Interview with Siegfried Zielinski

Posted by David | Fri Apr 7th 2006 10:50 a.m.

+Commissioned by Rhizome.org+
Interview with Siegfried Zielinski by David Senior
Translated by William Rauscher

Siegfried Zielinski is an internationally recognized media theorist
and educator whose recent work, Deep Time of Media: Toward an
Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, has just been
translated into English and published by M.I.T. Press. ZielinskiOs
approach to media history provides a method that radiates with a life
and dynamism that pays homage to the figures and forms that he traces
from the past. Writing on themes as divergent as the electronic music
of Mouse on Mars or 17th century polymath Giovanni Battista della
Porta, ZielinskiOs work affirms the experimentation of new forms, and
the science of mixture which can connect through time and space
seemingly disparate bodies of thought and media practice. Along with
his research, he is also the founding director of the Academy of Media
Arts in Cologne. Zielinski has very kindly answered five questions
that draw on several of the themes from the newly translated work,
Deep Time.

DS: Before we get into the content of the book and your current
projects, I wonder if you could give an introduction to your early
career as a writer, performer and educator? What was your focus in
terms of early studies and what then led you into the past and into
the archives with your media archaeology?

SZ: Thirty-five years ago, when I began my studies, it was theater,
radio, and film which interested me in the field of media. As a young
man, who studied in Germany and came from a Polish-German family (from
the region where Hans Bellmer was born), I was occupied analytically
in the first years by a question: I absolutely wanted to know how the
Nazis had used media, how they had conquered the heads and hearts of
those who supported their death-machines or even killed for them.
Parallel to such analyses of power, I was interested as well in the
other side and how they used media. Trained through interventionist
thinkers like Bertolt Brecht or Walter Benjamin, who not only
understood the controlling power of media, but also contemplated its
emancipatory potential, I turned to the dimensions of media history
which were practically forgotten or buried, for example, the
activities of the so-called Worker-Radio Movement in the Weimar
Republic who carried out their resistance activities through the
medium of the radio, and even existed in the Nazi death camps, or the
so-called OFree RadiosO and video guerrillas of the 1970Os.
OSupervision and SubversionO - so could one, in a Foucauldian manner,
formulate the tensions between these media interests regarding vision
by means of modern technology.

The investigation of the deep layers of media history began, however
paradoxically at first, when I dedicated myself in the eighties and
nineties more intensively to new electronic media. As a media
researcher who had twenty years earlier written his philosophic
dissertation on the history of the videorecorder, I had a growing
uneasiness with the idea of the future that was being suddenly and
constantly announced to me. I doubted very much that our epoch
embodied the greatest possibilities of progress in the history of
civilization, if one used diversity - the richness of variety in
existing things, forms, techniques, arts, etc - as criteria for
progress. I looked for allies in other sciences and found them in
geology and paleontology, for example James Hutton, who lived in
Scotland at the end of the 18th century, or more recently, the Harvard
biologist Stephen Jay Gould. I began to conduct something like a
paleontology of media-development. One last important impetus for this
research was the encounter with the wonderful holdings of an old
Jesuit library in Salzburg, where I held my first professorship. The
folios of media-visionaries from the 16th and 17th century like John
Dee, Giovanni Battista della Porta, Christoph Sheiner, and Athanasius
Kircher waited here to be discovered through a historically and
philosophically interested art and media research. The connection of
the two heterogeneous worlds, on the one hand the highly polished
surfaces of the newest media and on the other the moldy, smelly
magical world of unwieldy Latin texts and excessive iconography became
a passion which still consumes all of my time. Although, I had to push
them a bit to the background, as I was asked in the 1990s to build a
special art school in Cologne, which would be fully dedicated to the
changing relations of technology and art.

DS: What is unique in your work is the spirit and tone which you bring
to the Ocase studiesO that you have collected. The body of works
reflects rigorous research, but also a consistent affirmation of the
unexpected turns that arise throughout the process. In this way, the
book represents a praxis that you have described as Oanarchaeology,O
and more recently as Ovariantology.O Could you describe this method
and why you have found it particularly applicable to the study of the
history of media?

SZ: In my studies I try to connect two movements, one through the
verticality of phenomena and processes, which means in effect, the
attempt to get to the bottom of things - about which, above all, I was
encouraged by the Polish artist and poet Bruno Schulz. The second
movement is characterized by the conceptual dance on the plateau,
which I have learned less from French thinkers like Deleuze and
Guattari than for example from the philosopher Vilem Flusser, who the
Nazis drove out from the alchemist-city of Prague to Sao Paulo, where
he learned to couple a deep consideration of the world with the
dynamic figure of the samba. That is however only a somewhat
provocative example. Along with the poet Novalis, who died much too
young, I am of the opinion that the sciences belong to the poetized
and that they should be handled musically, because musical relations
appear to be the Ofundamental relations of Nature.O But, I do not
share with Novalis the despairing search for the absolute in all
things. I try to substitute this search with a method of fortuitous
finds. However, such a method must renounce some things which
characterize classical archeology, like the search for the origin from
which all things develop. Like Nietzsche and Foucault, I favor the
concept of geneaology for historical research, which asks after the
developments, turns and leaps. As opposed to Foucault and his diverse
archaeologies of power and knowledge, I claim no mastery, do not claim
to develop one or more main ideas that would resonate semantically
with archos/archein. In the case of the movement that the fortuitous
find presupposes, one must let the reins fall away and let the horse
gallop free, without knowing what exactly will arrive. The coupling of
this with the vertical movement leads to anything but simple
arbitrariness; rather it leads to a research work that understands
itself as a joyful release from a heavy burden.

When I wrote Deep Time of the Media, I had invented for it the concept
of anarcheology. This term now seems to me too negative and
destructive in its construction. For two or three years, I have worked
only with the concept of variantology, under which I understand the
imaginary sum of all possible genealogies of media phenomena. As
opposed to the heterogeneous, with its heavy resonances from ontology
and biology, the variantological, in its methodological and
epistemological respect, interests me as a mode of lightness. The
variant is just as at home in the experimental sciences as it is in
diverse artistic practices, above all in music. As different varieties
or divergent interpretations, variants belong for composers or
performers to a self-evident vocabulary and to practical everyday
life. The semantic field of this neologism possesses a positive
connotation. To be different, divergent, changing, alternating, are
alternative translations for the Latin verb variare. It tips over only
into the negative when it is used by the speaking subject as a means
of exclusion, which the word does not actually sustain. To vary
something then is an alternative to its destruction.

DS: Within Deep Time, the individuals which you bring forth are most
often found on the fringes of their professional worlds and prevailing
academic paradigms of research and practice. In these stories, it
seems that you are trying to draw out a new kind of figure to
venerate, individuals that had a wild streak, and may have been
considered dangerous in regards to the institutions that kept them at
arms length. Is this a fair reading, or perhaps an oversimplification
of your tableau of characters?

SZ: To not accept leaders does not mean that one does not respect
heroes. In my work with young artists and intellectuals in various
academies, I have learned that without personalities with whom one can
passionately identify, one manages only with difficulty. It is
essentially better when this potential for identification is not
identical with the teacher, but rather comes completely from somewhere
else, from another time, another region, possibly out of books. When
we are involved with art and media, we operate in the world of
illusions. The Latin verb (illudere) that hides in this beautiful word
means etymologically not only to bring something before others, to
produce appearances, but as well to enter into a risk, to set
something into play, even, when necessary, involving oneself. This
necessity is not rendered superfluous under the conditions of the
production or generation of art with digital media or in technological
relations. Completely the opposite - we must think them anew. My
excursions into the lives of a few and their partly impossible working
conditions gesture to this effect.

And something else appears to me to be significant in this context:
artists and intellectuals donOt necessarily need to shove their way in
the middle of society in order to be able to find recognition or to be
effective. It has become narrow there in the center, and in this
center, power is at home. Also, for a long time now, art that is
involved with new media technologies has also arrived in the center.
Movements on the periphery, which do not exclude the occasional
crossing of the center, appear to me at present to be more meaningful
and in the foreseeable future, more pleasurable than the overexcited
pushing and shoving for the best place in the middle.

DS: You suggest a geographical relationship to media research and that
much of the most diverse and vital experimentation in prior periods
occurred in dispersed regions, at a remove from the cultural centers
of Europe, in southern Italy for example or in areas of eastern
Europe. Could you elaborate on this cartographical theme as it relates
to your media research?

SZ: Cartographies are a special view of the world (the German term
Weltanschauung expresses this very nicely). From a perspective of
media archeology, we have to give up trusted cartographies. Technical
media as we know them were made marketable and developed into products
in the metropolis of the western world (London, Paris, New York,
Berlin, etc). If however we are interested in deep-temporal emergence
and development, we have to use a wholly other orientation. The deeper
we penetrate historical layers, the more we must turn towards the far
East and above all towards China, and from there we roam through Asia
Minor and the Arab lands and cultures, moving then into southern
Europe, before we arrive in the pre-modern regions and cities familiar
to us. My thesis is that the new and arousing ideas come out of the
provinces much more frequently than out of the centers of power, where
they are worked over and freed from their resistances. In order to
characterize the particular form of collective work which emerges out
of the networking of heterogeneous ideas and fields, I use the
expression Oeconomy of friendshipO. It is a positive counter-model to
the globalized economy of industrialization and the only one in the
field of art which functions and is alive. The geographical and
cartographical implications of my anarcheological studies are to be
understood, not least, as a plea for the idea of the economy of
friendship.

DS: In the final chapter, one of the practical points made in
reference to the experimentation of new media artists and developers
is the need for safe havens, contexts for individuals or collectives
to be given the gift of time and space to develop ideas. Do you find
that this is part of your present role in Cologne with the Academy of
Media Arts, to be hospitable in this way to the young people who come
through the school?

SZ: More and more in Europe, academic institutions are permeable to
the demands and desires of the fitters and guiders of the states.
Poets and thinkers however need autonomy and freedom as indispensable
and sustaining elixirs. Academies of the arts and sciences must not
degenerate into test departments of the globalized information
society. For the institutions to which I am responsible, I thus plead
vehemently that they be able to proliferate as gleaming ivory towers.
Study at the academy should be more than ever the offer of a protected
time and space where original thoughts and idea can be developed and
tried out. The possibility of failure belongs to experimentation. That
is nothing other than the idea of a contemporary laboratory, whose
windows and doors must above all not be closed. At the academy in
Cologne for example we offer ourselves constantly up to the judgments
and critiques of the public, through exhibitions, open concerts,
performances and lectures. Within the dynamic of this openness,
however, we maintain ourselves and donOt let it regulate us. The
students and the guests of our program enjoy the freedom to experiment
and offer their thanks through outstanding projects and artistic work,
which have received international recognition. We remind our students
and fellows in any case of their crucial duty: they have to be ready
to take risks and not want to simply swim in conventional waters. And
with that the circle of the project of a deep time of the media and
variantology closes. Giovanni Battista della PortaOs Academy of
Secrets in Naples in the 16th century, which soon after its founding
was banned by the Vatican, was the first academy fully dedicated to
the risky experiment of natural philosophy. It had a single admission
criteria, that those who wanted to participate must bring something
new into the world (and be prepared to share this knowledge with
others). It is time that we again rightly restore such an Accademia
dei segreti and let it finally become a flourishing reality.

David Senior is an artist, writer and student of media history who
currently works in the library at the Museum of Modern Art in New York
and is a doctoral student at the European Graduate School, EGS.
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