Archive | May 2012

Differentiating the difference

Showing why a linear narrative of technological progression is not enough if we want to fully understand New Media, Jussi Parikka’s latest book promotes and outlines the compelling “Media Archaeological” approach which he is helping to advance and define (in the tradition of theorists such as Laurent Mannoni, Siegfried Zalinkski, Lev Manovich, and of course Michel Foucault, all of whom are discussed in the text). Parikka, Erkki Huhtamo, and others in this emerging field embrace an understanding of media predicated upon a recognition of the heterogeneous and historical conditions of technological development, usage, implication, and cultural assimilation.

A range of theories and disciplines are naturally relevant: Parikka uses source material from philosophy, cinema studies, art history and computing science to show that the imaginaries of the subconscious – as well as the social and political conditions which “maintain our subject-object relations” (p46) – are deeply relevant to theoretical and artistic “regimes of memory and creative practices in media culture” (p3). Layered patterns of desire and perception are as informative of meaning and use as are technical specifications. Many new technologies seem to demand fresh conceptualisations of the relationships between sense and reality (page 20); further, the traditional A&H tools of interpretation, understanding and critique may need to make way for use, perversion and modulation (p163).

This awareness of multiplicity and mutating contexts resonates within my own research, which draws on literature from several fields of study to examine how academics across and within disciplines perceive and use New Media. Beginning to analyse the results of my pilot data gathering work, I find that there is no simple way to interpret the data. Using bipolar numeric scales (Semantic Differentials), I asked 8 academics from 4 different fields to indicate where they would position their understanding of “New Media” in relation to adjective pairs connoting concepts derived from multiple discourses; hence some terms are political, others abstract, others related to function and so on. Comparing the numbers with the terms and ideas expressed in interviews and discussions, I find that the “results” can be viewed from many different angles. A few examples are below:1

Some academics feel that New Media is as open as it is closed, or that it is far less inclusive than exclusive. But where do these stated positions stem from? From an individual’s empirical “rationalist” mindset? From their observations? Or from their personal desire that New Media be one thing instead of another? This can be illuminated by digging into the revelations made during an interview/conversation. While subtle distinctions in attitude can, I think, be related to the field in which someone works (their training, their background, their vocabularies and their instincts), difference of attitude/approach are nevertheless more nuanced than a discipline-based arrangement might imply.

My dataset is only a small one, but in it I see some evidence of the bridging/constructive effects of New Media within the academy – even as tensions and problems around implementation, policy, or definition are brought to light. Certainly I don’t think it is contentious to argue that using New Media within their work is giving academics a chance to engage with a greater diversity of concepts and theories than would traditionally be associated with their specific field. A computer scientist is most likely aware of philosophical and political concerns about the medium, while artists become more au fait with web technologies and programming languages. New skills, techniques and methods are learned and developed at the same time as political and critical perspectives.

Jussi Parikka talks about the praxis of media archaeology and provides examples of computer/art assemblages which “beg the question: do we have to become engineers to say and do anything interesting and accurate about current media culture?” Happily, he concludes that “the ways to engage effectively and critically…are not that narrowly defined” (p155): however, both the writing about AND the instantiation of Media archaeology require more than text-centrism. Certainly, developing a set of theories, tools, and techniques for the analysis and teaching of Media/New Media studies is a key challenge not just within this emerging field, but within Information Science more generally.

1For presentational clarity, the first term in each pair is represented by -3 and the second by 3. The actual exercises did not include negative numbers.

Between past and present

Last night I was spellbound by something that happened in Church. Actually, a lot of us were. There were DJs, dancing-girls, a futuristic robot… all sorts of strange machinery. At one point, there was even talk of witchcraft – and then a riot broke out. Seriously! You should have been there. But unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the latest attempt at modernisation by the Church of England. In fact, it was all down to the strange but blissful union between a legend of German cinema (Fritz Lang) and a legend of German electronic music (Dieter Moebius). Definitely a contender for coolest 68-year-old on the planet, Moebius performed a live, synthesised, and largely improvised score to a brand new restoration of Lang’s silent sci-fi classic Metropolis, in an event organised as part of Manchester’s annual Future Everything festival. To add yet another layer of spectral atmosphere, the whole thing took place inside the beautiful and spacious chapel of St.Philips church in Salford.

Lighting up in church

Appropriately then, proceedings were watched over by a rather saintly icon – sadly, not Maria – high up on the stained glass window above the altar, while at the lectern, a majestic eagle spread its wings. Moebius, standing at the other side with only a little workspace, looked calmly up at the screen and then back at his sonic toolkit, feeling his way into the narrative. Somehow, regardless of its age, the film manages to remain timeless. Class, religion, delusion, scientific progress, desire, politics, dreams, technology; all are wrapped up in an easy-to-follow narrative which reveals itself as a sequence of ethereal yet starkly symbolic Expressionist “mindscapes”. Special effects which, decades later, were often still risibly executed (e.g. the use of miniature sets or the appearance and movement of cyborgs) seem effortless: beyond reproach to an audience half-hypnotised by the world that Lang, cinematographer Karl Freund, and special effects pioneer Eugen Schüfftan created. Included in this new version of the film are 25 precious minutes of lost footage, discovered only two years ago at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, in the archive of a private collector. This essentially brings Metropolis as close as it will get to the way it was when first released over 80 years ago.

The famous head of Hel

Watching in reverence

The film’s ultimate message, repeated more than once by Brigitte Helm‘s Maria, is that: “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” Of course there is a role for technology in the achievement of societal advances; but we should never let ourselves be enslaved because of it. The feelings and qualities which make us human must move in harmony with what we invent; in precisely the way illustrated yesterday (music and film technology, composer, audience and sentiment) at what was a truly memorable event.

Chorlton Still Life

A place imposes its character on the people who live there as much as they impose theirs on it. You probably notice this most when going from one “extreme” to another – for instance, from here in the UK to just about any “exotic” holiday destination. You also notice it when you move from the city to the suburbs. The tone, the mood, the subtle but clear sense of who people are and what you might encounter; everything in you has to re-tune itself. Responses, reactions, expectations. Habits. That’s why families move to the suburbs after all. It’s nice. It’s lovely. And yet…on a two-hour walk today in the sunshine, my inner blogger struggled to find those angles that make me want to reach into my bag, grab my camera, and think about what I might write.

Peaceful, quiet, and plenty of recycling bins

Where I was living for the past 6 months was dominated by a huge shopping arcade. It was full of chainstores and bright lights and drunk teenagers and tourist attractions. A homeless guy set up camp on our front steps for three days without anyone really even noticing. The surrounding area was pretty much a building site. I could open the window and hear arguments, music, trains, trams. But hey, it was never long before I spotted something I could blog about – and nobody would usually even care that I was taking a picture. So, yeah, it’s a bit of a culture shift, more so than I expected. Maybe it’s just easier to blog in the city: to find novelty or something jarring which triggers inspiration. Doubtless, it’s all about state-of-mind. Isn’t it nicer just to let the pleasant, fresh air surround you? To watch the spring trees gently sway and sigh as you wander along? (Yeah yeah, I’m waxing lyrical). After all, how many nature photographs can you try to take? People will get suspicious if you photograph their cute little shop fronts or their terraced houses too openly. 😉

A curious Chorlton cat

I don’t want to fall into using easy adjectives: it’s not just that the centre of the city is more urgent, more vibrant, more messy, more dirty, more brutal, more asynchronous, more commercial, more full of “life”. Or that in contrast, everything outside its radius is cosy, safe, warm and the picture of perfection. Of course not. And hey, Chorlton is only 20 minutes away by bus! But let’s not split hairs because my feelings today have made me think momentarily about Raymond Williams and about the dual narratives we get caught up in…that get woven…about the city and the country (and now the suburbs) and what they represent. It’s not just symbolic, it’s not just about poetry and politics. People can bring about the very shifts that they’ve seen reflected through ages – that they aspire to – when they set an area up, or move into it. With all of its independent bars, shops, pubs, charity shops, second-hand shops, festivals and organic produce, Chorlton manages to represent something quite special.

So, I’m thinking of my change of immediate scene as a challenge. Here, there are new types of attitude and unfamiliar environments to find little gems in. I guess it’s all about staying alert and curious!

Songs from a City

Giving local independent music promoters the chance to put on what they consider the best new acts, Greater Manchester’s second city – Salford – plays annual host to a one-day music festival called Sounds From The Other City, now in its 8th year. A dozen stages are located in venues that include churches, clubs, pubs, and even (for some lucky raffle winners) a phone box. Last night we went down to Islington Mill, a hugely atmospheric 6-storey venue which used to spin cotton but which now operates as an artists’ studio, Art Academy and club. I’ve been through Salford once or twice but have never really stopped to look around; so for me it was all the more exciting to go and take a peek (especially after getting into the mood with another afternoon band rehearsal. Update: we now have a drummer!). Anyway, the professionals we went along to hear were organised by promoters Now Wave and the stage was a decidedly female-dominated one with a line-up including Black Belles (US garage Goth and darlings of Jack White), Keep Shelly in Athens (down tempo but upbeat electronica from Greece), and the retro-sounding Manchester-based Pins, who combine simple sporadic guitar riffs with faded pop-punk vocals, strong insistent drumming, and tons of distorting effects.

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I guess it’s a shame that I only managed to make it along to one of the SFTOC venues; but at least most of the music I managed to catch was strongly delivered and really pulled me in – whether on the rock/post-punk side or the layered/dreamy soundscape side of things. Apologies: I’m not great at describing music. Whenever I try I find myself remembering Frank Zappa‘s immortal: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  Hey, at least it’s a good excuse for my poor reviewing skills! And yeah, I know that we can’t be sure it really was Frank Zappa who said that but it’s always nice to give a legend a name check. Check the bands out online if you don’t already know them. At least I am able to provide some decent photographs. 🙂 Black Belles and Keep Shelly in Athens are pictured above.

Back to Nature

Although I admit to being a big fan of city centre rhythms, one of the best things about moving to Chorlton is definitely its proximity to some truly tranquil “Urban countryside”. A very short walk from our front door and, passing through the amazingly cute little conservation village of Chorltonville towards Chorlton Eees Nature Reserve and the Mersey Valley, here is what you can find:

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Woodland, meadows, grassland, a mosaic of meandering pathways and a variety of birds, fish and flowers…Chorlton Brook calmly flows by on its way upstream into the Mersey. A proper trip to Chorlton Water Park (which was a farm and water meadows until the 1950s) is definitely in order at some point. In the sunshine, it seems almost like another world: not a football fan in sight, yet still the police are on horseback…

The Pen is still mightier

Last night I went along with some friends to a poetry recital at the Nexus Arts Cafe in the Northern Quarter. The event was called “Big Writing for a Small World” and was the showcase for work produced as a result of a creative writing workshop led by professional writer John Siddique and funded via English PEN. The authors were diverse in terms of nationality and also in terms of style, coming from Iran, Zimbabwe, China, England and Rwanda and reading work on a variety of themes – some light-hearted, others poignant and deep. Many of the authors are refugees or recent immigrants to the UK. As Mr Siddique pointed out in his introduction, sometimes being “milked for their stories” seems to be the entry fee for admission into Britain. His workshop was therefore about inspiring the writers to find and express them selves rather than creating something directly derived from whatever conflict or trauma they may have borne witness to.

Heaps of creativity...and sandwiches

All of the writing was very impressive, particularly the work of Elmi Ali, who is just 20 years old but whose poems have the wisdom and sensitivity of someone far older. Having grown up surrounded by sisters his instinctive poetic voice is, he says, a very female one. It’s an interesting challenge then to try and write from a “masculine” perspective – at the same time as embracing what he learned from his female relatives. Mahboobeh Rajabi‘s “My Maria”, a tribute to her sister, was genuinely touching, and Yinka Akintayo‘s “The Bag” (using the imagined voice of an over-stuffed handbag) had everyone laughing out loud. This morning, reading the anthology produced to celebrate the work of all “Big Writing” participants nationwide, I’ve found many more gems. If you want to discover them for yourself then you’re in luck – English PEN have uploaded the full collection to Scribd! 🙂