Sally Jane Norman on Mon, 15 Mar 1999 19:44:14 +0100

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Syndicate: aesthetics of structure/ organisation

Aesthetics of structure/ aesthetics of organisation (borrowed from Pit 
Emerging from a series of events tightly back-to-backed in the space of the 
past fortnight is like crawling out of a very specific and very heavy kind of 
jetlag, i.e. the kind that corresponds to going somewhere really weird, 
requiring 24 hours on a plane followed by 8 hours on a train, a few hours on a 
boat then a few more on a bus, and a last unquantifiable trek on foot. That more 
or less corresponds to the trip from a West European airport to somewhere like 
Kumara Junction, down in the West Coast rain forest region of Aotearoa, New 
Zealand. A bit of neo-romantic local focus for good measure, after this 
discussion about "where are you native of/ from?" Feeling homesick for 
Te Kotuku, the white heron, that you can only see if you go through the 
travellerâ??s initiation rites just described. Itâ??s strange to do a 
pilgrimage to Kumara or Okarito lagoon just to see some unearthly white bird 
take off from some elevated roosting point, wing out over the ocean, take to the 
skies. All that journeying to witness the fleeting grace of a sky-bound animal. 
OK, back to the point because so many people â?? me included â?? 
donâ??t have the time or energy to deal with the mail they get. Please sign 
off now if youâ??re pressured coz I tend to ramble. Thatâ??s what 
happens when you write your email in trains, which is where I spend most of my 
time these days. And this is likely to be a particularly dissolute, 
uncoordinated ramble because thereâ??s still a fair bit of track-time ahead 
and the last extremely pleasant Amsterdam evening at Geertâ??s place with 
the Mongrels and a few other Martians left me in a state bordering on the 
catatonic. A day after letter. Many thanks for the hospitality Geert, and sorry 
about not being more communicative and just basking lazily in the warm and 
colourful company, but all this stuff was/is buzzing round in my brain and 
occluding the output channel. Probably a blessing for anybody except me. 
Three sites/ events providing their own takes on media, their own visions and 
versions of how and whether infocommunications tools are going to save the 
world. Much to be perplexed about â?? some of the criticism voiced yesterday 
at the N5M closing session struck me as being unfounded, quite simply and sadly 
because obviously everyone hadnâ??t been able to attend the same sessions. 
Conclusion : parallel sessions do this. e.g. I went to several panels where 
there was an explicit, well articulated querying of the usefulness of new media 
per se in community-building, community-consolidating activity, in efforts 
towards social change, towards the creation of more participatory communities in 
our machinic age. None of this idly swallowing, co-opting, condoning, wholesale 
and indiscriminate picking up of new media, that one observer seemed to have 
observed and felt distressed about. On the contrary: Anna Har Mei-Yoke (Kuala 
Lumpur) talked about the problems of spending time online at the expense of time 
engaged in interaction with the local communities which constitute the centre of 
her work. This reflection was endorsed by those present â?? local, 
face-to-face, immediate, work in oneâ??s grass-roots context is the 
prerequisite for building a sense of identity and community that can THEN reach 
out. Like the old Tamla Motown "Reach out" â?? remember the other 
wordsâ?¦ "for me", followed by "Iâ??ll be there". 
In simple terms, networks require nodes. The channels need to be going to and 
from somewhere. We are sometimes so mesmerised by the bandwidth and vehicle hype 
that we forget simple communication theory principles and get lost in the buzz. 
Emission and reception. You and me. Has "identity" become politically 
incorrect, like "individuality"? Can we usefully revalorise the notion 
of NODE (Nexus Of Daily Experience) in all this rhetoric about the NET? (the 
acronyms are DIY). Steve Kurtz had a nice provocative statement along these 
lines in his "art after activism" contribution when he said that the 
way community was being discussed as a warm fuzzy term amongst left wing 
activists was becoming an uncanny counterpart to the way family values are 
discussed amongst conservatives. He said it better but it seems to be a good 
point. In another context, there was James Wallbankâ??s (Redundant 
Technology Initiative) perfectly clear vindication of strategies to employ and 
optimise existing equipment and infrastructures, of recognising appropriate 
technologies for oneâ??s purposes and refusing to get caught up in the 
gigarace and gigadollar development track. And of course thereâ??s the 
"Linux debate" that polarises many of these questions â?? the 
operating system philosophies that were evoked and that hopefully will be 
rediscussed in depth at Mikro events later this year. 
David Garcia also raised the hot issue of the desirability of accessing, 
showing, exhibiting oneself and oneâ??s cause â?? the implications of 
mediatisation / mediasensation on the local context, individual. An issue that 
deserves much further debate â?? the Australian aboriginal groups working on 
notions of cultural property, like the Maori people of the South Pacific, have 
strong, thought provoking views on notions of self-portrayal and appropriate use 
of media technologies. We can learn much from them. And one thing that I found 
really positive about the Amsterdam meetings was that spokespersons from far 
away, totally implicated in different cultures, were present to listen to and 
talk with, as opposed to the (sometimes unwittingly) neo-colonialist, often 
self-designated representatives that weâ??ve all seen in media debates 
speaking for The Other. The new age heralds of indigenous cultures, those who 
pretend to have miraculously picked up the subtleties of foreign mores in the 
space of just a few weeks or months or years, as easy as getting a tattoo or 
buying a Club Med holiday package, and who come back to spread the good tidings 
of noble savages and ride the crest of identifying with Exotica. So it was 
really refreshing to hear people speaking with everyday knowledge and deep 
Be-Longing about their own realms of existence and activity. Answering with 
disarming frankness when asked whether this type of conference participation was 
not detrimental to work "in the field" : "Of course". 
Like all of us who try and do our work, i.e. work that is not in itself the 
conference circuit frontsman stuff, but the core activity that makes it 
worthwhile and justified to come to such places to meet kindred spirits likewise 
anchored in their work, and interested in a confrontation of practice, 
experience. This presence I found immensely important, the more so knowing how 
much sheer gut effort had gone into ensuring it on the part of David, Eric, 
Geert, many of you. Itâ??s a bit irritating how some people uninformed about 
the way an event like this is put together conclude that the organisers are all 
extremely well-paid, comfortable cultural workers thanks to â?? indeed in 
many ways enlightened â?? Dutch cultural policy, and proceed to hammer their 
difference as underdog volunteers and unrecognised militants to be praised for 
their dedication and perseverance. But I suppose thatâ??s normal; 
weâ??re all uninformed and informed in different contexts. Hope your 
follow-up work goes well, Eric; what it procured in advance for the N5M event 
was invaluable.
Other issues like (how much) do we ignore our own immediate peripheries when 
searching for communications/ media/ community experiencesâ?¦We all know 
this problem â?? which doesnâ??t mean that we all work to solve it 
â?? in France, for example the organisation of humanitarian convoys to and 
from desolate parts of the world, the official, often embarrassingly overstated 
hosting of groups from underprivileged geographic areas, these events sometimes 
take on strange connotations when burning questions of local inequality are 
glossed over; when humanitarianism at a distance becomes the easy alibi, the 
smoke screen that veils tiresome, unromantic home truths that are harder to deal 
with and that donâ??t pull such a big crowd on the Audimat. 
In French television practices, thereâ??s a weird relationship, doubtless 
quantifiable in programme time terms, between the extremely high PR value 
attached to the (e.g.) annual, thoroughly programmed and highly organised 
Telethon â?? a spectacular media event to raise money for myopathy â?? 
and that attached to occasional unforeseeable offshore disasters â?? an 
earthquake here, a volcanic eruption there, a hurricane elsewhere. To the extent 
that even though one doesnâ??t know where nature will strike, there seems to 
be advance allocated media time for a certain number of "outside" 
events. Like some kind of quota. The front-page miscellanea from beyond that 
will balance out the local save-our-souls tear-jerking and ensure that 
weâ??re in touch both in immediate circles and beyond. That way, the plight 
of the sick little child up the road, Monsieur Dupontâ??s daughter, can be 
played off against that of some other innocent victim being rescued from some 
distant catastrophe. War zones often being politically "indelicate" 
subjects â?? it seems far safer for national media to appease our planetary 
sentiments by focussing on collective effort to rectify Mother Natureâ??s 
malice. Any discourse on this subject is riddled with ideological pitfalls and 
contradictions and so is often avoided : in its extreme forms, e.g. in 
international settings where humanitarian policies are discussed, where 
assistance between nation-states is negotiated, we often hear one of the 
painfully "logical" developments of this question, which is to simply 
bluntly cease giving beyond oneâ??s own borders, pretexting that priorities 
are on the home front. Doesnâ??t mean that they really will be dealt with in 
any way, but justifies big cuts in budgets, popular with certain voting groups, 
for "non-solvent" humanitarian activities. So itâ??s hard, as 
always with the real questions, to strike some kind of balance between attitudes 
likely to further debate on local versus translocal, close-to-home versus beyond 
the hearth, prioritisation, etc., and those that are perniciously likely to 
close the debate, to fuel the reactionary thinking that one is trying to 
counter. Graham Harwood last night talked simply about two types of people/ 
ideologies, irrespective of political colour or setting : those who try to open 
things up, and those who try to keep things closed. Two types encountered 
"right across the board". 
In the thick of current discussion about local/ translocal, and closer to 
network issues, another strange tendency on the rise seems to be claims or 
attempts to represent, to universalise, to stand for - all. The everything and 
nothing reps. We discussed this vigorously in Vienna : we who were lucky enough 
to meet there (though it was bloody hard work â?? for those who are 
jealous!) â?? were quite clear about the fact that we can only speak for our 
own, highly specific places of activity, our sites of practice. Although we wish 
to enhance connections between them, to act as facilitators and as useful 
connection points for activities that can somehow usefully (i.e. usefully for 
all) relate to our own â?? the "open things up" philosophy â?? 
we cannot pretend to represent some larger, universalisable entity. None of this 
bigger and holier than anybody else bullshit. Just our basic grass-roots 
practice, activity, connected and made open enough to hopefully learn from and 
draw on. No more, no less. In this time of universal servers and centres, of 
netevangelist structures suddenly jumping onto the "we represent all", 
"we connect all" bandwagon, we badly need to stay simple and honest. 
Heterotopes of practice.
One of Pit Schulzâ??s remarks during the InterFund meeting wonâ??t go 
away (fortunately). He talked about the aesthetics of structure, the aesthetics 
of organisation. Expounding on that, it implies that our modalities of action 
and interaction, the ways we meet up and connect and interrelate, are 
aesthetically loaded. Just as everybody knows that infocommunications 
technologies are not neutral, nor are our "techniques" (arts) of 
encounter. Thinking this way gives our encounters a peculiar vivacity, a 
non-mechanistic feel : weâ??re all wary of structure and organisation that 
is too closed, too systematic and exclusive. So we drift the other way to the 
sometimes opposite extreme, to myths of absolutely open, open-ended 
communication structures and activities that end up losing their nodes and that 
function like some ungraspable beatific mantra. The buzz in the wires. The 
identity/ recognisability question again. The aesthetics of structure/ 
organisation residing in the tension between these? How unstructured, how 
disorganised can an encounter be, for it still to be a real encounter? 
Off the train, switching to the metro, a guy on the stairs carrying a bag 
studded with the yellow star Euro motto, with the words "Mobility, 
Sustainability, and Intermodality" on it. (actually an FP5 Info Day 
slogan). Eurospeak for looking after oneâ??s friendships? Damn. Forgot to 
buy tomorrowâ??s train ticket. Need to see Te Kotukuâ??s white wings 
flashing in the Pacific sky. Somehow I think that they will be visible in 
Belgrade next month. The aesthetics of encounter in that locus can only be 
unique. For those who wrote off lack of content at N5M, were you not hit between 
the eyes and in the gut by B92? And other things? Where is aesthetics, where is 
content? Isnâ??t the organisation/structuring of dissemination mechanisms 
â?? e.g. content that does acrobatic transits via London to get back to 
Yugoslavia â?? in itself revelatory of tactical art? A choreography of media 
mobility? What are these new channels of _expression_? There are strange new 
things about movement and reach in much of todayâ??s info-streaming, 
tortuous data itineraries which alone can guarantee near-immediacy of delivery, 
that seem to bear a special poignancy. I was touched - then again, often am.
Many thanks to a helluva lot of people for the past days. Apologies for the 
off-the-cuff delirium. 
Kia Ora