Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How to connect everyone with everything

Shortly before I'm due to visit Brazil to do some talks, Guilherme Kujawski has done a swift interview available in Portuguese here. For those restricted to English, here's the text:

1. McKenzie Wark is wondering what is the role of critical theory in the Anthropocene era. Do you think somehow film theory (or cinema studies) can contribute to this debate? I ask this inspired by your excellent book Eco Media... If ecology is the science that undertakes to understand the connections between everything, and media are the connections between everyone, the question is how to connect everyone with everything. By media let's understand every channel we use to connect: language, money, sex as well as films and phones. Mediation is older, deeper and wider than communication. Communication arrives when there is a gap between sender and receiver. Mediation is the connection between them. Sunlight for example mediates the sun and the earth. Ecological critique works when it works at the level of mediation: how does the world mediate human life and how does human life mediate the world? Historically this has become the question: how does the world communicate to us and how do we communicate with it? Communication as a splitting of primordial connectivity creates humans as subjects and world as object: the task of critique in the Anthropocene is to advance beyond this relation, on which is founded both our exploitation and our sentimental and nostalgic view on the world. 2. Videogame designers are mired in issues such as high resolution imagery and hyperrealism. And in the world of moving images people only talk about very-high-quality digital media over photonic networks. But narratives experiments are stucked for decades, in my opinion (films are each day much the same as games, and vice-versa). Do you think experiments in narratives could be the next frontier in the moving images realm? Hi-definition and its transmission means using more materials and more energy. New forms of narrative do not. That is a positive. Our dominant media - the ones used to dominate - today are spreadsheets, databases and geographic information systems. What they share is their emphasis on space: a graph, for example, pictures time as space. Time-based media, whether narrative or otherwise (for example a logical argument or an essay-film) are important because they are not exclusively based on space and spatialisation. It is the reinvention of time that is the most significant aspect of new modes of narrative, and shared with other ways of expressing and experiencing time. Primordial mediation is without both space and time. Communication is characteristically spatial - it divides, which is a spatial act. Time in communication is a function of space - "a difference that makes a difference at some later time" as Bateson says. Critical work - including here invention and reinvention as creative practice - has to find a new mode of mediation, after communication, that is capable of including space and time. The obvious first "deconstructive" action is to prioritise time over space. That is what eco-critical thought looks for in temporal media 3. When artists from French Artistic Mission arrived in Brazil in 19th century - loaded with a Neoclassicism way of look at the landscape - they met resistance from local artists interested in Baroque. That is, the imposition of a way to look at things is not always assimilated. Do you think the same thing can happen in the field of data visualization? For instance, can you imagine an alien proprietary software company impose to scholars its technology to analyze data from recent political demonstrations in Brazil? I am sure it is already happening: I have an MA student researching graphical representations of twitter feeds from Gezi Park in Istanbul during the protests. Data visualisation belongs with the spreadsheet etcetera as a spatial medium, at least in its dominant form. Simulations for example envisage the future as a continuation, not as a radical break. They attempt, by redefining action as behaviour, to change historical acts into data which can then be worked on biopolitically. To that extent data visualisation presumes a viewer who has power (if only imaginary) over the data. There are three weak spots: the conversion into data (selections, exclusions); the visualisation process applied to that data; and the modelling of the person or institution for whom that data is prepared. Many strategies are possible: to insist on the complexity of the unique instance or experience; to create alternative (ironic, creative) datasets; to contest what is left out of data; to contest the implicit humanism of data presentations, given that machines can read the data without visualisation; to emphasise the processing and transport of data rather than content or form; and many more. One thing all critical data visualisations have in common is that they resist the formation of the supreme subject, machinic or human.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Practice of Light

Gratefully acknowledging the Sächsiche Landesbibliothek- Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (the delightfully abbreviated SLUB) for the beautiful engraving of Wenzel Jamnitzer's geometric figures from the 1568 Perspectiva Corporum Regularium
the cover of The Practice of Light is now set, with a publication date of September this year. I just saw the endorsements, which genuinely brought a tear to my eye. Eight long years in the making, and many many people to thanks. Very much looking forward to turning it out into the world to see what you all make of it.
As some of you know, this was long called "Glory: The Practice of Light". MIT's marketing people, after some hard work, persuaded me that the risk of attracting neo-con religious types (and driving away the more militantly secular) wasn't worth the candle. "Glory" is still how I think of it: somehow we polytheists have to recapture the high ground from organised religion.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Great Typos #1

"Apple have resorted to building biomass generating pants" Proof-reading i an essential part of the creative endeavour

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Landscape, fim and political aesthetics

from a paper given at the Screen conference in Glasgow last weekend. After a glorious weekend of thinking landscape, we spent a glorious day in it: at the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK
Critique founded on the ecological principle of the interconnectedness of everything is by that token necessarily and permanently incomplete. That very incompletion demands that we rethink the premises of much of our aesthetics, most notably the autonomy of the artwork and what we can hope to understand of the freedom of its subject. As Freud remarked of the work of mourning, when it is complete, 'the ego becomes free and uninhibited again' (1984: 253). But if, as in Deseret, that work is aesthetically and politically undone, we have two options: either an inhibited withdrawal from the world (as in the Thoreau tradition), or grasping its very lack of freedom as its proper political form. Does ecological critique demand a terminally reduced subject?

The conference version of the paper is here: the full version might come out in Screen

Monday, June 16, 2014


Stupidity is not the native condition of humanity: it is the result of a massive economic and political effort to encourage forgetting. In a generation, scarcely thirty years, a huge raft of domestic skills has gone. They haven't been lost – they've been stolen. The comedians who ridicule the sweater your granny knitted promote sweatshop labour. They want you to buy fashion made by the poorest people in the poorest countries, not to make clothes yourself. This is the new form of enclosure, the theft of common land that started the whole history of capitalism and colonialism. In its latest form, it involves encouraging the youth to mock and refuse the skills and craft they could inherit from their culture in favour of buying things. Not knowing how to cook is not a lifestyle choice: it is collusion in the fast food industry. Dismissing home-made music while paying hundreds for arena concerts isn't cool: it's self-exploitation. Turning knowledge into data and know-how into factories are engines of profit, not intelligence. It is the same engine of stupidity that encourages us to decimate the environment so that only techno-science can produce crops from it. What capital cannot steal from us we give it as a gift. Not very bright.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Introduction to Patricio Guzmán, Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la Luz, 2010)

Cinema is scarcely more than a century old. It is still a babe in arms compared to the ancient arts of music, poetry, dance, storytelling, painting and sculpture. It is, or should be, still, a laboratory for new forms.

What is important about great films is not how they subordinate their parts to the whole, but how the very idea of wholeness remains fundamentally challenged by the parts it gathers into itself. This is the case with Nostalgia for the Light

Here is Guzmán describing the process

'In the desert you can only film in the morning and the evening. The sun is too powerful in the middle of the day. So at that time, when we couldn’t film in the desert, we chose to film little things—little details, tiny stones, rays of light, reflections, shadows, cracks between objects and their undersides. The resulting images of the substance of materiality look abstract, and it’s really quite impressive. We took masses of shots like that. We weren’t sure why, but that’s how the documentary developed. You look intuitively with film and you find the theme. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes not. But that dust became fundamental. We found a big astronomical cupola from which the telescope had been removed. It was disused and actually full of rubbish. When I saw that space I actually saw the whole process of the coup d’état in the destruction and the absence of what was supposed to be there. I saw this dustbin place as a metaphor. It was thick with dust. There was lots of powdered glass and at one point we started throwing it in the air when the light that was entering the building was like the light you might see in a cathedral. When we did this it was like you could actually see the Milky Way there. We were captivated by this sight for a whole day. The director of the observatory said, “What on earth are you doing there? We’ve got the telescopes over here!” She was absolutely baffled! She had prepared this whole official visit and we spent the day throwing dust in the air. But that’s what you need to do with documentary cinema. It’s a path you have to discover and explore. You don’t know where it will lead, if anywhere, but the process is often very moving.' (White 2012)

Perfection is the fatal temptation of art. It is only the flaws in the perfection that make artworks great, that is, that makes them art in the first instance.

The dust particles in Nostalgia are unnecessary supplements. Guzmán describes his crew spending a day throwing dust in the air to get these shots, a day wasted on the only fictional shots in a documentary film. They are extraneous, and wrong, and it is because of them that Nostalgia is not merely an essay, an item in a genre of essay films as described so lucidly by Timothy Corrigan (2011).

In less than sixty years, cinema had found a strange attractor, a formula for making perfect films like Casablanca and Stagecoach. Every subsequent film that followed the formula thereby sacrificed any claim to either perfection or art. The pursuit of a new method for making films has therefore been pressing for more than 60 years. Guzmán has been working on this problem for more than 40 of them. He is an essayist only in the sense that he essays a new form with each project

Here the politics is all on the surface. The film has an absolutely clear message. The Chilean popular socialist government of Salvador Allende, the world's first democratically elected socialist government, was brutally suppressed by a US-backed military coup under General Pinochet in 1973. The film concerns the process of historical forgetting and how difficult it is to erase trauma, and equally to recall it.

Pinochet's murderous regime was the first great experiment in what has become the ongoing disaster of neo-liberalism. By concentrating on this unique and particular history, Guzmán points us to the meaning of an epoch. By pointing us to the pre-Colombian indigenous Chileans of the Atacama and to the immense silence of the sky, he points not to the universality of some putative human condition but to the uniqueness of this particularly unnecessary tragedy, the unfolding of an ineluctable chain of torture, murder, erasure, forgetting and remembrance that need never have occurred: that could have been stopped at any point, that could have been learned from at any point, but which was not and is not.

The dust particles of sand and bones are both cosmic and contingent, contingent and clumsily metaphorical, and precisely because that allegory is so brusque, it opens what would otherwise be the perfect rhymes of archaeology, cosmology and contemporary history to the hell of the random, of the stupidity of neo-colonialism, of killing as a vainglorious exercise of the semblance of power proper to the puppet army of a puppet dictator whose strings were pulled by the Washington consensus.

Dust to dust: the last and lasting act of the post-Pinochet political elite has been to deny the desparecidos their right to death. Their unstill ghosts refuse to allow Nostalgia the satisfaction of artistic wholeness, and it is for this reason that it stands among the greatest of films.

At the same time, because this formal flaw is also, paradoxically, the making of the film as an artwork, it achieves its flawed completion, containing in itself the contradiction that creates its own perpetuum mobile. As self-operating perpetual motion machine, it both opens to interpretation, and becomes a monad, entire unto itself. In turn it is also because it is a broken but autonomous whole that it has the agency that allows it to function in history as a refusal of history.

The remembered light of the past casts its shadow across the present in order to point the way toward the future.

Corrigan, Timothy (2011). The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
White, Rob (2012). 'After-effects: Interview with Patricio Guzmán'. Film Quarterly.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

We Have Never Been Human

We Have Never Been Human
text of a talk at the Intermediality – digital images in contemporary art event, ICA 16 November 2013

Chris Cunningham's 1999 video for Bjork's All Is Full of Love is an icily sensuous theatre of carnal cyborgs for whom milk is erotic danger. A vision of the posthuman?

The term is too much with us. My claim is that we are not posthuman because we have yet to become human.

We might start with Claire Bishop's short, controversial essay in Artforum in which she owns up to 'a sense that the appearance and content of contemporary art have been curiously unresponsive to the total upheaval in our labour and leisure inaugurated by the digital revolution'. Though admitting a handful of exceptions, she is right. What was controversial was her decision not to address new media arts, because they occupy a different sphere to what Eddie Shanken calls Mainstream Contemporary Art; the art of the biennials. It was a peculiar move, but understandable: contemporary art has failed, formally and thematically, to address the contemporary. It has reprised the moment when, in Peter Osborne's account, philosophy's turn to language abandoned the fields of ethics, ontology and phenomenologies of perception to be taken up by the advance of the modernist avant-gardes. Now those avant-gardes have turned, in their neo-conceptual guise, to reflecting on the condition of art, and abandoned the questions of ethics, ontology and phenomenology in their turn. Leaving them to the technological arts.

As a brief example I give you Oblivion, a more or less run of the mill summer action movie telling the tale of a clone dredging about in his innards for some last, lost memories of being human. The rather lovely design of the film (its director Kosinski has an architectural background and a thriving commercial practice) has one curious feature. Many of the effects we presume to be digital are physical – the skytower house, the bubbleship aircraft – and some that we presume are physical are not: in the second shot in this clip, Tom Cruise is played by a digital double.

You can work out the intricate mirroring this sets off, and –without spoiling the story – how the ambiguous reality and unreality of the character is elegantly expressed in the dialogue of physical and digital effects. Jack seems to me just what Bishop was looking for: a response to the meaning of becoming digital. His mission is to prove that he is a person, but his tragedy is to discover that he is not unique.

That failure of uniqueness is what lurks behind the contemporary condition that contemporary art does not address.

The enclosures and colonialism that marked the (continuing) era of primitive accumulation shattered the old tribal communities. The needs of industrialisation were no longer met by the extended families people brought from their villages, specifically the task of disciplined consumption required to offset crises of overproduction. Suburbanisation and the first half century of consumerism encouraged nuclear families. In the later years of that organisation, the heteronormative family collapsed under the double weight of the reproductive and consumptive cycle demanded of it.

after the failure of the molecular family (amd liquid modernity), we had the atomised individual, a gaseous state. Today that individual is in crisis – the burden of Lacan's sujet barré and Guattari's schizoanalysis. In its collapse emerges the plasma society: the quantum level of desire (no longer anchored in individualist subjects), and its biopolitical management under the guise of lifestyle - the kind of lifestyle ironised but never analysed by contemporary art (Laclau on Populism)

Jack's condition is ours: popular digital media already respond to it, even when, as in Oblivion, they give us a resolution in the third act.


The materiality of visual effects, as an industry, the international headquarters, the off-shoring in South East Asia (evidenced by the Rhythm and Hues bankruptcy), the sealed bidding system forcing down wages.

The materiality of the energy it uses in work stations, server farms and transport via fibre optics - energy that too often comes from lands once deemed 'reservations' for the last traditional peoples - Geoff Kyle is an industrial chemist ... employed by the Mirarr people. ... there's no way the company will be able to safely treat the contaminated water stored at Ranger by the time the mining lease expires in 10 years: "They have facilities to remediate water through chemical water processing, ends up with micro-filtration and osmosis and it is top shelf stuff but it can only do a couple of megalitres a day and they have got 10 gigalitres. We are terrified that this is going to ruin our country." The traditional owners are repeating calls for Ranger to be shut down permanently ... They also oppose the company's plan to use an acid leaching process to increase production and the construction of a new exploratory mine shaft.

The weight of the internet: the materials it is made of - for example In northern China, near the Mongolian border, radioactively contaminated leaks from two decades of rare earth refining have been slowly trickling underground toward the Yellow River, a crucial water source for 150 million people. And in Guangdong province in southeastern China, regulators are struggling to repair rice fields and streams destroyed by powerful acids and other runoff from open-pit rare earth mines that are often run by violent organized crime syndicates

The demolition of these regions is not an Australian or a Chinese problem: the WTO is only set on ensuring that China exports its controlling share of rare earths, not to curtail their exploitation. The UK is racing towards a nuclear solution in the name of greenhouse gas reduction but clearly in the real interests of energy security, and where more secure than Tony Abbot's Australia.

I wish I could believe that ethical consumerism was the answer: it isn't. Like private debt paying for the global financial crisis, the mortgae on the future benefits the kleptocracy, while we pay for it.It is another example of governments too scared by the Market to lead, and devolving responsibility for solving their crises onto the shattered, scattered individual citizen.

The actually existing cyborgs are the vast technological machines we call corporations, and the vaster one still we call the market - a huge technological ensemble with human biochips implanted. We can tell they are not human because they do not care how or if we live and die, and how or if the world survives , so long as they secure profit – the relentless and ultimately suicidal demand for growth.

Jack is not the only cyborg, but he is the end product of the cyborg process.

Jack, either played by Cruise or his digital double, is not only photographed but mapped: by lidar and texture mapping as well as sprites. He is more, not less, indexically formed. But in his heart he is an iteration of a model.

He is the product of a set of technologies in full evolution, however wasteful. I add to our debate on the specificity of the digital to say that we need to analyse medium extreme specificity

we should, that is, analyse Jack (measured and indexed in multiple dimensions) as exemplary of the coded human - which is the state of quantum desire biopolitically managed as lifestyle.

An economy run by cyborg corporations, whose sole motivation is profit, who lack all sense of communality and shame, and who are prepared to sacrifice the happiness of the living and the lives of the unborn.

A polity dominated by the Market, a cyborg operation increasingly determined by automated algo-trading.

A society governed by the probabilistic managerial principles of biopolitics, which has already breached the tolerances of individuality, and now mobilises desires framed by lifestyles, and constrains through communication protocols and urban systems design.

Whether the code that is now the truth of human being is digital or genetic , the ambivalence of depicting humans and world as both flesh and code, expresses the germ of contradiction in data visualisations and synthespians.

The purpose of art, of digital art, in this is to back up the analytical success of popular media by producing alternatives that the pop media are largely incapable of. To picture desire otherwise than as the quantum effect of postindividuation. To picture for us what it might mean to become human, before we cease to be at all

Cyborg takeover

World War One was the final death throe of the old feudal order, which had clung to the principle of absolute monarchy across Europe and Japan long after its social and cultural bases had withered away. In its last agony, it lashed out at all of humanity, kings ordering the deaths of their own populations by the million. The current world order has responded to the implosion of 2008 by doing the same thing on a global scale. Perfectly aware that consumerism – demanded by the ongoing crises of overproduction, stalled by falling purchasing power and financed by the gigantic Ponzi scheme of derivatives markets – can only end in ecological disaster, still it drives on. The rising tide of poverty sinks all boats. The war of corporate capital against humanity reveals the awful truth. Against a background of science fiction dystopias, the cyborgs have taken over. The actually existing cyborg is the corporation, an entity without shame, loyalty, honour or love, composed of massively connected computer networks into which human biochips are inserted and trained. Motivated solely by profit, controlled only by shareholders which turn out to be themselves also corporate cyborgs (pension funds, banks), these monsters are prepared to diminish the world, to the point of destruction, so long as they can continue to pursue their single-minded obsession with economic growth. Shell, Exxon Mobil, Sinopec, China National Petroleum, BP and Total from the petroleum sector; Toyota and Volkswagen from the automotive; together with energy giant State Grid and retailer WalMart complete the Fortune 500 Global top ten of 2013. Is it any wonder that they have bought governments, defeated attempts to curtail global warming, and driven the world's wars for decades? Bankers and presidents are merely paid lackeys of these inhuman and anti-human colossi. To understand that cyborg capital has invaded the planet and means us harm is the first step towards rebellion.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Society has exactly the opposite geometry to the universe: its periphery is everywhere and its centre nowhere

Monday, January 6, 2014

Against catastrophism

The tenth of Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History, the one that follows the famous passage about Klee's angel, says in part that 'Our consideration proceeds from the insight that the politicians' stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their "mass basis", and, finally, their servile integration into an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing'.

Our professional politicians are doing the same thing, in the UK, Australia, the US. Servants of a market they neither can nor will attempt to rein in, confident that they speak for the bigotry and avarice they ascribe to us citizens, the only difference from post-Weimar fascism is that they no longer believe in progress.

Benjamin warns that we will have to change our customary thinking if it is not to play into the hands of these servile politicians. He saw the need for socialists to abandon the idea of progress tainted by its association with inter-war European fascism. Today however, there can no longer be any doubt that both the market and our polity embrace the catastrophic consequences of neo-liberalism as their own; and that therefore radical thought must abandon its own love affair with the spectacle of catastrophe – its enchantment with eco-apocalypse and the collapse of community.