Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How to connect everyone with everything

Shortly before I'm due to visit Brazil to do some talks, Guilherme Kujawski has done a swift interview available in Portuguese here. For those restricted to English, here's the text:

1. McKenzie Wark is wondering what is the role of critical theory in the Anthropocene era. Do you think somehow film theory (or cinema studies) can contribute to this debate? I ask this inspired by your excellent book Eco Media... If ecology is the science that undertakes to understand the connections between everything, and media are the connections between everyone, the question is how to connect everyone with everything. By media let's understand every channel we use to connect: language, money, sex as well as films and phones. Mediation is older, deeper and wider than communication. Communication arrives when there is a gap between sender and receiver. Mediation is the connection between them. Sunlight for example mediates the sun and the earth. Ecological critique works when it works at the level of mediation: how does the world mediate human life and how does human life mediate the world? Historically this has become the question: how does the world communicate to us and how do we communicate with it? Communication as a splitting of primordial connectivity creates humans as subjects and world as object: the task of critique in the Anthropocene is to advance beyond this relation, on which is founded both our exploitation and our sentimental and nostalgic view on the world. 2. Videogame designers are mired in issues such as high resolution imagery and hyperrealism. And in the world of moving images people only talk about very-high-quality digital media over photonic networks. But narratives experiments are stucked for decades, in my opinion (films are each day much the same as games, and vice-versa). Do you think experiments in narratives could be the next frontier in the moving images realm? Hi-definition and its transmission means using more materials and more energy. New forms of narrative do not. That is a positive. Our dominant media - the ones used to dominate - today are spreadsheets, databases and geographic information systems. What they share is their emphasis on space: a graph, for example, pictures time as space. Time-based media, whether narrative or otherwise (for example a logical argument or an essay-film) are important because they are not exclusively based on space and spatialisation. It is the reinvention of time that is the most significant aspect of new modes of narrative, and shared with other ways of expressing and experiencing time. Primordial mediation is without both space and time. Communication is characteristically spatial - it divides, which is a spatial act. Time in communication is a function of space - "a difference that makes a difference at some later time" as Bateson says. Critical work - including here invention and reinvention as creative practice - has to find a new mode of mediation, after communication, that is capable of including space and time. The obvious first "deconstructive" action is to prioritise time over space. That is what eco-critical thought looks for in temporal media 3. When artists from French Artistic Mission arrived in Brazil in 19th century - loaded with a Neoclassicism way of look at the landscape - they met resistance from local artists interested in Baroque. That is, the imposition of a way to look at things is not always assimilated. Do you think the same thing can happen in the field of data visualization? For instance, can you imagine an alien proprietary software company impose to scholars its technology to analyze data from recent political demonstrations in Brazil? I am sure it is already happening: I have an MA student researching graphical representations of twitter feeds from Gezi Park in Istanbul during the protests. Data visualisation belongs with the spreadsheet etcetera as a spatial medium, at least in its dominant form. Simulations for example envisage the future as a continuation, not as a radical break. They attempt, by redefining action as behaviour, to change historical acts into data which can then be worked on biopolitically. To that extent data visualisation presumes a viewer who has power (if only imaginary) over the data. There are three weak spots: the conversion into data (selections, exclusions); the visualisation process applied to that data; and the modelling of the person or institution for whom that data is prepared. Many strategies are possible: to insist on the complexity of the unique instance or experience; to create alternative (ironic, creative) datasets; to contest what is left out of data; to contest the implicit humanism of data presentations, given that machines can read the data without visualisation; to emphasise the processing and transport of data rather than content or form; and many more. One thing all critical data visualisations have in common is that they resist the formation of the supreme subject, machinic or human.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Practice of Light

Gratefully acknowledging the Sächsiche Landesbibliothek- Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (the delightfully abbreviated SLUB) for the beautiful engraving of Wenzel Jamnitzer's geometric figures from the 1568 Perspectiva Corporum Regularium
the cover of The Practice of Light is now set, with a publication date of September this year. I just saw the endorsements, which genuinely brought a tear to my eye. Eight long years in the making, and many many people to thanks. Very much looking forward to turning it out into the world to see what you all make of it.
As some of you know, this was long called "Glory: The Practice of Light". MIT's marketing people, after some hard work, persuaded me that the risk of attracting neo-con religious types (and driving away the more militantly secular) wasn't worth the candle. "Glory" is still how I think of it: somehow we polytheists have to recapture the high ground from organised religion.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Great Typos #1

"Apple have resorted to building biomass generating pants" Proof-reading i an essential part of the creative endeavour

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Landscape, fim and political aesthetics

from a paper given at the Screen conference in Glasgow last weekend. After a glorious weekend of thinking landscape, we spent a glorious day in it: at the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK
Critique founded on the ecological principle of the interconnectedness of everything is by that token necessarily and permanently incomplete. That very incompletion demands that we rethink the premises of much of our aesthetics, most notably the autonomy of the artwork and what we can hope to understand of the freedom of its subject. As Freud remarked of the work of mourning, when it is complete, 'the ego becomes free and uninhibited again' (1984: 253). But if, as in Deseret, that work is aesthetically and politically undone, we have two options: either an inhibited withdrawal from the world (as in the Thoreau tradition), or grasping its very lack of freedom as its proper political form. Does ecological critique demand a terminally reduced subject?

The conference version of the paper is here: the full version might come out in Screen

Monday, June 16, 2014


Stupidity is not the native condition of humanity: it is the result of a massive economic and political effort to encourage forgetting. In a generation, scarcely thirty years, a huge raft of domestic skills has gone. They haven't been lost – they've been stolen. The comedians who ridicule the sweater your granny knitted promote sweatshop labour. They want you to buy fashion made by the poorest people in the poorest countries, not to make clothes yourself. This is the new form of enclosure, the theft of common land that started the whole history of capitalism and colonialism. In its latest form, it involves encouraging the youth to mock and refuse the skills and craft they could inherit from their culture in favour of buying things. Not knowing how to cook is not a lifestyle choice: it is collusion in the fast food industry. Dismissing home-made music while paying hundreds for arena concerts isn't cool: it's self-exploitation. Turning knowledge into data and know-how into factories are engines of profit, not intelligence. It is the same engine of stupidity that encourages us to decimate the environment so that only techno-science can produce crops from it. What capital cannot steal from us we give it as a gift. Not very bright.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Introduction to Patricio Guzmán, Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la Luz, 2010)

Cinema is scarcely more than a century old. It is still a babe in arms compared to the ancient arts of music, poetry, dance, storytelling, painting and sculpture. It is, or should be, still, a laboratory for new forms.

What is important about great films is not how they subordinate their parts to the whole, but how the very idea of wholeness remains fundamentally challenged by the parts it gathers into itself. This is the case with Nostalgia for the Light

Here is Guzmán describing the process

'In the desert you can only film in the morning and the evening. The sun is too powerful in the middle of the day. So at that time, when we couldn’t film in the desert, we chose to film little things—little details, tiny stones, rays of light, reflections, shadows, cracks between objects and their undersides. The resulting images of the substance of materiality look abstract, and it’s really quite impressive. We took masses of shots like that. We weren’t sure why, but that’s how the documentary developed. You look intuitively with film and you find the theme. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes not. But that dust became fundamental. We found a big astronomical cupola from which the telescope had been removed. It was disused and actually full of rubbish. When I saw that space I actually saw the whole process of the coup d’état in the destruction and the absence of what was supposed to be there. I saw this dustbin place as a metaphor. It was thick with dust. There was lots of powdered glass and at one point we started throwing it in the air when the light that was entering the building was like the light you might see in a cathedral. When we did this it was like you could actually see the Milky Way there. We were captivated by this sight for a whole day. The director of the observatory said, “What on earth are you doing there? We’ve got the telescopes over here!” She was absolutely baffled! She had prepared this whole official visit and we spent the day throwing dust in the air. But that’s what you need to do with documentary cinema. It’s a path you have to discover and explore. You don’t know where it will lead, if anywhere, but the process is often very moving.' (White 2012)

Perfection is the fatal temptation of art. It is only the flaws in the perfection that make artworks great, that is, that makes them art in the first instance.

The dust particles in Nostalgia are unnecessary supplements. Guzmán describes his crew spending a day throwing dust in the air to get these shots, a day wasted on the only fictional shots in a documentary film. They are extraneous, and wrong, and it is because of them that Nostalgia is not merely an essay, an item in a genre of essay films as described so lucidly by Timothy Corrigan (2011).

In less than sixty years, cinema had found a strange attractor, a formula for making perfect films like Casablanca and Stagecoach. Every subsequent film that followed the formula thereby sacrificed any claim to either perfection or art. The pursuit of a new method for making films has therefore been pressing for more than 60 years. Guzmán has been working on this problem for more than 40 of them. He is an essayist only in the sense that he essays a new form with each project

Here the politics is all on the surface. The film has an absolutely clear message. The Chilean popular socialist government of Salvador Allende, the world's first democratically elected socialist government, was brutally suppressed by a US-backed military coup under General Pinochet in 1973. The film concerns the process of historical forgetting and how difficult it is to erase trauma, and equally to recall it.

Pinochet's murderous regime was the first great experiment in what has become the ongoing disaster of neo-liberalism. By concentrating on this unique and particular history, Guzmán points us to the meaning of an epoch. By pointing us to the pre-Colombian indigenous Chileans of the Atacama and to the immense silence of the sky, he points not to the universality of some putative human condition but to the uniqueness of this particularly unnecessary tragedy, the unfolding of an ineluctable chain of torture, murder, erasure, forgetting and remembrance that need never have occurred: that could have been stopped at any point, that could have been learned from at any point, but which was not and is not.

The dust particles of sand and bones are both cosmic and contingent, contingent and clumsily metaphorical, and precisely because that allegory is so brusque, it opens what would otherwise be the perfect rhymes of archaeology, cosmology and contemporary history to the hell of the random, of the stupidity of neo-colonialism, of killing as a vainglorious exercise of the semblance of power proper to the puppet army of a puppet dictator whose strings were pulled by the Washington consensus.

Dust to dust: the last and lasting act of the post-Pinochet political elite has been to deny the desparecidos their right to death. Their unstill ghosts refuse to allow Nostalgia the satisfaction of artistic wholeness, and it is for this reason that it stands among the greatest of films.

At the same time, because this formal flaw is also, paradoxically, the making of the film as an artwork, it achieves its flawed completion, containing in itself the contradiction that creates its own perpetuum mobile. As self-operating perpetual motion machine, it both opens to interpretation, and becomes a monad, entire unto itself. In turn it is also because it is a broken but autonomous whole that it has the agency that allows it to function in history as a refusal of history.

The remembered light of the past casts its shadow across the present in order to point the way toward the future.

Corrigan, Timothy (2011). The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
White, Rob (2012). 'After-effects: Interview with Patricio Guzmán'. Film Quarterly.