The Constitution of Worlds

– Media exists thanks to the chemical qualities of rare earth elements, says Jussi Parikka, whose latest book A Geology of Media will be presented at Index in Stockholm tomorrow.

Revital Cohen & Tuur van Balen, H / AlCuTaAu, 2014.
Revital Cohen & Tuur van Balen, H / AlCuTaAu, 2014.

All technologies rely on specific materials that support communication, materials that leave their mark on the environment in a way that exceeds human imagination. The internet depends on materials such as copper or optical fibers, and networking and social media are part of the noosphere, the world of thought, which has reformed the environment through an ever-increasing exploitation of natural resources. Media cannot be separated from their natural milieu, and in light of global climate changes, the materials of media must be thought alongside a nonhuman perspective, the deep time of geological change.

In A Geology of Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), the Finnish media theorist Jussi Parikka argues that technology begins in the earth, and that all data and communication rely on the environment – they need air, water and space, as well as the cooling systems that also affect their surroundings. It is the third book in a trilogy on media ecologies, succeeding Digital Contagions (2007) and Insect Media (2010), and follows Parikka’s earlier work on media archeology, a field in which ideas of the discarded, obsolete or overlooked are aligned with a focus on the specific materialities of media. Parikka is professor of Technological Culture & Aesthetics at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, and a key focus in A Geology of Media is the entanglement of art practices, philosophical ideas and environmental concerns.

– Media studies are a part of contemporary political ecologies, says Parikka in this interview prior to the Stockholm release of his new book, taking place at Index tomorrow. The event is organized in collaboration with OEI and the Department of Culture and Communication at Linköping University. Also participating is Lori Emerson, who will talk about her book The Advanced Work Processor – Reimagining What Could Have Been and Still Could Be.

This interview was conducted in English, and is published here in its original language.


You write in the preface to the book that A Geology of Media began in May of 2013, during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. While huge tunnel and canal projects are being developed in Istanbul, the city sits on top of geological formations that promise future earthquakes. According to you, the protests highlighted the relations between the political and the natural, the geopolitical and the geological, the short-term struggles as well as the unforeseeable future consequences. Artists dealing with geological issues also influenced you, such as Trevor Paglen, Katie Paterson, YoHa (Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji) and Grégory Chatonsky. How did the artists and protests in Istanbul lead you to regard media through, or as geology?

Jussi Parikka.
Jussi Parikka.

All books take time, even if they sometimes build up in silence and as part of other projects. I remember some years ago seeing a work by the artist trio Ryan Jordan, Martin Howse and Jonathan Kemp in Berlin. It was a chemically executed media archaeology, or hardware hacking by way of chemical reactions; the installations were odd pieces of media deformed, sometimes literally. The Crystal World project already told  the story of what became my book A Geology of Media: the materiality of media starts much before we recognize media devices as communication. The work of material sciences is instrumental to making media happen, a work of modern alchemy of sorts, but only enabled by massive labour operations too.

I started to think of mining in the most concrete sense, a turn from the digital talk of data mining and big data, to the massive operations that sustain big data, and the logistics of cloud computing. Suddenly, I started to see patterns across works. Not just The Crystal World but a longer list of artists and designers, which you also mention, all spoke to the theme of «geology of media». By this I mean the idea that media materiality starts before media become media communication. The minerals, materials and energy necessary to run digital culture – or technical media before digitality – are a key focus in my way of trying to tease out some key themes regarding the rather material geopolitics of our time. This relates to issues of electronic waste, the dark underbelly of digital labour and other themes that also have a strong relation to contemporary issues of aesthetics.

The cover of A Geology of Media is made of images from The Crystal World by Jonathan Kemp, Ryan Jordan and Martin Howse.

Part of the book was indeed written in Istanbul. Gezi protests started from a contained environmental issue of yet another green space turned into concrete – a theme that runs through the megacity Istanbul’s urban planning, which is governed mainly by political interests in connection with big construction businesses. One notices the effects of this urban transformation even in the most banal daily events, like the rain; it does not get sucked into the soil in Istanbul because there are so few places where any is left. The water flows across the concrete and the roads of the city, slowing down the massive traffic temporarily, and reminding of the water shortages during hot months. The big operations – the new canal, the new airport, the third bridge – are truly massive engineering projects. Gezi was a sort of  trigger for a wider eco-political discussion, which was unfortunately inhibited by sheer force – plastic bullets and tear gas, arrests and a culture of fear. One realized these various ecologies overlapping from the political to the social, the affective moods and the environmental. I heard several stories from people telling about the weird dreams they had during Gezi. As for me, I think of the strange issues of water and concrete, natural elements and building materials in that megacity as a reminder of the elemental in contemporary geopolitics.

Social media played an important role in the Gezi Park protests, as in many protest movements during the last few years. The social aspect of media is something that you rarely touch upon in your work. In contrast to Craig Dworkin’s book about blank or erased art works, No Medium (2013), which argues that all media  are socially defined, you focus on the opposite: the nonverbal or nonhuman qualities of media. Still, your books are very much grounded in current debates, often begun as articles, talks or even blogposts, while they zoom in on some of the most abstract or unseen issues of media.

I think that is a lovely observation about the books – or even ideas in general – starting in specific current debates where concrete situations are ways to tap into the most abstract of issues. The other direction works too; how is the abstract always situated, expressed in situations; how can one try to ensure that the work we do in cultural and media theory is always also in the world? These are issues that I find important in many ways.

The notion of the social is tricky; it’s important but it is tricky. I would not disagree with Dworkin and his very smart ideas in No Medium. Media are, in and through social definitions, constant articulations that also, thank god, ensure that media don’t stabilize merely into being hardware «as it is». Politically, we need to ensure that media are contested zones of articulation. But we need to ask: what is this social we keep on talking about – how is it produced? In a very recursive way, the production of the social as a topic is a social process, but it is also more than social. Or let’s say, the social is not merely the human social, and some things are media even if not defined by humans as such. There are characteristics of media that I feel uncomfortable thinking of as merely human social, but they are like centres of ecological relations that gather humans, animals, environmental issues, and politics as part of the issue. Infrastructures of media technologies are constantly in the world of multiple things and living as energetic transformations. Ecologies of cloud farming are formed of processes of managing heat and cooling. CO2 emission in heavy computing is also an aspect that remains much in the shadows. This infrastructural social needs to be embedded in the extended social of new situations, of media that escape the cultural techniques of reading, writing, counting or representing.

Revital Cohen & Tuur van Balen, H / AlCuTaAu, 2014.
Revital Cohen & Tuur van Balen, H / AlCuTaAu, 2014.

One key concept that underpins the book is that of medianatures. It borrows and develops the idea of naturecultures that Donna Haraway developed, based on ethnographer Marilyn Strathern’s work. In contrast to the anthropologically significant nature vs. culture division, we actually live in a world of a variety of micropractices and interfaces that exhibit a cross-species continuum. Medianatures connects this idea to the technological. Unlike in many theoretical fields, technology is not merely the realm of the artifice alongside language, but is embedded in the material intensities of nature. Think of it concretely: media exists thanks to the chemical qualities of rare earth elements important for contemporary digital culture, as well as in the long traditions in optics or fine art where colours and light are manipulated. And in the context of electronic culture, the amount of electronic waste is another sort of a medianatures-topic.

The question of the social also relates to your stance against the linguistic turn, or perhaps one could say that some of your views are aligned with «the speculative turn» associated with the loosely structured movements around speculative realism and object-oriented ontology. A key figure in the so-called movement is Quentin Meillassoux, who can be sensed in a few of the ideas in A Geology of Media, especially his views on the «arche-fossil», a term for materials that indicate «the existence of an ancestral reality or event». How can that be, he asks in After Finitude (2008): «How can a being manifest being’s anteriority to manifestation?» You seem to reverse the question by focusing on a world when humans no longer exist. One interesting example you put forth is Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures (2012), a specially designed disc carrying one hundred photographs, that was launched into space and is planned to last billions of years. Although Paglen is a former geographer who focuses on the hidden aspects of visual culture, you are more interested in the geological layer that satellites and technology create. What does Paglen’s media fossil tell us about possible futures and nonhuman worlds?

You are right to point out that Meillassoux briefly features in A Geology of Media. I could not ignore his important impact, even more so when he speaks of the arche-fossil as this ontological figure, almost like a nonhuman figure of thought through which to disjoin the ontological coordinates of the correlational mindset. The speculative turn, as it has been called, has many great things to say, but to be honest, I have much longer been interested in the earlier forms of nonhuman theory such as new materialism and feminist materialism. In the works of Rosi Braidotti, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway and Karen Barad – to mention only a few of the pioneering thinkers – one finds a fascinating vocabulary to address materialities that are beyond that of semiotics. It is a parallel stream of thought to the speculative turn, but actually precedes it quite radically. It is puzzling that this is often forgotten in the current debates – sometimes these two are even conflated, but forgetting to mention the female and feminist forerunners of theory.

Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures project video, 2012.

Braidotti engages with speculative theory in a recent interview in Frieze, with some apt points that might help us to think issues that I find hugely important. Following Katherine Hayles, Braidotti suggests that we need to be rather careful about the terms anthropocentric and anthropomorphic. Perhaps the main issue is to develop post-anthropocentric thinking – surely something that speculative realists and new materialists all agree upon – but to discard the figurations of knowledge and embodiment altogether is more difficult and also more problematic. Anthropomorphic becomes for Braidotti a sort of a liminal zone of contact where the embodied meets its outside; the others of thought and affect that we are always in touch with in and beyond language; our perceptual capacities and sensorial involvement in the material world. This is not merely a relation of knowing, but a relation of embodiment.

And yet we are interested in things that seem so proportionally out of scale: the planetary dimensions of contemporary geopolitics; geoengineering; environmental issues, and more. These do not always necessarily border so easily with the body if we think of it in a restricted way (e.g. human bodies). And yet it is exactly in the mentioned body of new materialism where I find the richest forms of vocabularies for expressing these multiple scales of becoming. There is of course, no doubt that concepts such as the hyperobject, as pitched by Timothy Morton, speak to the same theme, and are important contributions to the massive scale, distributed nature of the object.

The Last Pictures artifact. Courtesy of Trevor Paglen and Creative Time.
The Last Pictures artifact.

Paglen is a good example of visual work that takes the Anthropocene as a design or art brief. Our geological period – whether the term gets accepted or not as an official geological period – is one that involves the mixing of temporal scales; the human scale of lifetimes or generations with thousands, even millions of years of chemical durations, or extra-planetary durations. For Paglen, to think of visual culture through such an ultra-archival disc meant to design something to outlast humans. Not merely as a nostalgic memory of the Earth after the sun burns out and finishes with the disc in some billions of years. But to think of this in terms of the material characteristics of the disc and its carrier medium, the satellite, where it becomes an orbiting piece of space junk, the outer ring of the Anthropocene waste lands.

Again, we notice the same pattern; philosophical ideas entangle with art projects; art and design get involved in the multiple political ecologies of the contemporary moment; politics is rethought in terms of nonhuman durations. Media studies expands into an investigation of this ecology. 

In one of your earlier books, Insect Media (2010), you explain that «media can be approached as intensive capabilities that are constitutive of worlds». In another segment of the same book, referring to the Deleuzian ideas of becoming that run through most of your work, you state that the focus on intensities refers to «the need to understand the creative forces of the world». Centering on «bees, ants, wasps, spiders, and a few other examples, which exhibit a curious creative relationship with the world», it seems that art plays a similar role in your new book. How do you define «world», and in what ways do insects or art constitute worlds?

Soyuz FG rocket launch, Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakstan. Från The Last Pictures project.
Rocket launch at Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. From The Last Pictures.
Migrants seen by predator drone, U.S.-Mexican border. From The Last Pictures project.
Migrants seen by predator drone, U.S.-Mexican border. From The Last Pictures.

The insect book was a rather odd one, and tried to tell the modern technical media story without a McLuhanian bias. Media are not merely extensions of Man, but extensions of the animal capacities of perception, movement, etc. There is a history of this idea in art and architecture – bees and architecture for example, or the Surrealist fascination with insects and other animals. A different bodily schema than that of the human with its two eyes, two feet, two arms. The world opens up through sensorial relations, and our involvement in the world is informed by way of this engagement, which also becomes more than phenomenology. The systematic lab observations of animal perception during the 19th century is one groundwork, as is later work into the technological framing of the sensorium. The scientific history of time and perception thresholds is one pole of media history, and this is clearly articulated in so much great work; let’s mention just Henning Schmidgen’s The Helmholz Curve (2014) at this point.

So the world is approached through such alternative sensorial relations, and the relationality in which the world opens. The two are not apart, and nor is the world a cognitive projection or representation either. Here, the Deleuzian notions of intensity are good ways to grasp the multiple microperceptions that form the thresholds at which we are constantly experiencing much more than the cognitive framework of conscious processes. In Insect Media, the discussion of animals, or insects, was actually a way to speak of that other world of senses – the involuntary and the extended sensorium – where issues of technical media speak to the agenda of animal studies.

Insects were then also these trajectories for thought, just like art projects are in the new book. It is not merely using them as apt examples, but trying to follow the existing articulations, a sort of respect to the materials at hand, and the work of producing such relations.

One important perspective in A Geology of Media lies in the underground; the mythological place of hell or the Underworld; the philosophical discourse around Plato’s cave-allegory; an important image of technological modernity – mining, telecommunications, sewage systems, metro trains, electricity etc. – as well as its artistic avant-garde; the expression to «go underground»; the stage for a post-apocalyptic hideout or a seed bank for the preservation of biodiversity; and a place for exploitation of natural resources, workers or the physical reality of the internet, as Andrew Blum has described in Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (2012). The underground is as endless as outer space. In a precise description, you emphasize its governmental significance: «The underground is of importance because of its relation to the infrastructures that sustain the operational readiness of any (military) organization on the ground.» If the underground is a place for the powers of inventions, it is also the stage for the regulation of inner worlds, something that actually sets limits to the imagination.

I just spoke earlier about thresholds, so let’s continue with that for awhile, but with a slightly different meaning. The ground is perhaps never a ground, but only a threshold that is necessary to think of in terms of insides and outsides, of the hidden and the visible. In the body of theory called Cultural Techniques, or Kulturtechniken in its original German form, theorists such as Bernhard Siegert have argued that to order these primary anthropological distinctions, we need to see what techniques produce them. Such techniques are not merely bodily techniques, as Marcel Mauss had it, but also involve media operations. Cultural techniques are what produce distinctions, they draw the cut around which the politics of distinctions can emerge. What if the ground – the underground and the above the ground – is such a distinction that we constantly draw with various means?

Revital Cohen & Tuur van Balen, H / AlCuTaAu, 2014.
Revital Cohen & Tuur van Balen, H / AlCuTaAu, 2014.

There is a whole cultural history of the underground as you mention; the mythological netherworld and the caves; the mines that inspired Romantic poets, themselves often mining engineers in Germany. And then the contemporary visualization technologies of both the airspace and the underground. These are often military technologies, and some of the most advanced are actually able to sonify the underground so as to understand its volumetrics – a sort of a sonic x-ray of the body of the earth, the «Transparent Earth» project by DARPA that Ryan Bishop has written about.

Another aspect of the underground, perhaps not fully realized in the book, lies in the desire to bring the images or sounds of the underground into light, in which environmental problems can be perceived. Media art practices, together with theoretical discourses, provide «a specific way to look at the recent years of climate change», according to A Geology of Media, as they offer «visuals and sounds of the nonhumans». An obvious objection would be that the nonhuman, be it tectonic images or sounds of deep-sea fish life, require a human or technological influence to be seen or heard, which is always a form of translation, in addition to carrying out an intervention into the habitats of specific species. Although you focus on a cartography of the «psychogeophysics» of technology, the claims to a connection with the earth appear to rely on a phenomenological stance: that we would actually be able to sense the nonhuman. Is it even possible to talk of images or sounds in this matter, as harbingers of the hidden, or of environmental change?

It’s a really interesting way of putting it. You already imply with that idea that the images themselves – and sounds – have at least a partial autonomy, that they are not just images from us and to us, but carry with them affects and percepts, or more in the Deleuze and Guattari way, that they are affects and percepts irreducible to the eyes or the senses that register them. Actually, we are composed of the affects and percepts that form us as subjects of cognitive and non-cognitive capacities. Images and sounds educate us and create the worlds in which we live; they can create ethical predispositions, not in the sense of moral guidelines, but to teach us to see in particular ways, with particular leanings. And they can also guide us to think of the thick materialities in which images and sounds anyway are carried: the work of modern media technological storage; transmission and processing which involve earth materialities so that we can see colour; we can hear fine-tuned sounds from vinyls to laser discs; we see through minerals.

The recent Rare Earth-exhibition at TBA21 in Vienna was a great way of addressing the new materialities of contemporary technological culture. The hybrid, mined, bastard materiality in H / AlCuTaAu (2014) by Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen is one such image/object mined from electronics, a jumbled «rock» of aluminum, copper, gold, tantalum and whetstone – which, I am not sure whether it is pre-media or post-media. Or Mineral Vision (2015) by Abelardo G. Fournier, in which the copper surface becomes both an obscuring and enabling layer in the vision systems of digital culture, reminding of the double role of materiality that is all around remote sensing systems.

Abelardo G. Fournier, Mineral Vision, 2015.

The difficulties regarding a connection with the nonhuman are probably more apparent in view of the auditory. «The earth roars and has a sound», it says in A Geology of Media. What does it mean that the earth «has» a sound? For example, wind is not perceptible in itself, but is rather perceived as a movement of leaves, trees or the acoustics of specific locations. And the sound of matter could be said to consist of the environment that enfolds it – in the same manner that the human voice is defined by the body and its bones. Does the «sound of the earth», in Katie Paterson’s Vatnajökull (the sound of) (2007) or Florian Dombois’s recorded sounds of the Kobe earthquake in 1995, tell us more about technology and its social definitions than of the earth?

Oh, yes. That «having» should not be mistaken as a proprietary relation that folds only on itself to sustain the idea of the earth as an object or a single clear-bound entity. Instead, we are dealing with a milieu. The sounds of the earth are only in the relations in which it unfolds as a temporal entity; the leaves that brush the air, the earthquake and the vibrations of the tectonic plates in the Paterson work and Dombois’s recordings. Any technological recording or transmission of the earth is just an assemblage in which the technological is one of the conditions of a specific audiovisual existence. The social you mention is again something that is anyway inclusive of  natural formations. I don’t know how otherwise to define the social as outside the material. To me, that would be a rather odd world without sounds, smells, visuals and more. Mediation stands at the centre of our relationship to nature – or any sort of an ontological relationship, in fact. In that way, I am actually insisting on this relation.

The way we know, see and think of the earth is pretty well embedded in media technological metaphors – but not merely concepts or metaphors –  and concrete technological assemblages, such as the ones employed by these two. The idea that the media technological defines our thresholds of perception is also about the thresholds of how we see certain aspects of nature. It also deals then on a bigger scale, with the massive scales of environmental climate change, which is measurable and analyzable only by way of the visual practices enhanced by computational power. This is where our earlier discussion about the social is picked up again. The social is an event that happens across such different formations, from perceptions of nature to their technological conditions. Then one could continue to political and aesthetic themes… When you speak of one of the themes, you actually speak of many.

Grégory Chatonsky, Telofossils I, 2013. Courtesy of XPO Gallery, Grégory Chatonsky and Dominique Sirois.

One could see this as an idea influenced by Gilbert Simondon, among many other things. But as I said, the methodology of A Geology of Media insists even more so on thinking through art methodologies that unfold such connections between ontological claims and aesthetic formations. I did not want to write a book on philosophy, but one about art and media theory and the environment. It relates to the changes in ecocritique over the past years. Sean Cubitt, one of the pioneers, has noted this well, saying how from the ecocritique of media and film – having to do with the representational content – we have moved to a more material way of looking at media and film systems and infrastructures as globally managed ways of shifting energies, intensifying ownership and unevenly distributing waste load. This sort of an intensive ecocritique is what I feel closest to as well. And it must steer clear of any nostalgia for pre-technological nature, or even from idealizing the romantic pre-modern «primitives», a form of knowledge exploitation too.

Your work revolves around the unseen or abstract aspects of media – digital viruses, insects as models for media, or the deep time of geological changes – while the problems that you address are also immediate, based on the technological and material specificities of media. Insect Media precedes the environmental notions in A Geology of Media – what you call the «Anthrobscene», a neologism of «Anthropocene» and «obscene» – centering on nonhuman models of technology, and models, or «technics of nature», that use and misuse nature and its resources. Is the obscene also embedded in attempts to confront the viewer with the ungraspable? Or can images of decay oppose exploitative technologies?

Indeed, A Geology of Media is the final part of a book trilogy on media ecology, which worked through computer viruses, insects, and the inorganic sphere of geophysics. All of it written by a humanities scholar – someone trained as a historian, in fact – plunging into the media archaeology of technical culture that paves the way for more recent Digital Humanities (which, I want to add, needs a healthy dose of critical theory in order to develop as a field).

Gregory Chatonsky, Telofossils II, 2015.
Grégory Chatonsky, Telofossils II, 2015. Courtesy of XPO Gallery, Grégory Chatonsky and Dominique Sirois.
Gregory Chatonsky, Telofossils II, 2015.
Gregory Chatonsky, Telofossils II, 2015. Courtesy of XPO Gallery, Grégory Chatonsky and Dominique Sirois.

Insect Media was a slightly different sort of a book, which started from the question: why do we speak of swarms, distributed networks, and other sorts of terms that directly or indirectly seem to refer to animal, or insect formations? Why are such references so central in digital network culture? Or perhaps they emerge earlier? With such questions, the book became a sort of a quasi-entomology of media, a non-McLuhan take on media, not as extensions of Man, but as extensions of nonhuman animals since the birth of modern entomology. This also parallels the history of modern technical media since the mid-19th century. But I also got interested in the other side, or the way in which materials inform media. Questions of electronic waste became pertinent parallel questions to media ecology. Both in the abstract and in the most concrete ways, these issues speak of the growing waste load of the uneven distribution of electronic culture. Not merely the use but the disuse, and the logistics of disused, obsolete or just discarded electronics. In earlier phases, the book Residual Media (2006) edited by Charles Acland had shown how to extend the interest in media history to the residual and the obsolete; I wanted to continue on that.

Of course, it also resonated with the Anthropocene-discussions, but I never wanted to be primarily focused on that. In one of the footnotes, I briefly address obscenity, which can be read as a straightforward ethical qualification in terms of the rather emphasized agents whose doings we are now suffering from. It’s not merely an issue of poor vs. rich countries, or corporations, as Naomi Oreskes has pointed out, acknowledging that 2/3 of global warming emissions are caused by a limited number of companies. Instead, as Oreskes continues, the issue cuts through poor vs. rich, or global south and global north, in complex ways. This emphasizes how carefully we need to draw maps of responsibility in terms of the situation that is so unevenly distributed, in which the notion of Anthropocene is constantly differentiated across areas, gender, ethnicities, and so on.

So it is less a concept in Baudrillard’s sense of the ob-scene, even if  aesthetic exposure is part of this logic too. There is an element of obscene exposure and exploitative visuality that produces nature as a resource.

In Geology of Media, the implosion happens on the level of the material ob-scene. Myths of immateriality support the engineered depletion of crucial resources, energy crisis and the corporate mobilization of the earth as part of the circuit of medianatures. The pornographic is evident primarily in the manner in which nature–ecology is viewed as a corporate resource, exposed down to its molecular intensities. The obscene refers both to a mode of exploitation and an epistemological framework. However, I want to underline that there should be no nostalgic longing for a connection to the earth in the mythological or Heideggerian sense, but rather in a different sense of ecosophic relation across the spheres of economic, social, and environmental engineering and production.

As the originators of the concept of the Anthropocene have noted, we have entered a new chemical situation. This refers to the planetary machinery (their term) in terms of nitrogen, cargon, phosphorus and silicon – which already hints at why I am also interested in the issue of chemistry as one that runs through from computational devices to environmental issues. We just finished a seminar on the Posthuman glossary in Utrecht today with the theme of Anthropocene/Capitalocene. Rosi Braidotti gave the important reminder that it is often better to refer to the Anthropocene as the Capitalocene; in reference to the political economic underpinning of exploitation of nature and humans that characterizes global history of the past centuries.

Jordan Crandall, Unmanned (perfomance image from San Diego).
Jordan Crandall, Unmanned (perfomance in San Diego).

One form of «insect media» does not appear in the second book on media ecology, namely the unmanned aerial vehicle, or the drone. Between September and March, Britain carried out 301 Reaper drone missions against ISIS in Iraq, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported regarding the US coalition, in which Denmark also participates. Journalists, independent investigators and blogs closely monitor the air strikes carried out against Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen during the last few years, although the legal safeguards for civilians are strongly limited. Among the private uses of drones, the new «smart drones» from Lily Robotics and 3D Robotics are moving towards more autonomous and adaptable vehicles, not requiring a pilot. Recently, the Stockholm Chamber of commerce wrote a report in which they suggested that the air space in Stockholm should be opened up for commercial drone traffic, stating that «progress should be accelerated rather than obstructed». Artists ranging from James Bridle, George Barber, Omer Fast, Trevor Paglen and KATSU have tackled the issues of both drone warfare and the emerging DIY-culture of drones. In regards to media as constitutive of worlds, or insects that exhibit a creative relationship to the world, how do we approach the drone – not only as a technology that right now exceeds the limits of institutions, but also in terms of a nonhuman subjectivity?

To state the obvious, drones have become such a stable reference point for much of cultural theory and arts. And a lot of it is good work in terms of pointing out the shifting geopolitical issues in the context of the new technological agency that is radically distributed. In terms of the multiple institutions you mention, it is right to point out that they are also an indication of the shifting geopolitical accountabilities. But it also pertains more widely to the past wars, which have resulted in a constant breaking of international law and democratic procedures. We went to war in Iraq based on deliberate false intel from politicians. The human casualties of these wars, and now drone strikes, are widely reported. So it is not merely a question of knowing – we already know the constant civilian casualties – but the lack of political accountability. A lot of interesting work at the intersection of theory and design is tackling this situation and forcing a consideration of how to engage with legal frameworks in which machinic subjects can be also held accountable – or let’s say, as part of the wider assemblage, as proxies. We have to develop ways to understand the technological machines of killing as part of the assemblages that can be embedded in legal frameworks – and accountability – too. This includes ways to geographically understand the multiple, distributed nature of drone sites – from test sites, pilot sites and operational sites – as an assemblage that also assumes legal responsibility.

Jordan Crandall, Unmanned (perfomance image from Berlin).
Jordan Crandall, Unmanned (perfomance in Berlin).

As Jordan Crandall has demonstrated in his art and writing, it is not merely unmanned airplanes, but the theme of the unmanned in general that becomes a horizon for the imagination of that subjectivity’s vehicles. Crandall investigates this both in relation to the new fantasies emerging in drone cultures as well as driverless cars. In his Unmanned-performance, this extends to the masculine worlds of drone culture. In an interview that Ryan Bishop (from Winchester School of Art) and I conducted with Crandall, he stages these prototypes and design models as a process of practical and theoretical investigation. In his words, «It is not just that the drone evacuates the pilot, or that the subject is ejected from its center, but that interiority itself is jettisoned in the structuring dynamic.» In terms of the drone and its implications for this jettisoned pilot and subjectivity, the main link to the insect media perspective is through an investigation of nonhuman subjectivities – whether through the notion of proxy, through the idea of distributed agency or through the alternative modes of perception to which the term also refers.

Furthermore, Benjamin Bratton’s ongoing «notes» are important in pointing out the cloud-based nature of emerging robotic culture. We at Winchester School of Art are at the moment collaborating with Bratton, Jordan and other colleagues at UC San Diego and Parsons School of Design at the New School in terms of the reality of autonomous sensing and autonomous systems, robotics and AI, remote sensing, etc. This collaboration, The Consortium, offers a platform to discuss such themes in connection with scientists and engineers working in the area, designers engaging with speculative implications of the issues, and also visual artists. This is our way of crossing institutional borders, something we attempt in many of our other partnerships, such as the transmediale-festival. Increasingly, drones, autonomous sensing systems, remote sensing and robotics demand forms of knowledge and theory that cross boundaries. These are the questions we have to tackle in order to reinvent the critical, creative humanities in the posthuman age.

Grégory Chatonsky, Telofossils, Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, 2013.