, across the network etc. And what was fabricated in the studio for the gallery, can be outsourced and produced by artisans to a better standard, or scanned, modelled and printed, for display across a range of spaces, real or not.
Art has therefore been subject to de-materialisation that started in the 1960’s (see Lippard), but as with so much of late capitalism and scientific and computational processes, it is no longer simply invisible but reduced to the indivisible, distributed and then reassembled. And the site of the reassembling is multiple, as are we.
I am giving a talk on Laboratory Fever in Amsterdam later in May and I am currently drafting some notes for that. This talk is part of the larger research and book project with my colleagues Lori Emerson and Darren Wershler, and most of our research process is documented on the What is a Media Lab-website. Below however a short excerpt from the forthcoming Amsterdam talk, and relating to a passage about (culture/humanities) labs as places of making, and the lab as a symptom.
In her historical contextualisation of the laboratory (“The Laboratory Challenge”), Ursula Klein puts it in rather clear terms: the laboratory was not merely a place of pure science and before the institutionalisation of the site since the 19th century as part of the scientific set up, it had many artisanal connotations as well. The lab was anyway part and parcel of a set-up of making and things, where knowledge was produced in material settings. Indeed, her interest is articulated relating to this “laboratory tradition that meshed studies of nature with technological innovation.” Now, I wonder, how much could we gain and how far could we venture with the poached idea if we did a sort of a minor tweak and see how it sounds when considering the rhetorical promise as well as conditions how we think of labs in the humanities interested in culture and making?
“the laboratory tradition that meshes studies of culture with technological innovation”.A simple and elegant hack, and an update of the scientific lab to a more humanities one? Acknowledging both the relation to “critical making” and also the nexus of culture and technology? Would this solve some of our problems and establish a seeming relation to the scientific labs as labor and elaboration of nature?
But too easy quips aside, there is something in the ways in which the lab as a site of technological making and artefactuality, in some ways, can be seen relating to the arguments by historians of science. Indeed, have we arrived at a situation where we return to the pre-scientific contexts of experimentation and wonder, where also romantic poetry is pitched as such a mode of experimentation, as Novalis once had it, and cultural realities can also found their sites of tests and experiments? Is the lab the neo-romantic but also the pre-scientific lab – a place of making and apparatuses, a place happy to borrow from the scientific aura of the science lab but not merely as an imitation of that model, but a sort of a institutional move that fits in with the issues of basic funding for departments too? Some might critique it as exactly a nostalgic move: at a time when most technocultural processes seem to be escaping the horizon of phenomenological perception and the tool-making Man’s hand, we establish sites of such nostalgic proximity to individual technologies that are merely at most interfaces to the massive planetary level technological infrastructures. And yet, establishing concrete sites might be one way of interfacing not only with technologies but educational possibilities of intervention with that technological reality.
Because of the magnitude of questions “the lab” triggers, the number of separate and distinct labs there exists, and that every lab could produce their own particular answer, I would suggest that it is more fruitful to consider the lab not so much as a solution but as a symptom itself; just like Thomas Elsaesser (2016) recently asked about the discipline of media archaeology the question: instead of what is, we should ask why now? And we can extend the same logic of questioning to labs: not just what is a lab but why now? What is it about the lab not merely as an internal place of new methods or new forms of creative or academic activity but as a fold between such techniques and external political and economic conditions of current institutions that makes it a symptom? What are the sort things that temporalise this spatial setting as a question of the now – a question that defines it as a contemporary setting for particular experiments in not only academia or creative industries, but in “political anthropology of new institutional forms” to use Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter’s ideas.
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).
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.
On Thursday, I am one of the participants in a symposium on labs in the humanities and media archaeology. In Linköping (Sweden), the event organised by Jesper Olsson addresses the question of institutional forms of media and humanities work.
It is an exciting event for many reasons, andit is a good platform for some of the ideas me and Lori Emerson together with Darren Wershler have been thinking about relating to the genealogies and current institutional forms of the lab in digital humanities but also in those practices (such as Media Archaeology) that border digital humanities and might help to extend its reach to address the material cultural reality.
Indeed, in a recent interview I conducted with Wolfgang Ernst, he underlined that we also need to address the “humanities of the digital” that could then offer also a longer historical trajectory to the question of technology in humanities theory and pedagogy. This would also include a reflection on the specific institutional sites for such scholarly activity. It also continues my interest in “techniques and practices of theory”.
A follow-up to the Linköping discussions is organised as part of the Media Art Histories 2015 event in Montreal in November where we have a panel on this topic of labs across digital humanities, media archaeology and more.