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<nettime> Blast agencies
Jordan Crandall on Mon, 15 Jun 1998 18:37:05 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Blast agencies


The following is a combined text of two presentations: at the 4th
International Festival of Computer Arts in Maribor, Slovenia, 12-14 May;
and the Harvard Conference on Internet and Society, Harvard University,
Cambridge, 27 May. 
Jordan

--

Blast agencies

Recently we held the second intervention in our new Blast program - a
forum called <eyebeam><blast>.  The project began as a mailinglist
forum, occurring from February 1 to April 30, 1998.  It will also
include an offline symposium in New York this November, and a book
compilation of the proceedings to be published next year.

This new Blast program was launched at documenta X.  The first
intervention, <documentaX><blast>, took place from June 21 to September
29.  We are currently launching a third intervention, <voti><blast> (a
forum devoted to curatorial strategies), and we are developing a
fourth.  In each instance, Blast "docks" with a particular organization
in order to develop a highly specific project.  Each project has a
clearly articulated goal and procedure, and employs the media best
suited to its objectives - often combinations of mailinglists, offline
symposia, exhibitions, books, and broadcasts.   In this way, Blast
operates as a mobile catalyst, developing a network of relationships
with institutions and organizations, in order to accomplish highly
specific tasks.  It operates as an agent of activity, a kind of marker
or brand.  We refer to the new program as "Blast agencies."  

Our intent is to focus attention on critical issues pertaining to
cultural practice in the network.  By "network" we do not mean solely
the Internet, but a proliferating complex of global communications
increasingly tied into one another.  We try to balance investigations of
specific regions of net space (financial networks, the web, social
realms such as the MOO, and so on) with an emphasis on the intersections
and coordinations of on- and offline spaces --  particularly in terms of
the organizational protocols and imperatives through which these spaces
are synchronized, crossformatted, and brought "in line" with one
another.  While our emphasis is in the field of representation, we seek
to understand how representations and built realities affect and
constitute one another: how, on the one hand, the image-field is
urbanized, and on the other, the urban configures as a network of
inhabitable images. 

We aim to articulate changes in the structure of representation and the
visual field - what is going on in the image, how does one see it, how
is one made adequate to see it?  How is one adjusted to its
frequencies?  How does network representation operate, how does it
signify, what identifications does it compel?  

We aim to develop progressive critical and articulatory formats, which
are historically-engaged and actively confronting issues of
globalization, particularly the workings of the culture industry. We aim
to facilitate cross-disciplinary engagement among diverse fields of
cultural practice - opening up some productive channels between that
microcosm called the art world and broader, more engaged fields of
cultural practice. And finally, we aim to develop complex cultural
articulations rather than reductive multiculturalisms - potent
combinations of the local and global, of national, transnational, and
cultural identity.   

On this note, I would like to present a synopsis of a few threads from
the <eyebeam><blast> online forum.  These threads - which I have
summarized in the closing statements in the forum - are the areas of the
forum that seem to have become attractors of sorts, concentrations of
energy.  They are very complex formations, and difficult to distill. 
They register not only multiple voices, perspectives, and positions, but
are complex registers of the lives of participants as they have
interlaced with the discursive-urban space of the forum over a period
three months.  [For lack of space here, I will make only one summary. 
The other summaries can be accessed at
http://www.blast.org/eyeblast.html.]

The first summary I labelled "citizenship."  Two currents feed into it:
One begins with the favelas in Brazil and courses through Mexico
("Localization Carnival"), and the other begins with the question of
national schools of net art - where, according to Lev Manovich, the net
functions as an agent of modernization.  (It was also suggested, in this
context, that the net figures as a kind of nation unto itself.)  Each
current ends in the question of difference, of Otherness.

---

It seems very fitting to begin this <eyebeam><blast> summary with the
favelas, particularly as seen through the localization of Ricardo
Basbaum. They figure strongly in the Brazilian imaginary, the loci of
potent cultural and economic contradictions. Running up or down the
hillsides, one can see the favelas in Rio in every direction one looks.
As Ricardo describes, they are fascinating, beautiful, impressive.
According to Ricardo, Helio Oiticica described their architecture in
terms of organic spaces, where life would meet an ethical and aesthetic
dimension. Oiticica was strongly marked for his visits to the favelas
(particularly Mangueira hill), where he learned how to dance samba and
could cross his middle class cultural borders into another world.
Ricardo mentions that today, the favelas are dangerous as well. He is
afraid to go by himself, alone, to Morrow dos Prazeres, not far from
where he lives in Rio.  At night he can listen to the sounds of
gunshots, from weapons that his friend Rosangela now knows by name:
AR-15, AK-47

Luiz Camillo Osorio writes that "favela" is a word like "Saudade": it
names something that liquifies itself when translated.  Luiz describes
Oiticica's "miscegenation myth," which indicates "favelas + Brasilia,"
an organic architecture mixed with the modern formalist ideal (also
Mangueira meets Mondrian).  "We are the Other," Luiz writes, "that
incorporates the Same."

Carlos Basualdo asked Luiz and Ricardo why it seemed so difficult for
them to think of Brazil in relation to any other country/culture that is
not the US.  He suggested that, in their texts, the identity of Brazil
is always defined in counterposition to the US, even as Brazilian
identity is defined as an open process of non-identification.  He then
asked why this open process of non-identification was articulated in
their texts as a national(istic) trend. (Carlos later described that for
him, the most interesting thing about Oiticica's work was to leave the
question of nationalism open, and that he detected an alarming tendency
today among some Brazilians to close it down again.)

Here we arrive as one of the key issues.  The challenge, as Luiz
describes it, is to think nationality in a world that disqualifies
identity in essentialist terms.  Can nationality be thought outside of
traditional categories, can it be thought in terms of a globalized
world?  What is the relation, as Carlos asks, between globalization and
the favelas, in all their economic, historical, and cultural meanings? 
For the favelas -- as Ricardo describes them -- are clearly a complex
case of local and international economy, of individual and collective
identifications.  

Pedro Meyer writes that Carlos's argument seemed to derive from a
pre-global notion of the world, which takes a bi-polar approach (rich v.
poor).  Pedro gives the example of Chiapas, where the Government finds
itself in a losing battle for the public mind. In banishing people from
a territory, the Mexican government acts as if anyone elsewhere in the
world could not intervene in Mexican politics, within Mexico. But they
forgot about the Internet. (Until now: see for example recent actions of
Ricardo Dominguez and floodnet.)  And the kind of political intervention
that the Internet makes possible re-positions the "us v. them"
attitudes, significantly complicating these polarities in numerous
ways.  We have seen similar scenarios played out in other cultures in
varying degrees, often where the Internet has bypassed governmental
modes of control (Franklin Sirmans notes the advantage of "using the
medium to the advantage of sustained dialogue where the means are
disrupted") and injected an alternate presence, a presence described by
Saskia Sassen in terms of a new form of citizenship. 

Saskia wrote that what we have are the beginnings of a new form of
transnational politics. This involves a shift to "being present as a
form of citizenship," where you do not need to be made a member by some
superior entity such as the state.  The challenge is to capture and
engage the specific forms of political action that are made possible in
this new landscape.  Offering simultaneous local action around the
globe, with the possibility of being present to each other in diverse
ways, Saskia writes that national based politics, as well as the
universalizing approach to matters, are both overwritten by the net. 
She warns that the only alternative to globalization should not be the
defense of nationalisms.

What then arose is the question of difference. But before I summarize
this issue, I want to back up a bit, and trace that other current,
launched by Lev Manovich, which considered the im/possibility of
national schools, or styles, of network art.  

Lev wrote that he considered the Internet as an agent of modernization
-- a way for people from different places to enter the space of
modernity, which he describes as the space of homogeneity, of currency
exchange, of convertibility, of movement and constant change, of the
abandonment of tradition.  In this landscape, the formation of national
schools would be a contradiction. Net projects, for him, are "visible
manifestations of social, linguistic, and psychological networks being
created or at least made visible by these very projects, of people
entering the space of modernity, the space where old cities pay the
price for entering the global economy by Disney-fying themselves, where
everybody is paying some price." 

The volume of posts that were received in reply seemed to cause Lev to
flee this space of modernity.  

Andy Deck wrote that Lev's claim is overstating the case. He mentions
that thus far computers have been inaccessible to much of the world, so
it may be too soon to discount the potential for regionalisms. He also
suggests that Lev is discounting the possibility of culturally specific
computer languages. "Object oriented languages may impose functional
similarities, but they may not prevent local 'vocabularies' inflected
with the spiritual and cultural biases of their collective authors."
Simon Biggs wonders what Lev means by "modernization," and suggests that
the net will lead to an accelerated localization of creative activity in
relation to socio-linguistic space. Adnan Ashraf asks whether the net is
a bunch of people who belong to the 'nation' of the net itself. And in
contrast to the issue of national styles, Alex Galloway raises the
specter of stylistic nationalisms, or "localist chic."

Echoing Lev's position, Andrej Tisma, from Novi Sad, states that "the
Internet makes us citizens of the world."

Susanna Paasonen writes that, instead of conceptualizing the net as a
flux of modernity, effacing cultural differences or commodifying them,
as Lev seemed to be doing, "one might consider it a possible space for,
of, differences, not the least for those articulated separate from
nationalist frameworks."  Judith Thorn addressed the issue of difference
in sameness.  Whether as meaning or content, "the signifiers are
promiscuous." The interplay of sameness and difference has to do with
the interconnection of naming and identity.  ("What is non-western about
my practice?" asks Oladele Ajiboye Bamgboye. "Why do [reporters] feel
the need to label me as a Nigerian, when I hold a British
citizenship?")  Judith writes that, more than linguistic relationships
and capital formations, we need to investigate social process as well.
She also challenges us to realize that for many countries, localization
is a way of life, and different systems of values operate.

Gabriela Warkentin, from Mexico, raised the issue of different
socio-cultural contexts having different approaches to the net, whether
they read, write, and figure it differently, and whether such
differences are visible in particular web projects. Gabriella mentions
that much of what she sees refers to net phenomena only through American
or European eyes, and she wonders if perhaps this medium is to "western"
in its very nature.  

With this message, which began the "Different Web Art" thread of the
discussion, the two strands of discussion that I have isolated converge.
Which brings us to the issue of difference, of otherness.

Saskia Sassen writes that "it is very important to multiply the
different cultures, subcultures, practices, 'nationalities' on the net.
It is right now too 'western' because the western component is massive.
There are a lot of 'others' on the web, but they are not enough to
dissolve the westerness of it." (Pedro Meyer writes that Latin Americans
participate quite willingly in making this 'western' reality --
Hollywood films, television -- part of their world, and that the
problems have a deep origin.)  Olu Oguibe writes that has great
difficulty with the concept of an ethno-designed Internet, a "western"
or "other" Internet.  Such ideas, for him, do no more than perpetuate
the binary of the One and the Other that many have fought outside
virtual space. "While one does not dismiss the fact of ethnicities on
the net, it is nevertheless necessary to make a distinction between this
and an ethnic characterization of the net whereby the bogey of a
dominant self is lent credibility and validity." Olu writes that he
would rather that we argue that the "Other" of the Internet age (as
subaltern, margina) is not on the Internet yet, and that the "New World
'Other'" is not geographically or ethnically inscribable, but part of
the mass which has been referred to as PONA, persons of no account. (Ben
Williams also writes that, if Otherness exits anywhere, it lies
precisely outside the Internet, in those places that are not yet hooked
into the global network, or which take a subordinate role within it.) 
Olu further suggests that "Outside of this territory, which is human
rather than strictly geopolitical, to think of any presences on the
Internet as 'Others' is to invite questions over who on the net indeed
has the right to selfhood and apart from whom anyone else -- everyone
else -- must be consigned to 'Otherness.'"  Olu writes that we cannot
afford to state that there are "others" on the net, for to designate as
"Other" is to brand, and to a certain extent deny, significant
contingents who arrive in this community of peoples with the
determination to make their presences felt.  Olu writes that in the same
manner that we cannot speak of the One and the Other on the Internet, we
likewise cannot speak of national differences in web art.

Tim Jordan disagrees with Olu's argument, which he interprets as
suggesting that there is no Other on the net already and that there is
no dominant way of constructing selves, only the PONA who are to come.
Tim writes that there are already Others and dominance on the net and
calling it "western" is one way of trying to grasp it. "Ignoring the
'western' nature of the net merely means leaving it in place and hoping
this bogey really is only of our dreams." Tim says that the dominant
self on the net is embedded in its technology, giving the example of
ASCII English as the de facto standard of Usenet, email, the web and
most Internet based applications. Earlier in the forum, he reported that
75% of all hosts exist in English speaking languages and many of the
Internet's elements assume English as the standard language, both in
terms of the content of communication and in terms of software.  While
ASCII may have provided a common standard to allow swift expansion, it
also enshrined the dominance of a certain language.  Tim asks how Other
are you if you have to express yourself in someone else's language? 
(Fanon: "To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to
grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to
assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilisation.") "The nature
of software and hardware, and who it is written/created by and for is
one of the biggest political questions for virtual life - both for the
net that exists and is being built." (Here network practices certainly
have a role; jodi.org, for example, clearly points - though quite
ambiguously - to these openings.)  Change is possible, Tim writes, but
it must be explored as part of the complex array of forces and powers
that already exists.

Andrej Tisma finds the question of language irrelevant, "because there
are even people who do not 'speak' their own native language, and can
not establish communication with their own countryman."

Josephine Bosma writes that Olu's difficulty with the Other reminds her
of the discussions she has been having on a female-only mailinglist,
focusing mainly on the definition of cyberfeminism, which has led to a
kind of separatist approach. "When one takes a closer look at what the
real 'other' is on the net, it is not so much found in social and
political structures as we know them off the net, but the way the net
transforms all issues." Josephine warns that one has to keep a constant
awareness not to fall into the victim/complainer/master/benefactor
roles.  Situations have to be continuously rejudged, as well as tactics.
Saskia Sassen replies that it is clearly not just a matter of choice. 
We are continuously hampered by, embedded in, limiting language, the
specifics of a situation. "Many workers I know are victimized, and the
trick is not to reduce their condition to just victim - any victim is
more than just a victim."

Robert Atkins writes that the net seems to both reproduce and transform
the nature of life offline.  Those who are marginalized offline (people
of color, queers, women) remain marginalized online.  Saskia replies
that, yes, online and offline affect one another - digital space is
embedded within and cannot escape the dynamics and presences offline.
But there is also a specificity to digital space. This specificity is
not a given - except in some basic technical sense (but even here we
could wire the systems with a different politics) - it needs to be
produced, via software, practices, to be sustained, contested, etc. She
writes that while the net is embedded in larger realities, "it does
create openings - operational and of the imagination - to cut across."

Craig Brozefsky replies that the net is "criss-crossed with lines of
demarcation, some legal, others technical or founded upon differences of
desire and politics." Alan Sondheim writes that on the net, there is no
Other; "it's all coding and decoding, all binary, all constituted." To
comprehend the net is to look at the protocols, TCP/IP, the foundation
and function of ASCII, and so on.

Brian suggested that practices that provide examples of "becoming other"
could be considered in terms of the notion of subjectivization.

Ricardo Basbaum demonstrated (as described by Brian Holmes) how
questions like marginal/central, national/international,
particular/universal, are always double edged and two-sided,
dialectically dynamic and valuable as such. Ricardo suggests that the
artwork itself assumes the function of negotiating these divides and
incommensurabilities, engaging multiple identifications, "opening itself
to unknown regions yet to come, re-ordering the borderlines of culture
and territory." 


Jordan Crandall
for Blast
---
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