How to practice variantology of media?

December 17, 2019 Leave a comment

I was commissioned to write a short popular audience piece on Siegfried Zielinski for the Korean article series “The Front Lines of the 21st Century Humanities and Social Sciences”. The series has featured many theorists from Kittler to Haraway, Barad to Latour, as well as one article on my work. The text on Zielinski is now published and I wanted to post the original English text (not copy-edited, apologies for awkward language hiccups) here. Please find it below. The short text was also written to note the just published volume of Zielinski texts, Variations on Media Thinking (University of Minnesota Press, 2019.)

Siegfried Zielinski: How to practice variantology of media?

One way to understand a theorist’s work is to look at how she or he is being talked about. What do your friends or enemies say? What are the concepts, ideas, or generic style of a theorist that catch wind and which ones are left to the side? While Siegfried Zielinski has become known for his significant work as one of the early theorists of media archaeology and as a poetic palaeontologist of deep times of art and science, it is curious to have a peek at the little book Objects of Knowledge – a Small Technical Encyclopedia that functioned as a Festschrift, a celebration of Zielinski’s 60th birthday, written by his colleagues and peers. In the eyes of his friends, Zielinski’s work extends to a whole glossary of odd objects, things, and speculations that reveals the influence he has had in extending the discussion of media to clearly things not usually considered media. A wild list of “media” objects constitutes the book’s entries: basket, bathtub, book destruction machine; Dried Food, Filmoscope, Fountain Pen, and Geiger Counter; Hand, Line, Phenakistoscope; Sardine Can, Side Scan Sonar, Slide Rule, Typewriter, and Wall Socket are some of the examples of where we end up when riding with Zielinski’s mind set.  While Zielinski himself has recognized that perhaps media, as a term, has become superfluous, this also was one form of a liberating feeling: finally we are not stuck with only mainstream set of a focus on media as entertainment, media as pleasing viewers and customers.

In this manner, one would do justice to the broad career of the German media theorist and professor Zielinski by calling him a variantologist of media. True, he has mobilized a range of terms that speak about deep times and palentology of media, suggesting that our usual historical timeframe is not sufficient to understand the longer histories of art and science collaborations. And true, he has engaged in the alternative histories of media – something that ties him into the field of media archaeology interested in these unknowns or forgotten paths of past media practice– when discussing the hegemonic histories of television and cinema perhaps only as entr’actes in the wider cultural history of audiovisions. This is the exciting bit for anyone bored of the usual media studies discussions of only television, film, internet, computers – indeed, the “audiovisual overlaps with other specialist discourses and partial praxes of society, such as architecture, transport, science and technology, organisation of work and time, traditional plebeian and bourgeois culture, or the avant-garde.” That, already, then tells us one firm thing: media studies is truly cultural studies is truly interdisciplinary studies. Variantology is then one name for this drive to look beyond disciplinary conventions and boundaries, and look at the most mundane with new eyes: the usual household item of the video-recorder becomes in Zielinski’s writing a time machine in the fundamental sense, a suburbian living room equivalent of time/space manipulation.

On can say that Zielinski’s constantly overarching approach has been to look at the variations – the non-normative, the alternative, the minor, and the differing practices that define technological arts and mediations of seeing and hearing. This idea is also present in the name of the most recent English translation of his works: Variations on Media Thinking. Of course, his earlier book Deep Time of the Media stands out as almost programmatic declaration. The book moves from Antique Greece philosophy of perception (Empedocles) to the Jesuit priest Athanius Kircher’s explorations of “light and shadow” in the 17th century. Early versions of all sorts of audiovisual but also cryptographic, hence algorithmic, techniques of media emerge from that story, argues Zielinski with a poetic touch. It illustrates a different understanding of technology than the current market and economy oriented focus on Silicon Valley and consumer gadgets. For our current media culture so determined to believe in the all-saving grace of new technologies as the solutionist  credo this twists things around somewhat ingeniously: to look for the old in the new, and the new in the old, to use Zielinski’s own phrasing.

Besides Zielinski’s objects of knowledge and wonders that Deep time of The Media book and others chronicle – Kircher’s arca steganographica (a machine for encrypting and decrypting letters), Martin van Marum’s 1785 “electrification machine”, or the “Self-writing wonder machine” by E. Knauss’s automata from 1764 – one can find an interesting program for variantology as an approach. In other words, this is not merely a collection of interesting discoveries in an alternative archive of art, science and media, but an inquiry into an-archaeologies.

Variantology is thus slightly anarchic in its pursuit of discourses and practices of magic, science, technics and media in history. It defies the hegemonic forces of what Zielinski coins the psychopathia medialis: the drive towards homogenising uniformity in media practices and discourses that characterises the capitalist culture of media understood as entertainment. Instead, the task of the variantologist is to dig out moments of difference, resistance, and experimentation that help us to imagine things differently.

Furthermore, there is an important methodological cue when Zielinski notes that we also need to shift the focus of our interest. Instead of the usual Western stories and capital cities of media production, we need to look South and East: Zielinski wants thus “to advocate a two-fold shift of geographic attention: from the North to the South and from the West to the East” which leads into a program of excavating histories of art, science, and media, stories and practice of alternative techniques from Far East, Mediterranian, Asia Minor, Greece, Middle-East, and South America.

This programmatic call was partly realised then in the Variantology-book series he set into motion with other editors, leading into volumes that offered case studies of such alternative stories. So while Zielinski’s own work and theoretisation emerged from 20th century core set of experimental practices and histories – from Godard to Virilio, Bauhaus to Lynn Hershman Leeson, from theorists of 1968 to the media theoretical boom in Germany since the 1980s – he also was able to shift the focus to collaborations with a much wider geographical and intellectual reach. Even if Zielinski’s 2011 book After the Media takes account of contemporary forms of media thinking from a self-declared Berlin perspective, he is still adamant the this is only one situated perspective as part of a wider cartography of media: “comparable thematic genealogies need to be written by authors who bring in their own cultural and intellectual experiences and areas of competence, before we can bring them together at scales of greater dimensions and can explore and try out their compatibility in the long term.” Also theoretical work has its own geography, and theoretical work has its own deep time.

Is this excavation in some sense also political? Can one say that this is a more activist way of doing media archaeology? While his compatriot Friedrich Kittler became famous for his insistent way of changing humanities agenda through technological knowledge, Zielinski’s work emerges with an emphasis on the artistic, which is reflected in his own personal history as part of some key art institutions of Germany, including in Berlin, Cologne, and Karlsruhe. For Zielinski, then, the question is not only about technology – even if he never dismisses knowing about technologies and engineers – but about potentials of experimentation and change: “to create a better world than the one that exists”, as he writes. Indeed, this is what connects to his pursuit of imaginaries of media, which itself is not merely personal fabulation but a systematic strand in history of thought.  In a pithy fashion, Zielinski states: “Imagination and mathematics have never been irreconcilable opposites and will not be so in the future.” Deep times also link to alternative futures, against psychopathia medialis.

The Amazon Machine

November 23, 2019 Leave a comment

Joana Moll’s new project The Hidden Life of an Amazon User launches online, investigating the relations of code, users, logistics, space and transport. It also deals with the double energies of energy infrastructures of online platforms/logistics companies such as Amazon, and the energies of usage of customers. I was also invited to write for the project; in my short text I outline how “Moll’s critical interface project can also be considered an experimental set up of the Standard Amazon User (SAU): a semi-automated algorithmic pattern of interface actions that are measured and guided by a mass of code and synchronised in relation to the planetary scale logistical operation that is the backbone of Amazon’s infrastructural and data-intensive operations – the warehouse driven architecture of digital economy. “

The full text here.

Expert-Readable Images

November 8, 2019 Leave a comment

Welcome to our Operational Images project event on Expert-Readable Images at the end of November in Prague at FAMU part of the Academy for Performing Arts. Please find below a short description of the event and list of invited speakers. The event is organised by Dr Tomáš Dvořák (FAMU) and myself together with the project team.

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Expert-Readable Images
November 29, 2019 – FAMU in Prague

While machine-readable images have become a constant reference point for photographic theory and contemporary visual media studies, our event turns to the question: what are the specialised expert-readable image practices that cater to the technical specifics, institutional demands, and particular knowledge-roles of visual culture?

Recent discussions of operational images as well as technical media and visual cultures often invoke the distinction between human and machine vision. Automated visual systems are claimed to produce images by and for machines, pictures that are unreadable or even invisible to human eyes. Our conference seeks to complicate this dichotomy by addressing the field of professional perceptual skills, trained judgment, and expert practices of observation and instruction. Should we consider specific thought styles (to borrow a term from Ludwik Fleck)  and thought collectives that develop simultaneously with the technologies of instrumental imaging and visualizing? What does a doctor see in a CT scan? What does a drone operator see on a monitor? What does a statistician see in a graph? What does a forensic analyst see in a digital model? What does a content moderator see in our holiday memories? What are the particular cultural techniques of practice, of training, and operation that govern these relations to images?

The one day day conference gathers specialists from fields of media, visual culture, photography and science and technology studies (STS) to engage with the world of specialised technical images. We shift the focus from machines to the training and governance of humans who deal with those images.

For any queries, please get in touch via email at jussi.parikka@famu.cz.

Poster design: Abelardo Gil-Fournier.

 

Italian translation: Archeologia dei media

October 24, 2019 Leave a comment

The Italian translation of my What is Media Archaeology? is out next week. Published by Carocci, the lovely edition was made possible thanks to the labouring by the translator Enrico Campo, with help from Simone Dotto, and with the inclusion of additional texts (preface and postface) by Ruggero Eugeni and Simone Venturini. The Preface by Eugeni is titled “Media lontani, sempre presenti”, the postface by Venturini is titled ” L’archeologia dei media come “angolo cieco” delle scienze umane”, discussing media archaeology in the context of the humanities.

The translation follows the earlier ones in Turkish and French. It also nicely coincides with my Visiting Professorship in Udine!

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Archeologia dei media
Nuove prospettive per la storia e la teoria della comunicazione publisher’s webpage

Categories: Italy, media archaeology

The Italian Job: Visiting Chair of Media Archaeology

September 20, 2019 1 comment

I am happy to announce that I will be holding the visiting Chair in Media Archaeology at University of Udine in Italy for the academic year 2019-2020. The lovely people of Udine are also the ones organising the renowned Gorizia Film Forum and the Spring school in film and media with topics that often touch on media theory and technical media culture too.

At Udine, I will be teaching media archaeology for the International Master in Audiovisual and Cinema Studies (IMACS) cohort. I am excited about planning the syllabus that besides readings from Siegfried Zielinski to Giuliana Bruno, Wanda Strauven to Erkki Huhtamo, Thomas Elsaesser to Shannon Mattern and many others will also engage with the work by artists such as Aura Satz, Kelly Egan, Bill Morrison, Ebru Kurbak, Harun Farocki, and others. In this context, I am interested in asking what is media archaeology in the context of practices (art and labs, for example) and what is media archaeology in the context of current ecological and environmental issues – a good example would be a discussion of archives and cultural memory through energy infrastructures like Samir Bhowmik has done in his recent work echoing Nicole Starosielski’s opening on thermocultures of media.

We also plan further research collaborations including on the topic of Operational Images, which is the project I am involved in at FAMU in Prague.

The timing for the Italian visit is perfect as the translation of my What is Media Archaeology? is coming out with Carocci publisher as Archeologia dei media. As soon as the book is out, we will be planning some book launch talks in Italy.

Some of the local work also connects to our Lab Book project that we are currently writing up with Lori Emerson and Darren Wershler: the Gorizia film lab is part of the university setup. 

Malware as Operational Art

August 12, 2019 Leave a comment

I returned to some themes of Digital Contagions, on computer viruses and malware, in this short text commissioned for the Malware exhibition on at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam.

Malware as Operational Art: On the If/Then of Geopolitics and Tricksters

The history of malware is the history of inventing multiple forms of attack and defence, of borders and breaches, of evolutionary programmes, artificial life and system crashes (Parikka 2016). It is also an invention of different forms of artificiality that vary in scale from individual computers to entire infrastructures, with much in between. Malware such as computer viruses and worms are forms of speculative computing that have a long lineage of ideas about networking, connection, security and contagion. They are speculative software in the manner that Matthew Fuller defined as investigating the possibilities of programming – “Software as science fiction, as mutant epistemology.” (Fuller 2003, 30). As an art of the artificial, computer viruses have been likened to artificial life, but this artificiality also includes a parallel trajectory. Malware is about trickery in the same fundamental sense in which Vilem Flusser described art and design, suggesting that the word ‘artifice’ can trace its origins to the definition ‘trickster’ (Flusser: 1999, 18. See also Singleton 2015)

Malware is a bag of tricks for the designer – after infection things don’t look the same, scales are distorted, interfaces are taken over, maps are redrawn, routes are rerouted, connections are slowed down to a snail’s pace, much is stolen, and things are twisted to the perpetrator’s advantage. Of course, much of this could be said to pertain to any operation of power.

Perhaps, in short, malware is the truth about software.

…read the rest of the essay here.

In Conversation with Geocinema

The Digital Earth fellowship program enabled me to work with Solveig Suess and Asia Bazdyrieva from Geocinema over a half a year period, and here’s a podcast conversation we recorded (with a big hat tip to Jessika Khazrik) recently. We discuss Geocinema project and their work in China relating to the Digital Belt and Road, and their methodologies of (feminist) filmmaking, audiovisual aesthetics of infrastructure, geopolitics and more. Their work resonates strongly with what is the core of the Digital Earth program’s theme:

“Digital Earth’ refers to the materiality and immateriality of the digital reality we live in – from data centers to software interfaces, and rare minerals to financial derivatives. Earth is dug, excavated, and ripped apart to extract the fundamental materials that keep the computational machine running – oil, coltan, sand, rubber, lithium form the material basis on which digital reality is built. At the same time, digital technologies enable new modes of circulation and extraction, of information and data.”

For me, the fellowship scheme linked also nicely to the Operational Images project that has recently started. I also recently discussed their work in relation to questions of Farocki’s operational images/Sekula’s instrumental images, and what sort of resonances and dissonances there exists in these conceptualisations and methods of moving and still images that concern automation, remote sensing, infrastructure, and large-scale systems. My next plan is to write some of these thoughts up into an article.

Have a listen and share with others who might be interested!

Link to the podcast.

View at Medium.com

Models, Diagrams, and Working Objects: On Studio Tomas Saraceno

June 30, 2019 2 comments

Here’s a video recording of my IKKM lecture. It focuses on Studio Tomas Saraceno and in parts, contextualises some of the work in relation to environmental humanities and media.

Aesthetics/Politics/Technology – A Czech Interview

This video interview made with a Czech platform is now online and available. Recorded during Spring 2019, it was done also in the context of my FAMU visiting scholarship in Prague and discusses questions of aesthetics, politics, technology, deep times, anthrobscene, materiality and more.

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Click here for the full video interview.

My work with FAMU continues in the context of the Operational Images project until end of 2023.

In Search of Media: Remain

April 26, 2019 Leave a comment

I am excited to announce that our co-authored booklet Remain is now out and available via University of Minnesota Press and Meson Press (Open Access PDF). Together with Rebecca Schneider, and Ioana Jucan who wrote the introduction, we were offered the term “remain” to respond to as part of the series of investigations as to “terms of media” in contemporary context. From the book’s description and with two blurbs from Joanna Zylinska and Steven Shaviro:

In a world undergoing constant media-driven change, the infrastructures, materialities, and temporalities of remains have become urgent. This book engages with the remains and remainders of media cultures through the lens both of theater and performance studies and of media archaeology. By taking “remain” as a verb, noun, state, and process of becoming, the authors explore the epistemological, social, and political implications.

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“What emerges in this short book is a theory of media as that which remains. Mediating deep time with temporarily fossilized moments in our cultural history, the book’s multivoice narrative raises important questions about human responsibility for matter and other matters.”

— Joanna Zylinska, Goldsmiths, University of London

“This book spells out the ways in which past media and past practices continue to haunt and inflect our present social and technical arrangements.”

— Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University

 

For paperback, see University of Minnesota Press page.

For Open Access, see Meson Press page.