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Interview with Johannes Grenzfurthner of monochrom, Part 3

Marc Da Costa

What is an experiment? I get the sense that many of monochrom’s projects seek to interface with the world (ahh, but what world might that be?) In a sense, I am curious about how you imagine the field, what objects you see upon it, what things call themselves objects but are perhaps only specters? How can non-existent artists save non-existent countries?

Yes, we love experiments. And we approach them like committing a crime: very, very carefully. Still, we know that there’s no perfect crime and we are going to make some mistakes. The main problem with our artistic and activist work is, and that might sound strange: subversion.

Only thirty years ago Western societies were still governed along the principles of the “disciplinary society”. The institutions of a disciplinary society are founded mainly on two devices that keep its subordinates where they are: control and punishment. Both are certainly effective, yet they produce at least an inner resistance, as well as the possibility to avoid either. It’s hard to monitor in absolute terms, and there are always ways of avoiding, if not “hacking” and ridiculing these mechanisms of control. Loop-holes will be identified and used.

The disciplinary society was one that created refractoriness; it revealed hierarchies and blatantly opposing classes of rulers and the ruled. These small acts of individual resistance also instigate models of theoretic and actual resistance on a grander scale.

#mRIF: It's like a fax, part of monochrom's Raw Image Format
Image: #mRIF: It’s like a fax, part of monochrom’s Raw Image Format

The society of control has however shifted this device and transplanted it into the subjects themselves. As soon as control is collectively internalized, when control is part of the psychological apparatus and of thought, then we can speak of control in absolute terms. Not much can be done anymore, as no one is independent from, or outside of, control any longer.

We have to be aware of this change and have to analyze and adjust our attacking strategies. Companies like Nike already use Graffiti as a standard variety in their marketing campaigns and the first people who read Naomi Klein’s No Logo were marketing gurus who wanted to know what they shouldn’t do. We certainly can change the political economics of a society. And you can quote me on that. But we have to be precise about it. Just playing around might only make our actions end up as a funny 15-seconds-clip on CNN, and that would be useless. We have to understand cognitive capitalism or we will just be going round and round in the same old circles, as the history of guerrilla communication clearly shows.

How can we subvert a system that actually wants you to subvert it? You can only experiment. And fail.

Well, since beginnings are first (except of course when they aren’t) it would be interesting to hear a bit about the inception of monochrom back in 1993.

I was always interested in obscure crap, even as a kid. I loved science fact (Carl Sagan is still my only media idol) and science fiction, especially John Brunner and William Gibson. And I was always interested in the political dimension of near-future sci-fi. It’s hard to imagine, but I became a punk and antifascist because I devoured cyberpunk novels and watched stuff like Max Headroom. It was great dreaming of a jack in the back of your head, but the corpocratic, doomed world was nothing that I wanted to really happen. I joined the FidoNet data network when I was thirteen or fourteen, around 1988 or 1989. It was a wonderful way to get in contact with weirdos from all over the planet, collecting info and interesting mailing list threads, and slowly but surely my wish to start a publication grew. So monochrom started in the early 1990s as a print fanzine about cyber-topics, politics, bizarre art and covert culture.

What were the circumstances or impetus for Monochrom’s formation? How do you find the world around monochrom has changed since you began?

There was some stuff in the US of A, like Mondo2000… but it was all too hippie-ish, too liberal, indulging in what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron later called the “Californian Ideology”. I wanted to share and propagate a leftist European perspective. As a member of several bulletin board systems I sent out mails to a couple of message boards, looking for collaborators, and Franky Ablinger replied in only two hours. And so the monochrom group, or better, “the monochrom culture,” was born. We published a couple of issues, low circulation, and – as the name suggests – we were barely able to finance the black and white xeroxes. But we kept working, creating our first internet site in early 1994.

#mRIF: The real life..., part of monochrom's Raw Image Format
Image: #mRIF: The real life…, part of monochrom’s Raw Image Format

In 1995 we decided that we didn’t want to constrain ourselves to just one media format (the “fanzine”). We knew that we wanted to create statements, create viral information. So a quest for the best “Weapon of Mass Distribution” started, a search for the best transportation mode for a certain politics of philosophical ideas. This was the Cambrian Explosion of monochrom. We wanted to experiment, try stuff, find new forms of telling our stories. But, to be clear, it was (and still is) not about keeping the pace, of staying up-to-date, or (even worse) staying “fresh”. The emergence of new media (and therefore artistic) formats is certainly interesting. But etching information into copper plates is just as exciting. We think that the perpetual return of ‘the new’, to cite Walter Benjamin, is nothing to write home about – except perhaps for the slave-drivers in the fashion industry. We’ve never been interested in the new just in itself, but in the accidental occurrence. In the moment where things don’t tally, where productive confusion arises. That’s why in the final analysis, although we’ve laughed a lot with Stewart Home, we even reject the meta-criticism of innovation-fixation articulated in ‘neoism’. The new sorts itself out when it lands in the museum. Finito.

Some guy once called us ‘context hackers’ because we carefully choose the environment we want to work in and then try to short-circuit it. Some projects definitely work better as a short film or installation or puppet theatre or robot or performance, some should simply be presented as ASCII files … and some are the right stuff for a musical. It just depends.

What happened to the fanzine?

Well, it’s unbelievable, but we still publish it, but not on a regular basis. We decided to switch to a “phatzine format” or call it a “magazine object”. It’s huge. The last one was released in March 2010… it’s #26-34, an accumulation of 500 pages and 2 kilograms. It can break your toe if you drop it! It’s still a good mix of science, DIY, theory, cultural studies and the archeology of pop culture in everyday life. With a great deal of forced discontinuity, a cohesive potpourri of digital and analog covert culture is pressed between the covers. We try to offer an un-nostalgic amalgam of 125 years of Western counterculture – locked, aimed and ready to fire at the present. Like a Sears catalog of subjective and objective irreconcilability – the Godzilla version of the conventional coffee table book.

monochrom #26-34 cover
Image: monochrom #26-34 cover

What are your thoughts on contemporary zoology?

I always loved the grand dichotomies of life. Dogs and cats. Cats and mice. Like Tom and Jerry. But as someone who grew up in Central Europe I never understood how a mouse can live inside a wall. Walls are made of bricks! They are not hollow. Way later I came to understand when I learned that US-American houses are just made of wood, and their walls are really hollow.

Have you ever been walking down the street, mobile phone in hand, and thought of throwing it on the cement, giving it a few good dancing stomps and darting off?

Yes. Even better. We did a workshop called “Experience the Experience of Catapulting Wireless Devices”. The catapult is one of the oldest machines in the history of technology. It is no coincidence that we instigated a creative return. The knife edge of technology hype is sharp, most of all on the West Coast of the United States. Thus we initiated a competition. We invited interested persons to design and build a catapult capable of hurling a cell phone or a PDA unit the greatest possible distance. In order to ensure that no participant had any unfair advantage, we provided a specifications list regarding materials (e.g. metal) that were not to be used and other limitations (e.g. size and weight). And we only tolerated WIRED Magazines as counterweights. That was fitting.

Were you in Berlin when the wall was taken down?

I was asleep, at home. But I always wonder what the official web site of the GDR would look like if they were still around in 2010. Would they use Flash? Or HTML5?

Fanta or Coke?

Fanta originated when a trading ban was placed on Nazi Germany by the Allies during World War II. Coca-Cola GmbH, therefore was not able to import the syrup needed to produce Coca-Cola in Germany. As a result the company decided to create a new product for the Nazi market, using only ingredients available in Germany at the time, including whey and (yummy) pomace. They called it Fanta. So I guess, what’s the difference?

Read part 1 of this interview:

Read part 2 of this interview: