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No 44.

Jussi Parikka

in conversation with Isabelle A. Tan and Ricky Ruihong Li

Jussi Parikka is a scholar of media studies and a prolific writer. His publications include A Geology of Media (2015), What is Media Archaeology? (2012), Insect Media (2010), and Digital Contagions (2007), among others. Parikka is also a professor of digital aesthetics and culture at Aarhus University and a visiting professor at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.

In 2022, he co-curated “Weather Engines” at Onassis Stegi and the National Observatory of Athens (Thissio) and co-edited Words of Weather: A Glossary (2022) with Daphne Dragona. The exhibition, program of talks, performances, and workshops offered contemporary terms for experiencing the politics and aesthetics of weather. Inspired by this environmental dive, our conversation with Parikka covered a wide range of topics—media archaeology, cultural techniques, operational images, aesthetics, slow violence, and more—that still only grazed the breadth of his practice. This interview was conducted in August 2022.

RRL

What is media archaeology?

JP

When saying “media archaeology,” one might respond: but which one? Or how, where, and when do you specify it? There are so many. One take is the tradition that emerged in new film history. This is where media archaeology produced its own version of cinema history in the 1980s and then in the 1990s in ways that started to incorporate a broader field of what was then an emerging internet network and where digital art moved beyond cinema histories. The pre-cinematic became articulated as part of ongoing discussions of post-cinema, even the recurring “death” of cinema given new, emerging screen techniques, formats, and media.

Personally, I’ve never solely focused on the moving image and audiovisual culture, but thanks to Thomas Elsaesser and others like Wanda Strauven, I really came to appreciate the work in that area. Others respond to the question “what is media archaeology?” with a nod toward the forgotten ideas, paths, and devices of media history. Erkki Huhtamo speaks of the recurring topoi of media history or media archaeology as a study of those topoi, like discursive themes. Wolfgang Ernst and others emphasize different notions of time that emerge in media archaeology as opposed to the format of history; albeit with a very different twist, the same goes with Siegfried Zielinski in his search for deep times. Giuliana Bruno’s type of media archaeology mixes together cinema, art history, and architecture. The list could go on. As for myself, I guess I was always interested in how alternative notions of temporality are loaded into the idea of media archaeology and how these notions of temporality can be used to investigate alternative digital cultures. Though I have to add that not everything I do is really media archaeology, even if that set of questions occupied me for years. Recently, I have been more interested in questions of media and the environmental humanities, critical contexts of data and environment, or different methods of investigating the “planetary.”

In any case, my What is Media Archaeology? book was a pedagogical way of trying to contend with how to think of historical formations in ways that produce different and important cuts across and beyond traditional media boundaries while showing the limitations of it (which I probably should have done better in retrospect). Media archaeology certainly does not solve everything. We should be reading it critically across different problems we face, whether it’s archaeologically related to more cinematic forms or sound technologies or something else.

RRL

Speaking of pedagogy as a method, how does one teach media archaeology?

JP

In terms of pedagogy, for me, it has always depended on when I’ve been teaching media archaeology. Funnily enough, I did not teach it that often. And at various institutional affiliations it would be slightly different every time. So I’ve taken different routes; I’ve taught it with cinema students like at Udine in Italy in 2019, which has obviously entailed a focus on visual and cinematic aspects instead of, for example, work I did with the archaeology of networks and software. But I’ve also been with art students, which has led to another different course. Thinking about media archeology as a practice in the contemporary moment helps us understand the different strata and different layers potentially present in material objects and other things. Media archeology becomes a material and conceptual exercise that itself must be reflective of its context of practice.

Of course there could be a very straightforward historical way of exercising this methodology and pedagogically thinking: basically, you might go to the archives and try to start tracking down things, which may turn into patient genealogical work as well. Some are excellent in this sort of media archaeology, not least the already mentioned Huhtamo. So it really depends on what sort of materials are at hand, whether it’s patents or state documents or other things—or whether we’re dealing with old junk that is useful for thinking about remnants and legacies of industrial cultures that are “reactivated” in artistic or design contexts.

Perhaps relatedly, I don’t even always see my later book A Geology of Media (2015) as extending What is Media Archaeology?, funnily enough. The former was never meant to be a book on media archaeology but on environmental humanities, the materiality of media, artistic practices, and a cultural theory of deep times. I have already moved into a slightly different field of articulations and connections in terms of a focus on environmental media or broader connections to design, architecture, and other critical humanities; in a way, I’m coming back to my roots, being trained as a historian with a good dose of interest in cultural theory. I do like returning to media archaeology of course, like here in interviews or in teaching or talks or through new translations. The most recent one just came out in Czech a few weeks ago. Martin Charvát also wrote a short book, published in parallel, about my work shifting from archaeology to geology of media. I am grateful for Martin noticing and emphasizing my debt to Gilles Deleuze, among other thinkers.

RRL

How does media archaeology inform artistic practices that engage with so-called new media and technology? Why does media archaeology matter to artists, if at all?

JP

That is a good question, one that I try to tackle a bit in my earlier in What is Media Archaeology? too. One key thing to recognize is that artistic practice, including film practice, was always already there in media archaeology. New film history was born from close research on film archives and was always aware of the work of film artists such as Harun Farocki. Many might say that Farocki’s work was emblematic of media archaeology in action.

The 1990s emergence of media archaeology in relation to discourses of new media art and digital culture was driven in many ways by artists. Huhtamo wrote about this early on. Paul Demarinis, Perry Hoberman, Zoe Beloff, Bernie Lubell are examples of such creative practitioners working with sound, cinema, and installation practices. Media archeology offers an idea to look at old new media, the recurring tropes of historical imaginaries, and the work of art and culture with different materials rather than with a blunt, generic “digital” that inspired a lot of that work. I was lucky to learn about different methodologies of media archaeology from working with people like Garnet Hertz in terms of critical design and hardware hacking practices, as well as from artists such as Aura Satz or Rosa Menkman in their sound, performance, and technical practices. This is why artistic, design, and experimental practices constitute a central component of the “traveling discipline”—not just recently but as practices always present in a field’s history. But let's return to this later. In some ways, I am also interested in how it shows up in theorists’ texts, in their style and topics; here, Zielinski is an excellent example of someone whose own career moves through different artistic institutions and experimental practices—something very visible in his writing too.

Much of the new media of late 1990s or early 2000s might soon be “historical”: net art, software art, and other related critical technical practices. This necessitates an interesting task that is fundamentally archival in the media archaeological sense: in what ways is that legacy recorded, documented, and visible as part of current discussions on digital art and aesthetics? How do we write the histories or the archaeologies of software art not only through people but through different media objects of code, interfaces, and also infrastructures, viewing it from the hegemony of the internet to ask about platform infrastructures? All of these questions come close to the expertise of my colleagues in Aarhus and how we understand digital aesthetics in our program.

RRL

Giorgio Agamben, mentioned in your essay “Thousands of Tiny Futures,” provides a heady philosophy of archaeology. According to him, one of the main stakes of archaeology is the production of new time.1 Knut Ebeling builds upon this Agambenian understanding and suggests that archaeologists map what is originating, what is emerging, and what is productive of new temporalities.2 How should we understand temporality in relation to media archaeology?

JP

How peculiar, I forgot about the Agamben link, perhaps because his work was never that important to me—and even less so thanks to his very weird and poorly thought through notes on the past years of the pandemic!3 Talk about the return of the repressed. But yes, Knut Ebeling’s work is one of my references. There are different notions of temporality packed into what “archaeology” does vis a vis “history.” Ebeling is right: the term “archaeology” is confusing; there are many archaeologies—wild archaeologies he calls them—outside archaeology proper.4 The sort of archaeology of “media archaeology” is most often about the “a priori conditions” that media technologies cater to; archaeology is about material temporalities, including discontinuities, vis a vis the linearity of history (to add, of course, such a crude distinction does not make sense on closer inspection of how history itself has changed over the past decades).

Dominick LaCapra and others paid attention to the ways in which modes of historical time were premised on the idea that history is a genre. As such, producing history was contingent upon this genre of writing, but this is not the only way to think and practice temporality. The idea of a particular temporality of history (as a genre) was articulated in relation to a historical mode of writing media. And this legacy of the 1980s included new historicism, which is not often articulated in media archaeology, but it has a link to some media theoretical work, even that of Friedrich Kittler who once said something along the lines of: “technical media are radically different than written documents; sorry Michel Foucault but archives are not only documents but also film, sound tech, or now different file formats, etc.” Foucault was never this simple though or naive and was always, for me, the material thinker par excellence: he spoke of territories, architectures, and non-discursive materiality, the material impact of statements, etc.

One of my recent reads—or actually an audiobook, a recent habit of mine—was Jimena Canales’ book on Einstein and Bergson. As far as it concerns your question on temporality, that book holds great insight into topics of time in the early 20th century. Many of the themes and topics of their debate are still with us, for example with regard to measurement and clock time versus experienced time, data and duration, observation, and the status of the observer. What are the constants of any measurement system? Like measuring time, are they based on the constant of light? How are infrastructures of measurement assumed or produced? Canales’ fantastic book charts out all these wonderful things in physics in creative ways. I wish my brain was bigger to understand them, but it is also one of those readings that really underlines what is at stake when discussing temporality not only with regard to which technologies measure inscribed time but also technical media (whether it’s audio or something else) that produce time as well. Cue in Wolfgang Ernst on the eigenzeit of media technologies. 5 In other words, the automation of cultural processes that, at the same time, automate particular temporal patterns, whether or not temporal patterns are just loops or other forms of processing inside computers—processing that takes place in high-speed, in the high-frequency trading of other things but also things themselves. Basically, what I’m getting at is the production of automated temporalities. What matters is not only the writing of time as history but the writing processes of technologies because they in turn rewrite society in different ways and at different speeds. This is one impulse for a lot of so-called posthuman and nonhuman theorizing, as well as theorizing that tries to comprehend the times that we are in from both the perspective of massive durations and the high-intensity impact of the “now” moment: climate change would be the first I would name.

RRL

This resonates with Lisa Gitelman’s work on Edison’s phonograph where she complicates both media and history.6 For Gitelman, media are not merely understood as objects of history—as communicative things that advance through time. Rather, media condition history as such, in that histories are written within a specific milieu of technological and social relations. It seems to me that one way to understand how media produce temporalities is to look at this media-history matrix.

JP

That’s spot on.

IAT

What is Media Archaeology? was foundational for me. From Marshall McLuhan we learn that “media are extensions of man,” but what pushes against him and what we learn from your book is that media are fundamentally made and produced out of actual stuff; they are grounded in this materiality. This is precisely how they condition us and the backbone of this thing we call Earth. And so, from there, we get this feedback loop between media as material and material as media (or, material understood by media) that moves us towards the work you’re doing in A Geology of Media, which situates us—environmentally—in the stuff we are surrounded by. Media become elemental.

JP

Yes. Just to add, I jokingly call my Insect Media (2010) book an “anti-McLuhan” take as it works against the “media as extensions of man” trope. Or well, perhaps it is not a joke.

IAT

[Laughs.] Ricky and I both come from architecture backgrounds. McLuhan certainly colors the media shades of our discipline, but you have a big influence too, especially in thinking and teaching on climate, ecology, and the environment. For example, A Geology of Media opens out a conversation on natural logistics that moves into (climatic and planetary) infrastructures. So your work has been crucial for thinking about architecture as something directly implicated in the making of environments and the kinds of sovereignty that are controlled therein—the kinds of subjects and agencies that are formed in a constellation of material relations that might have otherwise been insignificant or imperceptible to the discipline.

JP

I’m flattered to hear that, and I am glad that what I do registers in those terms. As I hinted at earlier, I like to think of A Geology of Media less as a disciplinary contribution to media archaeology and more as expanding topics of space, infrastructure, and even architectural materiality. This is where I get the most interesting and helpful feedback and how I am able to percolate and develop these ideas about multiscalar materiality, weird planetary causalities, computational culture at planetary scale, deep time, the political ecology of sustainability, and so forth. The angle on architecture as making environments is really apt.7

Architecture and space continue to be really interesting areas for me. I am working on a new project on environmental data with Paolo Patelli and May Ee Wong, who contributed an entry on “Extremes” to Words of Weather. We have been thinking about the notion of environmental data as spatially situated, whether in a landscape formation, geographical area, geological context, or an architecture for housing meteorological or climate research. We place questions of data in relation to those sites of emergence. They stimulate a recursive way of understanding data, and this is about how data emerge from a particular location. “All Data Are Local,” as Yanni Loukissas puts it in his book. But while data are local, they have recursive effects across different scales, like in global climate models.

So in broad terms, there seems to be an affinity between what you just mentioned with media and architecture and what we’re trying to do in terms of this spatialized notion of environmental data and sensing. It interfaces with architectural thinking, as well as concrete methods from the software environments of design and modeling to the sort of questions we ask through spatial models and questions of scale.

IAT

Absolutely. I’ve been looking into the desert borderlands of China and the greening campaigns that took place there and throughout the Maoist state in the 1950s and 60s. Trees seem to constitute an early form of environmental data or an environmental technology in this period. They fueled particular forms of settler colonialism. “Greening” entailed the manufacture and maintenance of various natural agencies that engendered militarized subjects, ethnic minorities, and their environments—in direct and indirect relation to China’s current political regime.

JP

This riffs on the ways geopolitical imperialism is being executed in particular ways that may not have exactly clear precedents, but continue particular patterns that you just outlined really well.

RRL

I often think media studies can be leveraged to open up capital A architecture to consider spatial practices beyond its set of authorial objects, historically produced and continually valorized, that short-circuits the Whiteness of the discipline (disguised by a bleak claim on the autonomy of the architect). Learning from media allows us to consider ways in which pipings, circuits, trees, zones, airs, and logistics undergird our world and scaffold our living and knowing matrix. Here, architecture is not about forms but operations, not about nouns but verbs.

JP

So well expressed. This is also the underpinning theme I want to articulate in a project that I have been working on called Operational Images with the Film and TV School at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, which resonates with a broader interest in the dynamics of seemingly “inert” things—that they are indeed not just things but processes.

RRL

Harun Farocki's work seems to be an important point of reference for people interested in the operationalization of media.

JP

The notion of operational images, as it comes from Farocki’s work, has become an oft-cited term in art and theory discussions. Farocki’s early work before operational images such as the anti-Vietnam War films in the 1960s and 1970s, including the well-known Nicht löschbares Feuer, deals with scenes of atrocity in relation to contemporary forms of chemical extraction and violence. They ask: how can an image do justice to violence at this massive scale? There’s something very poignant and useful in terms of what this opens up. That is why Farocki keeps haunting us.

IAT

Yes. Political value might be arrested from operational images. But their operationalization, fundamental to their production and the violent work they do in circulation, often obscures that potential…

RRL

In what ways does your recent project expand on Farocki’s take on operational images?

JP

I have tried to build upon the notion of operational image as a heuristic concept to consider questions of measuring, labor, and shifting photographic or “post-photographic” practices in relation to visual culture. Operational images are not images in a restricted sense. Their primary definition is through their operationality. As images they are peculiar, sometimes even “unimages.” They might be surveys and scans of large-scale territories that lay the ground for extractionism or particular territorial operations which then play out in complex entanglements of climate extractionism, resources, geopolitics, territorial conflict, and of course blatant military violence (which is covered so well by Farocki).

The project is part of a book, Operational Images: From the Visual to the Invisual, expected to come out next year, in 2023. It is not a book about Farocki but one that tries to think through some of the implications of the concept: how does it help us understand images and data, artificial intelligence, and the disappearance of the image in the machinery of data sets and training models for different applications and operations? It tries to both map the field of how the term has been used and also offer some new insights. I offer case studies, like Geocinema’s work, while picking up on the idea that operational images also speak to Operations Other Than War (a term that refers to military actions and logistics not explicitly for the purpose of waging war—these other operations can then thus include almost anything where the logistical backbone of military is seen effective,from environmental disasters to peacekeeping). I refer to the idea that operational images are not merely about the machine vision of military tech, but they function in many other institutional contexts, from architecture to earth observation, astronomy, and beyond. This does not mean dismissing the violence mobilized in different operational contexts, but that it doesn't always explode as imminent assault and rather unfolds into toxic contexts where images, observation, measurement, data, and other operations take a central role.

RRL

If operational images are produced by a mode of photographing, scanning, and data-gathering wired into the production of violence, how might we understand their aesthetics?

JP

Since Farocki, many artists have helped me understand this broad question: is there such a thing as the aesthetics of operational images? Is it all about CCTV or media apparatuses, or a certain “style?” Geocinema has done exciting work that I also discuss in the forthcoming Operational Images book. I read their work in relation to an aesthetics of procedurality focused on large-scale territorial control through infrastructures of data. The methodology of filmmaking they employ makes sense of this multi-scalar reality.

RRL

To grapple with aesthetics here is to discern how it is complicated by a new configuration of media, subjects, and procedures of signification in a world infused with operational images—and that goes beyond the quotidian or conventional meaning of the term.

JP

Right. To speak of aesthetics and to speak of art and design practices are separate things. But new definitions and insights into what we mean by aesthetics are helpful in this manner. For instance, in their recent book Investigative Aesthetics, Eyal Weizman and Matthew Fuller lay out the idea of how aesthetics is really about sensing or how aesthetics becomes sensing. So aesthetics is practiced here both in art and beyond art. That is truly valuable for me because it expands aesthetic practices to the different patterns and methods of sensing. It doesn’t need to be cultivated in art institutions. We begin to understand what sensing as aesthetics can be, especially when it starts to speak to all sorts of natural or architectural formations, structures, and surfaces.

RRL

This makes me think of how the discourse on aesthetics, as one encounters it in art schools and museums, is often tethered to an art-historical appetite for the “Fine” and the autonomous. And I agree with you that it is more productive and challenging to extend our consideration of aesthetics beyond this disciplinary vacuum and to understand the work of aesthetics in this world. Weizman and other’s work articulate the operation of aesthetics in, say, legal forums, scientific labs, diplomatic conferences, military sites, and other spaces outside solo shows and Art History 101s… it is truly refreshing.

JP

Totally.

RRL

Among your many great contributions to media studies, you have helped to bring the mostly Germanphone conversations to the English-speaking world. For example, I’m thinking of your introduction to Wolfgang Ernst’s book on media and archive. We often find this trans-lingual approach very linear, but yours seems multi-directional. It not only moves across languages, but permeates knowledge worlds, bringing together other strands of thought such as French theory, cybernetics, new materialism, and so forth. Could you reflect on your role in this? What has this exchange achieved or what are the potentials you see in such exchanges?

JP

I don’t know if the term sounds as good to others as it does to me, but I adopted the notion of traveling disciplines or methodologies to think about [among other things] diversity in such terms. Of course, this is nothing new for the readers of Edward Said and Mieke Bal. To engage with media archaeology involves the difficult work of understanding novel technology by way of not just rehearsing old humanities concepts but forcing out new concepts that are emerging in relation to said technology. That to me was the impulse of media archaeology. I tried to map out a set of methods, theories, and concepts that move from discipline to discipline. Sometimes they caused misunderstanding, while other times they provided an even better understanding when dislocated. Concepts change as they go along, depending on the context—on their geography and movement. The idea of traveling is central (as I still find it so) when the question, what we can do with concepts, arises. How do they elaborate particular situations? And, in turn, how do certain situations we find ourselves in transform their concepts? This traveling is certainly implicated in this trans-lingual link of theoretical things that you invoke, Ricky.

RRL

It sometimes occurs to me that being unmoored to certain disciplinary position or theoretical attachment allows in perspectives that reveal limitations.

JP

Yes. With so-called German media theory, there was a lack of attention to the question of gender; there was a lack of attention to other axes of intersectional power and many other topics that necessitate a political angle to this ecology of traveling. This is the big picture of why traveling—and notions of traveling concepts—can be responsive and responsible. That to me is part of the ethics of conceptual and academic work.

IAT

Could you walk us through some of your influences, particularly from so-called German media theory to situate the political necessity of “traveling?” How did you encounter it?

JP

I was trained as a historian but totally determined to not practice history in the manner of telling stories. I actually wish I could do that; I admire some of the best who can do that with insightful flair. Every time I read Jimena Canales I wish I was that sort of historian of science!

Anyway, I was always attracted by—let’s use this shorthand again—theory. Working with an archive as a historian certainly holds critical value, but I was attracted to different theoretical directions. One was the material philosophies of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and what was later coined as new materialism or non-representational theory. The other direction was indeed the so-called German media theory spearheaded by the controversial figure, Friedrich Kittler, whose provocations were intriguing as they are troubling. Kittler spoke a language that mixed histories of technology and media with theoretical points…but not that I agreed with all of it; as for the Foucault bits, yes perhaps, but I steered clear of the Lacanian undercurrent. What is most important is that it worked: it got my interest and still does. I feel that theory works not because it puts us into a right place, which almost rarely happens, but is productive because it gets us moving. And these various movements that German media studies offered were important for me. Later I spent several years in Berlin affiliated with the Media Studies institute, or well, Medienwissenschaften, at Humboldt University, with Wolfgang Ernst and others, and later I was glad to be affiliated with the IKKM (Internationale Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie) that was led by Bernhard Siegert and Lorenz Engell. Just to add: the point on so-called is very much needed. Everyone should read Geoff Winthrop-Young’s work on this aspect of what is projected as “German” (and to be honest, everything he writes about this brand of media theory). 8

Anyway, I like to think of one's interests, methods, and theoretical directions through the different addresses one visits. In 2005, I was a visiting PhD student-researcher in Amsterdam. Thomas Elsaesser was an influential figure in terms of new cinema histories and a media archaeology that stemmed from film studies. It is only through such routes that cinema and film studies became, in its own way, a part of me or my thinking. But even more importantly, a couple of times, I was able to sneak into Rosi Braidotti’s seminars in Utrecht in gender studies and witnessed, in person, the ways in which Rosi took forward feminist theory in terms of new materialism. It was just one of those formative moments for me, where I consciously realized the peculiar mixes I was interested in trying to make. To state the obvious, Kittler and Braidotti don’t necessarily mix well. But at the same time, they both attempt to address different aspects of materiality, in different disciplines, from different directions, toward different ends, just like Elsaesser’s media archaeology and many others. I tried to pack some of this heterogeneous field and thinking into What is Media Archaeology?.

RRL

Yes, you have written a lot on this—on the intellectual development and stakes of new materialism.9 How do you see your work in relation to new materialism—and its critiques?

IAT

These critiques tend to say that the human (or a humanist project) is lost in a focus on nonhuman agencies; also absent are the mundane mechanisms of political economy and its value structures in organizing power and abandonment. Could we think with these readings and sit with the potential limitations and shortcomings?

JP

For sure. We need to take many of the critiques seriously of course. A starting point is to think which new materialism is the aim: is it object-oriented-ontology (often conflated with new materialism) or the traditions stemming from more radical theory and politics, such as feminist materialisms? I read and think with people like Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, and others. It is important to be constantly aware that many of the central parts of new materialism are historically building on the traditions of feminist theory, queer theory, and postcolonial theory in the context of contemporary decolonial questions and understandings of the intersections of race, gender, and labor.

Braidotti is constantly paying attention to this aspect of new materialism as an ethical, progressive project that does not stop at just some blunt recognition about objects and nonhumans. All of this is so important for a wide variety of reasons, including topics central to contemporary interests in ecology and environmentalism: how to think of an environmentalism not only about humans but one that does not also erase already erased humans such as indigenous peoples in the name of conserving “pristine nature.”

There are many different takes on new material theorizing right now. Some of them have clear shortcomings, especially when it comes to the particular politics of bodies. I want to subscribe to a legacy that builds on the idea of recognizing how the human was an exclusive term, to discuss who was never (almost) a human anyway, and how violently the category of human and humanism was weaponized. And I am here just echoing Braidotti’s work.

IAT

We have such an abundance of people and work we might echo and lean on (to which I might quickly add critical disability studies).10 But I really appreciate the way you are articulating this because it is precisely what is often lost in the critiques of new (feminist) materialisms or what is misunderstood in the search for others: what makes us human is what we are trying to find, differently and anew. The human has certainly been defined and redefined, oftentimes, precisely by what is synthetic—by machinic assemblages but also by social categorizations, taxonomies, and pathologies distinguishing the “non” from the supposedly (White, male, non-disabled) human.

JP

Exactly.

RRL

Let’s switch gears and talk a bit more about Words of Weather: A Glossary. How was it conceived?

JP

The book grew out of the “Weather Engines” exhibition and a curatorial research project with Daphne Dragona. But, Words of Weather is not a catalog of the exhibition in the conventional sense. It is a glossary in which certain terms for weather entangle with the curatorial premises and strategies unfolding in the gallery space. We did not want it to be a direct document indexing or interpreting the exhibited work. It is not saying and pointing, “this piece here is about weather,” etc. Instead, we wanted it to account for discussions that grew in parallel to what happened in the gallery. It is a document of indirect dialogues, so to speak: a kind of discursive reverberation of the exhibition.

I like to think of this book as a glossary of political ecology. As straightforward as the term “weather” may sound, the glossary acknowledges that in the age of climate change, extreme weather and environmental calamity must be understood within a broader context of what’s been called elemental media and culture. Weather moves between material and political registers, between knowing and experiencing.

IAT

Yes. We love how the book collects and relays terms on the weather. It is (literally) a glossary. At the same time, these terms are not definitions but conversations recorded as short-form essays.

JP

We did not want a book by theorists, with a capital T, but a compendium of different forms of knowledge. We wanted to gather a mix of words generated by theorists and historians as well as by a diverse set of epistemic practices, from artists, architects, writers, filmmakers, and others. The catalog is another reference of the project, a parallel textual space to the otherwise audio-visual exhibition. We insisted that the book carry the project forward, beyond the exhibition in Athens. Without revealing too much, the whole project will have a new edition in 2023 in another country and institution.

IAT

That’s exciting. Taken collectively, the book frames various territories of meteorological knowledge, but the contributions also write, or embody, the different atmospheres we breathe and live in. In each chapter, you re-encounter a weather world you thought you knew—forced to confront how it was and is produced. In each page turn, the text of the glossary sinks or floods. The weather terms accumulate. In a catastrophically beautiful way, the book (with its design of a rising, translucent blue water level) engulfs us in questions about our technological cultures and political systems.

JP

I’m so glad to hear of your reading of the glossary. Your description is really great. And it also makes me think that the texts are like these loops within the book— that certain entries might be key, or act as filters, like in a software design environment. Thinking about the “Body” entry by open-weather, for instance, helps to frame some of the questions on the politics of gendered embodiment and access in terms of weather infrastructures.

In terms of design, the book was not conceived as a typical exhibition catalog or heavy and expensive coffee table book. Instead, it came out as a nice pocket-sized handbook of sorts. Every word in this handbook features one axis of power through which weather and climate change are discussed, touching on registers of politics, aesthetics, justice, colonialism, and more. It is not a comprehensive book on the politics of weather but the entries act as articulations and arguments that—to exploit the acoustic metaphor further—resonate across a broad territory and also feed into each other: atmospheres, aerosols, winds, contrasts, translucency, extreme weather, humidity, and tropics are just some of the terms that feature in the book.

IAT

Speaking of acoustic metaphors, Jussi, I am reminded (less figuratively) that with resonance, we must attend to both the signal and the ambient noise or atmospheres it moves through.

JP

Oh yes, signal and noise. These are themes that feature in some of my work—noise and anomalies are not merely a clarity of signals and communication, they are also nice points to reflect on the context of that work. There is also a sense of noise in how I’m sometimes placed, if not misplaced, in terms of institutional affiliations. I don’t mean this sort of noise and misplacement is a bad thing at all! I ended up as a professor in an art school through rather different routes, just like how I ended up in media studies a bit accidentally. It feels natural for me to be in relation to artistic and experimental design practices: there’s a methodological flexibility, and I’ve always been interested in working with different notions of matter. I often bring in an analysis of artistic practices to make sense of the geophysical materiality of media or attempt to develop theoretical and conceptual thinking in the transformative, material processes of artists.

But, let’s go back a bit to explain some of this noise. I was trained as a cultural historian in the history department at University of Turku in Finland. At that time, I was already fascinated by contemporary technological culture­—contemporary as in the recent history of the past few decades. I was particularly interested in the first decade of the “popular internet” and the emergence of new forms of networked software objects, be they malicious or experimental, such as viruses. From the late 1990s to early 2000s, I was preoccupied with understanding early forms of internet through net art and software art. I was captivated by artistic and experimental practices early on. However, I studied them not just for the sake of art, so to speak, but with an epistemic angle as in how they fit into particular technological systems, institutional perspectives, and also counter-perspectives. This made us see the internet very differently, already early on. And now, experimental practices are still a crucial site of generating critical understandings of contemporary platform culture. This affinity has carried forward to my teaching in other disciplines, including media studies. Later on, in art and design school, I was institutionally much closer to artistic practices. I taught and worked with artists, including practice-based PhD students and what could be branded as “critical technical practice,” which resonates with Philip Agre’s term.

IAT

How do (or did) you navigate through these different spaces?

JP

The ways in which an academician or theorist engages with society has changed, and I do value this shift. Working with art students, designers, artists, and cultural practitioners has been one way to do things differently. The process to find linguistic expressions for the convergence of technological and artistic forms was always intriguing for me; so was navigating that on a professional level and contributing my own understandings of art in ways that open up possibilities rather than impose limits. Theory changes from being some purely cognitive activity to a collaborative, embodied exercise.

The contemporary cultural discussion holds an inherited suspicion of art and academic institutions for their historical, colonial complicity, and so on. I understand and share this critical stance, but I also think that art institutions can function as alternative spaces for research beyond academic ends. Since the 2010s, I have worked closely with different experimental media practitioners, including at Winchester School of Art. I started collaborating with transmediale, an annual festival for art and digital culture in Berlin. This has been a vital space for me to understand what is going on across different media as well as the limitations of academic space. Engaging with these institutions has been a really interesting way to think about the limits of theory or more precisely the shortcomings of practicing this thing called “theory”—as if it is only an academic endeavor traditionally viewed or equated to solitary writing activity.

RRL

Is art space the way out?

JP

There’s too much of a risk of solutionism in that! In certain contexts, I’m also against the idea that art should be seen as a solution. To simply say: “let’s get an artist to solve it.” I’m constantly wary of veering into this idea that art is some kind of magical knowledge about the world. Experimental, creative, what have you. Rather, it enables a certain understanding of the world in modalities other than written words, or it reflects different aspects of practice, collaboration or work, labor, and even precarity. It's also about spoken or unspoken aims that are so different from academic work. Artistic practice offers really great ways of building connections and articulations in work that can be positively irresponsible or perhaps even more acutely tuned into the current world.

RRL

How might we understand the confluences between (critical) theory and art practices?

JP

Over the years, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to understand theory as a practice. What are the techniques of theory? What does it mean to write in the same room as others? What does it mean to write in libraries and office spaces? What does it mean to produce theoretical work in an institutional situation? How does that produce a particular way of crediting and citation? There’s a sense of mundaneness when thinking about theory itself as an embodied practice. And, of course, this is nothing new to anyone who comes from feminist theory and practice, but this can also include an angle to media theory too. Looking at theory as a cultural technique emphasizes all sorts of inconspicuous material devices and routines, architectures and infrastructures.

RRL

I imagine this shaped the work you did and how you worked in "Weather Engines." How might one look at theory as a cultural technique? And does that bring to bear another set of questions?

JP

This was at the center of many discussions I had with Daphne during the curation of the exhibition: how do we talk about the combination of environmental justice and nonhuman agency? How not to lose sight of one or the other? How to curate this into the show in ways that builds many of the issues from ground up, through the works, not merely as theoretical statements. The many axes of the issues are represented by works such as Susan Schuppli’s Cold Cases on the weaponization of temperature in human rights violations across Canada and the US; the powerful film 4 Waters by Denise Ferreira da Silva and Arjuna Neuman; and Felipe Castelblanco’s 2-channel film Upriver on clouds, sovereignty and aerial violence through fumigation for example .

The conference we organized as part of the "Weather Engines" public program continued such questions of environmental violence in concrete and conceptual cases, for example, Nabil Ahmed who has examined the notion of ecocide in his work from writings to the work INTERPRT does.

IAT

This reminds me of the slow, contemporary environmental violence you attend to in your incisive, short essay-book published in 2016. In it, you lean on Rob Nixon’s term “slow violence” to shift the durational terms of environmental violence from the highly broadcasted event-based moment of environmental catastrophe to a time frame that unfolds in a toxic slowness: where contaminants and pollutants pass on from generation to generation seeping into the soils of a deeper time. This slow violence might also be a “slow death,” to use Lauren Berlant’s term, which maintains a similar temporal ongoingness: a physical wearing out of populations where individuals are relegated to endure rather than to invent and where debilitation is overdetermined by sensed conditions that cannot presumably change.11

JP

There is a necessity of understanding how violence becomes identified and acknowledged; this entails what’s not legible and what remains invisible, which is, as you have just pointed out, already the task of so many fields from feminists to disability scholars. Slow violence is a productive concept, although not necessarily a salve, to look beyond the spectacle of violence (isn’t this what violence wants, to create spectacles of fear?) and address those different scales of unfolding, whether we call them structural or institutional or by other names that pertain to the situation at hand at that moment. Slow violence itself seems to refer to a particular scale—a temporal scale of slowness—which is extremely useful for me in thinking about contamination and pollution and in dialogue with such works as Max Liboiron’s Pollution is Colonialism. Besides concrete cases of violence, there is a necessity to think through abstractions because it is not just in a concrete, empirical register that things happen. Rather, things happen on abstract levels in the sense that they might unfold across 10 years, 100 years, and more.

It’s important to save the notion of abstraction for our political vocabulary without ignoring actual concrete bodies. There is this juggling act between the abstract and the concrete that is theoretically and ethically crucial. This is an issue between not just humans and nonhumans, but concreteness and abstraction as specific scales of relating not just to oneself and not just the here and now. Abstraction remains useful in revealing less explicit relations that remain otherwise hidden, as it helps anchor certain things beyond our limited experiential scope. This is not to dismiss the importance of direct witnessing or experience. They build on each other.

RRL

Totally. Concreteness and abstraction present a kind of representational problem. Since we have arrived at the destruction of the environment and the suffocation of soils, I’d like to return to environmental data and the databases that are plugged into earth monitoring systems, be they remote or embedded. These technical compounds have become new historical witnesses for slow violence, accounting for a durational history of “bad weather.” Media and history are deeply co-constitutive, as we learn from Gitelman and others, and environmental injustice demands new techniques of representation, ones capable of unsettling heroic storytelling and our obsession with chronology, development, and progress. What are the conditions of data technologies in this era? Can they live up to this radical role?

JP

It is important to notice how new forms of data gathering and processing technology allow us to access patterns that would not otherwise be available in earlier media forms. But this is not sufficient in itself (what kind of data, in which institutional settings, and for what purposes?): data alone cannot produce a qualitative shift in our social and political processes. The belief in the solutionism of data is untenable, and yet, we cannot come to terms with certain realities without the abstractions brought by data. We would not know what to do about planetary-scale crises of climate without the sensing and analysis enabled by data. This is one paradox I am dealing with that has yielded productive critiques in the social field: datafication and machine learning might mislead us because they reinforce bias and retrace existing, often-violent institutions, for example the police and border control. It is clear that new systems of data do not by themselves constitute any break from the status quo.

RRL

What happens when the environment becomes data’s subject? What new problems arise?

JP

Data and machine learning are at least partly epistemic technologies, that is they are techniques of producing knowledge. But they also produce not just knowledge in the traditional sense, but predictions—or claims to such—as Matthew L. Jones has argued in his historical work on data positivism. It’s crucial to understand the mediation performed by these prediction techniques and sensing apparatuses in environmental politics in order to grapple with how data become meaningful to, say, the project of sustainability (a term with its own problems), but also to understand the shortcomings of whatever data methods are employed.

Let me put it a bit provocatively: I believe it is only through technical frameworks, including cultural techniques of data, that we can move beyond the business-as-usual production of the so-called environmental policies featured in sustainability discourse and arrive at an ethically just, ecologically sustainable, and preferably, I would add, communist, queer, radical future. That’s where the stakes are in employing particular technological solutions towards radical social ends.

What is the epistemology of numbers? And how do we think statistically without losing sight of questions of justices? How to think of, make space for “revolutionary mathematics,” in Justin Joque’s terms?12 These questions are what critical data studies have invested in the social field. And they need to be raised in thinking about environmental data as well.

As Jennifer Gabrys and others ask: how can we think about sensors as embodied and embedded, as immanent but also transforming the worlds they are sensing? The implication of this question is not just about capturing data but about being part of the world in which the capturing happens. The divisions between here and there, the observer and the observed become constantly troubled in the actual practices of scientific and non-scientific ways of sensing.

RRL

Right. Sensing is a technique of knowing both of and in the world. The notion of cultural techniques helps us come to terms with the ambience of the technical that frustrates sticky, Western ideas of causality, agency, and sovereignty. I really like Cornelia Vismann’s analogy: our relationship to the technē is perhaps more like bathing in water than throwing a spear.13 We are never exterior to it.

JP

Yes! That the techniques we use constitute the situation they are used in, recursively. The notion of cultural techniques brings in the idea of atmospheres of mediation. It is not that we are sensing a thing out there, rather the thing emerges in the very processes of our sensing. And the emergence is both, let’s say, the observer and the thing being observed. The problem concerning our observation and participation in the world has been raised in different debates across different scientific disciplines and different epistemological positions for more than a hundred of years now, not least in the Cold War period of second order cybernetics.

IAT

Atmospheres of mediation that muddle the subject with the object…

JP

Right. This middle-voice even concerns sensing in advanced technological settings (and why not in “less” advanced too). Many technologies, new and not-so-new, trouble the idea that a subject senses an object.

I am on very thin ice but I am very intrigued by this. A lot of the discussion on advanced sensing and sub-molecular level sensing for instance deals with sensing on a statistical level. In developing a new sensor, what’s being sensed is not actually out there but statistical patterns, a threshold at which a particular event or process becomes variable. If 80% of the data, let’s say, is immersed in a statistical distribution of likelihood, the idea of a subject and object is made complex because it’s part of this field of variations—a complexity that is part of the dilemma of thinking beyond the Western ideas of subject and object. Looking at cultural techniques is helpful because it is not an overtly abstract conceit but feeds into concrete ways of understanding subject positions (although that sounds almost poststructural).

RRL

It’s also hard for me to think about our recent interest in environmental monitoring and statistics without retracing the rise of naturalism in 18th century Europe where the key role of observation in geological science took hold. Geologists began to conduct fieldworks, classify fossils, chart maps, and make catalogs vis-a-vis a protocol of observing that began to regiment. In Words of Weather, you ask, “to whose institution are [we] observing, who is involved and included?”14 What institutions control and who controls environmental data today?

JP

My entry in the book draws on historians of science, such as Lorraine Daston’s work on observation with a good dose of this underlying question that indeed is meant to speak to more current contexts.15 The predominantly Western perspectives in research and policy are the obvious contexts where some of the stakes are at the moment. This much is obvious, but what’s also interesting is that there is a vested interest in so-called environmental data beyond scientific or environmental institutions. The history of weaponization of environmental data and information, as well as financialization of said data is a central theme that speaks to how different models and predictions are central to governance on this level too. The Cold War period is a great (and not great) dress rehearsal of the first point, and the past decades of financial capitalism are a grim example of the latter. So it is not merely about “controlling” in the sense of data closures, even if environmental data is being used for various forms of geopolitical power (and not just in so-called Western states, but also in China).

RRL

I’ve spent some time in the United States Geological Survey’s archive looking at offshore seismic data. These records were mostly produced from the 1960s to the 1990s. A large number of them were carried out with only one purpose: to identify geophysical features under the seabed that were likely to trap oil. Seismologists and geological scientists were employed by US oil companies to generate rolls after rolls of infrasonic knowledge for this end. Carpeted by this sweeping datafication effort, the country’s continental shelf was rendered into rosy prospects that drove (and continue to drive) a toxic economy of petroleum extraction. And today, ironically, the datafication of the earth collides with a sharp environmentalist turn. Data are more often than not employed to argue for the factuality of climate change.

JP

This is a fantastic example. Historically, this switch, say from a prospecting technology to an environmental sensing one, is something that really merits more work for reasons you mention. Sensing climate change is a necessity, but it emerges from a horrific history. Atmospheric sensing and modelling emerge from nuclear bomb research and testing while also being a central element of how the Cold War was sensed—for example the remote sensing of traces of nuclear weapon tests in territories otherwise inaccessible to intelligence operations.

While part of the story was the push for “whole earth” and holistic thinking, sparked by views from space, those views were also part of the broader infrastructures of sensing and targeting planetary space. In part because of the satellite and nuclear, we have inherited both the prospects of a complete destruction of the planet and the epistemological, affective context of caring for “mother earth” or “gaia.” The caring, sensing, and theorizing of the environment are inseparable from a contaminated legacy that renders the planet unlivable in the first place. The dismal histories that are still present speak to slow violence. Not just in airs and soils, toxicity seeps into our methods and apparatuses, in ways that are insidiously and mundanely inconspicuous.

IAT

That’s so well-put. But perhaps we can flip the script to talk in an affirmative way, despite or even in the slow violence. What is the world we want to live in, Jussi, and how do you see us getting there?

JP

I am a firm believer of dynamics in terms of how we think about the world. Why? Because it helps us to understand that if there is dynamics instead of stasis, there are always ways of guiding the flows. There is an ontological relief about change that can become a political relief about the possibilities for change. As long as the world is somewhat determined by change, it means that we have some kind of possibility of being part of the fluxes of change in beneficial ways.

We might nurture a sensitivity to this sensing because we’ve been thinking about it through our practice. This expanded notion of aesthetics is especially interesting to me because it really speaks to ideas of sensing that happens on or through a surface, through architectural or landscape formations as already involved in matters of sensing; and in and through models inherited from the animal world as earlier forms of AI—animal intelligence. Aesthetics is a key term mobilized in the forthcoming operational images book, even if in a more subtle way and through the centrality of operations. These modes of cultivation of sensing, perception, and different modalities of cognition are interesting ways of expanding what we traditionally call methods. That we can cultivate modes of sensing is to me an extension, beyond academia, of what we usually call methods.

IAT

This register of cultivation brings us back to an earlier moment in our conversation. If theory is embodied practice, perhaps it holds methods for cultivating a different kind of sensing, and thus maybe a different way of belonging.

JP

Somebody might be quick to point out, “Wait a minute, aren’t you conflating method, practice, technique, and whatnot?” Surely, we should protect method because of its rigorous nature and its repeatability against all these fluffier things that seem more accidental. But we might turn this a bit upside down and start with practice as the ground of methods. Off-the shelf methods exist, and they are the usual stuff taught in methods classes covering the quantitative and the qualitative, but even beyond that there is this broader grey zone of what actually consists of the continuum of everydayness of academic work and methods. Celia Lury and others’ work are great in this respect, as they point to such an expanded notion of methods. Practice itself is being cultivated by way of different techniques. I like to toy with the idea of the cultural techniques of theory too, to bring it back to the ground (hat tip to McKenzie Wark’s low theory). That theory too is practiced, in spatial settings (libraries, labs, offices, living rooms, cafes), in collaboration, in and through writing tools, platforms, instruments of different sort not all of which are about writing; theory is practiced temporally as it stretches across days, weeks, months, years with or without budgets, negotiated in terms of teaching loads, family commitments, precarity or tenure, and so forth.

Footnotes

1

See, e.g., Giorgio Agamben, “Philosophical Archaeology,” in The Signature of All Things: On Method (Princeton University Press, 2009).

2

See, e.g., Knut Ebeling, There Is No Now: An Archaeology of Contemporaneity, (Sternberg Press, 2017).

3

See, e.g., “A question” (Una domanda),” Quodlibet, April 13, 2020.

4

On “wild archeologies,” see Knut Ebeling, “The Art of Searching On ‘Wild Archaeologies’ from Kant to Kittler,” in Nordic Journal of Aesthetics 25, no. 51 (January 2017).

5

See Wolfgang Ernst, Sonic Time Machines: Explicit Sound, Sirenic Voices, and Implicit Sonicity (Amsterdam University Press, 2016), and “From Media History to ZeitkritikTheory, Culture & Society, 30(6), 132–146.

6

See also Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Standford University Press, 2000).

7

In our original conversation, Sigfried Giedion’s influence on both fields (media and architecture) was mentioned alongside, more recently, Beatriz Colomina’s work.

8

On “German media theory,” see Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Kittler and the Media (Polity, 2011).

9

See, e.g., Jussi Parikka, "New Materialism as Media Theory: Medianatures and Dirty Matter," in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies Vol. 9, No. 1, March 2012, 95–100.

10

See, e.g., Jasbir K. Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Duke University Press, 2017).

11

See, e.g., Lauren Berlant, “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency),” Critical Inquiry 33, no.4 (Summer 2007).

12

See Justin Joque, Revolutionary Mathematics Artificial Intelligence, Statistics, and the Logic of Capitalism (Verso Books, 2022).

13

Cornelia Vismann, “Cultural Techniques and Sovereignty,” Theory, Culture & Society 30, special issue, no. 6 (2010), 83–93.

14

Jussi Parikka and Daphne Dragona, “Introduction” in Words of Weather: A Glossary (Onassis Foundation, 2022), 135-140.

15

See, e.g., Lorraine Daston, “On Scientific Observation,” Isis 99, no. 1 (2008).