Media Ecology:
Destabilizing Media as Power Systems


As visual artists in an expanding technoculture we are constantly confronted with shifting technologies. In our collaborative practice since 1976, Maria Klonaris and myself have been using various kinds of technologies ranging from light media (Super 8 film, polaroid photography) to high tech (computer image and sound processing). We have been actively involved in the Super 8 experimental film movement in France where we have initiated the "cinéma corporel" (Cinema of the Body) in the late 70s and early 80s [1]. Our expanded cinema performances have evolved into environmental multimedia installations. Working with still and moving images, projected images (film, slides, video) and photography, we intermingle and alternate manual, mechanical, chemical, electronic and digital processes. For us this is a vital mobility. 

Each technology constitutes a specific apparatus. Each apparatus permits a different relation of the artist to the tool, a different texture of image and sound, a different production of meaning, a different perception in space and time, a different relation to the spectator. In our opinion no hierarchical evaluation is conceivable among these different tools. 

We like to play with frontiers between technologies - using special light devices to stage photographs in a way that the opaque image approaches projection, using chemical or digital processing in a trompe l'il fashion so that one can not guess by which process the image has been created. 

Attracted by different technologies' potential for transforming, layering and dematerialising images, we consider that in art the equilibrium between mechanical, chemical, electronic and digital technologies should be protected as an ecological equilibrium [2]

Our inter-technological practice and our belief in the necessity of maintaining a diversified spectrum of technologies available to artists have originated our concept of a media ecology, which is a resistance to the present tendency of technological homogenisation. 

Parallely we have been developing this concept as a curatorial strategy within the large scale international triennial "Rencontres Internationales art cinéma / vidéo / ordinateur" which we curate in Paris since 1990. Through screenings and symposia this event focuses on the moving image, on screen based art, and more widely, technological art [3]. The third Rencontres took place in Paris in April 1998, precisely under the title Towards a Media Ecology [4].

The idea of media ecology might first appear to be a contradiction. Ecology deals with the organisation of living matter; originally it is a "biology of nature", therefore related to the organic, whereas audio-visual technologies are inorganic, in particular electronic and information technologies. 

Media ecology inevitably evokes the complex relationship between technology and nature. Through the centuries technologies have been used to dominate nature, in other terms to rationalize it, to make it profitable for the needs of the humans - a process which produces short term opulence and long term destruction. 

Introduced by Ernst Haeckel in 1866 the term ecology was meant to define the science which studies the relationships between organisms and their environment. Ecology as a political theory has emerged after the 2nd World War. 

At present it is clear that technology has become part of our environment, and that it is used to constantly modify nature. Throughout the industrial and the nuclear era technology invades ecosystems. It is difficult to separate technology from nature today. 

Marshall McLuhan was the first one to point this out. He said:
"We now live in a technologically prepared environment that blankets the earth itself. The humanly contrived environment of electric information and power has begun to take precedence over the old environment of "nature". Nature, as it were, begins to be the content of our technology" [5]

Although human technology does not affect all of nature, but only part of it (nature remains infinitely more vast and complex than our technological systems), McLuhan's statement certainly concerns our immediate natural environment. 

Extending McLuhan's thought Arthur Kroker argues that "technology has genuinely come alive as a living species... It has acquired organicity... It has its own forms of intelligence... its own principles of dynamic growth..." [6]

If we consider technologies as species, we are confronted with an ironic fact (fate). The ideology of domination which provokes the tension between technology and nature is transferred inside the technological art field, where up-to-date technologies' promotion induces less recent technologies' extinction. 

The alternative of a media ecology which we propose attempts to value and defend the vast variety of technological phenomena which energize the field of the arts in the industrial and post industrial era. This implies a non exclusive viewpoint which embraces both analogue and digital processes, light media and high technology, respecting their complementarity. 

For example light-weight technologies have the advantage of low cost and therefore high mobility through independent production. In that respect they have a certain subversive potential. They are often experienced as direct body and gaze extensions. They are apt to explore intimacy. Advanced technologies invested by artists may also have a subversive potential insofar as their consumer function may be short-circuited by the imaginary. Advanced technologies may encourage more abstractized views related to scientific models. They integrate higher degrees of mediation. Past technologies may be powerful activators of cultural memory, as well as catalysts for a critical reading of the present. They often testify to dimensions lost. For instance, precinematic apparatus have a poetic potential which is absent from information systems. On the other hand state-of-the-art technologies are mirrors of our social and cultural mapped future. It is crucial to explore their potential and explode their limits. 

If we take into account that the invention of photographic, chronophotographic and cinematic devices dates from the nineteenth century, we face the fact that technologies have a complex aesthetic history and that they are therefore components of a cultural memory. There are many ways of reading history (just as there are many ways of treating memory). The dominant way is to view History as a single, universal and linear narrative. The power implications of this view of history are well known. As artists and curators we adopt a non linear complex approach and consider the different technologies which have emerged within the two last centuries as a constellation. Or, as a network, a field of interactions. 


Pour une Ecologie des media

Text: copyright Maria Klonaris/Katerina Thomadaki. All rights reserved.