Review: across & beyond – A transmediale Reader on Post-digital Practices, Concepts, and Institutions

Review of Ryan Bishop, Kristoffer Gansing, Jussi Parikka, and Elvia Wilk (eds.), across & beyond – A transmediale Reader on Post-digital Practices, Concepts, and Institutions (Sternberg Press, 2016), 352 pages, 15.00

Reviewed by Lai-Tze Fan

Book website: http://www.sternberg-press.com/index.php?pageId=1719

 

Abstract

Published in correlation with the thirtieth anniversary of the transmediale media art festival, across & beyond gathers together an international group of renowned artists and scholars. These festival participants and figures in the world of media art share their critical approaches and techniques for post-digital work—all the while exploring how to prevent such work from being appropriated and exploited by infrastructural systems of power. Featuring twenty-five essays and reflections, the text is organized into three sections—Imaginaries, Interventions, and Ecologies—that each focus on the “post-digital” as life before, within, and after the digital has made its mark. At the same time, the text succeeds in articulating the “complexities” and “contingencies” of the post-digital, proposing that alternate temporalities, spatial structures, and narratives can be understood together and at once.

 

Keywords

transmediale, media, infrastructure, media archaeology, ecology, intervention, narrative

 

across & beyond — A transmediale Reader on Post-digital Practices, Concepts, and Institutions marks the thirtieth anniversary of the transmediale media art festival in Berlin. The text is not a collection of select artworks of festivals’ passed, but rather, it serves as a critical negotiation of the artistic practices, scholarly approaches, and cultural mediations that transmediale has over three decades come to represent. For this reason, the editors, Ryan Bishop, Jussi Parikka, Kristoffer Gansing, and Elvia Wilk, describe it as a “standalone volume” that “forges a different temporal relationship between [curatorial] ideas and gives them a different way of traversing art, design, and academia. This feeds back to [a] broader consideration of what an art and digital culture festival can be, and should be” (14-5).

Festival director and author Kristoffer Gansing recounts that from its onset in 1987, transmediale mirrored and emerged as a response to the computational and electronic “mediascape” that pervaded quotidian culture. Renewing itself over the years as a means to continue responding, transmediale’s increased significance as a globally recognized art event also mirrors the utter ubiquity that this mediascape has now reached. Who among us can escape participating in digital infrastructure and how media affect the ways we encounter the world today? Even bibliophile readers who purchase across & beyond because they prefer a book format over a screen are not exempt, as today’s published books are first digitally formatted and rendered. However, as I remark on the digital as if it is some “point of no return,” I will echo Gansing’s warning not to imagine narratives of progress or renewal (41)—not for the festival as not for technology: determinism is an institutional trap that the contributors are all intent on avoiding.

With this critical positioning, the work here is not described as “digital”; this is too simple a diagnosis if we are to understand the extent of epistemological shifts. The editors hold that the “post-digital” is “not necessarily preoccupied with the digital as such, but with life after and in the digital, working across old and new, digital and analog” (11). To be “digital” could be described as to embark in or participate within digital modes of communication, being, practice, aesthetics, and knowledge. What is presented here instead is the cultural work thereafter tasked to artists and scholars—and potentially, users—alike, who observe that the embark is over, the robotic form has crystallized and the transformation is complete. And so, the more urgent questions of being and becoming are necessary: what now? What then? What next? These questions are offered to readers as possible critical as well as historical positionings within a digital age, encouraging multiple perspectives of the same phenomenon.

By my estimation, this is what is meant by the post-digital and its described “contingencies” (15). As a theoretical notion, it is clearly influenced by the field of media archaeology’s focus on media materialism as well as alternate, dynamic, and multitudinous understandings of temporality, space, and narratives. The post-digital also attempts to address critical infrastructure studies, which are more important than ever to media theorists, digital humanists, media artists, communication scholars, and information scientists—to anyone who is interested in relationships between technology and power, as well as how to mediate them.

Yet, those who come seeking an answer about a post-digital theory will leave with many answers and questions—and this is the point. The contributions emphasize critical thinking that is not only multitudinous, but also simultaneous, not unlike post-structuralist studies of multiplicity and difference. The post-digital is distinguished in its objectives of evade and escape, which Florian Cramer describes in the 2014 essay “What is ‘Post-digital’?” (2014) as a productive skepticism towards “the notion of the computer as the universal machine, and the notion of digital computational devices as all-purpose media” (n.p.) The foci of evade and escape therefore come out of the resistance or disenchantment of an “inescapable” digital condition—especially one with economic and political priorities. Intentional evasion and escape attempt to resist the exploitation of media, art, and digital art by neoliberal institutionalization and capitalization, whether in the art studio or the academy. Several essays, including the respective contributions by Cramer and Olia Lialina, note the commodification of technology that risks swallowing up anything critical to come out of media art. More broadly, the appropriation of algorithms, information, and aesthetics by structures of power is explored in a way that readers will recognize in the existing works of Paul Virilio, Bruno Latour, or Tiziana Terranova.

In this sense, across & beyond reads as a call to action. While the commodification of media technologies has long been established, the same plight exists for media art through institutionalization. For instance, it is entirely possible for the gifts of creativity and imagination to be used as fuel in a drive of perpetual progress. This drive brings to mind current changes in the production industry through maker spaces and practices, which on the one hand have the power to enable consumers to be producers of their own content and cultural objects, and on the other are subject to the worst kinds of neoliberal and post-industrial rhetoric: startup cultures promise decreased mind-to-make times, increased sharing cultures, and the birth of utopian gift economies. In contrast to this drive forward, author Jussi Parikka focuses on the laboratory as a space of imagination that performs “reverse engineering”: not to use technology to forge stories about the future, but instead, to tinker with technology backwards with a mode of historical consciousness, “a different sort of temporal horizon that orients toward the past” (81). The post-digital, in having to negotiate critique with neoliberalism, has shaped these new kinds of critique at work within thought-gathering spaces: libraries, labs, universities, reading groups, and so forth. And out of these efforts have taken flight the cutting-edge research initiatives of lab- and archived-oriented media archaeology (Parikka), applied media theory (O’Gorman 2012), and research-creation (Chapman and Sawchuk 2012).

On the institutionalization of making media art, author Dieter Daniels traces shifting notions of multi- and mixed media as they transpired in the late 1960s and 1970s. In particular, he outlines media art’s economic reliance upon “networks of galleries, collectors, and museums” (51), which brought on an eventual disciplinary clash. This resulting division, which can be epitomized in the pointed question “are you an artist or in the industry?”, no doubt continues to trouble artists working with technology as well as scholars working in media art or research-creation. Unsurprisingly, the group that appears to be exempt from the tensions of media mixing is the tech experts, who are able to utilize art and aesthetics toward all of their Silicon Valley dreams. Author Lialina’s analysis of Apple’s interface and App Store shows as much. It is “cool” to use art in technology—and here of course I think of Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool (2004), in which he astutely identifies a “viral aesthetics” and the rise in collaboration of arts and culture with science and engineering (318). across & beyond shows, as The Laws of Cool before it, art-cum-tech does not benefit equally.

Thus multiplicities are required to see all sides of stories. Several of the essays focus on a (precisely not the) subject who is altered by digital infrastructure, seeking a multitude of ways to understand them as: a subject who does not have to feel overwhelmingly helpless at current political situations (see de Lagasnerie); a subject who participates in a renewed sense of “public” (see Apprich and Rossiter) while also confronting the potential algorithmic control of the common and commons (see Terranova); a subject who is separated from information as a Debordian worker is separated from product (see Easterling); or, a subject who is interpolated into being part of this system by automated tracking machines that could define what “subject” is at all (see Bishop). These approaches to “subject,” however, does not mean that one singular subject is being proposed.

In fact, across & beyond is not a reconsideration of even a human subject alone. The decentralization of human subjects and their ekstasis (being beside oneself) with the nonhuman is crucial here: what are the other variables at play in the ecologies of digital infrastructure? The material, the environmental, the institutional. The third section of the text, “Ecologies,” necessitates comparative ontologies, claiming that the institutional “stacks” (as author Tiziana Terranova calls them, drawing upon Benjamin H. Bratton) of government, transnational bodies, and corporations create new ways of encountering ecologies. Reading the first section, “Imaginaries,” it could be said that across & beyond etches out a cartography of these ecologies. But if so, its formation would be preceded by the text’s overwhelming message of dynamicism. Process is emphasized over product, as author Keller Easterling reminds: “How do you diagram not solutions, but things that shouldn’t always work—not because they are marginal or weak, but because they are not ultimate or permanent?” (258). Instead of a defined space, site, or locale, the critical imagination “travels,” as Mieke Bal (2002) has described. Space is on the move.

Post-digital techniques are expressed as interventions rather than subversions with the precise concern that “subversive tactics have repeatedly been coopted by structures of power” (148). Instead, the post-digital appears to favour complicated structures and ways of looking and re-looking—and by this, I mean not only looking at something several times and in different ways, but also re-looking at what already exists before us. To this end, interventionist methods are analyzed in several essays towards key aspects of the digital, such as power, politics, locality, surveillance—notions that are so quotidian, they precisely deserve to be re-negotiated as the ubiqutous digital: “sovereign (or indifferent) media” by Apprich and Rossiter, “obfuscation” as political method by Dragona, examining the boring or mundane by Allen and Gauthier, and the value of thinking “local” by Bazzichelli.

In particular, the artist reflections demonstrate imaginary spaces of action. The imaginary spaces of action that ensue can take back critical space, forcing some balance. For instance, Jamie Allen ruminates over Geraldine Juárez’s performative burning of a Bitcoin wallet in the project Hello Bitcoin, through which Juárez is able to wield the destructive power of fire to denature how we think of “value.” Such actions offer ways to understand what remains in the “post”—even if it is ash and soot! These various imaginary shades in simultaneity start to form various narratives of time, so that the key of “post” comes to serve as speculation, as well as a means to prepare us to imagine back and forth, side by side.

Of the worldliness and magnitude of simultaneity, I found Louis Henderson’s Lettres du Voyant haunting. A cinematic analysis of materialism through the practices of gold mining in Ghana, Henderson’s reflection of the film project is accompanied by photographs of large fires, the gold refining process, scraps of eWaste, and a dark earthen tunnel of endless descent. Scattered among the photos is a harrowing poem that thinks of miners as “astrologers in reverse. Whereas astrologers gaze incessantly at the heavens and stray through those immeasurable spaces, miners turn their gaze into the earth and explore its structures” (287). I wish to think of Henderson’s piece, like those of other contributing media artists, as the shadows or haunts that can foster a dialogue with scholars. Such dialogue is needed now more than ever, holding critical thinkers and critical writings accountable to whom and what and when they speak.

I recommend reading across & beyond with other books in media and critical theory (see References below) that go across & beyond questions of digital content and that venture into the harder questions about ways of being that post-digital practices, concepts, and institutions can ask: why dynamicism? Why assemblages? Why simultaneous vantage points in the task of critique? Why non-binaries? Why the nonhuman? Why intervention? Why action—and how? across & beyond begins the labour of asking these questions, and all the while, the message hovers, ready: we cannot stay still in our work if we are to escape having it used against us.

 

References

Bal M (2002) Travelling Concepts in the Humanities. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Chapman O and Sawchuk K (2012) Research-creation: intervention, analysis and “family resemblances.” Canadian Journal of Communication 37: 5-26. Available at: http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/2489

Cramer F (2014) What is ‘post-digital?’ A Peer-Reviewed Journal About 3.1: n.p. Available at: http://www.aprja.net/?p=1318

Gane N (2005) Radical post-humanism: Friedrich Kittler and the primacy of technology. Theory, Culture & Society 22.3: 25-41. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0263276405053718

Lash S (2002) Critique of Information. London: SAGE; Theory, Culture & Society.

Liu A (2004) The Laws of Cool. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lury C, Parisi L, and Terranova T (2012) Introduction: the becoming topical of culture. Theory, Culture & Society 29.4-5: 3-35. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0263276412454552

O’Gorman M (2012) Broken tools and misfit toys: adventures in applied media theory. Canadian Journal of Communication 37.1: 27-42. Available at: http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/2519

Parikka J (2012) What is Media Archaeology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Tschofen M (2015) The denkbild (‘thought-image’) in the age of digital reproduction. Theory, Culture & Society 33.5: 139-157. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0263276415598628

Winthrop-Young G, Iurascu, I, and Parikka, J (eds.) (2013) Special issue: cultural techniques. Theory, Culture & Society 30.6. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/tcsa/30/6

 

Lai-Tze Fan is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media, Culture, and Narrative at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. Fan’s research on media materiality, interactive narratives, and the digital humanities has been published in the journals Convergence, Mosaic, and Digital Studies. E-mail: laitzefan@LN.edu.hk