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<nettime> runet - interview with olia lialina
florian schneider on Tue, 22 Feb 2000 00:34:58 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> runet - interview with olia lialina


Actually, quite a lot is heard and written about the virtual and real
borders of the Internet. Such mapping is limited to what is already
known or should be known. Starting point of this interview was the fact,
that at least for the most of the english and german speaking net
community the cyrillic encoded aereas of the net are more than ever
"terra incognita". The following text has been developed from some very
concrete questions to the moscow net artist olia lialina (currently
professor for networks and online environments at merz academy,
Stuttgart) about what's going on in ru-net. Questioners and respondents
were sending the questions and answers by email, forwarded them to
friends, who might be able to add some comments, discussed these
contributions, removed and rewrote some parts, asked again. The text
started to proliferate to different directions, around itself and around
the world. In the current version James Allen and Florian Schneider
asked the questions, Olia Lialina answered. Forwardings you find in
brackets: >>Fwd to $name>> . Some important links are listed as
footnootes with their complete adress in the end of the text, as well as
a briefly annoted collection of  some russian homepages. 

The english version of the text is published on telepolis at:
http://www.telepolis.de/tp/english/inhalt/on/5819/1.html

A german translation you find at:
http://www.telepolis.de/tp/deutsch/inhalt/on/5818/1.html


 Q: Olia most conversations with you have focused on selling net.art.
I'd like to change the subject and talk about east/west differences and
the Russian Internet. The 1997 Nettime conference in Lubljana brought
together a lot of artists and critics from the east and west. What was
the atmosphere during the "Beauty and the East" sessions?

A: I remember the exotic aura that surrounded Eastern European Internet
and media artists in the middle of the 90's. Nettime's mailing list
conference was one of the sessions that year that demystified some
western assumptions and finished the era of pure curiosity.

Q: But I'm wondering what's happened since...aside from your work and
that of Alexei Shulgin there isn't much information around about the
Russian Internet.

A: Not much is heard about the Italian, German, Japanese, or Hungarian
Internet's either. It's said that the Internet has no borders, but one
is obvious. The border of language. Languages trace new maps across the
Internet...I'm not sure how it can be visualised at this moment...I
can't really talk about the other communities, but the Russian Internet
isn't just servers, providers, authors and artists situated in Russia.
It's a community of people speaking, writing and thinking in Russian.
They live in America, Israel, Germany, Russia, Australia, the former
Soviet Republics... So, in this case you can really talk about new
territory; without old, but with new borders. I can give you a very
recent example of it. On New Year's eve three alpinists tragically died
in the Mexican mountains. They lived in America, but they were Russian
speaking. They were involved in different Russian online magazines and
their death - which was not really covered in the offline media - was a
tragedy for the one online.
Another example: the famous etoy-etoys conflict and the animated
discussions that surrounded it in the English language Internet
community, hasn't crossed the borders of the Russian Internet.

Q: Is language itself an issue for the Russian Internet?

A: Yes, you have to realise that for the Russian Internet language is
very important. In the beginning writers, philologists and semioticians
were very influential in Internet culture. Online literature servers,
events and contests are still very important and are always in the
center of the web observer's attention.

Q: Can you explain this?

A: There are at least three reasons. The first (very general): all
Russian culture is based on the word, and literature is dominant. The
second (technological): in it's early years the WWW was fit only for
texts. It wasn't attractive for visual artists, photographers,
filmmakers, etc, but it was really a paradise for writers. They were the
first users. The third (subjective): Roman Leibov, Eugene Gorny and
Dmitriy Itskovich founders of the first Russian Online Culture magazine
Zhurnal.Ru (http://www.zhurnal.ru) come from the world renowned
Literature Department of Tarty University (Estonia), where one of the
most important semioticians, Yurij Lotman, was their teacher.

>>Fwd to roman {AT} admin.ut.ee Roman Leibov: "I would add that, first of all, the Early Russian Web was made by people who had grown up with Usenet; a plain text environment. And more importantly most of them were emigrants; people lacking ordinary communication in their mother tongue. These people were targeting their self identification especially in the field of language and literary culture. Usenet was a substitute for talks in the kitchen, radio and TV, street and party meetings (partsobrania). The web became, for them, a place to build their own "Small Russias". >>

Q: How popular is the Internet in Russia? How many people are on the
net?

A: I don't know. And probably nobody knows, because statistics only
describe the number of machines and users in the territory of the
Russian Federation.
If you're interested in this I can quote the information from a
www.cmi.ru review*[1]: that the most optimistic estimate of the number
of users is 5 million, and more realistically 1.2 million. The most
popular resources in the top-level domain ".ru" get no more than 10-12
thousand hits a day.
Of course most of the facilities and connected people are in Moscow and
St. Petersburg. Outside the capitals the geography of Runet has a
curious shape which bears the trace of OSI computerisation programmes
(Open Society Institute; funded by the philanthropist George Soros).
Some small cities are completely computerised but they're surrounded by
desert.

Q: When did OSI start this program and who was affected by it?

A: The programme called "Internet"*[2] started in 1992 with a budget of
100 million dollars. The aim was to support non-commercial organisations
in St. Petersburg, Moscow and 33 Universities in the Regions. By 1999 30
universities were connected to the Internet.
Btw: at this moment in Russia a lot of universities are computerised and
students have free access to the Internet, but I never get a message
from somebody whose address is a university address. Ordinary students
don't have mailboxes at universities and professors as well.

Q: Do you mean there are universities without computers? Universities
without Internet access?

A: Yes, sure. And those students that have access use free web
mailboxes, they're not hosted by the university.

Q: What was your first contact with the Internet?

A: Actually I'm a child of the Soros foundation's policy to provide
computers instead of money. In 1995 our film club, CINE FANTOM,*[3]
asked for money to invite people from abroad, but we got a computer and
a modem instead.

Q: And then?

A: This time, in January 1996 a filmmaker from our film club came back
from a scholarship in New York and told us about a new wonder: the
Internet. (At this time it sounded, for me, like a huge database where
you could easily get information about every filmmaker and spread
information about yourself). So, in February 1996 we found a provider
and were wondering how to start.
At this time I was giving lectures on experimental film at the Joint
Artist's Workshop in Moscow. Alexei Shulgin was also there, talking
about the Internet. He gave me a place on the server for the first CINE
FANTOM pages.
The more I was working on the CINE FANTOM site the more involved I got.
At a certain moment I realised that it wasn't enough for me only to
transfer information about films to html. I wanted to combine both
experiences: being online and being with film. So that is how I started
with net films and net stories.

Q: I understand that you create net.art in English. Do you publish
articles in Russian? What's the relation between Russian and English?

A: I don't have any projects in Russian. In my works I use English,
because English words are only signs for me. This gives me a chance to
feel different. I can concentrate on the language of the net; it's
structure and logic. But I write articles and communicate in Russian; or
rather in transliteration (Russian typed with a latin keyboard). It's
easier because you don't need to worry about encodings.
This is an interesting detail. Due to the lack of co-ordination in the
beginning it seemed that every platform had its own encoding for
cyrillic. This caused confusion for several years and a lot of
inconvenience, supplementary software and eventually jokes. Now the
problem is almost solved. But I guess this deep confusion with font
encodings has become a part of Russian Internet culture. You could say
the abundance of them and the varieties in which any given page is
offered stresses the power of language and its special role.

>>fwd nl {AT} df.ru Nikolaj Danilov (net writer): "The funny thing is that because of all this mess with encodings the Russian language got at least several new words. For example 'bnopnja' is a misencoded version of the word 'vopros' (question). It became very popular because it was in the subject of beginner's messages to different conferences or providers. Of course their 'bnopnja' was mostly concerning encodings." >>

Q: Can you describe the net community? What's happening beside literary
contests?

A: Well, it's interesting to describe the situation now. Power games are
starting to blossom. For the last 3 years runet was a pyramid: 2-3 idols
on top, 10-20 famous names, about 50 almost famous and a huge number of
"users" in the basement. I might be mistaken about numbers. The ambition
was, and is, to move closer to the top. The Russian Internet model is
another example of the common thought that in the Internet there is no
difference between main stream and underground. But from another
perspective: there is no division and no chance to divide. Everything is
mainstream, establishment. The only difference between sites is: famous,
known and unknown. There are servers who call themselves "underground."
You can find a lot of "nonnormative lexic," good jokes about the Top 10,
complete political uncorrectness. But these sites ( http://www.fuck.ru ,
http://www.idiot.ru ) are participants of the banner exchange and rating
systems established by the people to whom they want to be in opposition.
So it's not that serious.

Q: Is anything threatening the status quo?

A: The situation changed around two months ago when almost
simultaneously two Internet academies appeared. One is the Russian
Internet Academy*[4] the other is the Allrussian Internet Academy*5.
Both give press conferences about the importance of supporting and
developing runet. Both ignore each other and have announced a prize in
the manner of the webbyawards.
The first one consists of media artists; people who don't know anything
about the Internet, but they're famous in general; real specialists,
important net observers. They are sponsored by Intel.
Another academy is concentrated around the http://www.ezhe.ru server
(the community of Russian Online Periodicals). It unites people, who
were already united. This academy didn't establish a prize but the ezhe
list is continuing with its old professional award: POTOP. There's no
money associated, though it's supposed to be very prestigious. But it's
predictable.
So suddenly there are two giants, and there's not enough room at the
top. They act as though it's necessary to fight for the right to be the
Real and the Only One. This process is funny and spectacular in itself.
It even provoked a new wave of interest in the Internet in offline
media. It's produced a lot of ironic jokes, parodies*[6] and numerous
articles on and off line. But this is a very healthy process as well.
The top of the pyramid is destroying itself. It opens a space for
battles, polarisation and development.

Q: Are there struggles between commercial or government forces and
independent producers? Anything like the e-toy conflict?

A: That kind of problem is everywhere. Monopolies want to dominate.
State wants to control. They become more and more serious and motivated.
But Etoy's failure -like the Russian governments' attempt at net
censorship- is that they underestimate the force of the Internet
community. Those who have money and power don't understand the logic of
the environment. They need to invest more money and involve more
competent people if they plan to win.
Every day there's a new confrontation between offline-online logic and
value systems (copyright, censorship). But until now all these big and
small cases are still only manoeuvres for both sides.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: Last year a very popular Russian author, Vladimir Sorokin, failed to
stop distribution of illegal copies of his last book "Goluboe salo" over
the web.
The intention of the writer and the publishing house were absolutely
right and true. Public sympathy was on their side because the novel is
admired by all participants of the conflict. But in trying to defend
their copyright they started to target and offend people who put links
on their site to "pirate" pages. I mean they acted without any
understanding of how WWW is and they lost. In the end they had only one
chance: to thank linkmakers for "participation in promotion compaign of
the book". You can find all the discussion at
http://nagual.pp.ru/~ache/texts/razborka.html

Q: What about the war in Chechenia? Is there anything going on online?
Anything you might compare to the infowar during the Kosovo war?

A: Actually, this war (or anti-terrorist operation as it is called by
Russian authorities) is a Niagara of disinformation from both sides and
in all medias. I don't see that in this case the Internet plays any
special role for inside or outside Russia. Although, on the web you can
easily access information (also in English) of the prochechenian Kavkaz
Center News Agency. The information it contains and the vocabulary it
uses are the exact
opposite of the Russian perception or even that of the rest of the
world: government troops (not Chechenian) are called terrorists and
bandits. The address of this site is http://www.kavkaz.org. Btw Kavkaz
means the Caucasus in Russian. If you go to http://www.kavkaz.ru you'll
find a tourist guide about nice mountains, hotels and sightseeing in the
area. Nothing about war.

Q: Do you read online Russian news?

A: Yes, and not only when I'm abroad. I prefer online news to tv, radio
and newspapers. The significant thing is that in runet there are sources
like http://www.polit.ru, http://www.lenta.ru, http://www.cmi.ru,
http://www.vesti.ru, and others, which from the very beginning were not
just web versions of the original, but real new online sources. They are
oriented to connected people. And made by connected people! I'm glad
that they really dominate over offline newspapers that have bigger names
but loose positions since they use the net only as a promotion for paper
versions.

>>fwd to fishman {AT} observer.ru Misha Fishmann (Polit.ru editor): "The weight of online journalism in media life is growing. And now every online-resource has it's own character, it's own reputation, it's own public, thus, more or less repeating the whole story of Russian print-media. This effect depends also on news agencies - the main news gatherers in the country, which opened (or not) their resource channels in the Internet, thus defeating the psychological problem of believing "Internet-news." Still one has to say, the popularity and readability of online news resources is not huge. And the influence, which some of them have on the media-politics life, exists more likely because of the public: the media-newsmakers-politics/business world, those more used to the Internet, than the common public. ">>

Andrej Levkin, one of the first Russian online journalists and analysts,
made an interesting note on Internet periodicals recently*[7]: Political
crisis of 1991 caused a lot of new independent radio stations. Economic
crisis of fall 1998 brought to life numerous online resources, they were
a very convenient way to publish economic manifestos (would not work
with radio, and would mean the show of position for newspaper). Another
reason is that after the crisis a lot of paper magazines and newspapers
were closed and journalists had to turn to the Internet.

>>fwd slava {AT} russ.ru Slava Kuritsin (writer, culture observer): "It is easier and more fun to be an on-line writer. You can see how your article is published immediately, and you can get immediate response from the people. And you feel more free and relaxed when you write, because you can change your text next day or in one year. In one word, you work with plasticine, not with marble.">>

Q: What's new in Moscow?

A: In relation to the Internet people are afraid that very soon there
will be a new regulation for phone payment. At this moment it's almost
free; just $2.00 per month. Internet communication instantly becomes
less attractive if
you have to pay for each minute of the local call.

Q: Are there any archetypes that have withstood the digital flood?

A: In spite of all "new" logic and "new" geographies and all the other
"news" one can still see the eternal competition between Moscow and St.
Peterburg; the two Russian capitals. It's not affected by time or media.
It is still actual, and still a mystery. (You can find more at
Russ.ru*[8]) Another peculiarity isn't peculiar at all. When people say
Russian Internet they mean the web in Russia. This misunderstanding is
global, and national.

Mostly in Russian:

*1 http://www.cmi.ru/net/1999-12-25-1.html
*2 http://internet.osi.ru
*3 http://www.cinefantom.org
*4 http://www.academia.ru
*5 http://www..InternetAcademy.ru
*6 http://www.litera.ru/akademia
*7 http://www.cmi.ru/net/1999-12-27-1.html
*8 http://www.russ.ru/netcult/20000112_goryunova.html


Also:

http://www.cs.ut.ee/~roman_l/hyperfiction/   
[first russian hyperfiction]

http://www.lib.ru 
[Maksim Moshkov's library]

http://www.teneta.ru/  
[Russian Online Literature Contest]

http://www.anekdot.ru  
[most popular Russian site]

http://www.cityline.ru/paravozov-news/
http://www.zhurnal.ru/muxi/   
 [first russian web observers]


http://www.echonet.ru  
http://www.radar.ru
 [runet news]

http://www.theatre.ru 
[huge and alive server about theatre history and events]

http://www.lenin.ru   
[virtual mausoleum]

http://www.dantes.ru  
[Pushkins death chronics]

http://www.here.ru  
[wwwhere ru]

http://redsun.cs.msu.su/wwwart/  
[first russian net art pages]

http://www.guelman.ru   
[culture magazine]

http://www.da-da-net.ru/    
[online resourses festival]

http://www.tema.ru 
[web designer #1]

http://www.metro.ru 
[all about moscow metro]

http://koala.mu.ru/  
[russian superbad.com]

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