Archive for the ‘operational media’ Category

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”.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Digital Memory and the Archive is out!

January 4, 2013 5 comments

ernst cover imageGood news for the start of 2013: the volume of Wolfgang Ernst writings Digital Memory and the Archive is out! The book is soon available in bookstores. The collection that I edited is the first to introduce this very important German media theorist whose style of media archaeology is highly exciting and provocative. Ernst is one of the significant names in the German media studies landscape, and represents one of the directions where theory is going in the post-Friedrich Kittler world.

Ernst’s interest in media archaeology is very material, and insists on the agency of the machine. His theories are interested in material epistemologies and the operationality of old media devices. Media devices govern our ways of seeing and hearing, but also our modes of knowledge. Hence, Ernst’s media theory is a way to understand the change in our archival logic in software culture. But it’s not only about the digital and not only about archives. Indeed, his writings on the sonic and in general media arts are important insights into a meticulous material media theory that represents a unique way to understand the persistence of history and time. Ernst writes his theory through mediatic paths: from television to internet cultures, media arts to archival institutions, Hertzian discoveries to sound.

The collection has a longer introduction by me, as well as the section introductions that I wrote. Ernst was kind enough to write his own preface to this English edition of his writings where he pitches the idea of cross-Atlantic influences and meditation on what is happening in media studies at the moment. An inspiring read.  Or in Wendy Chun’s words, quoting her endorsement:

Digital Memory and the Archive offers the most compelling and insightful account published to date of how and why objects matter. Moving beyond textual analysis, its careful, theoretically rigorous engagement with the relic—the physicality of the archive—promises to change the direction of the digital humanities. Thanks to this book, we will all now be addressing the microtemporality of archives and the mechanics of remaining. Finally, a definitive collection in English of one of the most brilliant and influential media archaeologists.”

Below you will find the short blurb from the publisher University of Minnesota Press website as well as the table of contents.

In the popular imagination, archives are remote, largely obsolete institutions: either antiquated, inevitably dusty libraries or sinister repositories of personal secrets maintained by police states. Yet the archive is now a ubiquitous feature of digital life. Rather than being deleted, e-mails and other computer files are archived. Media software and cloud storage allow for the instantaneous cataloging and preservation of data, from music, photographs, and videos to personal information gathered by social media sites.

In this digital landscape, the archival-oriented media theories of Wolfgang Ernst are particularly relevant. Digital Memory and the Archive, the first English-language collection of the German media theorist’s work, brings together essays that present Ernst’s controversial materialist approach to media theory and history. His insights are central to the emerging field of media archaeology, which uncovers the role of specific technologies and mechanisms, rather than content, in shaping contemporary culture and society.

Ernst’s interrelated ideas on the archive, machine time and microtemporality, and the new regimes of memory offer a new perspective on both current digital culture and the infrastructure of media historical knowledge. For Ernst, different forms of media systems—from library catalogs to sound recordings—have influenced the content and understanding of the archive and other institutions of memory. At the same time, digital archiving has become a contested site that is highly resistant to curation, thus complicating the creation and preservation of cultural memory and history.

Contents of Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive

Archival Media Theory: An Introduction to Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeology , by Jussi Parikka
Media Archaeology as a Trans-Atlantic Bridge, Wolfgang Ernst

Part I. The Media Archaeological Method
1. Let There Be Irony: Cultural History and Media Archaeology in Parallel Lines
2. Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media

Part II. From Temporality to the Multimedial Archive
3. Underway to the Dual System: Classical Archives and Digital Memory
4. Archives in Transition: Dynamic Media Memories
5. Between Real Time and Memory on Demand: Reflections on Television
6. Discontinuities: Does the Archive Become Metaphorical in Multi-Media Space?

Part III. Microtemporal Media
7. Telling versus Counting: A Media-Archaeological Point of View
8. Distory: 100 Years of Electron Tubes, Media-Archaeologically Interpreted vis-à-vis 100 Years of Radio
9. Towards a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations
10. Experimenting Media‐Temporality: Pythagoras, Hertz, Turing

Appendix. Archive Rumblings: An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst , by Geert Lovink


November 19, 2012 5 comments

When things break down, they are much more interesting than the gadgets that function, channel and regulate our lives. Broken things might poetically and with a Heideggerian hum say to reveal their essence. This is the other side of the apocalyptic – to be understood as “apo-kalyptein – an uncovering or disclosing of what had previously been hidden.” (Gere 2008: 13)

It is in this sense that we should talk of “downtime” not as an accidental misfortune, a temporary hiccup and denial of service of intentional nature or just infrastructural/hardware failure. Instead, it is part of how media, tech and things just are (in consumer cultures); that they break down, fail in their intended task, and refuse to switch on. Indeed downtime is the time of permanent breaking down, crisis and one is tempted to start unraveling a wider transversal notion of downtime from the microscale of technological circuits to macroscales of economy. But indeed, if it is a transversal notion it cuts across such traditional divisions of micro and macro and forces a different dimensionality. A molecular level of connections which forces the technological to be tightly articulated as part of political economy; an articulation of politics must take into account the technological conditioning of itself – the political action; the (media) technological  sustains and operates the processes of subjectification; the social starts from the circuit.

An installation, Downtime (post-domestic fiction), I saw as part of Amber 2012 exhibition in Istanbul, November 2012, plays with the idea of broken down electronic and other gadgets, from scientific measurement units to an old telephone, television, kitchen utensils (a hand mixer) and an old Spectrum ZX computer. The practice relates to the recent years of circuit bending and hardware hacking, as well as critical design/(re)making, from Garnet Hertz to Benjamin Gaulon and glitchers Jon Satrom to Rosa Menkman, and it might be said to relate to zombie media too–repurposing discarded/dysfunctional gadgets.

For the group, “downtime refers to the period of time during which a system remains unavailable or fails to provide or perform its primary function.”
 The installation covers a wall with its recircuited works, reminescent of for instance ReFunct Media 2.0. Indeed, this is the interesting bit; it is not so much about the object, but the materiality of its dysfunctionality is articulated as a temporal relation; “the period during which…”. Even downtime unfolds as a duration.

I would argue that there is a twisted permanence, or at least a horizon, a duration, of such a downtime that is as significant as its functionality.  “Through the active participation of the viewer, the objects are examined within a new context, in terms of how these are kept active and accessible by its reuse and manipulation”, the group writes. We of course need to investigate the wider sense and rationale of why things should be kept active, and the horizon of that. For me, the interesting bit is as said the temporal dimension, and the new materialist discourse and media technological theory  needs to be able to tackle with this too. Whether it is about the temporality of the accident, or the break down, downtime — or then the microtemporality Wolfgang Ernst is after (see also Algorhythmics).

Indeed, the accident and downtime is not only an event that disrupts the running of temporality, but incorporates its own duration that we have to understand too. Downtime is a switch concept for notions of time – functional and dysfunctional, and as such tries to act as an anthropological operator for cultural techniques of temporality.

Operational Management of Life

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Management of life — in terms of processes, decisions and consequences — is probably an emblematic part of life in post-industrial societies. Increasingly, such management does not take place only on the level individuality, but dividuality — i.e. managing the data clouds, traces, and avataric transpositions of subjectivity in online environments. This is the context in which J. Nathan Matias’ talk on operational media design made sense (among other contexts of course), and provided an apt, and exciting, example of how through media design we are able to understand wider social processes.

Nathan addressed “operationalisation” as a trend that can be incorporated in various platforms from SMS to online self-management and operationalisation. More concretely, “operational media” can be seen as a management, filtering and decision mechanism that can be incorporated into services and apps of various kinds. Nathan’s talk moved from military contexts of “command and control” (operationalisation of strategic ways into tactical operations) to such Apps as the blatantly sexist Pepsi Amp up before you score which allowed the (male) user to find “correct” and functional responses to a variety of female types. In addition to such, Nathan’s talk was able to introduce the general idea of computer assisted information retrieval and management which to me was a great way of branding a variety of trends into “operational media”. He talked about visualisation of data, augmented reality, filtering of data, expert, crowd and computer assisted information gathering, and a variety of other contexts in which the idea works.

“Should I eat this croissant” considering its calories, the needed time I need to work out to get it again out of my system, the time available etc. is one example of operationalisation of decisions in post-fordist societies of high-tech mobile tools that tap into work and leisure activities.

Another example is the service offered by Nathan’s employed KGB (not the spies, but Knowledge Generation Bureau. See their recent Superbowl ad here. The KGB service is one example of mobile based operational services which in the character space of an SMS try to provide accurate answers to specific questions and hence differ from e.g. search engines.

Of course, one could from a critical theory perspective start to contextualise “operational media”. Is it a form of digital apps enhanced behavioralism that does not only assume but strengthens assumptions about the possibility of streamlining complex human actions? Is it a mode of media design that further distances management of life into external services? Is it hence a form of biopower of commercial kinds that ties in with the various processes from the physiological to cultural such as labour and provides its design-solutions for them? In any case, Nathan’s expertise in this field was a very enjoyable, and a good demonstration of a scholar/designer working in software studies.