Editorial: Possible worlds
It is worth paying attention to images. Picture opening the pages of a neglected book and finding an image of some bland nineteenth century industrial dreamscape with a small black smudge in the bottom left corner. Clues to the future of the world can be found in this microcosm; a sooty mark left by over-heated carbon as it drifted down to the surface of the page. Impossible to erase from either the page or the history of its own making the soot is a terrible troublemaker; together with the humans who learnt to manufacture it, it is a locus of anxiety and concern. In looking closely at this small sketch I find documentation of the transformations of the biosphere; mundane media twisted into a networked and sustaining dialogue that points towards something of the possible world to come.
Even with their backs turned, images continue to have something to say. Their presence is palpable in YouTube clips documenting the wreckage of seventh century Assyrian artifacts at Mosel, and Facebook feeds trying to incite action over the Australian government’s sanctioning of mining of the Burrup Peninsula. The presence of wreckage generates new understandings of the relationship between images and humans. In their destruction sites such as these find themselves reconfigured. They become social and cultural assemblages or, what Torsten Andreasen, in this issue, calls “unintentional monuments.” Amidst a political world dedicated to the oscillation between obscene crimes and headline grabbing models of excellence, unintentional monuments are images holding on as quiet assemblages of hope and possibility.
Just like those tiny particles of soot that I probably should have noticed earlier, the unintentional monument is trying to tell us something. What these images want us to know might be found at the limit edge of these assembled monuments. The question is how to track them amidst such violence. And, is there such a thing as a degree zero; an image that can stand up as the defining unintentional monument of the early twenty-first century?
If inciting attacks by humans wielding large machinery is the marker of a shared or defining border, then one contender must be Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” graph. Named “MBH99” and labeled by Scientific American an “iconic symbol of humanity’s contribution to global warming”, the hockey stick has been brutally threatened since its prominent inclusion in the summary documents of the IPCC in 2001. The “hockey stick” is an image of information and biology together, documenting both the acceleration and limits of growth. More than this, the hockey stick is a critical material assemblage formed from tree rings, ice cores, lake sediment and coral. It is an image that has stood up for itself in the face of relentless attack.
It’s not all bread and roses. In a time of great toxicity what we should and shouldn’t touch with our hammers is increasingly difficult to monitor. So-called media images appear to be out of control, others, like the hockey stick, remain full of possibility. Nietszche advocated that we sound our idols, touching them with both a hammer and a tuning fork. And this issue is such a call for attention. It is false to draw too many connections between the essays, but the process of editing an issue means that there is an inevitable generation of an assemblage both mutually translating and networked. In resonating the space of images, in locating unintentional monuments, these essays suggest that we can discover some new strategies for being in and understanding the world today.
Each of the essays gathered here in this second general issue seek to address the question of the image by challenging both what the ‘image’ might be and also by thinking the limits at which images assemble. Rather than demanding (or necessarily offering) succinct answers, these essays map movements between and across media, catching key moments where images turn away from us and dissolve into unsettling assemblages of substance, network, event, utterance, and play.
A number of unintentional monuments appear. In addressing our shifting viewing habits, Teresa Rizzo maps the demise of the VHS recorder. Like magnetic tape, its friend in media, the VHS is mourned by a few humans harboring nostalgia for the disappearance of species. No longer considered an active member of the consumer household, the videotape finds shelter in thrift store back alleys. Likewise, in the edges of their essay, Audrey Samson and Winnie Soon document the future demise of the Internet café. As thinning wires struggle to conduct and distribute ever increasing quantities of data it seems that mobility has rendered the anticipatory banks of computer terminals redundant.
Justin Clemens and Adam Nash debate the right of the image assemblage to exist at all. Observing the constant modulations of storage and display, representation and presentation that occur within digital realms, they call for a radical reorganization of the categories of media via an argument for digital ontology. Highlighting mediation as a relationship of amplification, and drawing on relationships between environment, thought and experience, they argue that we find ourselves “not in a media situation, but in a simulated-media situation.” If “the age of media is over” they say, digital media must be a state of mind rather than a thing. The importance of modulation to experience also becomes something more than the trace of oscillating data packets, more than a world of constant and incessant ‘connectivity’. It seems that more than media binds humans to their data machines.
Torsten Andreasen demonstrates the control of the image assemblage via its history and offers a reading of how culture is constructed via heritage. Key to the analysis is an identification of culture as a “goal” rather than something preexistent. Addressing digital cultural heritage is not a process of identifying how we preserve culture, (safeguarding the monument) but how we enable access. In the utopian rhetoric of UNESCO Andreasen finds a worldview that builds a digital cultural heritage with only beneficial consequences; a place in which “the temporary conjunction of global cultural heritage operates as if this totality were an actual empirical entity.” More questions are raised: where are the material limits of this global present? And, how does humanity encounter itself? Different postcolonial temporalities suggest that these questions mask an urgent geopolitical task: the formation of the contemporary.
Like Nash and Clemens, Andreason highlights the impossibility of defining digital things, and the necessity of questioning the tools that have constructed media in the first place. The challenge is how we experience the contemporary, with its asynchronous constructions of culture and time, as an archaeological experience that is current yet reflective of the constructions of culture. One approach might be found in games and play.
Troy Innocent takes the image assemblage to the street. The city in Innocent’s world is a dissolving image. Forming and reforming anything we momentarily recognize as a city is no longer solely the realm of the détournement, nor the transitory routes of the dérive. Innocent shows how it is play that is the key to understanding the city as an image assemblage of differing dynamics and behaviours. Innocent presents a manifesto for play as a productive enabling force that can challenge the unstable zone of the city. He shows how the local, shared, small scale and resourceful approach of the micronation maps one response to the problems of the human in the context of the Anthropocene. Innocent introduces us to the micronation of Ludea — a nation of play integrated within and questioning the parameters of the city. Ludea makes mixed realities and cross media ecologies tangible. In enabling the journey through the city via mixed reality gaming, and the generation of micronations, Innocent reminds us that play has always been a key strategy for being, survival and existence.
David Fleming and William Brown show us how the image assemblage forms and reforms in patterns. Images form between materials and their medium. None more so that in the environment of cinema. Fleming and Brown argue for the inadequacy of existing frameworks for digital cinema, remediated or not. Beginning with a material history of film that demonstrates how ‘new’ media retain the design features of earlier media, they turn to the gaseous notion of the skeuomorph to demonstrate that it is possible to see the past and future of cinema simultaneously. In its languages and materials cinema refuses to drop its own histories, yet forever proclaims its own novelty. With a focus on the cinematic mainstream of the Hollywood blockbuster, and a case study of James Cameron’s ‘swing-cam’ in Avatar, they show that the challenge of the new is both simulated and replicated within digital cinema. In these Hollywood movies, we do not expect to see cinema at the cinema, and no one these days anticipates reality, but somehow our referent remains something that appears convincingly ‘cinematic’.
Teresa Rizzo shows how audience engagement with the image assemblage is shifting the site of control. In her essay ‘Television Assemblages” Rizzo demonstrates how television and television culture are reconfigurable. The assemblage she turns to is the cultural and social viewing body that shares its spaces with digital multi platform television. She writes: “A highly stratified assemblage, broadcast television offers viewers very few opportunities to actively participate in the media texts that they are directed to consume.” Now the smooth space of interactivity is equally reinforced and challenged. No longer funneled through the broadcast pipe, television is just one part of an open and dynamic system. Rizzo traces the associations between objects as they shift and reform into social images. Importantly, she also turns to the particular viewing habits of children and highlights an individualised model where the very relation between being and becoming is in constant modulation.
Audrey Samson and Winnie Soon watch the image assemblage through the material affordances of the network. In their essay “Network Affordances: The unpredictable parameters of a Hong Kong SPEED SHOW” Samson and Soon expand the concept of affordance to include the unpredictable and material determinants of the network. Against a background of the development of material networks across Hong Kong and within an environment where both art and capital are viewed as trading commodities, Samson and Soon document the staging of SPEED SHOW[2.0] in a local internet café. Countering the commercial desire that facilitates physical networks Samson and Soon open up possibilities for non-commercial activity via art works that highlight the material relations of the network. The extension of affordance as a mode to understand material relations across the network is significant here, as Samson and Soon highlight how previous discussions of affordance have skimmed over the centrality of unpredictability in computational networks. In this understanding, code and the dynamics of network distribution become unpredictable collaborators in the presentation of the image.
It is this unpredictable, networked, yet resolutely material space of the image that twists itself back through all the essays. Cutting across diverse concerns, the essays demonstrate the challenge of thinking both with and without the image in networked culture. Each of the essays offer us starkly different ways of presenting, distributing, questioning, and making images. What images want is perhaps answered here: that in a possible world the predictability and unpredictability of material things is extended to ecological and computational parameters.
We hope you enjoy issue 24 of The Fibreculture Journal.