Interferences as Quality

On the mode of existence of media technology

by Katharina Groß*

This text is based on my dissertation “Playbour-Time: Experimental exploration of the techno-aesthetic mode of existence” and is continuously expanded and updated. You can find a german version of this text here (http://www.katharinagross.tv/2020/04/stoerung-als-qualitaet-zur-existenzweise-von-medientechnologie/). English translation by Katharina Groß.

—–This post is part of the “Critical Exchanges on COVID-19” of the Metabody Forum 2020 – Please check future updates of the text in progress—–

   

Many institutions such as theatres, opera houses, concert halls, clubs and numerous freelance artists are currently transferring their artistic performances to the digital sphere of the Internet. The mass of streaming offers is overwhelming.

As Uwe Mattheiss writes in his taz article (https://taz.de/Was-der-Kultur-im-Netz-verloren-geht/!5677513/), this kind of media use serves the (self-)exploitation and competition of an attention economy in an unfavourable way: “The small business instinct, which many artists have sharpened in the rush from project to project, rightly fears the market shakeout that libertarian ideologists hope for in the storms of the crisis for the economy as a whole.“

Surely the course of action by many artists was born out of their misery, because many concerts, theatre and dance performances suddenly had to be cancelled and also the clubs will probably not be able to give public events until the end of August. Here, I don’t want to have a debate about the necessity or futility of the closures.

Shortened ways of using media technology

I  do not want to go into the economic consequences driven by the neoliberal impetus, mentioned by Mattheiss. However, from my media-philosophical perspective, a vivid techno-experimental situation emerges, which makes clear that the intention of many artists to transfer the analogue 1:1 into the digital represents a shortened way of using media technologies.

The consequence of this is that on the functional and structural level of both modes of existence – human and media technology – a mutual subjugation or exploitation is at work. The consequences of this socio-technological situation, which has now been intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic, I would like to underline with the thoughts of the sociologist Bruno Latour and the philosopher Gilbert Simondon.

Loss of quality?

Starting from the streaming of a video recording of small dance or music practice sessions in the kitchen at home with a smartphone, to the documentation of theatre rehearsals or orchestra concerts, to the digitalization of entire art exhibitions: If the potential audience at home does not have the appropriate technical equipment for video and audio playback, they will hardly be able to perceive the quality of the artistic performance. A normal Bluetooth box simply cannot reproduce the manifold nuances of quality.

Moreover – and this is why we visited a theatre play, a dance performance or a techno club in the first place – there is no physical presence. This perfects the sensual experience. That is why Mattheiss asks: “What are their works without the ‘dirt’ of the materials, what is the performing arts without the physical presence of actors and audience?” But the medial of the digital also has its materiality and thus its dirt, which can be perceived as interferences.

In general, all kinds of media connect and separate at the same time, whether they are understood as the body, the canvas or technology. But it is precisely with digital media that the spatial aspects of proximity and distance are suspended. In the digital architectures of perception, space and time unify in their multiplicity into a singular here and now, into a placeless permanent presence. What seems close is at the same time far away and always available and therefore often enough remains without appreciation.

Structural adaptation of both ways of existence

Two facts can be recognized from the current media use: First, transferring something into the digital world always means a loss of ambiguity and multivalence. Both are indispensably bound to physical qualities, i.e. one might think that quality decreases with digital transport. However – and this is the crucial point in my description – something new is added: noise, time delays or image fragmentation. This interferences represents a new quality in the human mode of perception, which however is often enough negatively evaluated, because it does not correspond to the artistic intention and degrades the desired performance.

In other words, when artists come into their play, something else is always playing with them – in this case media technology. Artists who do not reflect the particular medium and its materiality, as media artists do in their practice, subject their play to technical conditions.

Media technology as a player

The second fact concerns media technology itself: If the player, i.e. technology, is not understood as an independent mode of existence, but if the media situation is supposed to suggest pure immediacy, then technology is understood as an object for ‚pure’ transport of meaning. This is what Bruno Latour calls “double-clicking”: In such an understanding, media technology is treated as an intermediary, which has to function as invisibly and smoothly as possible. This understanding underpins the thesis of transparency, according to which media should disregard itself and disappear.[1] The technical object is subordinated to the artistic intention.

With the current ethical attitude, i.e. the medial ways of use described above, the structurally and functionally different modes of existence tend to stabilize in a form in which they are not perceptible. [2]

The existence of the mediator

In his book One the mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Gilbert Simondon described the co-genesis, the co-creation of man and technology. He argues that although both modes of existence are ontologically symmetrical because they both co-evolve, they have functional and clearly structural differences.

Furthermore, while recording the artistic play is changing through respective media technologies. It has to change, because the mixture of man and technology is metastable and changes during its progress. The consequence of an artistic personality assumed to be stable is the negation of the functional as well as structural asymmetry between man and technology when both meet.

Under such media-ecological circumstances, no activity-sensitivity [activité-sensibilité] is processed [4], which lead to differences and therefore to new, only temporary metastabilities. On the contrary, a result-oriented and optimization-obsessed logic of adaptation is formed, which leads to a mere automatism.

No transport without transformation

A transport, i.e. a media transmission always goes hand in hand with a transformation of the message. There can be no 1:1 transmission unless there is a mere adaptation of human and technology. The technical play, i.e. the relational process between the living and the technical, can be described as an oscillating movement between active involvement and passive allowing to happen. In this sense, processes cannot be classified as either active or passive, instead they are both active and passive at the same time.

Therefore, instead of a logic of adaptation, a process of sensitivity should be aimed at, with which the respective qualities and characteristics of both modes of existence – human and technology – can be perceived and appreciated. If the play with media technology and its peculiarities, indeterminacies and interferences is properly appropriated, then this includes a long process of trial-and-error.

In-formative forces of media technology

In Simondon’s irreductionist philosophy, there is also a criticism of hylemorphism (Aristotle), according to which Being is separated into an active form and a passive material principle. [3] The passive material must first be given a form through the active doing.

Transferred to the media situation here, the material ‘media technology’ is given a form by the artistic performance. However, this simplification is difficult, because media and artistic situations are much more complex. After all, the body of the dancer, the voice of the singer, the instrument of the musician is also ‘material’.

But what is important is that a material itself owns these formative powers, i.e. is actively involved in the creative process. The respective media technology shapes the artistic work! And this should be clear to every artist, no matter what material he or she uses. It is therefore incomprehensible to me, why so many cultural institutions and artists expect media technology to transport the message of all things without transforming it.

How do we get out of the dilemma of physical isolation on the one hand and the mere use of media technology on the other?

In a Facebook commentary on Mattheiss’ taz article, culture manager Thomas Dumke makes a significant suggestion: We need new formats that appreciate the potential of media technologies. A new culture of the digital has to be demanded. Media technologies in their own particular mode of existence support this transformation.

Already in the late 1990s, a group of artists from the Blaue Fabrik Dresden and the Palindrome (Robert Wechsler) experimented with the potential of network-based technology. In contrast to the visual register being prioritized with media technologies today, the focus at that time was on auditory ability: network technology was played. An essential feature of technology at that time was occurring delays in transmission. However, these were not interpreted negatively, but were conceptually considered and productively incorporated into the artistic creative process.

Experimentally playing with the possibilities and limitations of bodily and media-technological conditions is always a trial-and-error that requires a great amount of practice and experience in order to structurally transform perceptual habits and to create new modes of perception through artistic-technical abilities.

Our techno-aesthetic mode of existence is still in its very beginning. A new ethics of media use must first establish itself with digital media technologies, which is situated beyond the encrusted institutions of the analogue and their habits of perception.

Interferences, irritations or distortions of our perceptual modalities do not necessarily and instantly change these structures, but they reveal them. Interferences make us sensitively aware of those habits of perception, which we have so internalized, which are so familiar to us that they are taken for granted. In this respect, the Covid-19 pandemic can also be classified as a disturbance in relation to which quite a few people claim that the culture as we know it will change. However, change cannot be measured and does not occur as a break with the past. It is a creeping cut. For actual transformation, therefore, new interfaces are needed.

(Forthcoming parts of the text in process:)

 

Genesis of our modes of perception

Structuring our perception through the development of media technology

Descartes and the mechanistic view of man

Prioritisation of the visual register

The evaluation of synaesthesia

Merleau-Ponty and proprioception

 

Interaction between the concept of man and the development of media technology

The role of system-engineers and hardware-developers

Measurability and predictability

The cybernetic principle

Simulation of transformation

 

*1983. Katharina Groß first studied sculpture, then animation film and graduated with a master’s degree in New Media in the class of Prof. Dammbeck at the HfBK Dresden. She is currently doing her doctorate in media philosophy at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. She was co-founder of CYNAL-Neue Kunst im Dialog and currently collaborates with neue raeume; to explore the artistic-technical possibilities in software for virtual environments and sensor technology. She exhibited at TonlagenFestival, WISP and several times at CYNETART. Her work focuses on artistic research with current media technologies, media aesthetics and knowledge culture as well as practice as research / theory as practice. (www.katharinagross.tv / www.neueraeume.xyz)

 

[1] A comparison between mediator and intermediary: LATOUR, Bruno: Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, 2005, S. 37–42.

[2] Cf. SIMONDON, Gilbert: „Form, Information, Potenzial“. IN: Just not in Time- Inframedialität und non-lineare Zeitlichkeiten in Kunst, Film, Literatur und Philosophie, Ilka Becker, Michael Cuntz und Michael Wetzel (Hg.), München: Wilhelm Fink, 2011, 221–47.

[3] SIMONDON, Gilbert: Die Existenzweise technischer Objekte. Aus dem Französischen übersetzt durch Michael Cuntz. Zürich: diaphanes., S. 328ff., insb. S. 331.

[4] GOMART, Emilie und Antoine Hennion: „A sociology of attachment: music amateurs, drug users“. In: Actor Network Theory and after. Hrsg. v. John Law und John Hassard. Oxford/Malden: Blackwell Publishing 1999, 220-47; HENNION, Antoine: Offene Objekte, Offene Subjekte? – Körper und Dinge im Geflecht von Anhänglichkeit, Zuneigung und Verbundenheit. Hamburg. Felix Meiner Verlag: Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung, 2011, 1, 93-109.