Of Blood and Circuitry, from Satellites to Dust: Confronting Media in Crisis
by Lauren S. Berliner and Berette S Macaulay, in conversation
Berette S Macaulay: Well, the foundational questions of the show brought you to mind as the media scholar who I’m in close relationship with; we love to geek out on stuff like this! I knew we could have an interesting exchange about what the artists were investigating or interrogating in their work, based on Emily Zimmerman’s central questions about these technologies, obsolete or not, and what we’re doing with them.
I mean, you and I have talked about media as it relates to race and queer community, but not so much about how it relates to obsolescence, the climate crisis, and how it’s affecting humanity as a whole, right? This is the trip that I wanted to take with you in these conversations because it’s so highly philosophical—it’s so existential—and I think that we’re in an existential time worldwide.
LB: Thanks—your framing is already helping me make connections in the show! I had been stuck ruminating on the way it compares to past exhibitions I’ve seen about media artifacts, and there are crucial differences I’d like to tease out. Dan Paz’s work in the show (“In 2020 I purchased and downloaded one of my father’s mugshots from a third-party criminal-search website for $29.99. My father died in 2009.” photogravure) is, in some ways, similar to what I am used to seeing. It reminded me of Allan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive,” about police files and how the filing cabinet where mugshots were stored actually produced “the criminal” through the organization and use of the archive. For Sekula, the apparatus surrounding the visual is what held the meaning even more than the particular images it contained. Paz’s work is putting pressure on this idea of the Internet as this enormous “filing cabinet,” drawing attention to how files are organized and accessed as data is reproduced and saved in ways that most of us are not even familiar with. Paz is pointing out not just the social and ecological trace of the image but also the attendant existential crisis that may come when one begins to confront the enormity of the systems in play.
BM: Absolutely. This is what excited me about walking through the gallery. All of the unique research threads in one space invite you to think about the existential questions that we’re all facing as we are still actively using and producing media. We’ve all become greater participants in that, to our demise perhaps, being attached to this media, dare I say. I think that’s what the show invited me into. It was, in a perverse kind of way, exciting—because we need to contend with these questions. Everything that we want to take a stand about is brought out in each of the artist’s works, some more abstractly than others. But, speaking about Dan Paz’s work made me think of Safiya Noble’s book Algorithms of Oppression, which I brought up to Emily at the time, because it’s so personal. Paz finding this picture of their father online reminded me of a number of Noble’s points on criminalization and carceral consequences of circulating mugshots—particularly for Black and Brown people. Or the crazy phenomenon of revenge porn, where people’s private histories with ex-partners and spouses are uploaded and then recirculated in commodified ways that can’t be reclaimed or controlled by the original person who published the content. Once you put it up on the Internet, it’s putting a small fish into the sea and then trying to get it back. You can’t. It’s just gone.
Dan Paz even says they’re interested in investigating the permanence and re-circulation of images on the Internet. I think it’s not really an “and,” it’s a “because of.” I feel like images (when they’re digitized) become permanent because of their re-circulation over and over again that you can’t even trace their source anymore, which also throws the existentialist question of archive into this: Are they really being archived? We know the digital world is not a permanent world. It does have a physicality that can be destroyed, but by whom? This raises questions regarding control of content, if any. Who is the archive for? Who gets to access it?
LB: And who is the archon, the person who organizes and controls the archive?
BM: Is there a person? Because there’s (seemingly) no control!
LB: Right, and once we bring the question of artificial intelligence into this, metadata, et cetera, there’s all kinds of ways in which the organization of information is really outside of human control anyway.
BM: That’s right, and that is the vastness of this ocean we’re swimming in, and that’s what you’re sort of contending with when looking at this work. It’s amazing that Dan Paz found this image to begin with and is trying to reclaim it by physicalizing it as a photogravure, right? Does that do enough for recapturing that archive of their father? I recently had a similar finding of my father online. He, Berthan Macaulay, Q.C., was a political prisoner in Sierra Leone in the 60s and there really isn’t much I had been able to find out about his experience. He died in 2006, before dense data collection started picking up on the Internet. So every now and then I search for information, and earlier this year I had an isolating and confusing late-night shock of finding an Amnesty International report of his imprisonment. I downloaded and saved it, but I had no idea what to do with it. Seeing how Dan Paz “resaved” their father’s image in the context in which it was found was a different instruction of meaning, an affecting reactivation of a family archive for me. But I also understood that ultimately it was a finding that would still be lost. What is the lasting meaning of what you find or what you fish back out of the Internet?
LB: It’s almost like if you print out a picture of an advertisement from an online catalog, you can have a reproduction of what you discover, but that doesn’t excise it from its location. A lot of the pieces in the exhibit deal with the detritus of media, what’s left behind. What are the cables that we’re leaving under the earth? What of these reproductions in the works? Even the film, the literal film stock in Lynne Siefert’s piece (…—…, 2021), is going to be some sort of detritus that outlives us. At the same time, we have other artists who are actually putting their hands and feet into the earth and thinking about the environment as medium. The environment as medium versus the physical, material trace of media seem to be in concert with each other and producing this existential experience with media, archiving, and reproduction for me in this exhibit.
BM: I think it also helps reproduce central questions that I think that the exhibition is asking, which are, “What do we do with all of this?” and “What does recycling in the doing mean?” A lot of the materiality of the exhibition is recycled materiality, but there is an absurdity to this because it doesn’t clean up the mess. The recycling of this material while also critiquing the seeming permanence and polluting obsolescence of this material speaks to a near circuitous futility in our ability to continue to live on this earth materially; so the exhibition cycles us through a kind of absurdity within this critique.
LB: That’s where Norie Sato’s piece Horizon speaks to me a lot—these two monitors trying to communicate with each other. It was reflective of the ways in which we try to elude our own impermanence by constantly reproducing our artifacts of ourselves through media, whether that be artifacts of our communication, as we’re doing right now as we record this, or if it’s by taping things, photographing things, then transferring those media as many of us are doing now, trying to transfer old media onto new media, scanning documents, scanning photo-graphs and just moving them into a Cloud, into a server, which has environmental impact. The irony for me of that piece is both of those monitors are probably the kinds of monitors in landfills right now.
BM: I know mine is. I had that same Sony Trinitron TV in my New York apartment, that exact TV, for years. There’s a visceral recognition that covers a larger timeline of your own life. I think that’s also being addressed in Ariel Jackson and Michael J. Love’s piece The Future Is A Constant Wake (2019). There’s a feeling I had standing in a room full of the dirt, a corporeal relationship to the media in the work while feeling a suspended sense of being in it. I’m not going to call it an immersive work but it was approaching that experience because you’re surrounded by the sound of Jackson reading, while also following along with text on the wall, as you watch projected video of a choreographed archeological exposure occurring on a screen within a screen.
There’s this non-media to media relationship that this installation created, which covers a larger timeline of life on Earth for us, and puts into question how these materials in this gallery will be found. Will they be in the dirt, excavated by some other future generation? What does that mean for life now?
When I looked at the dirt in the gallery and in the video, it was to me a lifeless dirt. It didn’t look like dirt with nutrients that could grow any new form of media or life. I mean, their work was pulling from Christina Sharpe’s book In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016), which metaphorically uses the multiple oceanic wakes left by the slave ships as the persistence of Black life despite and in spite of their violent and murderous causation. But I think I was gripped by the existentialist threads in this room, the lifelessness of the dirt, even though there was life (Love’s feet and hands) moving the dirt.
LB: I should mention here that I was not able to attend the show, so I experienced it through mediation myself. I drew somewhat different conclusions having not had the physical, immersive experience and I wonder how that shapes my reading. I’m thinking of the sand, the dirt, as data.
The dirt is a remnant of something. Can we think less of what this dirt could have been but, rather, what was this dirt? How each grain or each morsel itself is a data point of something ecological that we can’t understand because we don’t have the capacity to make sense of its entirety. How do we turn it into something tangible that we can feel and be with in order to make sense of it, or consolidate into a new form?
BM: It’s like going into these sci-fi imaginaries of what an apocalyptic future looks like, the Mad Max world, the Matrix world, the Terminator world: thinking about machinery as life that evolves but also ends. I feel like that was the frame this work was performing in that room, because we recognize what archeological digs are. We’ve been educated (or programmed) to know that “Oh, we go to the dirt to find the bones of extinct life forms,” or buried past civilizations and so on. That was the corporeal recognition that was formed in that room because the dirt was on the floor.
And having engaged all of this other media in the rest of the gallery and being primed in this particular way to stand in a digital wasteland of sorts, you question your temporal and vital position. Where is the blood versus the circuitry? You know what I mean? What is the relationship between these? There’s no answer really, but it was holding that connection over this vast period of time that we don’t usually walk around holding. We usually walk around holding today, maybe a little bit of last week, and a little bit of next but, beyond that, we don’t hold these vast timelines within the ordinary.
LB: I think that timeline is less linear than it may appear. There is the dirt to satellite data, literal trajectory, but I wonder how, if we can think a billion years into the future, or about speculative futures, the way we might reimagine the grain of dirt as media, too, and as technology. Here, I’m thinking about the work of the plant biologist Beronda Montgomery and her encounter with a 600-year-old oak tree on a South Carolina plantation that she was at first reluctant to visit, but when she thought about how trees take in the carbon dioxide of humans, she realized this tree held the breath of the enslaved people who had been there, including her ancestors. She felt a connection. So while we can’t just go and do an archeological dig to prove that a particular ancestor stood there at a particular time, it is meaningful that she could stand and breathe with that same tree years later.
I’d like to think of the grain of sand, like a tree ring, mediating life. It mediates our breath in this way that is ineffable and we can’t imagine that there’s any way to actually resurrect the person from the breath in the tree. We know that’s impossible, or we think it is. Why can’t we apply that same thinking to the mediatized data that we produce? I think most of us walk around thinking that the constant production of information makes deciphering and exhuming meaningful information possible in the future. We imagine we might be able to recast a person based on their data, but what if their data is just as in-decipherable as grains of sand?
BM: That’s what we were touching on earlier when talking about Dan Paz finding the image of their father and making it physical again, reckoning with the loss of source in the ocean of the Internet.
This reminds me of a story I like to tell about a class I took around 2006 at The New School. I remember the professor saying one of the greatest tricks played in contemporary times is getting people to imagine this virtual world, this Internet, as an ephemeral cloud. He described this at the time as a wonderful way to get people to agree to be participants in the surveillance of their lives, and to give up all of this content without making them do it because they are told that they’re in control of its storage, in control of its circulation, and it will always be exactly where we placed it in order to extract it. This was the great trick, he said, because the Internet is in fact a physical place on private land, guarded by gates, chains, complex security systems and staffed with security, and once you put your data there, you have stored it in physical space, and when you delete an email or delete an image, you are simply deleting your access to it, you are not actually removing the source.
Of course, most of us are more media-literate and understand this now, and especially since COVID, when all of us had to rack up our proficiencies tenfold, but in 2006, this was neither common fodder nor common interrogation. Many of us believed the trick and were excited about it. “I can save my images here and I don’t have to fill up my garage anymore,”—alongside having democratized digital tools for us to become the producers. It’s a full circle for me to think about that reference in the question that you’re asking. Can we reverse this or change its course? Doesn’t seem so. Once we put it out there, it is, as you said, like the grain of sand: indecipherable and lost on all of these beaches.
LB: To update that professor’s lecture from 2006, another fallacy of the Cloud, or the framing of the Cloud, is the fact that it is the ecological response to the violence of materiality, versus just another form of eco-violence. People will say, “Oh, don’t print out all those reams of paper. Don’t print out your syllabus, send it online. Upload it.” Everyone wants everything uploaded.
BM: Yeah, like in the early 2010s, everybody had that in their email signature: “Please don’t print this email if you don’t have to.” And that was your part.
LB: Well, now I add a section on my syllabi called “Streaming Impact Acknowledgement” that identifies the impact of streaming media on the environment, while suggesting ways to reduce our collective carbon footprint by being intentional about storage, transmission, and playback methods. I want to draw attention to the server farms and scale of emissions.
BM: This is why existentialism as a method of understanding the world works for me. But also, I don’t want to lean into the Internet as if this place is always going to exist because there’s a handful of people who have the power, access, and an ability to turn it off. It is a terrifying concept really, in that, if the Internet shut down tomorrow, in very real, calculable terms, the mayhem would rapidly become apocalyptic. We’re all on cell phones and smartphones, connecting, socializing, operating our businesses, transacting, basing value on multiple concepts of digital currencies. There’s a certain amount of day-to-day, absolute reliance on this fragile circuitry—much like what we see pictured in the exhibition in Evan Roth’s infrared multi-screened footage of very exposed internet cables emerging from the waters at coastal sites. His work immediately reminded me of an image showing a similar cable exposure titled the Transatlantic Submarine Cables Reaching Land (2007) by photographer Taryn Simon who I saw at the Photographer’s Gallery in London around the same time. Seeing such documentation challenges the power of those who guard these cables because their security is ultimately conceptual and by brute human defense systems. But it can malfunction and shut down, and is certainly at the mercy of climate disaster. That level of risk and fragility with media, I’ll say again, holds a perverse fascination, … living on the edge like that, as a species with such a reliance on these technologies.
LB: It’s living on the edge and it’s also living in denial of that edge, right? It’s just like the climate crisis in general. If you sit and think about how risky it is to put so much on the Internet, to rely so much on it …
We rely on the Internet to really run many life-saving mechanisms, right? Electrical grid systems, flight routes…
BM: The exhibition took me right back to the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. As an undergrad in college in Atlanta, Georgia, I performed in one of his more well-known plays, “Waiting for Godot,” directed by Sally J. Robertson. The scene of the play is described as “a lonely country road with a single tree” with few leaves, which is interpreted in a myriad of ways by set designers. Our set designer chose to build out the tree with old TV sets that would light up at different intervals in the action of the play. The existentialist questions embedded in the play addressed the futility of the characters’ actions—Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) who were waiting for God(ot) to show up and tell them what to do with their lives. They were unable to leave, yet tired of staying, unable to fix anything, uncertain of any time of day or who they were in relationship with, challenged to remember their purpose, and so on. They essentially sit or stand in the same spot waiting for the inevitability of uncontrollable circumstances to dictate their lives rather than interfere with the possibility of different outcomes. This is the essence and language of the play. They’re trying to find a way to move beyond and never do. It’s that Sisyphean struggle of not really getting to the summit with that boulder.
These are the questions that I think these artists are wrestling within complex yet helpless ways. Zack Davis created this weird, glitchy, gelatinous GIF-y video of these discarded city JUMP bikes that we can’t use anymore after Uber sold them to Lime. Even creating that material to speak about this adds to the obsoletion and pollutants that Davis is critiquing. The data still exists in these sub-merged bicycles in our waterways that may or may not be telegraphing to Lime, just like his data is telegraphing obsolete information to us in the gallery. You see?
This is similar to how my play was staged, the costumes that we wore, and how the language lent itself to engaging these questions about media technologies—though not so much about server farms, which weren’t the environmental threat at the time. But certainly landfills were a concern, and how battery acid leakage would affect our water tables, for example. So you have the same existentialist paralysis in Davis’s work as in the impasse of the characters in Beckett’s play—“Shall we fix it?”—“Yes, we shall.” But we don’t. —“Shall we go?”—“Yes, let’s go.” But they sit there. Round and round it goes in this absurd space. But are we searching for an answer that needs to include an assignment of blame, and would that assignment do anything to resolve these issues or help us to understand what is upon us? Is this something that can be fixed?
LB: I mean, this is the trap, right? This is the paradox that we’re dealing with here because, in order to communicate about what we’re seeing, in order to reflect and communicate, we’re at a point now where we cannot move because any move is just contributing to the problem that we’re outlining. For us to even have this conversation right now required me to come here in my car, which uses gas. I had to use GPS through the Internet to get here, to find you, and satellites as part of my car’s safety features. I don’t have a map in the glove compartment to find your house.
Sitting here, we are recording ourselves using two different types of technology and…
BM: The Internet again.
LB: And our phones…
BM: …with batteries that are powered by extractive cobalt mining industries leaching the soil in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they can no longer grow food.
LB: And digital clocks so that I know when to return home by GPS so I can get on Zoom to interact with my stu-dents online.
BM: This dissonance acts as a reckoning. It makes me think about my curatorial project [UN-TITLED] that I’m developing with collaborating artist Tom Pearson of Third Rail Projects. We’re talking about gentrification, land use, ownership, displacement, and reclaimance, and how to talk about these things when you are a contributor to it, where our critique is problematized in that to do the work we have to locate ourselves on the spectrum of gentrification. Where do you find yourself on the spectrum of being a polluter? Then, going into the very difficult question…because it’s such a vulnerable, sharp reflexivity that is required, where you ask, “Okay, well, as an artist…?” Because, artists are also gentrifiers, usually the early ones, so how are artists engaging the reflexive question of contributing to the very thing that they’re critiquing, the materiality and the pedagogy of the work that they’re doing?
There’s an article I read recently in Hyperallergic by Seph Rodney on artist Chakaia Booker, who makes complex abstract sculptures by repurposing, among other materials, old tires. Looking at their work I was struck by its irony and awareness that this very material which en-dangers the quality of our soil can enact only a limited confrontation that attends to its continued pollutant dan-ger. This kind of dissonance is central to our discussion, and why I feel going back to the existentialists is useful because they were grappling with these kinds of circuitous questions.
LB: Circuit of culture?
BM: Yeah. Then what are the new speculative questions we can create from this, to form a new relationship with the inescapable?
LB: I am fascinated by the idea of speculative futures, particularly recent work that looks to the natural world in search of strategies to confront our current social, ecological, and political crises, such as adrienne maree brown’s recent book Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Animals. It’s exciting to see visionaries like brown making connections to other life on Earth (and in her case, sea creatures), rather than rehashing familiar techno-dystopian warnings that center on technology use.
BM: I mean, there are land animals to learn from, too. Just staring out in my backyard, I’m amazed at how annually we get to watch deer, squirrels, and different kinds of birds prepare for the seasons in the same way each year, even though the quantities of what they can store in or at the base of trees, or in little burial spots across the lawn, change.
LB: And the timing of it is changing.
BM: Rapidly. They do work hard to figure it out and they keep adapting the timing of their work. It’s very instructive, I find.
LB: And offers another time scale and other patterns that are not…they’re data, but they’re not datafied. Reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower again, like every other person on earth during COVID, the main character begins her own … what becomes a religion or a movement based on initially studying botany and having books that allow her to figure out how to access food, minerals and healing substances in the earth. For me, that was really instructive and, from there, I started, like every other person in Seattle, learning how to identify mushrooms, planting and … you too, also planting!
BM: I was doing a lot of gardening too, yeah.
LB: I wonder to what extent are we … even if we’re in this trap, what are the ways in which we are turning to offline informational practices as a way of sustaining life for ourselves and creating alternative lived realities that allow us to move forward should this all blow up?
BM: I think that there is a coding, a data coding, in the blood, in the DNA, in our brains, that understands impermanence.
LB: It has to.
BM: I feel like that’s what happened during COVID because that part of us understood immediately how fragile all our systems are and how unreliable, ultimately, all our systems are. We felt the fragility of our lives, I think, or were able to contemplate our death in a way that we very ar-rogantly don’t most of the time because we think these systems are just going to hold us and make us superior. I think we contemplated this by running out into our gardens to plant, to make life and to put life back in that dirt because we understood that we had lost a certain corporeality, a certain kind of physical relationship with the earth in a way that was not theoretical. You know what I mean? We had to return. It wasn’t theoretical, it wasn’t digital, it wasn’t just another post, it was “Oh my God, I am a human being living on this planet that is subject to disease, that is subject to loss, that is subject to climate change in a way that is not just a discussion and another march in the streets. This is real and, if this actually happens, what am I going to do? I need to actually know how to grow my own food, to work with my hands, to till soil.”
LB: I think that it’s this response to the inundation with screens in a whole new way for a lot of us. Not everybody.
BM: And it is important to note here that these observations sit within the absurd inequities of hegemonic privilege to have experienced such shifts! In the early days of COVID, when we were not screen-fatigued and we hadn’t yet figured out how to digitize our lives so completely, there was a tiny window of this new embrace of a locavore way of living, a memory that woke up in us and the willingness to disconnect with media to a certain extent. There was that little window of “I only want to buy local, cook slowly, and make sure I’m supporting somebody’s garden next door, even if it’s socially distanced.” I think about what that means in terms of being awake to place and then going back to sleep to place, because, well, the Internet is a place, right?
When we look at that as a very recent memory, we have now gone beyond where we were taking information systems for granted prior to COVID. Now, I feel we almost don’t remember that all of this media and what it pulls us into is literally a place where we live in our minds that could actually take us out of living while we have life! I look at what Emily as curator and these art-ists are asking about what this means for our mortality, really. The economies, yes, the circulations, yes, but for how that ties into our mortality and how we treat our mortality or how we value our mortality. LB I think you’re right to ask those questions in the context of the show because it quite literally brings you from, as you pointed out, satellite to dust. That’s the scale we’re dealing with. Maybe it’s not a timeline, maybe it’s economies of scale.