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<nettime> interview with Frederic Madre
josephine bosma on 8 Nov 2000 01:21:29 -0000


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<nettime> interview with Frederic Madre


    "Spam is a controversial term, and it conveys a lot of
     negative aspects. That is why I chose it."

Frederic Madre is one of those names one almost immediately associates
with trouble. Yet, like with most net.rebels, Madre is not half as
extreme as the discussions around his actions and words might suggest.
There is a rousing of public sentiment, a way of scaring people, by
opponents of Madre (and likeminded) in the battle for less interference
of moderators in mailinglists. This interview hopefully helps to keep
the discussion around how communities are shaped online, and how to work
with mailinglists in this area, visible. 
In this interview Frederic Madre explains his history from being just
another IT-drone with a punk background to being a journalist and later
an initiator of publications, events and experiments, all in or around
the net. He has a very clear view of the connection between the willful
structuring of social life and political action in computer networks. In
the interview we concentrate on his most famous interventions yet: the
spam engines on the Pleine Peau site. We neither mention the mini
conference on net art Madre organised in 1999, nor do we talk about the
Syndicate meeting he organises together with Andreas Broeckman in Paris
end of this year.

JB: Tell me a little bit about your history. when did you get onto the 
net? I know you from 7-11, were you active before? 

Frederic Madre: I got on the net in 92 or 93, I had been on compuserve 
for a few years already. I used a terminal emulator which ran at 300
bauds and which was all green on black with  a text interface. Later on
I found an internet link for email, and I subscribed to an indie
american rock mailinglist. I remember the first time I posted to that
list. I reacted to a guy who wrote a long text in which he explained in
elaborate detail what he liked about a particular band. My answer only
said: yes, I agree. Immediately, rob vaughn, the admin sent me a
personal email: if you do this again you're off the list (we both laugh
out loud, JB). Several people approached me saying: (husky voice) you
don't do this! This is the internet. We should not waste bandwidth, so
stop immediately! Some of them were kind. I thought: this is so great!
There was no worldwideweb yet, which started of course in 1994. I began
to write about music, as I am a big music fan. I was a punk in '76 and
well, I have tons of records. Anyway, I wrote record reviews and stuff
like that, but after a while I got bored with this strict format. You
could not write about anything else but music  and a certain kind of
music too or you would be thrown out of the list again. Several people
actually got kicked out, including some famous musicians who wanted to
talk about something else for a change. As I wanted to discuss movies or
contemporary artshows, whatever, I simply started to write some texts on 
these topics and sent them to a few people. There were maybe 15 people I
sent stuff regularly to. One of them, Ian Christe, was a friend of a
friend at Wired magazine and a writer too. They got forwarded some text
I wrote about an artshow in Paris. They thought it was 'hysterical', I
remember the word. John Alderman asked me to write for (hot)Wired. So,
next thing you know, they send me to Berlin, where I covered the Christo
Reichstag wrapping for Hotwired. I got paid, they paid for the travel,
the hotel. There was a guy from federal express to pick up my photos at
my real workplace and ship them to california. They had lots of money at
the time. So, I kept writing for them although the news format was
getting to be a drag. Later on, they laid off people and the company was
sold. They had to find money, and it became more difficult to write
interesting things, so I stopped.

JB: How did you get into the net.art scene ?
FM: At the time I was writing those things I got frustrated because it 
was all just 'news' for wired. I always had to find something 'new' that 
would interest them. Back in 1994 I had started my own website, 
initially my homepage of course, which evolved into a small magazine on 
the web. I became influenced by a movement in the US that was pretty 
big, called 'personal narrative', which I discovered by being on dozens
of mailing lists. There were lots of websites that were run by
individuals who were telling their life stories. Important examples of
those are 'the Fray' by Derek Powazek, 'Anthology' and 'after Dinner' by
Alexis Massie and another one called 'so anyway' by someone whose name I
keep forgetting. There were hundreds, all networked by interlinking.
Those people were designers mostly. Their sites were very beautiful,
just a few images and text, ultra simple html written with notepad. They
were just telling their stories, and they were quite frantic. Every day
they would change something on the site, and it was very exciting to go
there. Funny stories, often their daily problems. There were so many of
them that it was a movement. I wanted to do something like this, so I
did this with porculus, mirabelle and caroline sarrion. Net.art only
comes very late into my story, because when I first started Pleine-Peau
with my friends, we wanted to do some kind of political, free expression
magazine. David Hudson, of rewired.com turned me to other things. He
told me about this 7-11 mailinglist for net.art. I got on it and I
thought it was great. I did not know nettime at that time. Later I was
told nettime was a private list, and on the site was written you had to
ask someone to allow you on it. 7-11 was much more interesting. Nettime
was just those
long texts, which was so boring after a while. I wondered why all those
people did not put their texts on the web and send the url to the
list...  On 7-11 people were actually doing something creative within
the mail itself. So I started to get in the mood too. I did not call it
net.art or anything, all that ascii stuff. I wondered how they did that,
so I gave it a try. Now I know people used software, and I do too, that
changes pictures into ascii and tweaked it but at first I was doing it
by hand! Typing all the spaces, wondering how to do a curve in ascii
just by using my keyboard (laughs). I spent hours doing this! What I
liked was that there were those forms on Ljudmila or irational that you
could use to send mails to the list as if you were Keiko Suzuki. I
thought it was fantastic to have this machine to send mail to the list
where people did not really know where it was coming from. This was a
great idea which evolved into what I used for my mailinglist Palais
Tokyo, something I call spam art.

JB: What did you do after 7-11, and what contacts do you still have from 
there?
FM: I am still on 7-11! The website that archived it stops at 1-1-2000.
btw, it is the only real y2k bug I know of, and I work in the computer
industry. I saw it is now archived at the Thing. On the Thing website
they don't use a fixed font though, so all the ascii art is fucked up. 
After 7-11 I wanted to do more with the web then just telling my life
story or trying to be political although I still am engaged with these.
On the web, and in life, I am interested in all sorts of things, and I
want to mix them. The web-zine Pleine Peau kept evolving in different
directions. One lovely thing with the net is that you can reach people
so easily. One of the first people I contacted from 7-11 was Vuk Cosic.
I asked him if he wanted to do something for Pleine Peau. I did a few
thematic issues, and this one which featured Vuk was about scars. Next
to him I also contacted people from this personal narrative movement,
like Alexei Massie, who sent a story about her birth. Vuk Cosic sent me
a story about the bullet holes in walls in different cities he lived in,
like Dubrovnik. I loved it and did the html for it. To show the variety
of people: there was also something by the Swans, a post no wave New
York band and also my mum.
After a while I wanted to move away from telling plain stories though, I 
wanted to try some more complex things. I wanted to make things that 
move or change, I wanted a kind of flux. I looked at a lot of net art, 
and I decided to use some of their ways. A few people asked why I 
stopped telling stories, yet to me it was still storytelling, only in a 
different way.

JB: Do you consider what you do now as net art then? 
FM: No. In a way of course I do, but I do not want to be labelled as 
such because it does not add anything to say so. There is no need to 
call it art. I see it as a way of doing what I always do, which is 
fiction. Fiction on the internet in all possible ways. I have simple 
stories I put on the web. There are mailinglists where I tell stories,
plus I have the spam art machine. The latter are also a way of telling
fiction. They are machines which are interacting between the web and
mailing lists. You can submit words in special fields, you press a
button and out it goes, reformatted and the meaning is reformatted by
it.

JB: Is it a concrete poetry machine?
FM: It could be called this. It is, but I do not like the word poetry. 
It produces some of that stuff I loved on 7-11, but in an automated way. 
I am influenced by all those movements that were trying to use the page 
space as a tool and make the layout tell part of the story, which I also
wrote about for Vuk's solo ascii show. It is also automatic fiction
because you just feed it with words, and the machine constructs the
meaning. The words are messed in a different order than you put them in,
and it adds other words too. It is very strange to see how people use
them. Some use them to make beautiful things, and others use it to
overflow certain mailinglists. Some even use them to abuse individuals.
There was a big incident where somebody suddenly attacked the Syndicate
mailinglist with them, for some reason that had nothing to 
do with Pleine-Peau or me. And of course there were problems with
Nettime, but that is usual. It's a limit tester... There are several
ways in which one can use them. I think they are nice and I might do
more. In fact in France there are now several people that have started
to do these kind of machines, after mine. All those machines were used
in conjunction with my mailinglist Palais Tokyo. We received sometimes
hundreds of them in one day. It became some kind of movement also, spam
art, a french movement let's say.

JB: You are of course aware that the word 'spam' itself is almost enough 
to make a lot of people stagger on the net, especially hackers and old 
time net purists. So your spam machine also has a few (net) political 
implications. What do you think of those, how do you think you position 
yourself towards those people? 
FM: First I have to say that there is a big technological gap between
this first experience years ago when I got on the net and people wanted
to throw you off list if you sent mail bigger than 2k and now that I
produce so called spam on purpose. Nobody really cares anymore. Nobody
remembers 'netiquette' anymore, which I'm not saying is a good evolution
but it's a fact. I used to refer boring spammers to the original RFCs
(request for comments), which explain how to behave. Nowadays sometimes
I do not behave myself according to old school rules, I stopped doing
this... But this is a logical evolution now that the bandwidth is rather
open and access is easier and cheaper, it is not a technical problem
anymore. It became more important to freely send mail and express
yourself, and explain to people that they can use the net, rather than
let it stay something one has to be careful with and use with restraint.
In France for example there is one mailinglist where people are
subscribed, but when you send a mail, the list members get very upset.
They are subscribed, but do not really want to receive anything. Maybe
they like to go out and buy bread and tell their baker "I am on a
mailinglist!". Then they go home, find those mails and go: "O shit!". So 
I did spam art also as a provocation towards those people. When I have
something to say on a list, I say it. When someone says something I like
I will however not say simply: I agree, but I will probably react to it
more elaborately. Spam is a controversial term, and it conveys a lot of
negative aspects. That is why I chose it. I am often very negative and
confrontational about things, I think that disorder raises
consciousness. There are lots of negative things that happen on the net,
like everywhere else, and people are too nice to each other often. They
are not agressive enough, I guess they are building their career. Using
the word spam art gave a bad reputation to something that was happening
before. I just coined the word spam art because it was fun, and it had
connotations that people do not like. Which was what I wanted: to
provoke. Now I have this reputation as a specialist of commercial spam,
but I don't know how to use spambots for instance.

JB: What do you think of the often rigid measures providers take against 
spam? There are no official laws, there is no jurisdiction around spam, 
there is only some vague old consensus. On the basis of this people are 
being blocked from using their account. 
FM: I think this is basically a fascist thing. The whole bussiness 
around preventing spam is that people think they are -protecting- others 
from something that they, of all people, judge is bad for others, but 
protection is a right-wing value. Insecurity and fear are part of right 
wing ideology. Protection from spam means that somebody somewhere is 
dictating what is acceptable and what is not. Of course I get more and
more spam. Every day I get spam for porn sites, or how to get rich in
ten days... but I just delete it. 
What is the big problem about it? I don't care, it is a ridiculous way 
of selling stuff and everybody knows it is. Some people do business 
against spam, and they think they are righteous. We do not need more 
police on the net, and we certainly do not need pseudo-left police with 
so called good intentions.

JB: Does the problem not lie with what exactly the definition of spam 
is? Your spam art or spam engines are not the same as those porn or big 
money advertisements. 
FM: What they have in common is that you did not ask for it to be sent 
to you. but when you are on a list, you also get things you did not ask 
for. You get input from people you would not get otherwise. A lot of 
stuff you get on mailinglists is spam in the traditional definition. A 
lot of it is announcements, adresses of websites. In what way is it 
different from other advertisements? It is promotion for your stuff. The 
only difference might be that it's on or off topic promotion... For 
instance I was doing something similar on a french list: each time I was 
sending small stories specifically written for email, but each time I 
would include links to my site, woven inside the story. It was publicity 
for my site but it was a story too, I think it's fair enough. People
should question their own use of mailinglists. When you write to a list,
you're supposed to 'contribute' to the damn 'community'. But if you add
a link to your site, then it can  drag it to something else. I think it
is important to think about when you do put a link to your site in your
mail and when you don't. I hate .sig files.

JB: Why did you shut your list Palais Tokyo down? Did you also close 
down the spam engine?
FM: The spam engine is still going, it can be directed to other lists 
too and I have no complaints, sometimes people ask me to turn it on
their lists even. I closed Palais Tokyo because I think a list should be
opened and closed, like a door. There is a time for everything, it is
important to know things are not forever. I didn't want it to become an
institution. 
I did not want this list to be something people are glad to be on but 
don't really read what is happening, and they do not participate. 
Just a fancy thing you can wear as a badge. Palais Tokyo has only been 
going for nine months, but a lot was achieved with it. It was not 
moderated. Lots of things happened, some interesting, some not even
painful at times. I believe the best thing was that we all achieved to
create a kind of 'net scene' in France. Before people were doing stuff
seperately, and looking at each other like 'glass dogs'. Like: "I know
this guy is doing something, but I am not talking to him." All of us
came together, we actually talked and did things together. I think they
all came to this list because it was the only list of this type: where
you can experiment whatever you want and there were no rules. It was a
space that was not filled by any other list in France. So closing it was
some statement to other lists too, that they could question their
existence, at times. I have to add that then the closure was quite
brutal on my part. I had spent a very exceptional real life day and
thought I had an acute perception of what was happening on the list in
general. What was going on on the list that day was what had been going
on for a month, but I knew there and then that it was over and I closed
it. I had been warning all subscribers that one day I would close this
list, still there was some distress and agressivity from certain
subscribers towards me which I understand in a way. There was also lots
of encouragement too. All of it has become mythical and in that way it
is important to us all. There are people that claim that it was closed
because of their personal conduct, even, and that is quite amazing!
  
JB: The separation between France and the rest of the net scene, is that 
a technological issue first of all, because France used to have a 
different kind of network system?
FM: I don't think it is linked to that. Of course there was the Minitel 
thing, which was so big, but its production was always very corporate. 
Minitel was only companies doing stuff, and there was this big sex 
exchange discussion thing which was the main income for Minitel. There 
was no art or any general discussion happening really, although my
friend d2b tells me there was one art service called "toi et moi" or
something. You had to invest in a lot of expensive hardware and
proprietary software to set up a Minitel server. I never saw anything
interesting. Minitel was widespread however. My mother in law had one,
everybody did, but the thing just sits there at her place with a nice
napkin on top with a cactus and that's it. The gap between France and
the rest of the net has more to do with the language issue. When I
started to get on the internet in '93 everything was in English. There
was no french stuff. A lot of people in France do not
understand english well. Maybe reading it is ok, but writing, expressing
yourself, is not so easy. For a long time there were no providers in
France as well. I was with an american provider when I started, and
suddenly the french telecoms company decided to breach the contract with
my provider. I was on several mailinglists, and suddenly I had to make a
call to the USA to get my mail! On Palais Tokyo I also noticed that
whenever a discussion became more serious, like about net art (laughs),
then people from France switched to french. They could not enter a
deeper discussion in english. 

JB: Will you take your spam art actions further?
FM: I also closed the list because I think we have done everything that 
could be done with this. We have reached the limits of it. When we were 
at the X-00 festival in Bretagne organized by x-arn.org, we sent 250
mails in one hour to various mailinglists. That was so much fun.

JB: Did it change anything about the rigidness with which spam is 
approached?
FM: No.

JB: So it failed in this respect?
FM: It was not about promoting spam, but about breaking some netiquette 
laws which were unjustly enforced by people that pretended to be on 
'our' side, you know, for our own good. Doing forbidden things for
righteous reasons. Of course after every spam outburst there were many
people unsubscribing from the list. There were also lots of people who
stayed though. It reinforced the us-and-them opposition even more. I
now definitely hate moderation more than ever and moderators hate me
more too. It's important to choose your side and work from there.

JB: I mean more in general, what changed outside the list? Do you think 
you changed the perception of spam?
FM: Basically it was a local, french thing although it was recognized
internationally that there was something happening out there, for once.
It was a french way of doing stuff, a net riot of our own. I don't know
if I want to achieve things. I am always questioning the measure of
succes of something you can do on the internet. It does not mean a lot
to me. It was a success for the list: spam made it lively, even if it at
the same time doomed the list ultimately. I wanted to have everything on
this list: I wanted to have a discussion list, I wanted to have spam, I
wanted to have some personal stuff, everything! And it is not possible
to have everything, I know. There are very few people in the world that
can take everything and are ready to handle this freedom. People want to
be channeled.

JB: You sound like Ted Byfield!
FM: To me he is just a moderator of nettime... I have never met the
person 'ted byfield', once someone pointed out the top of his skull at
n5m3 to me, which is enough. I do not want to become friends with a
moderator, I want to keep the antagonism fresh! but I recently heard he
was on the bad_subjects mailing list and I was too, a long long time
ago, although I unsubbed cause it was too
let's-be-left-wing-on-the-campus for me, still it's important that we
share this in a way. It upsets me even more, as I was saying, that the
most obtrusive moderation comes from left wing net theorists. Palais
Tokyo was instrumental in providing information and some form of relief,
let's say, when netochka's server was shut down by nettime oligarchy's
gone haywire. Her typedmess mailing list was shut down too and Palais
Tokyo sheltered it. At awful times, like those were, there's lots that
is happening also off-lists between individuals. Somehow nettime always
gets into trouble, they are the ultimate troublemakers, not us. I had to
unsub from nettime during the kosovo war, the moderation was absolutely
nauseating and that's when I realized that it was the moderation process
itself which was dangerous and against everything I loved about the net.
At the time there was a bit of quite heavy discussion behind the scenes
when I made a semi-public announcement that I was leaving the nettime
list, it certainly was impossible to discuss it on the list itself so I
decided to create a stir where I knew it would hit reasonably. From then
on, I have vowed to never sub to a moderated list and resign from a list
which suddenly becomes moderated (it sometimes happen, people flip),
it's a political issue. The moderators create trouble by enforcing
unjust law, I wish to break it. 

JB: But now you say people want to be channeled!
FM: Some people want to be, not all. One thing that annoys me a lot, is 
people who send mails saying: "unsubscribe me, please". They are like 
people walking into a MacDonalds, to order a Big Mac, and they want some 
kind of service delivered. The internet is not about service. It is just 
people trying to do stuff together, which is always difficult. It annoys 
me when people do not even try to do those basic things by themselves. 
There is a major difference between any moderator of a list and the role
of what I call admin or list-owner. Moderators think they know best, but
I don't. I think people should learn things by themselves. When I first
got on the net I found out how to get on a list, and how to get out. I
never asked anyone to do stuff for me. When I open a list I want to open
channels, not close them. I don't want people to feel trapped into
something. That is the difference with a moderated list. Moderators try
to protect people from something that does not exist and does not have 
to be feared and by doing this they emphasize their own importance and
it's endless. I often think of a song by the Saints which goes 'I see
police but where's the crime ?". Even on a list which has a very
specific topic, sometimes a post can only seem like it is off topic.
Who's to say what the sender truly meant? Also when people get on a list
about something/anything they need to know who they are talking to, and
they might want to talk about something else which leads to the lists'
subject. They must understand who is there with them, who they are
talking to, and in what way it is possible to get to the subject through
several routes. If a person moderates a list, -then- it becomes a one
track mind, because his personal view of the topic is the only view
that's conveyed on the list. That is what I call fascist. If a list
cannot regulate itself, by the whole body of subcribers who participate
to it, the list should be closed. It then achieved all it could achieve,
it is not sad it's only natural. If it strays off the subject too much,
this means that all the people who came on the list 
did not understand what the subject was, or it means that amongst them
there are many people who are interested in something else than the
initial one, so be it. Why is it more or less valid than the initial
one? When you get into one topic only in one way, it is like collecting
butterflies in your locked apartment. That is not what I think the net
is about. The net is about people getting together, talking about stuff,
doing stuff and the subject is just an excuse for it.



http://pleine-peau.com                main site
http://pleine-peau.com/pls-tk!/       palais tokyo archive (incomplete)
http://pleine-peau.com/n8/spam/       spam machine
http://2balles.cc                     weblog

http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/ascii/fre_eng.htm

http://www.i-lab.org/   net art conf

personal narrative
http://www.fray.com the fray
http://www.afterdinner.com after dinner
http://thelegacyproject.net/is/alexis/ alexis massie
David Hudson
http://www.rewired.com online journal
http://www.groksoup/site/Rewired weblog

Ian Christe
http://home.dti.net/ianc 

John Alderman
http://www.underbelly.com/ 

nettime vs the world
http://www.m9ndfukc.org/memocide.neu+improved.genocide/

http://www.ccs.neu.edu/home/dougo/polls/ chugchanga-l music mailing list
http://www.d2b.org  d2b the great
http://x-arn.org/x-00  net festival in lorient (bretagne)  
http://eserver.org/bs/ bad subjects 
http://hotwired.lycos.com/retina/95/29/christo/index.html christo piece
http://so.anyway.org/overview/index.html gregory alkaitis-carafelli
http://www.7-11.org/ 7-11 until 31/12/1999
http://www.o-o.lt/asco-o contemporary spam machines
http://pavu.com more french spammers
http://www.dtcc.edu/cs/rfc1855.html RFC 1855 Netiquette Guidelines
http://www.kit.ntnu.no/stud/barcley/whitemail/ atle barcley's whitemail
http://swans.pair.com/ swans




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