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Thousands of Tiny Futures

July 5, 2018 1 comment

Below is a text I was commissioned to write for the Seoul Museum of Art(SeMA)’s exhibition “Digital Promenade: 22nd Century Flâneur” for the 30th Anniversary of SeMA. The text will be out soon in their catalogue but here is already the (not copyedited) version online for those interested.

Thousands of Tiny Futures

0 Ruinscape

To state the obvious: the interesting thing about future or futurisms is not really about the future but the operative sense of this temporal tense. The now and here of the work of futurisms is inscribed in words, images and sounds; it is painted as landscapes and visible in such traces that constantly expand the particular living and breathing space of the present. Future is involved in forming what the now is, and even more so, what times are our contemporaries.

Times are entangled and switch places; markers of fossilised pasts appear as imagined indexes of futures too. Future fossils – a topic that ranges from the 19th century geologists and popular culture to contemporary imaginaries of a projected sense of now – comes out in other ways than merely ruins of contemporary landscapes of consumerism. Why are so many artistic and popular culture examples of future landscapes of fossils an imaginary of a future that repeats the trope of its own invention – that is, the modernity of technological objects that defined its start are also the defining features of its seeming end? As such, it is a recursive imaginary that merely tells what we knew already since Walter Benjamin (1999, 540) at least:

“As rocks of the Miocene or Eocene in places bear the imprint of monstrous creatures from those ages, so today arcades dot the metropolitan landscape like caves containing the fossil remains of a vanished monster: the consumer of the pre-imperial era of capitalism, the last dinosaur of Europe.”

Instead of the cyber cool aesthetics of future fossils of technology that merely returns to the consuming human subject of digital gadgets, consider what times are we living in now: times of toxic ecologies in which the future tense takes different forms for different forms of life (cf. Tsing et al 2017). Consider futurisms and the temporal imaginaries not purely as the solitary “when” but as the contemporary question of where and to whom? What sites are identified as part of this futuristic pull, where are futures placed, how are they inscribed in contemporary cityscapes and landscapes as if signs of things to come? What else besides the Blade Runner styled Asian cities are indexical of what counts as future (Zhang 2017) – and what else than remnants of the visible markers of technological now of gadgets is significant in terms of this out of place of a future present?

Hence, a shift in focus: away from a fetishisation of future that inspires the Anthropocene-led aesthetics of future ruinscapes towards an analysis and art of contemporary signs and images. These ruinscapes involve imagining what time is this place in and where it lies and is it seen from. A good example would be Point Nemo, a region in the South Pacific pretty much more imagined to most than actually visited by almost anyone. And yet, it is perhaps one of the most apt sites to consider as a fossil site: it is where the international space agencies are dumping much of their retired space technologies, in no man’s waters, also coined “the least biologically active region of the world ocean” (in the words of oceanographer Steven D’Hondt ) because of its remote location and particular rotating current. With its lifeless bottom of an ocean, with dumped technologies from Cold War to the current day practices, it seems a likely site for a future fossil ruinscape very much existent now – as undramatically invisible as the disappearing ice that defines the transformation of much of planet’s expected future.

No mountain of garbage for art photography and the white cube, no site of exquisite trash and remnants of most familiar everyday things, but just the disappearance on the seabed, and the disappearance of ice – the future arrives as a temperature shift.

This short text engages in this topic through figures or fields of time that are also visible in contemporary media theory and art practice: archaeologies, futurisms and futurities. All of the briefly discussed themes relate to different ways of engaging with time and futurity, with fossils and fossil fuels, including the ones that are predicted as part of constant financial speculation on the energy market. The past was already a fossil that determined the mess we are in.

I Archaeologies

At first thought, it is somewhat odd to assume that archaeology – or media archaeology – would have anything to say about futures and futurities, only about the past. The way in which archaeology has for a long time referred to much more than just the specific discipline is here however the significant cue: archaeology has infiltrated philosophy and the humanities from Immanuel Kant to Sigmund Freud to Walter Benjamin to Friedrich Kittler and contemporary media archaeologies and presents itself as more than a specialised discipline. As Knut Ebeling (2016, 8) argues, these various philosophical and artistic wild archaeologies present not merely an image of layered pasts but they become sites of practices of experimentation with “a material reflection of temporality that began in the 18th century and reached a definite climax in the 20th century.”

The epistemological figure and field of archaeology becomes then less a complementary sidetrack to the work of history than its alternative: instead of narrating, it counts, instead of text, it applies to the other sort of modalities of materiality as sound, image, number, which is also why it has become the preferred term for so many media theorists. Furthermore, as Ebeling continues referring to Giorgio Agamben, the archaeologist maps what is originating, what is emerging and what is productive of new temporalities. It becomes a map of times of different sort, which often are recognize as stretched between the layers of the past and their effect on the present, but what we could also develop into the recognition how they issue different potentials of futures.

Archaeologies are also maps of futures – or more likely, they complexify the linear temporal coordinates as past, present and future. Media archaeologies work with a different set of physics than any assumed simple causality (cf. Elsaesser 2016), which is likely one of the explanations why it has become such an interesting field of resources for artistic work too. Not just the materials of the the quirky retropasts, but the subtle definitions and search for other times in which media from cinema to AI is also part of production of that time.

In this context the media archaeological perspective to fossils would not be merely about searching for an image of a future fossil, but to understand how the image itself is premised on the existence of fossil fuel. While the technical image from the photograph to the cinematic is according to Nadia Bozak (2011, 29) the perfect crystallisation of how we, in her words, capture, refine and exploit the sun, it is also the sun energy in fossil fuels such as oil that mobilizes the industrial culture of which technical media is one part. Bozak refers to the wording by Alfred Crosby that oil is the “fossilized sunshine”. This wording is an apt start to establishing the link between energy and the particular different sort of mobilization of light and sun that we can speak of as practices of visual culture (cf. Cubitt 2014). The first fossils are, then, the images and the fossils are also imprints. There is a surprisingly tight link between the history of technical images and the history of mobilization of fossil fuels, which also Bozak (2011, 34) observes:

“The relationship between sun and cinema, light and the film environment, is especially apparent when cinema is juxtaposed against current environmental rhetoric, which ultimately fuses the fossil fuel with the fossil image, both manifestations, mummifications, of captured light.”

The forms of energy and their forms of capture as technical media present a new time – both in the sense of technical media time, and in the sense that pertains to the massive changes in environmental conditions of living in contexts of the capitalocene.

II Futurisms

If future fossils were already embedded in the history of fossils as fuel, what becomes of our task to map the different technological futures? Futurisms in 20th century art have a particular relation to technology. The Italian futurists are located at a very particular phase of European history and a very particular machine aesthetics that offered a one temporal sense of progression by way of technological progress. This aesthetic became one recurring reference point to how futures are visualised, sonified and written as poetry in the age of mass-scale industrial systems including electricity and electric light. Energy is not merely represented but imagined as the motor of the aesthetic expression – it becomes its motor of imaginaries (cf. Bozak 2011, 38). It is the city, the urban sphere that was for the contemporary Benjamin also the start of the ruinscape, again later ruined in the bombed down European cities, a form of technical change and planning replicated in many other forms across the planet since the “Great Acceleration” of the Anthropocene post-1950s.

Of course, the later (art) futurisms take a different tone that is less the masculine, celebratory stance of a future that should arrive as progress, but a writing of a future that was never allowed or the future that was imposed. It is in such political archaeologies that Afrofuturism and many later ethnofuturisms (as they are sometimes coined) emerge. Whatever the collective term might be, Afrofuturism, Sinofuturism, Gulf Futurism, Black Quantum Futurism and other current versions speak of the multiplication of futures in contemporary art and visual culture (Parikka 2018). Some of it feels like future overturned. For Gulf Futurism, and in works by artists such as Sophia Al Maria, the placement of a future that already arrived is read against the backdrop of the architectural built environments in the Arabian Gulf states. The artificial environments that work both horizontally and vertically as significant elements coined also as Dubai Speed (Bromber et al. 2016: 1) speak of one particular version of capitalist futures. Built from oil and fossil pasts, such cities and environments necessitate imaginaries of the future: how are architectures, building materials and infrastructures primed at the back of fossil fuels for a post-fossil life? While a key archaeological question for Walter Benjamin was how to read the city through its fragments as a slow emergence of capitalist consumer culture, the current version in such situations is how the city is imagined towards a future while trying to deal with that industrial legacy and its toxic environments.

Gulf Futurism and other artistic futurisms are, in many ways, artistic discourses in this context of toxic environments. Toxicity of course comes in many forms, where chemical toxicity and political pollution go hand in hand. (Guattari 2000). But how does one then imagine in visual arts and in visual forms the style of pollution that is subtler than mere piles of rubbish? The cultural techniques of environmental monitoring are already rather an important form of visual arts in how they make invisible traces perspective and part of matters of concern (Latour 2008). Hence the sort of contemporary arts about air pollution and chemical waste, about radio activity and the loss of biodiversity speak of modalities and scales that otherwise would not be included in registers of futurisms now. Any adequate futurisms need then to be able to deal with the invisibilities that are the ontologically urgent side of what counts as slow violence (Nixon 2013). Hence the future tense in the aesthetic and artistic sense needs to be capable of rather radical detachment from the usual dreamy anthropocentric narratives of worlds without humans, and to engage with contemporary cultural processes that already are without humans. What’s more, the forms of futurisms all speak to the mentioned meaning of archaeology for Agamben: production of new times.

III Futurity

Lawrence Lek’s recent work on Sinofuturism and Geomancer picks up on the futurist trope but places it in different geographical regions and with a different centre of subjectivity. Furthermore, Geomancer’s CGI film protagonist is an AI instead of the usual human narrator. The AI dreams speak of different worlds and of different modalities of art than ones with a voice or hands could have. The calculational dreams of an AI system are viewed as part of a total memory and calculation system that itself is not only an imaginary of a future but one that prescribes a way to think futurities as a contemporary cultural technique. These are futures that are constantly counted into existence than merely narrated into imaginaries.

The mobilization of AI systems in multiple areas of industry and culture is emblematic of what future now means as calculation. Consider then the future image as one that is future in the most limited sense and yet effective in the most widespread sense: the mobilization of various datasets from satellites to ground remote sensing, from media platforms to urban smart infrastructures as part of the training of AI algorithms and predictive measures. For example satellite data on ground level changes – infrastructures, buildings, urban growth, agriculture and crop yields – can be fed into machine learning systems with the aim of predictive data that can feed into for example financial predictions. The temporality of data is here key to understanding the little futures that are constantly created in machine learning and in financial contexts, and with most effective turbulence in terms of the futures market (see Cooper 2010). The machine learning of prediction of surface changes on global datasets or the prediction of real time changes in video feeds such as in experiments with neural nets like Prednet are good examples of the very local techniques useful for an image of a future one step ahead. Recently Abelardo Gil-Fournier has engaged with these machine learning platforms, farms and techniques as part of his investigation about the operative image in relation to earlier forms of operative light, as in industrial agriculture. Furthermore, this resonates well with the wider picture painted by Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun (2003: 290) writing on SF (science fiction) capital based on the various forms of futurism:

“[it] exists in mathematical formalizations such as computer simulations, economic projections, weather reports, futures trading, think-tank reports, consultancy papers—and through informal descriptions such as sciencefiction cinema, science-fiction novels, sonic fictions, religious prophecy, and venture capital. Bridging the two are formal-informal hybrids, such as the global scenarios of the professional market futurist.”

Futures exist as constant reference points for models, and unpredictable patterns or events are attempted to be constantly “factored into the calculations of world economic futures” (Cooper 2010, 167). Hence, also the unruly non-linear dynamics of any natural system are in this sense not anomalous but merely turbulent and as such material for the various ways different futures can be created, including accounting for the environmental crisis as one part of the work of management (Cooper 2010).

From future fossils and apocalyptic far or near futures scenarios as imaginaries we shift to the technological counted futures that are the standard operating procedure of financial markets. It is in this sense that the work of futurisms and creating new temporalities are somewhat paralleled by these tiny futures that are the constant business of the market. This proves the point that imaginaries of futures are not inherently or necessarily anything progressive in the sense of addressing planetary scale justice, but need to be complemented with the analytics, aesthetics as well as imaginaries of counter-futurisms (cf. Parikka 2018) – the work of not merely dreaming but creating infrastructures that imagine and count for our benefit.

References

Benjamin, Walter 1999. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Bozak, Nadia 2011. The Cinematic Footprint. Lights, Camera, Natural Resources. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Bromber, Katrin, Birgit Krawietz, Christian Steiner, and Steffen Wippel. 2016. ‘The Arab(ian) Gulf:

Urban Development in the Making’. In Steffen Wippel, Katrin Bromber, Birgit Krawietz and Christian Steiner (eds), Under Construction: Logics of Urbanism in the Gulf Region. London and New York: Routledge, 1–14.

Cooper, Melinda 2010. “Turbulent Worlds. Financial Markets and Environmental Crisis”. Theory, Culture & Society vol. 27 (2-3), 167-190.

Cubitt, Sean 2014. The Practice of Light. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ebeling, Knut 2016. “Art of Searching: On ‘Wild Archaeologies’ from Kant to Kittler. The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics No. 51 (2016), pp. 7–18

Eshun, Kodwo 2003. “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism”. CR: The New Centennial Review 3:2, Summer 2003, 287–302.

Latour, Bruno 2008. What is the style of matters of concern? Amsterdam: van Gorcum.

Nixon, Rob 2013. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Parikka, Jussi 2018. “Middle East and Other Futurisms: imaginary temporalities contemporary art and visual culture.” Culture, Theory and Critique, 59:1, 40-58,

Tsing, Anna; Swanson, Heather; Gan, Elaine and Bubandt, Nils, eds. 2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Zhang, Gary Zhexi 2017. “Where Next?” Frieze, April 22, 2017, https://frieze.com/article/where-next.

 

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Categories: Uncategorized

The lab as a symptom

I am giving a talk on Laboratory Fever in Amsterdam later in May and I am currently drafting some notes for that. This talk is part of the larger research and book project with my colleagues Lori Emerson and Darren Wershler, and most of our research process is documented on the What is a Media Lab-website. Below however a short excerpt from the forthcoming Amsterdam talk, and relating to a passage about (culture/humanities) labs as places of making, and the lab as  a symptom.

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In her historical contextualisation of the laboratory (“The Laboratory Challenge”), Ursula Klein puts it in rather clear terms: the laboratory was not merely a place of pure science and before the institutionalisation of the site since the 19th century as part of the scientific set up, it had many artisanal connotations as well. The lab was anyway part and parcel of a set-up of making and things, where knowledge was produced in material settings. Indeed, her interest is articulated relating to this “laboratory tradition that meshed studies of nature with technological innovation.” Now, I wonder, how much could we gain and how far could we venture with the poached idea if we did a sort of a minor tweak and see how it sounds when considering the rhetorical promise as well as conditions how we think of labs in the humanities interested in culture and making?

“the laboratory tradition that meshes studies of culture with technological innovation”.A simple and elegant hack, and an update of the scientific lab to a more humanities one? Acknowledging both the relation to “critical making” and also the nexus of culture and technology? Would this solve some of our problems and establish a seeming relation to the scientific labs as labor and elaboration of nature?

But too easy quips aside, there is something in the ways in which the lab as a site of technological making and artefactuality, in some ways, can be seen relating to the arguments by historians of science. Indeed, have we arrived at a situation where we return to the pre-scientific contexts of experimentation and wonder, where also romantic poetry is pitched as such a mode of experimentation, as Novalis once had it, and cultural realities can also found their sites of tests and experiments? Is the lab the neo-romantic but also the pre-scientific lab – a place of making and apparatuses, a place happy to borrow from the scientific aura of the science lab but not merely as an imitation of that model, but a sort of a institutional move that fits in with the issues of basic funding for departments too? Some might critique it as exactly a nostalgic move: at a time when most technocultural processes seem to be escaping the horizon of phenomenological perception and the tool-making Man’s hand, we establish sites of such nostalgic proximity to individual technologies that are merely at most interfaces to the massive planetary level technological infrastructures. And yet, establishing concrete sites might be one way of interfacing not only with technologies but educational possibilities of intervention with that technological reality.

Because of the magnitude of questions “the lab” triggers, the number of separate and distinct labs there exists, and that  every lab could produce  their own particular answer, I would suggest that it is more fruitful to consider the lab not so much as a solution but as a symptom itself; just like Thomas Elsaesser (2016) recently asked about the discipline of media archaeology the question: instead of what is, we should ask why now? And we can extend the same logic of questioning to labs: not just what is a lab but why now? What is it about the lab not merely as an internal place of new methods or new forms of creative or academic activity but as a fold between such techniques and external political and economic conditions of current institutions that makes it a symptom? What are the sort things that temporalise this spatial setting as a question of the now – a question that defines it as a contemporary setting for particular experiments in not only academia or creative industries, but in “political anthropology of new institutional forms” to use Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter’s ideas.

Shannon Mattern at WSA

April 17, 2016 Leave a comment

We are happy to host Shannon Mattern at the Winchester School of Art. She is giving a talk on Infrastructural Tourism on May 3rd, at 12 – details below! The talk is organised by our Centre for Global Futures and the emerging new research group AMT – Archaeologies of Media & Technology, about which more information later.

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Here’s the information about the talk:

Abstract: Infrastructural Tourism

We seem to have come to a sudden recognition that the Internet is a place made of countless material things – cables and data centers and rare earth minerals. We’ve witnessed a dawning realization that our Amazonian consumptive appetites are dependent on similarly heavy logistical systems and exploitative labor practices. We’ve surrendered to the reality of the Anthropocene and its precarious infrastructural, environmental, political, and ethical futures. This emergent infrastructural intelligence has spawned an explosion of infrastructural “literacy” and engagement projects that seek to “make visible the invisible,” to call out the unrecognized, to bore into the “black-boxed.” Grand Tours of nuclear infrastructures and key sites in telecom history have inspired many a recent Bildungsroman, in myriad mediated forms. Apps and data visualizations, sound walks and speculative design workshops, DIY manuals and field guides, urban dashboards and participatory mappings, hackathons and infrastructural tourism – strategies employed by artists and activists and even some city governments and federal agencies – all seek to “raise awareness” among a broader public about infrastructure’s existence and its politics. They aim, further, to motivate non-specialist communities to contribute to infrastructure’s maintenance and improvement, to inspire citizen-consumers to advocate for more accessible and justly distributed resources, and perhaps even to “engineer” their own DIY networks. In this talk I’ll explore various pedagogical strategies, representational techniques, and modeling methods that have been employed to promote “infrastructural intelligence” — and consider what epistemologies, ontologies, ethics, affects, and politics are embedded in those approaches.

Bio

Shannon Mattern is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School. Her writing and teaching focus on archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. She is author of _The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities_ and _Deep Mapping the Media City_ (both published by University of Minnesota Press), and she writes a regular column about urban data and mediated infrastructures for _Places_, a journal focusing on architecture, urbanism, and landscape. She has also contributed to various public design and interactive projects and exhibitions. This spring she is a senior fellow at the Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. You can find her at wordsinspace.net.

Timescales: A CFP for a Conference

April 13, 2016 Leave a comment

This might interest many of you: a conference at UPenn on Timescales. Organised by the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, the event promises to talk about much more than just the term Anthropocene and to address the multiple temporalities that constitute our contemporary condition.

To quote the CFP:

“Ecological crises demand collaborative solutions across distant disciplines. New models for grappling with environmental disruption must account for the interaction of human and non-human systems—infrastructures that are both efficient and ethical, philosophies shaped by geological data, basic science that is informed by artistic expression. In recent decades, concepts like “Anthropocene” and “slow violence” have emerged in response to an increasing need to address the temporal aspects of global ecological concerns: Where in time do we place the origin of anthropogenic environmental change? How quickly (or slowly) do environments toxify, adapt, transform, or heal? How soon before we exceed irrevocable concentrations of atmospheric CO2, and what then?”

I am excited to be invited as the keynote and please find the Call for Papers on the Conference website (deadline for submissions is on May 2nd).

 

Reviews and More

Some quick updates on new reviews and other news about some recent books, first starting with A Geology of Media. Our university PR-team did a short news item about it being selected on the Choice-magazine list of “Outstanding Academic Title for 2015“.

It was reviewed in a couple of places including Contriver’s Review: “An Archive Beneath“. Kyle Bickoff writes in his review: “Parikka describes his book as part of the material landscape it defines, leaving little room for misinterpretation about the ubiquity and consequent exigence of his topic. This is clearly evident in the text’s construction, from its precisely demarcated, stratified chapters, to the coherence of the argument within each layer; the book, indeed, has a geology of its own.”

Also Leonardo ran a review of it. Gabriela Galati’s text gives an overview of the book, highlighting some key themes and questions too.

In addition, also our other recent new book that we launched in a couple of places (including Kiasma (Helsinki), Montreal and London) Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History: Erkki Kurenniemi in 2048 was recently reviewed. The short review in Neural summarises the book as follows: “The book challenges the reader to interpret Kurenniemi and his symbolic involvement in different disciplines, including his feverish daily archiving activities and the (re)invention of audio visual machines. The impact of this work is amplified, implicitly reinforcing both present complexity and future uncertainty.”

A Museum of Viruses

February 23, 2016 Leave a comment

I just submitted to the publisher the new, 2nd and revised edition of Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses, a book that came out for the first time with Peter Lang in 2007. Around the time of submission, the new Archive.org online museum of computer viruses was launched and made rounds in the popular press too.

Already in 2002, Museum for Applied Art in Frankfurt am Main, Germany engaged in exhibiting viral art its I Love You-Exhibition. Curator Franziska Nori expressed the importance of this topic: museums and cultural centres need to engage with this new form of cultural activity that tells the story of hackers and programming skills. The museum was to become also a laboratory where new cultural phenomena of digital culture are given a voice.

I wrote a general audience piece about the new Malware museum for The Conversation. For those of you who read German, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote a piece “Unterhaltsame Viren“. The new edition of Digital Contagions should be out by late 2016, or early 2017, just suitably to celebrate its 10th year!

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Graph Commons & Critical Mapping

February 12, 2016 Leave a comment

For some years now, Winchester School of Art has been a (university) partner of the transmediale art/digital culture-festival. We took part this year again, with several panels and other events as part of the Conversation Piece-theme.

One of them was the two day-workshop with artist, designer Burak Arikan (tr/new york) who ran a Graph Commons-workshop.

We also had a longer conversation about his work, critical & collaborative mapping and more. You can listen to it as a podcast now.

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