Wolfgang ERNST


Wolfgang ErnstHaving been academically trained as a historian (PhD) and classicist (Latin philology and Classical Archaeology) with an ongoing interest in cultural tempor(e)alities, Wolfgang Ernst grew into the emergent technology-oriented media studies and is Full Professor for Media Theories in the Institute for Musicology and Media Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin since 2003. His academic focus has been on archival theory and museology, before attending to media-technological matters. His current research covers media archaeology as method, theory of technical storage, technologies of cultural transmission, micro-temporal media aesthetics and their chronopoetic potentials, and sound analysis ("sonicity") from a media-epistemological point of view.

Books in English: Digital Memory and the Archive (2013); Stirring in the Archives. Order from Disorder Stirring in the Archives (2015); Chronopoetics. The temporal being and operativity of technological media (2016); Sonic Time Machines. Explicit Sound, Sirenic Voices and Implicit Sonicity in Terms of Media Knowledge, Amsterdam (2016)





Preserving the signal: Media theory in support of media art preservation

With electro-technical media art works, certain criteria of restoring and preserving in archival terminology have become obsolete; contemporary digital media have induced a further shock for art conservation. As has been expressed in a series of exhibitions, symposia and the resulting publications (e. g.: Konservierung digitaler Kunst / digital art conservation, ed. Bernhard Serexhe, ZKM 2013), museology of media art is not simply a matter of caring for the material endurance of the artefact. Preservation of time-based technologies itself must be processual, as an ongoing act of up-dating.

That is the moment when conservation specialists ask for media-epistemological advice. Media archaeology describes the techniques of cultural tradition and develops criteria for a philosophy of dealing with the tempor(e)alities of techno-logical agents. Any piece of media art is subject to time in its hardware embodiment (physical entropy), in its logical, almost time-invariant design (circuit diagrams and software codes), and in its actual time-critical processing. Any epistemology and aesthetics of media art preservation needs media-theoretical criteria for dealing with processual objects which differ from the traditional material preservation of art works.

Preservation strategies for media art require two definitions: of "media", and of "art". As expressed by the combinatorial term (instead of a neo-logism), different from traditional art works which have been directly resulting from the performative actions of the human artist, media art unfolds primarily in its technological existence. Different from "re-enactment" of past events in artistic live performance, in criminal forensics or in "experimental archaeology", the re-enactment of media art is by definition operative in the technological sense (see catalogue: History will repeat itself. Stragegies of Re-Enactment in contemporary [Media] Art and Performance, ed. Inke Arns / Gabriele Horn, 2007). Instead of an idiosyncratic corporeal theatrical re-enactment, technological experience of the past in the present is based on the re-operativity of the very machine (the technical configuration) itself - just as in 2002, Rod Dickinson re-enacted (at CCA in Glasgow) the psychological experiment once conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1961, concentrating on the command of electric shocks for punishment to non-learning subjects in the next room. The reconstructed installation was actually based on a functionally equivalent apparatus with a voltage range from 15 to 450.

Technologies exist as "media" only in the moment of signal processing, and media "art" is defined by its time-based modality rather than the space-based sculpture and painting (Lessing 1766). Whatever the aesthetic content may be (to be well documented by a conceptual text by the artist-creator himself), the message of "media art" is its time base and time basing. Already in photography, the exposure time has been co-defining the iconology of the image - a Delta t which increasingly shrinked almost to zero.

Technological media are experienced in performative ways from the human side, and in operative ways from within. In museum display of media art based such as sound and video installations, "[t]he physical objects on display are not to be regarded as aesthetic objects per se [...]. It is predominantly the process which is on exhibit" (Ars Electronica exhibition catalogue Eigenwelt der Apparatewelt, Linz 1992).

Therefore, a media art museum necessarily turns into a media theatre for re-enacting operative techno-aesthetics where the media are the main actors - the agency of the machine, linked with a signal laboratory for re-activating data processing and with a library of audiovidual or source code content (Mediathek), since any media operativity needs signal food to process. All such processes are grounded in actual media technology - their material key elements (techné), and essential in terms of governing principles (electric circuitry diagrams, source code of software).

Against the curatorial veto, infra-structural cables and circuitry in electronic art works - like the agorithms in digital works and the protocols of Internet art - belong to the functional, but not "ideal" (Julia Meuser) aesthetic enunciation, and therefore are allowed to be replaced for re-enactment. The aesthetic content of media art aks to be displayed in action to be revealed; otherwise a medium like a video set is nothing but a piece of metal, glass and rare earths.

Traditional works of art are subject to time in the material sense; it is their physical entropy which requires curatorship and restauration. A painting endures in time, different from media-art which unfolds in a different time singularity. A technological object, in addition, is time-based in a conditional sense; their "media" state only reveals when in operation, in signal-processing. The core requirement for the preservation of media art, therefore, is re-enactment, since its being only unfolds as a time-object. This message of media art (apart from the superficial audio or visual content) is temporal, therefore the focus of "preservation" is on actual re-enacment or documentation of its former temporal action, that is: the archival time diagram.

While media epistemology contemplates the being-in-time of technological art, media archaeology is "inductive", grounding in precise problems of technologically preserving new media by close inspection. There is knowledge to be gained from technical hardware. The media archaeological approach requires in-depth knowledge of the associated technology. For inductive media archaeology, every piece of media art is idiosyncratically different; it deserves artefact-, circuitry- and code-related answers and adaptive tactics rather than an overall strategy of preservation - technological historicism.

The specific way of "re-presencing" media-artistic works from the past is re-generating and re-storing time signals. This approach is decidedly materialist, antinarrative and antihermeneutic. The conditions under which media arts from the past can be said to have 'presence' in the present" (Vivian Sobchack) are strictly techno-logical.



The associate partner of Ludwig Museum is C3 – Center for Culture & Communication