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Exhumation as Artistic Methodology

February 7, 2012 Leave a comment

This is the short intro/intervention, from my second Transmediale 2012-talk on the Search for a Method-panel, organized by Timothy Druckrey, involving in addition to me Inke Arns, Siegfried Zielinski and Wolfgang Ernst. The images are from the Crystal World workshop, also Transmediale 2012.

In order to kick off the panel and discussions, we were asked to pick examples of current media artistic practices, and proceed from there.

My thoughts were soon obviously on some themes and problems that I had been occupied with. More or less, such have included speculative materialities, work often dealing with the various spectra of hearing and seeing, of light and sound, of electromagnetism; works that map the non-solid based materialities that are increasingly important in order to understand how bodies react, and are governed, managed, experienced, in urban and technological settings.

Hence, I might have wanted to address Will Schrimshaw’s Atmospheric Research and Subliminal Frequencies. To me, the project is a mapping of the subconscious affective, embodied states where architectural arrangements are as important as the informational ecology; it maps the events that happen below the threshold of consciousness, for instance through ambient light as a regulator of “hormone secretion, body temperature, sleep and alertness”.  As such, it is a practice based excavation into the physiological and technological constitution of experience, but also the possibilities of producing and governing experience; something related to my earlier talk on the “media archaeology of cognitive capitalism”.

Or then, another possibility would be to have looked at the various projects and the work of Critical Engineer, as expressed by Julian Oliver, in the manifesto co-written with Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev. The notion of the artist-engineer might not be new, having a longer history in terms of media arts, but at the same time the manifesto and works capture something crucial about the methodology of such a practitioner, through an expanded understanding of what the machine is (across devices, bodies, agents, forces and networks, as the Manifesto lists) and how that expanded notion of the machine lends itself to a work of exposing; imbalance and deception become driving forces in a mapping of such relations, often in work that engages with wireless network technologies, rethinking visual and urban media, and more. The various projects at Weise7/Labor8 exhibition downstairs, at Transmediale 2012, are good examples.

Without being just software studies, such Critical Engineering engages with code, but in the manner how it regulates, governs, manages and in the right hands, distorts, perverts, misguides, cheats. This list that sounds a whole lot like from Matthew Fuller’s and Andy Goffey’s evil media theory.

So far, the two themes that emerge show the need to 1) account for such materialities that are not directly, necessarily humanly perceptible but completely real; and 2), the need to account for practices of perversion. Altering and corrupting as more interesting technical methods than just the smooth operationality often mistaken as the essence of technological practices.

Instead, I want to briefly to mention the work of Microresearch Lab/Martin Howse, Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan, and especially the Recrystallization and Decrystallization workshops that took place in London and Berlin last year, and now during Transmediale The Crystal World Open laboratory.

The workshops used various methods to crack open and chemically process information technology in order to expose and address such constitutive processes what referred to as crystallisation. The term was partly adopted from J.G.Ballard, continuing an even earlier style of artistic practice of the Microresearch Lab, where software and hardware practices find a resonance with fiction, paranoid, speculative narratives of writers such as Thomas Pynchon (always dear to anyone interested in the 20th century articulations of power, science and engineering). As for crystallisation, with a nod towards Ballard indeed, the notion of the crystal becomes a conceptual lead in terms of a speculative materialism, described in these words:

recrystallization was convened around the premise that while life itself starts from aperiodic crystals that encode infinite futures within a small number of atoms, the digital crystallization of the flesh by capital limits these futures to the point of exhaustion.

If computers and the minerals from which they are made are considered as equally crystalline, then their recrystallization is only possible through the introduction of vigorous and noisy positive feedback loops. “

In terms of media art histories, dead media and other theoretical and methodological approaches, the work of de- and recrystallization involved such techniques as “earth computing, mineral precipitation, high heat synthetic geology and inductive crystallography, DIY semi-conductor fabrication, water crystal cryptography, anthropocenic fossilizations, kirlian photography, hi-voltage fulgurite construction ”; Listing such, however, one however has to note quite soon that well, it is not exactly media archaeology as we used to think about it. Having said that, the notion of media archaeology in creative computing and related perspectives is taking us increasingly to such techniques as computer forensics, digital archaeology, and other modes of disgorging machines where art practices meet up with DIY and perhaps indeed critical engineering.

Speculative (media) archaeologies work crudely – but crude only in the sense of hacking open, disgorging, salvaging, melting, chemically processing in order to extract the minerals and such that on a material level compose our information technology. With an increasing political economic interest in the long networks of media production and discarded media, we have a better spatial understanding of the grim labour, electronic waste and other neo-colonialist emphasis of digital economy. The workshops tapped into this field directly as well, using such practices that mimicked human labour in extraction of valuable components and material from abandoned technology. What I want to propose is that such projects are emblematic of speculative media archaeologies and such artistic practices that combine a poetic-technological take on deep times, but ones that are such in a material sense too – not just written histories, but archaeologies of soil and history of the earth. Such speculative crypto histories of the earth refer to the concrete sedimentations of minerals and rocks, that act as re-sources for further development.

The Crystal World mineral cabinet

Where such methods fit in terms of media art vocabularies might remain unclear, but it is certain that they extend the practices often discussed in media art (histories) into a resonance with speculative materialism, new materialism, media archaeology but executed in highly original ways. We can talk of crystal materialities; materialities of minerals, information technology, and materialities of dangerous inhuman labour.

Indeed, to briefly elaborate on “exhumation” as a parallel concept to that more often mentioned of autopsy (also voiced by Tim Druckrey in his opening words) I will make a detour through Reza Negarestani. Cyclonopedia – a work of theory-fiction – speculates about the petropolitical deep layer, the living soil of Middle east, and we can point towards the work of Microresearch lab and these workshops as chemical and material deep layers that go two ways: not just the route of media archaeology interested in obsolescence, abandoned tech, and things old; but the other sort of descent too, to adopt Michel Foucault’s idea, perhaps implicitly part of some methodologies of media art histories and media archaeology. I am referring to a descent inside the machine, into the technical infrastructures, layers, city-like scapes of circuits and components. This kind of technical exposes a material, abstract level of connections, affordances and capacities. In such a methodology, the topology extends across materialities –from the fictional narrativisation to the hardware materiality and the long duration of mineral elements that entangle with that of human energy exploited for the excavation.

As a topological figure, and interested in this poetic and speculative materialism, allow me to end through a longer reference to Negarestani. What if such speculative media archaeologies and artistic methodologies are something that share methods with archaeologists but also with “cultists, worms and crawling entities”; not just a sublimated view of technological progress, but an interested in scars and half-lifes, of multiplication of surfaces, and creation of vermiculation; a new hole into solid, contained bodies of consumer technology.

“If archeologists, cultists, worms and crawling entities almost always undertake an act of exhumation (surfaces, tombs, cosmic corners, dreams, etc.), it is because exhumation is equal to ungrounding, incapacitating surfaces ability to operate according to topologies of the whole, or on a mereotopological level. In exhumation, the distribution of surfaces is thoroughly undermined and the movements associated with them are derailed; the edge no longer belongs to the periphery, anterior surfaces come after all other surfaces, layers of strata are displaced and perforated, peripheries and the last protecting  surfaces become the very conductors of invasion. Exhumation is defined as a collapse and trauma introduced to the solid part by vermiculate activities; it is the body of solidity replaced by the full body of trauma. As in disinterment — scarring the hot and cold surfaces of a grave — exhumation proliferates surfaces through each other. Exhumation transmutes architectures into excessive scarring processes, fibroses of tissues, membranes and surfaces of the solid body.”

This transmutation, and distribution of new surfaces is where such familiar notions of art and culture theory vocabulary as trauma are transported into material methodologies in order to excavate the stratification of such as part of mixed materials. The “novel crystal earth geologies” extend the work of material recovery and reuse into “psychophysical distortions and contingencies” in a gesture which elaborates an enthusiasm for multiple ecologies. Media art practices that are not merely to be fitted into media art histories and genres, but themselves create new openings to times and spaces of media objects, components, times.

Out of our heads, in our media

January 30, 2012 1 comment

I am off to Berlin Transmediale 2012-festival soon — excited as always. Giving there two talks; the latter one on Sunday on a panel organized by Tim Druckrey on methods for media art histories — I guess an unofficial media archaeology panel with Siegfried Zielinski, Wolfgang Ernst and Inke Arns!

And something different already on Friday; a performance with Julio D’Escrivan, mixing media theory and live coding… part of the Uncorporated Subversion-panel! Here is a short summary, but for the whole effect…be there on Friday. Should be worth the while, I promise…even though, in terms of the theme of “cognitive capitalism” that the paper touches a bit; I am not at all uncritical towards it, and agree it misses several key points. However, the notion is good, I would say, as a way to continue such investigations as Jonathan Crary has started into the ways in which cognition in a very wide sense, embrasing embodied, affective being, perception, sensation, is constantly articulated “out of our heads” (Alva Noë) — but in our media; a media ecology of production of perceptive, thinking, remembering subject. The collaborative form between me and D’Escrivan has itself been again a great way to work together. Last year we tried out similar things with Garnet Hertz (also with our Transmediale theory prize nominated paper on Zombie Media), and now through the performance.

This presentation can be best approached as an experiment in theory-code-collaboration, through live coding (D’Escrivan) and some speculative media theory (Parikka) concerning techniques of the cognitive. With some minor notes that reflect  live coding as a practice, the focus is more or less on the notion of cognitive capitalism. What the talk/performance presents are some tentative steps towards a media archaeology of cognitive capitalism. In other words, what are the supportive, sustaining and conditioning techniques that contribute to the cerebral? In this context, we propose to step away from a cognitive as understood as immaterial or as inner life, and towards a cognitive that is distributed, supported, relayed and modulated continuously in a complex information ecology. We are interested in investigating forms of collaboration between code and sonic arts, and media theory, and investigate collaboration as a form of (extra-)institutional practice in contemporary arts and education field.

 

Whitehead into media theory

February 8, 2011 7 comments

Complementing the biomedia-theme of the conference (Response:ability) of this year, the final panel of Transmediale 2011 featured two important writers in media theory and arts: Marie-Luise Angerer and Mark B.N. Hansen. Angerer was very interesting in her presentation that focused on the notion of affect, talking about Massumi, the disappearing half a second in registration of sensations, and dance, but I want to mention here especially Hansen (partly because of the selfish reason of having been recently occupied with the idea of time-critical media, and microtemporality).

Amusingly introduced in the programme as the other Mark Hansen – who teaches statistics at UCLA – this Mark Hansen at Transmediale is of course the author of New Philosophy for New Media and Bodies in Code; both important, interesting books in embodiment and the media artistic cultures of perception. As was pointed out during the session, partly by Hansen himself, his theoretical trajectory has moved in new directions during these years: from a very strong phenomenological focus influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to a much more Gilbert Simondon influenced Bodies in Code, and now he is framing his project through A.N.Whitehead. This is interesting, as it shows yet another contemporary cultural and media theorist moving in that direction. Well known are the Whitehead writings of Massumi and Manning in Montreal, and of course the recent Whitehead writings of Steven Shaviro, the debates around object oriented philosophy that take a lot aboard from Whitehead, and naturally the ideas of such pioneers as Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour. So Hansen as well has joined this crew enthusiastic about the superject instead of subject, and the distributed field of prehensions instead of the primacy of the human body and sensory system as the focal point in aesthetics.

Hansen’s current project is more generally framed as a move from objects to processes. Hansen argues that so much of media theory (including his own work) has been focusing on objects as the primary, uhm, object of media theory. Instead, contemporary culture of distributed ubiquitous media environments demands something else. The presentation itself was packed full of theoretical arguments that are hard to unpack in a good brief way, but I just want to point towards some key concepts.

Hansen argues that this new media culture demands new concepts – a new culture of media processes has to be complemented by a specificity paying attention to how it happens on such levels that are not always directly registered on the human sensorium. Interestingly, he pointed towards Guattari as well, even if not so strongly as talking about Whitehead. In short, the indebtedness to Guattari could be summarized through the idea that machines talk to machines before talking to us. Hansen takes this concretely, in a similar manner to Wendy Chun, and pays attention to how much happens in our media machines (take smart phones that all the time are connected due to the GPS system etc) before we actively use them. The sensibilities inherent in such regimes of software cultures are indeed beyond the normal accounted for 5 senses that media theory has traditionally recognized. And here kicks in Whitehead.

Instead of the body focus of previous (new) media theory, Whitehead offers ways to rethink embodiment. The body is in such a theoretical frame “a vast set, a society of sensibilities.” Similarly Whitehead complicates the notion of perception by two important specifications: perception as presentational immediacy, as it has been understood in so much of history of philosophy and perception as causal efficacy. Without me being able to go into enough detail here, causal efficacy points towards the way Whitehead wants to take into account the way actual entities in the world are created through their relations to other entities, preceding them, and in midst of which entities are determined. It points towards the processual nature of perception being born – not the end result, but the “sensory processes leading up to and informing perception.”

When Shaviro asked the question of how would contemporary cultural theory look like if we had focused more on Whitehead, instead of Heidegger as the 20th century philosopher, Hansen seems to ask: how could we bend Whitehead into a media theorist? Whitehead hardly wrote anything related to media or technology per se (even if writing lots on science which we can argue of course being of huge importance to any understanding of media culture). For Hansen, the key point is how Whitehead’s perspective affords us to think about nonperceptual sensation. It gives agency to the environment instead of the focal subject effected and affected by that environment, and offers the perspective of the superject for media theory: how the individual is the end result of the environmental datum prehended by this focal point.

This in a way pairs up with the nature of the processual environments – that when we need to talk about processes as the central “object” of media studies, we need to see this both in the sense how e.g. Whitehead can offer such theoretical perspectives (causal efficacy) as well as how the distributed, ubiquoitous software environments are processes, unfolding in their nature. This is where Hansen’s perspective ties together with the recent debates concerning time-critical perspectives that especially the Berlin Humboldt media theorists have promoted (again, see Axel Volmar’s Zeitkritische Medien, 2009, as well as Wolfgang Ernst’s writings). Yet, there is an important difference as Hansen seems to argue that it’s only the recent new media has made the processual approaches crucial. But is this not already the case for such earlier media as wireless, cinema even, and for example television? Hansen does not fully address why the earlier media of signal processing of various forms does not qualify for the microtemporal ideas he is arguing for, where the circulating nature of the electric, electromagnetic, and then electronic signal is processual. I would argue that here some media archaeology should step in and offer a broader perspective concerning technical media and time, affect of technological relations, and process.

Transmediale 2011 theory award nomination for Zombie Media

October 8, 2010 3 comments

Slightly perhaps shadowed by the Nobel prize announcements, the nominees for the Transmediale 2011 theory award – the Vilem Flusser award – were revealed this week.

I happy and excited being one of them, for the piece we wrote together with Garnet Hertz: “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method”. The text is a theoretical excavation into thinking such art methods as circuit bending as media archaeological, and hence, expanding the notion of media archaeology from a textual method into something more strongly connected to the political economy of clipped shut information technology and material digital culture art practices: tinkering with technology that is not meant to be opened, changed, modified. Hence we mobilize such key themes as “black boxes” which have of course been well thematized in Science and Technology Studies (STS), but now in a media archaeological and hacktivist setting. Hence, the name zombie media: not dead media, even if old, passed away even; we write in the conclusions: “media never dies. Media may disappear in a popular sense, but it never dies: it decays, rots, reforms, remixes, and gets historicized, reinterpreted and collected. It either stays as a residue in the soil and in the air as concrete dead media, or is reappropriated through artistic, tinkering methodologies.”

Here the info from the Transmediale 2011-website:

Vilém Flusser Theory Award
Congratulations to the following four nominees of Vilém Flusser Theory Award 2011!
The Vilém Flusser Theory Award (VFTA) promotes innovative media theory and practice-oriented research exploring current and pending positions in digital art, media culture and networked society. The call was open to publications, positions, and projects from a broad range of theoretical, artistic, critical or design-based research that seeks to establish and define new forms of exchange, vocabularies and cultural dialogue.

Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method
Garnet Hertz & Jussi Parikka

GATHERINGS 1: EVENT, AGENCY, AND PROGRAM
Jordan Crandall

_Social Tesseracting_: Parts 1 – 3
Mez Breeze

Digital Anthropophagy and the Anthropophagic Re-Manifesto for the Digital Age
Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez

Beyond the Free Labour

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

During a week, two perspectives to digital economy.

1) Berlin Transmediale-festival, where I got to see and hear some of the panels in the Free Culture stream. Basically the question revolved a lot around very small scale projects and the question concerning creative as a motor for economic development. A question which touches so intimately on free labour as the actual driver for economic value – a point well elaborated by Tiziana Terranova years ago. This is where value is extracted and admittedly exploited in the age of celebrated digital culture, collaboration, participatory culture. Well, it was not all that small scale; after all, one panel featured a representative from the Benetton think tank Fabrica in Northern-Italy as well as a representative from MotorFM, among others. These are the success stories which do not even try to hide the elistist face of some of the contexts; Fabrica being a sandpit for young, successful young creators; MotorFM representative explaining how their listener basis of course depends on the accumulation of a certain brand of educated, creative and such people that often also come from wealthier backgrounds. Matteo Pasquinelli raised some nice critical points, but these could have been pursued a bit further. (I missed the Sunday’s Liquid Democracies-discussion where Matteo tackled such themes in length).

2) Beyond the Soundbite-Cambridge Media Industry event on Friday and Saturday. Loads of interesting perspectives, where none really discussed the question of cultural work, labour. Whereas I enjoyed enormously some of the talks, from Alan Moore to day 2 talks on Crowdfunding and Film, I could not help noticing that celebrating collaborative and participatory culture did not in any way discuss how actual cultural work is going to be funded on a large scale. Such projects as Swarm of Angels and in a different fashion the Hunt for Gollum depend on the participation of a wide range of volunteers who based on their affective investment, the true e-factor (i.e. enthusiasm), are willing to contribute their time and skills to the project. There is nothing wrong in this, and I enjoyed the projects a lot. However, in terms of a wider cultural sustainability of such precarious jobs in arts and cultural production sector, the possibilities in using crowdsourced labour does not produce any viable income streams for the participators. This fact is taken at face value, which is scary to me, especially with the economic situation being what it is at the moment. The affective investment that has been part and parcel of film cultures from the start – fanaticism and cinephilia – turns easily into involvement in such products that revolve often around a specific genre that already attracts an enthusiastic relation to the product, or them an existing product like the Lord of the Rings-films and books on which Hunt for Gollum attaches itself. The symbiotic attachments of cultural production extend however to the parasitic attachment to the potentials of the skilled and non-skilled cultural workers whose investments might smell of “free culture” but actually “free” is only an euphemism for non-monetary investments (time, skill, energy etc.) Its far from free in those other kinds of investments.

This is where collaborative cultures and open source are the ideal models for appropriation for the capitalist logic. In short, collaborative cultures is not “free” in the sense of freedom, but free in the sense of free beer (to use the worn example turned the other way).

And yes, for a different perspective, such projects as RIP – Remix manifesto present a more politically tuned image of the powers of collaborative production. (Later, I had a chance to exchange an email with Matt Hanson (Swarm of Angels) about this where he flagged in his response that he has been developing models of meritocratic nature that also support payments for professional practice, while continuing how “something many of the less thought out, immature crowdfunding models do not take into account.”) Good point, and looking forward to learning more of such developments!