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<nettime> party like it's 2003
t byfield on Fri, 27 Dec 2002 12:46:53 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> party like it's 2003

the N5M process seems to be revving up again, though in a very 
different way than before -- with 'tactical media labs' (or, to 
use the fasgrolia (Fast Growing Language of Initials and Acro-
nyms) formulation, 'TML's -- now distributed in an effort to de-
centralize the programming. whether this will work is anyone's
guess: such is the voodoo of centralization that when 'it' seeks
to decentralize, it tends to find -- and/or maybe to create -- 
micro-versions of itself. but that's a generic observation about
the world, not a specific criticism of N5M4: i have better things
to do than slag off people who, clearly, play on my team. fwiw,
i wish them -- (and?) us -- the best.

i'd been hoping to write a short report on the NYC TML, but i'm 
not sure that the flesh is strong or the spirit willing enough. 
in thinking about it, i did, however, dredge up a draft of an 
article about N5M3 that i wrote for _mute_ #13. it seems like an 
awfully long time ago. 

oddly enough, the article doesn't seem to be in the nettime ar-
chives, which is surely one of its rightful homes, given the role
that N5M played in nettime's ontogenesis. but nettime was a very 
different creature then: it had about 800 people on it, many of
them acquainted 'in real life,' and the traumatic process of engi-
neering the ZKP 5 (Zentral Kommittee Proceedings) _readme_ compen-
dium in the autumn of '98 was still hot enough to rate a slew of
menacing black-and-yellow stickers. but nettime now has (precisely) 
2871 people (507 of them on digest, interestingly), and the NKPVI 
nettime compendium -- which consumed ~27 hrs of collective editor-
ial consultation and substituted 'N' for 'network' in place of the 
traditional 'Z' for 'zentral' -- appeared with a beatific silence 
and subtlety that puts the 'biblical' ambitions of _readme_ to ash-
and-cloth shame. and there are a whole lot of nettimers for whom 
it's a list rather than (it sounds mad now) a possibility.

when i wrote this article in the spring of '99, N5M3 was a fresh
and, criticisms of the programming aside, fine memory. program-
ming is all very well, but the conf should be -- and could be -- 
an aside to the business of N5M4: people. there's little doubt that
bunch of 'old' nettimers will show; but with a little luck, some
'new' nettimers will treat themselves to a few stunning spring/
summer days in amsterdam. in good company, at that.


[rough draft submitted to _mute_ magazine (london)] 

Party Like It's 1999

The gap between the Paradiso, a cavernous old church turned nightclub,
and De Balie, a cultural center with less obvious origins, is bridged in
part by a postmodern colonnade inscribed HOMO SAPIENS NON VRINAT IN
VENTVM: roughly, "the wise man doesn't piss in the wind." The faux
proverb wasn't visible to the people attending third triennial Next 5
Minutes conference who shuttled back and forth beneath it; just as well,
given the event's overarching theme of "tactical media" -- pissing in
the wind, basically, if by wind one means the seemingly abstract,
impersonal forces that slowly bend and erode societies to their will.
But even those winds change, sometimes quite abruptly; true wisdom may
lie in learning to aim on the fly. Think of the N5M series as a training
camp of sorts. And think very seriously about going to N5M4.

Conferences are elaborate affairs, and as such tend to be tailored to
collective endeavors that can afford such luxuries: a disciplinary body
(urologists, say), a professional body (SteadyCam operators), or bodies
with too many organs (for example, the annual "Financial Cryptography"
conference in Anguilla). The N5M series has no such formal disciplines
or bodies: it's sponsors are a coalition of Dutch cultural institutions
whose mandate involves culture and things electronic; and its denizens
are a motley bunch -- unsteadycammers, activists, slacktivists,
networkers, writers, theoreticians, artists, wackademics, and, most
lovable of all, assorted cultural "spass-guerrillas." The lure? Maybe
like the advert Fellini used to take out in La Stampa when he was
casting a new film ("Fellini wishes to meet anyone who wishes to meet
Fellini") minus the bit about Fellini. They're a self-selecting group;
and despite the fact that they're at a cultural-political conference,
they're quite festive too.

This sense of pleasure stems in large part from the thicket of
friendships present, which has grown quite dense over the last few
years, courtesy of the electronic networks, which have transformed the
older social bonds and allowed a thousand new ones to bloom. Thus the
trajectory of the N5M series. In the hazy past -- 1993, to be exact --
was N5M1, about which few who were present at N5M3 (myself included)
probably know very much. N5M2, the first I attended, took place in
January 1996 -- the dawn of serious net hype when, in the harsh light of
the rise of Sun, questions of access for whom and access to what cast
long shadows. John Perry Barlow was still swaggering through virtual
saloon doors, the Open Society Institute (neŠe Soros Foundation) was
still "opening" the East, and Wired was still the particolored stalking
horse of a new generation. But that age of heroes and villains has
vanished down a hole in gopherspace: the virtual has revealed itself to
be real, with all the ambiguities that transformation entails. For the
strategic purposes of the conference's organizers -- who stick their
necks out by guessing where the tactical will be a year hence -- this
normalization of the net is yet another unwieldy turn in the swerving
course that "tactical media" has taken since its origins in the rise of
the consumer camcorder. But for those in attendance, many of whose
affections (and disaffections) have been built largely in and out of
electrons, the foggy end-of-the-century conceptual environment provided
a relaxed scene for pressing real flesh and bonding over issues and
ideas. Given that one of the series' stated goals is "the construction
of long-term partnerships and network structures," it has surely
succeeded. Whether that achievement is adequate is another question.

That this goal should be set forth in language lifted from IT-speak
hints at the organizers' ambitious agenda: they aren't footing the bill
for a lovefest or a reunion, after all. Those who know them will
sometimes openly joke about the "Dutch imperialists" or (in a noteworthy
substitution) "digital imperialists." Like most jokes, this has more
than a grain of truth to it, which some of the imperialists in question
will not merely concede but acknowledge with a laugh -- not a big laugh,
but not a small one either. As with many things Dutch, the nature of
this "imperialism" is quite elusive. It's not about domination,
expropriation, or subjugation: it's about "context." And not just any
old context: context understood from the standpoint of a former hegemon
whose people are forever redefining, reimplementing, restructuring,
reapportioning, and rebuilding their land itself, ceding it to and
reclaiming it from the waters, the forests, the farms, the cities, the
countryside, the past, and the present -- all with an eye toward a
functional future. They do it with a legendary pragmatism that strikes
some outsiders as comically earnest -- but they do it. It's practical.
And they're practicing. So the next time you hear a Dutch person say
"context," look sharp: you're about to be assimilated.

This fascination with context accounts for a curious aspect of the N5M
series: why, in conferences ostensibly devoted to the streetwise theory
and hands-on practice of "tactical media," the talk so often tends
toward strategic historical imponderables -- neoliberalism,
globalization, democracy, Asia, and so on. One could, of course, write
this off as typical of conferences as a genre: the only way to lump
together a dozen divergent speakers (for example, from Taipei, Kuala
Lumpur, Jakarta, Seoul, Tokyo, and London) is to give the panel a
sufficiently abstract name (the "Inter-East Forum"). Sure, this plays a
part in the organization of N5M. But where, then, are all the other
traits so typical of conferences -- the glaring signs of corporate or
academic sponsorship, the big-name speakers, the extortionate entrance
fees, the grandiose public installations run amok? Nowhere.
Organizational procedures account for a trend toward abstraction, but
they don't determine the specifics -- those are "context." And context
is a plan -- a master plan. In the inter-East case, for example, it was
a cooperative East-West project to think about alternatives to the
territorialized stasis to which the West and its manifold tentacles (NLF
movements, the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and so on) have
consigned the fantastic heterogeneity between the Danube and the
Pacific. But even a list of such specifics wouldn't reveal much about
the master plan, for the simple reason that context is one part
imaginative effort, one part wind, and one part unpredictable result --
in a word, dialectical.

N5M3's "core themes" -- "the art of campaigning," "post-governmental
organizations," "the technical and the tactical," and "tactical
education" -- read like so many snappy banners marching by in a parade.
But what then is falling under imperial sway? The presentations
themselves formed a much more somber procession: the strange fruit of
U.S. prison privatization, the ruthless punishments meted out to
undocumented people and those who aid them, the "regulatory" hurdles
imposed on meadia that support class alliances across miscellaneous
"ancient" lines rather than vice versa in the service of oppression, the
numbing quasi-slavery of globalized sweatshops, the long and sinuous
arms of multinationals intent on suppressing reports of their
scurrilousness, and so on -- fertile ground indeed for dialectical
engagement or, more plainly, context. Want a local context? There's the
Amsterdam Media Debate about the devolutions of free media in the host
city. Too "cozy"?  There's European Affairs, or South Asia Forum.
Something more gendered?  Cyberfinism / Feminism and Media Strategies.
Not networked enough? Try Streaming Media / Web.TV.Radio.Text.Net, or
Radical Software (moderated by yours truly). Wish you'd had a chance to
show your own work? The Free Zone, maybe, or open screening sessions.
This agenda is ambitious enough that to speak of imperialism isn't,
laughs aside, a joke: the contexts ordained for the assemblage as a
whole -- speakers, audience, specifics, rubrics -- is the world. And if
the imperialists succeed, in fostering partnerships and network
structures, you won't owe them a thing because they won't need you to
owe them a thing: merely playing your part in the larger context they
envisioned will be quite sufficient. Welcome to the world of Dutch

Well, sort of. There is, of course, another Dutch imperium, which is
quite real and far less benevolent -- that of multinationals like Royal
Dutch Shell, Philips, and numerous sprawling financial concerns, which
with their multinational brethren are engaged in an effort of
unimaginable scale to redefine, reimplement, restructure, reapportion,
and rebuild the world and everything in it. Against the backdrop of
these genuine empires, N5M is comically earnest and small -- much as,
against the backdrop of nations such as the U.S. or China, the
Netherlands is comically earnest and small. But the organizers of the
N5M series believe, I think, that contextualizing the struggles against
these monumental efforts -- by building "partnerships" and "network
structures" -- is the key to building a counter-imperium. Not
"alternative" institutions established to fulfill this or that purpose
on a "local" or "global" model, but autonomous formations constantly
engaged "translocally," in a context both immediate and worldly. It may
not be a new dream, or a unique dream; but the cult of novelty is itself
a rather new creature irredeemably swayed by and susceptible to the
dominating, expropriating, and subjugating logic of these corporate
hegemons. And since these hegemons seem to be doing quite well for
themselves, maybe some of their idioms aren't corrupt to their core --
maybe they're well suited to the spirit of the age. Welcome, once again,
to the world of Dutch pragmatism. Please check your genealogical
critiques at the door.

Whether many who attended N5M3 attended to these questions, I don't know
-- I doubt it; just as well, probably, since context is naught without
the "content," and the content of the conference lay in the
presentations themselves, given in darkened rooms both small and large,
and in the chance to make new pals and affirm old ones in De Balie's
cheery if hiply proper cafe. To say that the conference was a success in
that regard would be true, I think, but it wouldn't tell the whole
story. It couldn't be, for the simple reason that the conference itself
had (yes) a context. And a very ambivalent one at that.

Some years are watersheds -- 1939, for example, or 1968. Others aren't:
1984, heralded for as heralded as and epiphany of a gloom, turned out to
be a wash, lost in the swirling tides of neo-rightism and "new wave."
And 1999? It remains to be seen, of course; but none of the conferents
at the Next Five Minutes 3 -- more than a few of them from the
"ex-East," some fiersomely well informed on Balkan matters -- openly
anticipated that within the Next 2 Weeks NATO would beat Y2K to the
punch and inaugurate the Next Historical Period by liberally opening its
bomb bay over the Rump Republic of Yugoslavia. And the fact that, only
days before, several hundred "translocal" tactical media practitioners
whose bonds by master plan span the boundaries of the Cold War had
gathered in what seemed to be an eventless and speculative climate -- it
hurt. Had NATO acted a few weeks earlier or the conference taken place a
few weeks later, N5M3 could have been a devil's workshop of tactical
media and contextualization. As it happened, luck alone left the
conference's connectivity and organizational structure in place to
orchestrate the means to grab the signal from Belgrade's independent
Radio B92 and pass it through xs4all.nl to the BBC for satellite
broadcast over Yugoslavia within a day of the Milosevic regime's
confiscation of the station's transmitter. This momentary "repurposing"
was a testament to the functional potential of tactical media networks;
but the context -- other networks that shrank from grappling with the
concrete needs imposed by the war, the sad fact that the Yugoslav regime
had all but left B92 in place as a token living specimen amidst the
carcasses of independent media it had crushed -- were bitter reminders
of just how far these networks have to go.

This sudden eruption of war cast a harsh retrospective light on the
blithe confidence that had freed the debates from any sense of urgency.
In the face of this furious assertion of Machtpolitik, what had it meant
to debate status and accountability of non-governmental organizations
(NGO) or whether they're the precursors of a "post-governmental"
organizational (PGO) non-regime? Or to chat about the potentials of a
complexified and historicized "inter-East" only days before NATO would
begin to bomb Serbia back into an all too familiar amalgamation of "the
past" and "the East"? Or to play with shadows and digital retro on the
"how low can you go" evening on the eve of a militarist pissing match
that would drive entire populations into bomb shelters and shit pits?
There's no question that these and other discussions give to those who
listen a comparetively concrete (compared, say, to endless reams of of
snow-white pages) entree into sophisticated ways to think about the
war's context. And it would be excessive, of course, for N5Mers to
reproach themselves for failing to anticipate this turn of events -- but
it's that very excess and desire for concretion that brought them
together to begin with. Hence, in part, the recurring plaints on the
mailing lists that circulate through these networks -- nettime,
syndicate, rhizome, and others -- about feelings of "isolation" and
"powerlessness" as the war blossomed; hence as well, the quick
realization that this return of the real would test just how real these
still somewhat virtual "partnerships" and "networks" had become.

To the extent that Art has played an enormous part in attracting people
to these networks, this test became doubly problematic. Art, after all,
was doing the virtual-real toe-step long before the net came along --
equivocal enough to be virtual, real enough to support a cosmopolitan
(or at least well-traveled) industry, and ambivalent enough to be, well,
ambivalent. Add yet another order of virtuality and the result is that
much more befuddling: a microcosm of a microcosm peopled by a handful of
relentless practitioners, bands of slavish imitators and
fellow-travelers, and masses -- densely settled, not surprisingly in
Real Institutions -- of bigoted skeptics. This hyper-rarefied
postconceptualism made a wan cameo at N5M3 in two forms: a dispirited
yet vaguely bilious debate about "art after activism," in which those
who were utterly perplexed by the dichotomy shone, and a shiftless
proposal for an money-dispensing "Interfund" so loth to become
institutionalized that amounts like $10 were earnestly suggested ("in
order to attract other funding" -- not matching grants, one assumes).
But if indeed art has been ahead of its time, though, predicament proved
to be exemplary in the most exquisitely painful way: not only have the
winds of change caught up with art and effectively mooted many of its
sepratist ideologies, but the formerly avant-garde problem of the really
virtual or virtually real was dumped in everyone's -- including the
activists' -- lap.

Whether the organizers of N5M4 will propose an "art after art" panel, I
won't venture to speculate; it'll depend, I think, on the artists'
ability to negotiate with their context -- and not just an "art context"
-- in the space between 3 and 4. But that abilility won't be judged from
on high, because the ability of those who deal in the real to
effectively negotiate that same context, unlike any that's been seen in
not long enough, is equally uncertain. What is certain is a new day of
long shadows is rising -- and those shadows aren't at all virtual. The
particolored stalking horses are gone, and the dialecticians may once
again see the Zeitgeist riding across another battlefield, through winds
far too strong for even a fool to piss in.

http://www.heise.de/tp/deutsch/inhalt/konf/3356/1.html [auf deutsch]

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