Structuring negative feeling in technological research: Contemporary rituals of the Department of Ultimology

The 9th New Materialisms conference, Urban Matters, took place in Utrecht from the 20-22 June 2018. On the first day of the conference, as part of the Methodologies panel, I made a short performative lecture on the Department of Ultimology, a project by artist/researcher Fiona Hallinan and curator Kate Strain, which explores that which is dead or dying in a series or process from the academic context of the University (Trinity College Dublin).

The night before the presentation I worried (unnecessarily) that I had not included enough of a new materialist theoretical perspective, and hastily added in a slide with a quote from a paper by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman, which focuses upon framing a New Materialist methodology:

…research needs to be understood as speculative eventing, and how within the speculative middle, methods need to be (in)tension so that methods become attuned to ethicopolitical matters and concerns.

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This was a little forced, as the purpose in this instance was not to theorise and explain the Department of Ultimology, but to show the ways that thinking with and alongside the Department of Ultimology generates new relations amongst art practitioners and engineering researchers in the context of academic technological research (CONNECT, Trinity College Dublin). It was the idea of the ‘speculative middle’ that really resonated with my experience of the Department of Ultimology, so I’m using this concept as a way to top and tail my presentation, as an exposition rather than explanation.

I wanted to make a presentation that would be subtly, respectfully and playfully challenging and questioning of the frames and codes of academic discourse and in relation to New Materialisms scholarship and methods. The Department of Ultimology were a foil for this desire, but it was also a way to reflect upon the critical desires of meta-communication that constitute institutional critique (through art). I also wanted to practice a process of inquiry in the making of the presentation and to try to show or suggest how I inquire and learn through conversation and by reading texts and ideas and practices through each other in an improvisational, inter-textual (Hayles) or diffractive (Barad) way.

So, I tried to structure the presentation in the following way. I would use a kind of audio-visual montage to activate listening and thinking amongst the audience. I wanted to generate an atmosphere in the room that might be conducive to people bringing their own knowledge and experience of New Materialisms and Material Studies to bear upon what I was offering.

Here’s the gist of the presentation:

Before I get into the details of this material, I would like to offer a kind of ‘primer’ quote to situate the art practice I’m speaking about as one that gets into the thick of inquiry through a process of ‘speculative eventing’. This is a concept that I think resonates with the creative research practice of the Department of Ultimology.

(Next, I went straight into reading the statement on Ultimology taken from the DoU’s press pack:)

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So, that’s the description of the work of the Department of Ultimology from their official Press Pack. I’ve been working with and alongside the DoU for the past couple of years as a member of the Orthogonal Methods Group and as an artist and post-doctoral researcher in CONNECT. Working in this context of academic-industry technological research with art practitioners, critical theorists and engineers for the past 8 years or so, I’ve noticed in my own research practice that the quality of relations of the research culture seems to linger somewhere between lyric and parody. More recently, particularly in the situated work of the Department of Ultimology, I’ve experienced another dimension of this relationality that seems to linger somewhere between theatre and ritual. It was a particular event by the Department of Ultimology called the Research Purge which helped me to think this pattern, and so I want to generate some insight on both the DoU and the Research Purge event today, and to think this pattern with you all.

The title for this presentation is Structuring negative feeling in technological research: Contemporary rituals of the Department of Ultimology. But this title has always been more of a question than an assertion – writing the abstract for this conference was a way for me to open up a process of research-creation with the Department of Ultimology that would allow me to begin to think about the continuum between theatre and ritual, lyric and parody. Eventually I want to get to a position where I can think and speak more clearly about the reciprocal politics of art practice in the University and particularly in relation to technological research. So, by generating a speculative title for this presentation I opened up an opportunity whereby I could engage with the Department of Ultimology in a different way, opening up a critical and exploratory conversation, through the concept of ritual, that was very much in sympathy with the methodology of both Fiona Hallinan and Kate Strain, the departments lead faculty.  What follows then is an edited Skype conversation between myself and Fiona Hallinan (featuring the sounds of seagulls and Fiona’s baby, Luan), that begins with a consideration of the relationship between theatre and ritual:

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The Purge took place on a weekday at lunch time, in the seminar room at CONNECT. Many of CONNECT’s researchers and staff gathered to listen and witness, as well as colleagues from the wider University and from across many fields of contemporary art and design.


[Italics indicate the speech of Fiona Hallinan, transcribed from the second half of the Skype conversation.]

A Purge is described as an action that establishes innocence, that clears the suspicion of guilt, that cleanses, gets rid of, purifies, empties out, works as a kind of laxative, responding to poisons or politically undesireable persons… the working title for the Research Purge was Take a Dump.

Fiona tells me how the event came about:

I think a huge part of the whole event preparation was to do with Linda’s specific interest in encouraging people to let go of ideas.

Linda is Prof. Linda Doyle, former Director of CONNECT, principal investigator of the Orthogonal Methods Group and Dean of Research at Trinity College Dublin.

I think we spoke a little bit before about this idea that there can be a tendency to feel (as an academic researcher) that you’re the person who works on that particular subject, and you should stick to it for your whole career. Linda was saying that she felt like there was a tendency for people to hold on to ideas for longer than they should, and that it would be helpful to encourage an event that performed the discarding of those ideas. So, I think this is a way of modelling Ultimology as a service… 

‘Ultimology as a Service’ is a phrase adopted from the world of information technology – it’s a kind of business model. CONNECT’s public engagement manager, Andrew O’Connell, first suggested this label as useful to describing Ultimology. But Ultimology wears its lables lightly, with sincere good humour and a rich appreciation of the affordances of ambivalence. In a published interview with the Department of Ultimology, Fiona had explained how they “had started to collect a set of qualifying features to become a department”. They discovered that they needed to have a student, a budget, an office… “and as we collected these things , we realised we were actually becoming a department through calling ourselves a department.” Now the Department of Ultimology has affiliate artists, one of whom is Andreas von Knobloch. They wanted to work with Andreas specifically to create an Ultimological Time Piece. Fiona continues:

There was something going on at the same time that we wanted to allign with {the Purge} which was an ongoing collaboration with Andreas von Knobloch. We had this ongoing project with him to create a version of a water clock.

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Andreas and I had been talking about the notion of time as a theme of Ultimology and we had looked at many forms of timekeeping and came across the water clock, which was the first method humans used to keep time that didn’t rely on celestial objects, a kind of autonomous earthly device for keeping time. And so, Andreas was working on this project himself and in communication with us, and in the meantime he had started to think about the water clock as a kind of personal object and a kind of meditation object that one might keep by their bedside. And we were talking to him about CONNECT and the research done there, of telecommunications and the striving for things to always be faster and more connected, talking about things like the Internet-of-Things, and comparing that to the idea of a mediative water clock that you’d have on your bedside table, that could work as well as it would have thousands of years ago.

And so, Andreas came up with this idea of the water clocks becoming a device for purging yourself of your smart phone, the device for connectivity. And so, he designed it to be activated by its user pushing their smart phone or tablet into a certain cavity which would release water, and it would take a certain amount of time to be released. So your smart phone became, instead of a device for connecting you to loads of possibilities, it became like a brick basically, just to release water for a certain amount of time. And the idea was that you would use that then to disconnect yourself from your phone.

We ended up, at the same time, reading a number of articles that were published by researchers and engineers who worked for companies like Facebook, who were coming out and saying that they didn’t know that what they had invented was so poisonous and they now wouldn’t allow their children to have access to social media or to smart phone devices in the same way they had, because they felt like there was something really dangerous and addictive about them. And so, we thought that this was a really interesting form of public purging as well, this idea of engineers coming out and saying ‘this is my idea but now I reject it as toxic and socially damaging!’ So all of these ideas were kind of convening.  


And we thought then to stage this event [the Research Purge] which at its simplest was going to be an invitation to researchers to purge ideas, and that we would also present Andreas’ water clocks, and we would actually use them to time the talks as well, so it was a way of making the event more cohesive and artistic. It kind of presented a format that I think we’d love to continue. A real action that was useful to researchers, but also presenting an artwork by an artist that involved their own research.

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On the day of the Research Purge, the Department of Ultimology offered the audience an overview of the motivations, materials and stories informing the event. Links between the water clocks, addictive technologies and public purging were declared. Engineers declared aspects of their research or research field purged, or they declared the idea of a purge a nonsense in a time of technological change:

Elma declared that age of Spectrum Ownership was over.

Neal declared that the use of generic language in the academy had had its day.

And Luiz declared that there was no need for such purges, since in technological research, nothing changes but the changes (research is changing all the time).

The public and performative declarations and declaimations of the Research Purge were followed up with a related event, a Slab Clay workshop inviting CONNECT’s researchers to engage with the same process undertaken by Andreas von Knobloch to create his Ultimological Water Clocks.

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Between the performative lectures of the Research Purge and the quiet contemplation and participation of the Slab Clay workshop, it’s possible to see Ultimology neither as ritual nor as theatre, but operating ambivalently some where in between these poles, in the tradition of Institutional Critique, and as a contemporary method of bringing people into the speculative middle of a research event.