Networked_Performance

Reblogged Interview with Siegfried Zielinski

zielinski.jpgSiegfried Zielinski is an internationally recognized media theorist and educator whose recent work, Deep Time of Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, has just been translated into English and published by M.I.T. Press. Zielinski’s approach to media history provides a method that radiates with a life and dynamism that pays homage to the figures and forms that he traces from the past. Writing on themes as divergent as the electronic music of Mouse on Mars or 17th century polymath Giovanni Battista della Porta, Zielinski’s work affirms the experimentation of new forms, and the science of mixture which can connect through time and space seemingly disparate bodies of thought and media practice. Along with his research, he is also the founding director of the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. Zielinski has very kindly answered five questions that draw on several of the themes from the newly translated work, Deep Time.

DS: Before we get into the content of the book and your current projects, I wonder if you could give an introduction to your early career as a writer, performer and educator? What was your focus in terms of early studies and what then led you into the past and into the archives with your media archaeology?

SZ: Thirty-five years ago, when I began my studies, it was theater, radio, and film which interested me in the field of media. As a young man, who studied in Germany and came from a Polish-German family (from the region where Hans Bellmer was born), I was occupied analytically in the first years by a question: I absolutely wanted to know how the
Nazis had used media, how they had conquered the heads and hearts of those who supported their death-machines or even killed for them. Parallel to such analyses of power, I was interested as well in the other side and how they used media. Trained through interventionist thinkers like Bertolt Brecht or Walter Benjamin, who not only understood the controlling power of media, but also contemplated its emancipatory potential, I turned to the dimensions of media history which were practically forgotten or buried, for example, the activities of the so-called Worker-Radio Movement in the Weimar Republic who carried out their resistance activities through the medium of the radio, and even existed in the Nazi death camps, or the so-called “Free Radios” and video guerrillas of the 1970’s. “Supervision and Subversion” – so could one, in a Foucauldian manner, formulate the tensions between these media interests regarding vision by means of modern technology.

The investigation of the deep layers of media history began, however paradoxically at first, when I dedicated myself in the eighties and nineties more intensively to new electronic media. As a media researcher who had twenty years earlier written his philosophic dissertation on the history of the video recorder, I had a growing uneasiness with the idea of the future that was being suddenly and constantly announced to me. I doubted very much that our epoch embodied the greatest possibilities of progress in the history of civilization, if one used diversity – the richness of variety in existing things, forms, techniques, arts, etc – as criteria for progress. I looked for allies in other sciences and found them in geology and paleontology, for example James Hutton, who lived in Scotland at the end of the 18th century, or more recently, the Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould. I began to conduct something like a paleontology of media-development. One last important impetus for this research was the encounter with the wonderful holdings of an old Jesuit library in Salzburg, where I held my first professorship. The folios of media-visionaries from the 16th and 17th century like John Dee, Giovanni Battista della Porta, Christoph Sheiner, and Athanasius Kircher waited here to be discovered through a historically and philosophically interested art and media research. The connection of the two heterogeneous worlds, on the one hand the highly polished surfaces of the newest media and on the other the moldy, smelly magical world of unwieldy Latin texts and excessive iconography became a passion which still consumes all of my time. Although, I had to push them a bit to the background, as I was asked in the 1990s to build a special art school in Cologne, which would be fully dedicated to the changing relations of technology and art.

DS: What is unique in your work is the spirit and tone which you bring to the “case studies” that you have collected. The body of works reflects rigorous research, but also a consistent affirmation of the unexpected turns that arise throughout the process. In this way, the book represents a praxis that you have described as “anarchaeology,” and more recently as “variantology.” Could you describe this method and why you have found it particularly applicable to the study of the
history of media?

SZ: In my studies I try to connect two movements, one through the verticality of phenomena and processes, which means in effect, the attempt to get to the bottom of things – about which, above all, I was encouraged by the Polish artist and poet Bruno Schulz. The second movement is characterized by the conceptual dance on the plateau, which I have learned less from French thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari than for example from the philosopher Vilem Flusser, who the Nazis drove out from the alchemist-city of Prague to Sao Paulo, where he learned to couple a deep consideration of the world with the dynamic figure of the samba. That is however only a somewhat provocative example. Along with the poet Novalis, who died much too young, I am of the opinion that the sciences belong to the poetized and that they should be handled musically, because musical relations appear to be the “fundamental relations of Nature.” But, I do not share with Novalis the despairing search for the absolute in all things. I try to substitute this search with a method of fortuitous finds. However, such a method must renounce some things which characterize classical archeology, like the search for the origin from which all things develop. Like Nietzsche and Foucault, I favor the concept of geneaology for historical research, which asks after the developments, turns and leaps. As opposed to Foucault and his diverse archaeologies of power and knowledge, I claim no mastery, do not claim to develop one or more main ideas that would resonate semantically with archos/archein. In the case of the movement that the fortuitous find presupposes, one must let the reins fall away and let the horse gallop free, without knowing what exactly will arrive. The coupling of this with the vertical movement leads to anything but simple
arbitrariness; rather it leads to a research work that understands itself as a joyful release from a heavy burden.

When I wrote Deep Time of the Media, I had invented for it the concept of anarcheology. This term now seems to me too negative and destructive in its construction. For two or three years, I have worked only with the concept of variantology, under which I understand the imaginary sum of all possible genealogies of media phenomena. As opposed to the heterogeneous, with its heavy resonances from ontology and biology, the variantological, in its methodological and
epistemological respect, interests me as a mode of lightness. The variant is just as at home in the experimental sciences as it is in diverse artistic practices, above all in music. As different varieties or divergent interpretations, variants belong for composers or performers to a self-evident vocabulary and to practical everyday life. The semantic field of this neologism possesses a positive connotation. To be different, divergent, changing, alternating, are alternative translations for the Latin verb variare. It tips over only into the negative when it is used by the speaking subject as a means of exclusion, which the word does not actually sustain. To vary something then is an alternative to its destruction.

DS: Within Deep Time, the individuals which you bring forth are most often found on the fringes of their professional worlds and prevailing academic paradigms of research and practice. In these stories, it seems that you are trying to draw out a new kind of figure to venerate, individuals that had a wild streak, and may have been considered dangerous in regards to the institutions that kept them at arms length. Is this a fair reading, or perhaps an oversimplification of your tableau of characters?

SZ: To not accept leaders does not mean that one does not respect heroes. In my work with young artists and intellectuals in various academies, I have learned that without personalities with whom one can passionately identify, one manages only with difficulty. It is essentially better when this potential for identification is not identical with the teacher, but rather comes completely from somewhere else, from another time, another region, possibly out of books. When we are involved with art and media, we operate in the world of illusions. The Latin verb (illudere) that hides in this beautiful word means etymologically not only to bring something before others, to produce appearances, but as well to enter into a risk, to set
something into play, even, when necessary, involving oneself. This necessity is not rendered superfluous under the conditions of the production or generation of art with digital media or in technological relations. Completely the opposite – we must think them anew. My excursions into the lives of a few and their partly impossible working conditions gesture to this effect.

And something else appears to me to be significant in this context: artists and intellectuals don’t necessarily need to shove their way in the middle of society in order to be able to find recognition or to be effective. It has become narrow there in the center, and in this center, power is at home. Also, for a long time now, art that is involved with new media technologies has also arrived in the center. Movements on the periphery, which do not exclude the occasional crossing of the center, appear to me at present to be more meaningful and in the foreseeable future, more pleasurable than the overexcited pushing and shoving for the best place in the middle.

DS: You suggest a geographical relationship to media research and that much of the most diverse and vital experimentation in prior periods occurred in dispersed regions, at a remove from the cultural centers of Europe, in southern Italy for example or in areas of eastern Europe. Could you elaborate on this cartographical theme as it relates to your media research?

SZ: Cartographies are a special view of the world (the German term Weltanschauung expresses this very nicely). From a perspective of media archeology, we have to give up trusted cartographies. Technical media as we know them were made marketable and developed into products in the metropolis of the western world (London, Paris, New York, Berlin, etc). If however we are interested in deep-temporal emergence and development, we have to use a wholly other orientation. The deeper we penetrate historical layers, the more we must turn towards the far East and above all towards China, and from there we roam through Asia Minor and the Arab lands and cultures, moving then into southern Europe, before we arrive in the pre-modern regions and cities familiar to us. My thesis is that the new and arousing ideas come out of the provinces much more frequently than out of the centers of power, where they are worked over and freed from their resistances. In order to characterize the particular form of collective work which emerges out of the networking of heterogeneous ideas and fields, I use the expression “economy of friendship”. It is a positive counter-model to the globalized economy of industrialization and the only one in the field of art which functions and is alive. The geographical and cartographical implications of my anarcheological studies are to be understood, not least, as a plea for the idea of the economy of friendship.

DS: In the final chapter, one of the practical points made in reference to the experimentation of new media artists and developers is the need for safe havens, contexts for individuals or collectives to be given the gift of time and space to develop ideas. Do you find that this is part of your present role in Cologne with the Academy of Media Arts, to be hospitable in this way to the young people who come through the school?

SZ: More and more in Europe, academic institutions are permeable to the demands and desires of the fitters and guiders of the states. Poets and thinkers however need autonomy and freedom as indispensable and sustaining elixirs. Academies of the arts and sciences must not degenerate into test departments of the globalized information society. For the institutions to which I am responsible, I thus plead vehemently that they be able to proliferate as gleaming ivory towers. Study at the academy should be more than ever the offer of a protected time and space where original thoughts and idea can be developed and tried out. The possibility of failure belongs to experimentation. That is nothing other than the idea of a contemporary laboratory, whose windows and doors must above all not be closed. At the academy in Cologne for example we offer ourselves constantly up to the judgments and critiques of the public, through exhibitions, open concerts, performances and lectures. Within the dynamic of this openness, however, we maintain ourselves and don’t let it regulate us. The students and the guests of our program enjoy the freedom to experiment and offer their thanks through outstanding projects and artistic work, which have received international recognition. We remind our students and fellows in any case of their crucial duty: they have to be ready to take risks and not want to simply swim in conventional waters. And with that the circle of the project of a deep time of the media and variantology closes. Giovanni Battista della Porta’s Academy of Secrets in Naples in the 16th century, which soon after its founding was banned by the Vatican, was the first academy fully dedicated to the risky experiment of natural philosophy. It had a single admission criteria, that those who wanted to participate must bring something new into the world (and be prepared to share this knowledge with others). It is time that we again rightly restore such an Accademia dei segreti and let it finally become a flourishing reality.

David Senior is an artist, writer and student of media history who currently works in the library at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is a doctoral student at the European Graduate School, EGS.

Interview with Siegfried Zielinski by David Senior; translated by William Rauscher; commissioned by Rhizome.org.


Aug 8, 10:48
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