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In the Reading Club, reading is not unthought

Annick Rivoire

This week the ReadingClub organised two live reading sessions with us at Furtherfield. The first performance with Aileen Derieg, Cornelia Sollfrank, Dmytri Kleiner and Marc Garrett, was based on a chunk of A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark [version 4.0]

The second session took as its starting point one of the ARPANET dialogues from 1975 -1976. What we first took as a historical moment, encapsulating the collision of modernist and postmodernist art world figures and the disruptive effects of digital network communications, turned out to be an ongoing research project by Bassam El Baroni, Jeremy Beaudry and Nav Haq.

Alessandro Ludovico, Jennifer Chan, Lanfranco Aceti and Ruth Catlow reenacted the historic collision in a contemporary context. The result – a new text called “Postinternet is’s undefined bastard child”

You can view the recordings of both performances here:
ARPANET dialogues
Hacking, The Hacker Manifesto

Below we reproduce a translation of an interview by Annick Rivoire originally published in French for the publication PoptronicsRead original article here.

One might think (wrongly) that the “Reading Club” is a mixture of a “Fight Club” and a “Bookfighting” (book battles invented by a community from Orleans called Labomedia). Rather, the activity of the “Reading Club” is above all reading – an active, participatory, collaborative and performative reading on the Internet.

Annie Abrahams and Emmanuel Guez wanted this project to be nomadic and shared, so they invited, in addition to IRL institutions like the BPI Centre Pompidou or Le Jeu de Paume in Paris, network partners like Furtherfield, an art and digital resource center in London, and Poptronics. When Annie Abrahams (a challenging net-artist whose work Poptronics likes) told us about the “Reading Club”, it did not take us long to accept the proposition! This “interpretative arena” had a taste for experimentation.

So, in June began the first test (which I attended). Then, during the summer and early September, the device has been refined and made public. An extract from “A Hacker Manifesto” by McKenzie Wark, and snippets of the “Arpanet Dialogues“, these pre-chatrooms conversations from the 1970s attended by Yoko Ono, Marcel Broodthaers, Jane Fonda and a certain Governor Ronald Reagan, have been chosen for the fourth online session with Furtherfield on Monday 21st and Tuesday 22nd of October.

Annie Abrahams and Emmanuel Guez both have a taste for experimentation. The proof? They immediately organised a “Reading Club” session where the two of them answered me a few questions about their project! What you read below is the final version of this session. The writing process is visible on the Reading Club site (by clicking on the arrow at the top right).

Annick Rivoire: “Reading Club” is an “online performative reading experiment.” In this statement, what term do you prefer?

Annie Abrahams & Emmanuel Guez: Experiment, in terms of both the act of reading (and writing) in common and the audience to actively attend these readings through a chat window. Experiment, also in the sense that piloting the project and its various sessions allows us to experiment with different conditions of reading and writing.

Reading is generally considered something a little outdated (see: the complaints by publishers and teachers on the crises of the book and of writing since the advent of the digital). Is it to rehabilitate reading you’ve imagined “Reading Club”?

In the Reading Club, reading is not unthought, not a background. The text can be easily decomposed and recomposed. The radicality of text becomes visible. Words; the text allow what images can only indicate. They are closer to the temporality of thought, bring along a certain slowness, a return to attention. Text gives way to reflection. An image globalizes, leaks everywhere, encompasses but does not travel.

You invite critics, artists, performers to participate collectively, to share the “Reading Club” experience. Why?

Because without participation, the “Reading Club” does not work! It is a device made for people who love to read, who love to write and love to share. These three actions are combined and objectified in a single time and place. But the “Reading Club” is not restricted to the world of art and literature. We would love to propose a “Reading Club” to a wider audience over a longer period, for example in a series of sessions of 10 to 12 consecutive hours.

You explain that the “Reading Club” was inspired by the “Reading Group” of Brad Troemel and the “Department of Reading” by Sönke Hallman. Can you tell us more about these experiences?

Existing texts are at the center of both projects who ask to be payed attention to, to read and then discuss these together. Troemel proposed this on irregular intervals in the rather classical context of a workshop called Reading Group, whose archives unfortunately disappeared from the net. The project by Sönke Hallman, “Department of Reading” (2006), however is much closer to ours. It is an interface, a combination of a chatbot, written in python, and a wiki, developed to slow down and explore the act of reading and writing in a group.

Having participated in the first experiment of the “Reading Club”, I was surprised by the latitude of intervention of the “readers” to the text, which transformed this test session of shared reading into a writing session, or rather a writing “battle”. A very amusing, stimulating and annoying play with simple rules, which resulted in the complete rewriting and inevitably in the emergence of another text on arrival. Did you plan this “killing game” to revisit in color?

Please, take into account that the session in which you participated was a test session during our residency at Zinc (Marseille). We carefully chose which player was going to work on what tesxte (sic), but the interface had many bugs, so, we were forced to do only one tesxte with a group of very heterogeneous readers. It is true that the use of color leads to toying with the visual side of the interface, especially if the text is turned on itself, if it offers a thought biting its tail.

How did you set the cursors and determine, or even change, the rules of the “Reading Club”?

The setting is not fixed. For each session we redraw the reading modalities, the rules of the game. We can act on the identification of the readers (by removing the color, they become anonymous), the duration and length of the text and the number of characters to be used. For example, a short time will not allow a lot of thought. A low upper limit of the number of characters forces the readers to play with the letters rather than with sentences, etc. The choice of the readers in relation to the original text is also important. We know for example that a performer seeks to occupy space, to make the interface “shake”.

In the presentation of the project you mentioned the notion of the “interpretive arena”. One can not help but think of the violence of comments, tweets, the most aggressive sentences thrown as fodder on the Internet by the blogosphere, etc, in short, that other textual arena which is the Web as a whole and, even more, the social networks of Web 2.0. To what extent “Reading Club” is a criticism, a mise en abyme of that arena?

The “Reading Club” does not criticise the aggression you describe. Moreover, the “Reading Club” is not a critical apparatus, but something that makes possible a new form of criticism carried out jointly. What “Reading Club” reveals is that a shared reading and writing passes through emotions, through tensions, through power lines, but also through a certain euphoria. Any act of writing involves a certain symbolic violence. This violence is translated here by the control of the writing space (do not forget that the number of characters is limited). What remains in the end is a text and the whole session which we keep as an archive and which is visible through a timeline. They embody the thoughts, affects, the emotions of the readers at that time.

What is the status of the final text, who is the author, and how is this status questioned in the various experiments (in single or multiple configurations from Zinc to the Bpi Beaubourg)?

We have our specialist Antoine Moreau, one of the founders of the Free Art License, under which we placed all the productions of the Reading Club. We are less interested in the final text of a session than in the process of reading and the accompanying writing strategies. To answer the question, let’s say that the final text is both the product of the device we designed and a process that is the work of the invited readers, without forgetting the author of the original text (in French “texte originel”) – you will notice that we did not use the concept of “original” (in French “original”). We are therefore multiple authors…

The appointment, the performance, the text… All concepts that are being undermined on networks, where fragmented practices, the consultation and mass production of images (video, photo) push in a different direction. Doesn’t your project, which advocates writing (that of an author, those of the readers), promote something “old fashioned”, i.e. the weight of words rather than the shock of the photos?

If the question is “are we old fashion” (sic), we reply that it is cheesy to oppose text to image (it can not be seen but we are laughing). If you look at the timeline, you can see a film of a shared thought in the making.

Is the choice of texts the result of long discussions? The authors are (as far as the first editions of “Reading Club” are concerned) rather engaged personalities (artists or researchers). Are you inventing a form of controversy 2.0?

Not necessarily. The texts are selected jointly with the partner of the session. Sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes we immediately have an intuition that appeals to all partners. We aspire to have the selected texts reflect the concerns of the structure or the institution hosting the session (and ours). We do not seek controversy, it is already there all the time, everywhere. Rather we want to create a situation of confrontation, to ask the reader the question of how to choose his place, his attitude towards others who treat and mistreat the text along with him, to put him in the position to see evolve a thinking in which he participates, but can not control.

“Reading Club” goes international with this new edition with Furtherfield. How do you handle the issue of language? At the BPI, the selected text was signed by Mez, an artist who, as you explained, “wrote her names and texts as names of application and lines of computer code.” A solution to the issue of translation?

The language is that of the original text. Difference exists. Take a look at Mez 3.9.11 _i_dentity_x _or[s]c[h]ism_ (2005-09-29 06:17)