Retic­u­lar Aes­thet­ics: Ad­ver­sar­ial Media Art After the Ma­te­r­ial Turn


Session Title:

  • On the Persistence of Hardware

Presentation Title:

  • Retic­u­lar Aes­thet­ics: Ad­ver­sar­ial Media Art After the Ma­te­r­ial Turn




  • Panel: On the Persistence of Hardware

    This paper the­o­rizes emer­gent po­lit­i­cal qual­i­ties of media art as chal­leng­ing the bound­aries or de­f­i­n­i­tion of the so­cial through an ac­tive ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with things. At a time where cat­e­go­riza­tions of artis­tic en­gage­ments with tech­nol­ogy are in­creas­ingly com­plex and un­clear – es­pe­cially in the rifts, over­laps and pos­si­ble con­ver­gence be­tween new media and con­tem­po­rary art (Manovich, 1996; Lovink, 2008; Quar­anta, 2010) – I offer a the­o­riza­tion of ob­ject-ori­en­tated pol­i­tics as a defin­ing im­pulse of media art prac­tice. Of course, stress­ing the con­sti­tu­tive role of things, ma­te­ri­al­i­ties or ob­jects has be­come some­thing of a cus­tom­ary ges­ture in the field, from vi­tal­ist ac­counts of media ecol­ogy by Matthew Fuller (2004) and An­dreas Broeck­mann (1995) to the medium-speci­ficity of soft­ware stud­ies or gen­eral use of a vo­cab­u­lary of non-hu­man agen­cies in­spired by Ac­tor-Net­work-The­ory (ANT) and the work of Bruno La­tour. As part of a broad ‘ma­te­r­ial turn’ through­out phi­los­o­phy, so­cial sci­ences and cul­tural stud­ies, this ori­en­ta­tion to­ward things, how­ever, raises both im­por­tant on­to­log­i­cal and epis­te­mo­log­i­cal ques­tions, es­pe­cially re­gard­ing un­der­stand­ings of the role of pol­i­tics. Against this gen­eral back­drop, my paper, there­fore, aims to con­tribute to de­f­i­n­i­tions of media art pro­jects forged in ad­ver­sar­ial con­texts (works that might also be con­sid­ered as ex­am­ples of tac­ti­cal media) and to un­der­stand­ings of an ob­ject-ori­en­tated pol­i­tics through the con­cept of retic­u­lar aes­thet­ics.

    With ref­er­ence to the ‘eco­sophic’ art prac­tice of Crit­i­cal Art En­sem­ble and Pre­emp­tive Media as il­lus­tra­tive ex­am­ples, my ar­gu­ment is that an im­por­tant long-term trend in media art has been to draw to­gether or retic­u­late ob­ject-ori­en­tated agen­cies in a po­lit­i­cal reg­is­ter. This mode of retic­u­lar aes­thet­ics can­not be un­der­stood as purely rep­re­sen­ta­tional; rather, it refers to pro­jects that ac­tively in­cor­po­rate ob­jects into the proces­sual ex­pres­sive­ness of the work. Aes­thet­ics here is de­fined in the well-known terms of Jacques Rancière (2006; 2010) as sense (aes­the­sis), or more specif­i­cally, as the ‘dis­tri­b­u­tion of the sen­si­ble’ – where po­lit­i­cal res­o­nance oc­curs by over­turn­ing sta­bi­lized for­ma­tions of per­cep­tion. How­ever, as op­posed to Rancière’s ex­clu­sive con­cern with sub­jec­tiv­i­ties (or al­ter­na­tive con­tem­po­rary art the­o­riza­tions of in­ter-sub­jec­tive or re­la­tional aes­thet­ics), my ar­gu­ment is that a sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture of media art is an en­gage­ment with ob­jects as par­tic­i­pat­ing in po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sions by in­clud­ing them­selves out. This should be un­der­stood as the de­fin­i­tive crit­i­cal ges­ture of retic­u­lar aes­thet­ics: a re­order­ing of sense by ex­per­i­men­tal tech­niques that make ob­jects in­tel­li­gi­ble, al­low­ing every­day tech­ni­cal things to speak and be­come vis­i­ble.