continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 4.2 / 2015: 24-32

Mutating Media Ecologies

Jussi Parikka

No environment, only an unvironment.“ - Jonathan Kemp and Martin Howse (2014, 159)

How about a machinic ecology that starts with rust, dysfunction, or with the substrate? A media ecology that is messy as the soil, and does not commence from the idea of functional machines – or idealized ones -  but a time of a different sort? A machine that sorts time, but one that is not of working machines, use-times or future-oriented progress? The easiest terms for such an ecology would refer to failure, even metaphorically to decay, but it can also take minerals as starting points to a media ecology of rust-coloured psychogeophysics, earth computing, and things that are barely working in their obsolescence. It does not neglect the environmental but bends it as the unvironmental, a queer history of the planetary becoming technological. The alternative tone of the media ecological and media unvironments points to the faulty theory of media – or media devices as the incorporation of fault-lines themselves (See Fuller 2012). These media devices are dysfunctional, or just plain disgorged, and however retain a connection to earth, ecology – substrate. While an increasing amount of attention is paid to resource depletion (Anderson 2012) and supply chains of energy and materials for advanced technologies, there are also projects in art that call to think media as/of substrate, illuminating another angle to the issue.

Indeed, such a media ecology does not stem from the now commonplace references to “media environments”, part of policy and business discourses (Goddard 2014).  It is also less the humanist take found in some brands of earlier media ecology (although, having said that, one must note that early phases of inspiration for media ecology – such as the work of Harold Innis, are filled with non-humans from water routes to fur and beavers). Instead, notions of materiality and affordance (“perspectivalism”) are more central for this sort of activist-theory – one that is close to Gilbert Simondon and Felix Guattari.

It is in this way that we can deterritorialize a notion of media outside that of the human body, and look at non-human things as part of an embodied meshwork of agencies. Such an approach comes partly from the direction of J.J. Gibson. Especially in relation to embodied perception, Gibson develops something not quite the standard “medium theory” approach but one that we can adapt to our purposes. Discussing such environmental aspects as oxygen, gravity, water and so forth allows Gibson to define such as affordances that permit certain movements and perceptions. For him, such are invariant and constant “throughout the whole evolution of animal life” (Gibson 1986: 19), but for our historical yet material purposes, we can pragmatically mobilize the notion of affordance in media ecological ways too (see also Parikka 2010: 169-171)

Such an ecological way of pitching the issue also offers different way of addressing “media”:

Media provide access to another or to an outside by means of the specific perspectivalism or affordances that they embody. Just as capacities of thought, of being, are made in lived bodies, in complex and delicately conjoined tissues and processes, and just as powers are inherent in all matter, materialism also requires that the capacities of activity, thought, sensation and affect possible to each composition, whether organic or not, are shaped by what it is, what it connects to, and the dimensions of relationality around it. (Fuller 2005: 174)

Besides offering a theory of media focused on “affordance, media ecology is an opening to art methods too. Such methods includes ones that incorporate materiality as part of them in rough, dirty, and decaying ways. Broadly speaking, this relates to the field of “new materialism” that has stemmed from feminist philosophy and science & technology studies, as well as been developed in a variety of contexts in the past years. (see Dolphjin and van der Tuin 2012; Tiainen 2013). As a way to investigate such an approach concerning new materialism, my examples come partly from London based artist/practitioners (Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan), partly from Berlin (Martin Howse’s microresearch-projects). Microresearch is introduced as “a mobile research platform exploring psychogeophysics and asking the question of where precisely plague/software executes” (http://www.1010.co.uk/org/). Its projects have ranged from software to hardware, and various performances/workshops involving investigations to the electromagnetic sphere. Indeed, picking up on Guy Debord and the Situationist research project into the geographic environment and the material effects of space –primarily urban – on our subjectivity, the projects by the three artists, including The Crystal World, address two kinds of spaces: the space which we inhabit as living organic bodies in the midst of not only architectural orientation and governance, but also the technical layer that is phenomenologically invisible but completely real. The tracking of the electromagnetic city is one of the key themes of the workshops by Kemp, Jordan and Howse. It also flags themes releant to speculative design (cf. Dunne and Raby 2001) as well as media ecology in the manner of the mobilization of human and non-human energies (Fuller 2005).

Indeed, this is one way to expand on the notion of ecology towards speculative artistic methods. Perhaps this too could be accounted as part of the idea of speculative methodologies (see also Bogost 2012: 28-32); the work of opening up software, hardware and building DIY devices as speculative metaphysics through engineering (see also the Critical Engineering manifesto, 2011), and how the devices themselves are part of the architectures of governance, and the “new city” of power and control in which living bodies are intertwining. Or to think such in relation to Peter Sloterdijk’s call for “hyperbolic theory” that tries to grab hold of the otherwise fleeting, weird, novel realities of contemporary culture? (Thrift 2012, ix) The challenge is thus: To think of hyperbolic theory converted into design and artistic methods.This means design that is able to speak to the materiality of specific software and hardware realities, also infrastructure into new territories of governmentality (Easterling 2014). And it means artistic methods that are are aware of the long cascade of material relations in which artistic practice enacts itself.

One recent example of mobilizing a range of materialities as part of their work have been the workshops on decrystallization and recrystallization  by Kemp and Jordan together with microresearch (Howse). Decrystallization was the 1st of the series initiated and organised by Kemp with Jordan in London and expanded with Howse as Recrystallization in Berlin. The Crystal World was a distinct, third part of the series with a version in Berlin in February 2012 and in Summer 2012 a version in London.

Besides the Crystal World Open Laboratory – a mix of experiments “aiming to reconfigure the various mineral components used in computers in novel arrays by deforming their processors and memory combined with ancestral rock ores in powders and in solutions, treated with acid solutions, high heat, high voltage, electrolytic process, photochemistry, and finally saturated in crystallizing baths” the August 2012 exhibition acted as another node in their events. The latter is introduced consisting of IT junk and minerals, but where the emphasis is on an aspect of living. It is pitched as a “living experiment”, “a cybernetic parody to escalate and draw attention to entropy (the movement from order to chaos) in the crystalline pathologies of raw mineral and constructed computer".  (The Crystal World: Space: Opening). Languages of junk, pathology, of geology and chemical reactions fuse themselves in the descriptions of methods by Kemp, Jordan and Howse.

One could contextualize their work in DIY and software art methodologies, at times borrowing for instance from psychogeographics as well but such labels are not entirely covering the experimental take. One could also speak of the psychogeophysical variation that their work offers (see Parikka 2015, 59-82). Partly hacktivism, partly speculative materialism with a media archaeological twist, their works tackle with various hardware, noise and software themes. Mitchell Whitelaw (2013) has aptly addressed Howse’s work - together with Ralf Baecker’s Irrational Computing - in terms of “sheer hardware” and expanding material media theory through novel computational art practices. But the trio’s workshops on de- and re-crysallization engaged in the themes of waste, electronic waste, and obsolescence; by gathering old and obsolete technologies and exposing them to various chemical and exploratory hacking techniques with the aim to investigate the machine as a crystal – a product of condensation, that could be also de-crystallised into its constituent parts of gold, silver, other minerals and chemical “parts” that are the crysallisation of various earth- into contemporary machine culture. This points towards the quite “rough” materiality and labour processes of which media technology is made of and could also be said to flag the connection to the global political economy of resources. Often discussed in terms of “coltan” in media studies (coltan is the important mineral mined in Congo and a key part of various electronic devices, including mobile phones), but the list of resources facing being exhausted include for instance lithium and cobalt – both important, for instance, for batteries (Anderson 2012). Besides the specific minerals, even more interesting is the question as to how the materiality of such elements entangles with the highly developed logistical routing of the planetary - and hence involves questions of labour at its core. (See the Logistical Worlds-project: http://logisticalworlds.org/).With an increasing political economic interest in the extended networks of media production and discarded media, we have a better spatial understanding of the grim labour, electronic waste and other neo-colonialist emphases of digital economy (Rossiter 2011, Cubitt 2011, Parikka 2011, Gabrys 2011. Maxwell and Miller 2012. See also Parikka 2015).

The workshops in Berlin and London offered a geographical planetary mirror; to resituate the otherwise often spatially dislocated practices of disuse and to dismantle old cpus, wires and such. The situated practices questioned how to open up computers to this geological and conceptual level of materiality and labour. Whereas circuit bending and hardware hacking are innovative methodologies for engaging with the material aspects of electronic culture, they have still been partly captured as part of the maker-cultures boom. Empowering users, such practices are educating and modifying a DIY approach to media tech in an age where “closed” and “sealed” inviolability is both a wider legal (DRM) strategy and a design solution (on the micropolitics of closed design, see Hertz and Parikka 2012). Indeed, with a clear relation, these workshops push towards even more speculative dimensions, which are not content to modify but more radically dismantle technology to such constituent bits where the materiality is not primarily seen only as high tech media.

In terms of media art histories, dead media and other theoretical and methodological approaches, the work of de- and recrystallization does not exactly involve traditional art methodologies or follow the canon of aesthetic theory. It opens up to another sort of an alternative art history and to a different way of understanding cultural heritage of abandoned, old technological culture. It deals with 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 .” (http://archive.ctm-festival.de/ctm-festival/exhibition/the-crystal-world.html) Having said that, there are however some interesting resonances with some other current artistic and critical practices. We can flag the proximity, even if in different institutional contexts and with varying objectives, of computer forensics, digital archaeology, and other modes of disgorging machines as part of the epistemology  in such conjunctions, art practices meet up with DIY and critical engineering.  

Speculative conceptual archaeologies take into account crude methods hacking open, disgorging, melting, chemically processing the motherboard and other components of the computational machines; a process of literal de-composing of information technology. The Crystallisation workshops, including the extended weeklong “Crystal World” at the Transmediale festival 2012, tapped into this field directly, using methods that mimic human labour practices in the extraction of valuable components and material from abandoned technology.  Hence, the notion of crystal became a way to investigate both the material constitution of the information technology and the labour processes necessary for their construction. The seeming frozenness of the deliberately sealed, constructed computer is here the literal understanding of the crystal, which however, is not merely to be understood as the rhetorics of open vs. closed that has been such a crucial hinge for hacktivist politics. Obviously, promoting openness both in terms of legal, hardware and software matters is what still has importance across a wider tech policy spectrum for instance, but resting on the automatic bliss of open technology is not enough to tackle with the more complex routes capitalist processes of labour and management of production take. Indeed, this is why the Crystallisation projects need to be recognized for what they are: the investigation of the mineral and substrate materialities as well as the materialities of production, management of global labour processes, and various other materialities that are always entangled.

What I want to propose is that such projects are emblematic of speculative media archaeologies and artistic practices that combine poetic and technological takes on deep times (Zielinski 2006), but ones that are deeply material, too  not just written histories or performances or artworks, but archaeologies of soil and the history of the earth. In another context, I have connected this to the theme of the Anthropocene and even twisted it into the neologism: Anthrobscene. (Parikka 2014). The artistic projects of speculative crypto histories of the earth refer to the concrete sedimentations of minerals and substrate that provides its affordance for the contemporary high tech culture. This backtracking leads to a different genealogy and deep time of what conditions our media technological culture: a media history of rocks and soil.

For Siegfried Zielinski (2006), the research into the deep time of the media is described as his media historical version of paleontology. Referring to Stephen Jay Gould, Zielinski’s excavations are not staying within the regime of media archaeology, but want to uncover a non-linear layering of variations. Indeed, in a manner that seems to be borrowing from a Deleuze-Guattarian ontology of nomadism and the primacy of variation (without however explicitly making this link), Zielinski’s methodology is in this sense a refusal of any master plans of media development and a plea against both the drive towards psychopathia medialis (the standardization and uniformity as well as illusions of teleology). Instead, the geological conceptualisation of a media history of variations finds surprising case studies: from Empedocles and della Porta to electricity through Galvani and Ritter to optics and acoustics discovered and investigated in Jesuit circles – not least by Athanius Kircher.  

Even if Zielinski uses the geological and even non-human metaphor, and does include various exemplary ideas of a media history of cultural techniques concerning differing organic elements – water, soil, modifications of the means for seeing and hearing – I would suggest pushing further towards an even more geological and at the same time technical deep time of the media.

In other words, this practice-based proposal for an alternative deep time of the media is what expands to geological deep times. It investigates media materiality through a different, quite concrete and long-term investment in geological times of media as crucial for processes of subjectivation. From a Geology of Morals (Deleuze and Guattari 2004; Delanda n.d.) we can move to a Geology of Media (Parikka 2015) when understood through various stratifications and deep times. Unlike Zielinski’s media historical, anarchaeological, call, this alternative deep time reaches towards the planetary as a determination of multiple layers of chemico-organic as well as inorganic processes that work in energetic and material assemblages.  Concretely, deep time becomes a way to understand how chemicals, minerals and materials – as well as labour – contribute the essential elements to “persistence of hardware” (to borrow a term from the critical game I-Mines (http://i-mine.org/) in the current information technology culture. This persistence of hardware can itself be read as persistence of media as hardware (See Cubitt, Palmer & Walkling 2012, 48).

Such artistic practices engage with that other level of non-human social memory of technical culture. This sort of a social memory is not only about human technics but also the various levels of duration and of memory in the chemicals. So these are procedures of repurposing computer tech and components and minerals, but also techniques to investigate materiality of technology as well as the materiality of temporality of which our technical media culture consists. As a way to think through the chemical-mineral base of the crystallised media machines, and working that into a methodology of de-crystallizing information technology, this means looking at the stratification of various mineral and chemical layers in the machine itself. The project(s) suggest the machine itself becomes an archaeological excavation site – this deep time becomes concretely tied to earth times.

Contemporaneous with the various crystal-related projects with Kemp and Jordan, Martin Howse has been continuing the theme of geological times in the the “earthcodes project: substrate/shifting the site of execution” (http://www.1010.co.uk/org/earthcode.html). Whereas in the crystallisation projects the machines became the sites of the excavation of deep times, of strata of material layers and the “fantastic power of the commodity-form to abstract itself from the experience of labour and life” (Rossiter 2011), in this more recent project the theme of deep times is carried over to the external milieus that are made bootable. So, how do you boot from the Earth?

The project outlines the relation of technology to geology as the material substrate.  In the project’ description, this relation to the regime of software as the emphasized and yet invisible part of contemporary digital economy becomes articulated in a manner resonating with the persistence of the hardware thesis: “Substrate equally presents a set of economic, political and economic consequences which contrast with software's lack of coded visibility, its inevitable "encryption".  (Ibid.)

Substrate in this sense is what characterizes the material take on deep times – ofearth times that are both found in the materiality of the machines as well as a supporting stratum. If recent non- or post-human philosophies have tried to articulate a world irreducible to the human-world correlationist epistemology, I am suggesting the same in terms of temporalities: the necessity of vocabularies and understanding of non-human temporal scales. Besides being a way to mobilize the materiality of information technology again in experimental practices and situations, the focus on substrate also flags its mutability – as becomes evident in the longer quote below:

“Substrate can refer to a (mined) semiconductor base which is later doped, etched, imprinted on with other minerals and materials within a complex industrial process to form an electrical logic gate, a processing unit, the core of the networked machinery which surrounds us. Substrate interfaces with code, yet this set of symbolic, linguistic and logical operations denies the being-substrate, just as the carrier of any signal is erased by the receiver. The mineral necessity of this substrate is equally effaced; logic gates, and thus full computers can be constructed from water jets, from slime moulds, with the former proving particularly useful within paranoid military scenarios as being resilient to high energy electromagnetic attack [EMP].” (http://www.1010.co.uk/org/earthcode.html)

Of course, it is not only the microresearch projects that are going back to the deep times of media as geology or substrate. Indeed, besides a range of projects that might tap into biomedia and related biological contexts for mediatic and technological process, we might examine the recent übermorgen “oil painting gulf” work as perhaps one way to tie into experimental projects media, visual arts and geology. The group’s artwork emerged 13 days after the BP explosion and crude oil leak had started in the Gulf of Mexico, leading the artist group to announce, with satire, how oil painting is finally back, adopting an art historical discourse for the event of massive proportions that is now both live AND part of bio-art as well: “Finally oil painting has evolved into generative bio-art, a dynamic process the world audience can watch live via mass media. Never before has this art form been as relevant and visible as today - only 9-11 was nearly as perfect, but in the genre of performance art. An oil painting on a 80.000 square miles ocean canvas with 32 million liters of oil - a unique piece of art.” (http://rhizome.org/editorial/2010/may/5/deephorizon-2010-ubermorgencom/)

When oil painting becomes imagined on the massive scale of a geo-ecological disaster seen from space, we need to be able to imagine the other times of disaster too.  This is where the notion of speculation becomes tied to a specific non-human temporality as well. This is a topic that entangles to the way in which Tim Morton (2010) has mobilized the concept of “hyperobjects” to deal with objects that are non-reducible to one particular locality and massively distributed in time and space, such as global warming and radioactive materials. We can and perhaps even have to to pose such questions concerning the fabric of time constructed of and by non-humans. It is also why some questions concerning epistemology of such times – of deep times of the earth and its frequency, that might rock below 1 hz – are tackled in media artistic practices, such as sonification of earthquakes. Florian Dombois’ projects remind of this particular mode of knowledge production for the sake of how it uses the affordances of the ear, and their connection with the earth: “the eye is good for recognizing structure, surface and steadiness, whereas the ear is good for recognizing time, continuum, remembrance and expectation.” (Dombois 2011).

We encounter a media materialism not only concerning the material specificity of the engineered science perspectives, that so often is emphasized in German media theory, but the mineral durations that sound more like Manuel Delanda if the theorist would do computer-chemistry: A thousand years of non-linear history, although now millions of years of non-linear computing history starts with the minerals, geology, substrates and more that go into building computers (for a longer elaboration of this idea, see Parikka 2015).

To proceed towards some conclusions, and as one way to illuminate the link between speculative ontologies and the alternative deep times of media, let’s work through some of Reza Negarestani’s writings concerning deep times. Indeed, in a similar manner as Negarestani investigates in his Cyclonopedia – a work of theory-fiction – speculating about the petropolitical deep layer as the living soil of Middle East, we can point towards the work of the London and Berlin partners, Kemp, Jordan and Howse, and other workshops as chemical and material deep layers that go two ways: not just the route of media archaeology interested in obsolescence, abandoned technology and antiquated objects, but the other sort of descent, to adopt Michel Foucault’s idea, perhaps implicitly part of some methodologies of media art histories and media archaeology: to descend inside the machine, into the technical, but at such a level that exposes a material, abstract level of connections, affordances and capacities (cf. Parikka 2012, 80-82).  In such a methodology, the depth of time extends across materialities – from the fictional narrativization to the hardware materiality and the long duration of mineral elements that entangle with that of human energy exploited for various excavations. In Earthcodes-project, the mobilisation of substrate entangles with Bram Stoker’s Dracula-novel of 1897 with the transported Transylvanian soil as the transmission vector for the virality of the vampire count.  

Kemp, Jordan together with Howse’s microresearch adapt an element of speculative fiction as part of their material methodologies in a manner that is reminiscent of Friedrich Kittler’s way of mobilizing similar references – in this latter microresearch case especially Bram Stoker’s novel and often Pynchon’s work. In addition, we can also refer to Negarestani’s work: a speculative media archaeological materialism of substrate, but investigated not only by the human epistemologist but by and across a spectrum of agencies of more and less than two legs.  As a topological conceptualisation, and interested in this poetic and speculative materialism, allow me to end through a longer reference toCyclonopedia. What if such speculative media archaeologies and artistic methodologies are something that share methods with archaeologists but also with “cultists, worms and crawling entities”, agencies of the substrate, working with corpses that I would add are not perhaps only dead media but also zombie media of materiality that refuses to be dead. The environment is turned over and has become an unvironment, an ungrounding.

“If archeologists, cultists, worms and crawling entities almost always undertake an act of exhumation (surfaces, tombs, cosmic comers, 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 such as trauma and memory are transported into material methodologiesThe “novel crystal earth geologies” extend the work of material recovery and reuse into “psychophysical distortions and contingencies” in a gesture which might share an enthusiasm with multiple ecologies (dark and otherwise). This ungrounding of figures can be extended besides an archival impulse to proliferate surfaces but also a methodological transmutation that sees the psychogeographic in the machine, and extends the machine to its material, ecological, mineral and chemical constituents. Any rupture, dysfunctionality and failure of the machine might open up to a crack that transports one across the global through the logistics channels; and deep down to the earth into the substrate, and deeper. 

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