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Archives, Materiality and the “Agency of the Machine”: An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst

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In this installment of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation working group’s series of interviews Lori Emerson of the Media Archaeology Lab interviews Wolfgang Ernst of Humboldt University in Berlin. The interview explores the relationship between media archaeology and digital preservation as evident in the design and structure of the Humbolt Media Archaeological Fundus.

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Lori: I deeply appreciate your willingness to correspond with me about your work in media archaeology and its relationship to digital archives and preservation. I have been very influenced by your writing on archives, materiality and what you’ve called “the agency of the machine”. Also, the Media Archaeology Lab that I run bears a strong affiliation to your Media Archaeological Fundus in Berlin – would you mind first telling me about when you first created MAF and about the initial impetus for doing so?

Wolfgang: When the curriculum in Media Studies was initiated in the Faculty of Philosophy at Humboldt University in 2003, it soon turned out that even with its emphasis on academic questions any teaching of media can not be reduced to lectures and texts only. However complicated the definition of “media” might be, as technological media (the focus of the “Berlin school”) they really exist(ed) and need to be experienced in performative ways. Thus a Media Theatre was installed (a room inherited from Theatre Studies) where the media are meant to be the main actors, linked with a Signal Laboratory for data processing and with a library of audiovisual sources (Mediathek).

All this needed to be grounded in the material presence of archaeological media technology – be it archaic in the sense of “dead media,” be it illustrative in terms of the key elements of media technology, be it essential in terms of principles (like the enlarged version of a flipflop circuit to store one “bit”), be it experimental in terms of techno-epistemological questions. Following my definition that such items need to be displayed in action to reveal their media essentiality (otherwise a medium like a TV set is nothing but a piece of furniture), it required an assembly of past media objects which teachers and students are allowed to operate with and to touch upon – a limit for curators and visitors in most museums of technology.

Starting with an empty room in the basement (just like a gallery for conceptual art nowadays), the Media Archaeological Fundus has since been populated with technological media elements which at first glance look outdated but become retro-avant-garde once they are deciphered with media-archaeological eyes and minds – such as a telegraphy apparatus which turns out to be “digital” avant la lettre, surpassing the age of so-called “analog” signal processing media like the classic electric telephone.

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Lori: I’m keen to hear from you how exactly you encourage students and researchers to witness, and participate in, the performativity of media in the MAF. Your intriguing use of the term “retro-avant-garde” resonates with ‘retro-futurism’ but the latter sometimes suffers from nostalgia or a fascination with kitschy media surfaces – how do you work against this in the MAF to get users to understand the underlying workings of, say, the telegraphy apparatus?

Wolfgang: The bias of MAF based teaching is to train students to resist the nostalgic or even melancholic impulse which is normally associated with so-called “dead media”, and to discover the retro-futuristic element instead. The electric telegraph, e. g., operates with discrete signal transmission: a code which after an age of AM media (such as radio) returned in unexpected ways. Whereas digital data transmission is much too fast to be perceivable directly to human senses, the classic telegraph “dots and dashes,” when connected to an acoustic mechanism, may serve as a way of slowing down and sonifying the nature of coded signal transmission.

Retro-futurism, understood in this way, hints at a non-linear relation between past and present media technologies, a short-circuiting of media tempor(e)alities which escapes traditional, narrative history of technology. Instead of one media system resulting from another, there are sudden recursions. For that reason the artifacts arranged on the shelves of our MAF at first glance look like a curiosity cabinet – since they are grouped together according to rather media archaeological and media epistemological criteria rather than in ways familiar from museums of technology.

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Lori: You’ve probably resigned yourself to the fact that many of the machines in the MAF may soon no longer work. But have you found that even the machines in the MAF that cease to function, whose active material processes we no longer have access to, are valuable tools for teaching/research?

Wolfgang: No resignation! If machines and electronic elements in the MAF do no longer work, this actually is a welcome challenge for the teaching and research process. Taking machinic elements apart in order to try to reanimate their function is a way of media analysis in the strict sense: not restricted to textual interpretation but to diagramatic reading of circuit plans and material hermeneutics (media-archaeological philology). If it comes to source code in the case of ancient computers, we can take the name of the machine-orientated programing language ASSEMBLER literally and dis- and re-assemble it.

The media-epistemological “credo” that a technical apparatus is in existence only when being operative requires at least the effort for re-accessing its material processes – even by simulation or digital emulation. The act of repairing dysfunctional media-archeological artifacts is didactic. Practically speaking, in most cases the re-animation of valuable technological antiquities (like an early TV set) can, for curatorial reasons, only happen a few times without ruining the original ingredients completely. Our strategy is thus: repair once, repeat many times – by recording the singular event in sound and video. The “operative” videos attached to the online presentation of the MAF are therefore not just an illustration but a form of argumentation in another medium than the physical collection.

Lori: I appreciate that you see the online components of the MAF as useful extensions of the objects in the lab itself rather than as poor substitutes. I would like to hear more about how, if at all, the theory underlying MAF-related teaching and research extends into online “regimes of memory” (as Jussi Parikka put it in the introduction to your new book Digital Memory and the Archive)? What does the MAF teach us about archives and/or preservation that might be instructive for thinking about tweets, blog-posts, online sound and image archives, even browsing and search engine histories?

Wolfgang: The “virtual” MAF is not an aim in itself. The main feature of the MAF is grounded in the materiality (called “hardware”) of media artifacts – just as the Signal Laboratory is archaeologically rooted in the source codes of computer programs (since the memory regime of media culture is both material and symbolic, both engineering and mathematics). The configuration of artifacts in the MAF, guided by rather idiosyncratic media-epistemological criteria of teaching and research, does not constitute an archive, and its online presence is not meant to contribute to audiovisual archives as represented in the Web but rather a different form of audiovisual argumentation. Rethinking dynamic digital memory requires different platforms.

Lori: Here in the US, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance is invested not only in supporting digital preservation and stewardship in the context of labs that house physical equipment but also in supporting members of the general public in their attempts to create and preserve personal archives – of pictures, music, documents, and even tweets and blog-posts. Is there a comparable organization in Germany which you might align the MAF with or is your approach to archiving and preservation quite different?

Wolfgang: Several initiatives in Germany by academic research institutions and foundations currently aim at “excavating” hidden collections and making them visible to the research community (such as the many university collections attached to single disciplines, e. g. collections of ancient color slides in art history departments). The slightly different philosophy of the MAF is that it does not claim to offer unique artefactual collections but rather wants to train and enforce media research (historical and theoretical) which is not reduced to texts but tested against the material evidence.

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Lori: Finally, you’ve suggested that in addition to excavation through layers of history and reverse engineering, counting – or a practice of mathematics – should also be part of a media archaeology practice. How does a mathematical mode of thinking play out in the teaching and research that takes place in the MAF?

Wolfgang: As opposed to pure nostalgia for “analogue” media as a retro-effect of digital culture, media archaeology has a mathematical cutting edge indeed. If I am allowed to play with words: Archaeology (the science of arché) is not just about media-historical origins, beginnings and archaic principal functions, but it is also about the “square root.” As an example of the role of the mathematical mode of media-archaeological reasoning in the MAF, we juxtapose artifacts from telephone technology (an electro-mechanical relay element, a variation of Strowger’s Automatic Telephone Exchange or a Manual Telephone Switchboard) with devices from early electronic computing to demonstrate how the hardware performs discrete numerical operations – nowadays almost exclusively ones that are associated with the digital computer – that have been literally transferred from a voice communication technology, just like the vacuum tube which had been invented for amplification of weak electric signals but was later “mis-used” in Flipflop circuits of early stored-program computers. Such hybrid cross-overs defining “the mode of existence of a technical object” (in Gilbert Simondon’s terms) media-archaeologically remind us of the two-faced meaning of technology: techné on the one hand (impressions of physical hardware) and lógos on the other (the logical and mathematical intelligence resulting in software).

Lori: Thank you again for taking the time to talk with me about archives, media archaeology, and the MAF – it’s been very enlightening.

Edit: The post initially mislabeled images of the Signallabor as the Media Archaeological Fundus, the images are now properly captioned and an image of the Media Archaeological Fundus was added.

Comments (2)

  1. Apologies Stefan, Lori alerted me to this right before I got your comment. I have fixed the captions in the post to correctly identify the images from the Signallabor and added one from the Media Archaeological Fundus and added a small note acknowledging the edit in the bottom of the post.

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