Media Archeologies of Art and Science: Block course explores the meaning in obsolete technologies

  When he played his class excerpts from the Golden Record, a phonographic record launched on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 and compiled to represent the richness of Earth’s lives and cultures, Michael Metzger used a turntable and a reproduction of the record. In keeping with the subject matter of his class, it was important to Metzger for students to think about not only the sounds on the record, but the object that held them.  

“Even if it sounds the same being played from a digital file or YouTube clip, I’m keen to foreground the materiality of the object,” Metzger said. 

Metzger is The Block’s Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts, the curator of the exhibition The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto, and instructor of the Spring 2023 Art History course Media Archaeologies of Art and Science. Grounded in The Block Museum’s exhibition The Heart’s Knowledge, his course offered a dive into the world of media archaeology by way of Robleto’s workings with the history of medical recording devices and sound visualizations.

Michael Metzger, Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts, with students in The Heart’s Knowledge

Working from his own interests, as well, Metzger built a course that expands on the exhibition’s ideas while introducing students to the critical study of analog and superseded media technologies that comprises the backbone of media archaeology.  

“I’m interested as a film scholar and programmer and former video store clerk in obsolete media technologies, and particularly ways that certain forms of representation and cultural production are tied both materially and in popular imagination with specific forms of media technology,” Metzger said.  

Metzger’s class, held weekly in The Block’s auditorium, isn’t the first to center a Block exhibition; previous Block-centric classes have included humanities and art history lectures on A Site of Struggle: Poetry, History and Social Justice and a seminar on Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time

In conceiving his course, Metzger drew on the same fascinations that powered his PhD dissertation, on scientific and experimental films from the 1970s. It’s interesting, he said, to think about the relationship between technologies and their times – like 16mm film and zoom lenses and their popularity and ubiquity in the 70s. The Block’s Dario Robleto exhibition felt like a natural companion to those ideas. 

“This class felt like an exciting way to use Dario’s work to open up these different historical moments,” he said.  

Vinyl records and sound recordings on view within’ The Heart’s Knowledge

Alongside the golden record, other objects of study for the course included EEG brainwave art and 16mm film reels, projected in The Block’s auditorium and cinema where the class was held weekly.  

Kelsey Carroll, a senior in Art History and Journalism, said the use of those objects physically, where possible, revealed their history. 

“You got to see exactly how these experimental, educational, or otherwise just entertaining films were seen in their original context with the lines of the film reel showing up throughout the screening,” she said.  

That history revealed both care and context for objects of study – insight into the relationship between how they were perceived at their creation and thus how they were (or weren’t) preserved, Carrol said. She became interested in the course because of its ties to The Block’s The Heart’s Knowledge exhibition and hoped that it would offer a deeper dive into Robleto’s work and ideas.  

The Heart’s Knowledge centers on the intersections of art and science, coaxing profound artistic meaning from the use of scientific instruments to record emotional states – waveforms of inhalation and bloodflow during auditory experiences, custom cut vinyl records of heartbeat recordings in various emotional states, images of stage lights from the album covers of live performances of now-deceased musicians repurposed to look like a constellation of galaxies.  

“Dario’s work, I argue, represents a form of media archaeology,” Metzger said.  

For Kaiwen Huang, a PhD student in Screen Cultures, Robleto’s work provided a tangible connection to the past. 

“This class kind of grows out of Dario’s work,” he said. “He evokes a lot of ideas about past experience, about how our contemporaries can engage with things that have passed.” 

It was also a continual reference point for students to return to (in repeated visits throughout the quarter) and apply newfound understandings of media archaeology and Robleto’s connection to it. Robleto also spoke to students as a guest lecturer in the class.  

“By even attempting to reach past lifetimes and recall their existence for contemporary audiences, Robleto is actively performing media archaeology,” Carroll said.”  “His presence as a speaker and through his exhibition during the class’s duration really helped me fully understand the importance of media archaeology to artistic production today.” 

For Carroll and Huang, the course was an eye-opener in thinking about the possibilities of history.  

“Media archaeologies is also a method to kind of uncover those ideas that were born but were not really coming to shape,” Huang said. 

Voyager Golden Record

For example, he spoke about the difference between the way we think about cinema’s birth as a singular product of moving image entertainment and the reality that it was merely the most successful of many “branches or offspring” of visual entertainment.  

“This course opened my eyes to the fact that media of all kinds have developed in ways that we are familiar with, such as the heartbeat monitor being used for medical purposes, 
Carroll said. “But these media had infinite possibilities upon their invention.”  

Course Description
ART HIST 369 – Special Topics in 20th & 21st Century Art: Media Archeologies of Art and Science (Block Exhibition)

At key moments throughout the intertwined histories of art and science, the emergence of new technologies transformed the possibilities of perception, representation, and knowledge alike. The field of media archaeology seeks to reconstruct the social contexts, cultural impacts, and imaginary horizons of these moments by investigating obsolete media technologies like the X-ray or the hologram.

Grounded in the Block Museum’s exhibition, The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto, the course positions Robleto’s creative practice as an entry point into the field of media archaeology. Robleto’s inquiries into the histories of medical visualization, sound recording, and 19th-century visual culture will dovetail with readings and course materials that showcase various critical and artistic approaches to scientific media. Combining lectures, discussions, and student presentations, each week will examine a different set of objects and topics, such as maps, magic lantern projectors, silent films, early computer animation, planetariums, and virtual reality. Through film viewings, archival/study room visits, and guest lectures, students will enjoy the opportunity to materially engage with analog media technologies, and to interface with artists and scholars practicing diverse forms of media archaeology.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply