Media Archaeology and Retroutopianism

“I’ll throw the damned rearview mirror out of the damned window
because I don’t want to know where I’ve come from,
but where I’m going.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright

The American architect is said to have been driving when he made the above remark in the nineteen-thirties, and to have snapped off and tossed out of the window the vehicle’s rearview mirror as he spoke. This declarative break with the past amounts to a near-perfect self-stylization of the historical avant-garde. That his dramatic avowal of being fixated exclusively on the new was not wholly accurate (since even the avant-garde movement adopted and adapted elements from the past) is made clear by a 1929 photograph of Alexander Rodchenko. It captured, in the rearview mirror of a car driving through Moscow, the reflection of the Russian artist, sitting next to a pipe-smoking man, presenting an almost uncanny answer to the statement later made Frank Lloyd Wright.

Contemporary artistic projects are increasingly using a similar rearview mirror in order to focus on their own movement into the future by recording what lies behind. In Eastern Europe especially, the (media) art projects of the last decade have displayed growing interest in the technology-related utopian dreams and fantasies of the past. The work of artists such as the “retro-utopians”2 (Marko Peljhan, Vadim Fishkin, Cosmokinetic Cabinet Noordung, and others) does not automatically, as was still the case in the nineteen-eighties, equate the utopias of the avant-garde with totalitarian leanings but scrutinizes such visions for the projections and blueprints they contain in regard to media technologies. In the early twentieth century, visions of this kind came not only from artists and theorists associated with the avant-garde, but equally from scientists and engineers. Velimir Khlebnikov, Bertolt Brecht, Nikola Tesla, Nikolai Fedorov, and Hermann Potocnik Noordung are among the names that recur in that connection. The last name is that of a Slovenian engineer who lent his name to the Cosmokinetic Cabinet Noordung and inspired the design of the space station that rotates round its own axis in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Potocnik, who was a pioneer of space medicine, described the station with precise drawings and technical details in The Problem of Space Travel: The Rocket Motor, a book first published in German (as Probleme der Befahrung des Weltraums – Der Raketenmotor) in Berlin in 1929. Kubrick’s legendary film creates a monument to the space station, the revolutionary idea that in the post-1945 era, via the agency of Wernher von Braun, had captured the collective imagination of the United States of America.

The growing media-archaeological interest of art projects in these early utopian technological fantasies of the avant-garde was symptomatic of a significantly altered relationship to the notion of the utopia(n) in the nineteen-nineties. The clearly negative associations of utopianism with political totalitarianism was giving way to increasingly positive political connotations with emancipating or even visionary-spectral potential (“utopicity”).

The mass usage of the Internet and other new digital media that began in the nineteen-nineties, and which in Eastern Europe coincided with processes of political and social transformation, was certainly crucial for the growing interest in the historical roots of new media technologies. However, artistic interest in the history of technical systems aims to do more than merely provide teleological confirmation that the present situation has a history of coming into being. Rather, the media-archaeological interest of contemporary artists applies to—and here I use a phrase coined by Dieter Daniels—the unredeemed (technical) utopias of, for example, the historical avant-garde, which are simultaneously the reverse side of the realized anticipations of the historical avant-garde.3 This recollection of potential—since never realized—futures of mediums, of the forgotten minor branches of technological history, of the ideas, concepts, and visions that remained in the realms of the technological-imaginary, is at the same time not nostalgic. In fact, such a retrospective media-archaeological survey of utopias, which Siegfried Zielinski terms “movement in the deep time of media-technological thought and operation,”4 reactivates past potentials and thus becomes a corrective for current and future developments.

This reactivation also, and primarily, applies to notions of radio. With the emergence in the mid-nineteen-nineties of the Internet as a potential (mass) medium with a feedback channel—and at present above all with wireless communication networks (cell phone networks, WLANs, etc.)—the former potential of radio as a global wireless radio and communications technology is being reinstated in unexpected contexts and to a hitherto unforeseen degree.

This amounts to the rediscovery of a historical aspect of the medium of which few people, aside from amateur radio enthusiasts, remained aware after radio became subject to state regulation (in Germany, as of 1918),5 namely the fact that before the regulation and centralization of radio—as a simultaneous receiving and transmitting device—it had already once signified unhindered access to a realm of global communication. In Germany, the vertical and centralized broadcasting principle of the radio mass medium (“for everyone”) replaced the horizontal, cross-connected communication medium radio. Wolfgang Ernst succinctly summarized how this development truncated that of the radio medium: “The beginning of broadcasting was the end of radio.”6

A return to, or the recollection of, an alternative history of radio first came about with the Internet of the nineteen-nineties and its expansion into the “realm” beyond fixed ethernet cables. From the sixties onward, artistic telecommunications projects,7 and radio art projects in particular, possessed some awareness that an alternative history existed. However, it is not just the technical feasibility of a feedback channel that is currently leading to a genuine “re-invention” of radio (keyword: Horizontal Radio).8 Equally important, if indeed not more so, is a growing awareness of the perception of space that surrounds us as a realm shot through with electromagnetic waves, as an augmented space. This electromagnetic spectrum resembles an unknown continent that must be explored and mapped. In this process, it soon becomes clear that the waves by which we are surrounded are not exclusively of natural origin but that the electromagnetic spectrum, as a zone of combat over frequencies and licenses, is dominated by political and commercial interests. This situation was most recently made clear by the exhibition Waves mounted in Riga in 2006 under the curatorship of Armin Medosch, Rasa Smite, and Raitis Smits. There were clear references to Nikola Tesla in Broadcasting Project, dedicated to Nikola Tesla, curated by What, How & for Whom (WHW) in the Zagreb Museum of Technology (2002),9 as well as in Nina Czegledy’s exhibition Resonance. The Electromagnetic Bodies Project (2005–2006),10 Marko Lulic’s video Tesla 21 (2002)11, and Craig Baldwin’s Spectres of the Spectrum (1999), a film examining Tesla’s influence on popular culture.

I have extensively analysed elsewhere12 the media-archaeological interest of a young generation of artists specifically addressing the “disintegration of radio in the form of apparatus and the renaissance of wireless.”13 The examples are provided by the group convex tv., the International Necronautical Society14 (INS), Suzanne Treister (HEXEN 2039: New military-occult technologies of psychological warfare 15), r a d i o q u a l i a / RIXC, and Marko Peljhan and/or Projekt Atol (makrolab16). These artists and projects are linked not only by their shared interest in contemporary developments in the electromagnetic spectrum, but also by the interest shown in the history of that which came to be and has thus been actualized (the technological structure by which we are confronted today) as well as of that which was prevented from developing and therefore did not come to be—in other words, the still-existing reservoir of techno-utopian potential. All these examples make it clear that these media-archaeological projects are not concerned merely with illustrating or citing history but with genuinely picking up the loose threads of the techno-imaginary that they view as conceptual inspiration for current developments.

That artistic projects point out the increasing importance of the electromagnetic spectrum by returning to the origins of radio is remarkable. However, the truly exciting aspect lies in these projects not focusing on the media history where only that which came into being or was actualized counts. In fact, it is precisely those non-realized, “unbecome,” and hidden futures of media that occupy the foreground—those blueprints and prospects whose status never exceeded that of potential, which were unable to be realized and were ultimately excluded by technological progress (and thus discarded by media history). Whereas the history of media and technology describes that which came into being, media archaeology, in its capacity as a “central cultural tech unearthing what was previously concealed,”17 is interested in the unbecome, the unconfirmed, in other words in that which did not contribute to the emergence of the “completed materiality,”18 namely of the technological systems that now surround us.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe becoming as an “antimemory.”19 Just as becoming is contrary to derivation (and history), so archaeology too is preoccupied with “discontinuities, transpositions, and codings, and less with continuous transmissions from authentic pasts.”20 According to Siegfried Zielinski, media archaeology lays claim to “working out in the largely linear and chronological construction of history the resistant local discourses and expressive practices of knowledge and the conceptualization of technologically based world-views and visual worlds.”21 In his Archäologie der Medien (2002), Zielinski more radically formulates his approach by dedicating his media archaeology—along the lines of opening up the present to the future—decidedly not to the exploration of completed materialities, that is, to what came into being, but instead to the research into concealed potentialities: “Under the dictates of feasibility, the possibilities of the future are at present viewed as being identical with technological media. Traditional histories fit into this scheme. They are committed to the concept of a linear progression from the simple to the complex. This archaeology takes a different route. It bends the arrow of time out of the here-and-now and directs it into a possible future via past events and persons. In a generous searching movement, it retraces ideas, designs, and practices that deal with forgotten, suppressed, or hitherto unknown adventures of an impossible present of the mediated.”22

The searching movement of this media archaeology is distinguished by a paradoxical belatedness, for in orientation it is not simply retrospective (or nostalgic) but retrospectively prospective, in other words geared toward extrapolating the futuristic potential,23 toward opening up the past to the future. This searching movement, likewise constituting a distinguishing attribute of the artistic projects described in this contribution, stresses the importance for the future of that which did not come into being.24 Media art, then, explores “not just the existing mass-media dispositives but envisions what did not become.”25 As noted above, the media-archaeological interest of contemporary artists extends to the unredeemed (technical) utopias of, for instance, the historical avant-garde movements, which are at once the reverse side of the realized anticipations (Daniels) of the historical avant-garde. With its many truncated developments, the prehistory of radio offers potential alternatives to the broadcasting principle of the radio mass medium. A glance in the rearview mirror attempts to discover, in searching the medium’s past, bygone potential futures of the medium and to extrapolate this potential that was not actuated. The reactivation of these past potential futures, the turning to the “unconfirmed technologies”26 of the hobbyists and amateurs, to the wild assumptions regarding electromagnetic waves in space and a Fourth Dimension, to the fantasies of Russian Futurists and engineers—in short, to the paths of media and technological history not embarked upon—is not nostalgic. It is rather the case that such a retrospective, media-archaeological survey of the utopias reactivates bygone potentials and in this way becomes a corrective to current and future developments. Thus, only today can radio possibly realize the state it was prevented from attaining in the course of the past ninety years. Hence, radio’s unrealized potential is more significant than its historical consequence — including for reflection upon what the future may hold.


  1. The 2004 Ars Electronica used the quotation to illustrate the theme “Timeshift – The World in Twenty-Five Years.”
  2. See Inke Arns, Objects in the Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear! Avantgarda v vzvratnem ogledalu (Ljubljana, 2006) and Inke Arns, Objects in the Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear! Die Avantgarde im Rückspiegel (Brussels, forthcoming).
  3. See Dieter Daniels, Kunst als Sendung. Von der Telegrafie zum Internet (Munich 2002), pp. 254–57.
  4. Siegfried Zielinski, Archäologie der Medien (Munich, 2002), back cover; see also Timothy Druckrey, “Imaginary Futures,” Media Archaeology (dossier), (accessed May 29, 2007).
  5. In reaction to the 1918 revolution, the jurisdiction of the German Reich was applied to the creation and operation of transmitting and receiving equipment. Moreover, a decree from 1922 (repealed in 1923) prohibited private individuals from receiving radio transmissions. From 1923 onward, the technical possibilities of receiving devices were restricted, and a ban on feedback was introduced along with the requirement for licensing and fees.
  6. Wolfgang Ernst, during the 100 Jahre Radio conference, Vienna, January 2007.
  7. See Inke Arns, “Interaction, Participation, Network: Art and Telecommunication,” in Media Art Net, ed. Dieter Daniels and Rudolf Frieling (Vienna, 2004), and Reinhard Braun’s article in this volume. See also Edith Decker and Peter Weibel, Vom Verschwinden der Ferne. Telekommunikation und Kunst (Cologne, 1990).
  8. As early as 1995, Gerfried Stocker, Heidi Grundmann, and X-Space carried out at the Ars Electronica Festival their Horizontal Radio project, the basic concept of which was to superimpose over the classical transmission medium radio the mechanisms and structures created (as a network metaphor) by the Internet. Some twenty-five radio stations in Australia, Canada, Europe (including Russia), and the U.S. participated for twenty-four hours on all frequencies over the two-day period June 22–23, 1995.
  9. See
  10. See
  11. In Tesla 21, Marko Lulic combines his personal research with the various mythologies that surround Nikola Tesla and sets out in search of the latter’s topographical and historical traces, a journey that takes him from the house where Tesla was born in Smiljan, through the small Croatian town of Gospic, to New York. Lulic posits that while the modern movements failed, this is not true of the utopias by which they were fuelled.
  12. Inke Arns, The Realization of Radio’s Unrealized Potential. Media-Archaeological Focuses in Current Artistic Projects, in: Heidi Grundmann, Dieter Daniels (Hg.), Re-Inventing Radio, Frankfurt am Main, S. 471- 492 (forthcoming).
  13. Armin Medosch, during the 100 Jahre Radio conference, Vienna, January 2007.
  17. Knut Ebeling, “Die Mumie kehrt zurück II. Zur Aktualität des Archäologischen in Wissenschaft, Kunst und Medien,” in Die Aktualität des Archäologischen in Wissenschaft, Medien und Künsten, ed. Knut Ebeling and Stefan Altekamp (Frankfurt am Main, 2004), p. 20.
  18. Ibid., p. 16.
  19. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis, 1997)
  20. Ebeling 2004 (see note 61), p. 22.
  21. Siegried Zielinski, quoted in Wolfgang Ernst, “Medienarchäologie. Provokation der Mediengeschichte,” in Schnittstelle: Medien und Kulturwissenschaften, ed. Georg Stanitzek and Wilhelm Vosskamp (Cologne, 2001), pp. 250–67, here p. 258.
  22. Zielinski 2002, back cover text (see note 4).
  23. See Eckhard Lobsien, Wörtlichkeit und Wiederholung. Phänomenologie poetischer Sprache (Munich, 1995), p. 189.
  24. On the notion of “potential” in Giorgio Agamben, see Adam Thurschwell, “Specters of Nietzsche: Potential Futures for the Concept of the Political in Agamben and Derrida” (September 1, 2004), (accessed May 29, 2007).
  25. Reinhard Braun, during the 100 Jahre Radio conference, Vienna, 2007.
  26. Armin Medosch, during the 100 Jahre Radio conference, Vienna, 2007.