Jussi Parikka and Jeanine Griffin: A Conversation, 10 July 2018

Published on the occasion of Site Gallery’s exhibition Liquid Crystal Display

Waad AlBawardi, The Hidden Life of Crystals, 2017

Jussi Parikka is a media theorist working as Professor of Technological Culture & Aesthetics at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton and as Docent in Digital Culture Theory at the University of Turku, Finland. Parikka’s work looks at how the natural and the technological are intertwined in a media ecology he defines as ‘medianatures’. His recent book A Geology of Media (2015) addresses the material basis of technology in rare earth minerals and resources and the need for environmental humanities including questions of media and technology. One could relate Parikka’s comment about Thomas Pynchon to his own work, in that he ’crystallises the chemistry of technological culture’.[1]

Jeanine Griffin is a curator, writer and PhD researcher with Site and Sheffield Hallam University.

Jeanine Griffin (JG): Your work proposes a material history of media — how minerals, metals and chemicals have always been extracted and experimented with in media technologies– the extraction of the stratified resources of the earth to create mediatic value (coltan for iphones, crystals in telegraphic receivers, and silver for glass plate photography).

You suggest that we need to act like ‘archaeologists-cum-geologists’ to understand where we stand in relation to contemporary media, to pick apart ’the digital’ and think about its ‘mineral durations’. How do we do that and how might art help?

Jussi Parikka (JP): One way to start would be to acknowledge that discussion about the digital is often very vague and so it doesn’t mean anything unless its specified. For me the specification happens through material and historical contexts; I am increasingly interested in material things — connected with durations of histories of technology and science, histories of metallurgy and chemistry and more.

It becomes expanded from discussions of media — not just digital — to broad technicalities and media culture. The way in which we think that the digital is the first of the technological media eras is completely misinformed. We forgot that analogue was a technical media era.

These mineral durations help us to understand (outside the usual classifications of media change from analogue to digital) these things such as crystals as mediatic or at least contributing to material histories of media. Esther Leslie’s work is an inspiring example of what has been done already and perhaps my work is a complimentary way to think of these durations.

In A Geology of Media and other work, artistic projects and practices were a means to investigate questions about media or media theory, but outside the usual media theoretical canon. I’m interested in the question of how this approach becomes something other than media history, or even media archaeology. This odd neologism ‘media geologies’ or ‘geology of media’ is a way to point out this connection, almost like a crystal, actually. Crystals, minerals, coltan, silver, all these subterranean elements, are all underground or minor histories of media — not minor in significance but minor because they are about experimentation to find lines of potential rather than axiomatic master sets of principles.

JG: You are interested in the material, yet so much of our experience of technology is ostensibly dematerialised. James Bridle suggests the central metaphor of the internet is The Cloud — nebulous and hard to grasp — but he points out that it is actually a physical infrastructure, of vast warehouses, cables, fibre optics and phone lines requiring huge energy and water use.

You make the similar point that server farms for cloud computing now inhabit old paper mills near to water for cooling and that data industries still need the natural elements that the heavy industries did. But you go further to suggest the media archaeology of this infrastructure — the materiality of its manufacture — and you note that earth and media are tied together in a feedback loop: ‘Data mining […] is enabled only by the sort of mining we associate with the ground’[2]. It’s very much territorial rather than ethereal. I was reminded of German artist Ines Schaber’s work Picture Mining [3] which similarly highlighted the fact that old mines in Pennsylvania were turned into the repositories of Corbis’s image banks. The earth still holds the resources, the data and the incipient commodities despite the ethereal connotations of the cloud.

Ines Schaber, ‘Picture Mining’, 2006. Photograph taken in the area around Boyers, Pennsylvania, above the former limestone quarry in which Corbis houses its archive. Courtesy the artist.

You suggest there is a move away from the rhetoric of ‘immateriality’ to take into account the material, the geophysics of information — a turn to the materiality of the earth or material history of media. It’s interesting to me as I’ve been researching an exhibition called Les Immateriaux, curated by the philosopher Lyotard at the Pompidou Centre in 1985 and you also suggest this discourse of immateriality stems from the 80s. This was a moment when the real impact of digital technology — in terms of dematerialisation — was being felt. Now there seems to be a resurgence of the material object, certainly in curatorial terms, whether the auratic object, or the object with particular accretions of social or political meaning. How do you feel this return to materiality is being manifested now?

JP: That’s a great way of framing this. Let’s start with the clouds. Clouds have been analysed in other works — works like John Durham Peter’s Marvellous Clouds, mapping this media history of the four elements. It resonates closely to what I was looking at with A Geology of Media, which is not really about geology in a geological sense but concerned with the various “natural” elements that make up media technologies, and constantly emphasise their part in the geopolitics of media — where geopolitics is really understood through the geos and bios that mobilises media in its modern industrial forms too.

Since the 19th century and alongside the 20th century’s concessive histories (from the 19th century and wireless to the 1980s entry of digital) we find questions of not only what immateriality is, but what are the changing transformations of materiality that impact what is conceivably present, what is conceivably there. The discourses of immateriality go back to the emergence of telegraph, back to the ‘reorganisation of the senses’, in a similar sense to what Marshall McLuhan was all about[4], but perhaps we need to top it up with more specificity. Reorganisation of the senses: things that we consider immaterial are often just too fast, too small or otherwise out of reach. It is almost like a substitute for the immaterial.

I find work in media archaeology so useful in outlining what mobilises seemingly supernatural or magical themes of media. I’m thinking of Jeffrey Sconce’s work on ‘haunted media’, which continues this theme of the reorganisation of the senses, to the point that we are becoming delusional, because things are no longer graspable. And I think that materiality is not anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time, about things that are graspable by hand. It’s somewhat unfortunate that Martin Heidegger in the middle of the 20th century was very much focused on the hand and the possibilities theory of technology. The more interesting of his thoughts about technology come later, but others have still the idea that technology is about tools, hammers and things held by human — often male — hands. I think it’s something else, something more distributed, nuanced, infrastructural and non-human. There are different genealogies for both hands and materiality; both an awareness of the gender of those hands that touch and their materiality. It’s about ways to also start understanding what this different scale of materiality is about.

JG: Interesting that you mention tools. In the exhibition, there’s Shimabuku’s work on the idea of the tools of humans from the paleolithic to the technological, where they are matched up, visually, ostensibly across a vast range of time.

JP: I think all of this points to necessary conceptual shifts in thinking of materialities of different scales, different temporal and spatial scales and how materialities don’t only come as things, they come as relations, including social relations.

Picture Mining is a good example of thinking about visual culture and images not merely stemming from infrastructures, but also how they constitute our sense of landscapes and how photographic work — like Trevor Paglen’s and Schaber’s work — is a way of getting an insight into what the technological landscape is.

JG: I was interested in the reference in A Geology Of Media to the Crystal World projects, which are also represented in Liquid Crystal Display. In these projects by Jonathan Kemp, Ryan Jordan and Martin Howse, technology is left to crystallise out into its constituent substances, in a kind of reverse engineering of the catalysing of material, labour and economics into technology.

You talk about these projects as ‘investigating the process of crystallisation and decrystallisation as defining digital culture’ and note that in these practices ‘new materialist critique becomes embedded in geological times of crystallisation’. You suggest that these projects might test how far art vocabularies and methods might go — how are these projects pushing art discourses, and how important is this metaphor of crystallisation?

JP: These works are a continuation of the legacy of earth art and land art. Not only with regard to the mechanisation of the soil and of the earth that was central in the in the 60/70s but also the computerisation of the soil and the planetary. They are updating that legacy of artistic discourse and artistic practice in relation to the electronic age. They do more than reverse engineering. They open things out in radical ways, expose material and also problematise what is inner and what is external by way of showing the labour inside the technological artefact. It is related to how they think of technological life because of the way they install and run things through water; they decay or have an afterlife or a life that is not really reducible to use values. It’s not about naturalising the contingent and political side of media, but showing its materiality, that materiality has politics and politics also has a natural history to it. This refers to how Jennifer Gabrys has written about a natural history of electronic media. In a way these artistic projects (Kemp, Jordan and Howse’s and this exhibition) are examples of how material histories can be addressed with speculative narratives. I believe it is about how they challenge art vocabularies and we could pick apart their work in terms of where they fit in terms of performance, artistic performance, earth art, land art and perhaps some other legacies at the same time, because what they do doesn’t really fit into the categories we usually have.

JG: It’s interesting that you cite them as descendants of land art. You make a reference to Robert Smithson in your book and to a question about time, because the book is, in part, a plea for a ‘deep time’ approach to media and an acknowledgement of the impacts of its resourcing and its obsolescence. With the idea of media becoming future fossils we find, for example, hard drives becoming crystallised out to their constituent metals as in the Crystal Worlds project and also Thomas Thwaites Chromobytes, in a cavern in the peak district.[5] You quote Smithson referring to the earth as a “jumbled museum. Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order and social structure which confine art. In order to read the rocks we must become conscious of geologic time.”[6]

This is reflected in one of the works in the show — Jennifer West’s project Salt Crystals Spiral Jetty Dead Sea Five Year Film — which has an extended process duration involving minerals & sediment. Film was floated in the dead sea then soaked in mud and salt for 5 years before being dragged across Smithson’s Spiral Jetty; taking film back to its origins in mineral chemistry.

You argue for a psychogeophysics of technology, an art of the geological — reading the sediment — which is very pertinent to that work. How can an approach like this, as Smithson’s suggests, evade the structures that confine art?

JP: A playful notion of psychogeophysics ties into what we discussed about Kemp, Jordan and Howse. It’s a play of words but also a play of scale, relating to psychogeography. The manifesto of psychogeophysics (a collective, anonymous manifesto of sorts) argues that psychogeography and related artistic practices have been too focussed on the metropolitan, urban scales whereas we need a much more radical planetary scale that speaks of mountains and tectonic plates, the weather and the climate. For me scale is about time and durations.

One could say that such a position relates to radical durations of art that are catalysed by way of these various materialities. These are catalysed by ways of thinking about time (this is coming from someone who trained as a historian and became more interested in ecologies of time) and in a way A Geology of Media, as a work, is actually a book about time. It becomes the central theme of the way we think about art practices too; art practices that both catalyse materials to think about time and act as platforms for thinking about alternate times as well. It’s this interface with very careful, considered practices that involve materials and time — sometimes fragile materials or slowly eroding materials — which imply timescales, whether it’s years or days or longer. Psychogeophysics becomes a way to start talking about these other scales too. I try to again find an approach that comes from outside of digital studies. We should be talking about material histories as part of the radical temporalities of not just media history, but natural history as well.

There’s something interesting about Smithson’s museum metaphor. In museums and other institutions of cultural heritage, including archives, bootstrap and concrete infrastructures are part of the ways that we think about time as history (sometimes nationalised histories, sometimes colonial histories) and yet at the same time they still persist as we saw in that quote about jumbled museums. And yet much recent discourse has been exactly about shifting the references of time and history to natural formations and those become markers of time that evade the usual discourse in terms of archives and expand them as well. Katie Paterson Future Library project[7] is one way of thinking about another cultural institution that grows by way of forests. So there’s something about the sensitivity to time in relation to the term Anthropocene (which I don’t particularly use that much) as a sensitivity to different times than those currently lived, that horizon of impact of living and the ways in which we live become stretched outside of our lives.

JG: This idea of geological time as opposed to the time of the Anthropocene seems in some ways an approach aligned to the post-human. You quote Rosi Braidotti on the need to engage with ’planetary, geo-centred perspective’ — not to ’engage with an aestheticisation of nature that might separate humans from their environment.’ [8] This ties into your term ‘medianatures’, a development of Donna Haraway’s ‘naturecultures’, which suggests an inextricable connection between the two. And you note that psychogeophysics brings in a stronger non-human element than psychogeography did. Again this crystalline entanglement of human/ non-human/ or ‘medianatures’ seems important in all of your writings. You also say in A Geology of Media that natural ’things’ are leaking into art vocabularies and as such smuggle a lot of the non-human into the otherwise very human-centred focus of aesthetics [9]. How do you think this approach — the post-human/new materialist approach — is affecting art and aesthetics?

JP: I find the post-human/ new materialism is a fulfilling way of thinking about materiality. Never dismiss the idea that we are living with multiple histories and human relations but human relations embedded on a multitude of scales. Braidotti is very good at outlining the legacy and genealogy of post-human studies in other ‘studies’ (cultural, media, queer) which emerged since the 80s. The term ‘Medianatures’ is one way of acknowledging this legacy — the way Haraway set it out with ‘naturecultures’ — but adding a variation that speaks more directly to the media technological contexts of mobilising earth matter. Hence my development of the concept but also acknowledgement of those roots. In terms of art and aesthetics some of the more fulfilling ideas are around the notion that it’s not merely objects, simple graspable things, that are the centre of our attention; it’s the constant interface and mediation to make things invisible and visible. Things that are graspable are conditioned by beyond graspable scales of infrastructure. It’s this back and forth that is interesting.

JG: You talk about a ‘psychogeography of dirt, waste and dust’ and about dust as the connecting factor in industrial and technological production — the toxic dust that is the residue of polishing aluminium ipads in factories as well as that attached to workers’ lungs in coal mines. I also noticed that Suzanne Treister has a drawing in the show containing the text ‘the summer of digital dust’. Like liquid crystal, dust is amorphous and in constant motion and its presence/ absence is an important factor in the production of media. Also like liquid crystal ‘dust is not just matter but something that troubles our notions of matter’[10]. Laurie Anderson apparently thought that the problem with things like virtual reality was that there was no dirt in it and you’ve also written on the need for a cultural analysis of ’dirty matter’. Is your work a similar plea to acknowledge the dirt in the digital?

JP: The rhetoric of the digital is a rhetoric of purification from all the dirt that was necessary to make it happen; a political/logistical chain of conditions that are dirty. Since the 1980s there was an interesting parallel between the perceived dirtiness of oil and the seeming cleanliness of digital, although by now we know also the digital is a continuation of petro-culture and fossil fuel culture. There’s an interesting parallel to be made about the material symbolics of steel and glass in the modern age and architecture, and how they featured prominently as these clean, rational geometrics with transparency and how this is complemented now by the shiny surfaces of digital devices that are clean and smooth. But dirt needs to be dug out as part of our genealogies and contemporary stories. Dust and dirt are material and conceptual ways to understand the underbelly of the digital, the story of work, materiality, pollution and more. This side, this darker side, tells much more than the idealistic discourses enthusiastic about the new technologies. Bring on the dirt.

JG: The exhibition Liquid Crystal Display proposes that we are living in a world of images supported and circulated by crystal mineral technologies –a crystal era — would you agree?

JP: Crystal is a great reference point. It’s apt because it becomes a way of understanding materialities as multifaceted; a suitable visual metaphor for materiality at large. It’s a tempting allegory to follow but of course there’s much more at work than just allegory. I love the work of many of the artists in the exhibition, but I want to mention particularly the Otolith Group; the way in which they are mixing material histories with imaginary narratives and exemplifying this crystal approach to a continuum across these poles of zeros and imaginaries. As the exhibition outlines, these are material things that have a very modern history since the late 19th century. The exhibition shows how they connect with issues of light, the seemingly immaterial history of light, and as such is speaking to this very specific history of materials. There’s also a lot that could be said about the exhibition design which features this connection of space and light and architectural features that beautifully incorporate the space itself as a crystal interface. There’s probably more to be said about the idea of crystals as interfaces — as modulations of light, durations of histories, modulations of different scales of materiality. And perhaps there is something there that is speaking to the idea of why the crystal would be one insight into this diffracted[11] set of materials, temporalities, histories.

[1] A Geology of Media (London & Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015) p. 56

[2] A Geology of Media, p 58

[3] About this work: Corbis was one of the first companies to not only purchase analogue image archives and collections, but also to digitise them. Among these images were some of the photographs taken by Lewis Hine in the 1910s for the National Child Labor Committee, Picture Mining confronts a selection of Hine’s pictures of child mine workers with photographs of a post-industrial landscape. The latter is a region where Corbis stores its images underground in a former limestone quarry. In a video, a woman speculates about the mine and its current use.

[4] ‘For McCluhan the senses relate to media in two ways: they are augmented and expanded by media and they are changed and altered through media. Sense and media enter into a contradictory relationship. Media are an extension of the sense and also their object’. R Lescheke, ‘McCluhan and Mediawissenshaften: Sense and Sensation’ in Media Transatlantic, Ed Norm Friesen, p.188

[5] https://www.andfestival.org.uk/events/chromobytes/

[6] A Geology of Media, p 59

[7] A forest has been planted in Norway, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in 100 years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the year 2114. https://www.futurelibrary.no/

[8] A Geology of Media, p. 63

[9] ibid p. 72

[10] A Geology of Media p. 88

[11] with reference to Karen Barad’s idea of diffraction