Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fractured Media Materialities: On Geology of Media





BY JUSSI PARIKKA
Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton



Fracking is a controversial process of forcing the ground open in order to extract gas and oil. The process has had its deserved amount of critique because of the environmental hazards it poses and how such rather desperate means of fossil energy extraction are continuing the wider CO2-heavy era of technological culture.

But what is virtual, or photographic, fracking? In Grayson Cooke’s art project, Cooke replicates the idea of using chemicals to fracture and stimulate the earth to open it up but with a focus on photographic materials. The chemistry of media he engages with uses hydrochloric acid, acetic acid, and sodium hydroxide to “frack” the images of Australian sandstone and shale rock. The image is not a representation, nor an allegory, so much as a doubling of the violent geological process.

Cooke’s project is a fantastic way to introduce the central idea behind A Geology of Media. The book argues that in order to understand the materiality of media in the age of advanced technologies, we need to also look beyond the actual media devices. On the one hand, this can mean to address the wider infrastructures in which apparatuses are functional – communication enabled by cables, masts, power plants and also the logistics that catalyse the delivery of our energy and materials. And on the other hand, indeed the materials that support the existence of media as media: rare earths and other materials used in casings, cables, wirings, motherboards, etc.

The book comes with a provocation: What if media history is not merely the couple of thousands of years of media devices and techniques for and by humans, or our use practices and political economy – but also conditioned by planetary durations? We nowadays speak increasingly of the massive scales of planetary design and ideas of planetary computation; this idea is bootstrapped by the fact that earth materialities enable the existence of media.

Massive operations of mining, energy extraction, and dubious labour practices are still too often behind many of our usual digital devices. What’s more is the aftereffect in terms of electronic waste. Just recently, a UN report revealed – again – the extent of this problem: electronic waste will reach the gigantic amount of 50 megatons by 2018 and in ways that are extremely unbalanced. Not merely media waste, but technological waste in general, such objects and components are mostly generated in European countries and the US even if at the same time countries like Nigeria and Ghana function as “e-waste graveyards,” putting a new twist to the term “dead media.”

Besides the crucial need for empirical and globally widespread research with innovative methods that can feed into more progressive policies and environmental actions, which can range from the local to the planetary, theoretical writing can speak to these themes, too. Contextualising its message in media theory, environmental humanities, and the work on cultural theory of materiality, A Geology of Media is the third part of a book trilogy on media ecologies, inspired originally by the work of Matthew Fuller, as well as German media theory; writings by Sean Cubitt and Jennifer Gabrys; and many other scholars. It continues the earlier books on viral, contagious digital culture (Digital Contagions, 2007) and media archaeology of animals (Insect Media, 2010), but with an even stronger environmental focus. The need to think of geology not merely as a conceptual shift in theoretical discussions, but also as something that touches on environmental themes is a necessity mobilized in this book.

“The Anthropocene” is only one recent term—an influential one for sure—that is an attempt to address the chemical-technological world of interlocked economic, ecological, political, and social forces. Hence, A Geology of Media is a way to understand this bind in media-specific terms, too, while acknowledging that the environment opens up to the discussions concerning our economic practices, works through neo-colonial ties between the Global North and the Global South, and is constantly distributed in most uneven ways.

Like the example we started with, Cooke’s art project, it is often in contemporary design and media arts that we find an audiovisual expression of this complex ecological situation. Contemporary art, from The Otolith Group to The Crystal World project (Martin Howse, Jonathan Kemp, and Ryan Jordan), to the work of Katie Paterson, to Critical Infrastructure by Jamie Allen and David Gauthier, provides examples of art that is embedded in thinking about the geological. More recent projects, such as Abelardo G. Fournier’s Mineral Vision, have addressed the connection of materials like copper and digital computation and vision systems. Indeed, we need to be aware that design and art projects are well-positioned to articulate this situation; it’s a mode of knowledge that works in and through art methods as methods of ecology; of working in and with the materials that constitute the technological culture even if often in precarious, sometimes even toxic, ways.

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Dr. Jussi Parikka is Professor in technological culture and aesthetics at University of Southampton, Winchester School of Art. He is also Docent in Digital Culture Theory at University of Turku, Finland and the author and editor of various books on media, arts and communication, including A Geology of Media. He blogs at Machinology.

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