I read this article yesterday and it definitely resonates with Kate’s comments about the database escaping the box and systems including other systems. 14,000 known species of ants?!
February 27, 2008
February 26, 2008
It’s very likely that my understanding of the implications of Fuller’s definition of the concept of “media ecology” is horribly flawed. I am but a humble cinema scholar, I admit. If I am understanding him, I believe our field has been struggling mightily toward a cinema ecology approach for a few decades now, but that approach is both empowering and daunting.
Fuller’s examples of pirate radio, Cctv, the Switch, etc. are all subversion and relatively localized or contained, albeit dynamic, materializations. How does one use this approach toward commercial cinema? Is this an approach that can look only to the subversions in order to glean the “norms” or “medial will to power” that is being subverted? Because when it comes to cinema, the “thickness” is so monumentally thick, it’s hard to even conceive.
For example, you have film stock, camera, lens (these are variable, so they should be separate) — but what about the lights? All the specialized practices of each position of each crew member? A shift in the production ecology — if I may call it that, and perhaps I can’t, I’m not sure — a shift such as that from silent to sound production could be deemed an instance of a medial will to power, clearly. Yet what about the shift from old-fashioned wooden clapboards to digital ones? Is this tool part of the ecology? I would say “yes” because it is part of the process, but that is where I’m unsure how to apply Fuller.
Wouldn’t we include in this ecology the myriad documents: memos, contract, blue-prints, scripts, permits, schedules, receipts, storyboards, schematics? I haven’t even touched distribution yet — again contracts, rating correspondence, legal documents, posters, ads, commercials, prints, cans, trucks, planes. Then there is the viewing, the ancillary markets — cable, dvd — merchandising….
Or do we just talk about the ecology of Juno? Many critics worried that the teen pregnancy meme would be contagious. Can we think of Fellini’s 8 1/2 as “A Movie-Director Recording Its Own Condition”? There is the ecology of Chinese bootlegged dvds. Currently I’m working on what my professor has deemed an archaeology of a cinematic technology: the sodium travelling matte system — whose ecology includes, if I understand Fuller correctly, the American cold war military technology — which technology precisely, I’m not sure because it’s classified — and Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Make of that what you will.
I found the Fuller reading useful in its process oriented ontology, as opposed to a subject and object oriented one. Just to take the shipping container in Chapter 3 as an example, the material components that comprise the container do not entirely define it in the sense that the container’s dimensions and other attributes were decided by an international standards commission. That commission in turn only bothered to set standards to increase trade volume, which required more efficient means of storing, loading, shipping, and unloading goods. As a guide for those standards, the commission had to take into account existing technology, including the dimensions of ships and ports, as well as the average weights and sizes of shipped goods. Improved trade demands more containers, and eventually refinements to the existing ones. So the system feeds back into itself while also changing itself.
That Fuller draws on Deleuze and Whitehead, among others, to sketch this version of process philosophy for media systems means he is abandoning a definition of Pirate Radio, for example, as a stable, definable thing. Instead something like Pirate Radio is the result of and part of an ongoing set of interactions between government, law enforcement, mass media corporations, and citizens. What Pirate Radio is, where it is, and how it works are constantly changing in reaction to moves by other parts of the system.
The only problem with this approach, perhaps as my post demonstrates, is writing about it in a coherent way; especially considering that nouns are popular parts of speech. Fuller tries to get around this by giving examples, that is by showing (a process) rather than explaining or defining. We might ask to what extent he actually succeeds in that project?
When memes appeared in chapter 4, I began to wonder whether Fuller had not taken a step away from his process oriented philosophy—showing rather than telling. If one were truly committed to a process oriented philosophy, what good would be gained by personifying the medium of the process as a meme? I would think much of what Fuller discusses could be just as easily addressed without recourse to memes or a similar concept. Indeed, that personification makes the process seem even more abstract and allows one to forget about the physical bodies through which and on which said processes function.
Considering the Cctv World Wide Watch and certain moments in the Fuller reading, I have been thinking about the unparalleled panoptic possibilities that have developed over the past decade. The Cctv project, as Fuller points out, is more a suggestion of surveillance than a functional representation of Foucauldean panopticism: “the feeds wear the crappiness of their imaging as a part of their seaminess” (141). The attenuated functionality doesn’t entirely negate the potential for, shall we say, “autopoliceis” (it’s late) of Bunting’s site–crime prevention is certainly possible. Thus, if we are looking toward the internet as a reconceptualization of the Panopticon, we might say that the central column has room on every virtual floor for pairs of observing eyes. But even if a group of global neighborhood watchdogs, taking turns, were to keep watch over Cctv‘s feeds in a continuous cycle, innumerable crimes would go unreported, and even reported ones would go unsolved: none of Minority Report’s pre-cogs here. In Fuller’s terms, as he paraphrases Mirzoeff, “there is no all-seeing specter implied by the physical architecture” (146) of Cctv. There are only nodes; perceived contiguity of observation is a prerequisite for preventive psychology.
That said, the controlling cultural paranoia–or Fuller’s “generalized chilling” (“the effect of knowing that surveillance is going on” (146))–endemic of a post-9/11 America in which government transparency seems to be diminishing has recently surfaced in several innovations by Google: Maps, Earth, and Street View, for example. I’m sure most of you have both played around with the visualization mechanisms of these programs–googling images of one’s house, for example–and read about the controversies they have sparked. Given Google’s increasing ubiquity and round-the-clock development of more comprehensive (/invasive, some say) satellite and digital image-based technologies, its programs have far eclipsed a site like Cctv as a potential surveillance machine. I will try to relate some of these technologies–and some of the user-created hacks that augment their capabilities–to some of the theories about media ecologies that Fuller describes. Considering the apparatus-as-plaything model that Flusser proposes, it’s easy to perceive the non-panoptic, more ludic, functions that Google Earth encompasses in addition to its well-documented potential for privacy invasion. If you would like to play around with some of the functions I’ll be discussing in class, you can download Earth (most of you probably have, but here’s the link anyway: http://www.google.com/earth/; and here are some links to user-created downloads, or hacks, that you may find entertaining: http://www.gearthhacks.com/downloads/. In a nod to Bunting’s project, I’ll also look at a couple webcam sites such as EarthCam (http://www.earthcam.com ). If you navigate these links, you may want to think about a few of the issues I intend to explore: Which “types of surveillance” that Fuller discusses in Chapter 4 do they represent? What are the relationships between paranoia-inducing (or -resulting) surveillance functionality and entertainment/diversion-based plaything functionality? As a concept, “media ecology” seems to carry with it, like “will to power,” a sense of non-exclusionary comprehensiveness, that the interaction of any two media constitutes a media ecology; what are the specific medial-ecological dynamics of Google Earth, webcam sites, etc.?
In the third chapter of Media Ecologies, Mathew Fuller discusses “How This Becomes That,” specifically through “direct action in the world” (88). I prefer Fuller’s writing when it veers away from the dream of reaching all 1000 purposefully random rhizomatic plateaus toward longer specifics and/or anecdotes. The image of the streetlamp switch and telegraph circle are somewhat delightful. He goes out of his way to point out how these “standard objects” (mass-produced objects), which can be seen as ahistorical often take time in order to become standard. The gramophone was a telephone answering machine, the television was a visual-telephone, the streetlamp was…a streetlamp. This point, that objects have to become standard is at the heart of Fuller’s argument and the question of how this is done can only be answered by “carrying it out”(98). That is, the process of standardization is always influenced by a plethora of media, systems, and pragmatics which as a whole is far too complicated to be calculated. As such, we can only look to a very lower-case history and even then happenstance is generally needed.
That being said, Fuller also makes vague allusions to the similarity between standard objects and a semi-Saussurean understanding of language: “Language is possibly the first system that incorporates a drive to standardize within it, and out of which all others are made manifest” (96). Language, and the standards it perpetuates are arbitrary, and while this is arguably less true for actual objects, it is important if obvious to keep in mind how tied the meaning and operations of things are tied to mediation and language. It is interesting that he focuses primarily on “meta-objects” as his prime example of standard objects. These objects, like freight containers and telegraph wires, primarily carry other objects and/or information. They act as ciphers and by becoming standardized, the processes of the system change as well.
And like language, these standards are invariably distorted. Edison may have desired the world to be cluttered with telephonic paraphernalia, but alas, it was not to be. Film may appear to be the perfectly reproducible art in the age of mechanical reproduction, but it has more often than not been edited at each specific site of spectatorship. And Fuller’s favorite example would seem to come from radio, a heavily regulated field, which (like any good hegemony) has developed quite a pirate cultural economy. While less successful at going mainstream, pirate-television maybe equally intriguing. For his 2004 Hugo Boss prize exhibition at the New York Guggenheim, Rirkrit Tirivanija displayed Untitled (the air between the chain-link fence and the broken bicycle wheel). Tirivanija is more famous for cooking meals at galleries, leaving the trash as the art piece, and selling the leftovers as limited editions and is widely considered one of the most important relational artists working today. Untitled, however, consisted of a large white room with a plywood shack at one end, and a small chain link fence on the other. In between were a DVD player and a transmitter inside a large, imposing metal frame. Wires from the transmitter ran along the ground to the fence and then were carried by air to a bicycle wheel-antenna on top of the plywood hut, which then sent the signal to a television located within. The white walls of the outer room were completely covered in charts, graphs, quotes and other miscellany that explained both how to make your own transmitter along with the possible (and probable) horrifying legal dilemmas you will face if you try it and get caught by the FCC. To ensure that this does not happen to you, it is suggested that you hook up your transmitter to a public access power supply and use a fence as the broadcast antennae. All of this information was also available in the form of blueprints that were stacked on the floor for the viewer to take home. I have very little memory of the content of the transmission, except that it seemed to look like a western. The signal was too weak and full of noise to figure out much more than that. This noise is a far more likely outcome of all wireless pirate activities and it seems odd that Fuller only chooses to discuss “successful” forms of mediation, even when they are based on principles of disruption.
While his earlier exhibitions were conscious efforts to make the present museumgoers interact to create unforeseeable circumstances, this work seemed to not be particularly interested in such things. There was no obvious space for people to gather in, and the individual rooms were too small and cramped for anyone to want to stay in for more than a few minutes. Instead, the conversation that usually happened between people was being invisibly broadcast across the room as a literalized metatext. The movement of people did play a role in this piece, as the televised signal seemed to grow stronger if people stood in various positions, but this never lasted for long and everyone grew bored by the exercise rather quickly. The information on the wall, however, tended to impress, empower, and disgust most of the people in the room.
I, for one, had never heard of pirate television, and this experience of both what it was and what it could be was exhilarating. This sensual knowledge is something I could not know or anticipate if I had not been there to experience and become part of the art myself and it is this type of experiential knowledge that Tiravanija promotes. While my experience of the wall text could be considered to be contemplative, it did not include the feelings of separation from the art that this term negatively connotes. Instead, I felt as though I wanted desperately to take up Tiravanija’s call for action and immediately create my own pirate television signal with an emotional intensity I am very seldom able to muster. Logically, I can come up with many reasons why this reaction in me should not have been so violent and perhaps should not have happened at all. The museum space is often thought of as being incapable of creating such a reaction and many theorists would even consider this connection with the art to be negative. Nevertheless, it still achieved in me the goal of much avant-garde art, which is to enlarge the boundaries of what the audience considers possible, and also try to spread the word of this newly envisioned world, thus making it a more prominent part of reality.
for more info: http://www.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/hugo_boss_prize/