Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 26, 2008

the air between the chain-link fence and the broken bicycle wheel

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.


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