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Media Ecologies––Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture

by Matthew Fuller
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005
240 pp., illus. 11 b/w. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 0-262-062-06247-X.

Reviewed by Mike Leggett
University of Technology Sydney


‘Art, as much as science, often attempts to put an enclosure around a sequence, a process, in order to isolate it as material to be inspected in a certain way, as distinct. Name a system, exhaust its permutations."

Aphorisms of this kind pepper Matthew Fuller’s account of the interplay of expressive electronic media forms through the period of Millennial change for creative people, both producers and audiences. Characteristically, the statement can be taken to be both a pungent critique and benign observation. As critique, it suggests practitioners and researchers cynically delineate territory through which they career for their individual professional and economic benefit. As an observation, it is a reasonable description of the approach so many, the altruistic together with the avaricious, take to dealing with complexity––far better, perhaps, to deal with a part of the world in depth than drown in unrelated details.

Ecological systems of biological interdependency are less than 50 years old in the public mind during which time we have experienced the impact of systems of information and communications technology (ICT). Indeed radio and television has been largely responsible for disseminating information about the biological domains, presenting us with the shape ofan image we now refer to as ecology––it enables us ". . . to think through the patterns of mutualism, dependency, fuelling, parasitism, etc. in a system, and between overlapping systems . . . " as the Australia publisher, Keith Gallasch, wrote recently. "Audiences eager for arts information and criticism increasingly seek alternatives to a challenged mass media, whether in street papers, magazines, websites or blogs, and above all, in combinations of these. A decade ago the commercial media mocked prophets who forecast a participatory rather than a passive audience in the near future. How wrong they were."

Media Ecologies––Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture traces the shifts, developments, dead-ends, and breakthroughs in this dynamic area of studio, laboratory, and street-culture activity. It develops from previous energies of the 1970s––from Radical Software publication’s use of the term, media ecology; through exploring the early formal photographic work of the artist, John Hilliard; to the more recent work of Heath Bunting, whose websites test our civil and social loyalties by enabling interaction with surveillance cameras, high-jacked off the internet. Fuller’s tone is agitational rather than methodological. The pitch builds upon selected works of cultural, political, and philosophical treatise––from Nietzsche through Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (1938), to Foucault, Negri, Deleuze and Guattari.

The image of the itinerant metallurgist, moving to where the materials, the conditions and the needs, are situated, the machinic phylum of A Thousand Plateaus, ". . . allows thought to enter a thicker relationship with practice, with materials of expression, their constitution of effect." Materials like the low-power FM transmitter, used (illegally) in districts of London as a part of hip-hop culture, are tempered with the more mundane official documents that trace the management of a key material of modernity, radio waves, (again the subject of 70s activism for community-based radio and television). The machinic tools of turntable and microphone, of voice and drugs, the issues of redundancy and entropy bent out of shape to produce heard stuff, are crafted through parts of the text into a prose refracting the central issues of cultural traction. Reflection by the reader is a requirement here, as this is no quickly absorbed account. Discussion of mobile (phone) cultures moves back into more familiar range with J.J. Gibson’s views about technology driving cultural change being echoed where frameworks and affordances provide for consumers and hackers opportunity to patch their gadgets from which emerges meaningful ‘dimensions of relationality’. Braced between the representation of materiality in Hilliard’s choreographed A Camera Recording Its Own Condition (7 apertures, 10 speeds, 2 mirrors) and the materiality of what is heard when a microphone and loudspeaker are in close proximity is the full range of vectored expression between affirmation and interference, autopoiesis and intervention. In The Switch, a community-based installation by Jakob Jakobson, the street lighting in a cul-de-sac in Denmark involved the 40 households in determining each night at what point the lighting would be switched on or off. What flowed was unpredictable.

Less so the rhetoric of BITRadio data interventions over WNYC at the WEF. This is straightforward reading, but not so the penultimate, Seams, Memes, and Flecks of Identity. Covering boundaries, variable and events, it is also the longest chapter, zipping between ideas and artefacts at a breathless rate: Dawkins to packet-switching; Chaosmosis to Neue Slowenische Kunst collective; TCP/IP to A Media Art (Manifesto) from the 60s; Jennicam to Albert Speer. Unlike Sgt Pepper, however, Fuller keeps our gaze directed at the threatening oppressive backdrop, always changing but always present––then the camps of totalitarianism, now the interned refugees and terror suspects. And for the rest of us, "In the meantime, there are plenty of forms to fill in, some buttons to press", some faxes to send. The short final chapter deepens the auto-reflective stance taken by the writer, seemingly conscious that the ride has been a demanding one though determined to resist the temptation to prescribe or predict progression––apart from a belief in a reframed art practice having the potential to take a lead in the intense process of reinvention, of orders and relationalities of the social, the material and the imagination.

Fuller moves to extract essences from the phenomena encountered to make transitions more visible between them, highlighting tendencies, accenting flow. The Footnotes and Bibliography are copious, stretching to 100 pages, are fascinating and vital for readers, particularly post-graduate students who wish to follow up some of the more obscure links proposed. A glossary of terms would have been useful and maybe just one more check for typos and syntax. Finally, though published in the USA, would not Leonardo promote its internationalist stance further by respecting the spelling conventions of Fuller’s English domicile, in another valuable addition to this bravely conceived and beautifully designed series.



Updated 1st June 2006

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