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Malware as Operational Art

August 12, 2019 Leave a comment

I returned to some themes of Digital Contagions, on computer viruses and malware, in this short text commissioned for the Malware exhibition on at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam.

Malware as Operational Art: On the If/Then of Geopolitics and Tricksters

The history of malware is the history of inventing multiple forms of attack and defence, of borders and breaches, of evolutionary programmes, artificial life and system crashes (Parikka 2016). It is also an invention of different forms of artificiality that vary in scale from individual computers to entire infrastructures, with much in between. Malware such as computer viruses and worms are forms of speculative computing that have a long lineage of ideas about networking, connection, security and contagion. They are speculative software in the manner that Matthew Fuller defined as investigating the possibilities of programming – “Software as science fiction, as mutant epistemology.” (Fuller 2003, 30). As an art of the artificial, computer viruses have been likened to artificial life, but this artificiality also includes a parallel trajectory. Malware is about trickery in the same fundamental sense in which Vilem Flusser described art and design, suggesting that the word ‘artifice’ can trace its origins to the definition ‘trickster’ (Flusser: 1999, 18. See also Singleton 2015)

Malware is a bag of tricks for the designer – after infection things don’t look the same, scales are distorted, interfaces are taken over, maps are redrawn, routes are rerouted, connections are slowed down to a snail’s pace, much is stolen, and things are twisted to the perpetrator’s advantage. Of course, much of this could be said to pertain to any operation of power.

Perhaps, in short, malware is the truth about software.

…read the rest of the essay here.

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Operational Images project funding

March 21, 2019 Leave a comment

Some news: I am happy to announce that we have won a large grant for our proposal “Operational Images and Visual Culture” with colleagues at FAMU, photography department, part of the Academy of Performing Arts, Prague. Funded by the Czech Science Academy, our research team will engage with contemporary visual culture, photographic theory and the notion of operational images that stems from Harun Farocki’s work. The project is not solely focused on Farocki but the concept of the operational – sometimes translated as operative – image becomes one of the guiding lines of inquiry that facilitates useful, interesting and alternative ways to understand media archaeology of technical images (as patterns, as measurement, as instructions etc.) and contemporary practices of photography. Automated, instructive, algorithmic, measuring and non-representational images are here part of our focus that stems from some of the discussions of past year’s of media, film and visual theory.

FAMU has a great reputation, not least as a renowned film school and I have had the pleasure of collaborating especially with Dr.  Tomáš Dvořák over the past year on other projects already. Stay tuned for updates from our Operational Images project and please get in touch if you have any questions!

The Project’s FAMU website for further info.

De insectos, máquinas y posverdades

December 1, 2018 Leave a comment

The new issue of the Luthor journal (published by colleagues in Argentine) is out and with a focus on media archaeology. The issue also includes an interview with me (“De insectos, máquinas y posverdades“) for those interested. We discuss media archaeology and transdisciplinarity, materiality, questions of geography as well as some brief points about literature in relation to the field. I also mention some current and emerging projects, from fashion film to operational images.

Edit: now the original English version of the interview (not copyedited) is also available (PDF): download here.

On Disobedient Electronics

Here’s a short manual to what design can – and perhaps often, should – be about: “how to punch Nazis in the face, minus the punching”.

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Garnet Hertz’ new critical design zine Disobedient Electronics is a quick and rough, inspiring and useful manual for the Trump, Brexit, post-truth era that needs to address forms of actually working resistance that don’t however merely function only in the realm of already designated possibilities. Hence, throw in a good chunk of speculative design imaginary.

The protest zine is a collection of feminist and other social justice driven projects that carry forward a particular legacy of speculative design that is, in Hertz’s words, slightly less RCA/Dunne & Raby-style than it is confrontational and imaginary in the manner of the Critical Art Ensemble and the Yes Men. The selected projects cut through issues that tell a particular story about North America but also other geographic regions and political realities: issues of gun control and campus carry, gender pay gap, street protest kits, right to abortion, digital privacy and encryption feature centrally. Many of the projects appropriate a seemingly militant form: the Transparency Grenade, the sound cannon in the Device for The Emancipation of the Landscape and the I.E.D. (Improvised Empathetic Device) carry references to forms of violence that are however overturned into devices of creating alternative worlds. Sometimes the devices cross borders such as the Abortion Drone (Women on Waves & Co.) as a particularly inspiring way of diving into the issues of women’s rights across what is far from a unified political space of Europe.

The style of design proposed through the zine and the projects leads the reader to think of Brian Massumi’s ontopower: “a power that makes things come to be: that moves a futurity felt in the present, into a presence in the future.” This sort of a stance to design is useful as well as speaks to the sort of experiments Disobedient Electronics employs. And the projects that are featured are in many cases experiments in their own right – not only in terms of a device that is pitched and presented but as experiments in collective forms, imaginaries and situations. In many ways, you can observe how this fits in with the wider context of Hertz’ own work and The Studio for Critical Making at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, which he describes as a lab of sorts that combines research, humanities and building in ways that results in “technology that is more culturally relevant, socially engaged, and personalized.” Disobedient Electronics is a good example of such work that the project supports both in the space of the studio and in the context of wider discussions about the role of speculative critical practice.

 

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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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.

A Fundus for Media Theory

February 9, 2013 1 comment

Lori Emerson has interviewed Wolfgang Ernst for the Library of Congress blog. It is a great conversation that also addresses  the differences between digital preservation and Ernst’s Media Archaeological approach. The latter is, as mentioned on this blog as well, placed and spatialised in the Media Archaeological Fundus (Fundus= bottom, ground), part of his Media Studies Institute. (This idea worked even better at the original Sophienstrasse 22 address of the Institute, because it was located deep in the concrete bunker type basement).

From the Signallabor, Institute of Media Studies Berlin

Ernst emphasises the connection between teaching media theory and practicing material “hermeneutics”: to have access to technological devices, opening them up, reverse engineering. Operationality is at the centre of this view concerning media studies. A dysfunctional television is just a design object: media starts when it can operate signals. Ernst’s approach draws from a Heideggerian pun (of sorts) of the objects of the Fundus as Epistemological Spielzeug (ref. to Heidegger’s Zeug), “epistemological toys” for pedagogical purposes.

Ernst responds to one of Lori Emerson’s questions:

“The bias of MAF based teaching is to train students to resist the nostalgic or even melancholic impulse which is normally associated with so-called “dead media”, and to discover the retro-futuristic element instead. The electric telegraph, e. g., operates with discrete signal transmission: a code which after an age of AM media (such as radio) returned in unexpected ways. Whereas digital data transmission is much too fast to be perceivable directly to human senses, the classic telegraph “dots and dashes,” when connected to an acoustic mechanism, may serve as a way of slowing down and sonifying the nature of coded signal transmission.”

Such a focus on spatialities of media studies emphasises more points concerning the current interest in thinking about “theory as practice”: the various techniques, institutions and spatialities in which cultural/media theory takes place. For instance the Fundus is a sort of a ground(ing) as well as underbelly of media theory, in how the technical and tactile engagment with technologies enables a connection to text and theory. Ernst is very reluctant to call this “Digital Humanities”: it’s media studies!

Read the full interview here.
image: Juan Quinones / transmediale,
We had in Berlin just last week our joint book launch with Ernst: his Digital Memory and the Archive alongside my What is Media Archaeology? It was great to be launching the theory books in the midst of yet another great bunch of transmediale exhibitions of media archaeological resonance: the Octo Pneumatic Media System (a Rohrpost in action), the Evil Media Distribution Centre, Refunct Media vol. 5, and more.