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<nettime> interview with ambientTV.NET
annie doubt on Tue, 4 May 2004 07:40:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> interview with ambientTV.NET

Interview with London-based ambientTV.NET ('active
members' Manu, Mukul, Mariko, Mo-Ling, Michael, Chris,
Bill, Kertal)- a crucible for independent,
interdisciplinary practice ranging from installation
and performance, through documentary, dance, and
gastronomy, to sound and video composition and
real-time manipulation. Conducted by Nadeem for decode
magazine end of last year, but it was transcribed only
now. enjoy!

B: You describe your work as interdisciplinary,
ranging from installation and performance through
documentary, dance, live audio-video manipulation and
music composition, to gastronomy. . . can you really
combine these disciplines? 

Mariko: For sure. Food is so undervalued in Britain.
But we love it! And in AV DINNERS, we show our love
for it by developing themed menus, caressing the
ingredients with cameras and microphones, writing odes
to the courses . . . and feeding guests! 
Mo-Ling: In AV DINNERS 1: EPIC EROS, the theme was the
erotic potential of food, and we prepared and served
an ambrosial succession of dishes to our guests (who
had won a tough online gastronomy quiz to get here),
accompanied by the digitally manipulated sights and
sounds of the preparation, and with a poem for each
course by Shane Solanki. Online particiants were
treated to one video stream and three audio streams,
including Shanes poetry which translated smells and
flavours into words and sounds. And remote partipant
groups  as far afield as Helsinki and Baghdad 
projected our images, or listened to our audio, while
cooking and eating along with us and conversing with
our dinner guests via an online chat channel.   

B: You all have such different art-related and
technological backgrounds, how do you make sure this
integrate harmoniously?
Michael: What helps is that each of us has a mixed
background, combining painting and net.art, or science
and music, or dance and film theory . . . so we're
pretty well integrated intra-personally, which makes
interpersonal integration fairly easy.
Manu: Various disciplines, but common approaches. Each
of us looks hard at the conditions of possibility of
our disciplines. Though we have varied backgrounds and
skills, we share a critical approach, curiosity,
Mukul: It's important that we're a close and informal
group, and though we recognize particular
specializations or talents, everyone pitches in at all
levels - from embarking on the most abstract flights
of fancy to project execution, PR, admin, fixing the
lights . . . 

B: ambient TV.NET is a cosmopolitan mix of artists.
Are your differing cultural backgrounds important, or
indeed integral, to the work you produce? 
Mukul: How could a group not be cosmopolitan in a
metropolis? You'd have to make a committed effort not
to be. I was part of the so-called "Asian Underground"
scene in the 1990s and that was populated by Germans,
Jamaicans, Icelanders, Chelmsfordians, black British .
. . 
Mo-Ling: Isn't such cosmopolitanism the main - perhaps
only - reason for putting up with the expense and
noise and filth of this city? 
Michael: There are markers of identity other than
ethnicity, language group, gender etc., that might be
more pertinent to the creation of work. . . eg., being
capoeiristas, or critics of unfettered capitalism, or
filesharers, or lovers of odd time signatures, or
subscribers to certain mailing lists . . . 

Are all your projects very focused around digital
technologies? Under one description of the work you
produce, you use the term 'social technologies'. What
do you mean by this?
Michael: Technology doesn't fall through a social
vacuum; it is both structured by, and structures, our
cultural horizons. Technological development is
informed by all manner of political, commercial,
aesthetic, and ideological imperatives. Much domestic
technology spins off from military research. What
might seem like technical details create new freedoms
and new constraints in the ways we imagine and
materially sustain ourselves. All technology is social
technology . . . the epitome being information and
communications technologies. We want to offer
different cultural imperatives, models based on other
than profit or territoriality, concentrating on social
networks, lines of communication, friendships and
encounters . . . sitting down to eat together,
orchestrating a group of musicians on several
different continents, . .
Chris: My photography might be digital now, but its an
evolution of using film. Its just easier to work with
digital cameras. I still remember trying to develop
negative film in the old days in Bosnia, in the middle
of winter, using melted snow to make developing fluid.
digital cameras everything is so immediate, you can
see the results right away. But the image is still
made with my eyes and my hands.
Mukul: We're not uncritical fans of digital - we can't
afford better. A digital sound studio is smaller,
lighter, neater, and much cheaper than a similarly
capable  but better sounding   analogue studio. A
camera, editing suite, and consumables required to
make a feature length movie on digital video cost
3000. That's 3000 bags of popcorn . . . or 400 cinema
tickets . . . Then there are questions of
appropriateness and potential for exploitation. Some
"outdated" technologies, such as shortwave radio, are
more open and robust than their successors. We're big
fans of radio. It's a medium that has had immense
political significance - still has, not least through
wireless networking. And paper is a better archival
medium than CD. But digital media are more amenable to
encryption and "rights management" - better for the
paranoid, the secretive, and the greedy. But there is
a "Need To Know" - even Downing Street was unaware
that Microsoft Word documents have header files that
list the last few edits performed . . .

B: "We continue to develop social and technical
infrastructure and promote network architectures that
facilitate alternatives to current socio-political and
economic formations." Can you explain in more detail
how this unfolds, with examples?
Manu: Computers put immense power in the hands of
individuals, but even many of those who push the
creative potential of the tool in say, multimedia, are
unaware of the possibilities for building independent
infrastructure and media distribution channels. One
way in which we try to promote independence from
broadcast and distribution networks and information
channels is through the London wireless broadband
network (which allows data transmission over an
unlicensed part of the radio spectrum). Together with
groups such as consume.net and free2air.org, we
conduct workshops that help people to build own
networks, independent of telecoms providers. 
Mukul: Recycling, exchange, repurposing . . .We don't
throw things out. Institutions donate "outdated" PCs
(which they'd otherwise have to pay for to dispose)
and we make them available to the wireless community
to be repurposed as network routers (to direct data
traffic). And if someone supplies us bandwidth to the
internet, for example we might pay them, but we might
also exchange some equipment or services. Parallel
channels, parallel economies.   

B: Your "Spy School" project is obviously about
technology and society. Tell us more. 
Manu: Spy School is a series of exercises in which we
watch those who watch us. Each        exercise
scrutinises public-private borders of post-9/11 daily
life. The latest exercise is Faceless, a CCTV thriller
that dramatizes, with some irony, the system of CCTV
surveillance in the UK. The entire movie is shot in
London using existing CCTV cameras. The coverage is
great, all the angles you could want. We weave the
narrative across the city. The work is in two parts:
the film itself, and a record of the process of
acquiring the footage. Under the terms of the Data
Protection Act (DPA), any person caught on camera has
a right to a copy of the footage upon submission of a
data subject request and payment of a fee (10). To
protect the rights of any other people that happen to
be in the frame, the data controllers must render them
anonymous  they are made, literally, faceless. All the
communication with the data controllers will be
documented and presented alongside the movie. And
there will be an online toolbox to provide basic
information on the rights conferred by the DPA,
downloadable templates for letters to request CCTV
footage, etc.
Michael: One of the things that's been most fun is the
writing of the data subject request letters. We got
one back from the Human Resources manager of a leisure
centre, and she was very eager to please, but pointed
out that she had to preserve the privacy of all the
other bathers and that would mean blacking them all
out on the CCTV tape, and that that would be
expensive. We wrote back a very dry legalistic letter
informing her that while she was obliged to preserve
the privacy of all other subjects who had not
consented to disclosure, she was also obliged to
absorb the costs for doing so. We then suggested that
she seek the services of ambientTV.NET who are experts
at this kind of work . . . I have this dream:
submitting subject searches left right and centre,
then post producing all the surveillance footage at
extortionate rates, and perhaps suing them afterwards
too, just for good measure . . .

B: "Ambient space", in an ex-industrial building in
Hackney, "plays host to events, webcasts, workshops,
screenings, performances and workshops". Do you find
this space integral to enabling you to produce the
work you do? Is all your work site-specific? We can
expect to see a 'roaming' project in November,
Telejam: Tryptichon. How will this work? 
Manu: Ambient space is a crucial module in our toolbox
(which also includes infrastructure such as networks,
the limited company). The space allows us to rehearse,
to operate as streaming studio, to put on events, to
host visiting artists. If someone has an idea - which
happens with alarming frequency - we are in a position
to immediately realize a version at ambient space
without any bureaucracy, or too many scheduling
Mukul: Our work is always site-specific insofar as
particular instantiations are specific to particular
sites  but we can always pick up the work and move it
elswhere, modifying it appropriately. And for offline
work, there is often an online component or stream or
archive  so there's a web-specific but site-general
version. Generally we try to cultivate a local
flavour, and locale is actually a theme of some
pieces, such as Tryptichon, which is in development.In
this piece we'll will use mapping technologies 
location-aware devices (GPS satelllite navigation).
The performers will make small and large movements:
graffiti writ large on the city. 

B: How do you relate to your audience?
Michael: Sounds like a question from a funding
application form! There's a crisis, an uncertainty at
least, about cultural value, and it's often 'the
audience' that's used as justification . . . "What is
your target audience?", "how will you reach new
audiences?" In the current cultural climate, where
ratings seem to rule everything, the audience is often
viewed demographically. There's definitely an 'ethic
of access', which, while worthy in itself, in certain
circumstances can make for absolute banality . . .
imagine a New Labour directive demanding that Joyce's
Finnegan's Wake be rewritten to be made more
accessible, so that it can reach 'new audiences.'
Joyce said he wrote for the ideal reader, one who
would dedicate a lifetime to reading a single work.
Imagine writing that on a funding form, you wouldn't
get a bean . . . 
Manu: There are other ways of casting the audience -
as a creative resource, as one of the ingredients of
the work. I'm interested in audience expectations and
behaviour . . . this is especially important with some
of our network and workshop projects, because in
those, the audience is so directly woven into the
fabric of the work. 
Mukul: One of the richest experiences for artist and
audience member alike is in a classical setting where
there are shared norms, notions of correctness . . . 
I'm thinking specifically of Indian classical music.
How to approach this sedimented richness of meaning
and experience in new, hybrid media, electronic,
exploratory works . . . this is something that I'm
beginning to explore.
Manu: The question is not so much how to control or
manipulate an audience (as Hitchcock does), but more
of how to open a structured space that will register
and transform the desires, expectations, and responses
of an audience.

B: One of your recent projects, Suvara, was about
"nurturing meetings between traditional musicians of
recent Afghani immigrants and the contemporary
electronic music scene". How did this come about?
Mukul: The project was initiated in collaboration with
Radio FRO 105, an independent FM station in Linz,
Austria. Radio FRO is a platform for many immigrant
communities as well as for new music. Inspired by
movements in London in the 1990s, they had been trying
to kick start a meeting between recent immigrants (and
their traditional music) and those (mainly young
Austrians) in the quite separate electronic music
scene. We'd been giving DJ/VJ workshops at the
invitation of Radio FRO. One of the workshop
participants, recently displaced from Afghanistan,
wanted to try DJing together with a live musician (his
brother). What followed: a stage invasion by three
generations of Afghans, who forced us at drumpoint to
record an impromptu session. The recording of Rafi
Hanif & Party turned out to be remarkable, and all
agreed to making the session available online. We
invited reinterpretations of the material, and offered
some prizes. I gave a short music production workshop,
and the pieces flowed in - by newcomers and
established artists, ranging in style from introverted
and string-laden to angry breakbeats. Radio FRO
produced compilation CDs, and a vinyl edition just
been pressed. 

B:Whats on the horizon for ambientTV.NET? 
Mariko: Tryptichon in November at DMZ. Next year, we
publish 2 DVDs: VIDEOWORKS 1.0, a compilation of short
videos capturing some moments of our data transmission
activities in the last two years, and VIRTUAL BORDERS 
a documentary film about a unique gathering of the
Akha people, who are scattered around five countries
in the Mekong Quadrangle. AmbientTV.NET streamed audio
from the cultural conference in China to a radio
station in Thailand, from where it was broadcast to
mountain villages.
Manu: Completion of Faceless, planning the next
installment of Tryptichon in Helsinki, music releases,

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