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Art machine evolution

Mike Leggett


Media Ecologies—Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture
Matthew Fuller
Leonardo series, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2005
ISBN 0-262-062-06247-X (hbk)

Art, as much as science, often attempts to put an enclosure around a sequence, a process, in order to isolate it as material to be inspected in a certain way, as distinct. Name a system, exhaust its permutations.

Aphorisms of this kind pepper Matthew Fuller’s account of the interplay of expressive electronic media forms with creative people, both producers and audience, through the millennium change years. Characteristically, the statement can be taken as both pungent critique and benign observation. As critique it suggests practitioners and researchers cynically delineate territory through which they career for their individual professional and economic benefit. As an observation, it is a reasonable description of the approach so many, the altruistic together with the avaricious, take to dealing with complexity—far better perhaps, to deal with a part of the world in depth than drown in peripheral details.

Ecological systems of biological interdependency are less than 50 years old in the public mind during which time we have experienced the impact of systems of information and communications technology. Indeed radio and television have been largely responsible for disseminating information about the biological domains, presenting us with the shape of an image we now refer to as ecology. It enables us “to think through the patterns of mutualism, dependency, fuelling, parasitism etc in a system, and between overlapping systems...” as Keith Gallasch wrote recently. “Audiences eager for arts information and criticism increasingly seek alternatives to a challenged mass media, whether in street papers, magazines, websites or blogs, and above all, in combinations of these. A decade ago the commercial media mocked prophets who forecast a participatory rather than a passive audience in the near future. How wrong they were.” (Fibreculture list, 11.03.2006, http://fibreculture.org).

Media Ecologies—Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture traces the shifts, developments, dead-ends and breakthroughs in this dynamic area of studio, laboratory and street-culture activity. Fuller’s tone is agitational rather than methodological. The pitch builds upon selected works of cultural, political and philosophical treatise: from Nietzsche through Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (1938), to Foucault, Negri, Deleuze & Guattari. The recurring metaphor of the itinerant metallurgist, moving to where the materials, the conditions and the needs are situated, the “machinic phylum” of A Thousand Plateaus, “allows thought to enter a thicker relationship with practice, with materials of expression, their constitution of effect.”

Materials like the low-power FM transmitter, used (illegally) in districts of London as a part of hip-hop culture, are tempered with the more mundane official documents that trace the management of a key material of modernity, radio waves (the subject of 70s activism for community-based radio and television). The “machinic” tools of turntable and microphone, of voice and drugs, the issues of redundancy and entropy bent out of shape to produce heard stuff, are crafted through parts of the text into a prose refracting the central issues of cultural traction. Reflection by the reader is a requirement here, as this is no quickly absorbed account. Discussion of mobile (phone) cultures moves back into more familiar range with echoes of JJ Gibson’s views about technology driving cultural change and where frameworks and affordances provide for consumers and hackers opportunity to patch their gadgets, from which emerges more meaningful “dimensions of relationality.”

These are present in The Switch, a community-based installation by Jakob Jakobson where the street lighting in a cul-de-sac in Denmark involved the 40 households in determining each night at what point the lighting would be switched on or off. What flowed was unpredictable, less so the rhetoric of Australian, Natelie Jeremijenko’s BITRadio data interventions over WNYC at the WEF. This is straightforward reading, but not so the penultimate and longest chapter, “Seams, Memes, and Flecks of Identity.” Covering boundaries, variables and events, it zips between ideas and artefacts at a breathless rate: Dawkins to packet switching; Chaosmosis to Neue Slowenische Kunst collective; TCP/IP to A Media Art (Manifesto) from the 60s; Jennicam to Albert Speer.

The short final chapter deepens the auto-reflective stance taken by the writer, seemingly conscious that the ride has been a demanding one, though determined to resist the temptation to prescribe or predict progression, through the text or from the text. He proffers a belief in a reframed art practice having the potential to take a lead in the intense process of reinvention, of orders and relationalities of the social, the material and the imagination. Fuller moves to extract essences from the phenomena encountered, by so doing, to make transitions more visible between them, highlighting tendencies, accenting flow.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 28

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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