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Michelle Nüssli

Revealing the Medium — On Exposing Systems Through Failures

Simply everything – our whole world, society, and daily life – is composed within and by systems. Almost every part of our human life is constructed and arranged: from political systems, bank systems, and language systems to computer systems and art systems. A digital image is based on a specific code, something we cannot see at first glance, but it is always there to make the image into what it is. Every technical device, such as our phone, our computer, but also our language, a simple letter or drawing: everything is arranged and maintains an internal dialogue. In Kevin Kelly’s words: “a system is anything that talks to itself.” Thus, we can define a system as a set of elements integrated with one another to such an extent that they form a recognizable whole.

Besides, a medium is constructed – like a system – by various elements that, together, form a functioning whole and are able to produce a specific meaning. Single or loose entities have to be connected and arranged by a fixed form in order to make sense and work. By doing so, a brush, printer, scanner, photo or video camera can be understood as a medium: all of them rely on single and loose parameters forming a whole in order to convey a meaning.

Today, we are surrounded by hundreds of media everyday. Marshall McLuhan states that most of the time we are not really aware what impact the medium itself can have on us. Maybe a broken screen lets us understand the phone as a device and has us rethink of how we use it. Like the Broken Plate by André Kertész that shows not just an image of Paris but also the photographic plate and enables us to see photography as a medium. In Maria Zinfert words: “[…] it allows one to also see the damaged plate of glass from which the print was made, thus making the viewer’s glance switch endlessly between the representation and the network of cracks interrupting it.”

As Michel Serres states: “Kein System ohne Parasit.” No system works perfectly, but a parasite or “failure” can not only break the system, it can also change it by revealing something that was previously hidden. Hence, failures lie somewhere in the middle; they are always part of the system and can reveal a second layer that, otherwise, might never have become visible. Failures can take us beyond assumptions and what we think we know. “Artists have long turned their attention to the unrealizability of the quest for perfection, or the open-endedness of experiment, using both dissatisfaction and error as means to rethink how we understand our place in the world.”

What happens if we understand failures as something productive? What are they able to expose? Can we generate failed images in order to reveal a certain medium? Those questions led to the idea to intentionally expose a certain medium through failed images. It is an attempt to reveal hidden systems or the medium itself by either changing or manipulating single entities or by going against certain rules that are set by the medium and its surroundings. How can we reveal the medium, its system, different entities, parameters, materials, or its construction and usage? And most importantly: how can we reveal the medium or its system through failures?