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<nettime> Paper and Pixels in Love: An Email Interview with Alessandro L
Michael Dieter on Thu, 5 Jun 2008 03:53:43 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Paper and Pixels in Love: An Email Interview with Alessandro Ludovico


Thought the list might be interested in this short interview with
Alessandro Ludovico, a co-founder of nettime. This piece was recently
published in volume 18 of antiTHESIS, a postgraduate journal based in the
School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

Paper and Pixels in Love:
An Email Interview with Alessandro Ludovico
By Michael Dieter and Nicole Heber

Alessandro Ludovico has engaged in communication and media aesthetics as a
practitioner, theorist and curator. Since 1993, he has been the
editor-in-chief of Neural, an influential new media culture magazine
published in both English and Italian [http://www.neural.it/]. He is also
one of the founding members of the nettime list and of the Mag.Net
(Magazine Network of Electronic Cultural Publishers) organisation.

In the following brief interview, conducted via email between January and
May 2008, Ludovico discusses topics ranging from Italian traditions of
hacktivism, the apparent institutional marginalisation of media art and
possibilities for conceptual aesthetic approaches to the digital culture.

1. Could you explain something of how you originally developed an interest
in media art? We understand you had an early involvement with 'mail art'
and fanzines, to what extent have these practices informed your thought
around exploratory and aesthetic approaches to distributed communication
networks?

Fanzines were an effective, cheap and archival medium for sharing ideas in
freedom of expression soaked subcultures. Mail Art in my opinion was 'the
net before the net'. Its spontaneous network of artist supporting
themselves and sharing 'performative' action through the postal network,
connecting local exhibitions with interrelated social relationships was
simply unique. Furthermore I developed an interest in computers and IT,
especially in its internal mechanisms and aesthetic (as many young guys
did during the 80's). With the BBS phenomenon first and the early net
practices later all these interests were short-circuited. I had a medium
to express my approach (the magazine), a background in artistic networking
(mail art), a technical knowledge to understand them and a rising avant
garde that I was accidentally part of (after being invited in the first
nettime meeting): the net art. Could I have asked for more?

 2. Tatiana Bazzichelli's recent publication 'Networking: La rete come
arte' has drawn attention to the cultural and critical significance of
Italian hacktivism [1]. From your own perspective, can you briefly
outline some of the historical influences - individuals, movements and
locations - for network art in Italy? Or, alternatively, to what extent
does net art precede a specific national context? Has it become more
collaborative, global and borderless?

Unfortunately, even with valuable efforts like the Tatiana one, a detailed
history of Italian networked art and culture is yet to be written, from a
historical and sociological perspectives. Hacktivism in Italy has always
been attached to a strong political tradition, but especially to so called
'creative autonomia' that emerged during the political movements in 1968
first, but way more in 1977, reflected in the most innovative practices in
a few squatted social centers, the movements during the 90's and its
innovation in practice has always been far ahead of its time. The free
radio movement in the end of 70's, as well as the 90's hacktivist
practices (the netstrike, the hacklab movement, the anti-copyright
practices), then the 'telestreet movement' in 00's questioning the power
of TV, represented peculiar approaches to what could be defined as
networked 'art' and 'activism' as well. Actually, in all of them, the
'network' concept has always been and still is central. They were dealing
with a national specific environment, but abstracting it to a more
universal level, that can be then applied almost everywhere, using the net
to erode mass media powers, then building and sharing collective temporary
media zones. So if there's any national peculiarity it is the ability to
mix into different media anarchic and visionary practices. Concerning the
net.art specifically – I think it mainly never suffered from national
influences, but only by network redundant ones. From the very beginning,
it was established as an international, borderless network that used the
national contexts mainly as source of inspiration (the work net.flag by
Mark Napier is emblematic just to give you an example).

 3. Neural magazine was established in 1993, and has since become an
important platform for commentary around contemporary media art. At the
time, what was the original motivation for its establishment and how its
production has changed over the years in relation to the shifting
ecologies and economics of independent publishing (i.e. the rise of
blogging and 'free content', print-by-demand technologies, etc.)?

In 1992, I edited a small publication: The Virtual Reality Handbook [2].
It was a slim handbook on virtual reality with lots of data, contacts and
a bit of theory plus an audio CD with music inspired from the theme. It
was a success, with customers all over the world buying the produced 2000
copies in less than a year. So In 1993 I decided to co-found Neural just
taking it more seriously and trying to document and hopefully inspire the
rising attention to 'new technologies' in a purely cultural perspective,
focusing on art, music and politics. The motivation was the usual one for
an independent publisher: publish the thing you'd really want to read and
that nobody else is currently publishing. In the Neural case, there was
another idealistic one: becoming an active node in the forming network of
new media cultural practitioners, sharing information, ideas and
perspectives, and that's what I've tried to do since then. In the last 15
years, readers mostly followed the fast and furious changes of printed
publishing literally disrupted by the online medium advent and the
pervasive digital influence in printing production. Print now is luxury
(net is almost free, print is for sale) so its role has radically changed
from one of the main source of information to being the essential of the
overwhelming amount of freely available information on the net. The
relationship between paper and pixels, so to say, it's the core of the
Mag.net group activity [3].

4. According to Oliver Grau, "digital art has become the art of our times,
yet it has not 'arrived' in the cultural institutions of our societies"
[4]. This seems to be a recurring sentiment in the field of media art: its
lack of mainstream visibility. How do you respond this issue? Are the
curatorial decisions of major cultural institutions the most accurate
gauge of the social viability of such a diverse and disparate set of
practices? What kind of work, for instance, do you see Neutral performing
in this context by weaving together aspects of electronic music, media art
and independent publishing in a magazine format?

I think there are many similarities between video art and media art
histories. After the usual 'avant garde' period, conceptually fighting the
establishment and using with no preconceptions a brand-new medium, there's
a needed and pushed historicisation that suddenly leads to a need of
recognition by the art world (and market) at large. But it'd take time.
Video art needed almost 20 years for a full recognition. And the so called
'new media art' artists and curators are actively reclaiming to be part of
'contemporary art' in the last five years yet. The response of major
cultural institutions is still to consider new media a sort of ghetto.
Curatorial decisions sometimes include it, but as a sort of an unavoidable
homage to a subculture or sub-genre. Are they 'the most accurate gauge of
the social viability of such a diverse and disparate set of practices' as
you ask? Probably they will never be in their contemporaneity, but they
will always be after a few years and then sometimes better, similarly to
what newspapers do with social history. Furthermore what I think it's
still lacking, even if crucial for the art world, is that most of digital
art should be accredited with belonging to the 'performance arts' field,
in order to definitively solve their disembodied nature. In the end,
that's what happened to video art. Neural's role of weaving together
different data domains is (more and more) aimed to trigger off a different
awareness of the digital culture at large, pushing to break any border
left among different research fields. I'm keen and passionate about
digital art, music and politics and the analysis of them as a unique
complex but an essential cultural world in its own is for me a lifelong
project more than a mere editorial job.

5. In your recent contributions to Documenta12 and ANAT workshops, 'The
Persistence of Paper', you conceive of paper as having become part of the
editing process, a material selector or savior of the countless
"message(s) in bottle(s) thrown into the sea of the net" [5]. The
stability of paper is foregrounded in contrast with unstable digital
mediums – so that paper seems to function as a kind of sedative for a
correlated unstable, nervous or anxious mental state. What has the
contrast between digital and print media revealed to you about why the
unfashionable values of stability and selectivity are valuable? Does this
contrast also highlight what makes a document worth preserving or
stabilising?

The contrast between paper and pixel is in the end a love/hate
relationship. Paper loves the online updating speed, the infinite space
for storage and the powerful tools for searching the content through
keywords. Pixels love the stability of paper content, how it's reliable in
delivering it on demand, and its greater ease in reading. But, they are
supposed to hate each other because they'd be seen in fierce competition.
My approach is to experiment with establishing the most efficient
relationship between the two and make it serve the independent cultural
community of publishers. I'm partial to paper, although I've seen many
dismissal signals lately. Its' stability and selectivity become almost
instantly valuable when you are not wired (no Internet access or not
enough battery power). This unplugged condition is revealing the major
instability of the online medium that instantly becomes an ephemeral one.
Its enormous amount of information suddenly disappears when you lack
electrons. Furthermore, filtering information (that means also "making a
document worth preserving" or not as you said) is still a pioneering
activity, so full of potential inaccuracies. It took ages for us to learn
to filter (sound and visual) unwanted information from our visual
neighborhood, then it'll take time to develop skills to almost instantly
select a piece of information our attention is attracted by. In this sense
paper is a savior, because we were confronted with it for centuries, while
we're experiment access to the web overwhelming cornucopia from a little
more than a decade.

6. As you observed in recent writing, the ephemeral nature of publishing
on the Web has, in many cases, led to the eradication of the historical
materiality or the 'embeddedness' of content through the constant
stylistic and technological updating of sites and pages. To a certain
extent, this is merely a case of fashion cycles, but also appears impact
significantly on processes of collective memory. Given your involvement
with key exhibitions such as 'I Love You', which involved a high level of
complicated archival work, how do you understand the particular challenges
of 'remembering' software?

This is really a challenge. The extremely configurable dynamics of
software constitutes a completely different way of publishing, so of
archiving. That's a big difference with paper and it's a challenge for our
collective memory. A yellowed newspaper tells its age at first glance, but
we will be able to tell the age of an electronic news site displayed in a
fancy freshly produced interface? Will this be able to affect collective
memory in the long term? It's really not a trivial question, and the role
of databases versus the libraries one can be crucial for the preservation
of contemporary culture. Furthermore 'archiving' the digital is another
unresolved dilemma. And that's why extensive documentation (on traditional
media: paper, video standards and so on), that is different from the
original running software on its own platform, can preserve memory and
culture even better.

7. Jussi Parikka has recently described the need for a 'viral philosophy',
arguing that the virus has become a central symbol and mode of action in
contemporary informational capitalism [6]. Considering your experiences
with 'I Love You', in what ways has the virus been an important critical
tool for your own thought and artistic practices?

Analysing the virus culture and the related production of artworks, it's
evident how it relates to the transmission of information (through its
duplication process) and its propagation speed. I learned from the viral
techniques how information can diffuse at an incredible pace and how it
can in a way trace a certain part of a network, passing through it. But I
disagree with Parikka: for me it's more an ambiguous medium, nevertheless
fascinating. It's pervasive and it can bypass filters (antivirus, so
metaphorically censorship) instantly defining a sort of branding new
transmission protocol, but it's however a very sophisticated work of (art)
code taking over (even temporary) a large part of other independent nodes,
and it's usually developed by an elite. I definitely think that studying
its characteristics would enlighten some still underestimated network
cultural specifics and open a new discourse about how information can be
programmed and spread through a network, but I'm quite dubious about the
need of (another) bunch of tactics that uses viral techniques.

8. For the project 'Google Will Eat Itself', the theoretical statement
describes the real threat to media corporations as not market competition
per se, but 'the parasite' [7]. Indeed, the artwork appears to pursue this
logic materially by exploiting the 'self-referential' aspects of AdSense
and investing in Google shares through automated software. That said, on
our last check, it is estimated to take 202,345,155 years until GWEI fully
owns the company. Obviously, there is a highly conceptual dimension to the
work, how do you understand the affective, political or pedagogic
dimensions of this kind of parasitic intervention?

Again it's definitively a conceptual artwork. Nevertheless for me it's
mainly about the idea (so about the concept) that you'd build on its
techniques. GWEI was built on a few important concepts. One of them is the
software Paolo Cirio wrote for 'simulating' a user: coding an algorithm
that would behave as an average net surfer for Google AdSense 'eyes'. It
worked like a charm, totally fooling the Google checking software, but
this was mainly a statement on how the most inflated corporation ever
established would base its fortune on an easily deceivable mechanism. But
we wanted to implement it deeply in reality: think for a second that about
1,000 users that agree on fairly clicking on each other blog's AdSense ads
under certain restrictions that would simulate their spontaneousness. It'd
be then a flux of collectively generated money brilliantly faking the
whole pay-per-click process. So GWEI is strictly related to the idea of
parasitising the biggest ads mechanism ever conceived, basing on the
highest contemporary speculation: the last capital bet on online economy.

9. With the 'Amazon Noir' piece, we're interested in how the genre of noir
interacted with or framed the process as it unfolded [8]. For instance,
the statement from Amazon – 'We will protect our rights. No information on
the matter will be made public' – seemed almost scripted, like a classic
villain in a movie. In one interview, the use of noir led to the question
of 'who are the good guys, honestly'? To what extent was the pleasure or
interest you took in the project narrative-based, cinematic or literary?
Were there moments when your actions or interpretations were influenced by
the sense that you were playing a particular role?

Noir narrative clichés were chosen because apparently there was a crime
committed even if an invisible one. But the nature and the characteristic
of this 'crime' (stealing without actually stealing even a file, but
reconstructing it and without breaking anything, but just stressing a
mechanism) was questioned by ourselves. So playing with the roles and the
narrative scheme we were able to reinforce the vision of a not yet defined
crime type, very connected to the nature of the online medium and the
database parceling of data. Actually we never stuck in a particular role,
but during the action we were very conscious of being the bad guys at
large fighting the big good guy for the femme fatal (media) attention. For
me it was a sort of a perfect reference more than identifying myself in a
specific role.

10. Do you see 'Amazon Noir' as an act of piracy? What is your take on
piracy, as a term with highly charged positive and negative associations?
To what extent is the meaning of piracy still available for contestation
and capable of transformation?

I see it as a hack, so an act of 'cultural piracy' if you want. I strongly
think that the original brilliant idea Paolo Cirio had, then developed by
our team was meant to be an 'abstract piracy', dealing more with
investigating how copyrighted data can be assembled and shared. Actually
'piracy' seems to be a buzzword, probably also because of the rising
copyright conflict triggered by the peer to peer exchange explosion and
its outcome: The Pirate Bay model vs. Corporate Industry trying to sue
every exchange of media files. In this scenario it is hard to
re-appropriate the 'piracy' term without being misunderstood, and this
seems similar to what happened in the nineties to the 'hacker' term,
transformed in a discrediting term after his association by media with the
server unauthorised intrusions. So probably this conflict will be
reflected in the term used with different meanings by the governmental and
economical powers on one side, and the fighters for freedom of expression
and sharing on the other side.

11. We want to ask about the significance of failure. Andreas Broeckmann
writes of the Mag.net project as a 'heroic failure' and you have spoken of
'Amazon Noir' as a failure [9]. In terms of programming, failures are, of
course, used to strengthen programs by eliminating flaws – malfunctions
are relied on as a potential source of future information. Can social
networking processes such as the Mag.net project also be strengthened by
their failure, or is it your experience that they are they too messy or
complex to be conceived of in this way? How do breakdowns in social
networks as opposed to computerised network processes reveal the
similarities or differences between the two?

Actually the MagNet project is up and running in different forms. The
'failure' was in the end a new starting point that brought a new spin and
new energy. I think that instead of the 'success' or 'failure' categories
we should consider them as different points of an evolutive process. This
type of breakdown revealed a weakness in the first network that we are
able to recognise, face and then sort out. It's similar to what happens in
computer networks, where sometimes a software update (i.e. a 'conceptual'
update) is required to start working again. Latest Mag.Net activities,
after the exciting Documenta 12 week, are that I'm actually editing with
Nat Muller the third Mag.net Reader (subtitled 'Processual Publishing,
Actual Gestures') that is scheduled to be on print in June, and there are
other related projects submitted to different institutions that would
bring this projects alive and kicking for a while at least.

THE LATEST EDITION OF NEURAL 'DIGITAL CHINA' IS NOW AVAILABLE.
SUBSCRIPTIONS CAN BE MADE VIA THE WEBSITE -
http://www.neural.it/subscribe.phtml

 ________________________________

[1] Tatiana Bazzichelli, Networking: La rete come arte, Milan: Costa &
Nolan, 2006.

[2] See http://www.neural.it/art/2002/01/various_artists_virtual_realit.phtml

[3] See http://www.magnet-ecp.org

[4] Oliver Grau, 'Introduction' in Oliver Grau (ed.) MediaArtHistories,
Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007, p. 3.

[5] Alessandro Ludovico, 'The Persistence of Paper',
http://www.neural.it/art/2007/07/the_persistance_of_paper_by_al.phtml

[6] Jussi Parikka, Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer
Viruses, New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

[7] Google Will Eat Itself, http://gwei.org/index.php

[8] Amazon Noir, http://www.amazon-noir.com/

[9] Andreas Broeckmann, 'The Beauty of Printing and the Glory of
Networking', in Miren Eraso, Alessandro Ludovico and Slavo Krekovic (eds)
The Mag.net Reader: Experiences in Electronic Cultural Publishing,
Arteleku-Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa, 2006, p. 8. Also available,
http://www.magnet-ecp.org/download


-- 
Michael Dieter
PhD Candidate, Sessional Lecturer
Thesis: Reticulation (Network Aesthetics)
School of Culture and Communication
University of Melbourne

Latest Publications:

'Notes on Hardware Archaeology and 8-Bit Videogame Modification',
Communications, Civics, Industry - ANZCA2007 Conference Proceedings,
http://www.latrobe.edu.au/ANZCA2007/proceedings/Dieter.pdf

'Amazon Noir: Piracy, Distribution, Control'
http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0710/07-dieter.php


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