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LUIZ ZANOTELLO, the digital is now more material than ever

Interview by Bilge Hasdemir 

Berlin-based Brazilian new media artist and designer Luiz Zanotello has been applying his background in design and technology to his practice-based artistic research and questioning narrative, material, and fundamental aspects of new technologies that are often neglected or misconceived. The theoretical scope of his subjects of interest has mainly rooted in philosophies of New Materialism, especially from a position of agential realism, and Media Studies with some references to the geology of media and media ecology.

Zanotello follows the harder (hardware) truth: the digital is now more material than ever. The rigid separation between the digital and the material seems no longer valid, especially in today’s post-digital era. In line with this, one of the significant characteristics of Zanotello’s works is the intersection of the digital and material worlds. By problematising dichotomous propositions, he shows that there is no split between life and material things or the digital and the material; on the contrary, there is a continuum and interactions. 

His critical approach to digital materialities raises important questions on Earth and (habitual) life and touches upon the issues which have ranged from agency, matter, and intra-actions. The world that Zanotello invites us into is no more conceiving materiality as a pre-existing physical property.

Our fields of experience have expanded and also diversified with digital technologies and the possibilities that they offer. In this line, his research about digital and its materiality, technology and its reflections in different forms stand at the centre of his artistic inquiry. By delving deeper into the material properties of the digital and their potential, we could have a chance to re-think how digital technologies have been changing us and how we have been changing them through our engagement.

The kinetic installation The Aeographer unfolds networked topography of the air in constant adaptation and change. Changes in the airflow patterns on the basis of speed are translated into mechanical motion. The installation is thought-provoking research which is inherently speaking for Earthly changes through connectivity, feedback, motion, network and fluidity. Being in a state of flux, the depiction of the problematisation of connectivity, scale and speed in air shifts seemingly sketches the age of Anthropocene. 

Zanotello’s latest work, A Habitat of Recognition, is an installation that re-examined the digital and its materiality in the light of intra-active tensions between the distinction and convergence of matter. He problematises mineral processing at the infrastructural level through nonhuman energy, material and labour flows. The realities are re-imagined and re-defined in processes by surrounding Intra-active entanglements of human and machine. The feedback loops of networks of information have been delineated with a processual recording of ore of granule particles through reading and writing of the matter.

As one of the essential features of his approach, Zanotello has been pursuing relational and processual lines of thought and problematising technological systems to imagine and enable new possible futures. There are always critical questions remaining to re-think and reflect on. 

You are an artist and designer from Brazil who frequently uses meteorological and geological phenomena to inspire. For those that are not familiar with your work, could you tell us a bit more about your background and your interest in the different disciplines and media you use?

I come mainly from a background in design and technology. I remember designing my first Rube Goldberg machine at the age of 5, influenced by a popular Brazilian TV show back at the time, and programming my first computer game at 15. Nearly 10 years later, I reactivated these creative impulses when graduating in Design in Brazil, where I have begun to incorporate experimental technology-oriented reasoning into my work. During my Masters in Germany, I have, the other hand, deeply reshaped my artistic practice and sharpened my critical senses.

Central to my current work is the questioning of the narrative, material, and fundamental aspects of new technologies that are often neglected or misconceived. I share both a fascination and a concern with new media and the material-discursive fields it entangles, and I conduct theory-driven and practice-oriented research on its materialities to expose such fields by means of electronic installations, machinery and speculative narratives.

In my work, I frequently aim to understand and problematising technological systems to imagine and enable new possible futures. By means of experiments with electronic, digital, and analogue systems, I inquire about new modes of affect that are prevenient or shaped by technology.

The use of geological and meteorological phenomena in my work is something a bit hard to track. I believe that, on a deeper level, it derives from a personal struggle of trying to understand a world that is more and more ubiquitously designed and a sense of wonder towards grasping it holistically. I tend to see things as processes and movements, and although I do act upon the world concretely, my line of thought is quite abstract.

That means that even though I take concrete examples and situations to carry a certain meaning and have a certain weight in my work, they ultimately depict processes that are not exclusive to that particular situation and may affect, travel, or perhaps be isomorphic to processes in other ecologies – such as the human and non-human subjectivities, as well as the collective and social relations among them and the techno-environment itself.

Your latest work, A Habitat of Recognition, enacts an infrastructure of mineral processing that happens at outsourced mining sites that support contemporary technology and re-imagines such infrastructures as habitats of reading and writing Earth and its landscapes as digital ores of residue and value. Could you tell us a bit more about the intellectual process behind?

“A Habitat of Recognition” was born out of a struggle to grasp the ontology of digital systems. I have started by looking inside the black box of our current contemporary computers and wondering about the myriad of different materials and narratives that are enclosed in such technologies. I have asked myself: could there be a parallel between the systems within such black boxes and the histories entangled through each of its materials?

I went on to conduct simple electronic experiments and re-enact the most basic primitives of a digital computer to explore its imbued narratives. During the first weeks of research, I crossed over aerial images of the copper mining sites in Asia and the lithium harvesting sites in South America, and this was an important point in my process: how is it that those sites and landscapes are systematically black-boxed and turned invisible during our habitual interaction with technology?

How is it that such landscapes now carry a “digital signature” upon their surface, and the vast Earth gets tamed down and segmented into recognisable discrete pieces at each step? On the one hand, current technological advancements carry the trope of a “dematerialisation” of reality through software. On the other hand, such sites depict a much harder (hardware) truth: the digital is now more material than ever. While the Turing machines read and write data at ever uncanny passes, in parallel, such machines affect the “reading” and the “writing” of Earth’s landscapes by means of the infrastructures extracting raw mineral ores from them. It is by recognising such ore that the extraction and first segmentation of matter occurs.

What happens when we break the causality chain separating these ends and enact them at the same time and space? What happens when the reading of an ore already writes its digital record, and the reading of such record already restitutes the ore? The installation thus performs an ongoing labour of recognition that intends to materialize such questions.

Each machine in the installation performs the reading and writing by the distinction and convergence of two types of sand into one record: silica and iron. Through repetition, each part of the process ends up exposing its own influence on how Earth is written and read by digital devices while at the same time exposing the very ontology of digital devices as machines of reading and writing records.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in its development?

Dealing with dust and sand is technically really challenging. Many of the systems (from the pushing mechanism to the sedimentation mechanism) had to pass through many iterations until reaching a good stable level due to the unforeseeable dynamics of the stacks of sand in movement, for instance. Working with a low budget and alone is always the biggest challenge in a project of this scale.

Thus, I have had both little time and little room for errors in the design of the machinery. Evermore, it was conceptually challenging to go beyond the dualism inherently present in digital devices and to pinpoint the aspects of it that escape such a trap. One way of overcoming this problem was to incorporate the material experiments within the initial conceptual research, as the way they have diffracted my thinking was already promoting the break of the dichotomies I was trying to crack. In the end, the nuances and changes of the granular material itself (sand) by introducing its residues back into the system also provided this break.

From programmable matter, 3D/4D printing and bio-inspired design, the material (both biological and inert) seem to be more and more blending with the digital. Where do you predict we are headed in terms of the new digital materialism?

While it is true that the digital is blending more and more with the material in all its instances, and we can yet expect a lot more to come (from the macro to the nanoscale technologies), it is also true that the problems of it are becoming more and more globally evident. In my last project, I tried to expose them from the perspective of digital devices and their infrastructures.

But if we look into other realms, for instance, biology, a whole other set of problematics arise when we recognise and “tame” organisms as information and/or digital systems instead of analogue, autopoietic, barely measurable ones.

In a paper written by Claus Pias in 2005, he talks about a “cybernetic illusion” created at the beginnings of the cybernetic movement, and he describes how Ralph Gerard once said during one of the Macy Conferences on cybernetics that “synapses are not acting digitally”, and as Norbert Wiener also during such conferences pointed out that “our world is analog, but we introduce ‘artificial’ digital elements at specific levels to gain certain advantages”. I believe the digital is quite a powerful manoeuvre, and it has evolved a lot ever since, but we cannot forget it is only an approximation.

Thus I do risk a prediction (perhaps a hope) that we are headed towards confronting now the issues of a past century that has almost too often neglected the material and social aspects of the technologies we have grown to love. We may indeed be looking forward to new materialisms (as Karen Barad, Reza Negarestani and Jane Bennett might argue) that, on the one hand, take us out of our still anthropocentric worldview and account for the inhuman forces of matter and other self-organizing nonhuman processes into greater account (both politically as aesthetically); and on the other hand, make us more response-able with the human itself and what we may call the “other”.

That means, hopefully, that we may see new types of technologies (or newer types of technical assemblages) that are more ethically engaged towards their biases (especially regarding gender, race, and ethnicity), conscious of their intrinsic limitations and potentials, and lastly, with higher sensibilities towards its affects in the world as a whole.

Where do you see taking your research into?

In general, I am excited to continue the line of my past works at probing and exploring the critical and material-discursive aspects of new media; thus, I intend to immerse myself more and more in my own artistic practice and research on digital materialities as well as my recently active teaching activities.

My last research has left many threads open, which I would like to pull and look closer into. I am, for instance, at the moment developing a new work that looks into the contingency of automated intelligence and its infrastructural matters.

Once again, the idea comes from a double-blind dilemma: while the front-end of technological advancements stumbles upon the abstract uncanny valleys of so-called artificial intelligence, its back-end generates and faces ever greater concrete uncanny valleys on both Earth and its social strata. I am thus probing for a moment when the internal pressure between technological utopias and their concrete material realities will come into friction and burst in unison.

What is your chief enemy of creativity?


You couldn’t live without…

An honest human smile.

(Media courtesy of the artist)
On Key

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