fronterlebnis – Boy’s Toys on the Frontline

Kieran Sellars
Exhibition view. Photo by Alexia Manzano

Referring to Ernst Jünger’s proto-fascist concept of the ‘front experience,’ Dani Ploeger’s fronterlebnis takes us to a frontline where digital consumer culture and traditional warfare meet. Combining filmed footage of a journey to the frontline in the Donbass War, Ukraine, alongside vintage military paraphernalia, Ploeger puts the artist in the field with the ‘real’ soldier. These soldiers are men from the far-right Ukraine Volunteer Corps, affiliated with the Right Sector, and remind Ploeger of ‘the weird and wonderful mix of action heroes in Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables series, albeit without the body builder physiques and less carefully manicured.’ Here, Ploeger not only conceives an exhibition which examines the relationship between the cleanliness of modern day technology and the grittiness of traditional warfare, but also highlights wider issues around society’s continued masculinised and fetishised relationship to conducting, and, as some of these pieces show, documenting war. With Ploeger’s ‘weird and wonderful’ group made up exclusively of men, featuring masculine nom de guerres such as Bear and Carpenter, fronterlebnis is an exhibition in which masculinity is in the crosshairs as much as anything else.

The four-piece exhibition is part of Ploeger’s current exploration into the militarisation of public spaces across Western Europe in connection with our increasingly fetishised relationship with consumer technologies, and how these apparently disparate elements converge in various conflicts, ranging from the Donbass War to public security in cities like Brussels and Paris. The soldier’s body has arguably shifted in its role since the latter part of the 20th century, with the advent of sophisticated warfare technologies moving the human body away from the process of killing, at least in popular imaginations of conflict. With this development, the methods of war appear to have shifted, but it is in fronterlebnis that we are able to see how in the Donbass War in Ukraine, traditional warfare not only remains but has now become intertwined with advanced techno-consumer culture.

Exhibition view. Photo by Alexia Manzano

This juxtaposition of the old and new is present in the first piece you encounter as you enter the gallery. In Patrol (2017), Ploeger captured a firefight on his smartphone. The footage has been transferred to 16mm film and is being projected onto the wall of the gallery in a continuous loop. In the film, we see three soldiers – Bear, Carpenter and Steinar – escort Ploeger around the frontline on the edge of the destroyed seaside village, Shyrokyne. These men, in an assortment of vintage and contemporary battle array, many carrying the iconic Kalashnikov rifle, are seen sharing footage of their exploits on the frontline with each other, which they have captured on their smartphones and GoPros. Steinar, the youngest and, as Ploeger told me, the most fashion conscious in his choice of military gear, is filmed by Ploeger watching footage of the moment where he and Carpenter blow up an unexploded mortar shell. In this piece, the 16mm film echoes the era of the weapons that the men are carrying. The manner in which this film is projected reveals the peculiarity of watching a modern day firefight where many of the weapons and uniforms are from the Soviet era, but the men are astute in their engagement of consumer technology in order to document their experiences of the conflict. In Patrol, the Kalashnikov and the smartphone appear to have made an unlikely pairing.

patrol (2017). Photos by Alexia Manzano

The other work in the show features such seemingly unlikely pairings of traditional paraphernalia of warfare coupled with different pieces of consumer technology. In artefact (2017), the wooden handguard of a Kalashnikov assault rifle is exhibited like an archaeological artefact. Presented on a white plinth, encased in Perspex glass, you can see that the wood of the handguard has been worn with the indents of many hands, signalling its intense use. This carefully exhibited object is just one half of this piece though. The other half consists of digital video animation in which a high-resolution 3D scan of the handguard is inserted onto a digital model of an AK-47. Presented on a large television screen, the digital model, set against a standard blue sky backdrop reminiscent of game development engines, highlights how many of us only come into contact with these types of weapons in a digitised form; whether that be in video games or through action movies. Ploeger’s engagement with firearms here reminds me of some of his past work that seems to suggest an interest in these weapons in relation to masculinity and phallic imagery. Dead Ken /Less Pink (2016), a short video installation in which Ploeger fires a small revolver at a Ken doll, speaks to the seemingly indelible relationship between firearms and masculinity. When seen in relation to this video installation, artefact signals an enduring fascination in our shared social psyche with these weapons, but also speaks to how these weapons continue to be consumed and represented in relation to masculine identities.

artefact (2017). Photos by Alexia Manzano

In worse than the quick hours of open battle, was this everlasting preparedness (2017), we can see a more tangible engagement with the co-existence of war artefacts and digital technology. Held in the front pocket of a Soviet army backpack from the Afghanistan War period is a damaged tablet computer which displays a bouncing screensaver, featuring a piece of text from Ernst Jünger’s proto-fascist novel Storm of Steel (1920). Jünger describes his experiences of fighting on the frontline during the First World War and the title of this piece is a translation of the text we see displayed on the tablet. Here, the mediatised depictions of war that are so pervasive in popular culture are delineated from the lived experience of Jünger, who discusses this perennial notion of prepared waiting that is a common, though rarely shown, aspect of war. Here, the worn backpack which has been roughly patched and repaired, presumably by the hands of the man to which it used to belong (men’s hands are for holding guns rather than sewing needles this bag appears to suggest), holds the similarly worn and damaged tablet. These damaged items speak to Ploeger’s past work with electronic waste, which explored our society’s proclivity for abandoning technologies when they become outdated or damaged. In this exhibition, however, Ploeger brings together the old and new, using pieces of (almost) electronic waste alongside other material artefacts to further explore the relationship between the material and digital.

worse than the quick hours of open battle, was this everlasting preparedness (2017). Photo by Alexia Manzano

The largest piece of the exhibition, frontline (2016-17), deploys this new and ‘clean’ technology in order to take us to the frontline. The work consists of a big wooden enclosure of about 5 by 5 meters which can be entered through a small opening on its side. The entirely white inside of the space is brightly lit by a large grid of office LED lighting that hangs above it. This enclosed space speaks to the ways in which Westernised notions of conducting war are now considered clean and sterile as a result of the technology that they use. Before entering the space, you are asked to place foot coverings over your shoes, as if you would be entering a sterile space, a futile gesture it would seem as the same coverings are used again and again. This action, however, also references the cultural shift in how Western nations like to represent high-tech warfare as a clean affair.

frontline (2016-17). Photo by Alexia Manzano

When you enter the enclosure a sensor is triggered and a soundscape of intense gunfire and explosions suddenly surrounds you. It is only until the you place the VR headset on to your eyes that this soundtrack, fit for an action movie, ceases. Roused by the noise, you are then met with a starkly contrasted image to what was suggested through the preceding gunfire soundscape. Rather than an action scene which complements the sounds previously heard, you enter an uneventful immersive video of soldiers smoking and sitting on the frontline. Using an intricate combination of partial video loops, the men appear to be on a never ending smoking break. frontline, subverts our spectacular expectations of warfare and VR technology by creating a VR experience that – after using sound to further heighten our expectations – foregrounds the mundanity of waiting for something to happen that makes up most of everyday life in an area of conflict.

frontline (2016-17). Still from 360 video, edited by William J. Bates

In frontline, as in all of the pieces that are exhibited as part of fronterlebnis, Ploeger subverts our expectations by combining and repurposing technology to make us question our relationship with our technological devices and how we perceive and engage with them in everyday life. In addition to its examination of digital culture, fronterlebnis also seems to suggest that warfare remains a man’s game. We encounter men who are still prone to having their boy’s toys, but it would seem that in this case they are a GoPro in one hand, and a Kalashnikov in the other. Ploeger’s documentation of these conflicts, made with his own personal technological devices, arguably envelopes him in similar mechanisms of fetishization as the soldiers he was with. Neither soldier nor artist seem able to extract themselves from the seductive realm of audiovisual gadgets and self-mediatization in an era of omnipresent digital consumer culture that even reaches as far as the trenches of a dirty ground war.


Choose Your Muse Interview: Ryota Matsumoto

Choose Your Muse is a series of interviews where Marc Garrett asks emerging and established artists, curators, techies, hacktivists, activists and theorists; practising across the fields of art, technology and social change, how and what has inspired them, personally, artistically and culturally.

Ryota Matsumoto is a principal and founder of an interdisciplinary design office, Ryota Matsumoto Studio, and an artist, designer and urban planner. Born in Tokyo, he was raised in Hong Kong and Japan. After studies at Architectural Association in London and Mackintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow School of Art in early 90’s, he received a Master of Architecture degree from University of Pennsylvania in 2007. Before establishing his office, Matsumoto collaborated with a cofounder of the Metabolist Movement, Kisho Kurokawa, and with Arata Isozaki, Cesar Pelli, the MIT Media Lab and Nihon Sekkei Inc. He is currently an adjunct lecturer at the Transart institute, University of Plymouth.



Marc Garrett:
Could you tell us who has inspired you the most in your work and why?

Ryota Matsumoto: As I have collaborated with the founders of the Metabolist movement of the 60s, Kisho Kurokawa and Arata Isozaki, and had the opportunity to meet Cedric Price at Bedford Square, I am keenly aware of the participatory techno-utopian projects by the Situationist International group. Some of the projects by Japanese Metabolism, Yona Friedman, and Andrea Branzi drew inspiration from the concept of unitary urbanism and further developed their own critical perspectives. Their work has helped me to create my own theoretical platform for the status quo urbanism and its built environment.


Surviving in the Multidimensional Space of Cognitive Dissonance. Mixed Media, 2014, 80cmx110cm, 32inx43in


MG: How have they influenced your own practice and could you share with us some examples?

RM: I identify with the free-spirited and holistic approaches of these theorists on the relationship between language, narrative, and cognition. They embraced a wide range of media for visual communication that simultaneously defied categorization as either art or architecture and denounced the rigid policy-driven urban planning. Who would have thought of using photomontage, computer chips, PVC, or anything else they could get their hands on for architectural visualization in those days? Furthermore, their urban strategy of mobile/adaptable/expandable architecture and the theory of psychogeography dérive resonate with my own creative thinking.  I interpret urbanization as the outcome of self-generating, spontaneous and collective intelligence design process and believe that the strategic use of hybrid media with incorporation of multi-agent computing provides an alternative approach for both art and design practice.

MG: How is your work different from your influences and what are the reasons for this?

RM: The utopian aspirations of the groups in the 60s were very much the product of the counter-cultural movement of the time: they were politically engaged and had optimistic outlooks for technology-driven progress of cities. In contrast, while I tend to address the current socio-cultural agendas of urban and ecological milieus, my work doesn’t necessarily evoke or represent the utopian or dystopian visions of spatial cities.


Transient Field in the Air. Mixed Media, 2014, 85cmx57cm, 22inx33in


Transient Field in the Air. Mixed Media, 2014, 85cmx57cm, 22inx33in


MG: Is there something you’d like to change in the art world, or in fields of art, technology and social change; if so, what would it be?

RM: I explore and question both sustainable and ethical issues of the urban environment that have been influenced by the socio-political realities of the Anthropocene, using visual/cognitive semantics, analogical reasoning, and narrative metaphors. As human population and energy use have grown exponentially with great acceleration, the interactive effects of the planet transforming processes on the environment are impending issues that we have to come to terms with. Thus, my projects hinge on how trans-humanism, the emergence of synthetic biotechnology, and nano-technological innovations can help us respond to the current ecological crisis.

“The themes of my work hinge on how the scientific tenets of trans-humanism, the emergence of synthetic biotechnology and Nano technological innovations might respond to the Anthropocene epoch, and, eventually foster critical thinking in relation to the underlying agendas of the increasing dominance of human-centric biophysical processes and the subsequent environmental crisis.” 1 (Matsumoto 2017)

With my recent work, the symbiotic interplay of the advanced biosynthetic technologies and the preexisting obsolete infrastructures has been explored to search for an alternative trajectory of future environmental possibilities. In short, new technologies can complement old ones instead of completely replacing them, to avoid starting over from a blank slate or facing further ecological catastrophes.


High Frequency Captured on the Surface of Augmented Objects.
Mixed Media, 2014, 110cmx85cm, 43inx33in


Quantized Crackles of Emotional Scales. Mixed Media, 2015, 62cmx96cm, 24inx38in


MG: Describe a real-life situation that inspired you and then describe a current idea or art work that has inspired you?

RM: I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand Hong Kong’s rapid urbanization driven by the staggering economic growth throughout 70s and early 80s. In hindsight, it could be called the beginning of rising prosperity in the Pearl River Delta region. I was fascinated by the fact that both the unregulated Kowloon Walled City and the newly-built Shanghai Bank Tower stood only a few miles apart from each other around the same period. They could be seen as two sides of the same coin, as they both represented the rapid and chaotic economic growth of Hong Kong at that time. It suddenly dawned on me that the juxtaposition and coexistence of polar-opposite elements connoted both visual tension and harmony in a somewhat intriguing way, regardless of their nature, function, and field. That contradiction nurtured and defined my own aesthetic perceptions in both visual art and urban design.

MG: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to anyone thinking of starting up in the fields of art, technology and social change?

Although it might sound like a career detour at first, it is always helpful to go off the beaten path before starting out as an artist. In my case, my experience as an architectural designer and urban planner certainly helped me to break the creative mold and approach my work with a broader perspective. Even now, I still firmly believe that it is always helpful to learn and acquire the wider knowledge and skills from other fields, and that opening up your mind to new ideas will allow you to discover your own unique path in your life.


Wave and Particle, 2014, 85cmx59cm, 33inx23in


Wave and Particle, 2014, 85cmx59cm, 33inx23in


RM: Finally, could you recommend any reading materials or exhibitions past or present that you think would be great for the readers to view, and if so why?

The retrospective of Le Corbusier’s work is the last exhibition I’ve seen and it was very fascinating. He is a great innovator, who had managed to continually reinvent himself to stay ahead of the curve over the course of his life. If you are interested in 20th century architecture encompassing early modernism and the Brutalist movement, it is definitely worth visiting.



Reshaping Spectatorship, Clearing the Cloud: Theory, Meet Artist

The productive alliance between instruments of computing techne and artistic endeavour is certainly not new. This turbulent relationship is generally charted across an accelerating process outwards, gathering traction from a sparse emergence in the 1960s.[1] Along the way, the union of art and technology has absorbed a variety of nomenclatures and classifiers: the observer encounters a peppering of computer art, new media,, uttered by voices careening between disparagement, foretelling bleak dystopian dreams, or overflowing with whimsical idealism. Once reserved for specialist applications in engineering and scientific fields, computing hardware has infiltrated the personal domain.Today’s technology can no longer be fully addressed through purely permutational or systematic artworks, exemplified in 60’s era Conceptualism. The ubiquity of devices in daily life is now both representative and instrumental to our changing cultural interface. Technologies of computing, networks and virtuality provide extension to our faculties of sense, allowing us phenomenal agency in communication and representation. As such, their widespread use demands new artistic perspectives more relentlessly than ever.

Continue reading…

Remembering loops: interview with Nicolas Sassoon

In many of the projects by French Vancouver-based artist Nicolas Sassoon, space and how we perceive it are two of the most inquired questions; it could seem casual that he mostly makes GIFs, but looking at his works you’ll realise the necessity of reflecting on environments, both artificial and spontaneous, using such a specific format. His works ask the viewer to not stop just at the first impressions; sure, most of his GIFs are astounding in terms of animation, use of colours and shapes, but all this technical skill is employed for inquiring our position within environments – not just laptop monitors, but real, concrete buildings and dreamy contexts as well. This is just one of the many introductory points from which we can start talking about INDEX, his latest work which has been featured on the homepage of Rhizome in the first weeks of October and that can be viewed here, on his website.

INDEX (2016), detail

FL: One of the first things that struck me about this project is the relation between hypnagogic dimensions and the technical features of GIF format. The never ending loop of events and the way in which you can change your perception of the same object are important aspects of both; I wonder what you do think about this, especially from your point of view as an artist.

NS: INDEX is representing a project space/music venue in Vancouver BC where I co-organized electronic music events in 2015. It is depicted in the process of being setup for an event titled Rain Dance which happened in August 2015. When I started working on INDEX I was curious about the process of rendering a detailed scene from memory. I had many memories of the venue during the installation phase, a few days before the event. I began to render these memories and details from the installation period within what I could remember of the overall architecture. In that regard, INDEX is an effort to recollect and fixate details about this particular space at this specific time. Some parts of the work are relatively accurate while some other parts are imaginary. The hypnagogic and effervescent visual aspect of the work is informed by this process. It’s also informed by the nature of the events that took place at this venue.

FL: Speaking of memory, what could be a connection between it and GIFs in your own opinion? What are the technical features of this format that could it make appropriate as mean to show memories? Since you mostly worked with GIFs for many years, I wonder if you started to experience events and places as objects suitable to be translated into this format.

NS: The most tangible connection I can think of between GIFs and memory has to do with the history of the web since GIF is an image format that has survived throughout the evolution of the Internet; it is an ancient species that has survived numerous cataclysms. In my work, the connection between GIFs and memory comes from a desire to reconnect with specific moments and places, to create a form of record of these memories. The representation of these memories is an opportunity to formulate mental images of architectures, landscapes and other elements into visual forms that are minimal, incomplete, and encoded. I also enjoy using the GIF format as a very subjective archive; for example, in opposition to the objectivity of 3D scans from historical artefacts. INDEX contains some historical and factual data but it’s also completely skewed by my own perspective.

INDEX (2016), detail

FL: This is an interesting reflection; I like the concept of the GIF format behaving as a selfish gene, in terms of adaptability throughout many different contexts and times. In your own opinion, what is the reason behind the fact it has so much importance in the last 20 years (and counting)? I can’t help but think about the relation between the ways we use to connect to the internet (ie the devices we use, the span of time we stay connected, the reasons we’re connected, etc.) and the faster and faster speed of our internet connections. What do you think?

NS: The continuous presence of GIFs online has to do with the format being perfectly adapted to web environments and its relentless user applications. If you look at early HTML pages, GIFs were always a highlight; they allowed users to add dynamic elements throughout their content. Inserting animations in the middle of text, images or diagrams was a novelty. GIFs embodied that novelty; they were a simple and accessible display of something “multi-media” so they became instantly thought after, heavily used, and stored into databases. GIFs are still pervasive today in forums as image profiles or as punctuation in comments; DUMP.FM personified that within the net-art community, but if you look at any forum or social medias platform it’s still present. From a technical standpoint, the GIF format is attractive because it works like simplified video editing; you set up an image sequence, decide on the speed, and loop it forever. Aside from the APNG format – which never really took off – no other image format offers these capabilities. It covers fundamentals, from traditional animation (frame by frame) but also offers flexibility in terms of input since you can make GIFs from literally anything. The looping function has infinite fields of applications and is impactful visually, which is perfect for the attention seeking nature of Internet space.

FL: Yes, GIFs have been very important in the first years of the Web especially because they bring depth to Web environments; the fact that artists like you are bringing this format from the usual contexts (ie laptops’ monitors, smartphones’ screens, etc) to physical spaces totally makes sense to me. In both cases, we’re talking about fixed environments where the never ending GIF’s movement affects their perception. What do you think? What does it change when you work on a project that will be on display on a Web site and another one which will be hosted on the facade of a building? I’m especially thinking in terms of spaces and perception of shapes and colours…

NS: It has been a challenging process to exhibit screen-based works into physical space, mainly because screen space and physical space are so different in terms of experience. Looking at something on a laptop screen feels intimate, but watching the same thing in a gallery or museum is more of a social experience determined by the immediate architecture. I think a lot in terms of experience in my work and I’ve come to adapt this thought process for installations. I determine the scale of my installations based on the architecture in context. I work primarily with projections whose shapes and sizes references windows, doorways, or other architectural features appearing in the space. These referential elements articulate my work in space like an environment adjusted to the architecture; an added layer which plays with the configuration of the space. I often see my installations as projected sets, or giant digital props injecting imaginary scenarios within architecture. It feels like a natural extension of what I’m trying to do with screen-based works, but it also really engages with the architecture in context.

INDEX (2016), detail

FL: Speaking of the importance of GIFs in our daily online routines, I wonder if and how the so-called GIF art has been influential in respect to the broader use of this format by general public; I’m especially thinking to Simple Net Art Diagram (1997) by MTAA, to the way it used the features of this format to add a little magic to what would look like as a diagram – in other terms, do you think the irony, the cleverness and the experimental approach of the first artists working with GIFs have been understood and implemented by non-experts?

NS: I find early GIFs made by artists as influential as the GIFs made by early web designers, scientists, and other random users involved with the format. GIFs are created from pretty much anything and there has been an infinity of cross-overs in terms of influences. So many users have gone beyond the typical level of involvement with this image format, it would be presumptuous to give credit only to the artists. Still it’s amazing to see the format being acknowledged in the recent historical work on Internet Art, and I’m hoping to see many GIFs in the new Rhizome’s NET ART ANTHOLOGY! I also believe the history of GIF is a history of the vernacular which would deserve its own separate study.

FL: When you see the work, you can’t help but think of ’80s computers; in other terms, the black background and the blinking white dots and lines suggest this association. Can I ask you why you did choose this specific aesthetic?

NS: One of my interests for this type of early computer imaging has to do with the formal and optical properties of these graphics; the way they behave on screens and how they produce kinetic experiences. This is visible in works like PATTERNS where I focus on abstracted animations. Working with these out-dated graphics feels similar to working with an engraving technique or a type of craft that belongs to a certain time period. Some crafts and imaging techniques tend to be associated with specific eras. In the case of early computer graphics, their era is the end of the 20th century which I feel strongly connected to. I also look at these graphics for what they generate in terms of aesthetic experience. They are the primary visual language of the display technology we use today, and they’ve generated many revolutions in the way we perceive contemporary images.

INDEX (2016), detail

FL: You just highlighted one important aspect of your works as whole; This makes your projects, on one hand, to look modernist as they explore how minimum information can create a kinetic effect, rooted in the belief that objects can be reduced to quantifiable patterns and shapes; and on the other, they are nostalgic, reminding us of the times when when creating digital pictures was not so dissimilar from artisanship. What do you think? Am I wrong?

NS: I’ve always been attracted to the idea of developing a craft or skill as far as possible. My focus on early computer graphics was a conscious choice in that sense. It came quite late in my practice when I felt the need to make art for my own sake, without professional incentives. My generation grew up with the first home computers and there is often a generational shift of perception when it comes to early computer graphics. For me, this aesthetic is linked to childhood, fantasy, entertainment, while for other generations it doesn’t have the same emotional input. But no matter the generation, this aesthetic has a definite “time-stamp” and most audiences will associate this aesthetic with that “time-stamp”. The early stages of my practice were very focused on how to appropriate this aesthetic, to turn it into my own visual vocabulary and to articulate it with elements inside and outside of this specific “time-stamp”. I feel many affinities to painting because of this relationship I have with the visual components of my work.

Jacopo Pontormo, Joseph in Egypt (1518)

FL: Speaking of painting, the other day I was reading The Social History of Art (1951) by Arnold Hauser and one text passage struck me in relation to INDEX. “[Mannerism] allows spatial values, different standards, different possibilities of movements to predominate in the different sections of the picture. […] The final effect is of real figures moving in an unreal, arbitrarily constructed space, the combination of real details in an imaginary framework, the free manipulation of the spatial coefficients purely according to the purpose of the moment. The nearest analogy to this world of mingled reality is dream.” Now, I’m not suggesting the idea that your project is mannerist, but I can see some shared features; the way you constructed the space makes me feel a set of arbitrary rules working underneath the blinking white lights, the objects you depicted are somehow real but fixed in a non-realistic dimension. What’s your opinion?

NS: When I began this project, I wanted to develop a new direction that I approached with previous works like STUDIO VISIT. I wanted to portray a real space and make it exist within a different dimension. I was picturing an animated relic, completely isolated and playing itself indefinitely. I focused on my memories of the space and on the reasons that led me to render it. Index was a project space which felt important in the cultural landscape of Vancouver, it also had its own personality. I knew the venue would eventually disappear and be forgotten for the most part. I wanted the work to become an expressive record of this, charged with energy and subjectivity. There is also a form of nostalgia expressed in the visual language I use, and I wanted to articulate this sentiment with the work. This is what led most of my formal decisions. I worked with mental images of the space seen through a lens revealing the energy of each object, and how these objects were infused with the activity of the space. For instance, some parts of the floor were made of these very small sections of hardwood flooring, and it was an area where people used to dance. This translated into a very dynamic area in the work, like a multitude of small conveyor belts imbricated into one another.

Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta (1947)

FL: It seems to me you used isometric projection to depict the objects, a technique employed mostly in technical and engineering drawings; in fact, the scenes look real but not physically reachable, as if they exist on their own – in other terms, they look eternal, recalling the still life paintings by Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. In his case, unlabelled bottles and unrecognisable objects make the scenes unhistorical and closed in themselves; I think it’s interesting the fact you both employed similar devices to depict still life objects – although it’s clear there are many important differences between your works. What do you think?

NS: I’ve always been interested in using screen-based graphics to express the materiality of physical objects or imaginary structures. This is very apparent in early works like FREE CUTS. These works were created as sketches for sculptures, but in the end, they embodied the sculptures on screen. Like paintings, digital images exist on their own plane, and they can develop their own materiality. In my work, this materiality often manifests as a tension between the flatness of the screen and the sculptural properties of the graphics. Sometimes the work feels like it resides in its own plane of existence, like an object stuck between two worlds. This image of something stuck between two worlds is dear to me because it feels so relevant to my experiences on screens. Things can appear so tangible and so distant at the same time, so desirable yet completely unattainable. With isometric perspective, I find a lot of interesting ideas in ancient Japanese works. Isometric perspective is nothing new but it seems to hold a stronger imprint from engineering drawings and video games than from these much earlier art forms. In the case of INDEX, works like The Tale of Genji – a scroll depicting Japanese interiors from the 12th century – were very inspirational. The scroll depicts social scenes with a good level of detail, and it gives the feeling of overlooking the architecture. The vision is fragmented like in INDEX, and you have to unroll – or scroll – to see the rest of the space. These old works feel very contemporary, probably because isometric perspective has been so used in computer graphics.

Sculpting the Internet | On Digital Materiality- exhibition by Jan Robert Leegte

When looking at the many artistic projects focused on how and why we use the internet, it’s easy to find yourself lost in a field which doesn’t show obvious, strong ties with what we normally know as “traditional art history”. This is due to historical and social reasons that emerged between the 80s, 90s and early 2000. These artists were at the vanguard of art culture and pushed at the edges of what art could be, whilst living in a post-punk and postmodernist era, and on tip of this, the arrival of the Internet in 94 changed everything. Many artists took on the challenge of what the Internet offered the world creatively, and explored it not merely as a marketing tool or a place to upload images and videos, but as a medium in its own right, inventing new technically informed, artistic tools and also building grass root led, networked art groups with new infrastructures as cultural platforms. Turning away from anything relating to the mainstream art world and what was seen as outmoded and tired traditions.

In the last decade, we’ve seen the expansion of the Internet and its use by younger generations where the medium is no longer something you exploit to change the culture, but more to integrate in traditional terms, canonical contexts.However, artist Jan Robert Leegte (born in 1973) is a very important figure to reflect upon, in order to understand this transition; while other artists of his generation were taking the internet for a non-hierarchical distributed system, he chose to explore it from a classical studies background that forged the cardinal points of his artistic research. He reflects an Internet art influenced practice which not only exists online but also in physical space. In fact, we can safely say he can be considered as one of the first Post-Internet artists. This makes him a pivotal figure in this historical segment and it’s under this light that one must visit the online exhibition On Digital Materiality (Carroll / Fletcher Onscreen, 3 August-12 September 2016). It’s a retrospective show presenting some of the most important and representative works of the Dutch artist, who wrote for the occasion an essay in which describes some of the most important aspects of his work.

Leegte says, the “materials I first used were basic HTML objects, buttons, scrollbars, frame borders, table borders, and also plain color fields and found images. I questioned what it was that rendered this practice similar to making installations rather than collages. At first it was the simulacrum of real world interactive elements (buttons, window frames, etc.). The operating system extended this haptic strategy with traditional paper-based forms, like check boxes, text fields, lists, etc, and, along with the form elements and the interactive document, led to an ecosystem of fake 3D, interactive objects.”

The work fluctuates between working on the surface and thinking in three dimensions. The same difference can be found with his use of Photoshop and HTML. If in the former case an image editing software operates directly on the final result, for the latter there is the need to know how to write code while at the same time imagine what the potential results will bring via its translation in the public space, the internet. In this sense, we do not hesitate to define Leegte as an artist who studies and uses the tools of the sculptor; he wonders how to place objects in the space, he feels the problem of contextualising a work in relation to a public and physical environment.

                    Jan Robert Leegte, Scrollbar (2002), Image by Jan Robert Leegte

The perception of a substantial difference between surface and space is also proven with his interest in the basic elements of composing the digital interface (scrollbars, mouse pointers, etc). His research examines the artificial environment built by Microsoft and Apple designers. The colours and the shapes were designed to not be perceived as evident mediating agents between the user and the content – in this sense, it is interesting to note that Microsoft has often chosen a minimalist style (shades of grey, square shapes) while with Apple systems the style is usually more exuberant.

However, we should not look at the former as a less culturally relevant product. In the same way, we should not take the white cube exhibition space as a synonym of neutrality (unless we want to think that the whiteness and emptiness stay for an objectivity). This is an aspect that the artist does not seem to detect (in the text, he writes that he “preferred the aesthetics of the Windows classic interface design because of its minimalistic design – no rounded corners and ribbings like the OS 9 design, but simple beveled grey rectangles and a button object was merely a highlight and a shadow, nothing more”).

The artist reflected on how specific design elements may in some sense be preserved, as reflections and products of a particular aesthetic and cultural taste: “In Memory of New Materials Gone” (2014) is a work made by a print of the OS9 scrollbar placed in a transparent case in the same way you would do with an object no longer fashionable. This project and all the other works belonging to The Scrollbar Composition Series programmatically address the perception of virtually anonymous and transparent objects on the screen in a three-dimensional space. In a situation where their significance must be noticed; it’s the artist himself who begs to not see in this a disruptive act, an action that reveals the subtle ways in which they influence us. It is, however (but not “in opposition to”), a reflection on the artist’s activity; as we previously noted, these works are shown on the internet in the same manner in which they would be set up in a gallery space.

Screenshot of Random Selection in Random Image (2012) by Jan Robert LeegteScreenshot of Random Selection in Random Image (2012) by Jan Robert Leegte

Perhaps, the highest point of the artist’s reflection on the differences you meet working on a surface or in three dimensions is The Photoshop Marquee Selection Series. “Random Selection in Random Image” (2012), in which a randomly generated selection marquee is shown within an image randomly obtained from the net. It is the most important work of this series because it opens three-dimensional gaps which have been created sculpturally in two-dimensional images – a dynamic that has echoes of “Scrollbar Composition” (2000), in which the Web browser’s monodimensional space is broken down and reassembled in many windows, many independent spaces sharing only the mathematical material they are made of.

Screenshot of Scrollbar Composition (2000) by Jan Robert LeegteScreenshot of Scrollbar Composition (2000) by Jan Robert Leegte

The works featured in this exhibition are related to questions that go beyond the historical and cultural contingency in which they have been created. This makes many of them feel very much alive even 20 years after their creation (a novelty in digital art, I would say). This allows a healthy dialogue between different generations of artists to exist as common ground. It also engages art experts who want to be introduced to artistic issues linked to the internet. It is a dynamic that makes this exhibition a special opportunity for us all to relook at this so-called digital culture and its traditional and non-traditional art theories and its practice under a peculiar and exciting light.

On Digital Materiality – an Internet exhibition is online at Carroll / Fletcher Onscreen until 12 September

Situating the Digital Commons. A conversation between Ruth Catlow and Tim Waterman

Ruth Catlow is an artist and co-founder co-director of Furtherfield. Tim Waterman is a landscape architectural and urban theorist and critic at the University of Greenwich and Research Associate for Landscape and Commons at Furtherfield.

The negotiation of the commons takes place in two distinct realms that are increasingly reaching into and shaping one another: the long history of the landscape commons both in cities and in the countryside, and across digital networks. In both realms we find the continued project of the enclosures, appropriating forms of collectively-created use value and converting it, wherever possible, into exchange value. In this conversation Ruth Catlow and Tim Waterman discuss the ‘Reading the Commons’ project together with Furtherfield’s work on understanding the commons.

TW: I’ll start with a little background. ‘Reading the Commons’ is an ongoing project which we initiated that seeks to find a place of power in order to defend the continual project of the creation of the commons in all realms in the future and to augment and magnify other similar endeavours by other groups and organisations. We knew that there is already a lot of work being done in and around the idea of the commons, so we were less interested in staking out any intellectual ground than we were in making connections and finding ways of sharing research and experiences amongst ourselves and other interested parties. So far two groups have been assembled to read and discuss. The first was convened in the summer of 2014 at Furtherfield Commons, the community lab space in the South West corner of Finsbury Park, and was composed of a broad range of academics and practitioners from different disciplines.i It met once a fortnight for several months and discussion was wide-ranging. The second was in the Summer of 2015 and involved a group of Master’s students in curation at Goldsmiths under the direction of Ele Carpenter. Future incarnations of the group will each try for different configurations of people, disciplines, and callings.

The Embroidered Digital Commons at Furtherfield Gallery 2012.
EDC initiated by Ele Carpenter is a collectively stitched version of ‘A Concise Lexicon of/for the Digital Commons’ by the Raqs Media Collective (2003).

RC: The first group was very diverse – from backgrounds in geography, sociology, law, political science, technology, landscape architecture, art, and more. We faced an immediate challenge talking across the boundaries of all these disciplines and philosophical and cultural traditions. This was illustrated immediately in the first session. One of our group, a scholar in Law and Property, was irked by our early introduction of two Americans , Garrett Hardin and Yochai Benkler. We had introduced these theorists along with Elinor Ostrom, Oliver Goldsmith and Michel Bauwens.ii The law and property scholar was irked for a number of reasons, but particularly because they represented a bias towards a US and UK (English speaking) over other European traditions- of property and ownership over civil liberties. Another participant, with an established practice in arts and technology looked pained throughout. I think this was because we seemed to be scratching the surface of topics, works and discussions that make up the discourse around the network, and the digital commons.

TW: We partially remedied this problem by asking the participants to provide readings for future sections and to give a brief verbal introduction.

Autopsy of an Island Currency (2014)

RC: For instance Christian Nold led a show-and-tell at the second session, based on a book, Autopsy of an Island Currency (2014) that he had worked on with Nathalie Aubret and Susanne Jaschko. The book problematises a project called Suomenlinna Money Lab, a participatory art and design project that worked with money and local currencies as a social and artistic medium and that sought to involve a community of people in a critique of its own economies. This reinforced for me the contribution that situated practices have to make to theories of the commons, as the book tells a revealing story of resistance to critique in a place and community with an established interest and investment in the cultures associated with private ownership.

TW: Nevertheless there were a lot of times when people ‘looked pained’, because basically we had just jumped in and started discussing the idea of the commons without realising that we were all speaking with different understandings of basic terms. In other words, we were all operating on different registers that sprang from our hailing from different philosophical and disciplinary roots and traditions. It might have benefited us to begin by trying to map out our terms. On the other hand, this might have prevented us from ever even starting! This mapping, perhaps, is a project that we need to figure out how to undertake.

RC: The difficulty of wrangling different registers was also exacerbated by the seemingly unbounded scope of the discussion. The relatively recent growth of the World Wide Web introduces enough material for months of readings about how the digital commons has helped to shift thinking about the commons away from merely the management of material resources to knowledge and cultural work.

Still, we felt – perhaps because Furtherfield’s physical venues are located within a public park – a sense of urgency to think about the social layers of physical and digital space in relation to the commons, as a way to resist the unquestioning total commercialisation of all realms.

The social layers of physical and digital space- drawn by Ruth during this conversation

RC: To take a couple of steps back….There are misconceptions about the commons that require rectification. Political economist Elinor Ostrom showed, in opposition to Garrett Hardin, that in theory and in practice, the collective co-operative management of shared socio-ecological resources was a lived reality in many localities (1990). While her research drew on management of material resources her Eight Design Principles for Common Pool Resources, shares many characteristics with digital commons.

Hardin’s (1968) essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” had argued that commonly owned resources were doomed to exploitation and depletion by private individuals; therefore justifying the role of hierarchical, centralised systems of power to maintain private ownership. On the other hand, Jeremy Gilbert in his book Common Ground (2013), quotes radical economist Massimo de Angelis, to define the commons as social spheres which help protect us from the market. This becomes particularly useful to help us to recalibrate our definitions of “free” and “sharing” as we reveal so much of our private lives (so nonchalantly) via ubiquitous, proprietary digital devices and commercial social platforms.

TW: Hardin’s one-dimensional projection of the commons as unworkable and disastrous was based upon an understanding of human relations that assumed that competitive individualism is ‘human nature’ and that all such ‘experiments’ were doomed to failure as a result. This is Darwin’s survival of the fittest rendered as ‘dog eat dog’. The voice almost contemporary with Darwin’s that I think most clearly articulates how evolution (human and otherwise) is based upon cooperation is Peter Kropotkin’s, in his amazing book Mutual Aid (1902). Evolutionary science and theory is moving ever more towards Kropotkin’s conclusions rather than Darwin’s, or at least Kropotkin’s work is becoming ever more relevant and complementary to Darwin’s. For me, it’s also impossible to imagine how cultural evolution could work at all except through the cooperation, sharing, and processes of negotiation that characterise the commons.

The landscape commons has always been about more than just material resources, and this is perhaps the most reductively oversimplified register on which we might speak of the commons. So if the problem is to align the different and more meaningful registers along which we all discuss the commons so that a truly collective and collaborative project can emerge amongst many disciplines simultaneously, we should have a go at pinning in place a few core understandings of the commons? Shall we give that a go?

RC: Yes! From my work with Furtherfield, my feeling for the commons is strongly influenced by the cultures of freedom and openness in engineering and software. In 2011 we created a collection of artworks, texts and resources about freedom and openness in the arts in the age of the Internet. “Freedom to collaborate – to use, modify and redistribute ideas, artworks, experiences, media and tools. Openness to the ideas and contributions of others, and new ways of organising and making decisions together.”iii

If we can agree that the commons are those resources that are collectively produced and managed by, and in the interests of, the people who use them, then the digital commons, as set out by Felix Stalder, are the technologies, knowledge and digital cultural resources that are communally designed, distributed and owned : wikis, open-source software and licensing, and open cultural works and knowledge repositories.iv Licences such as the GNU General Public License and various Creative Commons licenses ensure that the freedom to use, adapt and distribute works produced collectively is preserved for the future.

Discussions of the commons have, in the liberal tradition, centred around how to produce, manage and share scarce material resources in a bounded geographical locality. This is fundamentally changed in the post-industrial, information age, where cultural and knowledge goods can be easily, cheaply and quickly copied, shared worldwide and transformed. It has brought about a massive shift in the way economics, politics and law are practiced.

Screenshot from Naked on Pluto (2010) by Dave Griffiths, Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk

As distinct from the users of the majority of corporately-owned search, sales and social media utilities (think Google, Amazon, Paypal, Facebook, Twitter) and digital entertainment platforms (think Netflix, iMusic and Spotify) the community of people involved in developing the digital commons ‘can intervene in the design and governance of their interaction processes and of their shared resources’ (Stalder) – think Wikipedia, Freesound, Wikihouse. This has long continued to be an area of intense critical inquiry, unfolding, and practice for artists who are creating digital and networked artworks that take the form of platforms, software, tools and interventions such as : Upstage software for online “cyberformance”; Naked on Pluto, an online game whose ‘players’ become unwitting agents in the invasion of their own and others’ privacy ; and PureDyne, the USB-bootable GNU/Linux operating system for creative multimedia.

Consumer cultures invite us constantly to outsource responsibility for knowledge, information and cultural works to the markets. Artists and technologists involved in the digital commons make these otherwise abstract (and often invisible) shifts in power and social relations “feelable” for more people. In this way they are asserting alternatives to the prevailing economic models – often privileging collaboration and free expression that disrupt outmoded models of copyright and intellectual property.v

Discussions about the role of affect in the development of the commons will be the subject of the next explorations of Reading the Commons, and we will certainly come back to these.

TW: Let’s look at this from another direction. In landscape terms, the idea of the commons has evolved a great deal over time, as, for example, feudal forms gave way to different hierarchical forms based in capitalism and private property, and now in late capitalism and neoliberalism’s adaptation to, and cooptation of various forms of horizontality, especially in managerial practices. The importance of the commons has also shifted from defining notions of shared ownership and management of agrarian resources to include various manifestations of urban life, most recently and compellingly, perhaps, in the dogmatically horizontal democratic organisation amongst participants in the Occupy movement.

V. Chestnuts (Castanee) From the Tacuinum of Rouen

Ultimately, the commons, for me, is about dialogue, sharing, and the relationship between people and place. The earliest expressions of the commons were all about our relationship with food; its procurement, preparation, and consumption. A beautiful historic example is the importance of the chestnut tree to the inhabitants of the Cévennes in southern France, and how it not only embodied the commons, but symbolised it as well. It’s not possible to romanticise this story, as it’s one of very hardscrabble survival, but it does illustrate the point. As a staple food, the chestnut was a matter of survival for the inhabitants of the Cévennes. It would seem, metaphorically, that the idea of rootedness would follow naturally from this as a characteristic of the commons, but the reality is more nuanced. Chestnuts were introduced to the Cévennes by the Romans, and then tended centuries later by monks, who would share plants with the peasants with the expectation of future tithes. Labour-intensive chestnut orchards were farmed not just by locals, but by migrant workers as well. If we fast-forward to the 1960s, chestnuts were rediscovered by those wishing to get ‘back to the land’, reviving agricultural practices that had withered away during the years that capitalism had lured people from the countryside into towns.

This shows a very complex picture of the commons: one in which colonization and imperialism, monasticism, peasantry, migrant labour, and then finally arcadian anti-capitalist mythologies of the 1960s each play a part – and I’m skipping over a lot of historic detail and nuance. There is a tendency nowadays to see the commons as exclusively autonomous and horizontal, but historically the commons have been inextricably bound to patterns of ownership and domination. Far from discounting the commons, this shows how the commons can exist within and exert pressure against prevailing forms of domination and ownership. We need not wait for total revolution or the construction of utopia or arcadia. We can get to work now and make a shining example of what is possible, making use of existing networks and existing places. The anthropologist David Graeber, in his book The Democracy Project, (2014) calls this ‘prefigurative politics’: the idea that by acting out the model of politics and human association and inhabitation that we wish to see, that we work to bring it about.

RC: Yes, and while sociality, rootedness and affinity are all associated with embodied experience, they bubble up again and again in the critical and activist media art community who take digital networks for their tools, inspiration and context. Take for example the Swedish artist/activist group Piratbyrån (The Bureau of Piracy) established in 2003 to promote the free sharing of information, culture and intellectual property. Their entire 2014 exhibition of online and physical installations at Furtherfield Gallery highlighted the centrality to their work of cultural sharing and In his recent conversation with Tatiana Bazzichelli about networked disruption and business, Marc Garrett discusses the importance of affinities in evolving more imaginative, less oppositional (and macho) engagement with regressive forces; and quoting Donna Haraway says “Situated knowledges are about communities, not isolated individuals.”(Haraway 1996).vii

Riot Chat by Palle Torsson, Part of the Piratbyrån and Friends exhibition at Furtherfield Gallery, 03 May – 08 June 2014

But Tim, I think you were on a roll. Why don’t you keep going? Why is the commons important now?

TW: The exploitation of people and resources that marks the practices of contemporary capitalism is very much a continuation of the project of the enclosures, whether it is to skim value off creative projects, to asset-strip the public sector which is increasingly encroached upon by the private sector, or to exhaust land and oppress workers in the Third World. The commons, however, are being created continually, and they represent not just a resource to be enclosed and exploited, but a form of resistance that has particular power because it is lived and acted. It’s not at all a contradiction to say that what is common is simultaneously enclosed, exploited, and liberatory. It’s a matter of tipping the balance so that the creation of the commons outpaces its negation.

RC: As people negotiate systems for renewal and stewardship of the resources over time they also arrive at an expression of creative identity and shared values.

TW: A moral economy …

RC: By freely surrendering all collectively created culture, from use value for conversion to exchange value, our shared ecologies of knowledge, culture and land are dismantled.

And with this we stand to lose the ability to attend to the nature of co-evolving, interdependent entities (human and non-human) and conditions, for the healthy evolution and survival of our species.viii

We are seeing a resurgence of collective and collaborative efforts. Our ongoing DIWO (Do It With Others) campaignix sets out to adopt the verve and tactics of DIY culture, but to move us on from its individualism towards imaginative and experimental artistic collaboration. We construct more varied social relations (than those set up by pure market exchange) into the proliferation of connected sensing, communication and knowledge tools, in order to facilitate new forms of trans-global relations and cooperation. Most exciting is the Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperativex,an activist hedge fund (and the project of economists, critical theorists, artists and financial experts) which distributes shares to members and its profits are invested in pro-social and commons-focused cultural projects.

TW: The point about use value is an important one. Capitalism, in the familiar equation, seeks to convert use value into exchange value. This process abstracts and simplifies value into purely financial terms. The language and action of the commons resists this because it is so often emplaced and embodied. The commons are local, experienced, shared, and negotiated, and they exist within networks of friendship, family, and civil society, which operate as moral economies, not purely monetary ones. I should probably also make the point that the Greek root of the word ‘moral’ signifies custom – which suggests that morals exist in the relational realm of everyday life, rather than in abstract ‘higher’ realms or in abstract financialised realms such as ‘the market’ – and that ‘economy’ comes from Greek again, the oikos, or household. Another firmly embodied and situated idea that is also incontrovertibly relational.

RC: The digital is becoming embodied and situated in a number of ways. Where once the boundaries between the worlds of atoms and bits were marked by screens and passwords, chips and implants are now on or in our bodies, devices and appliances. People and things are becoming increasingly expressive as nodes in the machineweb. Again, this gives artists a vital role in making these effects more legible, feelable and visible. Our actions are tracked, our utterances and exchanges are monitored, and our behaviours inform the design of future media, systems and products. This is the cybernetic loop.xi We also see a growing awareness of the geo-political questions surrounding the physical infrastructure of the Internet and its role in global markets. The problematisation of the web through heated debates about ownership and control of infrastructure and data, privacy and surveillance expressed in the SOPA debates- the Edward Snowden affair; Tim Berners-Lee’s campaign for a Magna Carta for the web; calls for a Digital Bill of Rights; the development of decentralising blockchain technologies that underpin Bitcoin, Etherium and (many other projects; artistic projects with a Situationist verve such as those of Piratbyran and F.A.T Lab- these all help us to clarify our place, the opportunities and limits for agency and action as we straddle the physical and digital layers.

So then we come back to the question of resistance and the commons. If, as you’ve described above, the continued project of the enclosures sets the scene for new acts of resistance, how Tim do you see these acts taking place in landscape space?

TW: The fact that democracy and the commons both take place (literally a historic act is situated by its taking place) by occupying space as well as by initiating dialogues and negotiations is important. Occupying digital space is important, as you have shown Ruth, and resisting the forms of surveillance and control that seek to close down the digital commons. I take hope from the fact that even if it takes generations to end capitalism, or at least to shift it from a form of global governance to a competitive economic system more appropriate to the scale of the farmers’ market, that the commons will never be fully enclosed, because capitalism is dependent upon the commons to create value that it then marketises and financialises.

Defending the digital commons also occupies physical space. It will be, from time to time, necessary to occupy the streets and squares of our cities in protest to stand up for them. In doing so we stand up for the physical commons at the same time. Governments have all sorts of tools against public demonstrations, such as the British government’s recently renewed hostility to trade unionism and its desire to further limit strike powers. Strikes will happen whether they’re legal or not though, as history amply demonstrates. Often many instances of land occupations are seen to have failed, however they have to have succeeded, at least temporarily, to register in the historical record as symbolic moments. These moments have immense power. The Diggers, for example, followers of Gerrard Winstanley, were proto-anarchists who organised horizontally in their land occupation in Surrey, Northamptonshire, and Buckinghamshire in the mid-1600s. Their planting of vegetables on common land, though a brief experiment, lives on powerfully in the discourses of democracy.

More modern incarnations of this power include the access to land gained by the mass trespass at Kinder Scout, the long-term encampment at Greenham Common, and the incredibly powerful and highly visible symbolism of the Occupy movement in various places from New York to London to Istanbul and beyond. A recent echo of the Diggers is the occupation of Grow Heathrow, which seeks to prevent the airport’s expansion by peacefully living on land proposed for a third runway and growing food there.

RC: So our next steps both for Reading the Commons and in our acting out of the commons are to define and map, for the purposes of resistance in the ongoing creation of commons; digital collaborocracy and an exploration of affect, agency, embodiment and the commons. Creative practices under capitalism have long contained elements of both creation and resistance (or defence), and now these actions, both positive and negative, take place across the digital and situated realms as well as what might now be termed the ‘situated digital’.

TW: I’m pursuing ideas of what Kate Soper calls ‘alternative hedonism’ so that sustainability can be conceived of as joyful. I think satisfaction – the fulfillment of desire – can have radical transformative potential for prosperity as a collective pursuit and is perhaps the only way to tip the balance away from liberal and neoliberal individualist competitive models. My idea of the commons and commoning includes freedom, democracy, nice cups of tea, evenings spent drinking wine and talking, the elimination of poverty, and the flourishing of human habitat and human potential.

RC: Let’s all drink to that!



Many thanks to Professor Jeremy Strong and Dr Penny Travlou for their feedback and notes on this text!

i. The original group involved the following scholars as well as the convenors: Anne Bottomley, Reader in Law and Property at Kent Law School; Joss Hands, Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University; Alastair McCapra, Chief Executive at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and board member of Wikimedia UK; Nathan Moore, Senior Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck School of Law; Christian Nold, artist, designer, and educator; Penny Travlou, Lecturer in Cultural Geography and Theory at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Edinburgh; and Ed Wall, Academic Leader: Landscape at the University of Greenwich, Faculty of Architecture, Computing, and Humanities.

ii. See ‘Indicative reading for Reading the Commons’ below notes.

iii. Furtherfield, 2011. Collaboration and Freedom, collection commissioned by Arts Council England for Thinking Digital

iv. Felix Stalder (2010) Digital Commons: A dictionary entry, Open Flows (online)

v. ibid

vi. Piratbyrån and Friends, exhibition at Furtherfield Gallery May-June 2014

vii. Marc Garrett, 2014.We Need to Talk About Networked Disruption and Business: An interview with Tatiana Bazzichelli, Furtherfield (online) about-networked-disruption-and-business-interview-tatiana-bazzichel

viii. Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett (2012) citing Bateson 1972 in Remediating the Social 2012. Editor: Simon Biggs, University of Edinburgh. Pages 69-74





Indicative Reading

Axelrod, Robert (1984), The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books, 2006

Barnes, Peter. (2001) Who Owns The Sky? Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism, Island Press

Bauwens, Michel. (2013) Class and Capital in Peer Production.

Bauwens, Michel. (2005)The political economy of peer production.

Benkler, Yochai. (2011) The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest.

Boal, Iain. The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure (forthcoming)

Bollier, David. Think  Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons and/or  Viral Spiral. How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own. New York, London, New Press, 2008

Caffentzis, George. (1973) “Introduction to the New Enclosures” in Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War.

Clare, John. (1827)  From ‘April’, The Shepherd’s Calendar

DEFRA. (2003) Countryside and Rights of Way Fact Sheets

De Angelis, Massimo. (2003) ‘Reflections on alternatives, commons and communities’

De Angelis, Massimo and Stavrides, Stavros. (2010) ‘On the Commons: A Public Interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides’

Dragona, Daphne. (2013) ‘Artists as commoners in the years of indebtedness’

Federici, Silvia. (2004) Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Book)

Gilbert, Jeremy. (2013) Common Ground – Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism

Goldsmith, Oliver. (1770) ‘The Deserted Village’

Graeber, David. (2013) ‘A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse’

Haraway, Donna. (1983) ‘The Ironic Dreams of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit’

Hardin, Garrett. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons

Harvey, David. Rebel Cities (2013)…

Hyde, Lewis. Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership. 2010

Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid and/or Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow. 1898

Lessig, Lawrence. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.1999

Lessig, Lawrence. (2004) Free Culture

Linebaugh, Peter. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008

Linn, Karl. “Reclaiming the Sacred Commons” and/or Building Commons and Community. Oakland: New Village Press, 2007

Marx, Karl. (1844) Private Property and Communism.

Massey, Doreen. (1994) A Global Sense of Place

Merchant, Carolyn. (2006) The Scientific Revolution and the Death of Nature

Morris, William. News From Nowhere 1893.

Mumford, Lewis. (1964) Authoritarian and Democratic Technics

Nold, Christian  and van Kranenburg, Rob. (2011) The Internet of People for a Post-Oil World.

Olwig, Kenneth. (2002) Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic. University of Wisconsin Press.

Ostrom, Elinor. (2010) “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” American Economic Review, 100(3), pp. 641-72.

Ostrom, Elinor and Hess, Charlotte, Eds. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons. 1990

Ostrom, Elinor, and Gardner, Roy, and Walker, James, Eds. Rules, Games, and Common Pool Resources. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994

Platt, John. Platt, J. (1973). “Social Traps”. American Psychologist 28 (8): 641–651. doi:10.1037/h0035723.

Rexroth, Kenneth. (1974) “Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century”

Sennett, Richard. (2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation.

Ward, Colin. (2012) Talking Green or ‘Play as an Anarchist Parable’ from Anarchy in Action.

Winstanley, Gerrard (1649). A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England

Resolution Disputes: A Conversation Between Rosa Menkman and Daniel Rourke

In the lead-up to her solo show, institutions of Resolution Disputes [iRD], at Transfer Gallery, Brooklyn, Daniel Rourke caught up with Rosa Menkman over two gallons of home-brewed coffee. They talked about what the show might become, discussing a series of alternate resolutions and realities that exist parallel to our daily modes of perception.

iRD is open to visitors on Saturdays at Transfer Gallery until April 18th, and will also function as host to Daniel Rourke and Morehshin Allahyari’s 3D Additivist Manifesto, on Thursday April 16th.

Rosa Menkman: The upcoming exhibition at Transfer is an illustration of my practice based PhD research on resolutions. It will be called ‘institutions of Resolution Disputes’, in short iRD and will be about the liminal, alternative modes of data or information representation, that are obfuscated by technological conventions. The title is a bit wonky as I wish for it to reflect that kind of ambiguity that invokes curiosity.

In any case, I always feel that every person, at least once in their grown-up life, wants to start an institution. There are a few of those moments in life, like “Now I am tired of the school system, I want to start my own school!”; and “Now I am ready to become an architect!”, so this is my dream after wanting to become an architect.

Daniel Rourke: To establish your own institution?

Credits: Rosa Menkman, Institution #1, 2015

RM: First of all, I am multiplexing the term institution here. ‘institutions’ and the whole setting of iRD does mimic a (white box) institute, however the iRD does not just stand for a formal organization that you can just walk into. The institutions also revisit a slightly more compound framework that hails from late 1970s, formulated by Joseph Goguen and Rod Burstall, who dealt with the growing complexities at stake when connecting different logical systems (such as databases and programming languages) within computer sciences. A main result of these non-logical institutions is that different logical systems can be ‘glued’ together at the ‘substrata levels’, the illogical frameworks through which computation also takes place.

Secondly, while the term ’resolution’ generally simply refers to a standard (measurement) embedded in the technological domain, I believe that a resolution indeed functions as a settlement (solution), but at the same time exists as a space of compromise between different actors (languages, objects, materialities) who dispute their stakes (frame rate, number of pixels and colors, etc.), following rules (protocols) within the ever growing digital territories.

So to answer your question; maybe in a way the iRD is sort of an anti-protological institute or institute for anti-utopic, obfuscated or dysfunctional resolutions.

DR: It makes me think of Donna Haraway’s Manifesto for Cyborgs, and especially a line that has been echoing around my head recently:

“No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language.”

By using the terms ‘obfuscation’ and ‘dysfunction’ you are invoking a will – perhaps on your part, but also on the part of the resolutions themselves – to be recognised. I love that gesture. I can hear the objects in iRD speaking out; making themselves heard, perhaps for the first time. In The 3D Additivist Manifesto we set out to imagine what the existence of Haraway’s ‘common language’ might mean for the unrealised, “the powerless to be born.” Can I take it that your institute has a similar aim in mind? A place for the ‘otherwise’ to be empowered, or at least to be recognised?

RM: The iRD indeed kind of functions as a stage for non-protocological resolutions, or radical digital materialism.

I always feel like I should say here, that generally, I am not against function or efficiency. These are good qualities, they make the world move forward. On the other hand, I do believe that there is a covert, nepotist cartel of protocols that governs the flows and resolutions of data and information just for the sake of functionality and efficiency. The sole aim of this cartel is to uphold the dogma of modern computation, which is about making actors function together (resonate) as efficiently as possible, tweaking out resources to maximum capacity, without bottlenecks, clicks, hicks or cuts, etc.

But this dogma also obfuscates a compromise that we never question. And this is where my problem lies: efficiency and functionality are shaping our objects. Any of these actors could also operate under lower, worse or just different resolutions. Yet we have not been taught to see, think or question any of these resolutions. They are obfuscated and we are blind to them.

I want to be able to at least entertain the option of round video (strip video from its interface!), to write inside non-quadrilateral, modular text editors (no more linear reading!) or to listen to (sonify) my rainbows (gradients). Right now, the protocols in place simply do not make this possible, or even worse, they have blocked these functionalities.

There is this whole alternate universe of computational objects, ways that our data would look or be used like, if the protocols and their resolutions had been tweaked differently. The iRD reflects on this, and searches, if you will, a computation of many dimensions.

DR: Meaning that a desktop document could have its corners folded back, and odd, non standard tessellations would be possible, with overlapping and intersecting work spaces?

Credits:, a non-rectilinear still of jon satroms 'QTlets' to be

RM: Yes! Exactly!

Right now in the field of imagery, all compressions are quadrilateral, ecology dependent, standard solutions (compromises) following an equation in which data flows are plotted against actors that deal with the efficiency/functionality duality in storage, processing and transmission.

I am interested in creating circles, pentagons and other more organic manifolds! If we would do this, the whole machine would work differently. We could create a modular and syphoning relationships between files, and just as in jon Satroms’ 2011 QTzrk installation, video would have multiple timelines and soundtracks, it could even contain some form of layer-space!

DR: So the iRD is also a place for some of those alternate ‘solutions’ that are in dispute?

RM: Absolutely. However, while I am not a programmer, I also don’t believe that imagining new resolutions means to absolve of all existing resolutions and their inherent artifacts. History and ecology play a big role in the construction of a resolution, which is why I will also host some of my favorite, classic solutions and their inherent (normally obfuscated) artifacts at the iRD, such as scan linesDCT blocks, and JPEG2000 wavelets.

Evil Media Distribution Center. YoHa Transmediale 2013

The iRD could easily function as a Wunderkammer for artifacts that already exist within our current resolutions. But to me this would be a needles move towards the style of the Evil Media Distribution Center, created by YoHa (Matsuko Yokokoji and Graham Harwood) for the 2013 Transmediale. I love to visit Curiosity Cabinets, but at the same time, these places are kind of dead, celebrating objects that are often shielded behind glass (or plastic). I can imagine the man responsible for such a collection. There he sits, in the corner, smoking a pipe, looking over his conquests.

But this kind of collection does not activate anything! Its just ones own private boutique collection of evil! For a dispute to take place we need action! Objects need to have – or be given – a voice!

DR: …and the alternate possible resolutions can be played out, can be realised, without solidifying them as symbols of something dead and forgotten.

RM: Right! It would be easy and pretty to have those objects in a Wunderkammer type of display. Or as Readymades in a Boîte-en-valise but it just feels so sad. That would not be zombie like but dead-dead. A static capture of hopelessness.

DR: The Wunderkammer had a resurgence a few years ago. Lots of artists used the form as a curatorial paradigm, allowing them to enact their practice as artist and curator. A response, perhaps, to the web, the internet, and the archive. Aggregated objects, documents and other forms placed together to create essayistic exhibitions.

RM: I feel right now, this could be an easy way out. It would be a great way out, however, as I said, I feel the need to do something else, something more active. I will smoke that cigar some other day.

A Vernacular of File Formats, Rosa Menkman at Born Digital, Moti, Breda, 2014

DR: So you wouldn’t want to consider the whole of Transfer Gallery as a Wunderkammer that you were working inside of?

RM: It is one possibility. But it is not my favorite. I would rather make works against the established resolutions, works that are built to break out of a pre-existing mediatic flow. Works that were built to go beyond a specific conventional use.

For example, I recently did this exhibition in The Netherlands where I got to install a really big wallpaper, which I think gained me a new, alternative perspectives on digital materiality. I glitched a JPEG and zoomed in on its DCT blocks and it was sooo beautiful, but also so scalable and pokable. It became an alternative level of real to me, somehow.

DR: Does it tesselate and repeat, like conventional wallpaper?

RM: It does repeat in places. I would do it completely differently if I did it again. Actually, for the iRD I am considering to zoom into the JPEG2000 wavelets. I thought it would be interesting to make a psychedelic installation like this. It’s like somebody vomited onto the wall.

JPEG2000 wavelets

DR: [laughs] It does look organic, like bacteria trying to organise.

RM: Yeah. It really feels like something that has its own agency somehow.

Rosa Menkman, Crop from A Vernacular of File Formats, 2010.

JPEG2000 waveletsDR: That’s the thing about JPEG2000 – and the only reason I know about that format, by the way, is because of your Vernacular of File Formats – the idea that they had to come up with a non-regular block shape for the image format that didn’t contradict with the artifacts in the bones and bodies that were being imaged. It feels more organic because of that. It doesn’t look like what you expect an image format to look like, it looks like what I expect life to look like, close up.

RM: It looks like ‘Game of Life’.

Game of LifeDR: Yes! Like Game of Life. And I assume that now they don’t need to use JPEG2000 because the imaging resolution is high enough on the machines to supersede bone artifacts. I love that. I love the effect caused when you’ve blown it up here. It looks wonderful. What is the original source for this?

RM: I would blow this image [the one from A Vernacular of File Formats] up to hell. Blow it up until there is no pixel anymore. It shouldn’t be too cute. These structures are built to be bigger. Have you seen the Glitch Timond (2014)? The work itself is about glitches that have gained a folkloric meaning over time, these artifact now refer to hackers, ghosts or AI. They are hung in the shape of a diamond. The images themselves are not square, and I can install them on top of the wallpaper somehow, at different depths. Maybe I could expand on that piece, by putting broken shaped photos, and shadows flying around. It could be beautiful like that.

Rosa Menkman, A Glitch Timond, 2014.

DR: It makes me think of the spatiality of the gallery. So that the audience would feel like they were inside a broken codec or something. Inside the actual coding mechanism of the image, rather than the standardised image at the point of its visual resolution.

RM: Oh! And I want to have a smoke machine! There should be something that breaks up vision and then reveals something.

DR: I like that as a metaphor for how the gallery functions as well. There are heaps of curatorial standards, like placing works at line of sight, or asking the audience to travel through the space in a particular order and mode of viewing. The gallery space itself is already limited and constructed through a huge, long history of standardisations, by external influences of fashion and tradition, and others enforced by the standards of the printing press, or the screen etc. So how do you make it so that when an audience walks into the gallery they feel as though they are not in a normal, euclidean space anymore? Like they have gone outside normal space?

RM: That’s what I want! Disintegrate the architecture. But now I am like, “Yo guys, I want to dream, and I want it to be real in three weeks…”

DR: “Hey guys, I want to break your reality!” [laughs]

RM: One step is in place, Do you remember Ryan Maguire who is responsible for The Ghost in the MP3? His research is about MP3 compressions and basically what sounds are cut away by this compression algorithm, simply put: it puts shows what sounds the MP3 compression normally cuts out as irrelevant – in a way it inverses the compression and puts the ‘irrelevant’ or deleted data on display. I asked him to rework the soundtrack to ‘Beyond Resolution’, one of the two videowork of the iRD that is accompanied by my remix of professional grin by Knalpot and Ryan said yes! And so it was done! Super exciting.

DR: Yes. I thought that was a fantastic project. I love that as a proposition too… What would the equivalent of that form of ghosting be in terms of these alternate, disputed resolutions? What’s the remainder? I don’t understand technical formats as clearly as you do, so abstract things like ‘the ghost’, ‘the remainder’ are my way into understanding them. An abstract way in to a technical concept. So what is the metaphoric equivalent of that remainder in your work? For instance, I think it depends on what this was originally an image of. I think that is important.

RM: The previous image of JPEG2000 does not deal with the question of lost information. I think what you are after is an inversed Alvin Lucier ‘Sitting in a Room’ experiment, one that only shows the “generation loss” (instead of the generation left over, which is what we usually get to see or hear in art projects). I think that would be a reasonable equivalent to Ryan Maguires MP3 compression work.

Or maybe Supraconductivity.

I can struggle with this for… for at least two more days. In any case I want the iRD to have a soundtrack. Actually, it would like there to be a spatial soundtrack; the ghost soundtrack in the room and the original available only on a wifi access point.

DR: I’m really excited by that idea of ghostly presence and absence, you know. In terms of spatiality, scan lines, euclidean space…

RM: It’s a whole bundle of things! [laughs] “Come on scan lines, come to the institutions, swim with the ghosts!”

DR: It makes me think of cheesy things you get in a children’s museum. Those illusion rooms, that look normal through a little window, but when you go into them they are slanted in a certain way, so that a child can look bigger than an adult through the window frame. You know what I mean? They play with perspective in a really simple way, it’s all about the framing mechanism, the way the audience’s view has been controlled, regulated and perverted.

RM: I was almost at a point where I was calling people in New York and asked, “Can you produce a huge stained glass window, in 2 weeks?” I think it would be beautiful if the Institute had its own window.

I would take a photo of what you could see out of the real window, and then make the resolution of that photo really crappy, and create a real stained glass window, and install that in the gallery at its original place. If I have time one day I would love to do that, working with real craftspeople on that. I think that in the future the iRD might have a window through which we interface the outside.

Every group of people that share the same ideas and perspectives on obfuscation need to have a secret handshake. So that is what I am actually working on right now. Ha, You didn’t see that coming? [Laughs]

DR: [Laughs] No… that’s a different angle.

RM: I want people to have a patch! A secret patch. You remember Trevor Paglen’s book on the symbology of military patches?

Paglen, Trevor. I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me:

DR: Oh yeah. Where he tries to decode the military patches? Yes, I love that.

RM: Yeah, I don’t think the world will ever have enough patches. They are such an icon for secret handshakes.

I have been playing around with this DCT image. I want to use it as a key to the institutions, which basically are a manifest to the reasonings behind this whole exhibition, but then encrypted in a macroblock font (I embedded an image of Institution 1 earlier). There was one of Paglen’s patches that really stood out for me; the black on black one. The iRD patch should be inspired by that.

Hito Steyerl - how not to be seen

DR: Hito Steyerl’s work How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, centres on the grid used by the military to calibrate their satellites from space. The DCT structure looks a lot like that, but I know the DCT is not about calibration. It contains all the shapes necessary to compose any image?

RM: If you look up close at a badly compressed JPEG, you will notice the image consist of macroblocks. A macroblock is a block organizations, usually consisting of 8×8 pixels, that posses color (chrominance) and light (luminance) values embedded via DCT (discrete cosine transform).

Discrete Cosine Transformaztion used by JPEG CompressionsBasically all JPEGs you have ever seen are build out of this finite set of 64 macroblocks. Considering that JPEGs make up the vast majority of images we encounter on a daily basis, I think it is pretty amazing how simple this part of the JPEG compression really is.

But the patch should of course not just be square. Do you know the TV series Battlestar Galactica, where they have the corners cut off all their books? All the paper in that world follows this weird, octagonal shape? Or Borges Library and its crimson hexagon, that holds all knowledge. I love those randomly cryptic geometric forms…

DR: It reminds me of a 1987 anime film, Wings of Honneamise, that had a really wonderfully designed world. Everything is different, from paper sizes and shapes, through to their cutlery. Really detailed design from the ground up, all the standards and traditions.

RM: Like this Minecraft book too. The Blockpedia.

The Blockopedia

DR: Oh that’s great. I love the Minecraft style

and the mythos that has arisen around it.

RM: So Minecraft and Borges follow a 6 corner resolution, and Battlestar paper has 8 corners… Discrepancy! I want to reference them all!

DR: So these will go into the badges?

RM: I want to have a black on black embroidered patch with corners. Don’t you think this would be so pretty? This black on black. I want to drop a reference to 1984, too, Orwell or Apple, the decoder can decide. These kind of secret, underground references, I like those.

DR: A crypto exhibition.

RM: It’s so hot right now (and with hot I do not mean cool). Since the 90s musicians encrypt or transcode things in their sounds, from Aphex Twin, to Goodiepal and now TCF, who allegedly encrypted an image from the police riots in Athens into one of his songs. However, he is a young Scandinavian musician so that makes me wonder if the crypto design in this case is confusingly non-political. Either way, I want to rebel against this apparent new found hotness of crypto-everything, which is why I made Tacit:Blue.

Tacit:Blue uses a very basic form of encryption. Its archaic, dumb and decommissioned. Every flash shows a next line of my ‘secret message’ encrypted in masonic pigpen. When it flickers it gives a little piece of the message which really is just me ranting about secrecy. So if someone is interested in my opinion, they can decode that.

Casper Electronics, Nova Drone

Actually, the technology behind the video is much more interesting. Do you know The Nova Drone? Its a small AV synthesizer designed by Casper Electronics. The the flickr frequency of this military RGB LED on the top of the board can be altered by turning the RGB oscillators. When I come close to the LED with the lens of my iphone, the frequencies of the LED and the iphone camera do not sync up. What happens is a rolling shutter effect. The camera has to interpret the input and something is gone, lost in translation. In fact, a Resolutional Dispute takes place right there.

DR: So the dispute happens because framerate of the camera conflicts with the flicker of the LED?

RM: And the sound is the actual sound of the electronics. In Tacit:Blue I do not use the NovaDrone in a ‘clean’ way, I am actually misusing it (if there is such a thing when it comes to a device of dispute). Some of the sounds and disruptions of flow are created in this patch bay, which is where you can patch the LFOs, etc. Anyway, when you disconnect the patch it flickers, but I never take it out fully so it creates this classic, noisy electric effect.

What do you think about the text? Do you think this works? I like this masonic pigpen, its a very simple, nostalgic old quiff.

DR: It reminds me of the title sequence for Alien. Dave Addey did a close visual, sci-fi etymological, analysis of the typography in Alien. It went viral online recently. Did you see that?

The typography in Alien

RM: No!

DR: It is fantastic. Everything from the title sequence to the buttons on the control panel in the background. Full of amazing insights.

Tacit Blue in flight' by DoD photo

RM: Wow, inspiring!

So with any cypher you also need a key, which is why I named the video Tacit:Blue, a reference to the old Northrop Tacit Blue stealth surveillance aircraft. The aircraft was used to develop techniques against passive radar detection, but has been decommissioned now, just like the masonic pigpen encryption.

DR: This reminds me of Eyal Weizman. He has written a lot on the Israeli / Palestinian conflict as a spatial phenomena. So we don’t think about territory merely as a series of lines drawn on a globe anymore, but as a stack, including everything from airspace, all the way down beneath the ground, where waste, gas and water are distributed. The mode by which water is delivered underground often cuts across conflicted territories on the surface. A stacked vision of territory brings into question the very notion of a ‘conflict’ and a ‘resolution’.

I recently saw him give a lecture on the Forensic Architecture project, which engages in disputes metered against US Military activities. Military drones are now so advanced that they can target a missile through the roof of a house, and have it plunge several floors before it explodes. It means that individual people can be targeted on a particular floor. The drone strike leaves a mark in the roof which is – and this is Weizman’s terminology – ‘beneath the threshold of detectability’. And that threshold also happens to be the size of a human body: about 1 metre square. Military satellites have a pixel size that effectively translates to 1 metre square at ground level. So to be invisible, or technically undetectable, a strike needs only to fall within a single pixel of a satellite imaging system. These drone strikes are designed to work beneath that threshold.

'beneath the threshold of detectability'In terms of what you are talking about in Trevor Paglen’s work, and the Northrop Tacit Blue, those technologies were designed to exist beneath, or parallel to, optic thresholds, but now those thresholds are not optic as much as they are about digital standards and resolution densities. So that shares the same space as the codecs and file formats you are interested in. Your patch seems to bring that together, the analogue pixel calibration that Steyerl refers to is also part of that history. So I wonder whether there are images that cannot possibly be resolved out of DCT blocks. You know what I mean? I think your work asks that question. What images, shapes, and objects exist that are not possible to construct out of this grid? What realities are outside of the threshold of these blocks to resolve? It may even be the case that we are not capable of imagining such things, because of course these blocks have been formed in conjunction with the human visual system. The image is always already a compromise between the human perceptual limit and a separately defined technical limit.

RM: Yes, well I can imagine vector graphics, or mesh based graphics where the lines are not just a connection between two points, but also a value could be what you are after. But I am not sure.

At some point I thought that people entering the iRD could pay a couple of dollars for one of these patches, but if they don’t put the money down, then they would be obliged to go into the exhibition wearing earplugs.

DR: [Laughs] So they’d be allowed in, but they’d have one of their senses dampened?

RM: Yes, wearing earmuffs, or weird glasses or something like that. [Laughs]

DR: Glasses with really fine scan lines on them that conflict with TV images or whatever.

RM: [Laughs] And I was thinking, well, there should be a divide between people. To realise that what you see is just one threshold that has been lifted to only a few. There are always thresholds, you know.

DR: Ways to invite the audience into the spaces and thresholds that are beneath the zones of resolutional detectability?

RM: Or maybe just to show the mechanics behind objects and thresholds.

DR: Absolutely. So to go back to your Tacit:Blue video, in regards the font, I like the aesthetic, but I wonder whether you could play with that zone of detectability a little more.

You could have the video display at a frequency that is hard for people to concentrate on, for instance, and then put the cryptographic message at a different frequency. Having zones that do not match up, so that different elements of the work cut through different disputed spaces. Much harder to detect. And more subliminal, because video adheres to other sets of standards and processes beyond scan lines, the conflict between those standards opens up another space of possibilities.

Takesi Murata, Untitled (Pink Dot) 2007It makes me think about Takeshi Murata’s Untitled (Pink Dot). I love that work because it uses datamoshing to question more about video codecs than just I and P frames. That’s what sets this work apart, for me, from other datamoshed works. He also plays with layers, and post production in the way the pink dot is realised. As it unfolds you see the pink dot as a layer behind the Rambo footage, and then it gets datamoshed into the footage, and then it is a layer in front of it, and then the datamosh tears into it and the dot become part of the Rambo miasma, and then the dot comes back as a surface again. So all the time he is playing with the layering of the piece, and the framing is not just about one moment to the next, but it also it exposes something about Murata’s super slick production process. He must have datamoshed parts of the video, and then post-produced the dot onto the surface of that, and then exported that and datamoshed that, and then fed it back into the studio again to add more layers. So it is not one video being datamoshed, but a practice unfolding, and the pink dot remains a kind of standard that runs through the whole piece, resonating in the soundtrack, and pushing to all elements of the image. The work is spatialised and temporalised in a really interesting way, because of how Murata uses datamoshing and postproduction to question frames, and layers, by ‘glitching’ between those formal elements. And as a viewer of Pink Dot, your perception is founded by those slips between the spatial surface and the temporal layers.

RM: Yeah, wow. I never looked at that work in terms of layers of editing. The vectors of these blocks that smear over the video, the movement of those macroblocks, which is what this video technologically is about, is also about time and editing. So Murata effectively emulates that datamosh technique back into the editing of the work before and after the actual datamosh. That is genius!

DR: If it wasn’t for Pink Dot I probably wouldn’t sit here with you now. It’s such an important work for me and my thinking.

Working with Morehshin Allahyari on The 3D Additivist Manifesto has brought a lot of these processes into play for me. The compressed labour behind a work can often get lost, because a final digital video is just a surface, just a set of I and P frames. The way Murata uses datamoshing calls that into play. It brings back some of the temporal depth.

Additivism is also about calling those processes and conflicts to account, in the move between digital and material forms. Oil is a compressed form of time, and that time and matter is extruded into plastic, and that plastic has other modes of labour compressed into it, and the layers of time and space are built on top of one another constantly – like the layers of a 3D print. When we rendered our Manifesto video we did it on computers plugged into aging electricity infrastructures that run on burnt coal and oil. Burning off one form of physical compressed time to compress another set of times and labours into a ‘digital work’.

RM: But you can feel that there is more to that video than its surface!

If I remember correctly you and Morehshin wrote an open invitation to digital artists to send in their left over 3D objects. So every object in that dark gooey ocean in The 3D Additivist Manifesto actually represents a piece of artistic digital garbage. It’s like a digital emulation of the North Pacific Gyre, which you also talked about in your lecture at Goldsmiths, but then solely consisting of Ready-Made art trash.

The actual scale and form of the Gyre is hard to catch, it seems to be unimaginable even to the people devoting their research to it; it’s beyond resolution. Which is why it is still such an under acknowledged topic. We don’t really want to know what the Gyre looks or feels like; it’s just like the clutter inside my desktop folder inside my desktop folder, inside the desktop folder. It represents an amalgamation of histories that moved further away from us over time and we don’t necessarily like to revisit, or realise that we are responsible for. I think The 3D Additivist Manifesto captures that resemblance between the way we handle our digital detritus and our physical garbage in a wonderfully grimm manner.

DR: I’m glad you sense the grimness of that image. And yes, as well as sourcing objects from friends and collaborators we also scraped a lot from online 3D object repositories. So the gyre is full of Ready-Mades divorced from their conditions of creation, use, or meaning. Like any discarded plastic bottle floating out in the middle of the pacific ocean.

Eventually Additivist technologies could interface all aspects of material reality, from nanoparticles, to proprietary components, all the way through to DNA, bespoke drugs, and forms of life somewhere between the biological and the synthetic. We hope that our call to submit to The 3D Additivist Cookbook will provoke what you term ‘disputes’. Objects, software, texts and blueprints that gesture to the possibility of new political and ontological realities. It sounds far-fetched, but we need that kind of thinking.

Alternate possibilities often get lost in a particular moment of resolution. A single moment of reception. But your exhibition points to the things beyond our recognition. Or perhaps more importantly, it points to the things we have refused to recognise. So, from inside the iRD technical ‘literacy’ might be considered as a limit, not a strength.

RM: Often the densities of the works we create, in terms of concept, but also collage, technology and source materials move quite far away or even beyond a fold. I suppose that’s why we make our work pretty. To draw in the people that are not technically literate or have no back knowledge. And then perhaps later they wonder about the technical aspects and the meaning behind the composition of the work and want to learn more. To me, the process of creating, but also seeing an interesting digital art work often feels like swimming inside an abyss of increments.

DR: What is that?

RM: I made that up. An abyss is something that goes on and on and on. Modern lines used to go on, postmodern lines are broken up as they go on. Thats how I feel we work on our computers, its a metaphor for scanlines.

non-euclidean spaceDR: In euclidean space two parallel lines will go on forever and not meet. But on the surface of a globe, and other, non-euclidean spaces, those lines can be made to converge or diverge. *

RM: I have been trying to read up on my euclidean geometry.

DR: And I am thinking now about Flatland again, A Romance in Many Dimensions.

RM: Yeah, it’s funny that in the end, it is all about Flatland. That’s where this all started, so thats where it has to end; Flatland seems like an eternal ouroboros inside of digital art.

DR: It makes me think too about holographic theory. You can encode on a 2D surface the information necessary to construct a 3D image. And there are theories that suggest that a black hole has holographic properties. The event horizon of a black hole can be thought of as a flat surface, and contains all the information necessary to construct the black hole. And because a black hole is a singularity, and the universe can be considered as a singularity too – in time and space – some theories suggest that the universe is a hologram encoded on its outer surface. So the future state of the universe encodes all the prior states. Or something like that.

RM: I once went to a lecture by Raphael Bousso, a professor at Department of Physics, UC Berkeley. He was talking about black holes, it was super intense. I was sitting on the end of my seat and nearly felt like I was riding a dark star right towards my own event horizon.

DR: [laughs] Absolutely. I suppose I came to understand art and theory through things I knew before, which is pop science and science fiction. I tend to read everything through those things. Those are my starting points. But yes, holograms are super interesting.

RM: I want to be careful not to go into the wunderkammer, because if there are too many things, then each one of them turns into a fetish object; a gimmick.

Holographic StorageDR: There was a lot of talk a few years ago about holographic storage, because basically all our storage – CDs, DVDs, hard drive platters, SSD drives – are 2D. All the information spinning on your screen right now, all those rich polygons or whatever, it all begins from data stored on a two dimensional surface. But you could have a holographic storage medium with three dimensions. They have built these things in the laboratory. There goes my pop science knowledge again.

RM: When I was at Transmediale last year, the Internet Yami-ichi (Internet Black Market) was on. There I sold some custom videos for self cracked LCD screens.

DR: Broken on purpose?

RM: Yes, and you’d be allowed to touch it so the screen would go multidimensional. Liquid crystals are such a beautiful technology.

DR: Yes. And they are a 3D image medium. But they don’t get used much anymore, right? LEDS are the main image format.

LCDRM: People miss LCDS! I saw a beautiful recorded talk from the Torque eventEsther Leslie talking about Walter Benjamin who writes about snow flakes resembling white noise. Liquid crystals and flatness and flatland.

I want to thank you Dan, just to talk through this stuff has been really helpful. You have no idea. Thank you so much!

DR: Putting ideas in words is always helpful.

RM: I never do that, in preparation, to talk about things I am still working on, semi-completed. It’s scary to open up the book of possibilities. When you say things out loud you somehow commit to them. Like, Trevor Paglen, Jon Satrom are huge inspirations, I would like to make work inspired by them, that is a scary thing to say out loud.

DR: That’s good. We don’t work in a vacuum. Trevor Paglen’s stuff is often about photography as a mode of non-resolved vision. I think that does fit with your work here, but you have the understanding and wherewithal to transform these concerns into work about the digital media. Maybe you need to build a tiny model of the gallery and create it all in miniature.

RM: That’s what Alma Alloro said!

DR: I think it would be really helpful. You don’t have to do it in meatspace. You could render a version of the gallery space with software.

RM: Haha great idea, but that would take too much time. iRD needs to open to the public in 3 weeks!

* DR originally stated here that a globe was a euclidean space. This was corrected, with thanks to Matthew Austin.

Syndrome 3.0: The Post-Human Gospel

To many, technology and spirituality would seem antithetical. Contemporary technology is intertwined with modern science, whereas, spirituality is equally enmeshed within both religion and faith. The Post-Human Gospel self-consciously accepts this awkwardness, and manoeuvres these two uneasy bedfellows together. Offering up a night of performances, by artists whose entangled relation to technology seeks to posit new forms of identity and spirituality.

This is the latest in a series of events, collectively entitled Syndrome, seeking to explore the relationship between technology and affect in performance. The Post-Human Gospel marks the start of the third phase of this activity, collaboratively programmed by Mercy and The Hive Collective. If 3.0 is heading into the realm of spirituality, then earlier phases have played with both language and control – whether the constraints enforced on the body in virtual space, role-playing authority within the State Free State of a.P.A.t.T island, or a ‘room as instrument’ where you can physically manipulate sound and light. Across these events, those involved ask how we might interact or play with this technology, and in turn, how this experience might then act upon on us – our feelings and emotions?

The venue at 24 Kitchen Street has played host to several past Syndrome events, and as such feels like a hub for this activity as it meanders across the city. Arriving early there is a relaxed feeling to the space: people stand around chatting, whilst others tinker with equipment and final set-up, all bathed within the blue glow of the expectant projection screens. There is a familiarity to the space on a number of levels – not only physically, with decaying white walls and exposed structure typical of the post-industrial use of such buildings, but also in terms of its unclear typology, part-bar, part-residency-space, part-performance-venue, part-something-else-entirely. An earlier performer, Mathew Dryhurst, described a type of ‘third space music’ that requires a new type of venue. Something that Syndrome is clearly looking to create in Liverpool.

The evening’s Gospel was tripartite, starting with SHRINE by Outfit, followed by a first-time collaboration between Lawrence Lek and Siôn Parkinson, and then brought to a close with a live AV set by TCF. All performed from a improvised V-shaped altar – constructed from scaffold, screens, speakers and an array of other equipment – and oriented to the rows of the largely seated congregation.

Outfit: SHRINE, Photo: Oliver MatichOutfit: SHRINE, Photo: Oliver Matich

A live performance-cum-guided-meditation, SHRINE was made in collaboration with the band Outfit and performed by lead guitarist Nick Hunt. Against the backdrop of a consistent electronic hum, the light of multiple projections alternates to produce a strobe-like effect. After the instruction to close our eyes, a distant reverberant monologue begins: “What is the meaning of asteroid? What is the meaning of baptism?” The warm flicker on the interior of the eyelid creates a soft trance-like state and the potential hypnotic suggestion washes over us. The minimal rhythmic repetition of this basic structure continues, but strays further and further from these initial references. What is the meaning of blurred lines? … Chandelier? … D-Day? … FIFA? Alliteration and rhyming abound. Selfie. Sophie. Stonehenge. Peter Pan. Quran. Ramadan. There is an emptying out of meaning, and a breakdown of language. KKK … K. The voice has a haunted quality, that of an entity in a state beyond being human. Perhaps it is the voice of the network, which the monologue refers to as ‘watching over us’, of ‘being busy’. It promises a revelation that is coming, that is now, another world, one that we don’t reach. Ultimately it leaves us cleansed, or rinsed out. Then I learn that the work was written with the assistance of Google Instant predictions, hence the alphabetical concatenation of words. Not so far from the network watching over us after all.

Lawrence Lek and Siôn Parkinson, Photo: Oliver MatichLawrence Lek and Siôn Parkinson, Photo: Oliver Matich

Lawrence Lek and Siôn Parkinson’s performance is the result of a short residency leading-up to the event, and therefore has a more involved relation to Syndrome. This residency structure is a recurring feature of the programme, with past residents including K回iro (Holly Herndon and Mathew Dryhurst), and before that Jamie Gledhill and Stefan Kassozoglou. Whereas these past examples involved existing partnerships, Lek and Parkinson’s collaboration was the first time that Syndrome brought together two artists, placing Parkinson’s vocal performance inside the digital landscape created by Lek.

Syndrome 2.22: More Than Idle Chatter reduxe by K回IRO – residency Q&A.

A simulation of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral frames the performance, and provides an imagined perspective on this familiar architecture. Starting from a removed position – with the spectral cathedral in the distance – we roam through a wood, trees blowing in the wind. This landscape glitches in a way familiar to the experience of online or virtual worlds, and is accompanied by a soundscape produced by Lek on guitar and electronics. Gradually approaching our destination, bells peal, and further sounds produced begin to resemble those of an organ, groaning and droning as we enter its interior. Parkinson’s body is silhouetted against the projected architecture, his head bathed in red light and his voice rising as Lek’s audio recedes into the background. An otherworldly sermon tells of teeth wrenched out from a mouth to form the keyboard console of the church organ. Moving from sung to spoken word, to deep guttural noises. Rumbling bass emanating from the body, amplified, and shaking the room. Lek’s guitar returns, and there is the liquid crackle of noise as water rolls down the walls, and fire inhabits the projected interior. Our point-of-view rises high above the cathedral, and we see it situated in a landscape abundant with lakes and islands, like some stretched-out fantasy where this iconic building is removed from its physical context – as though transplanted from Liverpool to another world.

These mystical images continue through to the final performance by Lars The Contemporary Future Holdus (TCF). Projecting an increasingly entangled use of technology, he plays with encryption, code and algorithms to construct a subdued visual and sonic space. Twisted and distorted beeps shudder as fragments of sound screech and scrape along the digital surface, and liquid forms slip across the projected image. This precise construction appears to breathe, the sonic utterances repeatedly sucked back inside themselves as the molten amorphous form visually expands and contracts like something from within the bodily interior. There are moments where a mouth/voice emerges, a digital blob talking to us in a language that we cannot comprehend. Behind this audio-visual surface there is something else going on, something that Lars Holdus is engrossed within as he operates the TCF system – tinkering with the algorithm to progress through a series of potential compositions. Yet despite this, I feel largely disconnected – lacking in empathy – as though missing something in what is going on. There is an evident penchant for the opaque, that creates a distance between TCF and the audience, potentially even alienates. This is acknowledged by the artist, who states: “even the presentation is an encryption in itself. And therefore the people that won’t be triggered like that won’t access it.”1 I clearly fail to trigger, and my access is denied.

TCF, Photo: Oliver MatichTCF, Photo: Oliver Matich

Syndrome is creating a space for artists, musicians and coders to experiment with work that merges electronic music and spoken word performance. The affordance offered by the flexibility of the venue has allowed an approach that would not have been possible within a space in daily use. These latest performative responses make clear that is it not about offering concrete proposals about what is going to happen, before they have time to come into being. Rather, what we witness is artists playing with the resources available, and figuring out what these things might do to us. There is a genuine openness and a potential intimacy to this approach, as well as the acceptance that the results will not always connect or affect audiences in the ways that they might be hope.

Different types of voice seem central to the three works presented within The Post-Human Gospel, affecting the human vocal output as well as trying to give voice to instruments, electronics and digital space. There is something in this that Holly Herndon has described as a “fleshy approach to machinery”, where these digital tools can take on a post-human quality, one that can become or embody different identities. This looks set to continue with the forthcoming event Brain/Music Experiments where artist Dave Lynch, neuroscientist Christophe de Bezenac and deaf classical musicians Ruth Montgomery and Danny Lane explore the ways a brain wave scanner can contribute to live music and visual performance.

The intention for Syndrome is to learn from all the visiting artists and the performances they create in this exploratory year. Looking for moments when performances create affective interfaces to communicate with people. Where they speculate on, or re-conceive, the relationship between human and technology. If they go on to develop a new live experience with the artistic community that surrounds Syndrome – as they suggest they will – I look forward to experiencing how the cumulative knowledge built up through these earlier events is harnessed to final affect.

The Performance of Infrastructure: Review of Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body As Performance by Nathaniel Stern

Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body As Performance by Nathaniel Stern. ISBN 978-1-78024-009-1 (printed publication), Gylphi Limited, Canterbury, UK, 2013. 291 pp., 41 Colour Stills. 

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to sit in on a talk given by Simon Penny on May 6th 2014 at the University of Exeter. Penny, not unlike Nathaniel Stern, is best known for his praxis, writing and teaching on interactive (and robotic) installations focusing on issues of embodiment, relationality and materiality. So as unorthodox as its inclusion is to start off a review, Penny’s reflections are pertinent here (in this case, Penny’s famous installations Fugitive (1997) and Traces (1999) [1].

The purpose of Fugitive and Traces (if you can say they had one) sought to ‘embody’ virtual reality through multi-camera infra-red sensors, visual models and real-time movements. At that time, Penny’s unique theoretical take was to distance human-computer interaction away from “a system of abstracted and conventionalised signals” to where the user would “communicate kinesthetically”: instead of investigating the non-human or “inhuman” formal qualities of its medium, or some vague VR future that leaves the body behind, the system itself would “come closer to the native sensibilities of the human.” (Penny) [2]

In his Exeter talk, Penny momentarily reflected on a weird and altogether disturbing seventeen year feedback loop. The loop in question relates to how, in 2014, Penny’s early avant-garde ideas and theoretical ambitions have largely been desecrated by their replication in big business. With regard to Traces, Penny cited Microsoft’s Kinect as being the most salient example of this desecration: Kinect’s technology – marketed for the Xbox console brand – carries within its insidious techniques the ability to also “communicate kine[c]thetically”, but do so within pre-packaged, patented, IP-driven, focus-grouped-out-of-existence, commercial vacuities of gamer experience.

As an early practitioner and developer of these technologies, Penny was somewhat visibly infuriated with this, and understandably so. For him, it unintentionally reduced his aesthetic experimentation, philosophical insight, technological futurity and theoretical complexity into consumer speculation for the technology market, commandeering the tech but without the value. It transposed the artistic technological avant-garde necessity of Traces into a flaccid ‘tech-demo’ demonstration of novelty limb flailing and high-end visuals devoid of anything. It was, Penny lamented, “a very weird situation” to be in. Part of that weirdness has to do with the fact that Penny hadn’t done anything especially wrong, because there wasn’t any tangible aesthetic qualities that separated his pioneering work from Microsoft’s effort. Neither had Penny’s work brought financial success with its value intact (because its value wasn’t patentable). Instead technological development had overwritten the aesthetic value of Traces, trading technological obsolescence with aesthetic obsolescence.

Penny’s retroactive predicament is not unique in the history of digital art: for all the visionary seeds of potential in Roy Ascott’s legendary networking project, Terminal Art (1980) we now recognise how those salient characteristics have somehow ended up as Skype or Google Hangouts. Still in the 80s, one might evoke Eduardo Kac’s early videotext works (1985-1986) where visual animated poems were broadcast on the online service exchange platform Minitel (“Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique” or “Interactive medium by digitalizing telephone information” in its French iteration): a proprietary precursor to the World Wide Web [3]. The retroactive weirdness accompanying these developments is something I’ll come back to: suffice to say that what counts is the direction (and sometimes hostile return) of infrastructure, not just as the background collection of assemblages artists rely on to experiment with at any historical moment, but the shifting ecological foundations to which technology emerges, affords, and now overwrites such practices. No-one likes to play devil’s advocate and yet one must ask the question specific to Stern’s text: what, or maybe where, is the tangible point at which ‘art’ becomes historically valued in these works, if that latent aesthetic potential becomes just another market for a series of Silicon Valley, or startup conglomerates?


Nathaniel Stern’s Interactive Art and Embodiment establishes two first events: not only Stern’s debut publication but also the first of a new series from Gylphi entitled “Arts Future Book” edited by Charlotte Frost, which began in 2013. All quotations are from this text unless otherwise stated.

Stern’s vision in brief: in order to rescue what is philosophically significant about interactive art, he justifies its worth through the primary acknowledgement of embodiment, relational situation, performance and sensation. In return, the usual dominant definitions of interactive art which focus on technological objects, or immaterial cultural representations thereof are secondary to the materiality of bodily movement. Comprehending digital interactive art purely as ‘art + technology’ is a secondary move and a “flawed priority” (6), which is instead underscored by a much deeper engagement, or framing, for how one becomes embodied in the work, as work. “I pose that we forget technology and remember the body” (6) Stern retorts, which is a “situational framework for the experience and practice of being and becoming.” (7). The concepts that are needed to disclose these insights are also identified as emergent.

“Sensible concepts are not only emerging, but emerging emergences: continuously constructed and constituted, re-constructed and re-constituted, through relationships with each other, the body, materiality, and more.” (205)

Interactive Art and Embodiment then, is the critical framework that engages, enriches and captivates the viewer with Stern’s vision, delineating the importance of digital interactive art together with its constitutive philosophy.

One might summarise Stern’s effort with his repeated demand to reclaim the definition of “interactive”. The term itself was a blatantly over-used badge designed to vaguely discern what made ‘new media’ that much newer, or freer than previous modes of consumption. This was quickly hunted out of discursive chatter when everyone realised the novel qualities it offered meant very little and were politically moribund. For Stern however, interactivity is central to the entire position put forward, but only insofar as it engages how a body acts within such a work. This reinvigorated definition of “interactive” reinforces deeper, differing qualities of sensual embodiment that take place in one’s relational engagement. This is to say, how one literally “inter-acts” through moving-feeling-thinking as a material bodily process, and not a technological informational entity which defines, determines or formalises its actions. A digital work might only be insipidly interactive, offering narrow computational potentials, but this importance is found wanting so long as the technology is foregrounded over ones experience of it. Instead ones relationship with technological construction should melt away through the implicit duration of a body that literally “inter-acts” with it. In Stern’s words:

“…most visually-, technically-, and linguistically-based writing on interactive art explains that a given piece is interactive, and how it is interactive, but not how we inter-act” (91)

Chapter 1 details how aesthetic ‘vision’ is understood through this framework, heavily criticising the pervasive disembodiment Stern laments in technical discussions of digital art and the VR playgrounds from the yesteryear of the 90s. Digital Interactive Art has continually suppressed a latent embodied performance that widens the disembodied aesthetic experience towards – following Ridgway and Thrift – a “non-representational experience.” Such experiences take the body as an open corporal process within a situation, which includes, whilst also encompassing, the corporal materiality of non-human computational processes. This is, clearly, designed to oppose any discourse that treats computation and digital culture as some sort of liberating, inane, immaterial phenomenon: to which Stern is absolutely right. Moreover, all of these material processes move in motion with embodied possibilities, to “create spaces in which we experience and practice this body, its agency, and how they might become.” (40) To add some political heft, Stern contrasts how the abuse of interactivity is often peddled towards consumerist choice, determining possibilities, put against artistic navigation that relinquishes control, allowing limitless possibilities. Quoting Erin Manning, Stern values interactive art’s success when it doesn’t just move in relation to human experience, but when humans move *the* relation in experience (Manning, 2009: 64; Stern, 46).

Stern’s second chapter moves straight into a philosophical discussion denoting what he means by an anti-Cartesian, non-representational, or implicit body. Heavily contexualised by a host of process, emergent materialist thinkers (Massumi, Hayles, Barad), Stern concentrates on the trait of performance as the site of body which encapsulates its relationally, emergence and potential. The body is not merely formed in stasis, (what Stern dubs “pre-formed” (62) but is regularly and always gushingly “per-formed” (61) in its movement. Following Kelli Fuery, the kind of interactivity Stern wants to foreground is always there, not a stop-start prop literate to computer interaction, but an effervescent ensemble of “becoming interactive” (Fuery, 2009: 44; Stern, 65). Interactive art is not born from an effect bestowed by a particular medium of art making, but of “making literal the kinds of assemblages we are always a part of.” (65)

David Rokeby - Very Nervous System 1986 - 2004

Chapter three sets out Stern’s account for the implicit body framework: detailing out four areas: “artistic inquiry and process; artwork description; inter-activity and relationally.” (91) Chapters four, five and six flesh out this framework with actual practices. Four considers close readings of the aforementioned work of Penny together with Camille Utterback merging the insights gained from the previous chapters. What both artists encapsulate for Stern is that their interventions focus on the embodied activities of material signification: or “the activities of writing with the body” (114) Utterback’s 1999 installation “Textrain” is exemplary to Stern’s argument: notably the act of collecting falling text characters on a screen merges dynamic body movements with poetic disclosure. The productions of these images are always emergent and inscribed within our embodied practices and becomings: that we think with our environment. Five re-contextualises this with insights into works by Scott Scribbes and Mathieu Briand’s interventions in societal norms and environments. Six takes on the role of the body as a dynamic, topological space: most notably as practiced in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Chapter seven I’ll discuss near the conclusion: the last chapter shortly.

Firstly, the good stuff. Interactive Art and Embodiment is probably one of the most sincerest reads I’ve encountered in the field for some time. Partly this is because the book cultivates Stern’s sincerity for his own artistic practice, together with his own philosophical accounts that supplement that vision. His deep understanding of process philosophy is clearly matched by his enthusiastic reassessment of what interactive art purports to achieve and how other artists might have achieved it too. And it’s hard to disagree with Stern’s own position when he cites examples (of his work and others) that clearly delegate the philosophical insights to which he is committed. One highlight is Stern’s take on Scribbes’ Boundary Foundations (1998) and the Screen Series (2002-03) which intervenes and questions the physical and metaphorical boundaries surrounding ourselves and others, by performing its questioning as work. This is a refreshingly earnest text, proving that theory works best not when praxis matches the esoteric fashions of philosophical thinking, but when art provides its own stakes and its own types of thinking-experience which theory sets out to faithfully account and describe. Stern’s theoretical legitimacy is never earned from just digesting, synthesising and applying copious amounts of philosophy, but from the centrality of describing in detail what he thinks the bodily outcomes of interactive art are and what such accounts have to say: even if they significantly question existing philosophical accounts.

Stern leaves the most earnest part of his book towards the end in his final semi-auto-biographical companion chapter called “In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)”. This is a snippet of a much larger story, available online and subject to collaboration [4]. Here, Stern recounts or modifies the anxiety inducing experience of being a PhD student and artist, rubbing up alongside the trials of academic rigour, dissertation writing and expected standards. Quite simply, Stern is applying his insights of performative processual experience into the everyday, ordinary experiences faced by most PhD students in this field, and using it to justify a certain writing style and a sense of practice. It’s an enjoyable affair – in large part because it outclasses the dry scholarly tone usually associated with writing ‘academically’, elevating imaginative, illuminating redescriptions for how the experiences of interactive art broadly hang together rather than relying on relentless cynical critique. And most of that is down to Stern’s strong literary metaphorical technique for grounding his vision, perhaps even more effectively than the previous chapters.

Yet earnest experiences aside, there are two problems with Stern’s vision which, in my eyes, leave it flawed. That isn’t a bad thing: all visions are flawed of course. That’s why the similarities between art and philosophy feed our heuristic, academic compulsion to come up with them and debate: well, that and sometimes the most flawed can end up being the most influential. Such flaws only arise in relation to what Stern thinks is valuable in interactive art, and to the extent that the intervention posed may require readdressing. The flaws in question are composed from two different angles, but stem from one objection. The first is philosophical, or at least a problem pre-packaged with relying almost entirely on relational ideas of embodied emergence. The second is more tied to infrastructure and technical expropriation as outlined in Penny’s predicament given from the outset.

In his introduction, Stern makes clear that this is an “art philosophical book” (4), not a philosophy of art as such: only one that “understands art and philosophy as potential practices of one another” (4). Following Brian Massumi, philosophy “tells us the stakes”, whilst “art brings those states to the table” (5), such that the type of art he values and constructs, (digital interactive art) is precisely that which melts away in its interactive encounter when constructed as work. Later on we discover that interactive art “interrupts relationality” (66), making present an “intervention that brings a situated moving-thinking-feeling to a higher power.” (66) Further on, interactive art does something else, when it “intensifies features of […] the ongoing transformation of the ‘living’ body”, and “gifts us with a state to practice being and becoming.” (73) Reflecting on the infamous Bourriaud/Bishop relational aesthetic ruckus a decade ago, Stern outlines how they focus on the explicit body (82) (how we understand ourselves or challenge explicit social/economic positions in the world), whereas artworks which privilege the implicit body have us “encounter how we move, transform, and are (continuous)” (82) in the world. The former takes on the materiality of social relations, the latter (endorsed by Stern) takes on the whole materiality of “embodied relations” (83). And again to reiterate, art operates as “the practice of contemporary philosophies, where we investigate, and further research on, embodiment and relationally together.” (83).

Now, one should admire how Stern blends philosophy and art praxis together precisely by not shoehorning authoritative philosophical accounts into art praxis where they aren’t needed. This works, precisely as the ontology expressed here actively resists such authoritative accounts as well as being cemented with the sort of sincerity with which Stern has such a keen literary grasp. More importantly, Stern cites works which seem to fit the stakes of his ontological conviction perfectly.

However the reliance of process-based philosophy dampens exactly how these works intervene to bring about the values he so desires. The simplest objection comes from asking how Stern might value anything at all, if our entire relational embodiment with the world is constantly in process – or that “[b]odies and matter are change” (220) – and must be always affirmed as such: why should every process and every bodily interaction be affirmed? Moreover why is it art’s place to give primacy to the ontological events of bodily material change?

This is one of the key infrastructural problems that surface, once a theory of art totally subscribes to a process-based ontology, let alone one focusing on embodiment: why should an artist like Stern feel compelled to present an intervention in the first place? If the dominant ontological movement of interactions is a becoming-event, by what standard or eruption should interactive art be said to work on? If, as Stern believes, “the interactive process in interactive work is the ‘work’” (159), it becomes unclear what value interactive artworks are purported to convey, if that process is all there is. To say that embodied processual events make the work “work”, because they underscore our situational intelligibility (or make it effective – so to speak) speaks nothing of what differential criteria should apply to make that aesthetic intervention intelligible. To hazard a guess, the problem is one of articulating how convention exists in a process ontology: because if everything is always emerging as an interactive event of change, the act of rupturing or intervening in convention becomes a real problem. The criteria for valuing these important works is only affirmed it seems, because every process is already affirmed: and if that’s the case you don’t need artists to make an intervention – there is no intervention required, other than the events that already exist, as change in themselves. To put it another way: why should (and how can) a work effectively gift us heightened states of being and becoming, if our entire situational relationship with the world is already situationally related in being and becoming?

I am reminded of Adrian Johnston’s 2001 review of the newly republished English translation of Dominique Laporte’s History of Shit (first published in 1978). Whereas most Foucaultians and Althusserians were disconcertingly vague in pointing out the concrete material conditions for subjectivity and economical production, Laporte boldly contended that the genealogical hypothesis to all modern civilisations was tied to one concrete material condition: the infrastructure of bodily waste management, or, the desire to control and sublimate our need to defecate. In his usual Žižekian repartee, Johnston suggested that Laporte’s bizarre history of modernity implicitly accepted the anti-Cartesian embodiment thesis (that cognition cannot be separated from the actions of the body), but pushed its logic to the end. That for all the affirmative, encompassing, sensual, emergent, potential images embodiment philosophy prefers to agree and discuss, it completely ignores one of our central and basic bodily requirements: to excrete our bodily waste or fecal matter, and remove it from sight and smell (and we don’t need to remind the reader of art’s fascination with this area).

Whilst Johnston’s tongue was firmly planted in his cheek, he did happen to put a psychoanalytical finger on the central problem with process based embodiment. That often enough, sincere accounts of embodiment designed to affirmatively depict and encompass implicit environment material engagements leave behind an unacknowledged stain: one which says more about these accounts than their proponents actually do. And it is precisely because Stern focuses on the most aesthetically agreeable areas of bodily engagement in interactive art, that something as habitual and ritualistic as the excretion of digested matter, or the infrastructure of sewage networks exposes that image.

In terms of materiality this is doubly important. Laporte’s intervention brings into conflict two competing performative materialisms which disclose our own bodily relationships with non-human processes (in this case, computational and networked material): the first is Stern’s own account of the material body as some sort of ‘nebulous material’ which is always emergent, lived, relational and thinking with its own engagement in the world of humans and non-humans. The second is Laporte’s material body seen as ‘brutal material’ – an explicit input-output, complex, evolutionary processing machine, strictly determinate and bounded in its biological function. Despite Stern arguing earnestly for the nebulous form, it doesn’t appear to me that he can hold off the brutal form, or at least prevent the latter from antagonising the former. And often enough, this happens because Stern’s accounts of embodiment, and the philosopher’s accounts he relies on, are already meant to be nebulous in themselves.

This logic unravels by chapter seven, when Stern expands the implicit body framework to analyse other examples of new media art which aren’t preoccupied with bodily participation to work, as work. He terms this “potentialized art” (206) where “audience members do not *make* the work directly through their interactions (207) but are subject to visual performances of potential movement and relation mediated by generative computation and networks. In citing Gordan Savičić and Jessica Meuninck-Ganger – amongst others – Stern argues that these ongoing performances harness generative information participating in embodiment relations, and invite metaphorical sensory change and bodily movement (in the case of Savičić’s performances, quite literally inflicting pain and suffering onto his own body using network data and social media).

John F Simon Jr - Every Icon

However when Stern cites John F. Simon. Jr’s infamous work Every Icon (1997), (227 – 230) (a cellular automation piece which takes approximately several hundred trillion years to complete) it becomes clear to me that the aesthetically agreeable areas of embodiment start to break down. It might be that my own reading of the piece is fairly unorthodox [5] (I don’t consider the work to be primarily conceptual for a start), but Every Icon eschews what Stern writes as giving “both the corporeal and incorporeal a present and future presence as time and sign” (230) or something that generates attention to our “sensual and conceptual experience of temporality” (230).

Yet, isn’t it the case that Every Icon is probably one of the least potentialised artworks ever made? It doesn’t actually generate anything, (in the strict sense of unpredictable outcomes from simple rules) it simply enumerates configurations of pixels one by one. Neither can we be said to “feel the potency of several hundred trillion years” (230) than we feel the cold, indifferent execution of a real java applet function to which we are forever limited in experiencing directly. If anything, Every Icon is deliberately constructed to forgo a relation with us.

To conclude: this is perhaps why Penny’s predicament with the Kinect is so stark. To demand, as Stern does, that we treat digital interactive art as setting a stage for examining how we “per-form” with our bodies within media, material, conceptual frames and selves, is no longer enough of a stage to give voice to the technological ecologies we find ourselves in: nor of the art that satisfies intervening in it. Credit must be given to Stern for writing over interactive art’s emancipatory myth of disembodied immateriality, but his endorsement of embodiment only serves to realise that the problem isn’t forgetting to focus on material engagement, but forgetting the cold, hard and brutal materiality of procedural performance of infrastructure, that often moves faster than we do. When Microsoft’s Kinect co-opts all the same values of Traces, it does so not because embodiment is totally flawed, but that bodily movement has now become ecologically implicated in deceptive infrastructure.

Just as Penny’s Traces may once have evoked a renewed attention to moving-thinking-feeling, such engagements are now suitably tracked and are in service of non-transparent infrastructures of geo-social activity, which propagate themselves beyond our sensory engagement, yet paradoxically they also indirectly sustain that ordinary engagement. For example, this is now a world where Google funds a 60tbps undersea cable connecting the West Coast to Japan, in order to propagate the reach of their services. The technological engagement of our bodies cannot be restricted to how we move-think-feel, but now weaves itself within layers upon layers of platforms and pervasive surveillance structures. And I don’t disagree with Stern that the implicit body is, perhaps, deeper than the account I give here. But maybe that’s because the body is also another type of performative infrastructure, tightly bound into other formations that are just as deep, complex and engaged. We now live in a time where digital interactive art has to intervene in the performances of geo-social infrastructure: where our bodies have curiously taken on their self-directing performances, rather than our own.


[1] The latter especially is discussed in depth by Stern in pages 114 – 127.

[2] Taken from Penny’s artist statement on Traces (1999) HERE.

[3] Not that I want to digress from the review, but the fascinating history of Minitel in French digital culture is worth the reader’s attention. See Dermot McGrath’s 2001 Wired article HERE for a decent introduction.

[4] This can be viewed HERE.

[5] See Robert Jackson, “The Return of Discrete, Autonomous Artworks: Heidegger, Harman and Algorithmic Allure” In Heidegger and The Work of Art History, edited by Amanda Boetzkes and Aron Vinegar, Ashgate Press: London. pp. 33 – 61.

Google New Breed: the commodification of digital art and its young minds

Google is breeding the young minds of the next generation of artists.

Don’t take me wrong, it’s not my opinion, it’s simply what Google states in the marketing campaign (see the heading image) that is accompanying the infamous DevArt exhibition at the Barbican in London.

There has been an intense debate in the past weeks on what this powerful curatorial and marketing move by Google actually means. Will it affect or benefit the already unsteady and ephemeral world of digital art, and how? The discussion have rapidly condensed over the web in the form of newspaper articles, artists-led initiatives and discussions on the web through twitter and pastebin statements.

After following the whole issue in a quasi-silence, I felt the need to make a statement and share it with you. I won’t loose more time on a preamble and will get straight to the point.

Let’s start with a curious observation, the term that Google marketing team has chosen for their campaign is “breed”. The first meaning of breed is “to produce offspring, typically in a controlled and organized way”. Quite telling, isn’t it?

To think that largely incorporated entities, such as the Barbican and Google (Google Creative Lab to be precise), are being ingenuous or ignorant or naive and thus, that their initiatives won’t have a relevant impact implies a rather distorted viewpoint.

It’s like staring at a man putting a match to a haystack, and thinking nothing bad will happen because the man doesn’t know the haystack will be reduced to hashes.

This is an easy way to discard a much deeper problem which outlines some seriously worrying links between digital art curation and its relation to the art establishment and the incorporated lobbies. Links of which most times, we are either unaware of or worst, not interested in.

To bring more arguments to the table, the ones below are some other tips of that monstrous iceberg:

a) the involvement of Sound and Music in another Google-curated open call for emerging sound artist happened earlier this year under very dim lights; note, another intervention in the UK.

b) the massive cultural hijacking project by Google, which they aptly termed, “Google Cultural Institute”. Which, far from being a mere digitisation of museums catalogues, is being used as a means to curate events and open calls which, as for the DevArt, are aimed at breeding **young artists** (yes, breed, like animals in captivity), as in the case of the collaboration with Sound and Music above. Young artists does not mean 30-years old emerging artists. Young artists are student, part-time workers that follow their passion and dream of being able to live with their art, or maybe simply being able to express their art. As all of us started.

c) on a slightly different but related note, the boom of Sedition, an online platform designed as an appealing app market for well-packaged and well-known artworks. And I do not mean to take away any of the artistic value of the works sold there. Despite the fact they just opened doors so very recently, they had a stand at this year Sonar+D. Just to exemplify the links already in place.

Now, all of this shows that Google, the Barbican, Sound and Music, and many other entities which we are not aware of yet, have *already established* intimate links to work towards new ways of “curating” (or perhaps “commodifying” is a more accurate term) digital art, sound art, music, etc..

What we see and discuss today is the result of several months, if not years of discussion, planning and agreements, both financial and curatorial.

I don’t think there’s anything we can do to directly disrupt those links, given the scary results they have led to so far, but what one must do is to become aware that this is not a game of capricious millionaires.

Google is one of the richest capital holder in the world, a corporation who owns and develops the best machine learning techniques, who bought the best 6 companies in humanoid robotics, who works with US military defense developing technologies for them, etc. etc.

Stating the obvious here, but sometimes it does not hurt.

If they are investing so much in digital art it is fair to think this is not a caprice but a well-thought and far-reaching business plan. As any of their other businesses.

How do we claim our position in their business plan? Is that what we want?

Or perhaps, can we work towards alternative programs? If so, how?

The comparison with art patronage across the centuries does not work in this case, it’s just more smoke in the eyes. Renaissance art patrons didn’t have a database of all your documents, pictures, chats, videos, calendar and locations.


This article was originally published by the author at his personal research blog.