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On Paul Virilio

September 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Paul Virilio (1932-2018) passed away recently in September. We wrote a short piece with Ryan Bishop about him – Blitzkrieg Baby.

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Slow Violence – No Man’s Land

My short essay-booklet A Slow Contemporary Violence came out in 2016 in the Sternberg Press series The Contemporary Condition that is continuing in full swing. Below is a short excerpt from my contribution to the series. The excerpt is the passage on Güven İncirlioğlu’s photograph installation touching on the 100th anniversary of WWI. One can consider it still as rather apt timing, including how it speaks about the war that never ended and in its own way, continuing themes that relate to Rob Nixon’s thesis about slow violence which is also one of the reference points for my whole essay.

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I want to address the idea of temporal conglomerations and deep times of contemporary geopolitics as slowness or long term durations that unfold as not immediate for the human perception. I want to start by way of photographic art.

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Fig. 1: A close up of “Her Taraf – No Man’s Land” by Güven İncirlioğlu. Used with permission.

As part of a selection of works from the 3rd and 4th Çanakkale Biennial in Turkey,Güven İncirlioğlu’s installation piece “Her Taraf – No Man’s Land” from 2014 is one of the many art and culture commentaries about the Gallipoli campaign, also known as Dardanelles Campaign, that took place on Turkish soil during the First World War. The events have been commemorated over the past times on many occasions and by many institutions from official governments to universities to cultural institutions. The war and its relation to modern Europe and global geopolitics has multiple narratives, and for historians of media and technology, it has been marked as a turning point of the twentieth century. The war was also a mobilization of new technologies including the wristwatch and different solutions for wireless communication on the front line; the media connections were important in military operations, but they also started to enter the private sphere of the domestic life. In addition, the chemical technologies presented a more efficient way of destruction from the air both as planes and as chemical warfare, which was employed on the European front effectively; such also formed the backbone of the pesticide-enhanced agriculture of the twentieth and twenty-first century.

Many of the military operations and events took place on the outskirts of our current version of Europe, including Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. A hundred years after the war, and a hundred years after the start of the naval assault by Britain and France, on 25 April 1915, the digital photographs in the installation tell a partial historical story about what remains after the war and its devastation. The images do not, however, feature the usual iconography of human memory: of old photographs juxtaposed with other objects of memories; of faces as souvenirs of the old grainy image era transported in photography. It is a story not so much of faces but of landscapes of war and technology, of chemistry and destruction.

The photographic installation is a mini-landscape that occupies one wall. The images commemorate the First World War as an event of technological warfare of massive ecological scales. But it also becomes clear that the commemoration works in alternative ways; it is less as a celebration of the Ottoman victory than a subtle sort of a monument that entangles social history and natural history, and acts as a conglomeration of different temporal regimes. Even this distancing from the nationalist narrative is worthwhile noticing in the midst of the years of strong religiously tuned nationalist rhetoric and policy measures of current day Turkey. But the temporal politics of the images works differently. Enhanced by the atmosphere of silence surrounding the digital images placed on the walls of the Depo-gallery, İncirlioğlu’s piece is described as a commentary on the two times of “human life and the time of nature,” as the accompanying text on the wall informs. A usual historical narrative builds the memory around the 100 year milestone from the events, but the piece reminds of the multiple ways of narrating and recording time — not a passing of time, but a slow chemical sedimentation of time; it reminds how time is not merely a passing of events, but a milieu of multiple ways of accounting for it in the midst of human and non-human agents. It expresses a landscape of time, but not a landscape of the usual mastery through which we have been accustomed to think of nature in art history. It is a landscape, which we are still involved in.

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Fig. 2: Installation view at Depo Gallery of “Her Taraf – No Man’s Land”. Used with permission.

The title “No Man’s Land” refers to the contested zone between the trenches that during the long months until January 1916 changed occupation many times. It brings to mind the various historical narratives of human misery that the existential non-space of the trench meant — both in terms of anxiety of waiting, the deadly warfare and also the stink of diseased bodies.

For material stories of the war, writers have addressed “bunker archaeology”5 as the architectural legacy of war that transforms into the concrete aesthetics of the Cold War that still lingers on in port and other towns bombed down during the latter of the two world wars, and replaced by Brutalist building blocks in many of their central quarters. But İncirlioğlu extends from the social and human history of ruins to what lies beneath the architectural as its ground, the soil and the seabed. His photographic installation talks of the invisible chemical traces of dead bodies, body parts, barbed wired, gun shells, mines, dead trees, and flora — a natural history of the intensity of the war localized back then in Çanakkale but one that seems in its own way planetary. The geopolitical aim of landing through Çanakkale to reach Istanbul never succeeded according to the plans, but the geophysical legacy of such warfare in the age of advanced machinery left its concrete trace in the soil. İncirlioğlu’s meditation is not, however, only about that particular piece of land, the landing site and its territories formed of trenches, blue waters giving way to the war ships that connected to the supply routes, distant ports in England and other places, and many other operations; it also includes a global perspective.

He continues by way of a short biospheric meditation of technical war: “Today, it is possible to say that the global state of war that also encompasses the biosphere has been going on for a century.”6 İncirlioğlu continues referring to the annihilation of masses in the Middle East, Africa, Asia — an extension of the continued war; on the other, the “total destruction of human habitats, rivers, forests and the biological-mineral world is being processed on by the neo-liberal policies worldwide. In this context, today’s Istanbul’s northern forests, quarries, African gold mines, vast territories of fracking in Canada and all other sites of destruction […] resemble the scene of a ‘no man’s land’.”7

The story told was not after all a commemoration of a war that ended but the war that never ended ; the war that facilitated an entry of new sorts of technical forms of control,  regulation, production of chemicals and more — an apt theme considering we are living in a sort of a continuous Cold War8 defined by territorial claims, energy wars, realpolitik of terrorism entangled with geopolitics, movements of biomass that expresses itself as the human suffering of forced refugee movements. Beginnings and endings become only temporary markers for narratives that are insufficient for the complexity of this time. The sort of a war we are addressing does not lend itself to easy stories of ideological oppositions but to complex networks, which entangle strategies and tactics with environmental realities and the finitude of the world of energy and materials. These sorts of wars are geopolitical in the fundamental sense, and do not involve just the two sides of troops in trenches. Indeed, it moves the focus from the human actors, soldiers, tragedies of personal, family and other scales to those of soil, the ground, the air — an elemental tragedy that is the backdrop in which a drama of the Anthropocene might unfold. It is also a tragedy that comes out clearest in its slowness.

Underground the White Mountain

October 30, 2016 Leave a comment

I was invited to talk at the Serpentine Gallery’s Miracle Marathon this year. My take on the theme was to talk of the underground and the occult worlds of the long legacy of the Cold War. I performed with Emma Charles’ film White Mountain. Here’s the video of the talk.

 

More about Charles’ film in a short story in the new magazine issue of Postmatter.
The same magazine issue includes a new interview with me: Fossils of the Future.

After the Coup Attempt, the Everyday Resumes

July 17, 2016 6 comments

During Sunday breakfast which for every Turk is the main five hours of the week, my partner suddenly turned towards me: “You know, nobody is safe, Turkey is not safe for anyone anymore. People like us are not safe.”  The sense of not belonging to your own country had slowly infiltrated several people’s mood, and the fear that many ethnic and sexual minorities had felt for ages was becoming part of the more general middle-class sentiment too.

It was a sort of calm, yet melancholically perfect summary of some of the moods in Turkey as confused people witnessed the events unfold in the news, on social media, through various streams and live feeds, personal stories and telephone calls to friends and relatives.

The footage has varied from official talking heads of politicians promising to “exterminate anyone against us” (as the Turkish Prime Minister vowed in his live address) to shaky clips of different events across the cities, of people chasing other people without really being able to tell why and who, of tanks and military personnel, hands up and consequently beaten and later the numerous images of celebrations of a country that is, again, covered in the red-white Turkish flag. The attempted coup day is promised to become a national holiday, a day of democracy. And yet, many are more conflicted about the celebrations. Not because they supported the coup – far from it, as all the opposition parties too voiced their disapproval – but because fearing that the country will be far from safe that is the business-as-usual state of things when it comes to the normalised atmosphere of violence that is at times physical, at times mental.

The events over the past days and especially the coup night of Friday turning to Saturday were a properly frightening spectacle. Especially in Ankara and Istanbul, people were for the first time set in the midst of what was nothing short of a war scene.

Besides a visual description of events, many will remember it by how it sounded. The soundscape of a coup was the low flying F-16, at times even breaking windows of flats. It included the helicopter buzz, the sirens and then the calls from the massive network of mosques not only for prayer (outside the usual Muslim prayer times) but to go the streets to stop the coup. President Erdogan’s message reached quickly the loyal supporters who flooded the streets. Suddenly rescuing democracy (even using corporate social media platforms) was ok.

The next day, everything was calmer. While the mosques’ call continued throughout the day, you could again hear birds singing and life seemed almost idyllic with the usual sort of background you would expect to hear on a Saturday morning: Turkish families’ breakfast noises, tea glasses clinking, casual street corner chats. A lot had however changed. Much of the events that followed can be seen as a direct consequence of the spectacle that took lots of lives that today are visible in the pictures of coffins and funerals. Judges fired, threats of revenge, even mentioning the option of a death penalty while closing alternative media outlets like Medyascope, Gazeteport, Karşı Gazete, Aktif Haber, etc.

After the spectacle, the slow,  quiet violence of the everyday resumed. During my morning trip to buy breakfast cheese I also happened to witness the all too usual scene of a Turkish husband shouting violently to his wife, with physical threats. Men kill more women than many of the legitimate institutions of violence have done the past years, and this is not a consequence of the current government or the AK Party but a feature that runs across the social life and has done so for a long time.

The post-coup attempt day became filled with other sorts of anecdotal stories that are the more mundane side to the story than warplanes above the Istanbul sky. And many fear this is the increasingly normalised side of life in Turkey: religious people attacking partygoers who were drinking alcohol, intolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities and a general tightening of the implicit rules of what is morally acceptable behaviour or clothing.

After the 6000 arrests that range far beyond the military personnel directly involved, more will be on the way. As the case of Turkey has for years proven, anyone can be branded as a terrorist. The cleansing of universities and other institutions has already been happening for a while. After the failed coup, these operations intensify with the opportunity to get rid of anyone undesired, and  now there is a further perceived mandate to remove unwanted opponents of the government, and to replace them with loyalists.  Luckily the violent coup is over and the everyday continues, but for many it has not been safe so far anyway.

Understanding Media: McLuhan 50 years Later

March 10, 2014 4 comments

The new issue of Journal of Visual Culture is a celebration of Marshall McLuhan. The Canadian media theorist’s classic book, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, was published 50 years ago and editor Raiford Guins asked several writers to remember the book with a very short text. The texts in the issue are reactions, variations, recollections and remediations of McLuhan and his themes.

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My own text (pp.91-93) was written in Istanbul: a short variation on McLuhan, urban space, weaponization and media environments.

Jussi Parikka: “McLuhan at Taksim Square”

I was carrying a fresh copy of Understanding Media with me on Istiklal Street, Istanbul, alongside people in gas masks and police in riot gear. It no longer felt relevant to write about past experiences of engaging with the book or to reflect on McLuhan as a forerunner of media archaeology. This time I did not want to write about ‘anti-McLuhan’ minor histories of media technologies: the ones that do not take media as extensions of Man but as extensions of the animal – for instance, insects – as their starting point (Parikka, 2010).

Travelling from the Anatolian side of Istanbul with a ferry to Kabatas, the chapter on ‘Weapons’ seemed to strike a chord. Extensive tear-gassing and police operations had turned some parts of the city into something unrecognizable, like in a state of emergency. The events at Gezi Park and its occupation grew from an environmental protest to widespread demonstrations across Turkey. Besides the environmental context, the demonstrations were against the authoritarian measures of the state: excessive tear-gassing, random arrests, and persecution of journalists, spokesmen and – women. In the light of McLuhan one starts to think about the various cultural techniques and media contexts of the events in Istanbul. The usual suspects – social media such as Twitter – were quickly acknowledged as important platforms of knowledge sharing but also for a circulation of the affects of outrage, disbelief and defiance. Online media services seemed to quickly open up a new forum for political discussion, crystallized in the inventive use of hashtags as forms of software literacy. When the mainstream media were airing documentaries on penguins, tweets from Gezi were distributing a whole different set of images about what was happening to public space in Turkey. Tear gas produced its own eerie atmosphere on the streets of Istanbul, which had quickly transformed into policed spaces accessible only with gas masks: a denial of the breath (Sloterdijk, 2009).

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Walking up from Kabatas port towards Taksim, one could observe this sort of expansion of the meaning of media. This is where McLuhan is at his best. Media are not only about cinema, television, and radio. We start to see the world as media in itself: roads and surfaces, windows and squares become ways of mediating our relation to time and space. Walls are painted with ad hoc slogans; sprayed with images and words in order to mark a territory but also to leave a trace for the next passerby. The huge letters ‘GAZDOGAN’ referred to the prime minister Tayyip Erdogan and the tear-gas tactics of the government. Not only Facebook walls, but the city walls became quick and dirty media surfaces: I was struck by a photograph of an older Turkish man, in his 70s, drawing the face of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on the wall. Then he walked to another street corner and drew another face of Mustafa Kemal. It was Kemal who introduced the Latin-based alphabet to Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s: in addition to a Europeanization of Turkey as a way to detach from the writing systems of Arabic and Persian origins, it was also ‘modernization’ in relation to the media technologies of telegraphy and the printing press to which the discrete nature was better suited. The alphabet escorts both a geopolitical orientation as well as entertains a relation to various technological changes not without an effect on our perceptual dispositions.

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Atatürk persists as a symbolic reference point for various nationalist protestors: his political heritage nature is remediated as content of chants and demands of political nature. The visual space is not only about figures of Atatürk but also more carnevalistic: penguins (as a reference to mainstream media censorship) are suddenly as popular a source of remix and memes as cats usually are in internet culture. Political expression takes the form of artistic expression: ‘the artist must ever play and experiment with new means of arranging experience, even though the majority of his audience may prefer to remain fixed in their old perceptual attitudes’, writes McLuhan (2001: 276) in the chapter on the telegraph.

The online and the city are paired up in this production of visual resistance, but let’s not get too focused on content. One is struck by McLuhan’s reminder that ‘the city, itself, is traditionally a military weapon, and is a collective shield or armor plate, an extension of the castle of our very skins’ (p. 374). This idea is informative of the role of security, war and the city, but it also misses the point about the past years of security regimes which turn the city into an autoimmune disorder: the inhabitants become the targets of police forces, in relation to global events such as G8/G20 meetings (Renzi and Elmer, 2012), as well as such events as those in Turkish cities. But this autoimmune disease of the city does not extend the skin, but attacks the respiratory organs of people with tear gas. It burns the skin when the chemicals are infused with the water in water cannons. McLuhan is constantly useful as a reminder that media are everywhere, and are able to lock our senses in particular ways – perhaps not in the way that there would be always one dominating media episteme, such as literacy (cf. McLuhan, 2001: 373), but more temporarily as a form of attention management. Instead, there is a constant contestation as to the forms of media power: mainstream television might be producing visions of coldness, like documentaries about penguins, but that feeds back to remediations that expand the time and space of what we mean by media itself.

 

References

Renzi A and Elmer G (2012) Infrastructure critical: Sacrifice at Toronto’s G8/G20

Conference. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring.

McLuhan M (2001[1964]) Understanding Media. London: Routledge.

Parikka J (2010) Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sloterdijk P (2009) Terror from the Air, trans. A Patton and S Corcoran. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

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Teufelsberg – The Listening Post

August 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Teufelsberg, Berlin.

After the humans had left, what stayed were the ruins of buildings. Time had passed for the place to reach this silence; the graffiti filled walls, beer cans, glass from broken bottles stayed after as such monuments. There was something else too, in the air. A radio signal lost, a ghost signal. It is completely silent for human ears. Only the buildings echo, concrete walls.

The listening post, a Cold War relic. It had that Soviet science fiction quality about it, even if it exactly tried to listen to signals of communist origin. The ferris wheel in nearby Zehlendorf acted as an amplifier of its signals.

If Cold War started in Potsdam, then it primarily took place  in non-places — like on this hill. Itself a monument, built from the rubble from the bombings during the 1940s War. And yet, non-place is hardly the term when you look at the concrete and now weirdly past-utopian looking listening domes. They stand out. You can imagine this as a setting for a Thomas Pynchon novel.

But it is a non-place because probably nothing much happened. Signal traffic, capture, listening. Procedures of monitoring, reporting, and then it starts again. Signals don’t occupy a place anyway, just a time and a pattern of regularity. And yet this place is one of those iconic, media theoretically significant places: Bletchley Park, Peenemünde, etc.

 

It starts to make sense when you think of it as a network of such posts. ECHELON – characterised by a European Parliament report much later:”If U.K.U.S.A states operate listening stations in the relevant regions of the earth, in principle they can intercept all telephone, fax and data traffic transmitted via such satellites.” There are no borders to national security.

It feels natural to imagine this place without any humans, just like mathematical communication theory works best without them. Only the ghostly shouts and echoes that ensue. Ping, echo request.

Winchester Speaker Series: Phillips and Milne

October 26, 2011 Leave a comment

We are today kicking off our new research centre seminar series with John Phillips (National University of Singapore) and his talk “Seeing Things” – which promises to address Bernard Stiegler, military technologies and critical theory.

And next week Thursday, continuing with Esther Milne with Siegert, not Stiegler!

THE WINCHESTER CENTRE FOR GLOBAL FUTURES IN ART, DESIGN & MEDIA

Seminar Series:  3 November  2011, 5 pm at seminar room 8-9.

‘Technologies of Presence:  Intimate Absence and Public Privacy’

Esther Milne

Intimacy, affect and image are always intertwined at the level of technology.  The practices of mail-art, for example, are enabled by the material conditions of the postal exchange. In turn, the economies of this exchange are underpinned by the dance between absence and presence: writing a letter signals the absence of the recipient and, simultaneously, aims to bridge the gap between writer and recipient.

This paper traces the production of presence across nineteenth century postal networks in order to make some preliminary remarks about twenty first century platforms of social media, such as Twitter. In particular it explores the emergence of contemporary patterns of ‘public privacy’ through their socio-technical historical settings. Postcard media offers one such site. As Bernhard Siegert and Jacques Derrida have demonstrated, the postcard operates as a liminal figure for the reformulation of public and private communication.

‘Public Privacy’ describes the ways in which subjects use the public signifying systems of social media to produce images of love, desire and pain.  Yet such rhetorical strategies are not unique to distributed digital platforms. After all, the eighteenth century epistolary network, often called ‘The Republic of Letters’, was responsible for reconfiguring the public and private domain. Through an exploration of mail-art practice, this paper identifies the postal principle of Twitter to challenge recent claims for the ‘death of privacy’.

BIO: Dr Esther Milne is Deputy Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia. She researches in the areas of celebrity production within legislative and cultural contexts; and the history of networked postal communication systems. Her recent book, Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence, is published by Routledge.