Geert Lovink on Thu, 8 Oct 1998 08:29:42 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Interview with Harwood and Matsuko of Mongrel

National Heritage and the Natural Selection Search Engine=20
Interview with Harwood and Matsuko of Mongrel (London)
@OpenX, Ars Electronica, September 9, 1998
By Geert Lovink

keywords: search engine; eugenics; racialisation; software

First of all, this is what Mongrel has to say about their activities:
Mongrel is a mixed bunch of people and machines working to celebrate the
methods of an 'ignorant' and 'filthy' London street culture. 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 engagement, which means we pride
ourselves on our ability to programme, engineer and build our own software
and custom hardware. The Core Members are Matsuko Yokokoji, Richard
Pierre-Davis and Harwood.=20

As well as starting and producing its own projects, Mongrel also works as
an agency through which projects by other people can be set up and
co-ordinated. This means that who does what isn=B9t as important as what
gets done.  network We are as much about hip hop as about hacking. Mongrel
makes ways for those locked out of the mainstream to gain strength without
getting locked into power structures. Staying Hardcore means that Mongrel
can get the benefit of sharing the skills and intelligence of people and
scenes in similar situations, as well as dealing with other kinds of
structures on our own terms.  collaborations Mongrel rarely operates as
just a core group. We prefer to work on a range of specific
collaborations. These can be with organisations, individuals or groups.
The ability to plug into different skills, structures or ways of doing
stuff means we get to stay fresh.=20

Natural Selection is a project put together by Harwood and Matthew Fuller.
This project takes on the use of new communications technology for the
dissemination and organisation of various forms of eugenics, nationalism
and racism. The project invents cultural strategies and uses of digital
technology to undermine and play with the expectations of racialisation in
a manner which usurps or destroys it. Mongrel has hacked a popular
internet search engine. When any searches are made on that engine for
racist material the user gets dumped into a parallel network of web-sites
set up by Mongrel. This parallel network has been made in collaboration
with a vast global network of collaborators. It is the nightmare the
whites-only internet has been waiting for.=20

National Heritage is a international project that commits audiences,
artists and collaborators to a confrontation with their interpolation
within cultural, biological and technologised racisms. The project as a
whole operates by means of street poster / newspaper publication, a WWW
search engine "Natural Selection", and a gallery installation. In
accomplishing its aims, the project will engender interpretive methods of
collaborative working between audiences, artists and project contributors
that exploit the possibilities presented by new communications technology
for artworking within a social context.=20


GL: What is your heritage?

H: It is mongrel. The first category is 'don't know'. A bit of Irish and
English. My granddad is a bastard. People think he might be a bit Jewish.
Then there are a few incestuous births. My dad really did not know who he
was because he got thrown out into the 'care' of the authorities at the
age of four. His parents could not feed him. He did not know until he got
shot in Korea, so after that he went to find them. They were more or less
peasants.  Heritage in the wider sense meant poverty. My parents taught me
that we could be proud of having nothing. To come from nothing is a fine
place to be. I come from the land of fiddling. You can always fiddle, get
away with it. My family was involved in a lot of gambling. We never had a
place in society. They always had illegitimate children. My niece just had
a child at 15. There are five generations of women that are, more or less,
close to each other. They support each other, and the men are there to
make some fertiliser.=20

M: The national heritage of Japan, what it did to other countries and my
own, personal history are inseparable. There is an interesting period,
last century, when surnames were being introduced. At that time people
'bought' their heritage, so to say, by choosing a name associated with a
wealthy family.=20

GL: Could the history of the working class also belong to the national

H: It is an anti-heritage. It was a way of existing outside. In the UK
there is very much a collective identity. England is 007, James Bond, the
crack of leather on the willow of the cricket bat. Strawberries and cream.
If that image is not yours, then it is there to exclude you. It is a bit
loose because there is no monolith. There has never been a single nation
or grouping in the UK.=20

GL:  You recently published a poster / paper.  Along with a black and
white insert with material related to the Search Engine project, which
we'll talk about later, there are forty full-colour heads, organised into
some kind of grid.  It's almost like a database with two available gender
categories and four racial 'types' and with what appear to be racialised
masks actually sewn into the faces below.  The paper also has a large logo
- 'National Heritage'...=20

H:  This aspect of our project is a reference to the Department for
National Heritage. It allocates all the arts funding in the UK. We decided
to make a project with that name, in order to make a direct reference to
where the money comes from. 76% of all that goes to class A and B, people
earning over 30.000 pounds a year. That tax money only goes to that
wealthy class. The reason we have the white face with a black mask,
covered in spit on the poster, with the words 'National Heritage', points
directly to this particular department. A revised version of their logo is
on the poster.  This racial dichotomy is the heritage of the nation.  We
make them complicit with us.=20

GL: Do you want this department to become 'multi-cultural'?=20

H: That is their excuse for keeping power. Multi-culturalism is their
method of classification, to maintain identities that are long since gone
and not useful anymore. They would like to keep a binary authority, which
no longer works. Recently, a think tank close to the Labour government
gave out a statement, saying that embassies abroad should no longer have
any politically incorrect pictures. Cover the walls with Britart and
remove the portraits of old colonial rulers. Remove all reference to
British colonial rule. Do they really think that people in Egypt or India
can be fooled, by thinking that the British empire never existed? Such
emphasis on image! Art is not that useful. But for them it is seen as a
major prize.=20

GL: How did you construct the images on the poster?=20

M: Out of a total of 100 faces we made eight faces and divided them into
four colours: black, brown, yellow and white, both men and women. It is
all montage, digital photography. We tried to construct a white male, or
black woman, according to what we think these categories look like. We can
never prove that somebody is a white male person. How would you define a
black person? There are no characteristics according to medical terms.
There are no 'real' categories, only stereotypes.=20

H: On TV there was a programme about people of mixed race, let's say =BC or
1/8 black. They were complaining because for them there is no
classification. One of their grandparents are black, but most of them do
not even know.=20

M: I had never seen a Western person, for real, until I was eighteen. Only
since the beginning of the eighties, when many people from all over the
world started coming to Japan, did I start to recognise people of
different colour in the streets. Only then, we became aware of the problem
of racism.  Before, the Americans were only on television.=20

H: These days, many young Japanese do not show much interest in where they
are from. They see themselves as the future, not the past, the old
Japanese culture. They live in the future. Any return to the past is
horrifying because you will hit the brick wall of the Second World War.
Japanese are good at hiding. The society can leave unresolved problems.=20

GL: It sounds liberating, to leave the Benneton identity politics behind.=
("I am from Ethiopia, look how beautiful - and pure - I am.").=20

H: In the sixties, my parents used to say things like, 'Don't touch it
because a black person has had it, you will get ill.' At the same moment,
they would say, 'Martin Luther King, he is a great bloke, he is going to
free black people.' Two complete opposite views expressed at the same
time.  We are moving from that level of confusion. I grew up with ska
music and black friends - and this black music was being sold to us, white
skinheads.  So, the level of confusion concerning race is OK.  The single
thing that seems to categorise white people was fear. The fear to even
talk about race. Or to express difficulty about it. We clearly come out as
anti-race, not so much as 'anti-racist'. We are against the classification
of race.  That's what a mongrel is - somewhere between two things, someone
of mixed blood. Or it refers to a dog that has no category. Dogs in the UK
are very much a class issue.=20

M: I lived for the last 12 years in London, so culturally I am mixed now,
always fighting between Japanese and English. So I suppose that I became a
mongrel. Since the eighties more and more Japanese started living abroad
and brought back their mongrel culture to Japan. That's the positive side
of the use of technologies.=20

H: Matsuko and I are of the same year. Despite all the differences, much
of our media references are the same. The Thunderbirds. We both grew up
under the imperialism of the United States. But then, Richard is bringing
a lot of different elements into the group! He is a
Black-Indian-Welsh-French person from Trinidad. He is not so confused
about his identity as perhaps others are: he is a black cockney - much
more so than me. Compared to him, Matsuko becomes an honorary white

M: In 1987, when I was visiting South Africa, which was still under
Apartheid back then, showing my passport, I was being treated as a white.=
But if Chinese people would go there, they were categorised as 'coloured'.=

GL: 'Natural Selection' is another project by Mongrel, an internet search
engine. Did you come up with this idea because well known search engines,
like AltaVista, are no longer useful because they always come up with
thousands of references if you type in a keyword?=20

H: We are looking at classification from another point of view. We created
a search engine that sits on top of other search engines. We strip out
what they are saying and return the URLs. It you type in any word which
has got to do with race, eugenics or sex, you are dropped into our
content.  This means a whole load of web-sites being produced in
collaboration with a variety of people and groups from a lot of different
places: in London, around the world and from different situations which
they bring in to flavour the work - academic theorists, street activists,
poets, artists, nutters, whatever.
If users look around carefully, they will find the right keywords to
access these sites - or they might do it without realising.  On the other
hand, you might end up in a 'real' Ku Klux Klan site, but you will not
find out anyway whether you are reading one of our constructions, or not.
You need to be alert all the time as to where all the information you are
reading is coming from.=20

GL: What does the term 'eugenics' mean to you?=20

H: It was used recently by a friend who has brittle bone disease. She
talked to me about it because she went to a hospital where they were
killing off anyone like her. She made me aware that there was a certain
type of human that was to be valued, while others weren't. At what level
of disability do we discard those people? Critical Art Ensemble looked at
how eugenics are coming into play within fertility treatments. We two went
through such treatments, together with CAE, and found out that a lot of
such eugenic decisions had to be made. It was a hard project to go

M: We are not judging what is good or bad, we are trying to give
information. We don't say, killing life in this or that stage is
justified, or not. There is no answer. We do not value life or race. We
are showing that it exists.=20

H: We are struggling to find images that deal with the complexities of the
kind of lives that we are living now. There is no longer black and white.=
There are no longer binary arguments. So the right wing can jump on us and
say: "So you are confused." We are just struggling to find images.=20
Sometimes they are complex and take a long time, like those faces on the
poster. It is much harder to think about the same problem from six, maybe
opposing, points of view, and hold them all equally. For me, all of this
comes from Matsuko's influence, from Japan, where you are able to accept
something before you judge it. In the West, I have been brought up to
judge something before I have accepted it. One could even say that of
anti-racism and anti-fascism. A lot of the identity politics were useful,
at the time.  But the holding on, imagining the problem would be solved,
instead of it slipping it through, like water through your hands, is what
actually happened. That anti-fascism no longer works. It has become a way
to sell a product. Not a way to deal with complexity in society.=20

At the same time, I have absolute admiration for people that sleep on the
floor of immigrant's homes in trouble, defending them with their bodies
when the fascists come around. We engage in the imagery that forms around
these topics. We are in realm of producing troubling images. Often our
actual enemies turn out to be politically correct people. The very name
'Mongrel' is too difficult for them, let alone our intentions.=20

GL: You've also produced some software - let's see how it works. Here we
have got a package called 'Heritage Gold' on the screen. It is an
ironical, bastardised version of Photoshop. We have imported my image into
the system, and now you are going to give a new heritage. It's a good
idea, let's go for it.=20

H: This is family-oriented heritage changing software. You need some black
and female. You can invent a new family. You can have a bastard birth,
revert your genes, you can have immigration, repatriation, whatever. I am
pasting the new colour into your skin. It reminds you how easy it is to
manipulate all this data from other people. There will be a huge demand in
the West for this software when it goes on full release as people feel a
general discontent about their heritage. It will become important to have
racial mobility. This menu allows us to add more Chinese and African into
your make-up. You never have to have a sun tint again. In order to make
you even more dark, we go to the 'flesh tone adjustment' dialogue box. We
will extract some of the Aryan elements - and you are really beginning to
show through now. We will add some social elements too. We are offering a
social filter of 'police'. You look a bit more criminal... We also add
some historical relations. A bit less imperialism. Put in some more Afro.
We can resize your family by a certain percentage, raise your class
consciousness. And then there are the different file formats in which we
can save you: genetic index, pixel punish, raw, regressive... There you
are - here, you got your brand new heritage.=20

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