David Senior: What is unique in your work is the spirit and tone which you bring to the “case studies” that you have collected. The body of works reflects rigorous research, but also a consistent affirmation of the unexpected turns that arise throughout the process. In this way, the book represents a praxis that you have described as “anarchaeology,” and more recently as “variantology.” Could you describe this method and why you have found it particularly applicable to the study of the history of media?
Siegfried Zielinski: In my studies I try to connect two movements, one through the verticality of phenomena and processes, which means in effect, the attempt to get to the bottom of things - about which, above all, I was encouraged by the Polish artist and poet Bruno Schulz. The second movement is characterized by the conceptual dance on the plateau, which I have learned less from French thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari than for example from the philosopher Vilem Flusser, who the Nazis drove out from the alchemist-city of Prague to Sao Paulo, where he learned to couple a deep consideration of the world with the dynamic figure of the samba. That is however only a somewhat provocative example. Along with the poet Novalis, who died much too young, I am of the opinion that the sciences belong poetized and that they should be handled musically, because musical relations appear to be the “fundamental relations of Nature.” But, I do not share with Novalis the despairing search for the absolute in all things. I try to substitute this search with a method of fortuitous finds. However, such a method must renounce some things which characterize classical archeology, like the search for the origin from which all things develop. Like Nietzsche and Foucault, I favor the concept of geneaology for historical research, which asks after the developments, turns and leaps. As opposed to Foucault and his diverse archaeologies of power and knowledge, I claim no mastery, do not claim to develop one or more main ideas that would resonate semantically with archos/archein. In the case of the movement that the fortuitous find presupposes, one must let the reins fall away and let the horse gallop free, without knowing what exactly will arrive. The coupling of this with the vertical movement leads to anything but simple
arbitrariness; rather it leads to a research work that understands itself as a joyful release from a heavy burden.
When I wrote Deep Time of the Media, I had invented for it the concept of anarcheology. This term now seems to me too negative and destructive in its construction. For two or three years, I have worked only with the concept of variantology, under which I understand the imaginary sum of all possible genealogies of media phenomena. As opposed to the heterogeneous, with its heavy resonances from ontology and biology, the variantological, in its methodological and
epistemological respect, interests me as a mode of lightness. The variant is just as at home in the experimental sciences as it is in diverse artistic practices, above all in music. As different varieties or divergent interpretations, variants belong for composers or performers to a self-evident vocabulary and to practical everyday life. The semantic field of this neologism possesses a positive connotation. To be different, divergent, changing, alternating, are alternative translations for the Latin verb variare. It tips over only into the negative when it is used by the speaking subject as a means of exclusion, which the word does not actually sustain. To vary something then is an alternative to its destruction.
DS: In the final chapter, one of the practical points made in reference to the experimentation of new media artists and developers is the need for safe havens, contexts for individuals or collectives to be given the gift of time and space to develop ideas. Do you find that this is part of your present role in Cologne with the Academy of Media Arts, to be hospitable in this way to the young people who come through the school?
SZ: More and more in Europe, academic institutions are permeable to the demands and desires of the fitters and guiders of the states. Poets and thinkers however need autonomy and freedom as indispensable and sustaining elixirs. Academies of the arts and sciences must not degenerate into test departments of the globalized information society. For the institutions to which I am responsible, I thus plead vehemently that they be able to proliferate as gleaming ivory towers. Study at the academy should be more than ever the offer of a protected time and space where original thoughts and idea can be developed and tried out. The possibility of failure belongs to experimentation. That is nothing other than the idea of a contemporary laboratory, whose windows and doors must above all not be closed. At the academy in Cologne for example we offer ourselves constantly up to the judgments and critiques of the public, through exhibitions, open concerts, performances and lectures. Within the dynamic of this openness, however, we maintain ourselves and don’t let it regulate us. The students and the guests of our program enjoy the freedom to experiment and offer their thanks through outstanding projects and artistic work, which have received international recognition. We remind our students and fellows in any case of their crucial duty: they have to be ready to take risks and not want to simply swim in conventional waters. And with that the circle of the project of a deep time of the media and variantology closes. Giovanni Battista della Porta’s Academy of Secrets in Naples in the 16th century, which soon after its founding was banned by the Vatican, was the first academy fully dedicated to the risky experiment of natural philosophy. It had a single admission criteria, that those who wanted to participate must bring something new into the world (and be prepared to share this knowledge with others). It is time that we again rightly restore such an Accademia dei segreti and let it finally become a flourishing reality.