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Response to Media Ecologies by Matthew Fuller

Elli Pollard (graduate student, Department of Art (SUNY at Buffalo):

Media Ecologies
Materialist Energies In Art and Technoculture
by Mathew Fuller

In his book Media Ecologies, Mathew Fuller promotes two primary themes.  First, he suggests that live interactions without a control sample are the only way to find out what happens when complex objects such as media systems interact.  He wants objects to be understood to mean processes embodied as objects like elements in a composition.  An object is the stabilization of energy.  Second, he promotes a materialist account of the world in which delight is taken in the conceptuality of real objects, for all objects are poetic.  He explores works that cross the border from one object to another and while doing so allow other worlds to enter and mutate conventionality.

The R, the A, the D, the I, the O: The Media Ecology of Pirate Radio

In this chapter, Fuller begins his argument for machine, digital, and electronic aesthetics.  He sites the Dada aesthetic of collage, a patchwork made up of singular parts.  He organizes his singular parts in the form of a list.  He likens each item on the list to an object – one that can be opened up and permeated.

Transmitter, Microwave Link, Aerial, Transmission, and Studio Sites

Here Fuller sites Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus.  “The machinic phylum is materiality, natural or artificial, and both simultaneously; it is matter in movement, in flux, in variation, matter as a conveyor of singularities and traits of expression.”  Deleuze and Guattari are again sited when emphasizing the morphogenic capabilities of material itself: the movements when a series of forces, capacities, and predispositions intermesh to make something else occur, to move into a state of self-organization.  Fuller goes on to define Hylomorphism as “a model of the genesis of form as external to matter as imposed from the outside like a command on a material which is thought inert and dead.”  Recognizing hylomorphism allows accounts of technicity and media to escape from a merely semiological reading of the world into an expanded involvement with and of it.  This involvement in pirate radio includes interactions of the multiple social, linguistic, algorithmic, technical, and other drives that merge and recombine in the media ecology.  When this interaction works – when it generates mutually excitatory fervor – it works as a result of all these combinations crossing into another state.  Furthermore, the machinic phylum of pirate radio crosses not simply that of its constituent technologies, but a field of social, juridical, legislative, political, and economic formations.

Records, Record Shops, Studios, Dub Plates, Turntables, Mixers, Amplifiers, Headphones

Here is a fascinating account of how to make a voice, which entails being fastened to a small glossy-leaved tree while running in vegetable oil and simultaneously speaking into an oxygen mask fitted with a contact mic.  The mic feeds into a computer running speech-recognition software.  The manipulation of a set parameter of frequency and speed of vibration abolishes the soul.  The sampled voice becomes part of the rhythmic mix, rather than an indexical hook.

Drugs, Clubs, Parties, Flyers, Stickers, Stickers, Posters

In promoting the concept of social networks combining as part of a scene, Fuller says that dosing bodies with chemicals requires that such bodies must first be organized into a mass, a user base, and that this mass must have verifiably similar dysfunctions and organs in order to generate a requisite level of demand.

Reception Technologies, Reception Locations, DJ Tapes

Expanding the range and possibility of media ecology is the somewhat possible scenario in which one could be listening to music on a radio, from a record, being played on a phone that was made by the same company (he uses the example of Sony) that manufactured all of the other equipment.  Making this a stronger possibility is the task of the company.

Phones, SMS
Attention is paid here to the particular material qualities of elements that form the media ecology, which in combination can provide a route into numerous layers of possibilities.  If we begin to take these elements apart, each component provides a chance to get smaller (molecular) while at the same time getting more massive.  The discrete and the dynamic should not be reduced to grand isolates, but rather the interplay should be examined.

The Camera That Ate Itself

Fuller narrows his field of investigation down to a single media object: John Hilliard’s 1971 series of photographs, A Camera Recording Its Own Condition (7 apertures, 10 speeds, 2 mirrors).  Of concern is the notion that a technology is a bearer of forces and drives; is made up of them.  Also, a technology is composed by the mutual intermeshing of various other forces that might be technical, aesthetic, economic, chemical – that might have to do with capacities if human bodies as affordances – and which pass between and are composed through and among all such bodies.

One such force is the will to power. Nietzsches’ writing on the subject has been described by Alphonso Lingis as being “the chaos, the primal fund of the unformed – not matter but force beneath the cosmos, which precedes the forms and makes them possible as well as transitory.”  Power is the condition of life.  In relation to the question of the composition and arrangement of drives, will to power, within media, it should be recognized that there are substantial political stakes in any figuration of the processes of technical and medial invention.  Conglomerations of forces and materials have the capacity to take part in the making of the world.  Every force whether chemical, biological, social, or political is related to other forces, and either obeys or commands.  Every relation of forces constitutes a body.

We come back to A Camera Recording Its Own Condition (7 apertures, 10 speeds, 2 mirrors).  It was created at a time of more general “crisis of the object.”  Here the material limits of a camera are exhibited by the recording of its speed and aperture.  The work allows a route into the drives that compose the camera by mobilizing two sets of interconnected and antagonistic relations of force and in doing so measures out its own collapse.  This piece can be understood as the result of a cross section through a material instance of numericalization.  Numericalization allows for the transfer of labor from the worker to the machine.  A Camera Recording… achieves the paradox of achieving self-referentiality, but simultaneously eliminating the “self”.  In this work we can read its relation to its outside.  Its material capacity is within the same acceptability of cultural, familial, juridical, journalistic, erotic, and other formulations of reference and representation.  Also, what is exploited is the chasm between form and formlessness.

How This Becomes That
This chapter covers three works: Embryo Firearms, by Cornelia Parker; The Switch, by Jakob Jakobsen; BITRadio, by Bureau of Inverse Technology; and by the way, by Germaine Koh.

First is a discussion of a story by Franz Kafka’s in which telephone and telegraph wires were put up in a complete circle around Warsaw.  This created a social space in the form of a private courtyard (Eruv).  This is an example of the use of the material properties of a preexisting media system by another significant code that captures it for new purposes.  Various economic, ecological, material dynamics, potentials, and constraints all combine to make this possible.  There is a capacity here to distinguish, mobilize, and connect medial powers in relation to other compositional formations.  The use of objects is determined by their arrangement, interpretation, layering, reuse and other operation.

With Parker’s sculpture, Embryo Firearms, two pieces of steel that are in the first stages of becoming a pistol are put together to roughly form the shape of a handgun.  The work shows the potential of the material and its conjunction with a series of dynamics eventually leading to death.  However, there are no correct answers here, but rather a set of potentials that can be thought and sensed through.

The Switch by Jakob Jakobsen involves an on/off switch that was temporarily installed on a streetlight on a cul-de-sac.  This simple alteration causes an explosion of potential in a settled technology.  There is no democratic order as to the use of the light.  There is a release of an insight into the arrangement of forces that make up the body of this system.  The work makes politics.
One activity of BITRadio coincided with the World Economic Forum in 2002, and was located on a rooftop near the WEF event.  Their transmitter was set to take over a local NPR station for one-second alert breaks.  This happened each time toxins fluctuated over the EPA set level.  Here a type of information is isolated as being the socially significant crunch-point of a crisis.

A year earlier, in 2001, the work by the way was installed inside of the previously existing sculpture Torre de los Vientos located in the midst of constant Mexico City traffic.  A live audio-video feed monitors the passing traffic.  The audio feed is processed to resemble gusts of wind that correspond to each passing car.  In real time the wind gusts are broadcast over an existing radio station know for its traffic reports.  As such, the commuters can listen to their own passage in the form of a simultaneous traffic/weather report.  This anonymous, non-commercial audio clip reclaims frenetic commercial spaces to gently remind commuters of other worlds of activity.  In revealing the position of the listener as a sensor that has been separated from any direct means of incitation the work gains political charge, but in implying missing forms of connection it also attains powers of paradox.

The account of the BITRadio action also achieves paradox in the sense that in order for the work to break one regulation (FCC), it is dependent on other organizations, people, economies, technologies, and materials to break others (EPA).  In addition it provides feedback between the ecological impacts of technologies and social forms such as governments and capitalisms.  However, it not only makes visible, but also adds another set of processes to the world and makes non-standard connections.

Solutions create problems, development of the concrete generates reverberations that knock the other elements out of balance, and this provides opportunity.  These works acknowledge their involvement in such a process, twist or tweak it, and add the results to the composition.

Seams, Memes, and Flecks of Identity

The work involved here, Cctv-world wide watch, consists of a series of Web pages by Heath Bunting published at irrational.org.  Users are encouraged to watch shots from four webcams and if they see a crime, are encouraged further to report it via HTML/fax to a police station.  As this information travels from street to image to network to text, the Web site begs the question “what ‘flecks of identity’ constitute proof?”

The combination of media systems is explored in the chapter through a series of specific approaches: memetics , a set of theories in which cultural elements and processes are proposed as being evolutionary; seamlessness, the condition of an uncondition of an uncomplicated confluence of media systems; and surveillance, the medial drive to spot, name, and control.
Explored are the interrelations of media the site stages: locations – the artists’ group and business; changes of a site; relations of text to image; the form and the fax; the “witness” of low quality footage; spatiality of the net; police station as media ecology.

The precursor to the Cctv site is a response to it; a cease and desist email from the Marketing Director of one of the cameras. This could be placed first to bring more interest to the site, to show off a “trophy”, or as a variation on the uses of documentation as artwork which aims to lock part of it solely while providing a new opportunity for mobilization.

The entire site is composed of non-legit links: the ‘cease and desist’ site in Leicester Square (London), one in Spain, and in Germany.  Their feeds consist of such low quality images, it adds to its overall seaminess.  In Manhattan a lump crosses the street and projects an arm/knife/scarf then the lump becomes part of a blob.  The overall crappy quality of all the sites makes  them functionally unusable for surveillance.  However, this does not stop “crimes” from being reported.

Crime: I’m not certain but I believe the Caucasian (weight approx 180 lbs) in the white shirt is wearing crimplene trousers…
Crime: tree breaking in to shop. send reinforcements immediately

The Cctv site allows users to see the results of previous users’ informing only after they have also submitted a completed form.  This makes the work in one sense collaborative.  Its structure and allotment of information from multiple sources points towards the beginnings of an ethico-aesthetic, which is simultaneously systematic, medial, and social.

While the site is promoted by Fuller as mobilizing and twisting the weak position of the potential honest citizen helping police, this is part if its nonrepresentational effect. It whittles away at resources, time, and attention.  Given the extreme codification of crime, the poor image quality and slow rate of refreshing images (nonobservation), the odd link of media and codes, and all of the other linked elements’ scales and dimensions of relationality, the site allows a route of observation and play with their mixing and interference.  This connects the formulation, production, and shaping of “results” directly to medial devices, representational forms, coding and decoding protocols, data organization, media in the process of invention, and use by mobilizations.  It is made available to its limited audience (police stations) and is done live without a control. The work butts media systems up against each other, makes them produce seams, and in doing so makes it possible to patch together something of another order.

What is of great interest here is potentially the formation of the world we know through interactions of poetic ”objects” in the space between form and formless.  However, Mathew Fuller in speaking of layers upon layers of intermingling energies, notably leaves out what could be an interesting discourse on spirituality (although he does mention fervor) as this would potentially break outside of his version of scholarly academics and possibly necessitate what some would refer to as faith.  It should be noted however, that in turning away from what some would consider a blind faith in spirituality allows for a fascinating, somewhat scientific analysis of the unseen, and therefore offers the possibility of a greater knowledge of our world.

Additional Reading

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2. Trans. Brian Massumi. Athlone, London, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. Michel Foucault: The Essential Works, vol. 1: Ethics. Ed. Paul Rabinow. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London, 2000.

Guattari, Felix. Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm. Trans. Paul Baines and Julian  Pefanis. Power Publications, Sydney, 1995.

Jakobsen, Jakob. “The Switch.” Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration 5: 90-91.

Kafka, Franz. The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-23. Ed. Max Brod. Penguin, London, 1964

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Trans. Stuart Kaufmann. Vintage Books, New York, 1968.

Submitted by Eli Pollard

References/ Recommended Reading

No references for this section.