Media archaeology as a tool to the understanding of contemporary artists’ instruments and ideas

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The overall purpose with the paper is two folded: On the one side it illustrates how theories from the field of media archaeology contributes with interesting perspectives on discussions of artistic work, which frames and uses media in order to question the understanding of time, context and materiality. On the other hand, it also serves as a critical discussion of media archaeology, as not being the solution to every aspect of artistic practises.
The paper takes its point of departure is a discussion of works by two contemporary artists, who use mechanical musical instruments - music boxes and music barrels - in their work. At first glance, the use of these specific instruments appears as a common characteristic in the chosen examples. But, when one takes a closer look, different discourses and various discussions of media and materiality are revealed. In the paper the various positions are unfolded through discussions within the theoretical field of media archaeology, - a science with roots in media studies, but also an important framework for the production and understanding of a variety of avant-garde artistic practices as well.

Media as media
The first example is Steam Machine Music (2010) by the Danish composer-researcher Morten Riis, in which a Meccano toy steam machine drives a music barrel. Riis here represents an approach to media and materiality, which carries intentions to decontextualize conventional experiences of media. These thoughts are recognized in the German media theoretician Wolfgang Ernst, who, though with a few reservations, still – with almost a mysterious tone - characterizes e.g. Pythagoras’ monochord as a time machine. A time machine that “lets us share, participate at the original discovery of musicological knowledge, where the actual experiment allows for communication across the temporal gap.” (Ernst 2010). Riis has declared himself a media archaeology artist with theoretical relations to Ernst, among others. I will both present Riis’ own thoughts about his work, critically discuss three different mediations of it, and finally analyse it from a performative aspect, which tends to be neglected by the fascination of theory, media and archaeology.

Imaginary media
The second example is a by the Faeroe, in Denmark based performance artist and composer Goodiepal, who by no comparison is the most controversial and provocative among the two. Goodiepal wants to bring utopia back into the arts, into the human thoughts, as opposition to letting our actions being unconsciously structured by predefined technological systems and behaviours. Goodiepal advocates computer music of the future – Radical Computer Music, which is not dependent on existing or soon to be software and technologies, but which is executed e.g. by working with handwritten scores not readable for existing computer technology. Hereby Radical Computer Music encourages utopia and dialogue with artificial and alternative intelligences. The project has been presented and discussed through Goodiepal’s teaching, in various lecture-performances and in his construction and deconstruction of mechanical instruments (e.g. music boxes) and computer hardware.
In the paper, I will focus on Goodiepals recent performance-installations at Transmediale, Berlin 2012, at which he was giving up materiality completely, by literally giving all his properties away. Goodiepal is too to be discussed within media archaeology, but within the branch named Imaginary Media, - a discourse that does not stick to the actual material and physicality, but brings in utopia, science fiction and spiritual media (Parikka 2012:46, Kluitenberg 2006). By giving up materiality completely, the only media that is left, is the performative situation gestalted between the audience and Goodiepal himself.

Concluding remarks
Media archaeology is an expanding theoretical field, especially as the framework for artistic research. It’s rather unconventional approach to the investigation of the history and materiality of media is interesting, and brings fascinating aspects into discussion. At the same time, fundamental standpoints within the theoretical framework appears to be very problematic, among these a strong intension to avoid grand narratives, discourses and performativity. With the two examples mentioned above, both positive and negative aspects of the theory will be addressed.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date18 Aug 2012
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Aug 2012
Externally publishedYes
EventNordic Research Network for Sound Studies - Hindsgavl Slot, Middelfart, Denmark
Duration: 17 Aug 201219 Aug 2012


SeminarNordic Research Network for Sound Studies
LocationHindsgavl Slot

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