Samir Bhowmik on the Boldness blog: Imaginary Natures

While we remember and honor monuments and places of history as cultural memory, rarely do we place any similar emphasis on natures and infrastructures of local and global energy-matter extraction. The contaminated planetary strata of mediatic inscriptions that so defines our age of technological media are not considered as significant for representation in visual culture. This is despite the fact that environmental change includes the memories and geographies of exploitation and extractive practices. Samir Bhowmik explores these contradictions and challenges in his 3-year artistic research project 'Imaginary Natures: On Extractive Media and the Cultural Memory of Environmental Change'.
Photo: Ulla Varis

Media technologies are hardly immaterial. They are chemical, energetic, and chiseled and melted out of our natural geographies. Yet, the world of the digital is normally perceived as ethereal and placeless. This is in utter opposition to the materiality and geo-physicality of media technologies, as sustained by metals, minerals and fossil fuels. It is undoubtedly a massive environmental and localized endeavor that sustains the Internet, the Cloud and global communication systems. While media infrastructures provide us with access to information, knowledge, and a global collective memory, it is also operational in the extraction of planetary assets.

As media theorist Jussi Parikka says “On the one hand, media offers our epistemology, and [on the other hand] is instrumentalized in the intensive mapping of the planet for its resources, materials and energy” [1]. This is the contradiction and the condition that shackles and entangles natural geographies, animal habitats, knowledge and labor into a giant factory for the production and sustenance of media technologies. The aftermath of which is discarded e-waste dumped in the Global South, lakes turned into pools of toxicity, and giant holes drilled into the ground. Thus, “the true tragic archive is the soil, the industrial fallow land” [2], which carries the memories of extraction and exploitation.

Eco-critical media scholars have all asserted that media and mediation cannot be separated from their materiality and environmental impacts. “Media is about place and placement,” and also about “the intensive co-determination and co-emergence” of two spheres of mediation and memory [3]. It is about the deep time of geological media as well as the micro-temporality of our media technologies. Yet, this transference of multiple time regimes from drilled prehistoric fossil fuels, mined Coltan or Neodymium to the computer clock as evidence of an environmental memory is hardly recorded or represented in visual culture. Neither are landscapes of e-waste in the Global South considered as memories and reminders of humanity’s energetic and wasteful digital culture. Should this warrant the inclusion of extractive media as worthy of representation as cultural and environmental memory?

But, how does one represent environmental memory as manifested through the ruins of extractive media territories? How could these medianatures be registered and documented? From power plants, rare earth mines, gas pipelines to submarine cables and toxic lakes, how can the disparate infrastructural sites or the infrascapes of media extraction and their environmental impacts be portrayed? [4]

Despite much excellent scholarship on the themes of media ecologies, eco-criticism, environmental sensing, media infrastructures, and ecological damage, scholars have yet to fully explore the representation of media-induced environmental change and its impact on cultural memory. Few studies have been conducted on the entanglements of extractive media with memory and representation. As such, even a critical portrayal of environmental change in memory and cultural institutions is often lacking. Additionally, no methodologies exist to record the effects of media’s extractive practices and render the impact of its technologies on the planet.

Could the emerging technologies of deep sensing, machine learning and analysis, in other words, depth’s technical capacities be re-oriented towards opening up new ways of environmental thinking? How does this affect society’s knowledge of actual energetic geographies and comprehension of environmental change? What cultural archives of this extractive media age could be co-constructed and how will they shape the production and transmission of environmental memory to society?

In my 3-year research project funded by Kone Foundation, my aim is to identify a methodology to represent the environmental impact of media geographies of extraction to generate societal awareness. In the coming years, I will explore the SEA, the LAND, and the SKY as sites of media extraction and transmission. Combining humanities and science, wild habitats and media infrastructures, machine learning and cultural archiving, my project will engage with the representation of environmental change. While, I explore the antecedents of contemporary image practices, and the systems and technologies of representation of environmental change, I will also examine the media ecologies instrumental in the intersections of material (extractive) and virtual (image) practices. Through field expeditions in the Nordic-Baltic region, accompanied by citizen participation with advanced imaging technologies, I hope to assemble an intelligent archive of environmental memory.

Notes

[1] Jussi Parikka, “MediaNatures,” in PostHuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, (Bloomsbury, 2018): 251-253.
[2] Wolfgang Ernst, “Agencies of Cultural Feedback: The Infrastructure of Memory,” in Waste-Site Stories: The Recycling of Memory, edited by Brian Neville and Johanne Villeneuve, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002): 107-120.
[3] Parikka, “MediaNatures”, 251. See also, Jussi Parikka, The Geology of Media, University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
[4] Samir Bhowmik and Jussi Parikka, Infrascapes for Media Archaeographers (Forthcoming 2019)

Author

Samir Bhowmik

Samir Bhowmik’s multi-disciplinary art and research practice deals with contemporary issues in media, cultural memory and the environment. His research at Aalto University Media Lab and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin examines the architectural, infrastructural and energetic entanglements of cultural memory. Samir graduated as a Doctor of Arts from Aalto University, and holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Maryland, United States. His recent infrastructural performance art project ‘Memory Machines’ opened at the Helsinki Central Library in January 2019, as part of the Library’s Other Intelligences project organized by the Finnish Cultural Institute of New York.