SONIC ACTS RESEARCH SERIES #21
by Lucas van der Velden & Rosa Menkman
Susan Schuppli recently presented her research on drones at Witte de With in Rotterdam. Rosa Menkman and Lucas van der Velden used the opportunity to talk to her about what it means to be an artist and theorist working in the field of practice-based research, and to discuss in depth the research she conducted for her forthcoming book Material Witness and her presentation at Sonic Acts Academy.
Susan Schuppli. photo by Lucas van der Velden
Lets start with methodology. Your work consists of theory and objects of art. How does your process begin? Do you work from a case towards a theory, or vice versa?
My research comes from direct material engagement, which in the process might open up certain conceptual ideas. This way of working has had an impact on my writing. Today I prefer things to be more clear, rather than philosophically obtuse. I always work with a case, which is usually very particular and modest. My method is to start at the granular scale, from which I eventually scale up and look at the broader, social and political implications.
So for example, for my PhD dissertation I took as my research object the Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the young girl, Kim Phúc, running away from a napalm attack in Vietnam. That very famous image was printed on the front page of the New York Times as a very grainy, impure image. Today we encounter it as a high-quality, very pristine image. But this is because it is reprinted from the old negatives that have been cleaned up. Historically the photo left Vietnam as a fourteen-minute sound file; it was sent from Saigon to Tokyo to New York over a normal telephone relay connection, which is how many photojournalists at the time had to send their images around the world. Because of the conditions through which the image had to be recreated, so not only from sound but also within a milieu of constant radio chatter of pilots flying above Vietnam, the image picked up a lot of interference along the way. By the time it was recomposed in New York, it was hard to read and very dirty.
I believe that these processes can give me important insights into the material conditions in which this image was created. But in order to abstract these conditions, I need to have an understanding of the way in which this image is composed technically. So my research is hybrid, I suppose.
A material witness has to disclose the kinds of institutional frameworks and practices that are able to render the material witness as significant.
Your forthcoming book is titled Material Witness; can you briefly tell us what you mean by this?
I believe it is important to invent your own concepts, even if you work within the fields of theory and philosophy. For quite some time I’ve been working on this concept I call the material witness
. ‘Material witness’ is a legal term; it refers to someone who has knowledge pertinent to a criminal act or event that could be significant to the outcome of a trial. In my work, I poach the term ‘material witness’ to express the ways in which matter carries trace evidence of external events. But the material witness also performs a twofold operation; it is a double agent. The material witness does not only refer to the evidence of event
but also the event of evidence
It is insufficient to say that this specific type of material records or registers external events, because all material does that: with the right kind of analysis one can determine that my hand had been on the table, but this does not make a material witness of the table. A material witness has to disclose the kinds of institutional frameworks and practices that are able to render the material witness as significant. So if we consider the material witness as both the evidence of event and also the event of evidence, it allows me to understand why certain events are deemed to be worthy of our attention, and other things are disregarded.
In the past I primarily looked at analogue media artefacts. I tracked the paths of those more concrete media. But through this work I also started to expand my understanding of what constitutes a ‘material substrate’, which has led me to become increasingly interested in how environmental systems themselves also operate as systems of registration. Today, my own interest, in particular vis-à-vis Dark Ecology, is shifting towards the ways in which certain contaminated or polluted environments start to function as proto-photographic systems. The chemistry of these toxic ecologies starts to induce a certain set of alchemical changes that seem analogous to some of the early experiments in photography.
Besides that, I am not necessarily interested in the field of representation; so not in the picturing of things, but much more in the ontological material composition of things, which is where I tend to locate the political.
For example, within the realm of digital processing, I’m interested in the moments in which a file is translated or transcoded from one format to the next. During this process, material parameters, standardised by human organisation, result in the discarding of certain digital data. These kinds of micro thresholds are moments when the political enters, because the deletion of certain data and the favouring of other data is a political decision, although positioned within a realm of micro processing.
I would like to scale up this mode of thinking: I’m less interested in a picture of an oil spill and more into the way in which the chemical arrangements of the molecules within that oil spill actually produce a parabolic mirror, which refracts light in a way that is very similar to other natural optical systems. So I like to interpret the oil spill as an image-producing technology and argue that the oil spill is reflecting an ‘extreme image’ or ‘dirty image’ back at us.
Other forms of knowledge production don’t have the legitimacy to produce a state of significance.
You started by using the word ‘significant’ in the sense of the material witness being significant to the outcome of a court case. But at the same time you referred to elements that are very small. It seems interesting that such small elements can actually refer to big problems. Do these small elements also carry a particular significance because they often cannot be seen directly?
In terms of the material witness, I ask the question: why is it that certain kinds of material are deemed to be significant? Who decides, which experts or legal practitioners play a role in this process? It turns out that often it is the institutional bodies that determine what the evidence consists of.
This became very apparent to me during the work I did in relation to the Inuit and the movement of the Sun in the Canadian Arctic. The Inuit observations were dismissed by climate scientists as being hallucinogenic: the Inuits explained that the trajectory of the Sun had changed slowly and that it was now setting 19 kilometres further to the west. The explanation they offered for this change of location did not take on the form of a great Inuit myth like ‘the great whale plucked the Sun out of the sky and moved it over’. Instead, the Inuit said ‘maybe the Sun has tilted on its axis’. So their search for a causal explanation was an invocation of Western physics. The language they used to account for the change in their environment was the language of the modern Western subject. At the same time, the Inuit were not considered to be legitimate witnesses who were able to fully account for their experience and their observation was dismissed and ridiculed.
It struck me that afterwards, the scientists who specialised in the optics of snow did in fact study these changing conditions as described by the Inuit, and realised that thermal inversions and the melting of the snow pack did alter the way in which ice crystals reflect the sunlight. So what the Inuit are observing is true: the optical trajectory of the Sun has changed. However this change is not the result of a tilting of the Sun, but is due to global warming and ways the snow crystals interact with the light.
The significance of this story lies in the question: who gets to speak on behalf of the material or the phenomenon? The Inuit were clearly not regarded as a legitimate party. In our contemporary lives it is generally ‘the experts’ who have a voice. We turn to expertise to determine if something is fully significant, or worthy of our attention. In times past, theology might have been able to explain the miraculous appearance of something, but now we look to the scientific ‘experts’ to say: ‘These observations are legitimate, this is why they are happening, here is the data’.
Other forms of knowledge production don’t have the legitimacy to produce a state of significance
. Significance is constituted by fields of knowledge that have a certain kind of traction and authority to say: ‘Yes this piece of evidence, this material is significant, we have to pay attention to this’, or: ‘This piece of evidence should be dismissed, it is just an aberration’. Significance is constituted by the practices and protocols that are often exclusionary and bound by disciplinary discourses.
I came to this conclusion primarily because I’ve worked a lot in the field of critical legal studies. Law is a system that isn’t easy to access as an artist. It has a lot of gatekeepers. But one of the great advantages of being an artist is that you can investigate other areas and other fields and disciplines.
However, I discovered a dilemma that was different to what I had encountered when I worked with other scientific disciplines: law is largely based on precedent. Jurisprudence, which is the creation of the law, is not about inventing new laws. Instead, it is continually interpreting the past and recalibrating it, pushing the law along incrementally. Its orientation is backwards. I think there is much more sympathy between modern scientists who work in labs, in experimental settings, who ask questions and work with uncertainty. Today most scientists – climate scientists, for example – work with visual simulations, so by necessity they have entered the world of visualisation in a very fundamental sense. This is why I feel that in some way we have entered a very unique moment in time in which artists and scientists have skill sets that are actually quite close to each other.
Global warming has produced a new optical regime in the North, it has changed the way light behaves and in this sense acts as some kind of aesthetic, quasi-photographic system
Earlier you talked about contamination and pollution as optical systems. Can we connect this to the Anthropocene, an era in which humans are leaving their traces in geological systems? Would you describe geology as an optical system?
In the humanities, the Anthropocene means the inauguration of a new era in which human activities have such an impact that they have been inscribed in the geographic record. I insist that anthropogenic matter has a certain non-classic aesthetic or visual set of properties. Similarly to how Timothy Morton talks about the ‘hyperobject’, I’m interested in what I coined the ‘extreme image’.
With the concept of the extreme image, I make a case for understanding anthropogenic matter as a reorganisation of not only geologic strata, but also of the field of aesthetics. Global warming has produced a new optical regime in the North, it has changed the way light behaves and in this sense acts as some kind of aesthetic, quasi-photographic system.
This way of thinking is an inversion how Jussi Parikka and other media archaeologists look at the impact of the media on geology; they look at the ways digital waste, e-waste has influenced environmental systems. I am looking at the opposite: the way an environmental system can be considered a de-facto media system.
When I think of the rise of CO2 levels, I’m thinking about something really abstract, something that I, as a human being, do not have physiological sensors to experience. Does the optical system you propose also include parts of the spectrum that are beyond human perception?
My research began with simple optical systems, but today I’m interested in all kinds of new sensory systems. Unlike my work on Material Witness
(the book), which has a quite resolved methodology and set of case-studies, I would like to destabilise human vision as the privileged mode through which we make sense of the world. We have to take into account that there is information that is completely beyond the realm of human perception: the nuclear, algorithmic computation, and high frequency trading are examples of this. There are many things within the realm of computation that happen according to systems that do not interface with human cognition or perception. I believe we need new sensors to expand our ways of research.
How do we act as ethical agents when there are all kinds of events that don’t produce coherent visual evidence?
How can you research a subject that exists outside the range of human perception, such as pollution through radiation?
Maybe it’s better to think about evidence: where do we look for evidence of specific kinds of events? In which cases can evidence exist if it has no visual status. It is much easier for us to understand kinetic events. We can see an event, or the before and after will tell us that something happened. When transformations occur quickly they are easy to spot, while transformations that happen over a longer course of time are less legible. We need to look to scientists and see how they do the testing; how do they decide the significance?
In a way I’m a bit trapped because I do need a certain kind of access to the investigative tools that scientists have developed to make things legible or visible so that I can re-narrate them. In a certain way that is what I’m doing when I narrate these findings. On the one hand I’m very aware of the fact that certain disciplines have become the ‘go to disciplines’ for determining what counts as something that we need to act on. But then of course we know how the producers of, for instance, oil and gas work so actively with their own people to produce counter-narratives. At the same time, as someone working within the humanities, I couldn’t do anything without some of the methods that these people have produced. What is my own relationship to these techno-scientific methods that I need in order to make something legible to me so I can investigate further?
It seems we still need visual evidence before we can act as moral agents. This regime of visibility is a huge challenge. How do we act as ethical agents when there are all kinds of events that don’t produce coherent visual evidence? We’re still living with the legacy of an older form of ethics. This is a challenge for the Anthropocene and for global warming: it produces a certain kind of image such as a polar bear floating by himself on a piece of ice. It is very troubling that we still need these kinds of images to spur us to act as ethical agents. Ethics needs to happen at all levels of infrastructure. Accountability is not the endgame of just a CEO.
Our brain seems to be wired in such a way that we need a certain proximity to our subject before we are inclined to act. The more distance we create, the less responsible we feel.
I believe in the concepts of aggregate causality and distributed responsibility, which are also two things I really try to engage with in my work. If we account for our individual roles, we also account for our individual agency. It is politically important to understand our own implications, even if we have no sense of how we can abstract ourselves from the many paradoxical situations we are in. Be honest, we’re all using the evil technologies and we have become the engineers of our own demise. We can’t reverse engineer ourselves out of this predicament. But I do believe that we can develop other models of accountability and responsibility. This could start by asking ourselves at what scale we are working, as a form of scalar politics. Because the moment you set the parameters everything looks different. At which point do we want to close the dataset and say: this network is responsible for this outcome.
We have to become much more engaged with the techno-scientific processes with which we work, which will require a lot more awareness and action from all of us. Without that we are merely at the mercy of the policymakers who make decisions on our behalf. I propagate the idea of creating the conditions in which we can self educate.
Susan Schuppli is an artist and writer based in London. Her research practice has examined media artefacts that emerge out of sites of contemporary conflict and state violence to ask questions about the ways in which media enable or limit the possibility of transformative politics. Current work explores the ways in which toxic ecologies ranging from nuclear accidents and oil spills to the dark snow of the Arctic are producing an ‘extreme image’ archive of material wrongs.
Schuppli has exhibited throughout Canada, the US, Europe and Asia. She has published widely within the context of media and politics and is the author of the forthcoming book, Material Witness: Forensic Media and the Production of Evidence
(MIT Press), which is also the subject of an experimental documentary.
Schuppli is Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths. From 2011 to 2014 she was Senior Research Fellow on the ERC project Forensic Architecture led by Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator). Previously she was an Associate Professor in Visual Arts in Canada.