Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> "Connection in Visibility" - talk at Art + Communication 2004
Eric Kluitenberg on Mon, 4 Oct 2004 19:07:12 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> "Connection in Visibility" - talk at Art + Communication 2004

dear nettime,

Just returned from the excellent RIXC Art + Communication 2004 festival 
"Transcultural Mapping" in Riga I decided to immediately brush up the 
notes of my talk there and post it here. It is the third text in a series 
exploring different aspects of the concept of Hybrid Space, after 
"Constructing the Digital Commons" and "Virtualitee, adieu mon amour". To 
some extent they are variations on a theme, but I still think there is 
sufficient new material here to justify posting it.

all the best
apologies for any cross-posting.....



Talk given at:

Art + Communication 2004 - Transcultural Mapping - Riga, October 2, 2004.

[ http://rixc.lv/04/en/program/index.html ]


Connection in Visibility

Reconnecting the Space of Flows Unplugged

by Eric Kluitenberg

In the middle nineties the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells introduced 
a useful concept in his book The Rise of the Network Society (1996) - the 
Space of Flows: The Space of Flows is essentially the interconnected space 
of electronic communication and information networks, primarily 
telecommunications, internet and digital financial networks.

In the book Castellls contrasts two spatial logics that emerge in the 
network society and that threaten to become increasingly unrelated to each 
other - the Space of Place and the Space of Flows.

Castells writes: "...people still live in places. But because function and 
power in our society are organised in the space of flows, the structural 
domination of its logic essentially alters the meaning and dynamic of 
places. Experience, by being related to places, becomes abstracted from 
power, and meaning is increasingly separated from knowledge. It follows a 
structural schizophrenia between two spatial logics that threatens to 
break down communication channels in society. The dominant tendency is 
toward a horizon of a networked, ahistorical space of flows, aiming at 
imposing its logic over scattered, segmented places, increasingly 
unrelated to each other, less and less able to share cultural codes. 
Unless cultural and physical bridges are deliberately built between those 
two forms of space, we may be heading toward life in parallel universes 
whose times cannot meet because they are warped into different dimensions 
of a social hyperspace."

[Castells, "The Rise of the Network Society", Blackwell Publishers, Malden 
(Mass.), 1996, p. 428]

Thus, while the life experience of the vast majority of people is still 
connected to places - the Space of Place -, economic and political power, 
and finally also cultural power, is increasingly organised in a the 
place-less and a-historical space of flows. The word "deliberate" in his 
call to build bridges between these two spaces is important. Castells 
suggests that it requires deliberate collective action if we are not to 
move towards a structural social schizophrenia with all its inherent 
disastrous consequences...

However, the question how to build such bridges, remains unaddressed in 
Castells analysis, and I would argue that this is in part due to the fact 
that his theoretical framework is simply too general to accommodate that 
question. Furthermore, the requirement of some form of collective action 
to intervene in the increasingly divergent spatial logic of the space of 
flows introduces, at the very least implicitly, a political dimension=03to 
the analysis that equally remains out of sight in the book.

In the middle of the debate on the emergence of geolocative media, mobile 
electronic media that integrate geographical positioning technologies in 
their functionality, an approach from a critique of public space might be 
useful to address some of these missing links in Castells analysis.

Geolocative bridges?

The practices involving wireless media and geo-positioning technologies 
indicated with the term 'locative media' can be seen as one direction 
where such bridging can take place, but not self-evidently so. The 
question is where the critical moment is, where such practices actually 
transcend the pure functionality of the design of the technology itself. 
The slogan that art involving emergent technologies can be seen as a 
strategy of humanising technology is not incorrect in itself, but as such 
much too vague and too general to be truly useful. The mere application of 
existing and emergent technologies as such is similarly unconvincing. It 
amounts to little more than underpaid beta testing by 'advanced users' in 
service of the identification and exploration of future markets for 
wireless and GPS technologies.

One strategy that might shift the debate on locative media significantly 
enough to offer new insights and a more critical understanding of the 
roles these media can play, could be to question the extent to which 
locative media can be utilised to create new forms of the social and new 
forms of public space. This can then be understood as one way of 
addressing Castells call to build bridges between the two divergent 
spatial logics of places and flows.

To do this, however, Castells rather univocal reading of the space of 
electronic / digital communication networks needs to be supplanted by a 
more diversified understanding of those structures. Secondly the notions 
of the public domain and public space as highly localised and historicised 
concepts should be brought into relation with the extreme sophistication 
of the contemporary electronic communication spaces. This leads towards a 
more general criticism of public space and requires a careful analysis of 
why so little of the contemporary electronic communication spaces can be 
considered, in the proper sense, 'public space'.

The aim of such an analysis is not simply a critique of locative media 
practices, or the realm of electronic mediation in general, but much more 
an attempt to understand how new forms of sociality and public space can 
be brought about through such practices.

The critique of public space and electronic mediation can start quite 
classically with Richard Sennett's criticism of the "fall of public man" 
and the death of public space. In his classic study of 1974, 
city-sociologist Sennett examines the conscious and unconscious withdrawal 
of modern man from public life and the retreat into the private domain or 
into more intimate spheres of life and experience. Sennett observes a 
tendency across various domains of especially 20th century life that are 
characterised by a simultaneous increase of visibility and transparency of 
public life, combined with an increasing detachment from actual engagement 
in that public life, a tendency he characterises as the paradox of 
isolation in visibility.

Electronic mediation exponentiates the severity of this particularly 
modern disorder of social life:

Sennett: "Electronic media is one means by which the very idea of public 
life has been put to an end. The media have vastly increased the store of 
knowledge social groups have about each other, but have rendered actual 
contact unnecessary. The radio, and more especially the TV, are also 
intimate devices; mostly you watch them at home. TVs in bars, to be sure, 
are backgrounds, and people watching them together in bars are likely to 
talk over what they see, but the more normal experience of watching TV, 
and especially of paying attention to it, is that you do it by yourself or 
with your family. Experience of diversity and experience in a region of 
society at a distance from the intimate circle; the "media" contravene 
both these principles of publicness."

He then goes on to ask in what way the electronic media embody the paradox 
of an empty public domain, the paradox of isolation and visibility?

Sennett: "The mass media infinitely heighten the knowledge people have of 
what transpires in society, and they infinitely inhibit the capacity of 
people to convert that knowledge into political action. You cannot talk 
back to your TV set, you can only turn it off. Unless you are something of 
a crank and immediately telephone your friends to inform them that you 
have turned out an obnoxious politician and urge them to turn off their TV 
sets, any gesture or response you make is an invisible act."

[Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, W.W. Norton & Company, New York / 
London, 1974, pp. 282 - 283.]

Thus, Sennett indicates how the pervasiveness of electronic media 
continues and exponentiates the trend of isolation and visibility, by 
locking people in their private homes connected to the outside only by an 
electronic screen, which allows no feedback, no communication, no 
exchange, and certainly no encounter with the 'other'.

Mobile electronic media transfer this trend of electronic isolation to 
public space itself. They create a dramatically increased isolation in 
visibility, and this in=03the midst of all others, through the progression 
of wearable technologies: walkman, mobile phone, 3G and 4G wireless media. 
Mobile media entrench many people in a form of electronic autism in which 
these people are locked in singular concentration on their wearable 
devices while they move through public spaces, visible and plugged-in, but 
entirely disconnected from the environment...

This trend towards a semi-conscious withdrawal from public life and an 
increasing retreat into the personal sphere is further made evident by the 
curious tendency of a considerable amount of people to make their personal 
lives loudly manifest in public space by discussing at length the 
excruciating details of their highly personalised existence on mobile 
phones. Such acts of unwarranted intimacy are a blatant disregard for the 
social and the necessarily rule-based conduct of public life. What they in 
fact demarcate is a radical expansion of personal life at the cost of (the 
possibility of) public life, and thus they contribute significantly to a 
further hollowing out of the public sphere.

What to do?

Smash mobile phones?

One of the most violent reactions to the invasion of public space by 
obtrusive personal communication devices is probably the Phone Bashing 
action, carried out in London (date unsure, end of nineties). Two young 
gentlemen dressed up as walking mobile phones, wearing a prop-suit (in 
fact stolen from a video shoot for a commercial video clip), look like 
giant mobile phones with legs and arms sticking out.

Upon the sound of a mobile phone going off in public space they swing into 
furious action: running towards the person holding the phone, grabbing it, 
and smashing it in front of their eyes, upon which usually a pursuit by 
foot ensues. As the phone bashers run, their suits sway back and forth in 
a ridiculously caricaturesque manner....

"Run!!! Keep running!!!" they shout half out of breath, pursued by the 
outraged former owners of a working mobile phone...

[ http://www.phonebashing.com/ ]

Although a most welcome and warmly supported gesture, this seems hardly a 
viable strategy to rescue public life...


A more subtle solution has been proposed by the Dutch artist Arthur 
Elsenaar, who developed a portable transmitter to block the spectrum bands 
used by mobile phones and other wearable communication devices. The 
transmitter has about the size of a regular matchbox and is 
battery-powered. By pushing down the only available button a jamming 
signal is released, just strong enough to switch off all mobile devices in 
an area of about 3 to 5 metres around the device - i.e., exactly enough to 
turn-off the obnoxious conversation in the tram, metro or train seat in 
front of you...

The device has been packaged as a possible product for the wider consumer 
market under the name Bubl-Space. The only drawback here is that the 
device is completely illegal, because of existing telecommunications laws 
that protect vital wireless communication services.

[ http://www.bubl-space.com/ ]

The social and economic pressures not to engage seriously in these and 
other acts of selective disconnectivity, at present, work against such an 
idea. However, I strongly advocate locating the right to disconnect firmly 
in the universal declaration of communication rights!

Beyond the Space of Flows

The differentiation between the Space of Flows and the Space of Place is 
not nearly as clear-cut as Castells presents it in his Rise of the Network 
Society. Interconnection of geography and electronic communication 
networks is far more complicated and manifold. For one, the image of a 
separate space of flows or a "cyberspace" tends to forget the enormous 
material investments needed to provide for the infrastructure needed for 
this electronic communication space to come into being. These investments 
in themselves already make the space highly inaccessible for the majority 
part of the world.

Secondly, the emergence of geolocative technologies is part of a larger 
trend both in security and control, as well as in the provision of 
wireless services, where the physical / geographic location becomes an 
intractable part of the electronic communication space. We therefore need 
concepts that can more properly accommodate the intertwinedness of 
physical and electronic spaces.

Looking back today at cinematic imaginaries such as "Lawn-Mower Man", we 
cannot help but get a hopelessly antiquated, dated and retrograde 
sensation. The very idea of a disembodied self-contained data-space today 
seems patently absurd. It is this retrograde conception, which does not 
allow any understanding of the intertwinedness of the two spatial logics, 
and that also makes The Matrix into a highly conservative vision of the 
relationships between embodied and electronic data-space.

"Hybrid Space", as a concept, is better suited to help us read the 
complexities of how electronic and physical space weave in and out of each 
other. The resulting image is more diversified; an image of complexity, 
rather than the strict duality that Castells still suggests. This 
intertwinedness, however, in no sense does away with the issues of 
inclusion and exclusion in the electronic communication space

The question then is how the interface between the electronic 
communication space (the Space of Flows), and the lived embodied spaces of 
people's actual existence and experience can be made more radically 

  From my own experience I can only offer some approximative models of 
working with such an extended concept of hybrid space. What these, and 
other similar projects can do is to highlight a new sensitivity for the 
hybrid in the spatial experience that they produce. It suggests a shift 
from the descriptive and analytic mode towards the aesthetic. This could 
be problematic. For instance, Jean-Francois Lyotard's famous exhibit "Les 
Immat=E9riaux" (1985) similarly tried to highlight a new sensibility to 
what is changing in our relationship to reality, vis-=E0-vis the "fact" of 
the "new materials" (the immaterials). His argument, ultimately leads in 
the direction of a technological sublime that denies an actual possibility 
of agency in the new material/immaterial configuration, which was so 
brilliantly outlined in his visionary project.

[J.F. Lyotard, Thierry Chaput, "Les Immat=E9riaux - Conception", Centre 
Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1985]

It is therefore important to re-emphasise the conversion into political 
action of these approximative models (sometimes called "art"), so as not 
to end up in a dead-end street....


In 1999 together with architect Frans Vogelaar and students of the Academy 
of Media Arts in Cologne we devised an interesting fusion of different 
spatial logics in a singular context. The project was called "reBoot: a 
floating media art experiment", and it entailed bringing 50 artists for a 
week together on a ship that was simultaneous a working space 
(media-laboratory), a presentation space, and a living space. The boat 
would move between the cities Cologne, D=FCsseldorf, Duisburg, Wesel, 
Arnhem, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, all connected by the river Rhine, another 
network backbone for this part of Europe, though a far more historical 
one. (Amsterdam is connected by a branching canal but previously connected 
by the original historical trajectory of the river).

[ http://www.khm.de/`reboot ]

The important aspect of the project, however, is the layering of spatial 
logics; the permanence of the environment of the ship, mirrored in a 
permanent connection to the internet, broadcast signals emitted from the 
ship throughout the week, and discontinuous connections to local media, 
most notably to local television in Amsterdam. The flow of the project was 
further determined by the shifting geographical location of the boat and 
the docking points where local presentations and projects were staged, and 
finally by the continuous flow of the river and its historical role as 
transport route, as travel space, as mass sewage, as release of 
superfluous water masses.

In this complex configuration new types of public interfaces could 
continuously be tested, and for the audience the possibility of having 
different entry points to the project, on-line, via television or radio, 
at a docking point, or by joining the ship from one harbour to the next, 
could generate a distinct as well as a multi-layered experience of the 
project, of immediacy and delay, of proximity and distance.

The discontinuous nature of the actual technical possibilities for 
connectivity, lead to a highly discontinuous experience for both the 
artists as well as the audience, and highlighted the micro-interstices 
between the physical and electronic space. Often, only sound could be 
transmitted live from the ship, especially when it was moving, with at 
best a reBoot chat running next to it. Video materials produced on the 
ship had to be shipped to the central studio in Amsterdam by car and aired 
from there. Such fault lines did not constitute failures, but actually 
emphasised the highly discontinuous nature of hybrid space, which can be 
regarded as one of its essential characteristics.

Another example of the enquiry into the characteristics of hybrid space 
are the scenario studies that Frans Vogelaar and Elisabeth Sikiarid are 
conducting in the frame of their studio invOFFICE for architecture, 
urbanism and design, in Amsterdam. They propose typologies for public 
interfaces at the intersection points of physical and electronic network 
flows. These connection points are sometimes located in highly ordinary 
daily spaces - the laundrette for instance - and sometimes they are 
positioned in spaces devoted to the concentrated study of informational 
resources (such as libraries for instance). However, these spaces are 
always decidedly public so that more traditional forms of public behaviour 
(washing clothes or reading books outside of the confines of your private 
home) merge with new hybrid electro-physical interfaces.

Towards a Politics of Hybrid Public Space

In quite a different context an engagement with the politics of public 
space was sought in the project "Debates & Credits - Media Art in the 
Public Domain", which was initiated in late 2000 by the then Moscow based 
curator and media art theorist Tatiana Goryucheva, and finally executed in 
the Fall of 2002. In this project we brought together 4 artist collectives 
form Russia and four collectives from The Netherlands to design media art 
projects as interventions into the urban public spaces of Moscow, 
Amsterdam and Ekaterinburg.

[ http://www.debates.nl ]

One of the most challenging projects was BeamMobile(tm), conceived by the 
Dutch art/design collective DEPT who now work under different names. Their 
project was as simple as it was effective. By hooking up a strong beamer 
to a regular construction-type electrical generator with stable output, 
and connecting a laptop or simple video equipment, they managed to create 
a mobile digital agit-prop device. The equipment fits in a simple delivery 
van and can be easily driven around any city. In minutes the projector can 
be aimed at a nearby building or larger structure in the environment, and 
different kinds of visual materials can be superimposed on the 
architecture or the environment at large.

In this case BeamMobile was used to project images and messages in the 
urban environment that are notably absent there: poetic statements, highly 
personal imagery, displaced images that for instance transposed summery 
scenes from Amsterdam's infamous Vondel Park (former Hippy-heaven) into a 
cold nightly bedroom region of Moscow (Biberova). In other actions the 
gesture became more overtly political when imprints of digital culture 
were superimposed on the material remains of authoritarian culture in 
ruins, such as the central icon of the Soviet Union, Vera Mukhina's Worker 
and Farmers-daughter, designed for the Paris World Fair in 1937 and later 
placed outside=03the monumental permanent exhibition park of economic 
achievements of the Soviet Union Republics in Moscow, or the fa=E7ade of 
the now out of use Heineken Brewery in the heart of Amsterdam 
(dysfunctional branded urban space).

This personal voice made into a public interface, layering material and 
digital culture, authoritarian and micro-cultural poetic imaginations, has 
no place in our contemporary over-regulated urban public spaces. The 
voices that regularly manifest themselves in the urban environment are 
those of corporate power (advertisement) and state power (regulatory 
indications, prohibitions, propaganda). The personal voice is reduced to a 
purely personal imagination that remains, on the social plane, invisible, 
or it surfaces only as an annoying hindrance in public transport, but is 
never (allowed to be) converted into social dialogue, The results for 
social and civic life are disastrous, and it is this inequality that such 
projects attempt to address, even if they remain completely marginalised.

Connected Unplugged

Locative media as an artistic and cultural practice can be seen as a more 
sophisticated way of addressing this complexity of how the geography and 
the (wireless) electronic networks interweave. At the very least it 
heightens the experience of a new hybrid spatial sensibility. But these 
practices do not contribute self-evidently to countering the paradox of 
isolation in visibility in public space - I can be very isolated in the 
singular concentration on my geolocative contraptions. The question 
remains how to design more radically public interfaces for these media in 
order to engage people actively in a social, and therefore, by necessity, 
political process.

In hybrid space the challenge would be to feel, and actually be, deeply 
connected to both the physical environment and to others in that space, as 
well as to the disembodied confines of electronic space. To paraphrase the 
words here of Richard Sennett, to be able to engage in a form of 
"civilised existence, in which people are comfortable with a diversity of 
experience, and indeed find nourishment in it", where people can actively 
pursue their interests in society. A space that can serve as "a focus for 
active social life, for the conflict and play of interests, for the 
experience of human possibility". [ Sennett, 1974, p. 340 ]

Sennett speaks in these words about the city as "the forum in which it 
becomes meaningful to join with other persons without knowing them", in 
short the encounter with the 'unknown other'. He could in 1974 hardly have 
imagined how his analysis would be brought to the point of absolute crisis 
by the advance of mobile electronic communication media and the take-over 
of public space by personal life; in which everything is there for us to 
see and hear, while everyone remains essentially isolated from each other.

One way to look critically and I would suggest productively at artist 
projects in the realm of locative media would be to question to what 
extent they facilitate or deny public interaction and communication, and 
indeed make possible this encounter with the unknown other.

Eric Kluitenberg
September 2004

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net