Reticular Aesthetics: Adversarial Media Art After the Material Turn


Session Title:

  • Art and Activism in Digital Age

Presentation Title:

  • Reticular Aesthetics: Adversarial Media Art After the Material Turn




  • 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.