Diary # 2

Sat Feb 7 17:29:11 2004

This email went out to those people who B+B feel should be invited to contribute to the Interrupt debates.

Having missed the first Interrupt session at Ikon, I had based my initial judgement of this socially engaged extravaganza on Sophie's diary and comments and responses on the Interrupt bulletin board. I travelled on the train to Plymouth readying myself for Interrupt number 2 and pondered the value of these seemingly endless rounds of conferences and debates on socially engaged practice to which I, and many others, give time. What do we all expect to gain from them and how much can they do?


Our hosts for Interrupt - Artist as Engineer were i-dat at the University of Plymouth. As one of the leading digital arts institutes in the UK, it seemed an intriguing location. It soon became evident that perhaps host and parasite could not serve each other as well as imagined.

In order to explain why, I think it might be helpful to start my diary at the end of Artist as Engineer as it was during the last half hour's discussion of this two-day event that some key questions and issues emerged. The conference ended with key core group members conveying their frustrations of how the previous two days discussion had unfolded. A large contingent of the group expressed their disappointment at the limitations of the format of the event and wanted to have the opportunity to reflect on the problems and plan how to remedy them for the next Interrupt.

It was decided that the group would meet for a debrief before we all scampered back on trains. A majority of the group felt that the format had let them down and that it would not be possible to move forward or to actually produce anything in this context. Lorraine Lesson argued that there should be a greater sense of continuity between each event with key questions and issues being raised and carried over. Ele Carpenter felt that there needed to be a greater sense of ownership and confidence over the purpose and function of the events and in particular their relationship with the host organisations and gathered speakers. To overcome the traumatic release of frustrations at the very end of the event, Viv proposed that the group meet before the next event in London to plan the structure for the Goldsmiths event with these issues in mind.

After hearing about Sophie and others' experiences of Artist as Educator, it does seem that the Core Group are still having problems communicating or sharing their reasons for being there and what exactly it is that they want to achieve (collectively or individually). It is clear that the events would benefit from time at the beginning and end of for everyone present to convey why they are there and what they intend to get out of Interrupt.

Following an introduction by Viv and David, Joasia Krysa and Geoff Cox introduced their take on the Artist as Engineer. They set out linking their approach to Walter Benjamin's notion that it is not enough for an artist to have political commitment without the tools or apparatus to shift means of production.

Participating speaker's were selected to represented the diverse ways in which new technologies have generated collective practices and tactics which propose a alternative forms of social engagement. Groups and projects are testing the limits of control and ownership over the digitized world and are providing tools to others to subvert and interrupt these privatized realms. They introduced the notion of immaterial labour as characterised by Negri and Hardt in 'Empire' (2002) in which work is no longer defined by the generation of capital and instead fosters networks and flows of activity.

They referred to the Brechtian notion of 'epic theatre' in which the boundary between spectator and actor is broken down. This was described this as an 'interruption' in the accepted convention. They specified two strategies towards change: 'snowdrop' in which change is realised within and through existing structures and 'transgression' in which a dramatic change occurs which proposes new structures or institutions.

New technology was presented as fostering a situation in which process is product with an educative and collaborative function, undermining the relationship between producer and consumer. This was not seen to be reflected or supported by the art system ('the means of production have advanced but the mausoleums of art have not').

They concluded with the proposition that, 'the socially engaged artist must reflect upon their position within the production of processes like a technician, demonstrating expertise alongside solidarity'. The artist was moving from a role as a 'supplier of the production apparatus into that of an engineer who sees his/her task as adapting this apparatus. 'The writer is always prepared to become a reader.'

The first artist - engineers we were presented with took the stage like true performers. Two representatives of the multinational corporation ETOY were dressed in precision white shirts and matching ties complete with name badges and slick hair. They announced 'we are not artists, we are serious business people' and allowed us to bask in the realisation that we were witness to this, their first presentation in the UK.

ETOY Corp began as a story, which has grown and expanded and now moves between various roles, functions and contexts. They decided to work as a brand to replace the notion of the individual artist as genius with a shared brand identity and described themselves as a 'corporate sculpture'.

Key moments in the story of ETOY include the now infamous TOYWAR in which the US toy manufacturer Etoys threatened to take the group to court to claim their web name and identity. Following the media frenzy that ensued, they wanted to try to break people's expectations of how the group might behave. Their next large-scale project was ETOY Daycare, a childcare service held in an industrial bright orange container during an electronic arts festival in Turin.

They saw this project as the ultimate approach to a 'real social game' one which allowed them to infiltrate and engage with the next generation, connecting children to new technologies and enabling them to study and alter children's behaviours in the context of art. They saw the project as a long-term study for future generations.

This project was considered during the q and a session and Nina Pope enquired if their move into direct engagement had any relationship to the larger presence of women in the group than previously. This then led to comments from the audience on the male dominance of speakers for the two-day event. The question of the characteristics of practice in relation to gender was not taken forward particularly productively here but it is a key issue in socially engaged debates and is one that would merit further investigation as part of Interrupt. ETOY Daycare also led to an informal discussion in the break on the group's move into direct participatory projects and their approach in relation to the issues on education emerging at the previous conference at the Ikon.

We retreated from the Plymouth session back to the lecture hall to hear CUKT from Poland. Only one member from the group was present and he began by admitting that CUKT no longer worked as a collective. He suggested that they might re-unite to accompany Poland's moved into the European Union!

CUKT formed to operate alongside the changes in Poland and set out to track experiences after 1989. They saw cultural production and new technologies as necessary tools as their function had not been built into the reconstruction of the country. CUKT wanted to explore how best to integrate these tools into the art and school systems. Although much of the work appeared specific to the context of Poland, the presentation provided some interesting parallels to issues emerging from the Ikon conference.

For instance, one project saw them directly responding to the government's decision to refuse the tuition of sex education in schools. They received government funding to devise a CDrom which they hoped would eventually go into the school system. However, this alternative teaching aid failed to make it into the classroom.

CUKT pursued their intervention in the school system and in their next project they proposed that an 'art day' be built into the educational calendar in which students would have eight teachers (the CUKT members) rather than one. The day's activities would introduce students to new technologies and new means of expression. The project resulted in the development of a model for an ideal classroom.

Perhaps in contrast to presentations in Artist as Educator, CUKT and ETOY's projects demonstrated artist-initiated interventions in which collectives take their tools to the worlds of children or young people. Rather than introducing an in-school workshop format, these approaches proposed an open platform within which participating children and young people could lead and develop their own projects, with the use of new technologies.

Neither group talked about this work as necessarily educative but rather as the expression of the groups' collective recognition of the importance and currency of childhood experience. Perhaps this also emerges from the potential for subversion by young people against the impending repression and limitations of adult experience.

Graham Harwood from the UK collective Mongrel presented next. He explained that he had been living abroad in the Netherlands and was keen to emphasize that projects were far more possible and collaboration more successful outside of this country.

He introduced a project he has undertaken with a Surinam community. He explained that Mongrel are very resistant to undertaking work that produces pretty pictures of a culturally or economically deprived sector of society. He set about the project by monitoring the media and mechanisms that the group already had available and by tracking their use of that technology.

The Surinam young people were determined texters and he created a programme which could type and speak texts online. He has transported the project to Southend and is encouraging a group of users there (www.jelliedeel.org). He had the site open during his presentation and members of the audience texted the burning questions and comments they had been dying to ask all afternoon.

He also showed 'Nine' a project recently realised in the Netherlands in which he was asked to create a system to celebrate immigrant culture. They developed a programme which could host non-hierarchical data and that would create subjective maps. One example he gave was of maps of fear through which people could begin to acknowledge sites and areas locally which needed to change. Each local map can be linked to another one made in a different part of the world or next-door. Links can be made through images or through key words (literally words that appear in more than one map). This proposition of a working process without the need for categorization of participants or locations provided one of the more useful points of connection to socially engaged practice. Nine could offer one mode of representing collaborative practices through a shared interface rather than privileging one author.

Graham argued that this way of working cannot be imagined in the UK. Or is it just that it cannot be seen or set apart from an education / community arts context so it is rendered invisible to the audience gathered at i-dat?

The discussion considered access to information technologies and democraticising tools such as open source software. This seemed a point of disjuncture, as these debates were all too familiar to speakers. This resulted in an explanatory rather than discursive exchange.

Graham Harwood (Mongrel) endorsed the potential of open source software suggesting that more public bodies should use it. It was presented as a means to encourage users to think of themselves as producers not consumers therefore allowing them to reclaim involvement in the construction of the apparatus.

Questions of collective tactics were touched upon but not taken forward. This, again, provided an entry point to consider socially engaged practices more widely but it did not become a shared platform. The disjuncture between practices became all the more evident when the same old points about the un-marketability of collaborative work came up perpetuating the them-and-us perspectives of 'the art system' vs. the engaged artist.

One fruitful area in which we seemed to find common ground was on the consideration of human needs as starting points for collaboration. Each group had used a form of story telling or play as a tool to generate exchange. There was also a brief discussion on the role of women in this area of work. Women were praised for administering projects but it was acknowledged that there are far less women than men creating them. This is the converse to the situation in socially engaged and education projects and deserves more serious consideration.

Tuesday was the day for true techies. We commenced the day's proceedings late with a sadly disrupted and somewhat chaotic presentation by Natalie Jeremijenko Fending off technical problems (ironically) and her two talkative children, the cult technologist attempted to deliver her paper on technologies of participatory democracy. She considered the impact of military research and development on technologies and discussed her approach to 'de-militarizing' devices. It was a tantalising talk from which I could only draw fragments so here are some:

Video and surveillance - turning the tables - shifting control Who collects data and who has access? It is the structure of participation that is by its nature militaristic rather than the object itself Open vs. closed models of participation How can we de-militarise robots? How do you build non-military towers? (See art in general gallery's website for more details on Natalie's tower of trust currently under construction in Lower Manhattan)

Natalie's projects proposed strategies for resistance through technology and emerge from the specific context of post 9/11 America. She creates tools for people to re-empower their use of technology in the face of increasingly restricted civil rights and tightened security in the US. Throughout her presentation, the 'user' somehow remained elusive and theory seemed some distance from practice. See her website for a less fragmented description of her projects. www.beaurauit.org

In contrast, James Wallbank delivered a cogent presentation. He bounded on to the stage with disarming enthusiasm and a distinctive 'hey, technology's easy kids' tone. He presented his work with Redundant Technologies, a self-initiated collective who make dis-used computers available to people with little experience of technology. The group is based in Sheffield and was founded in the mid-90s.

James explained that the group decided not to feel pressured by constant updates and new possibilities from software and instead set out to work with what was possible. They set up 'Access space', a center from which they were able to train people and introduce new technologies to the local community. He emphasised that the group don't distinguish between community art practice and high art practice and feels these boundaries inhibit the recognition of diverse practices.

Finally, the Institute of Applied Autonomy took their turn. They woke up the audience with their dynamic public speaking skills (basically walking around a lot and gesticulating wildly). They began by outlining the structures and systems that provide for research into digital technologies in the US, specifically addressing the in-built power relations that define much of the work carried out in academic institutions. DARPA is primary funder for military research and development. They have a budget of $2billion annually, much of this being pumped into academic research centres.

IAA explained that they try to use the tools developed with these funds and subvert them. They have worked in and around academic environments throughout their existence as a collective and use these sites to draw out motivations underlying developments in technology. Through their work, they try to make explicit the power relations that exist within research environments to promote critical discourse around the role of research into engineering.

Similarly to Natalie, IAA sees their role as subverting the militarisation of technology through shifting possibilities for control. They take their tools to the public for instance their propaganda robot for cultural resistance which gleefully scurries about spraying any message you desire it to along pavements and streets. Messages can be sent to the robot via text.

In an intervention on Capitol Hill, the robot sprayed 'Voting is Futile' along the sidewalk. Through these events they have explored people's willingness to allow a machine to act in public space. They were stunned that police and onlookers did not intervene. They saw this as an indication of the authority that 'smart' technologies have in social situations.

Like Mongrel, IAA are also exploring forms of open-data through which people can map areas and self-determine their ownership over public space. In their 'paths for least surveillance' they have undertaken to map the best routes through Manhattan which avoid all surveillance cameras. They are looking at how the map can be updated by a multitude of users from locations around the city.

Discussion considered the development of new technologies and the artist's role within it - helping to shift and reclaim ownership over 'the apparatus' as described by Benjamin. Inevitably this activity is limited to those within the knowledge and access to hardware. This led to questions on access to technologies and the class divides which are inherent within the imposition of new technologies. Jane from Platform referred to a key event held at the ICA in the mid-90s entitled 'Digital Diaspora'. She argued for more discussion on social justice and technology and discrimination and felt that presentations had ignored key issues within socially engaged art.

Lorraine Leeson made the point that artist's are always prepared to adapt materials and tools around them and to inject criticality into their use. Something she felt had not been looked at but that was key to her practice was the value of new technologies in terms of networks and collaboration.

The debate became increasingly fragmented and the Interrupt core group were evidently disgruntled with having such a limited space for discussion. Ele Carpenter acknowledged that the group shared a feeling of marginalisation with the speakers but that we weren't able to understand each other's languages in this context.

We touched on definitions of change (a key question in the previous interrupt session) and Natalie emphasized that for her and others on the panel, technologies are how they recognize social change. She also acknowledged that process of translation of technologies take a long time but that she would hope we can move toward an information commons in which people are able to build, adapt and create the apparatus for their own needs.

The discussion came to a faulty finish with demands from the core group to change the format of discussion and the expression of frustration over poor communication of notions of change and key questions for socially engaged practice. Conference apathy had given way to anger and resentment at being fed presentations and ideas which didn't have a close enough relationship with the core group's aims or intentions.

There was a sense that host and guest had not made their ambitions for the event entirely clear to one another and it was inevitably embarrassing for the gathered speakers and organisers that a successful exchange had clearly not taken place.

There were some poignant and useful questions that emerged which I hope that by stating here might be in some way taken forward for further consideration or discussion:

How might a model such as open source software provide an example for socially engaged art practice? Open Source programmes develop through the sharing of ideas and peer review. This is a useful notion for Interrupt: how could we employ peer review to support developments in practice and create 'programmes' (formats, terminology) that can adequately reflect practice?

As IAA investigated sources of funding for research and investigation, how can we discuss the aims and motivations of funding for socially engaged practice? Who's providing for developments and how are they controlled / mediated? How can the presence of these motivations and intentions be made evident to a wider public?

How can we technology map collaboration? B+B have an answer! Sophie and I are currently undertaking a touring project in which we will be using open source software - specifically a 'wiki'. We would be very happy to let the Interrupt group know more about this project and to discuss how technologies might provide an appropriate space to represent the experiences of socially engaged practices.

Overall, my first Interrupt experience has left me still wondering why it is that we are all getting on trains to then sit in dark lecture halls on sunny days. Artist as Engineer offered a fantastic opportunity to see a lot of interesting people and to find out more about approaches and practices. However, I am concerned that Interrupt is sticking to the well-held structure of a formal conference. I think there is a few simple changes that could occur to shift how the group comes into each event and how they leave.

We need to know who everyone is, why they are there and what they expect. Without hearing and sharing our positions, we've got no way to connect the core group's interests with those of our host's. How about we try to find a way to share practice which is not based on a hierarchy? How about seeing if this format can more adequately enable discussion and actually produce responses rather than setting up oppositions?....

Unfortunately, Sophie and I are unable to make the next Interrupt session in Prague. We are hoping to either send a replacement or find a willing diarist to take our place. Watch this space...


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