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<nettime> Browserdays: Interview with Mieke Gerritzen
geert lovink on Thu, 9 May 2002 20:10:26 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Browserdays: Interview with Mieke Gerritzen



Five Browserdays Later - An Interim Report
Interview with Mieke Gerritzen
By Geert Lovink

A lot has happened since the Amsterdam-based designer Mieke Gerritzen and I
came up with the idea to do a 'Browserday' in early 1998
(www.browserday.com). After the design competition took place three times in
Amsterdam (1998-2000), the event moved to New York (March 2001) and Berlin
(December 2001). On May 17 2002 Browserday will be back in Amsterdam. Four
years after we had the initial idea Mieke and I sat behind our laptops and
had an e-mail exchange to re-assess the concept.
Initially a team of people organized the Browserday, with Jeanine Huizinga,
David Garcia, Eric Kluitenberg, Michael van Eeden and Marleen Stikker
(amongst others) in the core team. The browserdays 1998-2000 were a
collaboration between the Dutch organizations such as the Society for Old
and New Media (www.waag.org), De Balie (www.balie.nl), Paradiso
(www.paradiso.nl), with involvement of the Rietveld, HKU and Sandberg design
schools. In 2000 Mieke Gerritzen, the main force behind Browserday, took the
competition on board of her new company, www.nl-design.net, and pushed the
competition in an international direction. Even though the event from the
start had the label 'international' it took some time to get design schools
outside of the Netherlands interested. The next step was to try and see if
the concept would also work outside of the safe and cozy environment of
Amsterdam.
I attended only the first two Browserdays in Amsterdam and then moved to
Australia. However, my role in the Browserdays circus continued, helping to
formulate the topics, doing research and compiling (xerox) readers with
relevant texts related to the specific topic of each individual event. The
core idea, for me, had always been to break open the new media design
practice and put the designers in a multi-disciplinary environment. And show
that designers, instead of merely being users, could intervene in the making
of the applications they worked with. If it was true that tools were shaping
the work, then it was also up to designers to directly contribute to
technological developments. The browser was the Internet application par
excellence. In a rapidly changing media environments 'tools' such as the
browser were nowhere near neutral. Their technological parameters were
cultural and economic in nature. Browsers are our windows to the world of
information and communication. They are highly political applications as the
initial clash of 1998 had shown. But the Browserday competition also proved
that the browser concept, as such, could also be an incredible trigger for
the techno-imagination. The politics and aesthetics of data navigation tools
were going to be with us for a great part of the 21st century. That much was
clear.

GL: The last, fifth Browserday took place in Berlin. Have you seen
progress in the submissions over the years the competition is running? It is
being said that 3 or 4 years is a long time in terms of technology
development. Is that also the case for concepts and design proposals made by
students?

MG: I don't think 3 to 4 years is such a long time in terms of technological
development. The technological revolutions never stop. As long as people
stay working on it, technology will stay an endless growing fantasy. Of
course technology need heavy dose of knowledge, but every new step forward
will require new ideas and dreams of seamless possibilities. That's what I
mean with fantasy. Technology needs utopia; otherwise there is no drive for
progress. The economy needs technical development to keep the market going
on. It's impossible to distinguish between short and long term development.
Talking realistic, I think everything up till now is short-term development
compare to the hundreds of thousands of years which will follow. In the
millions of companies, institutes and laboratories are mostly people working
in a hurry to serve their stockholders and clients. At the moment technical
development is a strongly money-driven. The International Browserday is an
educational (and entertaining) event focusing on technical developments. Its
not related to money and as a result it is also not related to technical
realism. It is related to technical development in terms of "fantasy". It's
all about the public expression of creativity.
The International Browserday started in 98, based on the discontent over the
old-fashioned desktop computer browsers. It was the time of the "browser
 war" between Microsoft and Netscape. Three Browserdays later (with its
theme: "the end of the browser") in 2000 we started a new direction, placing
the browser issue outside the PCs. Many devices now have browsers, such as
mobile phones, PDAs and other 'wearable' technologies.
During the years in which the event took place browsers have becoming a more
and more independent product. The desktop computer is not the only machine
anymore that is using a browser to navigate data environments and
applications. The Browserday gives us also the possibility with every new
topic to show a bit of history of technical development by theoretical
papers and technical practice.
There is, and there is no progress in terms of the applications and work
shown at the different browserdays. Progress is something you can see if
people working for a long time on the same thing. But we are not living in
the age of sustainability. The progress I saw at the browserday in Berlin is
that students feel more responsible for social and political aspects of the
world they live in. This is different compared to the first browserday,
where more people try to come up with navigation system in the hope to
become a millionaire, which was a somewhat normal expectation at the time.
Designers joined the digital technology development only 10 or 15 years ago.
The browser is an interesting object to reflect on what is happening in the
world of technology.
Another sort of progress I can see is that the Browserday competition is
becoming part of the everyday curriculum at design schools. People know what
we talking about, even tough it's not a standardized format. How the
Browserday program looks like is an open question.

GL: Some people told me that the browser demos as shown during the
browserday remain a bit simple. Perhaps these critics have too high
expectations. What would you call a good outcome for such an event?

MG: The format of browserday is three minutes. Students and young designers
have exactly three minutes to show their demo design. Having only three
minutes forces people to prepare their presentation very tightly. You can
only show the very essential parts of your idea. It is about making choices.
You have to look at your own work and pick out the most personal and
characteristic part of the idea and use all the creativity you have to
present this on a clear and special way to the public. The event is a show.
It is what I would call event-education. The stage presentation is part of
the design. Designers these days are more on stage than they have been in
the past. Being a designer is getting close to becoming a pop star. I don't
know if this development is a positive one. On the other hand, designers are
more forced to explain their design. If a designer has no strong vision
about what he or she is making, their presentation will be weak. If he or
she has a strong vision but no interesting work to show, their presentation
is also weak. So both sides are important, which makes life of a designer
not easier.
Browserday shows 30 presentations on one day and of course they are diverse.
The presenters coming from all kind of disciplines and experience. Quality
is different. But the real interesting ideas are short listed and shown
again in more details at the same day. This means that the audience will see
more and can think about the "better" ones. Though, browserday shows
different quality but is never boring, because of the three minute format.
A good outcome for browserday is when the event shows at least a couple of
interesting new navigation ideas. Another outcome I like is if there are
some presentations that show more a statement about the position of the
browser, a critical vision that shows the designer's personal opinion. I
also like it when there is a mix of disciplines and media. All these
elements show the potential diversity of design, in a world, which
increasingly looks the same. Browserday is not only about new media or
technological development; it's about opening up spaces for creative
thinking-if only for a day.

GL: I have noticed a shift in your work and rhetoric, away from the
dotcom-type businesses, towards issues related to design and new media
education. Has the dotcom crash had an effect on the browserday and
students' expectations?

MG: Yes, more applications are critical towards information overload. I am
happy that during the last browserday in Berlin there were more attendees
than ever before. The Internet depression did not directly influence digital
media education. Students are not used to make a lot of money and I'm glad
they can study and do their experiments without the pressure of a money-
driven structure. With the dotcom crash the new media development did not
disappear I even expect a more interesting climate for new ideas soon. The
hype is over and what is left are diehards who apart of just making money
are probably more interested in the real issues which the digital world
confronts us with.

GL: To what extend does the Browserday differ from popular Flash design
competitions? Would you call a browser meta design? Where exactly would you
say is the interface design aspect in browsers?

MG: Browsers are navigation systems and they all need a graphic user
interface. For browserday we ask people to think about browsers in general.
We invite people to come up with ideas how, where and which information you
could get. That's a big thing to ask. The design aspect here involves
everything; before you can start with a concept you have to find out what
you think about the existing browsers and about the function of a network.
So here you can start being critical about the situation of the
communication technology of today and you have to think about future
possibilities. Here you start to create your own vision and take position on
a new navigation idea. This is all part of the design. Next step is writing
the concept and creating a demo presentation model. We ask for a demo design
because these tiny free us our minds from the technical and commercial
restrains. The Browserday is about ideas, not about sophisticated
programming.
One of the important issues for browserday is that so much is happening all
the time in the world of new devices, tools, economy and marketing
strategies, hypes that at browserday these things are getting more clear and
people get a chance to react on these development in a critical fashion.
Browserday is an event unrelated to specific software or hardware platforms
or standards. It is an educational event, which stresses the importance of
both critical and visionary conceptual thinking. Later on, in their
professional life students will use these conceptual skills. Schools should
not stress too much emphasis on learning software as these packages are
constantly changing. Software is becoming redundant in such a short time.
The interface design aspect of a browser is literally everything what makes
people move in the digital sphere. If one is only using sound for navigation
that's interface design as well, or hardware but also the visuals. Design is
a wide area. So is interface design, since it's not clear how communication
hardware will develop and where wireless technologies will go.

GL: Why do we stress the importance of the quality of software and talk
about the politics of Internet applications? Do people really care about
such issues? Isn't the excitement over such issues something of the mid and
late nineties? How do students and schools respond to the very idea of
building your own browser?

MG: The politics of Internet applications is only interesting for economic
purposes. The last years digital media students and young designers were all
very busy making money. Since the dotcom crash people are getting less
interested in Internet in general. They shifted their attention to mobile
devices or digital gadgets like MP3 players or new computers such as the new
i-mac. Apple for instance has done many steps back and is more and more
using outworn metaphor. They are only restyling.... but why? Because we
don't need more advanced, faster processors at the moment. Software runs
perfect and we don't need more memory. This means Apple focuses on the
consumer instead of the professional market. They have started to restyle
instead of further developing their products. For instance, software such as
i-photo is just an easy-to-use photo album online, a shell for pictures. It
all started with the launch of their new OS X operating system, which looks
like an interface made out of ordinary future.
Students like to build their own browser. The idea is really funky but they
are not very conscious about the politics of technology. Since 911 they are
more critical. They want to make the world a better place, but only after I
told them designers have this power and opportunity to change. They don't
need to further spread the unified global look, developed by marketing
departments of large corporations. Recession is really good, in that
respect.

GL: You have worked with a variety of schools and students from all over
Europe and the United States. Could you tell something about the different
schools and their models for new media pedagogy, which you find most
inspiring?

MG: There is no difference between Europe and the United States concerning
design education. The whole Western world looks similar in that respect,
both universities and art schools. All these institutes need to do is
restructure, offer new courses, start new departments and of course every
institute will do this in its own way. The teachers, their world, ideas and
passion they bring in will make the real difference. People will create the
characteristics of the educational environment. Special activities and
events are important to force students to create vision and motivation.
Learning is a never-ending process. Good teachers are still learning. If
people are busy with interesting topics, coming from actual problems or
tendencies in the world, we will forget about the bureaucracy and structures
we have to deal with.
In the case of Browserday I found more difference between the Netherlands
and Germany. In Germany I did not found so many critical or political
people, they were more following the trends. The American and Dutch people
were more conscious and critical, they try to make statements. In this case
I was happy to see that in these moments of recession, people try to come up
with ideas and visions instead of market-valuable products.
It's always difficult to find students who are studying to find their
message and their own visual language, maybe 3% of the students is really
interested in their social environment. If you want to make a point in this
world, you have to believe you can change the world. Nobody is talented. If
you want to become a star you have to work and you have to study. It's a
fight with yourself. Most of the people and students are consuming, they
have no ambition.
The Browserday is something you have to go for. It is not part of the
regular curriculum. Browserday always presents a topic from the world of
technical development connected to the actual situation of our social
environment or our behavior. If students care they pick it this topic and
start creating a new better world. This way of challenging people gives more
motivated students than the regular program at universities and schools. It'
s just a trick to find the people who feel responsible for their life and
from others.
New Media education will become soon more interesting, the first generation
digital designers and developers are graduated and are now able to teach.
That will make a difference because up till now we could stimulate students
to break walls, but the real experience now is coming from the new
generation media designers.
I sometimes wonder why so many students are not working like crazy. I grew
up with the idea of fighting and working to create a good and interesting
life. Not all of them but most of the students are easy going. But life
changed; there is more money. Most people only work 3 days a week instead
of 5. There's more time for entertainment and shopping. These changes in the
work place are also influencing education. If people do not automatically
have the need to learn we have to challenge them. That's why I think
event-education is important for the future. It's a combination of learning
and entertainment.

GL: It is obvious that students don't need to be taught how to use this or
that application. They often know more than the teacher. All right. They
need to discover their own style, methodology, how to develop a concept, get
the necessary critical theory to interpret the larger framework. But how
does that translate into a curriculum?

MG: A curriculum should not be a list of soft- en hardware knowledge. The
curriculum will be a list of projects and work. Software these days is
developed for mass use, but to create special work you'll need creativity
and vision. Students need to know about software, stretch the limitations of
it, they should control the software instead of software controls them. I
don't want to see software anymore if I look at their applications, unless
its part of their concept. At the moment we live in the age of style
poverty. Software generates too much images and styles created by tasteless
people. I am sorry to say that but the evidence is overwhelming. People just
use existing styles and do come to school anymore to develop their own
design vocabulary. This is what makes the world so poor and boring. We are
losing culture due to the homogenizing forces of globalization. What we need
instead is subjective madness; a radical individualism which aims at
esthetic singularity.

GL: How has the established design world responded to the Browserday events
so far?

MG: The design world has reacted positive so far. People appreciate it, not
only within design world, by the way. Browserday is a cross media event.
It is a mix of technology, theatre, sound, design, art, theory and political
statements. The diversity makes it a popular and entertaining event. Young
designers and students who prepare their presentation also like it because
they have the opportunity to present their ideas to a large audience. They
really exercise and we help and stimulate them to show the strongest part of
their concept.

GL: The browserday events could be called a structuralist design approach.
Because of the emphasis on the power of applications the story telling
aspect of design is getting a bit in the background. There is no idea in
design as such. The application is the message. You also seem to distance
yourself from the sixties approach in which design is being subordinated to
social movements and abstract Marxist criticism.

MG: The browserday invites people to transform their vision into an
application. To be honest, I am more interested in visions then
applications--if they were to be separated. During a browserday we can show
that designers are able to combine these two elements. The process of
combining techniques and ideas is their story. Their presentations are
showing a way of thinking, a way of looking to the world. An application has
power if it has a message. I think browserday is already famous because of
the critical and different look (engagement) at the world of technical and
economical development.
By living in this world it will be always a struggle to deal with structures
and systems. Browserday as an organization will try to be invisible. And I
know its not possible, but we try I think being creative is the best in
total freedom. So how can you create an environment where people will get
inspiration, attention, freedom, context and information? For me most of the
educational institutes are too much bureaucratic and rule-minded. Browserday
at least will try to be a more open and a moving organization without a
physical place, working and giving personal information via email and the
web. Design for new media has proved to be a field in between the structure
of organization and the system of technological possibilities. A browser
represents information and it needs a system and structure to make this
happen. To come up with extreme and new ideas you need to be free of too
much influence coming from the bureaucratic over structured society we live
in.

GL: Your not a big fan of theory, is that right? You don't seem to care so
much about the latest fashions in cultural studies, post-colonial theory,
visual culture or critical contemporary arts. You are not fond of the banal
Bauhaus comparison either. Where should new media design students get their
inspiration from, presumed they want to read texts in the first place?

MG: Theory may be important for theorists. But for designers or people doing
creative practice it is more important to develop theory out of their own
experiences. They don't need all this information from books and history.
There is a difference between reading and hearing statements, and creating
them yourself. Designers are practitioners and they find out themselves what
their 'message' is. They probably express this in their own language, which
won't be text. This keeps the way open to develop their own theory, shown
through their work. I stimulate the development of strong, new, visual
languages and by knowing too much of written theories it doesn't help
creating new work and mentalities. People should concentrate and be
self-confidential when they create their work. Too much influence from
others is no good. Of course it would be na´ve if they remained unaware
about the context of their own work. But they will know if they are the type
of person to analyze. And they always get help of theorists. In fact, they
should more often work together.
Yes, I am not so much interested in the latest fashion of whatever. Fashion
is important if we look to the world in general. But fashion is first and
foremost an economic factor. It is mass manufactured. There is also fashion
in theory and this indicates that no that many people thinking different.
People who created a new and special theory or visual or technical thing are
not part of fashion but show a new personal and characteristic view. That's
what I'm interested in. Not in fashionable mass taste or knowledge.


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