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
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.
The new issue of Cultural Studies Review follows up from the 2012 Code-conference that was held in Melbourne, at Swinburne University. The event was marvelous, thanks to the organizers. And now, Esther Milne and Anthony McCosker have edited a lovely special issues Coding Labour. With a line-up including Anna Munster, Ned Rossiter, Mark Cote,Rowan Wilken and many more – as well as for instance Meaghan Morris in the same issue – one can expect much.
My own article is about the slightly heretic crossbreeding of German media theory and cognitive capitalism. It briefly discusses the notion of cultural techniques as a way to elaborate cognitive capitalism in the context of practices and techniques of software, code and labour. Hence it ends up in a curious short example from the 1970s, the management and organisational arrangement of metaprogramming, as a way to discuss how we might approach techniques of “creative” work in software culture.
You can find the text here and below a short abstract.
This article addresses cultural techniques of cognitive capitalism. The author argues that to understand the full implications of the notion of cognitive capitalism we need to address the media and cultural techniques which conditions its range and applications. The article offers an expanded understanding of the labour of code and programming through a case study of ‘metaprogramming’, a software related organisation practice that offered a way to think of software creativity and programming in organisations. The ideas from the 1970s that are discussed offer a different way to approach creativity and collaborative and post-Fordist capitalism. The author brings together different theoretical perspectives, including German media theory and Yann Moulier Boutang’s thesis about cognitive capitalism. The wider argument is that we should pay more attention to the media archaeological conditions of practices of labour and value appropriation of contemporary technological capitalism as well as the cultural techniques which include ‘ontological and aesthetic operations’ that produce cultural, material situations.
I am reading a lovely book which in proper summer reading style is not directly linked to anything I am working on at the moment. It is more about the luxury of reading something interesting.
Jonathan Bloom’s Paper Before Print (ironically “out of print”) focuses on paper especially in the early Islamic world, and hence besides expanding the narratives of writing, textuality and mediality outside the usual story of the West, it also goes deeper into questions of materiality.
For us, the question of matter of media is one of chemicals and scientific processes. This also includes the story of paper, whcih besides the platform of modern bureaucracy is also one of environmental pollution and waste.
Bloom’s book is a great read and reminds of something rather pertinent, considering the book in relation to materiality of the medium of writing but also to the question of bureaucracy. Indeed, it was in the context of bureaucratic necessity that the Muslim world turned to paper – the increasing need to write things down. As such it relates to a longer history of cultural techniques of notating systems where the symbolic act of writing expands to the wider milieu in which writing can become possible – but it also expands to the cultural techniques of administration and bureaucracy.
So unlike our modern sphere of admin, Bloom reminds on one important thing. For instance in the growing bureaucratic mechanism of the Abbasid Empire since the ninth century, with its centre in Baghdad, administration was a style. It had to have style. In Bloom’s words, reminding of what we have lost in our repetitious, grey, in a different way standardised world of everyday writing: “In this bureaucratic world, official documents were increasingly judged not only by their contents but also by the elegance of the wording and the cleverness of hidden allusions in the text.” (106)
Imagine an admin email from the Faculty Human Resources written in astonishing beauty, and with that witty little allusion between the lines; imagine if there would be rhetorical style and the thrill of reading while indulging in Module Report Forms; what if your manager would next time surprise with such cunning puns that you could not but eagerly wait for the next top-down announcement?
Oh corporate bureaucracy. You are so horrible but why are you also dull and uninspiring?
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.
In order to keep sane in the midst of marking, I want to write a post that I have been thinking for a while. Now that I have been banned of going on about Lily Allen as the softcore consumerist critique on the footsteps of Ballard (don’t ask), I have focused my energy on another new personal discovery: Client. Well, again, I noticed I am somewhat several years late, so that something new to me has been around for a long time.
Client mixes through its music and visuals a touch of Kraftwerk with Depeche Mode, but in a manner that I would describe as creating a mesmerizing feel of detached, cold, minimalist erotics. Hence, the adoption of themes that all refer to the key modern institutional language of corporations, admin and offices is an ingenious one and amounts to creating an image of the lead singer, Client B, as the Office Diva.
The repetitious catchy music is emblematic of such urban spaces in a similar manner as Kraftwerk tapped into the technological fantasies of modernity on the brink of post-fordist culture. The influences are clear as well. A certain flirtation with Germany; with songs such as Köln; and Drive (ref. Autobahn). The highly rationalized urban spaces and organizational grids of driving culture are opened up to afford also lines of flight as when Client B sings “White lines on a motorway/I’m alive/I’m alive”.
Direct references to erotics are continuously present but again on the fine border between passionate and cool, detached, as their uniforms promise. Its the style of erotics that stems from Xerox Machines:
“Let’s get together before it’s too late/ Collect up the ideas and duplicate/ Filling in the forms/ send ‘em off tonight/ And you’ll be the owner/ of the copyright/ Of the copyright, of the copyright.”
Desire is machinic, and machines can be the object and relay of desire; this is a key modern theme that actually is the cultural historical background for the fetishistic desire for technology. Cool, detached, uniform; the fetish par excellence. Yet, the gender aspect is not neglected, and the male fantasy where machines/women are conflated is exposed: “You said you want to set my soul free/but I’m just an object of your fantasy.” (“Lights go out”). The banal cultural theoretical observation gains its true strength from the ritornello, the returning rhythmic elements of urban alienation.The true gem from a media theorists position is of course Radio.
The post-punk alienation is strengthened by the banality of “radio” as the thematic tie between the bored-oh-so-bored singing voice and the externalized world glassed out through the television screen and voiced out through radio “news”. (“They call it news/its not to me/The world’s a mess/ on my TV”). Again, the banality of the lines is only understood through the middle-classed-office-divaesque mannerism and voice of Client B. The broadcast media of the modern age is also the relay for the private (but hence so easily approachable in the age of mass reproduction) angst of Client. Customizing Adorno?
I have been thinking — mostly as a joke — a new research project on “Admin Culture”; if that would ever actualize in any way, I would definitely include Client there, and offer a much more insightful approach to their sonic art.