ARTICLE

“ART WITHOUT ARTWORKS (?): A REFLECTION ON THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE MEMORY OF MEDIA ARTS FROM A MEDIA ARCHAEOLOGY PERSPECTIVE”

Vanina Hofman and Dr. Pau Alsina

Abstract:

The aim of this paper is to study the processes related to the construction of the memory of Media Arts, which is a group of artistic practices that have been emerging during the last four decades in parallel with the increasing presence and development of the Network Society and Media Culture. Coming from a highly experimental and unstable context in their early years, these practices are progressively becoming institutionalized, initiating a dialogue with the mainstream Contemporary Art world. Consequently, it is taking place a turn in the processes involved in Media Arts preservation, that nowadays have to deal not only with the unstable nature of their underlying material, but also with their increasing symbolic and economic value.

In order to address the memory construction, remembering and oblivion paths in Media Arts realm, we would like to propose herein the suitability, significance and value encountered in the media-archaeological perspective. Media Archaeology is an emerging field that digs into the socio-technological context of today’s technologies, merging together discourses, material and technical elements.  In other words, what the next pages will investigate is the connection among Media Arts, Materiality and Memory through the lens of three key notions studied by different media archaeologists: the agency of technologies in the archaeological process (as it is understood by Wolfgang Ernst), the variantology approach (term proposed by Sigfried Zielinski) and the topoi, which constitute recursive topics in media history (as studied by Erkki Huhtamo).

1. HOW WE UNDERSTAND MEDIA ARTS

Media Arts is one of the many terms used to define a group of heterogeneous artworks and artistic practices mediated by a wide spectrum of electronic and digital technologies[1]. Media Arts are usually described as process-oriented or processual practices, which are connected to an environment that explores, researches and experiments the intersections and convergences among art, science and technology. According to Siegfried Zielinski, Media Arts can also be approached as a new artistic praxis. In his words, although all kinds of artworks require media in order to be perceived by others, “the prefix media was designed to facilitate its delineation of new artistic praxis opposed to traditional ‘old ones’”. Thus, media are understood as mass media or information and communication technologies in this context, while the association with arts staked their “claim for tapping into historically developed markets, distribution channels, and discourses”[2].

Neither the former nor the latter component (i.e. media representing the “new”, and art connecting with its pre-existing context) went through without been questioned and debated. Discussion was raised whether Media Arts were as innovating as they claimed, or with which other artistic moments, but also technological and scientific ones, were linked. In parallel, a deep tension between Media Arts and the more established Contemporary Art world has emerged[3]. Throughout their trajectory Media Arts were not able to fit easily into the mainstream art world -and still are not-, neither in production-exhibition-market terms nor in academic-research ones. The conflict between the “new” and the “established” has its well-known antecedents in Art History; in fact, one could claim that this is the reason why art has a history[4].

 

1.a. The material condition of Media Arts

 

In the context of Art History, especially when considering idealist aesthetics and formalism, material is a mere carrier of artistic ideas. Thus, matter becomes just an objectivation of the idea. The influence of formalism in Art History, as well as the establishment of the evolutionary analysis of forms in time (together with its contextualization as a key objective in Art History) has given place to two assumptions. On the one hand, matter has been considered a subordinate of form (in this sense matter has been named “medium” or more recently “channel”.) On the other hand, matter, as the physical constituent of the artwork, becomes a material: a container of information with very little meaning and interest compared with the contents emerged from its formalization.  The Art History trajectory, where narratives have always acted as a key discursive element, traditionally disregarded the agency of artworks’ materiality. However, today it is clearer than ever before that in order to understand the artworks within their context, it is of paramount importance to understand both the technical and material sides as discursive processes too.

Hence, following this long established formalistic tradition in Art History (that became highly relevant with the Conceptual Art forms), many theorists have labeled artistic practices that are linked to electronic and digital technologies as immaterial due to the central role that information plays in the artwork’s constitution. In other words, the processuality of information that shapes the core of media artworks has been traditionally conceptualized as abstract and immaterial. However, although Media Arts practices have commonly been considered as immaterial, there is still a technical materiality behind them that supports such process-oriented dynamics.

 

The material condition of (Media) Arts has consequences in their conservation-restoration, documentation and archiving processes. By this, we are neither trying to reinforce a technological determinism in art practices, nor implying that materiality is the only reason that explains Media Arts life-span; indeed there are other aesthetical, conceptual, cultural, social and economic issues involved. Nonetheless, the materiality of Media Arts constitutes a key aspect that helps us to understand the problematic nature of their preservation and the processes of constructing their memory and their narratives.

Thus, at first sight, the description of Media Arts as immaterial is opposed to the inherent materiality of their electronic-digital technologies in hardware terms (e.g. sensors, micro-controllers, storages devices, passive components, networks), in the properties of components (e.g. variations of magnetic field, voltages or pulses of light) and up to some extent in software level (e.g. operating systems, compilers, programming/scripting languages, protocols). For instance, the zeros and ones produced as part of the functionality of Media Arts works are indeed composed by several layers, starting from low-level source code up to analog components that are used for the physical communication. These zeros and ones can be considered immaterial when analyzing them in aesthetical terms, but in fact they cannot exist outside a particular material form[5].

Having said that, it is also true that the materiality of a stone sculpture and the materiality of Media Arts might need different approaches throughout the artworks’ life span (creation, production, exhibition, communication, conservation, restoration, documentation, disappearance, recreation). In particular, as far as “shelf life”, duration, future perspective and preservation of artworks are concerned the consideration and understating of material specificities is a crucial issue.

The wide range of materials and techniques applied in Contemporary Art, and later on, in Media Arts, has raised great challenges to traditional conservation-restoration theories. Most of these materials, instable and/or subjected to obsolescence, resulted in the emergence of disruptive preservation frameworks and techniques whose goal has been to deal with artworks survival, putting at the same time in question the appropriate duration of the work[6]. This gave space to fresh approaches to preservation; the “preservation through change” core statement of the Variable Media Network can be seen as a changing paradigm in preservation strategies, but it is not the only one[7].

In such projects, the issue of how to confront material aging has given place to deeper philosophical and ontological discussions. The seemingly simple question “How to preserve artworks based on an unstable and fast obsolete technology ecosystem?” gave place to another more profound question: “What is actually the artwork?” Is the material experience, the idea, the artists’ intentions, or, maybe, a mixture of the previously mentioned? What aspects of the artwork should be preserved in order to maintain its identity? Can documentation replace or becomethe artwork? Which place do objects have in the construction of the Media Arts memory? Are we heading towards a Media Arts memory without artworks?

But there is even something more. Jean-François Blanchett has addressed the “false immaterial” condition of Media Arts from a different point of view. He states: “This purported immateriality [of Media Arts] endows bits with considerable advantages: they are immune from the economics and logistics of analog media, and from the corruption, degradation, and decay that necessarily results from the handling of material carriers of information”[8]. This acclaimed immateriality (the “purified forms”) leads us directly to another concern: What else is hidden in the center of Media Arts analysis when immateriality discourses appears?

Electronic-digital technologies, as every technology, express and depict their times. In this particularly case, information and communication technologies embodied the informational paradigm in the Network Society[9]. The analysis of the characteristics of the Network Society goes beyond the scope of this paper (e.g. rhizomatic production and distribution of knowledge, ubiquity, collaboration and interdisciplinary practices, but also “programmed obsolescence”, surveillance and digital divides and the different opportunities to access and use those current technologies). If we oversee the technology-material anchor of Media Arts with Network Society, we will also lose their contextual (political, economic, social, ideological) dimension, which essentially means that we may miss the socio-technical environment in which the processes involved in the construction of Media Arts memory take place.

To summarize, Media Arts’ preservation requires a reflection on the relation between material and information (or immaterial) aspects of such artistic praxis. Labeling Media Arts only (or principally) as immaterial, prevents us from facing the complex and multifaceted material dimension of such practices that we have just described. In technical terms this implies that is impossible to develop suitable preservation strategies, because “if you don’t preserve it in some material form, you are not preserving immateriality: you are preserving nothing”[10]. For this reason we should take into consideration how the comprehension of the specific material characteristics of Media Arts results in the reflection of the ontological status of this praxis: which are the entities that need to be preserved? From a contextual point of view, the materialistic approach to Media Arts questions the processes of memory and cultural transmission in a certain socio-technical context.

The relation of Media Arts with their materiality described herein helps us to introduce the central idea of this paper and the message that intends to convey: how Media Archeology could contribute to the comprehension of the construction of the Media Arts memory. In the following section we will examine indicative concepts that could be employed to achieve this.

2. MEDIA ARCHAEOLOGY: THE INVENTORS, THE PIONEERS, THE FOOLS….

 

Contemporary societies are currently living the so called times of history, which is opposed to another form of temporal awareness: memory, which corresponds to traditional, non-industrialized societies[11]. Memory is, by nature, multiple, alive, ever changing and linked to a certain human group; it is built collectively, but expressed individually[12]. History, on the other hand, is the crystallization of memory that belongs to everybody and at the same time to nobody; history narrates facts that have been already interpreted and fixed, but for this very reason they are transmittable in the “globalized, mobile, and deracinated world of today”[13]. Although living times of history, contemporary western societies are experiencing in parallel a memory restoration as another social, political and cultural mode to (re)construct the past. The re-birth of memory in the context of a self-consciously postmodern, postcolonial and multicultural society aims to challenge “the founding myths and historical narratives that have hitherto given shape and meaning to established national and imperial identities”[14]. Considering the above, memory seems to have developed a double function. Primarily, it is understood as the way in which traditional societies build their past, and therefore, forge their social bonds. Lately, it has become a tool for dissidence, for re-visiting untold stories, a twist to stare at abandoned geographic zones and suppressed human groups.

As already described in the previous section, Media Arts can be seen as a new artistic praxis, that generated a deep tension with the established Contemporary Art scene, which is reluctant to accept the former as part as the “official” Art History. Media Arts challenge the historical narratives of art, which have forgotten a wide range of practices that are based on the information and communication media –only with counted exceptions. In this context, we can understand why the word “memory”, in its contemporary (dissident) use, sounds so loudly and appears repetitively when reference is made to Media Arts preservation (e.g. construction of a memory, absence of memory, necessity of a memory, danger of losing the memory and so on).

The critical intervention of Media Archaeology in the history of media and culture can be seen as a way to bring back the notion of memory into current history times. The Media Archaeology Perspective (from now on MAP) is a research framework that enables the construction of “alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media”[15], considering those “dead ends, losers, and inventions that never made it into a material product” or those researches never legitimized; indeed, all the previously mentioned elements have also contributed to the present landscape of media and actually have important stories to communicate. MAP tracks and revisits the moments when a multiplicity of new technological notions is introduced or proposed (it delves into the grain of the new), while there is not still an established and definite notion that prevails. Authors like Zielinski, Huhtamo, Parikka, Hertz and Lovink adopted the Foucaultian concept of archaeology, as a methodology to reconstruct the past, to apprehend the local and to review the mainstream narratives and the submerged stories. This allows examining the official History of Media, far away from the metanarratives of progress, teleology or supposed origins which are yet to be revealed.

The theoretical framework and the set of tools for investigation that MAP proposed go beyond the disciplinary borders allowing researchers to “roam across the landscape of the humanities and social science and occasionally leap into arts”[16]. In their foundational book (Media Archaeology. Approaches, Applications, and Implications, 2011), Huhtamo and Parikka explained that MAP is not considered an academic discipline yet (“there are no public institutions, journals, or conferences dedicated to it”), but a seed for a future “traveling discipline”, a concept that the mentioned authors borrowed by Mieke Bal. They also described this under-construction field of knowledge (or a nascent discipline in Zielinki’s terms), as a “bundle of closely related approaches” converged in a nomadic way, so as to explore archives and collections of artifacts (textual, visual and auditory), “emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestation of culture”[17].

This emerging field has roots established in different traditions, such as in Media Studies or in the actual interpretation of Post-structuralism. MAP could also be linked to the actual developments of other material-semantic methods involved in Science and Technology Studies (STS), as it is expressed for instance in the Actor Network Theory[18]. There are really interesting and fertile connections between all the previously mentioned areas, which are waiting to be explored and evolved in order to assess the material culture in a more active way than its regular approach from History. Covering all these connections does not fall within the scope of this paper, as it will lead us to different overlapping paths that will require further explanations; instead, as already explained before, we will focus on the Media Archaeological perspective.

Among this fertile mixture of approaches that composes MAP, we were particularly triggered by three key contributions, which can be considered strategic pathways to approach the memory of Media Arts in different and highly creative ways, truly respectful to Media Arts singularity, heterogeneity and variability. First, the agency of machines in the (re)construction of the past in Wolfgang Ernst thought; second, the variantology as defined by Sigfried Zielinksi; and finally, the topoi of Erkki Huhtamo. Taking this as a basis, we will examine three aspects that need special attention in the process of constructing the Media Arts memory: the materiality, the geography and the timeline of Media.

 

2.a. Agency of machines: (re)visiting the past and the construction of memory

 

Kittler’s follower, Wolfgang Ernst, positions his media-archaeological approach as an epistemological alternative to the supremacy of historical narratives of media. Media Archaeology is a method and at the same time a way to practice media criticism, an analytical tool closely connected with the Foucaultian notion of archiveand those disciplines that cope with material culture. Ernst’s core idea relies on the “awareness of moments when media themselves, not exclusively humans anymore, become active ‘archaeologists’ of knowledge”[19]. Ernst identifies apparatuses as active “archaeologists” or even more, as authors of knowledge that liberate human from their subjectivity and the “culture inclination to give sense to data though narrative structures”[20]. In his own words: “Technical media have already developed a true media memory that differs from human remembrance”[21]. An indicative example is photography, which not only becomes an object of research of media-archaeologists, but also “a media-archaeological technique of remembering the past in a way that is radically alternative to historical discourse”[22].

Considering machines agency as a key notion to approach the processes involved with the construction of memory, brings us back to the issue of materiality. The transmission and (re)construction of memory highly relies on media: material fragments, relics, non-discursive and non-anthropomorphic elements. Ernst has drawn an analogy between artifacts (machines) as hardware and historical discourses as software. Even though one is complementing the other, artifacts seem to have been overlooked in Media Arts studies: “in a digital culture of apparent, virtual, immaterial realities a remainder of the insistence and resistance of material worlds is indispensable…”[23]. Different types of media show variations of the expectative of future, as it was analyzed before in this text: “the probability of an old painting surviving until the present is much higher than that of a complex scenographic like a diorama…”[24].

In Media Arts realm, La Máquina Podrida [The rotten Machine] by Brian Mackern is a very interesting example of a machine that turns into a media archaeologist. La Máquina Podrida used to be the laptop of the Uruguayan artist Brian Mackern: his digital and portable working-space from 1994 until 2004 when he decided to auction it. Mackern not only put on sale the computer, but also its whole content. This included his own works and an extensive collection of early Net Art together with related information[25]. Whoever decided to acquire La Maquina Podrida could also gain complete access to decide the fate of its invaluable content. For instance, the potential purchaser could conserve, re-sell, use the original content for further recreations, continue the artist’s work or even delete it. Despite Mackern’s lack of interest in preserving La Máquina Podrida, it was acquired paradoxically -or not- by a museum, whose principal mission is to conserve their purchased items[26].

La Máquina Podrida has constructed an alternative memory of pioneering Net Art with its self-ruling capabilities of recording and erasing that is bound to persist through the conservation activity of museums. The work embedded in this obsolete equipment contains some active links and some others error-404 dead ones, a fact that portrays the duration of media environments within the Network Society. This “true media memory” differs from the original collectors decisions and, in general, from human’s remembrance; it manifests a concept (memory process) far from what humans decided to maintain, and foreign of the ways they decided to do it (including strategies like the “purgatory of Net Art” transformed to off-line versions and their survival in the form of documentation) that also involves the related narratives.

As in the case of photography, La Máquina Podrida can be the object of a historical and an archaeological approach at a content level, whereas at structural level it is a subject, an archaeologist of physical realities different from those perceived by humans. By recognizing machines as active “archaeologists” that triggered a media memory according to non-historical laws, Ernst introduced the idea of a technical memory, an alternative method to approach Media Arts’ memory. In this sense, we were dealing “not with ‘narrative memory’ but with calculating memory – counting rather than recounting, the archaeological versus historical mode”[27]. This situates Media Archaeology close to mathematics, while the agency of machines appears in parallel to the human agency. Looking at the machines, like Mackern’s Rotten Machine, we suspend for a moment our subject-centered interpretations, without any kind of technological determinism that reduces culture to technology, to reveal “the techno-epistemological momentum in culture itself”[28].

2.b. Variantology

 

Siegfried Zielinski’s Anarchaeology (a term introduced by Rudi Visker as a reaction to Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge)[29] or variantology[30] is a pathway to approach MAP. While Ernst finds a complementary relation between the material task of Archaeology and the narrative contribution of History (metaphorically as a hardware-software dynamic), Zielinski -following Foucault’s genealogy developed by Nietzsche- found that Archaeology and History diverged in the way they assess and consequently reconstruct the past.

The objective of Zielinski’s Anarchaeology is to uncover or encounter dynamic moments of the past when “things and situations were still in a state of flux, where the options for development in various directions were still wide open, where the future was conceivable as holding multifarious possibilities of technical and cultural solutions for constructing media worlds”[31]. This means also “to enter into a relationship of tension with various present-day moments, relativize them, and render them more decisive”[32]. However, the mere encounter with such situations is not enough to “expand a largely ignored aspect of conventional history”[33], since they should always be accompanied by surrounding discourses.

Reviewing the dynamic moments of the past unveils a variety of presents; this results in a relativization of the historical narratives. Considering the limited scope of this paper, we will only focus on the relativization of regions. In Variantology 3: On Deep Time Relations of Arts, Sciences and Technologies in China and Elsewhere, Zielinski, Fürlus and Minkwitz pointed out:

As we move with the authors from Europe to the Far East and back again it becomes absolutely clear that the history of the media cannot be written with only the former industrial metropolises of the world in our sights, beginning and ending there.[34]

This same statement could also be applied to other geographical areas. For instance, the panel “Variantología Latina” (ISEA 2010, Ruhr) organized by Siegfried Zielinski and Andrés Burbano had as a topic the exploration of the deep roots of media history in Latin America. This implied an inquiry on the knowledge, technology-culture, machines and tools developed in different territories of Latin America, before colonization and prior to the equivalent European discoveries which were legitimized by historical narratives[35].

In 2010, after acquiring La Máquina Podrida, the same museum bought Brian Mackern’s webpage: The Net Art Latino Database. This same year Nilo Casares curated the exhibition “LA MÁQUINA PODRIDA AKA LA DESDENTADA 1999-2004. Todo el net.art en un portátil de Brian Mackern” [THE ROTTEN MACHINE AKA THE TOOTHLESS OLD THING 1999-2004 All net.art in a laptop]. The Net Art Latino Database is more a repository of links, a possible map of Net Art in Latin America or a collection rather than a proper database. According to Lila Pagola “more than a database, it looks like a conceptual artwork”[36]. Irrespective to the way we choose to label it, The Net Art Latino Database is formed by a subjective selection of the early period of Net Art productions where Mackern belongs to. At this point it is important to highlight a long-standing issue of innovative Latino Media Art works, which pass completely unnoticed, ignored or isolated within a reduced community. From an external spectator perspective (foreign to the Latin American context), this commonly leads to an assumption of a “blank” space related to media artistic production. Unexpectedly and in parallel, the lack of documentation and information of the preceding artistic projects creates a feeling of a perpetual initialization phase among the actors of the internal Latin American artistic scene[37]. In this context, Mackern’s collection has the peculiarity to address artworks that nobody has focused on: Net Art that belongs to geographical areas that are invisibilized, not cited and not “central”. In this sense, Mackern has made a quite symbolic decision to set an inverted map of Latin America built in ASCII code (reproducing the idea of Joaquín Torres García) for the front page of his database.

The Net Art Latino Database -and its symbolization- relativizes regions and challenges the logic of center – periphery. For this reason, it constitutes a suggestive paradigm of a variantological approach to arts, which rethinks the geo-political distribution of Media Arts’ mainstream narratives.

The claim that Media Arts lack geographical borders is a very disputable topic. Although, from a conceptual, aesthetic and/or political point of view, delimiting borders goes against the very nature of Media Arts, it is also true that art production and preservation conditions radically differ from one context to another. Thus, if in our analysis we underestimate the relation between Media Arts location and the places where historical narrations have emerged, it is very likely that we will also misjudge the past(s) of Media Arts, and consequently their present(s).

2.c. Topoi

 

Huhtamo has based his contribution to MAP on previous research from authors like Foucault, Kittler, Benjamin and the previously mentioned media archaeologist, Zielinski. The specificity of Huhtamo in his approach to MAP lays emphasis upon the recurring discursive patterns observed in the relation between media and society along history, a process that he designated as topoi (“topics”). Topoi involve recursion of topics. Recursion implies something different from repetition; it means reappearance with changes. In Huhtamo’s words topoi are “recurring cyclical phenomena that (re) appear and disappear over and over again in media history”[38]. He exemplified these cyclical phenomena through time-based practices (e.g. magic lantern, early cinema, virtual reality).

Thus, if Erkki Huhtamo studies media in terms of topoi, what we will find if we transpose this recursive model from the analysis of media to the processes of memory construction? Do Media Arts memory-construction processes present some traceable, recurrent, topoi in the way they assess the transmission of artworks and artistic ideas throughout time? Is it suitable to propose the topoi of “preserving the unpreservable”[39] (i.e., preserve practices that for different reasons are resistant to endure) when studying Media Arts?

The construction and transmission of memory of non-objectual or processual artistic practices like those encountered in Media Arts are not new features of culture. On the contrary, we can trace their antecedents as far as it allows us our remembrance and the available documentation. For instance, we can connect Media Arts memory with the oral tradition – various researchers are working on this interesting inquiry path. Additionally, we can relate Media Arts with others time-base artworks, like music, theatre and performance. We can also, associate Media Arts with “destruction artworks”[40], ephemeral-oriented productions, that appeared together with the XX century and still continue today. Media Arts are partially linked with those former artistic forms, whose intangible or ephemeral materiality raises the challenge of maintaining and transmitting the memory of time-based, processual practices. The primary source of recognizing the artistic gesture of such practices is not affiliated to objects, but to processes. Some studies on Media Arts have been exploring the common ground they share with broader families of time-based and process-oriented arts, in order to position them conceptually, aesthetically and historically. On top of it, this connection triggered the development of strategies and tools for their preservation[41].

While the processual behavior affinities with prior artistic expressions are constantly explored, Media Arts have also shown clear novelties and specificities that are related to the mediation of communication and information technologies, supporting by this way an analysis from a recursive perspective. In other words, although the detachment of arts with the object-oriented practices is not new, Media Arts add a new dimension to the material manifestation of the artwork because their building blocks are technology-dependent (both in software and hardware terms). This means that they require a defined –and sometimes deterministic- technological environment to be executed; an environment that is opaque to direct human reach without accessing the underlying technological tools that are used to assembly the artwork. Considering the ever-changing technological ecosystem (software and hardware components are rapidly replaced, discontinued or become unsupported), Media Arts are also subject to a fast degree of obsolescence (which is something different from ephemeral). Simon Biggs expressed it in this way:

Euripides remains interpretable today because the ‘code’ it is written in (whether the original or a translation) is open to humans to read. In the case of digital media (…) the code is written to be read by a machine. It is the case that machines and their codes become obsolete and stuff becomes irretrievable.[42]

Hence, a mix of old and new questions and challenges on Media Arts preservation has come up. This includes pre-existing approaches to maintain processual, ephemeral-oriented and time-based arts and newly introduced ones that go beyond their antecedents. Media arts restore and renew the challenge to preserve the memory of non-objectual practices, reintroducing the topoi of “preserving the unpreservable”. Media Arts also put on question what an artwork is, a fact that makes difficult the delimitation of what has to be maintained and inherited. They are resistant to be transmitted but, as scores for music, plays for theater, documentation for performance or ephemeral oriented practices, and as tradition (bonds of a community) for oral stories, Media Arts have the chance to find an old-new way to persist.

3. DRAWING CONCLUSIONS

Throughout this paper we have sought to address different sides of Media Arts memory, emphasizing on the importance of their material condition. Media Arts’ materiality has received minimal attention compared to the importance given to their immaterial side (i.e. the information processes that constitute the core of the Media Arts practices). As we have already pointed out, although the focus on the information aspects might be crucial for studies related to Media Arts aesthetics, labeling Media Arts as immaterial does not account the fact that they are implemented in a technological environment; this means that we cannot interact, visit or visualize them outside their particular material form.

We have therefore proposed indicative ways to analyze processes and challenges for the construction of Media Arts memory from a media-archaeological perspective. Contrary to Hertz’s interesting contribution: “…I think a synthetic approach may be more constructive than a media archaeology of media art. In other words, one could say that we need a history to rewire before we can do a rewiring of the discipline”[43], we believe that there is already a contemporary historical narrative to be revisited, which is composed by certain technologies, artists, artworks and geographical areas, while others were left aside. In front of a legitimized historical narrative, the notion of memory becomes a tool of dissidence at different levels and, at the same time, MAP a concrete way to implement the critical review of mainstream stories.

Thus, we have analyzed the construction of the Media Arts past from three archaeological concepts. First, following Wolfgang Ernst, we retook the issue of the human-centred agency in memory construction, complementing it with machines’ agency. The author considers MAP to be closely connected to the perspective of media themselves within the archaeological process: “The media-archaeological gaze, accordingly, is immanent to the machine. Human beings, having created logical machines, have created a discontinuity with their own cultural regime”[44]. Thus, the introduction of machines as active archaeologists and at the same time the idea of technical memory has given place to an alternative -or parallel line- from which to comprehend Media Arts’ past.

After machine’s agency, we presented Zielinki’s variantology as a vehicle to question the geographies where Media Arts stories are being constructed. Despite the long-standing claim that Media Arts practices are reluctant to be confined in geographic borders, we have given examples where geographies do matter in the construction of memories. Another important contribution of this paper is to highlight that underestimating the relation between Media Arts practices and the locations where they emerged could lead to a misunderstanding of both Media Arts past and present.

Finally, we have chosen the idea of topoi, meaning the recurrences of events, as a way to offer a broader timeline from where it is possible to connect -and at the same time to differentiate- the construction of Media Arts memory with previous artistic forms.  This timeline allows mapping the emergence of singularities and novelties, but does not represent them as a progress-oriented, linear and teleological history. Instead, Media Arts appear to be connected with previous occurrences of history in the form of topoi.

These three concepts – agency of machines, variantology and topoi – can be considered as a starting kit of tools that could be used to construct a Media Arts’ memory, sensible to the material condition and geographical status, within the spiral of time that marked its emergence.

 

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Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep time of the media: toward an archaeology of hearing and seeing by technical means. Cambridge  Mass.: MIT Press, 2006.

Zielinski, Siegfried, Eckhard Fürlus, y Nadine Minkwitz, eds. Variantology 3: on deep time relations of arts, sciences and technologies in China and elsewhere. Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2008. http://entropie.digital.udk-berlin.de/wiki/Variantology_3.


[1] In the context of this work we will treat Media Arts as a whole, consciously avoiding the complex debates on how to designate, catalogue and build taxonomies of these alive and continuously changing practices.

[2] Siegfried Zielinski, Deep time of the media : toward an archaeology of hearing and seeing by technical means (CambridgeMass.: MIT Press, 2006).

[3] More information about this controversy can be found in the 11th special issue of Artnodes Journal coordinated by Media Art Historian Edward Shanken, under the title “New Media, Art-Science, and Contemporary Art: Towards a Hybrid Discourse?”: http://artnodes.uoc.edu/ojs/index.php/artnodes/issue/view/n11

[4] Paraphrasing Georg Simmel when he refers to the history of culture in Simmel on culture, ed. David Frisby y Mike Featherstone (Sage Publications, Inc., 1997)

[5] Jean-François Blanchette, «A Material History of Bits», Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology; Bruce Sterling, «Digital decay», in Permanence through change: The Variable Media Approach (Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2003).

[6] Scott McQuire y Natalia Radywyl, «From Object to Platform. Art, digital technology and time.», Time & Society 19, n.o 1 (2010): 5–27.

[7] Alain Depocas, Jon Ippolito, y Caitlin Jones, eds., Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach (Montreal: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, and The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, 2003). For further information about important milestones in preservation approaches see also the documentation of the Simposium Modern Art: Who Cares? (1997). Other relevant projects are Media Matters, Capturing Unstable Media, DOCAM, Inside Installations, Digital Art Conservation, etc. A key reference of online archives is the Rhizome ArtBase. Pioneer institutions in this area include: Tate Modern, Daniel Langlois Foundation, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute, ZKM, Ars Electronica Center, etc.

[8] Blanchette, «A Material History of Bits».

[9] Manuel Castells, «La Sociedad Red» (Alianza Editorial, 2006).

[10] Sterling, «Digital decay».

[11] Pierre Nora, «Between Memory and History: Les lieux de Mémoire», Representations 26 (spring 1989): 7–24.

[12] Maurice Halbwachs, On collective memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[13] Nora, «Between Memory and History: Les lieux de Mémoire».

[14] Ibid.

[15] Erkki Huhtamo y Jussi Parikka, eds., Media Archaeology (Berkeley & Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2011)

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18]Actor Network Theory is a theory that asserts the agency of nonhumans.  It is also described as a “material-semiotic” method, and it was developed by science and technology studies scholars like Michel Callon, Bruno Latour or John Law.

[19] Wolfgang Ernst, «Media Archaeography. Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media», en Media Archaeology. Approaches, Applications and Implications (Berkeley & Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2011), 239–255.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Wolfgang Ernst, «Let There Be Irony: Cultural History and Media Archaeology in Parallel Lines», ART HISTORY 28, n.o 5 (noviembre 2005): 582–603.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] For further information on La Máquina Podrida visit the webpage: http://netart.org.uy/subasta/#english

[26] For further information visit the site of the purchaser: Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporáneo (MEIAC) http://www.meiac.es

[27] Ernst, «Media Archaeography. Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media».

[28] Ibid.

[29] Zielinski, Deep time of the media : toward an archaeology of hearing and seeing by technical means.

[30] Zielinski’s project Variantology / Media Archaeology of the Arts & Media was “conceived as an international research and exchange project. A central part of it is the development of an open and temporal network of outstanding scientists, artists and scholars who engage with the deep time relations of arts, sciences and technologies”. For further information visit http://entropie.digital.udk-berlin.de/wiki/Variantology or http://variantology.com, where it is also possible to find the reference of the five publications on the Variantology workshops that took place between 2004-08.

[31] Zielinski, Deep time of the media : toward an archaeology of hearing and seeing by technical means.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Siegfried Zielinski, Eckhard Fürlus, & Nadine Minkwitz, eds., Variantology 3 : on deep time relations of arts, sciences and technologies in China and elsewhere (Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2008.

[35] ISEA2010 RUHR Conference / Latin American Forum I – Variantologia Latina: http://www.isea2010ruhr.org/conference/thursday-26-august-2010-dortmund/p29-latin-american-forum-I-variantologia-latina – visited 2nd May 2012.

[36] Lila Pagola, «El mapa invertido del net.art latinoamericano», in netart latino database (Badajoz: MEIAC, 2008). The authors of this paper have provided the translation of this text.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Erkki Huhtamo, «From kaleidoscomaniac to cybernerd: Notes toward an archeology of the media».

[39] John D. Powell, «Preserving the unpreservable: A study of destruction art in the contemporary museum» (MA Museum Studies, University of Leicester, 2007).

[40] Ibid.

[41] See for instance: Rinehart, «The Media Art Notation System: Documenting and Preserving Digital/Media Art», LEONARDO 40, n.o 2 (2007): 181–187; Louise Poissant, «Conservation of Media Arts and Networks: Aesthetic and Ethical Considerations», s. f.

[42] Simon Biggs, as part of the debate entitled «Shelf-Life», encountered in the  discussion list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (2007). Here it is possible to start a discussion on the usefulness of the open-source code and copy left licenses, in order to improve the life expectancy of Media Arts. This complex topic goes beyond the scope of this paper.

[43] Jussi Parikka y Garnet Hertz, «CTheory.net»: http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=631, accessed December, 2010.

[44] Ernst, «Media Archaeography. Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media».