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<nettime> more on the nature/machines debate
Andreas Broeckmann on Fri, 20 May 2005 00:14:08 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> more on the nature/machines debate


[folks, the talk I gave at the opening of digifest in Toronto last 
week seems to discuss some of the same issues that Armin raises in 
his Landscape paper: the relationship of humans to nature and 
machines, underlying energies, and (artistic) ways of dealing with 
these forces; I'm offering this up for debate, - though you will have 
to excuse some of the rhetoric which is meant for a talk, rather than 
for a printed text; -ab]



(digifest Toronto, 13 May 2005)

Playing Wild!

Andreas Broeckmann, Berlin


Das Komische wohnt, wie das Erhabene, nicht im Objekt, sondern im Subjekt.
[Like the sublime, the comical does not reside in the object, but in 
the subject.]
(Jean Paul, Vorschule der Aesthetik, =A728)


1. being wild

The notion of wildness, of being wild or going wild, as the title of 
this year's digifest suggests, is of course rich in associations. The 
festival's PR material refers to 'untamed energies', be they 
'natural, pathological or sexual', and to the way in which these wild 
energies intersect with the expansive field of technologies. In the 
following half hour, I want to talk about this intersection of art, 
technology and wildness, and by doing that I hope to also contribute 
to a better understanding of the scope of 'going wild'.

I've been hesitating whether or not to illustrate my talk, hesitating 
because such images are always already highly coded and force your 
imagination in a specific direction. Yet, as I will argue again 
later, what we understand about wildness today is highly mediated 
anyway, so that whenever we start talking or communicating about 
wildness in words or images, we are always already in the realm of 
culture and its codes. We cannot escape the aporia that there is no 
way to address wildness directly. We can only speak around it.

In a very general, etymological sense, the root of the germanic word 
'wild' is related to the word 'Wald', in English you use the word 
'wold' for 'forest' or 'wood'. 'Wild' in this sense are those plants 
and animals that grow and live in the forest, they are those plants 
and animals which are not domesticated or cultivated. Wildness is 
that which is outside the realm of human culture, just as the terrain 
of the 'wilderness' lies beyond the clearing, i.e. beyond the part of 
the forest or land which has been cleared and cultivated.

The fear and excitement elicited by this wildness comes from the 
deep-rooted sense of danger that we associate with it. Our cultured 
home, camp and castle is surrounded by a twilight zone, populated 
with animals and hybrid beings that are as threatening as they are 
obscure. The werewolf, that hybrid between man and wolf, roams the 
dark border zone between village and wilderness. Wolf children who 
grew up in the company of animals point to the proximity of humans 
and animals, because these children are not mimiking animal 
behaviour, but by living as animals. In contrast, witches and shamans 
cross the boundary between human and spirit realms at will, a fact 
that keeps them in a powerful, often precarious dialogue with the 
dangerous and wild.

The mythologies of many cultures show a strong fluidity between 
humans and beasts; think for instance of the many mythical journeys 
into spiritual realms as recounted by the Amazonian Indians; or think 
of Ovid's account of the 'Metamorphoses' that humans and gods 
undergo, turning into plants, animals, or dead matter. Or remember 
the movie, Alien 4, in which the evil Alien monster child grows in 
Ripley's pregnant body. A dangerous, destructive internalisation of 
the wilderness. The wild occupation or obsession of the human body is 
a topos we find in many surrealist accounts, and also, closely 
related, in some of Sigmund Freud's famous cases.

Some of us may be thinking about wild sex, others may be wondering by 
the wild and wired world of the internet, of online games and 
multi-user dungeons populated by shooter-egos, shape shifters and 
code crackers. Or the thriving ecology of roaming computer viruses? A 
future army of nano-robots going haywire in our homes? - When 
thinking about architecture and urbanism, we may also want to take 
into account the excessive and uncontrolled growth and transformation 
of many cities, especially in the fast-developing regions of East 
Asia and the global South.

All of these associations are difficult to pin down, but they drift 
around and mingle in our minds, and I'm mentioning these examples to 
broaden the range of things that we may want to consider when talking 
about 'going wild'.

What connects these phenomena is that they are generally not ascribed 
to some spiritual or demonic sphere beyond reality: what is wild is 
natural and it belongs to this world. The wild is always a potential 
threat to our livelihood, or to the stability of our lives.

'Being wild' also means that something escapes any rules and codes. 
This makes 'wildness' such a paradoxical thing to talk about: it is 
that which is uncoded, and which thus also escapes description. It is 
in excess of what we can understand and rationally describe; 'being 
wild' is an excessive singularity, something that cannot be compared 
or represented. It is an excessive presence of an Other.


2. going wild

These forms of 'being wild' are somewhat different from the 
epigrammatic motto of this festival, 'going wild'. 'To go wild' 
implies that something was cultivated, coded, tamed before, and this 
cultured being now turns to a (supposed) state of 'wildness'. - In 
what follows, I will take the liberty to not simply praise the 
Canadian wildlife, forests, or the Calgary Stampede, but to look at 
the possibilities of where we might find contemporary forms of 
wilderness.

It would be interesting to trace the origin of the notion of 
'wildness', which emerges as the Other of human culture. In that 
context we could explore the history of the cultivation of land and 
the domestication of animals. What are the rules and structures that 
humans have imposed on nature in the course of cultivation and 
domestication? What does it mean to 'tame' another being? Does it 
mean forcing my own wilderness, my own will onto you? When I get 
'tamed', does it mean that I get forced into somebody else's 
wilderness?

=46or now, I will leave this thread aside and look at the reverse 
movement of 'going wild'. This assertive statement expresses a desire 
to transform what is cultured into uncoded nature, a desire to become 
wild. Some of you may be reminded of Deleuze and Guattari's extensive 
discussions of becoming-other, becoming-animal, becoming-woman, and 
so forth, in their book Mille Plateaux. This movement of 
becoming-other is connected to transgressing the logic of identity 
and self, and to the desire to morph into something that is 
unbounded, transgressive, and multiple, a 'body without organs'.

Think, for instance, of Melville's novel Moby Dick in which Captain 
Ahab in the end seems less obsessed with killing the white whale, 
than with becoming the whale. Not becoming 'like' it, not emulating 
it, but actually becoming the whale, either by replacing it, or by 
becoming part of it. An equally dramatic account is Franz Kafka's 
'Report for an Academy ('Ein Bericht f=FCr eine Akademie'), in which an 
ape explains its gradual, and tragically incomplete, transformation 
from animal to human. In a more assertive vein, Kafka has also 
written the following story, only a single sentence long, in which he 
imagines the beginning transformation from human into animal:

'Desire to Become an Indian
If only one were a native Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing 
horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily above the 
quivering ground, until shedding the spurs, for there were no spurs, 
threw away the reins, for there were no reins, and hardly saw the 
land in front as a smoothly shorn heath, already without a horse's 
neck and without a horse's head.'

[Wenn man doch ein Indianer w=E4re, gleich bereit, und auf dem 
rennenden Pferd, schief in der Luft, immer wieder kurz erzitterte 
=FCber dem zitternden Boden, bis man die Sporen lie=DF, denn es gab keine 
Sporen, bis man die Z=FCgel wegwarf, denn es gab keine Z=FCgel, und kaum 
das Land vor sich als glatt gem=E4hte Heide sah, schon ohne Pferdehals 
und ohne Pferdekopf.]
(Franz Kafka: Wunsch, Indianer zu werden. Aus: Betrachtung, 
ver=F6ffentlicht 1913)

What, however, does it mean to 'go wild!' in our contemporary world? 
Which wilderness are we talking about? In our distorted world, we 
think of animals as endangered species, precious carriers of 
bio-patents, protected and guarded on this global extinction zone 
into which humans have turned the planet. So desperate are we about 
'wild animals' that we are prepared to grant them eligibility for 
'human rights'. Or we think of animals as mere material churned over 
by the food industry, un-dead fossil matter counted in calories and 
nutrients. Going wild? Or 'going wild' as in sex? You don't need to 
read Foucault's History of Sexuality or study Lacan to know that 
sexuality is a highly regulated and coded system. Sex tourism and the 
pornography industry turn 'wild sex' into a commodity which seems 
easier to buy than to have. Against wild nature we construct dams, 
fences, and Tsunami warning systems. The only 'wild card' in the 
global ecology game these days seems to be the speed at which human 
destruction of our natural environment is eroding the viability of 
our life on Earth.

An art project that dramatises this boundary between control and 
danger is Dutch artist Erik Hobijn's Delusions of Self-Immolation. 
Also termed the 'suicide machine', this installation allows the 
participant the extreme experience of almost burning to death, with a 
flame thrower being shot at the well-prepared and protected body. A 
second later, the platform turns around and a second valve shoots a 
gush of water at the person, extinguishing the fire immediately. The 
experience itself is, reportedly, highly dramatic and takes you to an 
existential border. More important, though, than the actual flash, 
which only takes a second, is the lengthy preparation of the body 
with fire-resistant gel, a ritual that takes up to one hour. It is in 
this preparatory ritual that the imaginary power of the art project 
lies - the fatal impossibility of simply 'going wild' and giving 
oneself over to the fire.

Even in a less drastic perspective, 'going wild' raises the crucial 
question of the boundaries of our cultural experience - where do you 
find anything that is uncoded, un-barcoded, unpatented, offline, out 
of range of your GPS tracker, code-resistant? Who of us can come up 
with a genuine conception of 'wildness' that is not mediated by 
television, tourism, and consumer culture? (Picture Yugoslav artist 
Marina Abramovic during a performance in 1995; at the end of the war 
in Bosnia, she was sitting on a mountain of animal bones for a week, 
ritualistically scrubbing them, performing the impossibility of 
cleansing the horror of war.)

In our hunger for 'wild stuff', we seem to be doing the exact 
opposite of 'going wild', posing as radical and transgressive when 
all we can handle is a controlled experience of the border from 
inside the encampment. Those who over-step the boundary by resisting 
consumption or living in uncontrollable excess, are written off as a 
danger to public security. Discussing drugs and the regulation of 
ecstasy, Dutch philosopher Henk Oosterling argues: 'The Achilles heel 
of the info-capitalist society of consumption sits at the 
intersection of excessive consumption and the regimes of public 
order: as soon as the usage of means and substances no longer takes 
place along controllable public trajectories, and as the ecstatic 
excessiveness of consumption cannot be socially reinvested, then 
addiction is not only counter-productive, but even subversive.' 
(Radicale Middelmatigheid, 2000, p. 93)

By analogy, we can conclude that so long as the usage of means and 
substances takes place along controllable public trajectories, and so 
long as the ecstatic excessiveness of consumption can be socially 
reinvested, then addiction is not only productive, but even 
affirmative for the public order.

The ADILKNO collective, when discussing the 'Alien and its Media', 
have suggested that such cultivated wildness or evilness mainly 
serves the function of aestheticisation: 'The sublimation of evil 
into the sublime intends to confine the alien's dangerous 
unpredictability to the aesthetic experience of the uncodeable, to be 
consumed within an institutional framework.' (Media Archive, 1998, 
ch. 43)

Is this the limit of the project 'Go Wild'? Can it take us to places 
other than the fake West of Marlboro Country? A 'Wild West' that has 
turned into a cruel folklore justifying selective lawlessness as part 
of the American Way of Life?

When talking about wildness today, forget nature! 'Going wild' in the 
sense of going beyond culture is impossible. We know that we live by 
and in code, we are created by codes. Wildness today is human 
wildness, at times sublimated as the wildness of machines. The beast 
is inside of our culture, inside the code.

Yet, what benefit might an aestheticised, an 'aesthetic experience of 
the uncoded' hold? Is it even possible to think of something like 
'wild code'? - I believe that this is an interesting speculation and 
would like to offer the following thoughts on the wildness of 
machines.


3. wild machines - animal spirits

It is useful, in this context, to introduce the notion of 'animal 
spirits' to our discussion. Artists have explored the field of animal 
spirits, of the animalic and the freeing of its energies, for many 
years. Media art, often thought of as a cold and mechanical, 
technology-driven field of artistic exploration, has frequently 
transgressed the assumed rationality of the machine. The dangers and 
the ugliness of the 'machine spirits' has been explored as much as 
the pleasures and beauty they may elicit.

One example of a recent art work in which the boundaries of life and 
artifice are tested, is Austrian artist Herwig Weiser's installation 
zgodlocator. In a plexi-covered well or basin we see an artificial 
miniature landscape made up of metallic fibres and granules, taken 
from recycled computers and other technical hardware. This 'beyond' 
of our techno-paraphernalia is animated by means of a grid of strong 
electro-magnets underneath the basin. As the magnets are activated, 
the metallic fibre stands up in surreal, quasi-natural 
configurations, vibrating and emitting sounds, as though they wanted 
to come alive. The magnets can be controlled individually, so that 
moving patterns can be drawn into the metallic landscape - animating 
it. And 'animating' is here meant both in the sense of creating an 
impression of self-generated movement, and giving the material an 
artificial soul.

Animal spirits, or 'Lebensgeister' in German, are the media that 
connect body and mind - at least that is how Enlightenment thinkers 
sought to overcome Descartes' idea of their separation. In the 
cybernetic thinking of Norbert Wiener and others, the relationship of 
animals and machines was first thought of in the Cartesian sense of 
the animal as mechanism: the animal body as a mechanical, dynamic 
contraption with pumps, joints, internal information systems. Later, 
this metaphor changed: from the animal treated as a machine, it 
became the machine treated as an animal. The source of the word 
animal lies in the Greek word anima, that is spirit and breath. 
Animal spirits are thought of as the vague, yet powerful sources of 
energy that feed inanimate matter. And ever since the story of the 
Golem, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Fritz Lang's Metropolis, 
people have been scared and fascinated by the idea of machines coming 
alive, and 'going wild'.

These animated machines articulate the ambivalence in which humans 
see themselves as both the masters and the victims of technology. 
More than anything, the reason for this ambivalence is that our 
technological culture is a culture of excess, a culture that thrives 
on offering more than we can handle, or stomach. Wildness in this 
culture is frequently associated with violence, and the respective 
forms of violence are not 'wild' in a natural sense, but they are 
signs of the wilderness within our culture, whether in the 
media-dependent war scenarios, whether in the hooliganism of a fully 
commodified sports industry, or in the violence against migrants who 
are the media of a global, hypermobile form of capitalism. I will 
spare you the images of the prison in Abu Ghoreib, but I want to ask 
what the wilderness of those scenes is? Whose Apocalypse Now? Whose 
Heart of Darkness?

Art acting in this field is in a precarious position, because it has 
to deal with the spirits that it calls. However, it can broaden our 
horizon by acting up against a technological culture that embraces 
all of this blindly and hides its heart of darkness behind smoke 
screens of slick and functional surfaces.


4. coding wild

If we locate the wilderness in the very code of our culture, then we 
can think of any form of excessive coding, from programming computer 
viruses to hacking into unbreakable security systems, as forms of 
'going wild'. An artistic approach to the wilderness of digital 
culture will most likely address these codes of culture. How can we 
then imagine such 'wild code'? As early as 1994, German media 
theoretician Siegfried Zielinski has suggested that, 'For art, it 
would be worthwhile to attempt to invent algorithms of (self) 
squandering, of faltering, of ecstasy, and of (self) destruction as 
an experiment.' (Siegfried Zielinski: 7 Items on the Net, 1994)

Some of you may be familiar with the Internet- and software-based 
work by the group Jodi who have managed to deconstruct the codes of 
browsers and computer games in ever new, challenging ways. - In a 
different way, Margarete Jahrmann and Max Moswitzer are meshing and 
mixing different layers of code and coded interaction into complex, 
hybrid environments that extend our understanding of networks and 
online behaviour.

The underlying artistic strategies have been introduced 80 years ago 
by Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht under terms like 'ostranenie', 
'making strange', or 'defamiliarisation'. More recently, 
anthropologist Michael Taussig has argued for what he calls 'mimetic 
excess', that is a form of mimikry which is fully aware of the codes 
of what is being represented. If we understand 'going wild' as a form 
of 'mimetic excess', that is as a form of appropriating the codes and 
rules of culture and turning them on their head, dramatising or 
exaggerating them, then we might not be the sheepish victims of a 
techno-culture that pushes us into its wilderness, but we might in 
fact become wild subjects of those very codes which define us.


I would claim by way of conclusion that 'wilderness' remains a 
question of territories even in an age of virtual and highly mediated 
spaces. Talking about the possibility of escaping social codes, 
=46rench philosopher Michel Foucault has used the term 'heterotopos' to 
describe sites such as islands or ships: places where the social 
rules associated with states and territories are not in force, where 
different behaviour and different relationships can emerge. The 
philosopher Brian Massumi has argued that in order to find such sites 
of escape, or autonomous zones, it is not necessary to go out into 
'wild nature', but that it is possible to find these places in the 
interstices of urban culture itself: '... they are where bodies in 
the world but between identities go: liminal sites of syncretic 
unorthodoxy.' (A User's Guide ..., 1992, p. 105)

These 'wild zones' have their less appealing equivalent in the 
in-between zones that nation states create in order to isolate 
undesired people. While places like prisons still fall under the 
given legislation, there are new areas in which people can be kept 
without being able to make claims to their human rights, the 
protective shield that enlightened modernity gave to its citizens. 
When you now enter an international airport you pass through an 
exterritorial zone in which you are formally not recognised as 
'having arrived' so that you might claim your right to asylum. A 
similar scenario has been explored recently in Steven Spielberg's 
movie Terminal, in which a traveller, Navorsky, is stuck in the limbo 
of the transit lounge.

This type of wilderness is also explored by the new work by the 
artist group Knowbotic Research. In the project 'naked bandit/here, 
not here', they analyse and transcode the legal scenario in which, 
for example, enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay are under the 
sovereinty of the US American army without being aloud to make claims 
to the rights that they might have if they were on formally American 
teritory. Such an exteritorial, juridical 'wilderness' can be 
declared by law, creating zones or encampments where the rules of 
civilised behaviour are off-limits.

In Knowbotic Research's installation, a silver-coloured blimp 
equipped with a simple vision system can autonomously fly around, 
recognising and attacking the black balloons. The strongly coded 
behaviour is defined by a clear power relation, however it can be 
interrupted by the audience by means of a symbolical intervention at 
the level of the code that controls the interaction. - In the most 
recent version of the installation, currently on show in Tokyo, the 
script of the computer code has been painted on the wall in an 
expressive style which contrasts the cold logic of the programme, yet 
articulates the 'wildness' of the represented relationship.

I want to leave you with an image by the Quebecois artist Jocelyn 
Robert who has programmed a short video sequence of an aeroplane in a 
manner that it seems the plane is trying to develop bird-like 
behaviour. For me it is the wonderfully paradoxical image of a 
machine trying to become an animal, to go a little bit wild.

The US American information theorist Wendy Chun has recently made a 
strong claim that instead of demanding ever more security and 
control, we should insist on our freedom as individuals and as a 
society, and that for that it may be necessary to construct 
technologies, to develop systems which are vulnerable, systems with 
which we can live because they are vulnerable.

It can be done. In the code.


(Further Reading)
Martin Burckhardt: Der Geist der Maschine
Michel Foucault: Other Spaces
Heinrich von Kleist: =DCber das Marionettentheater
Henk Oosterling: Radicale Middelmatigheid
Michael Taussig: Mimesis and Alterity
Siegfried Zielinski: 7 Items on the Net


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