Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Evolution and Error / Mongrel and Censorship
Matthew Fuller on Tue, 9 Jun 1998 16:47:58 +0200 (MET DST)

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

<nettime> Evolution and Error / Mongrel and Censorship

Please forward as you see fit

ISEA98 Evolution and Error
Mongrel and Censorship

An interview between Harwood and Maharg Dla'nor Doowrah

After seeing Mongrel's Presentation about National Heritage
(NH) at last year's ISEA in Chicago I decided I wanted to
interview Harwood about his role in Mongrel, what he was
doing next and how work was progressing on the forthcoming
showing of NH at ISEA98. Recently however, Harwood told me
that he had no contact with ISEA since March 98 and had been
completely blanked by them. I was keen to find out why this
had happened.

MDD: A lot of people will be unfamiliar with National
Heritage. Can you tell me what the work is about?

H: National Heritage is more a campaign then a single work.
For the past couple of years, Mongrel, of which I'm a part,
has been organising activity against the racially exclusive,
US West Coast utopianism that suggests information
technology is inherently capable of producing a better world
of a certain type; and at the same time against the
euro-authoritarian here-and-now social usage of technology.
National Heritage is our attempt to trace and attack racisms
and racialisations that are attempting to migrate into the
future. The installation part of the National Heritage
campaign has been temporarily forced out off the UK's art
circus and ISEA98 in particular, due to the ringmasters'
inability to deal with the cultural politics of a
techno-mongrel world.

MDD: Could you speak more about the National Heritage

H: During primary research for National Heritage, Mongrel
uncovered a common theme in the process of racialisation.
Feeling shit about your self is encouraged through the
constant removal of control over your own self-image. Like I
mean... Skint people rarely get control over the processes
of cultural reproduction which means that when you have to
get up on a stage any stage... be it going for an interview
or whatever. It has been set by some one else. The stage is
the social context constructed in large part through the
means of cultural reproduction.

Mongrel will reproduce its own version of this process as an
*entrance fee* to the installation. Users will be confronted
by an electronic gate that demands a portrait image in order
to enter the space. In agreeing to this, the user hands over
control of their self-image and contractually commits to
their skin being used by us in whatever manner we see fit.
The user's skin will then be analysed to distinguish which
of our eight anonymous racial types they most match. The
user will be asked to confirm this finding, ranking their
own image against ours. This, in turn, will determine how
the user's experience of the work is structured. The user
then picks up a torch and enters the space along with a
number of other users. As they move the light around the
room they notice objects of racialisation on the floor
clothes, media, weapons etc. When the light hits the
objects, animated heads tell stories of local people,
peoples not usually associated with the art arena or of
national abuse. Depending on the collective skin colour of
the audience, the heads abuse that audience. Basically if
the city is 50 % white and 50% black and too many white
folks go in the installation at once then it gets more
abusive to that audience. And if the users trigger certain
points they may trigger frenzied spitting at the images.
What I've outlined is a simple version of what we are up to.
The work is intricately connected to the Internet Directory
"Natural Selection" and street poster-newspaper campaigns
that we are organising.

MDD: What or who is Mongrel then?

H: Mongrel is a mixed bunch of people working to celebrate
the methods of London street culture. It was set up with the
people who helped make Rehearsal of Memory which is a CD ROM
made with patients/prisoners of Ashworth, a top Security
Mental Hospital. Mongrel is centred around Matsuko Yokokoji,
Richard Pierre Davis and myself. We set up projects and
invite others to join in on specific projects. We are
dedicated to defeating the self-image of societies in which
it is usual to presume those involved in "intellectual
pursuits", and those attending "culturally prestigious
events" are far above the mundanity of political conflict,
In other words, societies of people who positively cultivate
a view of themselves of being "liberal arty post-racists"

MDD: What does Mongrel do?

H: We make socially engaged cultural product employing any
and all technological advantage that we can lay our hands
on. We have dedicated ourselves to learning technological
methods of social engagement, which means we pride ourselves
on our ability to programme, engineer and build our own
software and custom hardware. At the moment one of the ideas
high on our agenda is to address is the computer's ability
to infinitely reproduce its masters' image. We repeatedly
nag-and-stab at the bloody miscarriage of
cyber-civilisation, in an attempt to force into view the
images of those being reproduced so purely and 'cleanly' We
also check the wallet of those who benefit. As Richard says,
NH is looking these questions straight in the face to
discover if that face has a colour.

MDD: ISEA98 what's going on?

H: Nothing... An evolution of error.... An irrelevance! But
I shouldn't really say that as it might taint the interview
with more then a little annoyance and thus reveal that I
have feelings, which would deligitimise my arguments...

MDD: As you said before we started the interview, you were
asked some two years ago by the Foundation for Art and
Computer Technology (FACT) to put together a proposal for
Video Positive 97 and that this is where NH started.

H: Yes. They said [UK-L]10,000. We said National Heritage. So we
met at ISEA 96 in Rotterdam and settled the deal. We taped
the negotiation so Matsuko could better understand when
Richard and I got back to London, and to stop any cheating.
"Ten thousand pounds in used notes" the representative from
FACT said.

MDD: You taped them! And you still have the tape?

H: Yeah we have it somewhere. Anyway, after we started work
on the project we had a series of exchanges in which I could
see that the representatives of FACT were getting
increasingly nervous about the local politics in Liverpool.

MDD: Are the local politics in Liverpool very different say
from London?

H: No. Sorry, I meant the politics of keeping Art out of
Black spaces. Anyway we had a big visit from them and that
was the first time they mentioned ISEA98. They told us that
it would be too difficult to prepare the local environment
for the show and they wanted a long term strategy for
staging the work. As it turned out, this strategy included
expecting a local gallery to take on the project without
proper briefing. Eventually at the end of last year we were
told that "Presenting National Heritage would seriously set
back its relationship with black communities and audiences
in the city which its built slowly and carefully over many
years" (sic). We never even got a chance to talk to anyone
local about it! They gave some people connected to the
gallery an application for funding that we made to the Arts
Council that for us was itself an intervention. (Trying to
get work like NH funded takes a particular form of middle
class English.  It has to be coded correctly or it will
fail). They never asked us for our permission, no
discussion, nothing. To this they added... Let me read you
part of their letter.

>From a FACT representative:

"The Mongrel concept may be acceptable and even
understandable within a metropolitan context but the reality
- the bitter experiences and unresolved circumstances of
many of Britain's regional-urban black communities - means
that to undertake a project which is as confrontational and
potentially explosive as National Heritage, it is vitally
important that the right ground work takes place delivered
by the right people."(sic)

We always work with local people. That's one of the points
of the work.It's weird to suggest that we are not the right
people. We were right enough to send to Ashworth and work
with a mixed race bunch of social offenders. I feel that
this is such an insult to people in Liverpool...FACT seems
to suggest that people are more stupid in Liverpool. FACT
suggests that not only is Liverpool a provincial backwater,
but that the black people of Liverpool - whom FACT deigns to
speak on behalf of and isolate for special treatment as
opposed to Asians, whitey or whoever - are even more
provincial than the regular patrons of the local arts
institutions. Perhaps this is something of a misjudgement?

FACT goes on to say:

FACT: "I really don't think a presentation by you both would
have helped. If you'd made the same presentation with the
same assumptions and assertions that were put forward in
Chicago, most likely some people here would be even more
hostile. That London thing just gets people's back up. This
is not a parochial whinge - it's meant to be a project with
universal themes but whole chunks of your thesis not only
reflect, but conform to, a very metropolitan - indeed London
- view of the world. This is not necessarily a criticism,
merely an observation."

I have always thought of Liverpool as a metropolitan area.
The city's real position internationally and within Britain
totally blows this argument apart. Anyway, in all our
proposals we intended to work with local people. That's the
whole point - to address their exclusion from these cultural
spaces. But given the class nature of art, having our
project represented to a couple of municipal advisors -
whose attitude the FACT representative even refers to as "A
tendency to neo-liberalism and taking the soft option" - by
an Arts Council proposal is not a useful place to start. The
way you write an application to the Arts Council is very
different to the way you represent to people more on your
own level.

MDD: So what do you think FACT are saying?

H: I think FACT and other organisations like them are not
capable of dealing with art that talks about race from any
other point of view other then the safe middle class
municipal identity politics of the past. And as for the
suggestion that 'local people' are not capable of dealing
with any art that does not conform to their world view. It's
an insult. ...I wonder if this is a condition imposed on
other work in ISEA98? The local art power structures which
administrators depend on for their mortgage payments have
for so long relied on trying to sublimate issues of race and
class. Because they have consistently failed over the years
to involve local working class communities - a failure which
amounts to deliberate exclusion - they are now totally
scared of even making the attempt. They are even frightened
of the local social-class structures that they maintain.

MDD: So did you challenge them about this?

H: After this exchange I went to Liverpool to try and rescue
the opportunity, but after a few more exchanges and broken
promises we were blanked. We still send them the odd message
or update because, as we told them, "We will keep you
informed of any development.  At least one of us has the
manners to act professionally."

MDD: So is ISEA any different to other festivals?

H: I have been continually frustrated at these techno/arty
events by the culturally loaded nature of these gatherings.
There is often a constricted and repressed nature to the
interaction at these events with no outcomes but a lot of
name cards and a few promises of a show/talk/article here or
there. This is usually caused by some bad academic parasites
unnecessarily privileging theory and status maintenance.
This type of academic reads his paper to build his or her
list of public research outcomes and to continue a paper
mountain of a career without due regard to the attention of
the audience, or the type of event. On the other hand,
you're smothered by a bunch of careerist curators trying to
promote themselves onto every new panel set up by every
dodgy drugs and new technologies companies on the go.

MDD: So you don't enjoy them: you have been to enough. Four
ISEAs isn't it?

H: Well yeah. I never said I wasn't a hypocrite... anyway
for the previous 27 years before ISEA Finland I had not been
out of South London for more then two weeks at a time and
had been abroad twice in my life. Festivals are the car boot
sale of art and privilege. The parties are good if you've
necked your duty-free fast enough. They have been good for
me in that I have had a chance to visit other places, seeing
how people work well together and how they work badly. Also,
it's useful to intervene and I met a lot of decent people
parasiting the events in the same way. In Australia, I even
met people who were willing to re-mortgage their house to
fund a conference. That is dedication.

MDD: Lets get back to '98. Don't you think it's laughable
that organisations like those putting together ISEA UK would
call it's forthcoming festival Revolution and Terror.

H: This is the equivalent of calling a five year old
stealing a lolly the crime of the century.

MDD: Who do they think is going to be fooled by this

H: No... No... Maybe we've got it all wrong. The terror
appears to be the ticket prices looking - starting at 
[UK-L]175 and going up to more than [UK-L]300 for the lot.

MDD: Who's going to go at these prices?

H: I don't know. Maybe it is an attempt to position
Electronic Arts in the same category as opera?

MDD: Why do you think National Heritage has been blanked by
ISEA after all everyone expected to see the work there!

H: NH, through its use of complex narrative structures,
demands a thinking curator or public space official
committed to social introspection and critical engagement.
Not only of the art itself but of the social context of that
art and of the technological processes contained within the
art. The Ring Masters of these techno art side-shows are
left wanting in this respect. Whilst there are a few that
really know what they are on about, almost all the curators
I know are snivelling cowards at best.

MDD: What do you think these curators are trying to do by
staging an event like ISEA?

H: One possibility is that they are trying to reformulate
world history in their own image but have such low levels of
aspiration that they can only imagine stamping their faces
onto the area of electronic art. No... Sorry... Emotions
again... Another possibility is that they are trying to
block the development in digital culture of an
acknowledgement that anyone can make, add-to or append
culture in an interesting way and you do not have to have
specialist upbringing to do it.

MDD: So why do you think NH was not included?

H: NH defines the line of what can and can not be done in
electronic arts events.

MDD: What is the line?

H: The amount of careful trouble it takes a curator to plan
and engage with the work. You have to have sleepless nights
to work with Mongrel and its social complexities. As the
curators at FACT/ISEA98 said "usually we commission a work,
find a blank bit of gallery space, install it and forget
it.... You give us sleepless nights." NH does not work like
that. It was intended to challenge your complicity in
racism. It cracks open the shell you built up through
out-moded identity politics. NH invades the psycho-social
structure of pleasantness and fear of the white man to deal
with race. This is the line. It is the work's relevance to
the lives it comes in contact with... ....and have I
mentioned: it's also bloody good value for money.

MDD: Lets finish talking about ISEA and open out the
conversation to the context in which it is operating. What
do you think is the most useful thing a new media artist has
to offer?

H: Nothing: There is nothing clever or inherently useful
about wanting to make or put on a show of interactive art.
It's simply not enough to show technical virtuosity with
technology. For that I look to Sony or BMW and other skilled
and creative engineers. In fact to put on a computer art
show in itself is dull and uninteresting.

MDD: Why have you not spoken about this before?.

H: For a long time during the nineties social opportunity
was opening up due to technological change. I felt I could
hide out and not have to make statements about what I think
is interesting and what I think is dull. I wanted to operate
in a way that would let the work speak for itself and did
not want to cause undue conflict.

MDD: What's changed?

H: I thought like many others that this new media puddle was
big enough for everyone and that the expanding scene would
tolerate even the most radical forms of play. The then
amateur status of the field guaranteed that even if you did
not like someone's work you could still admire that person's
efforts in producing it. Recent changes here in the UK and
elsewhere have led to this amateurism being replaced by
corporate commissions and competitions. With the
introduction of these elements we are forced to make
political choices.

MDD: The British arts establishment has always fostered an
ideology of an aristocratic amateurism. Is this what you
want to promote?

H: There's a difference between the bollocks of genteel
amateurism and a kind of work practice that is done 'for
itself', that creates its own kind of value - this is the
way the large majority of artists - and gardeners and pigeon
fanciers work and I applaud it. The construction of value
for it's own sake is fun and we should never lose sight of

MDD: A lot of large companies and government funds seem
drawn to commissioning and housing work made with new
technology at the moment. Why? Do you think it is because
they are interested in the health of humanity and view art
as some kind of panacea to the worlds ills?

H: That would be insulting enough if it was the case, but I
don't think so. If, say, Wellcome - a pharmaceutical company
that sponsors art, (particularly science and technology
related work) was interested in the health of societies it
would rely less on peoples' sickness paying them and try and
foster a more self-reliant health system. It could run in a
non-profit way. or promote something like DIY essential
surgery techniques...

MDD: So you do not think that these agencies are interested
in taking the world a better place for me and my children?

H: Corporations and governments interested in a better
world... I should co-co, if you swallow that one, you will
shit an elephant in the morning.

MDD: So why do you think they are interested in Art?

H: Maybe shitting elephants feels good? Such agencies buy
into art as a decorative accessory that ritualises taste and
legitimises their position. For them, art constructs a
fortress that states: "If you don't like what we like you're
stupid". It reminds the population and themselves that they
have a visibly natural right to wealth and privilege.

MDD: If you are going to deal with them at all - and that
effectively means to show work in any publicly promoted
space - how can you do it without compromise?

H: Don't work with company commissions or governmental
bodies if the work does not engage with the social and
political context that surrounds the commissions. It makes
for boring art and promotes elitism.

MDD: How does this situation work in the narrow area of
electronic art?

H: To work within corporations at any level - if you're
going to have fun - must be an act of insurgence and
especially in the privileged arena of art or of image
makers. Making art from technology is in itself not
interesting. It never has been and there is no use
pretending it is.

MDD: What are the implications of this in the wider context
of culture?

H: We are on the eve of the next century. Hopefully we have
agreed that anyone can make, add-to or append culture in an
interesting way. We all do it every day. Some make, add-to
or append culture close to them within groups of friends or
families or other small social groups. Others choose to
engage with the cultures that are the intercommunications
between these groups which is often seen as media, or
collective imaging. Within this area artists and the media
work generating images that can often be the valuable asset
of a company organisation or country.

MDD: So you think anyone involved in corporations on such an
asset enhancing venture is an enemy to progress and should
be undermined at every point?

H: Kick their legs from under them. Most artists think that
they are rebels, or at least a teeny-weeny bit. (It's true
though. Pretentiousness may help you escape from the
suburbs, if it means your family no longer wants to talk to
you.) The go-betweens are at work unloading the lorry of
manipulation and repressive techniques and are re-purposing
them for the info-age.  Artists are playing their part in
the servile-economy by making these repressive techniques
appear creative. We saw such content re-purposing with Vinyl
to CD - now we can see it with oppressive social structures
being updated for the 'new' media.

MDD: So what do you think the purpose of the new
technologies is?

H: I don't know. But any one with more then half a brain
will realise that these technologies are used to oppress 90%
of the time. They have not been invented to make life more
fun and easier. A company does not buy computers to make its
employees happy. Whilst saying this computers can be fun,
can be a political weapon and can offer some pleasure. But
this happens in the margins of confusion.  That is, in the
technology's newness or in the boredom of youthful soft
engineers and in other odd corners.

MDD: We have an opportunity with this technology to leave
behind a world which privileges the creativity of a few in
order to suppress the creativity of the many. What do you
think is holding this back?

H: New media art is being systematically privileged at
international festivals in order to export the oppressive
social structures of tastefulness from this century onto the
next. Every self respecting artist will deny this activity
at every turn. It's about time we exposed the hypocrisy and
inherent dullness of media art. Before it's taken serious.

MDD: If this is the scenario, then what role should the new
media artist occupy?  What tactics work?

H: Re-purposing corporate soft. Mimic other's sites. Email
as your enemy. Form your own networks. Burrow into the
decaying matter of the 20th Century. There's aloads of stuff
going on.  Drive the population crazy. We need to migrate as
many radical and speculative threads as possible at this

Maharg Dla'nor Doowrah is an environmentalist and homemaker
and regular contributor to Ninth Fold, a journal of
post-colonial gardening.
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} desk.nl and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner {AT} desk.nl