Media Ecology:
Destabilizing Media as Power Systems


Nowadays technological art theorists often identify technological art only with electronic and digital art operating a blackout on mechanical, optical and chemical technologies which are however formative of such crucial art fields as the moving image and photography. A solid frontier tends to be erected between analogue and digital apparatus, the first ones are often discredited as obsolete and relevant of an outdated worldview, and the second ones are invested with a quasi omnipotence. As early as the 70's Gene Youngblood had operated a division of media in two evolutionary stages, cybernetic and paleocybernetic (as we would say paleontological) [7]

In other words these approaches remain captive of  the fiction of progress and consequently tend to transpose in art the social discriminatory systems constructed on the hierarchical bipolarities developed/underdeveloped, literate/illiterate, technologically advanced/technologically retarded, into power/out of power. Identifying technology with progress leads to misread the opposition future/past as progressive/obsolete. 

Certain trends of political ecology, like social or democratic ecology and particularly ecological feminism propose analysis which can be relevant also in the field of media arts. 
For example: 
- the critique of the materialist and technoscientific values of industrial society (Ivan Illich) 
- the critique of the role of intra-human hierarchy and centralization (Murray Bookchin) 
- the ecological defence of biodiversity against the extinction of large varieties of vegetal and animal species provoked by world market politics 
- the critique of the escalator account of evolution 
- the critique of the ideologies which surround colonialism, namely the confrontation with an inferior past and an inferior non-western other 
- the consciousness of the interconnection of all forms of domination (bell hooks) 
- the critique of the hierarchy of reason and rationality to emotion and instinct, mind to body, etc (ecological feminism). 

It is striking to observe the apolitical understanding which is usually given to the technological dimension in the art scene. As the Australian theorist Zoe Sofia remarks, "technology tends to be pictured as an autonomous entity evolving under its own momentum, independent of human decisions and motives that could be contested from a variety of perspectives" [8]

The art scene is pervaded by power politics - state politics, institutions politics, market politics - all of which generate aesthetic norms, canons of inclusion/exclusion and contestable classifications. The history of art is constructed according to these politics. 

Media arts, even if they do not fall within the traditional frame of the art market, constitute a differently structured market, which is only partially founded on sales of objects and more widely on grants, subsidies, fees, rights, residencies, etc. Presently this market tends to be  dominated by the state-of the-art trend. Artists are directly or indirectly encouraged to use certain tools and discouraged to use others. "Technological art empowers the user of the art work" claims Spanish curator Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, evoking forms of high tech interactive art [9]. It also empowers the artist creating it, but most of all it empowers the state, institution and company capable of producing it. Independently of the artists' intentions, it is well known that high tech artworks are promoted as a showcase of rich nations' technological advancement. 

Writing with reference to Latin America Maria Fernandez says that the fetichization of scientific and technological aesthetics and artworks produced on the latest high-end machines could be seen as another instance of a European or U.S. preoccupation being proclaimed as a "universal aesthetic". She argues that computer arts "are the products of specific political and economic environments" and that therefore "should not become the norms by which other forms are judged" [10]

Parallel to this political consciousness, if we look closely at the technological landscape surrounding us here and now, if we look at it from the point of view of practicing artists, frontiers between technologies seem more and more fluctuating. Frontiers certainly facilitate classifications, but artists often transgress them. Compound and hybrid technological species appear, transvestite technologies trouble installed categories. Present technological art territories form a cartography of moving continents. 

To go back to our personal experience, as European trans-national artists we are aware of living in an era of technological transition. But the industrial age is being resorbed into the cybernetic age only gradually. The massive invasion of digital technologies is still relatively recent in Europe. Non digital technologies are far from having disappeared. The cybernetic homogenisation announced by cyberprophets is a project which is not close to its completion. This gives us the privilege to experience the unsettlement of transitions, of intermediate territories, of crisis. This permits us to explore antagonist tools, to operate hybridations, to invent mobilities and complexities on the tissue of multiple technologies - technologies just coming alive, technologies dying, technologies living after death or dead after birth. Film, photography, video, computer graphics, photo-typography, analogue and digital sound, holography. We work on the spectrum of what has been called technological evolution, which in the arts is neither linear nor irreversible, but uncertain, unconcluded, unstable. We operate interconnections past-present-future and intermingle cultural origins. We cross social, poetic and technical dimensions. Artists have the power to escape technological determinisms. 
M.K. - K.T.
(Konfigurationen. Zwischen Kunst und Medien, München, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Sigrid Schade-Georg Christoph Tholen editors, 1999 / book and CD-Rom)


[1] "Klonaris / Thomadaki: un cinema corporel", propos recueillis par Raphaël Bassan, Canal No 35/36, Paris, janvier 1980. English translation in Undercut No 2, London 1981
[2] Klonaris / Thomadaki "The Feminine, the Hermaphrodite, the Angel: Gender Mutations and Dream Cosmogonies. On a multimedia projection and installation practice", Leonardo, Vol. 29, No 4, 1996 
[3] Maria Klonaris - Katerina Thomadaki eds.: Technologies et imaginaires, Paris, Dis/voir, 1990 and Mutations de l’image, Paris, A.S.T.A.R.T.I., 1994
[4] See Maria Klonaris - Katerina Thomadaki eds.: Pour une Ecologie des media, Paris, A.S.T.A.R.T.I., 1998
[5] Marshall McLuhan Source Book: Key Quotations assembled by William Kuhns in Essential McLuhan, p. 276 
[6] "Codes of Privilege", An interview with Arthur Kroker by Sharon Grace, Mondo 2000 on line 
[7] Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, London, Studio Vista, 1970 
[8] Zoe Sofia "Contested Zones: Futurity and Technological Art", Leonardo, Vol. 29, No1, pp. 59-66, 1996 
[9] Rafael Lozano-Hemmer "Perverting Technological Correctness", Leonardo, Vol. 29, No 1, pp. 5-15, 1996 
[10] Maria Fernandez, "Technological Diffusion and the Construction of a Universal Aesthetic (discussed with reference to Latin America), paper presented at the Adelaide festival Artists’ Week, Broadsheet 23, No2, 3-6, 1994


Pour une Ecologie des media

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