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Surface Prediction

April 14, 2018 Leave a comment

I am giving a talk in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure and using it as an opportunity to present some new work. This writing stems from some collaborative work with artist Abelardo Gil-Fournier with whom we ran a collective workshop at transmediale on Surface Value . The practice-led workshop was set in the context of our larger discussion on surfaces, media and forms of valuation that pertain both to military and civilian spheres of images (such as aerial imaging) and continuing it in relation to contemporary forms of machine learning and neural networks that take their data from geographical datasets. Hence we are working on this question of prediction as it pertains to geographical and geological surfaces and how these forms of images (from time-lapse to prediction) present a special case for both financial uses of such predictive services and also their experimental angle as forms of moving image – experimental “video” art on a large scale.

Here’s a further excerpt from the talk that also draws on work by Giuliana Bruno, Lisa Parks, Caren Kaplan, Ryan Bishop and many others:

What I want to extract from this research platform that Gil-Fournier’s work offers are some speculative thoughts. At the basis of this is the idea that we can experiment with the correlation of an “imaged” past (the satellite time-lapses) with a machine generated “imaged” future and to test how futures work; how do predicted images compare against the historical datasets and time-lapses and present their own sort of a video of temporal landscapes meant to run just a bit ahead of its time. Naturally would easily risk naturalising things that are radically contingent: mining operations, capital investments, urban growth and financial valuations, geopolitical events, and such. But instead of proposing this as naturalisation, it works to expose some of the techniques through which landscapes are flattened into such a surface of not only inscription of data, but also images in movement. Here,  the speculative is not some sort of a radically distinguished practice that stands out as unique aberration but increasingly the modus operandi and the new normal of things  (Bratton 2016, 2017). What’s interesting is that it spreads out to a variety of fields: the image becomes a speculative one, with interesting implications how we start to think of video; it is also a financial one, as such data-feed mechanisms are also part of what Cubitt describes as one of the forms of geomedia; and it is about landscapes, as they are part of the longer lineage of how we read them as informational signs.

It’s here that the expanded image of a landscape is also embedded in a machine learning environment which also feed as part of financial environments. There are multiple ways how the ecology of images in machine learning works with time – the form of moving image that is the timelapse is also faced with the temporal image of predictions. The technical basis of digital video becomes one reference point for where to start unfolding the other sides of AI as machine learning: this is post-digital culture also in this sense, where not only images of earth surfaces change in view of the data analytics, but the aesthetic contexts of analysis – namely, moving image and video that feed forward (cf. Hansen).

cn-orig-pred

[Image from Abelardo Gil-Fournier’s workshop materials].

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Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology

January 16, 2018 2 comments

I wrote a paper some years ago on media archaeology (esp. imaginary media research) and speculative design, to put the two parallel fields in closer dialogue. The text will be featured in a book that is still in preparation and because the first version was written some three-four years ago, I thought at least to add a couple of the first lines online. This is still the version that is not copy edited, but hopefully out one day too! Here’s the start. For the full draft version, please get in touch.

Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology

  1. Introduction: Imaginary Media as Impossible Yet Necessary Techniques

To be able to start with the non-existent, sometimes even the absurd, is a skill in itself. It can be a methodological way of approaching reality not as ready and finished but produced and open to further variations, potential and a temporality that includes the possibility of something else. Like with all methods, the skill of thinking the non-existent needs practicing. It also needs institutional contexts that are able to support such an odd task that seems devoid of actual truth value and easily dismissed as not incorporating the epistemological seriousness required of the academic subjects. Despite the difficulty of giving a good one-liner definition that could cover all aspects of different traditions of media archaeology, it is safe to say that it has been able to create an identity as a field interested in the speculative. This has meant many things from mobilisation of media history executed by way of surprising connections across art, design, technology and architecture to acknowledging the unacknowledged, a sort of a search and rescue-operation for devices, stories, narratives, uses and misuses left out of the earlier registry. Archaeology has been sometimes used as a general term for the way in which we investigate the conditions of existence of media culture, and the media technical conditions of existence of cultural practices – two things that are closely connected, with the two aspects in co-determining relations: media technology and cultural practices. And it also bends our notions of history and time itself. As Thomas Elsaesser (2016, p. 201) puts it, it is a symptom of a very different sort of a relation to the past: ‘on the one hand, it suggests a freeing up of historical inevitability in favour of a database logic, and on the other hand, it turns the past into a self-service counter for all manner of appropriations.’

Already, early on, imaginary media was one part of the media archaeological body of research. It had the clear aim of reminding scholars and artists that media technological reality was not to be restricted to what actually is. It was not to be contained by the histories of technological achievement but meant to relate to the broader cultural and artistic history, which technology can be imagined, and where it returns as imaginary attachments to values, affects, aspirations and dreams. Eric Kluitenberg (2011) articulates that such shifts are sometimes almost as if seamless, something rather prescient in the marketing discourses of digital culture. We feel constantly even emotionally attached to dream devices of corporations, carefully framed by their sales pitches as part of a wider infrastructure of desire. While such an attachment is odd enough, broadly speaking the discourses of imaginary connections constitute also our cultural topoi (Huhtamo 2011a), which then become the environment for recursive dreaming that characterizes consumer culture and production of reality.

But how boring it would be to restrict oneself to what is actual. A variantology of imaginary media, as Kluitenberg puts it (2011, p. 57) can reach out to theological discourses, aliens and the dead, to things untrue and yet so impactful for any account of cultural history. Such imaginations are ways to rethink the usual coordinates of time and space – the time of not merely a past-that-was, but a past-that-could-have been; a future imagined as one recurring fantasy of rejigging the time we are in now. These are the places that are not only distant but sometimes impossible. How liberating this feels instead of buying into the ready-made dreams. No wonder such strategies can be connected to a wider political imaginary that includes geographical, racialized and gendered others. Artists such as Zoe Beloff have set scenes for alternative media histories through the silent mediums themselves – female protagonists, written into the stories. Kluitenberg points to afrofuturism as one particularly interesting political imaginary. Indeed, as the director John Akomfrah puts it in an interview with Kluitenberg, afrofuturism and other imaginary media practices are not mere mental refuge. They produce and sustain new cultural practices and spaces in which black science fiction carves its own collective existence but also facilitates relations with, for example, gay and women’s movement including in the science fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. What is being approached is a black techno-cultural imagination where also music plays a key role in how pasts, presents, and futures co-determine each other in new ways: ‘Black science-fiction culture, especially music, figures the past in the present by matching the quest for ‘outer’ space with new journals into the inner “technological tape” space of black sound itself via the digital utopias of jungle and techno.’ (Kluitenberg and Akomfrah 2006, p. 293). Even if also imaginary media is at times defined as ‘untimely’ (Zielinski 2006, p. 30; Kluitenberg 2011, p. 56-57), it remains actually an interesting situated practice that is aware of geographies and can challenge the Eurocentric focus of some of the speculative design discourse and practice. Hence, the more interesting of such fabulations actually become ways to imagined situated critiques by way of imaginary. In some recent work, afrofuturism has also been connected to issues of cultural heritage as a project between speculative futures and records of the past (see Nowviskie 2016).

So what does it mean to think of media archaeological and imaginary media projects in the context of speculative design? The question itself acts as a conceptual probe that searches for specific practices in both media and design. Furthermore, it is also a probe that scans the disciplinary relations of two sets of discourses about the past and the future. As two parallel fields with not much contact in the past, speculative design and imaginary media research are interested in how alternative worlds might be created and how temporal, social, and technological fabulations situate coordinates of past-future in alternative ways. I will discuss different art and design projects, cross-fertilising the two traditions of media and design theory and practice, and aim to elaborate ways how media archaeology could contribute to speculative design and to some contemporary issues in critical design. There are some earlier ideas that have suggested how this might work. For example Bruce Sterling’s idea of ‘paleo-futures’ as ‘the reserve of historical ideas, visions and projections of the future—a historical futurity of that prospective’ (Hales 2013, p. 7) is one example of the shared suitably complex time-scales of overlapping design and media archaeological imaginations, but this chapter teases out further contexts for such reserves of historical ideas.