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What Is A Media Lab?

situated practices in media studies

Tag / digital art

An Interview with Neal White of the Office of Experiments

Interview by Jussi Parikka


Neal White runs the Office of Experiments, a research platform that “works in the expanded field of contemporary art.” The Office employs methods of fieldworks, works with a range of partners including scientists, academics, activists and enthusiasts, and is described as exploring “issues such as time, scale, control, power, cooperation and ownership, highlighting and navigating the spaces between complex bodies, organisations and events that form part of the industrial, military, scientific and technological complex.” White is also Professor at Westminster University, London.

This interview, conducted via email in June and July 2016, was set in the context of the What is a Media Lab-project and aims to address the questions of artistic practice, labs and the (post)studio as an environment of critical investigations of technological and scientific culture. Another interview with Neal White, conducted by John Beck, is published in the new edited collection Cold War Legacies (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

JP: Can you start by describing what the Office of Experiments does? I am interested in its institutional form in the sense also Gilles Deleuze talks of institutions as “positive models for action” in contrast to law being a limitation on action. The Office also carries the legacy of modern institutional form par excellence – not the artist’s studio with its romantic connotations, not the laboratory either with its imaginary of science, but the office as an organizational site. Why an office?

NW: The Office of Experiments makes art through a process of collaboration in which all of those who undertake research, make or apply thinking to a project can be credited. We bring together artistic forms of research with experimental and academic research in the field, undertaking observational analysis, archival research, road trips, building platforms and prolonged formal visual studies that reflect the complexity of the subjects we approach. Our approach is to build a counter rational analysis or account of the world in which we live. To move this away from any poetic vision, we draw on ideas from conceptual art, and disciplines such as geography and science studies, architecture and political activism, as well as looking at physical space, data, and the material layer which connects the observatories, global sensors etc of our contemporary world; the interface between the technological and material world.

Having some formative education in Digital Arts, an MA in 1997 and then running a successful art and technology group in Shoreditch, London, in late nineties and up to 2001 (Soda), my experiences collaborating with others was critical to how I work now, and the work of others that interests me. As I wanted to deliberately move away from the hermetic space that media / digital art was creating for itself – the Lab, and to set up an independent contemporary art practice, that moved across spaces, enclosures, archives, in and out of galleries, often working in situ, and which was networked, I needed to find a way of working with others that was neither exploitative nor driven by serving another discipline or field.

Having opened conversations with John Latham in 2002-3, the now late British artist, I was introduced to Artist Placement Group. I was strongly influenced at this point both by Latham’s ideas of time/temporality (as applied to institutions) as well as incidental practices, and I applied those in an instituent form (Raunig) as Office of Experiments. The Office was therefore the solution to working collaboratively as an artist in a critical way, so that credit would be spread, and all those collaborating within each project get something out – whether as art or as an academic output/text, relevant to their individual discipline.

I was attracted to the term Office initially as it holds some idea of power, when thinking of a government department or Bureau, but is also instrumental – something that I felt was and is increasingly asked of art (evaluating audiences for funding etc). However, Office alone does not work, it is too close to that which it is critical of, so it is only when used with the term experiment, and the ideas of experimental systems (Rheinberger), which were also key to my work at this time, that an agonistic dichotomy comes to the fore. This works for me, as we could say the terms are counter-productive, the name undermines itself linguistically (i.e. As Robert Filliou put it “Art is what makes life so much better than Art’). In this respect, it serves the ideas that shape our research, to create a form of counter-enquiry that can hold to account the rational logic of hard scientific enquiry, ideas of progress, the ethical spaces of advanced industry and science.

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An Interview with Emmanuel Guez at PAMAL Lab, Avignon, France

This interview has been translated from French.

PAMAL [Preservation and Art – Media Archaeology Lab] is probably the first media archeology lab in France – what makes it a media archaeology lab and what are the core activities of your activities? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your Lab or what forms its core?

EG: PAMAL was founded in 2013 at the Ecole Supérieure d’Art in Avignon.

If we were to define the archeology of the media, I would say that it is the science of media life and death.

From the media, we take up the definition given by Friedrich Kittler: machines for recording, storage and manipulation of data. The field of study of PAMAL does not cover all media, but only digital machines: computers and networks.

A Media Archeology Lab is primarily a place of experimentation. It seems impossible to understand the media without experimenting, without confronting the matter, that is to say code, hardware, infrastructures …. Our field of experimentation is the artistic production and preservation of works of art and digital literature.

We are currently developing four research programs.

The first concerns the conservation and restoration of digital works of art.

The second one concerns the exhibition.

In the third, we try to build an online, dynamic and collaborative relational database, which allows us to account for technological temporalities, obsolescence phenomena as well as software and hardware (in) compatibilities.

Finally, we set up a studio of art-archaeological art creation.

I want to go back to the first two research programs.

At PAMAL, we duplicate missing or sick works, even in a deficient way. We reconstitute them with the original machines (ie. the hardware and the stack of softwares). We call these duplications of the “original originals”, which then become “archives”. For example, we have restored a Minitel server for a telematic work by Eduardo Kac or a work on Amiga 1000 by Annie Abrahams and Jan de Weille, whose only available trace was code printed on paper listing.

The gaps that appear during the production of the second originals interest us to the highest degree. While the dominant approach in the conservation-restoration of uncoded works is to integrate the gap, our approach is to exhibit it. Deficiencies can be the manifestation of what we call breaks in the media ecosystem (uses and discourse, and especially material / software correlations) and are, therefore, instructive in thinking about the archeology of the digital arts. They enable us to measure endangered knowledge, know-how, devices and technical devices.

All this invites us to think differently of the exhibition of works: how far must we show fully functional works? How to show dead or dying works? How to integrate the bug in the exhibition? The stakes are important here because the dominant practices within French institutions are emulation, portage or, to a lesser extent, reinterpretation. For them, everything happens as if the machines did not produce effects on perception and on experience. As if, by themselves, these machines did not tell something. We believe that we must revisit the logic of access to works of art and digital literature and that we can not reduce a work to its “functioning” or to its idea.

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