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Media Theory for The Terraforming by Jussi Parikka

Author: Yulia Gromova

What kind of cultural theory would be adequate for the age of climate disturbances, technological shifts, and large-scale infrastructures? Jussi Parikka, a media theorist and author of Geology of Media, argues that such discipline should account for the scales beyond human perception and offer a vision beyond human capabilities.

Jussi Parikka. Photo by Ruslan Shavaleev

In his own work, Parikka looks at media through their material constitution, as well as a temporal range that is outside the usual narrative of media history. In one of his recent books, A Slow, Contemporary Violence: Damaged Environments of Technological Culture, he explores multiple environmental temporalities that media and technological arts are involved in.

Over the years Parikka has addressed a wide range of subjects ranging from computer viruses in his book Digital Contagions (2007); to distributed animal intelligence in the award-winning Insect Media (2010); to technological waste and the materiality of media in the Geology of Media (2015).

The idea of “geology of media” has been widely adopted not only by academics, but also by artistic circles. Artists, designers, and filmmakers—including Trevor Paglen, Gregory Chatonsky, Katie Paterson, Studio Drift, Liam Young, and many others—engage with the issues of media materiality.

Trevor Paglen, Spacecraft in Perpetual Geosynchronous Orbit, 35,786 km above Equator, 2010 (detail, part 2 of diptych). Courtesy of the artist; Metro Pictures, New York; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

For his recent seminar as part of The Terraforming program at Strelka Institute, Parikka proposed a speculative exercise of developing a synthetic discipline called “A Natural History of Logistics” to look at how media models Earth.

Parikka invited researchers to reflect on how the history of materials and landscapes can be seen through architecture and media tools, and how that gathered understanding of materials and landscapes can feed back to our understanding of media and architectural theories, so that they become more complex and relevant.

Strelka Mag’s Yulia Gromova spoke to Parikka about the materiality of media, slow environmental violence, and the way to apply his theory to The Terraforming.

 

Geology of Media

Jussi Parikka: The term “geology of media” might puzzle both media theorists and geologists. It is a hybrid term that speaks to the material context of contemporary media technologies. It partly emerges from research in a field called Media Archaeology, but it also radicalizes the notion of time that is needed to understand what contemporary media technologies are as material formations. As such, it becomes part of the recent years of discussions about environments, the Anthropocene, and materiality of media.

On the one hand, to speak of a geology of media is pretty straightforward. Media technologies are made of minerals, of metals, of synthetic materials—they are quite concretely geological. But it also implies that as geological, they have these multiple temporalities and durations packed in them as well. It picks up on the idea of deep time—a radically non-human temporal scale—in order to think of media culture, technologies, and materiality.

A concrete example would be electronic waste—what happens to the media after it is not used or useful anymore. It is discarded, abandoned, and left as a toxic residue that flows into landscapes and becomes waste material in ways where media technologies again reveal their chemical base.

I was interested in how we can engage with this reality of electronic waste and abandoned technological culture with the use of media theoretical tools; how does it also need feedback into the ways in which we do media theory and think about media theoretical notions of time. There’s a lot there that speaks directly to the contemporary context of materiality, but also environmental issues.

The key idea is that geology of media is not just that we recount the fact that there are these rare earth minerals, energy, and fossil fuel systems that are the backbone of contemporary media culture; it also implies switching our scale of both spatial and temporal reference—and that is a longer-term project that I’m interested in continuously as well. In which scales of time and space do we consider media cultural issues?

We deal with geologies of media and geophysics of media—and yet at the same time, it’s not merely about rocks, stones, or geological formations. But it’s in that framework of epistemologies and sometimes aesthetics, even art projects, where we try to understand what geology of media is.

 

Deep Time and Planetary Geopolitics

Folded limestone near Ayios Pavlos on Crete, Greece. Photo: Matauw / istock

Dealing with contemporary politics, planetary-scale systems, or technical media culture implies that we need to be able to shift scales of reference—to understand that those are large-scale systems which sometimes become concrete in contexts of use, but also escape that scale constantly in how they operate. And they are not just large-scale systems of North, South, East, West—but the interlocking patterns and dynamics that reframe also geographical coordinates in multiple ways of dimensions, intensities, speeds, and repercussions.

Our colleagues in postcolonial and feminist studies and many other fields have also dealt with exactly the same problem of how do we understand planetary large-scale—these interlocking mechanisms—whether its exploitation or other forms of violence, but also other forms of systems in a way that is sufficiently complex. And I’m trying to do this from the point of view of media theory and critical posthumanities, to refer to this hybrid field of investigations after Rosi Braidotti.

The idea that we’re dealing with geological time becomes a vehicle through which we start to unfold these large-scale processes.

A key point here is that there are always multiple timescales involved in these determinations of global politics, geopolitics, and how they are related. It’s not merely a work of ideologies, but of material operations, of resource distributions, etc.

The idea of deep time implies an important shift—we look at deep times of media technology through, for instance, minerals and fossil fuels. And a different timescale of what some people want to call politics emerges—it is political in that sense. It is also very much embedded in the notion of polytemporality—multiple temporalities packed into complex entities. In using the term polytemporality there lies one interesting connection to the brief for The Terraforming too.

I myself, when I describe this temporality, I often use this simple example from the French philosopher Michel Serres. He talks about polytemporalities of technological objects. Serres’s example is the car—automobile, which is sort of a condensation of multiple technologies—the wheel is an ancient technology; the principles of electronics have emerged gradually since the nineteenth century; the marketing discourse of a car is very future-oriented, often futuristic and full of promises. And then we could add to Serres’ list the ways in which, for instance, contemporary autonomous vehicles are also bundles of time, where the time is their prediction systems of machine learning, cloud-based computing of what autonomous vehicles do, etc.

So this bundling of temporalities defines what technology is. And then our methodologies of how we unbundle them for analytical purposes is important—looking at geological time is actually about looking at multiple timescales as mentioned earlier. And again, the idea that I was interested in, in my earlier work—what are the notions of time that are adequate and complex enough for our contemporary times? What are the notions of time that are sufficient for the peculiar situations media theory nowadays must investigate?

 

Slow Violence of Media Technologies

I use the notion of slow violence, adapted especially from Rob Nixon’s work. His fantastic work outlines multiple forms of industrial accidents as part of the question of environmentalism of the poor, forms of violence of contemporary culture, and so on. Nixon not only looks at violence such as wars, but also the unfolding toxic impact and repercussions, complex causalities—whether it’s accidents and industrial plants, toxification of landscapes and lives from biological matter to indeed geological or agricultural matter.

As briefly mentioned earlier, it is a really interesting way to understand, for instance, the question of electronic waste as part of this legacy of long, slow violence of technological culture. Often in media studies, we discuss—and for good reasons—forms of contemporary emergence of very troubling political, right-wing, racist kinds of voices in media representations. But there’s a material side to violence that emerges in different forms, in sometimes less direct forms, as well—there’s a lot of media technologies that we need to account for in terms of environmental impacts, and that’s part of the ways in which I try to deal with it. It also relates to colonialism in terms of resource extraction.

One way to understand this, and I know that this is only one small part of a more complex pattern, is that a lot of it happens on indigenous lands, and hence reproduces a particular relation to the Global South. And yet it is important not to ignore the debates about the Arctic North and, for instance, various projects that relate to extractive processes or forms of territorial capture on Sami people’s lands.

Violence is indeed a question of ecological violence in a broader sense as well—in terms of indigenous lands, in terms of landscapes, in terms of non-human lives. So that’s a sort of important thing of how to again connect these seemingly very human-oriented questions of media communication technologies to the broader question of ecology.

Scrub fire photographed from a helicopter in the Australian bushland. Photo: CelesteQuest / istock

French philosopher Felix Guattari was a great influence in terms of how society thought about this. His 1980s version of Three Ecologies was an influential way of mobilizing earlier work of building complexity into the processive understanding of social and psychological themes as interconnected; and sort of trying to map the particular forms and forces that are interacting there relating it to contemporary. This was in the 1980s, but it is still relevant—contemporary forms of pollution, whether it’s the pollution of the mind or pollution of the environmental sphere, but also integrated world capitalism, as he coined it.

From Guattari, I picked up an interest in how these multiple forms of ecologies, not just three, are at the heart of what forms of objects of knowledge, objects of sensation, even aesthetico-political actions can emerge. And in which ways are we able to intervene in those processes for the sake of things we call politics, or for the sake of things we call design, and design as meaningful intervention into the multiple ecologies that we’re dealing with.

 

A Natural History of Logistics

Image courtesy of Ketra

My term for the seminar at Strelka, “A natural history of logistics” is a sort of speculative, somewhat fake, or perhaps we can call it synthetic, discipline that functions as a proposal to develop approaches that are complex and inventive enough, but also material enough to deal with the fact that logistics works across material landscapes, even if it often tries to pitch its work as frictionless. Jennifer Gabrys referred earlier to “natural history of electronics” and I wanted to continue the idea of these hybrid synthetic disciplines as creative insights to contemporary material networks, and their historical roots in geological, chemical, atmospheric, and other material formations.

Those material landscapes and materials are themselves already inventing forms of “logistics.” Some of the examples that I gave during the seminar are trade winds and currents as the backbone of particular seascape expeditions across historical times—mapping those trade winds and currents as instrumental for transport. Then there’s also the emergence of modern soil science including in Russia in the Tsarist times in the nineteenth century—and how in those concepts, ideas about soil as a resource and much more emerged, and how that relates to contemporary work on, for example, “soil as bioinfrastructure” like Maria Puig de la Bellacasa coins it.

There are many other examples, including discussions of metabolism, circulation optimization that I read back and forth between so-called natural and so-called technological or artificial systems.

We’re also trying to look at the points of friction between logistics and material landscapes as part of this exercise and its methodology. There are ways in which logistical industries try to market themselves as frictionless spaces of flows, a process which then comes with its own military and economic implications. Metaphors play a role in this — a naturalization of operations of logistics as organic for example. But at the same time it is not merely metaphorical in any way. It’s an actual system of circulation of matter—energy. We need to move beyond the naturalization of thinking of it only as a metabolism into the sort of a way in which it rearranges material landscapes by way of its own action.

Logistics does not only imply matter as its condition of existence, but it’s also a rearrangement of that matter—somewhat in the spirit of how Benjamin Bratton puts it in The Terraforming book. We need to deal with how these systems are not mere “read only systems,” but also read and write systems that are rearranging landscapes, whether it’s delivery of sand or delivery of other materials, etc.

By using the term “natural history of logistics”, we are dealing with infrastructures of extended urbanism that keep on popping up as a key theme of courses at Strelka. That is the same body of discussions that I’ve tried to contribute towards as well. Of course, my perspective is slightly different from design and art; mine is defined more by media theory plus a bit of history of science, a bit of cultural history, and a bit of analysis of contemporary technologies thrown into the mix of design.

Abelardo Gil-Fournier, Mawat, 2017. Photograph by Javier Broto

 

Earth Arts and Geology of Media

Speaking of design, but also arts as a research perspective, over the past two years I’ve been in interaction with several curated exhibitions, artistic projects that mobilized similar ideas about multiple scales of materiality, of media culture, of fossil and post-fossil fuel landscapes and imaginaries; of geologies of media, but also more than just geological materials.

I think some of the experimental approaches are helping also to broaden the frame of reference of what we call aesthetics from experiential aesthetics, to how aesthetics is about framing territories, and how the framing of territories is also part of this sort of a work that connects contemporary forms of understanding. This idea of territorial framing is also informed by my experiences of working with Geocinema, whose project emerged from the earlier Strelka program, The New Normal. Asia Bazdyrieva and Solveig Suess’ work on the Digital Belt and Road infrastructure initiative is a great example of the thematic connection to geologies of media in contexts of sustainability sciences, geopolitics, and art (moving image) practices. And it is an example where a collaboration with artists was really inspiring my own work, including my current project on operational images.

Geocinema, Making of Earths (film still), 2020

Of course, one is aware of longer legacies, historical cases. Robert Smithson is featured in my book, but I have been also interested in other sorts of examples of computational Earth arts to use that term; for example Martin Howse’s work, but also Jamie Allen and many others’ projects have been quite the inspiration for many of the insights and angles that had an impact on my writing.

Currently I have had the pleasure of working for example with Samir Bhowmik, who is a Helsinki-based artist, architect, and scholar. His work with energy infrastructures and cultural memory has expanded the notion of deep time to deal with contemporary infrastructures too. And together, we have investigated some other aspects of infrastructure and materiality, infrastructure and visual culture, including in some work where we deal with "infrascapes"—the back and forth of visual and material inscriptions of infrastructural landscapes.

Another recent collaboration is with Abelardo Gil-Fournier, who also gave a guest lecture here in Moscow as part of The Terraforming, on his work with cultural techniques of vegetal surfaces. This also links to our joint work on plants, vegetal life, media formations, and the ways in which the history of science about biological or plant life is a way of framing questions of territory and surface. So we dip in and out of questions of nineteenth century analysis of light, for example, but outside photography, and through research into plants. We dip in and out of early twentieth century work by Vladimir Vernadsky and the biosphere as a planetary scale sensing system that we call plants, and energy transformation of planetary systems. We relate this also to questions of operational images, as part of a project we are working on at FAMU, in Prague, and all this is feeding into a book too.

Samir Bhowmik, A crowd of oil silos in the Port of Stockholm, 2019. Photograph. Part of the Infrascape series. Courtesy of the artist

For me, all of these artistic, design, and other collaborations have been about finding interesting links and people that also helped me to move further with my own conceptual thinking—and move further from my limitations. And also, I think in some of these works, it’s interesting to see what those concepts and the logic of concepts means when put into the context of aesthetic vocabularies and material practices. And that’s to me the crucial thing here as well, something I find is part of the work at The Terraforming program too: what processes of design and thinking conjoin into hybrid new experiments that respond to contemporary times.

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