Monday, 31 January 2011

Media Archaeology -event in NY

Someone just emailed me with this information blurb about a conference taking place in New York, in March - a very interesting one indeed, that articulates itself in relation to media archaeology, as well as flags it still as an emerging approach -- especially in the US. And great to see Jonathan Crary as the opening speaker...

Media Histories. Epistemology, Materiality, Temporality,

Columbia University / Princeton University / Bauhaus University (IKKM Weimar) New York, 24.-26. März 2011

How can we write the history of media technologies and highlight their impact on aesthetics and knowledge without relapsing into deterministic or apocalyptic modes of thinking? And how can we write the histories of media without privileging cultural semantics over the technical materialities of media? What constitutes the materiality of a medium: its technological apparatus, the epistemic conditions of its gradual emergence and evolution, or its appropriation and use in various cultural practices? How do disciplinary epistemologies shape or impede our understanding of media? To what extent do media write and conceive of their own history and evolution?

In the last two decades the history and materiality of media have become central analytic issues within the humanities and social sciences. The inextricable link between the study of media and the means and methods of writing history calls for revising the conflicting priorities of various fields that range from the philosophy of history to the history of technology. This conference aims at examining and juxtaposing the competing paradigms that delineate the field of media history. The rise of media archaeology in Germany has spawned a distinctive tradition, whose influence is only beginning to be felt in North America. But in this tradition, the study of media histories was originally pursued not for its own sake but to reconceptualize the histories of literature, science, and aesthetics through an analysis of their dependence on media. In the same period in the U.S., early cinema emerged as a new paradigm in film studies; art historians began to conceptualize material transformations of sensory perception, and historians of science set out to highlight the material agency of technologies. Disciplines as diverse as architecture, anthropology and literary studies, have also begun to stretch our conceptions of the discursive and technical origins of media technologies.

The international symposium will bring together scholars from both sides of the Atlantic and from these various disciplines to assess the differences and commonalities that constitute the historical study of media. Taking place from March 24 to March 26, 2011 on the campus of Columbia University, the conference is organized by the Columbia University Seminar on the Theory and History of Media (Stefan Andriopoulos, Brian Larkin), the International Research Institute for Cultural Technologies and Media Philosophy Weimar (IKKM Weimar; Lorenz Engell, Bernhard Siegert), the Program in Media and Modernity and the Aesthetics and Media Track of the German Department at Princeton University (Thomas Levin, Nikolaus Wegmann), and the Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University (Reinhold Martin).

The conference will be opened with a keynote lecture by Jonathan Crary and feature an evening lecture by Joseph Vogl. Four panels will juxtapose and contrast different approaches to an overlapping set of materials and questions.

Thursday, 27 January 2011


Don’t start mapping the archaeology of Facebook from history of social media, or stories about the history of the internet.

Start with the face. Start with the contorted expression, whether of terror or joy, or pure intoxication.

When beginning with the most banal bit of social media, do not ignore the 19th century use of photographic facial expressions for scientific purposes. Charles Darwin himself was interested in the evolutionary aspects of faces and expressions, and at the centre of much interest lies a curious book by the neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne: The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression, or an Electro-physiological Analysis of the Expression of the Passions Applicable to the Practice of the Fine Arts (1862)

Face as the grounding of identity and how it is used as the iconic body part of a whole social media culture is taken to be something natural, something human, whereas already in the 19th century, it was deciphered as an index of more animal features. Duchenne worked at the Salpêtrière hospital which later became known for its hysteric (female) patients, and the variety of new media based experiments and empirical methods by Charcot.

Duchenne however already in the 1860s was using photography as a method to tap into the animal forces of the face. Photography offered him a way to capture the formal features of expressions with patients used as the models. Yet, two different time scales clashed. Photographic processes demanded a lot of time and holding the face still was difficult –Duchenne was using as his models mentally and physically ill patients. Instead of making photographic process quicker, he slowed down the body. By applying electrodes in right places of the face, the subject froze and kept the expression long enough – and becoming more than a fleeting expression, and an index for more scientific purposes (indeed, Darwin was using these photographs, and as source I have used here Phillip Prodger’s Darwin’s Camera, Oxford University Press, 2009, 81-83). Darwin himself used further engravings from the photographs, where the electrodes were removed – to look the poses slightly more…natural.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The archive and heritage institutions in the digital age - an interview with Dr Robin Boast

As flagged earlier, I believe that one of the key issues that Media Archaeology can address is how we are rethinking and redoing the archive - and more generally cultural memory institutions - in the age of software. Wolfgang Ernst is one of the key media archaeology scholars offering ideas towards the concept of archive -- emphasizing how storage is conflating with search algorithms, and how we need to rethink archives as dynamic time-critical entities.

I also interviewed Dr Robin Boast from the Cambridge Museum for Archaeology and Anthropology on this topic and the interview can be heard as part of our Creative Technologies Review podcast, episode 11. Dr Boast is able to flag important and fresh ideas of how our cultural institutions of memory are taking into account the new networked environments - and where there is still much work to be done.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Archaeology of Programming: the Hollerith

Archaeologies of programming -- a picture from the Science Museum (London) collections of the Hollerith machine punch card punching machine. Through this you were able to make the punch cards with the statistical information for the late 19th century statistical purposes of US census. To be honest, I think this is a slightly later punching machine than from the 1890 census, but still, principle is the same and illustrates the mechanical nature of coding information on the cards.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The Archive

I am starting to write a new chapter for the book -- this time on the notion of the archive, while enjoying the short term fellowship with the Science Museum, London. Here follows a short summary of where I am starting -- and hopefully discuss in this chapter how the dynamics of time-criticality of software has to be taken into account when talking about memory and archive in contemporary culture (important references being the work of Chun and Ernst among others), the personalisation of software archives with social media platforms, and the ensuing implications in the context of cognitive capitalism (without going into as thorough discussion as Stiegler does in his writings), as well as such forms of medium specific techniques as in computer forensics, and their potential relation to media archaeology (hoping to discuss Matt Kirschenbaum's work a bit). Cognizant of the discussions stemming from Jacques Derrida's Archive Fever, and other writings of recent years addressing the archive as a concept for cultural theory, I however find a lack of such writings which are able to both be theoretically fresh and rigorous and pay enough attention to medium and tech-specificity.

The notion of the archive lies at the centre of media archaeology – the implicit starting point for so much of historical research that it itself as a place, and a media form has been neglected, become invisible. At least in media archaeological writings, the archive has not been much debated – although, now, more recently, Wolfgang Ernst has been flagging the need to rigorously rethink the concept and practices of the archive in the age of technical media, and media archaeologists such as Huhtamo have been demanding that scholars meticulously do their home work – but not at home; first hand view to sources, materials and collections is demanded by Huhtamo as a crucial guideline for his emphasis on media archaeology as a historically empirical enterprise.

The centrality of the archive for any cultural and media archaeology is not least due to Foucault’s expansion of the concept from the concrete physical places of storage of cultural data to the discourses that govern modes of thinking, acting and expression of cultures. More concretely, we can see how the archive has been a key node in relaying and storing data of modern culture, and hence acted as a key medium in itself – very much connected to the bureaucratic mode of control alongside registering and manipulating data e.g. in offices and through office technologies (typewriters, calculators, spreadsheets, and later databases, software based applications, etc.). However, with the emergence of such new social media “archives” as Youtube, Flickr, etc., the whole notion of the bureaucratic archive has changed (Gane & Beer 2008: 71-86). Modes of accessing and storing data have changed from centrally governed to distributed and software-based, and the whole culture of digitality has been referred to as one of databases, instead of narratives (Manovich). This chapter investigates such new notions of the archive as modes of inscription of information and culture, connected to the new modes of economy and capitalism that frame the relations to more personal and easily accessible databases. What are the implications for our notions of cultural heritage from such a shift in the practices and discourses of the archive, and how does media archaeology lend itself into discourses concerning the archival and museum in software cultures?