eventNext 5 Minutes 2 festival
articleAbout the Tactical Media Files
linknext 5 minutes
* Introduction: Tactical Media
* Next 5 Minutes
* Krzysztof Wodiczko (PL/USA): Alien Staff
* Paul Garrin (US): MediaFilter
* Knowbotic Research+cF (D/A): Dialogue With The Knowbotic South
* Economy / Ecology / Subjectivity
* Conclusion: A New Media Ecology
* Bibliography and Hypertext References
"It will be a decisive programmatic point of the social ecology to guide these capitalist societies of the age of mass media into a post-mass medial age; I mean that the mass media have to be reappropriated by a multiplicity of subject-groups who are able to administer them on a path of singularisation." (Guattari 1994, p.64)
Introduction: Tactical Media
Many media practitioners find themselves in a rather frustrating situation. It has been decided that what they are concerned with are 'old' media - a fatal verdict in an age where the average attention span seems to be no more that 30 seconds. The 'new' media are those which use digital computer technology and of which one can be sure that in less than four years they will not only be old, but hopelessly obsolete. 'New' is, in this case, not a signifier of actual novelty - it is unlikely that anybody would identify the recently invented wind-up radio which makes radio reception independent from power supply through cables or batteries, as a 'new medium', however revolutionary it may prove to be in areas with little or no electrical infrastructure. 'New' is an indicator of speed, both of transmission and of aging. Say 'media', and the in-crowd immediately translates this as Internet, cellular phones, cable television, or even worse: World Wide Web sites.
Computers have clearly had a huge impact on recent developments in media technology, but digitisation and the politics of electronic networks are not necessarily the most important factors for an evaluation and the critique of contemporary media practice. Take, for instance, Shotgun TV, a new medium invented and built by the group Contained from Linz in Austria. Shotgun TV is an automobile video-weapon with a camera and projection unit mounted on a pickup truck. Two VCRs, a headmounted surveillance camera and a camera on the "Big Gun" give the input for the projections from a large LCD beam next to the driver's window and a small LCD beam on the small gun which also has a loudspeaker. The audio-part has various inputs for tape recorders and microphones and is connected to a transmitter with a range of about a kilometre. If the tactical media accept an inherent affiliation with certain military dispositions and traditions of piracy, this is a machine that media tacticians can be proud of. (Shotgun TV will, unfortunately, not be available for the Next 5 Minutes.)
Yet, the analogy between weapons and media suggested here has also been an important topic of discussions in the run-up to the second Next 5 Minutes conference. Is the military metaphor appropriate for describing what media artists and activists do? Doesn't the metaphor jeopardise efforts for more peaceful, more thoughtful, also more compassionate approaches in the independent media which are often directed precisely against the suppressive and violent practices of the media conglomerates and the Powers That Be?
I won't try to find an answer right now, but will first unfold some of the issues that seem important for an analysis of the function and functionality of tactical media today. A definition of what tactical media might actually be will be attempted in rather abstract fashion in a moment, and I will then move on to describe some of the projects that will be presented by V2_Organisation during the N5M, outlining their tactical impact. I will end with a defense of the term 'media ecology' which has been criticised by others as being an inappropriate and unwelcome metaphor.
Media ecology as I understand it describes an interrelated series of material, practical and theoretical trajectories which constitute a 'formation', a stratum, a spatial and temporal machine which is driven by other machines, as much as it helps to drive them. If this definition is accepted, the contentious issue is whether we should use the eco- prefix for something that is unrelated to the natural environment. I believe it is worth recovering a wider meaning of the notion ecology where it denotes not so much the relation between humans, animals and plants and their natural environment, but the knowledgeable engagement with, as Félix Guattari calls them, the three ecological registers, that is the environment, the social relations, and human subjectivity (1994, p.12). It has become virtually impossible to think nature without culture: "We have to learn," writes Guattari, "to make our thought traverse the interrelations and mutual influences between eco-systems, the material world, social and individual relations." (p.35) The critical understanding of the media ecology, which Guattari calls ecosophy, is a way for media activists and artists of enabling themselves to conduct their social and political lives in a considerate and responsible way. But more on that later.
Some remarks about the notion of the tactical, and about its application in relation to media practice. The Mexican-American writer Manuel de Landa, in his book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), describes the military as
"a 'machine' composed of several distinct levels (...): the level of weapons and the hardware of war; the level of tactics, in which men and weapons are integrated into formations; the level of strategy, in which the battles fought by those formations acquire a unified political goal; and finally, the level of logistics, of procurement and supply networks, in which warfare is connected to the agricultural and industrial resources that fuel it." (p.5)
The main objection perhaps to the implied analogy between military and media tactics is that the military scenario described here is based on a situation of confrontation and struggle against an opponent, whereas the use of media like television, printed matter, or electronic networks often has the function of communicating, of linking, of bringing together. More specifically, the military machine is tuned to operate in the exceptional and limited spatio-temporal continuum defined as 'war', whereas tactical media are used under everyday conditions as well as in more extreme social and political situations.
Nevertheless I feel that the analysis taken from the military scenario can help us understand at which operative level media tacticians are engaged - whether their cause is the dissident struggle against an oppressor, or the attempt to create a new social form at a juncture of need and possibility. Let me paraphrase de Landa's section just quoted:
The media ecology is a machine composed of several distinct levels: the levels of media and related tools and instruments; the level of tactics, in which individuals and media are integrated into formations; the level of strategy, in which the campaigns conducted by those formations acquire a unified political goal; and finally, the level of logistics, of procurement and supply networks, in which media practice is connected to the infrastructural and industrial resources that fuel it.
The analysis still has its short-comings. It is purely formalistic and, more crucially, suggests a primarily operational function to the tactical level, while the political thrust of media practice only comes into effect at the strategic level. However, de Landa continues to argue that the possibilities of decentralising command structures by the means of telecommunication media have, in the 20th century, shifted the emphasis of military activities away from the larger strategic units of armies and divisions, towards the tactical level of platoons. The effectiveness of strategic media is highly doubtful. Just as it will remain highly doubtful whether the strategic nuclear weapons stationed during the Cold War have, on a political level, ever been more than expensive junk.
What I regard as crucial for the assessment of tactical media practice as it is being attempted by the Next 5 Minutes, is the realisation that the relative structural weakness of a tactical approach and the absence of a unified political goal among media tacticians has its strengths in the flexibility, in the compatibility with other initiatives, and in the ability to form alliances notwithstanding political and ideological differences. We will see in a moment that this does not only account for guerilla-style media activism, but for any practical approach to choosing one's path through and making one's mark on the media ecology.
Let me emphasise the importance of the hardware, that is the tools as well as the infrastructure, that supports media practice. The work of many media tacticians shows that the medium is not (necessarily) the message, and that the contents of messages can point far beyond the narrow circle drawn around the games of technological innovation. This does not take away, however, the need to consider the dependence of these practices on a particular technical equipment, the functions of which determine a lot of the possibilities of our work. The limitations of the ready-made software packages are at times as stifling for computer users as the compatibility problems that video makers regularly have to struggle with.
What is at stake in a critical consideration not only of media practice, but of hardware as well, has been pointed out recently by Tim Druckrey:
"Questions of machine intelligence and political empowerment are becoming questions of artificial life and massive, albeit invisible parallelism. Rather than an encounter with technology as the crucial mechanism in the culture of the late 20th century, the discourse is shifting into the implementation of software solutions that veil the staggering impact of machine culture. Instead of radical questions concerning the sundering of ethics and the refiguration of communication, we are hypnotized by innovations in imaging and processing that unhinge so many of our assumptions about the fallacies of progress that yet hold our imagination in the balance." (1995)
Such considerations led to the decision to open the Next 5 Minutes with a programme about "The Matter of Media", a programme that highlights the complexity of the hardware we are dealing with, and of the depth of its influence on our being. The original idea was to do something about cables, about the heat generated by electric circuits, and about the power cuts (!) that are so fatal for many of our everyday activities. The programme will eventually get us there, but we will start at the high end of technological development to work our way down to the level of rooted activity. Kevin McCoy who, together with Jennifer Bozick-Mccoy, will be presenting the performance "Achieving Sufficient Fluidity - Tactics in Implementing Advanced Media Strategies" during the opening evening, writes: "The new media seem to require us to endlessly aquire new vocabularies and levels of technical expertise. For the artist who's goal is to communicate specific messages and create alternative experiences, these new media seem to provide promise. The down side is the incredible distraction and sense of dizzying confusion this technology produces."
Where the McCoys work through critical affirmation, the Critical Art Ensemble ruthlessly exposes the excesses of cyberculture as it preys on the human body: cyborg slaves, data body, and tongue spasms. The CAE suggests a series of tactics, through which these invasions can be irritated, if not countered: countersurveillance, data body infections, and electronic civil disobedience. On the same evening, and in order to offer - on a lighter note - a few practical examples, we have invited the submission of drawings, prototypes or verbal descriptions of Techno-Parasites whose main aim in life is technological disruption on all levels. These suggestions will be on display during the opening evening as well.
The warning that "The Matter of Media" tries to formulate goes out to media artists in particular who, while more readily than others accepting some kind of wider moral responsibility for their actions, are at the same time more prone to fall rather naively for some exciting piece of hardware. In a strong trend within the scientifically informed section of the current discourse about electronic art, the technical equipment (as well as, besides, the human body) is conceived as a mere shell of immaterial possibilities, as though the hardware was uneigentlich, something that we will get rid of if we can just make a little step forward, and something that we can now already ignore, just as we are told to ignore the cultural and psychological baggage that we bring into the simulations with our desiring bodies. Druckrey cautions us not to follow that logic, and reclaims a position of critique which questions its own means of production:
"The promises and pitfalls of a cybersphere obstruct some of the essential cultural issues of digital media in the yet vague hope that matters of access and meaning will fulfill themselves in the future. This is a difficult presumption of technology and creativity linked with the scientific view that a problem is not so much surmountable as it is contingent and evolving. For so much work utilizing electronic media, the characteristics (often seen as limitations) of the delivery system represent a hurdle to be overcome rather than a form to be interrogated."
Yet, this interrogation of our tools should not lead into a new form of Luddism. Seeing the symbolic and political implications of certain technologies is an important prerequisite of identifying the cracks in the system, for identifying the breaks where usages can be moulded into new and productive forms and strategies. For this the media have to be understood both as physical and technological apparatuses, and as cultural tools of communication. On both levels their applications have to be tested against the background of content, context and impact.
Siegfried Zielinski has drawn the consequences from such an approach for the activities of artists on the Internet, while the same can easily be said of other forms of art that engages an attitude of responsibility:
"It is our aesthetic duty to take that which is versus, that which is turned over, that which is turned inside out, seriously and to combine it with multiplicity and incalculability. However, this is only feasible if you take up a basic position that is split: facilitate the symbolic expression of locality, of heterogenous events, in the global Net, use the Net to strengthen local events but at the same time keep the option open to do without it. To be inside and to be able to imagine what its like outside, to be outside and think the inside: it is the action and the movement at the boundary that make such a stance possible. That's what I call subjective."
Approaching a more generalised definition of media we must first recognise their inherent dialectics of conjunction and separation. To the degree that media connect and facilitate communication, they affirm difference. The assessments of such a differentiation vary quite considerably. Paul Virilio's interest in and disgust for the media is based on their function as 'trajectory machines' that produce separation and, according to him, increase the physical distance between the subject and the mediated object. The mediatic distantiation destroys the human individual's ties with material reality. Félix Guattari talks of 'transversality' rather than of trajectory and relates it to more processual, more immaterial and streamlike formations in which distance is a mere temporary inscription and in which differentiation is not per se an objectionable event.
In a line similar to Zielinski's, Guattari defends disruption and singularisation as two crucial tools of contemporary cultural practice:
"Far from the search for a stupefying and infantilising consensus the aim will in the future be to nurse dissent and to create singularity." - "The ecological registers are subject to what I have called a heterogenesis, that is a continuous process of resingularisation. The individuals must, at the same time, become solidary and ever more different." (Guattari 1994, p.46-7, 76)
From the previous discussion, the pertinence of his remarks for the development of non-hegemonic media practices that prefer to operate on a tactical rather than on a strategic level will be immediately clear.
"The many practices should not only not be homogenised and combined by a transcendental guardianship, but should sensibly be taken into a process of the production of dissimilarity, of heterogenesis. (...) It is appropriate to allow for the unfolding of cultural specificity while inventing new agreements about citizenship. It would be useful to maintain singularity, exception, scarcity, alongside the least weighty state order." (Guattari 1994, p.49)
The potential of media to be machines of difference, to be machines of heterogeneity must be exploited by media tacticians in ways that find creative solutions for specific situations. In this, subjectification can function as a useful guide-line for the choice of tools and strategies. Again Guattari:
"It is important to concentrate on those dispositions which can be useful for the production of subjectivity, and which work towards an individual and/or collective reconstitution of the self, instead of furthering the business of the mass-medial machine which represents a permanent state of emergency and desperation." (1994, p.21)
These things require passion, enthusiasm and an almost perverse kind of optimism whose main rhetorical tool is the word 'despite'. Just to remind us what we are up against, Druckrey describes the drives towards homogenesis which subvert any notion of public space and independent action, and replace it by strata of predispositioned behavioural patterns:
"Subsumed in the immaterial space of information, culture, the sphere of public action, is destabilized as a sphere of knowledge, a sphere of discourse, and a sphere of difference. Ubiquitous computing, the intelligent ambience, the wired world, only serve to suggest the clear fact that the triumph of technology has already occurred, that the shift from agency to behavior has become the focal point of technology research. Rather than liberating, the trajectory of so much of this work is to map, to record, to simulate, and to produce behavior." (Druckrey 1995)
This again suggests the need for a renewed critical analysis of the social and cultural terrain in which the media operate, and to formulate an aesthetics of media practice that is, at the same time, an ethics and a politics. Forgive me the philosophical crudity, but if we can describe media are relays of power, I would like to suggest a definition of tactical media are relays of dissident power, of disruption and singularisation.
Maybe Guattari is right in suggesting that the artist (and not only the male artist, as Guattari may be accused of suggesting) is particularly well-equipped to conceptualise the necessary steps for this work, because he or she "can be led to completely rework his piece because of the intrusion of a chance detail, an event or accident which makes his project suddenly change its course to drive him far away from his earlier perspectives, however well-founded they may have been." (1994, p.50) In any case, the claim made here for allowing for disruption, reversal and reworking in any process is an important pointer to the attitude that is needed for the development of effective media tactics: not to take anything for granted, and not to insist on stability and continuity where dynamic behaviour is required. The tools have to be melted down and recast whenever necessary.
Next 5 Minutes
The Next 5 Minutes: Tactical Media conference and exhibition is a brief and densely programmed event that tries to take stock of the current work of media artists and tacticians, and that seeks to develop a critical discourse about this work in the context of contemporary cultural and social situation, especially but not exclusively with regard to the media. The following passages of this text will be devoted to the projects that form part of the N5M exhibition at V2_Organisation in Rotterdam: Krzysztof Wodiczko's Alien Staff, Paul Garrin's MediaFilter, and Knowbotic Research's Dialogue with the Knowbotic South.. The exhibition will be complemented by a series of afternoon and evening programmes in Rotterdam which will be presented under the titles: Translocal Media Networks and the Diaspora (Friday, January 19), Aggregates of Information and Communication (Saturday, Jan 20), and Media Metaphors: Society / Information / the Body (Sunday, Jan 21). These titles point to the trajectories along which we want to investigate the function and aesthetics of media art: firstly, the questions of space, non-localisation, nomadism and displacement; then the accumulation, the structuration and the productive potential of mediated data for the purposes of information and communication; and thirdly the cultural and symbolic impact of media on social formations as well as on the individual.
Krzysztof Wodiczko (PL/USA): Alien Staff
Krzysztof Wodiczko's Alien Staff is a mobile communication system and prosthetic instrument which facilitates the communication of immigrants and aliens in the countries to which they have migrated and in which they have insufficient command of the language to communicate on a par with the native inhabitants.
Alien Staff consists of a hand-held staff which has a small video monitor and loudspeaker at the top. The operator can adjust the height of the staff's head to be at a level with his or her own head. Via the video monitor, the operator can replay prerecorded elements of a conversation, an interview, or a narration of him or herself. The recorded material may contain biographical information when people have difficulties constructing coherent narratives in the foreign language, but it may also include the description of feelings and impressions which the operator normally doesn't get a chance to talk about in the new environment. The instrument can function as an interpreter both in the sense of a translator, and in the sense of a mediator. The Staff is used in public places where passers-by are attracted to listen to the recording and engage in a conversation with the operator. Special transparent segments of the staff contain memorabilia, photographs or other objects which indicate a part of the personal history of the operator and which may be used to introduce a conversation about the operator's background.
With this instruments, Wodiczko approaches the question of art and media from the perspective of interpersonal communication. He devises a performative technological design that is not directed at the transmission of general information to large and often indistinct public audiences, but that allows individuals who are normally silenced and deprived of the possibility of speech by their living circumstances, to communicate about themselves and make themselves be heard. Wodiczko's project - which has previously been realised in Paris, Helsinki, Stockholm, Warsaw, and New York - encompasses the video recording sessions, the presentation of the taped material, and the ensuing conversations with passers-by or addressees, and thus not only serves to draw attention to specific marginal groups, but also helps them to concretise mentally their own displacement, to construct themselves and to recognise their own complexity.
In December 1995 Krzysztof Wodiczko has spent a week in Rotterdam in order to prepare the project for January. Together with Andreas Broeckmann and other members of V2_Organisation he visited a centre for asylum seekers, a local centre in a mixed neighbourhood, and held a long series of conversations with migrants from Ethiopia, Germany, Liberia, Mongolia, Poland, Scotland, Somalia, Turkey, and the United States in order to find operators for the Alien Staff. These conversation revealed the complexity of problems that migrants have to deal with in this country, but they also pinpointed the striking similarity of many aspects of the lives of migrants in the 1990s. Each story is different, each migrant has her or his own particular fate and way of handling it, but because they are all up against the same system of borders, of institutions and administrators, of residency permits, of migration laws whose main purpose is to prevent migration, and legal insecurity, their lives are forced into patterns which are then often interpreted as 'typical', further fuelling existing xenophobia.
The Alien Staff project instigates a communicative performance which is set against the stereotypification and silencing to which many migrants are subjected. It offers individuals an opportunity to remember and retell their own story and to confront people in the country of immigration with this particular story. The Staff helps to re-subjectify the migrant who is often perceived as the representative of a homogenous group of problematic individuals, he or she can reaffirm their own subjectivity and communicate this affirmation to others who in turn are confronted with the problems of migration and with the images that migrants have of the receiving country. Thus the Staff also becomes a mirror for the receiving society, revealing aspects of its 'unconscious'. The Staff operators do this not as representatives of 'the migrants', but as representatives of themselves. Beyond its actual content, their performance symbolises the disparity and individuality of what is too often considered as a generalisable set of problems.
Wodiczko will return to the Netherlands before the N5M to supervise the recording of the video tapes with the operators and their performances on the streets of Rotterdam. A special programme at the Zaal De Unie in Rotterdam on Saturday, Jan 20, 20.00 hrs., will bring together the artist, operators and others for a discussion of the social and cultural dimensions of the project. (Together with Joshua Smith of MIT's Media Lab, Wodiczko is working on a new prototype of the Alien Staff which will have enhanced performative functions. We are planning to continue working with this new prototype in Rotterdam in the first half of 1996.)
In the context of the Next 5 Minutes, we want to use the project to explore a specially designed medium that is intended to communicate personal information and to facilitate interpersonal communication. It will be important to ask what the lesson is that one can learn from these instruments in relation to the communicative, social and psychological function of other media. The plea for an enhancement of immediate human-to-human and face-to-face communication reintroduces a function for the media which we often forget about through our the focus on the mass media.
Paul Garrin (US): MediaFilter
While Wodiczko's Alien Staff addresses the question of tactical media from the perspective of personal communication by and with migrants in the diaspora, the electronic and computer networks offer media structures which allow for the development of translocal communication. They have the potential for maintaining the ties between dispersed communities, and for forging links between newly emerging translocal communities. Their success strongly relies on the degree of accessibility that can be achieved to these networks, and on the amount of freedom that the users have in shaping the network architectures according to their own needs.
We have chosen the World Wide Web site MediaFilter, set up by a team around the New York art activist Paul Garrin, as an example for the different layers and modes of communication that such networks can support. MediaFilter provides information and facilitates communication about and for politically tense areas, including war zones, it offers analyses of current political developments, and supports various initiatives of political and art activism. A current focus lies on the situation in former Yugoslavia, where MediaFilter cooperates with the Zagreb-based Zamir network that has maintained communication channels across Yugoslavia via the German Zerberus server of the group Foebud in Bielefeld, and with the periodical arkzin, one of the few remaining independent media in the area. The site is thus a forum for discussion, for making contact, and a switchboard between a variety of information channels.
Mediafilter articulates the close relation between art, media, technology, and political action. It creates an actual site on the WWW which allows for meetings, communication and information exchange which would otherwise be impossible. The presentation of MediaFilter during the N5M will be in the form of an information centre on the first floor of the V2_Building. A number of computer terminals will be available for visiting the internet site and its links. Via cable and satellite dish, connections will be made with local, national and international tv and radio channels, and an on-site juxtaposition of different communication media (newspaper, tv, telephone, etc.) will make it possible to explore the functions of and the relations between those media. In a series of presentations, workshops, live and on-line discussions and events, we will deal with the relation between different communication channels, information and political action.
An important part of the presentation of Mediafilter during N5M will be its linking with partner projects in former Yugoslavia, some of which will be by their members at the N5M, and with related sites and projects elsewhere. In a special workshop on Friday, Jan 19, 14.00 hrs., people from Mediafilter, Zamir, arkzin, FoeBud, and other groups, will present and talk about their translocal collaboration. The space will also be available as a laboratory for other participants of the N5M to explore the possibilities of establishing new collaborations, and to learn about the technical requirements of setting up and maintaining such networks.
While investigating the potentials of using the WWW for dissident political and artistic activities, the Next 5 Minutes will also continuously have to raise the question of the dialectics of power that invades any kind of political activity but seems to be particularly urgent with regard to electronic networks for whose usage we are highly dependent on commercial and other, official support. For the current situation in the United States, Tim Druckrey suggests the following scenario which is probably not far off from what media tacticians are facing in Europe and other parts of the world:
"Every creative act which seeks to question the apparatus of domination runs the risk of continuing to carry within itself the imprint of the system in which the creator is inscribed. Never has this been more true than in the web - where the social infrastructure is so neatly supplanted by the technological circulatory system. Too often with this medium, we fall into the trap of the mystificationof universalization, not remembering that deterritorialization is not always a signifier of nomadic empowerment. In the agencies of communication, the illusion of power can be as seductive as the fall into utopia. And while the colonization of cyberspace by artists and theorists is a sign of tremendous creativity, the linked forces of privatization and control are breathing down our necks. Playtime is over. Candidate Bob Dole has already attacked Hollywood, Newt Gingrich, Dick Army, and Jessie Helms are attempting to purge the cultural life of the imagination. Beneath these public attacks lies a substrate of materials finding their way across the porous borders of the network that disseminate neo-fascist, christian-reactionary, and nationalistic materials that ground events like the rise of militias, vigilante police, and even the support of separatist anti-semites like Louis Farrakhan. And while we consider the vectors of whether VRML will actually render space in a browser, or whether Hot Java will actually not continue to crash Netscape, the mobilisation of the network is occurring, not for the dissemination of wonderful and creative hyper fiction and quicktime movies, but for the tactical ambiguity of dispersed power. Indeed, the metaphor of dispersal, along with invisibility, is a crucial aspect of understanding the politics of the network." (Druckrey 1995)
Rather than seeking a 'clean' position, we must probably revert to continuous self-criticism as regards the 'tactical ambiguities' of our work. Designs and practices are needed which can subvert the homogenising, molarising currents to which work in such a charged mediatic environment is often prone. And the readiness to give up projects whose impact turns out to be counter-productive. In a conflict of ethics, aesthetics and material survival, this latter point is extremely difficult where funding sources demand the delivery of an end product that is in accordance with the proposed project. Tactical media practice should mine the advantage of flexibility, of mutability and speed, with which it can adapt to new circumstances and new insights. In an age of residual humanism, however, radicality must start with self-scrutiny.
Knowbotic Research+cF (D/A): Dialogue With The Knowbotic South
An interesting example of the complexity of interlaced aesthetic, ethical and technologico-scientific issues is the third main project that V2_Organisation is presenting during the Next 5 Minutes. The Cologne-based artists group Knowbotic Research+cF have developed an installation that uses global electronic networks and data bases for the creation of "a public knowledge space for a potential dialogue about potential nature." In Dialogue with the Knowbotic South they assemble information about Antarctica, available from networked computer sites, by means of knowbots, i.e. dynamic interfaces in computer-based networks. In the physical installation of DWTKS, the collected information is visualised and made accessible by a variety of media: a head-set which allows the visitor to navigate to a virtual information space and access the represented data files; a large projection screen on which the collected information is represented in the form of 'clouds' of pixels; a temperature zone that translates data from meteorological stations in Antarctica into streams of conditioned air; light pads on the floor which indicate the current temperature streams in selected icebergs as recorded by measuring stations. Thus, the knowbots "facilitate sensory experiences of yet vague events in data landscapes."
DWTKS allows the visitor and user to witness an interaction between the actual, the virtual, and the hypothetical. The project traces the emergence of new aesthetic fields through shifting technological and cultural parameters, and offers an analysis of the structures and constructions in informational spaces. In the context of the N5M, DWTKS will serve as a prototypical example of how such informational spaces are ordered, how they are being used, and how they might be deployed strategically. The presentation consists of multiple layers - the agency of the knowbots on the electronic networks; the interaction between exterior scientific sources and the newly created DWTKS data bank about the Antarctic; the interactive interfaces on the computer and projection screens; and the installation which transposes specific types of information into artificial phenomena that can be experienced by the human senses. The project makes it possible to explore the notion of mediatic interactivity in a non-linear and dynamic environment. It raises crucial questions about the relation between human and machine intelligence, and about the relation between information, knowledge, and perception.
In the scientific and ecological context, DWTKS highlights the intricate relation between representation and action. The project investigates the digital fractalisation of natural phenomena, their modelling and simulation in scientific representations. To an increasing degree, problem solving in biological and environmental contexts is done at the digital level, i.e. at the level of digitally synthesised, reconstructed, or: Computer Aided Nature (CAN).
The insights from this observation have an immediate relevance for mediated information and communication in general. We are constantly operating on more or less abstract levels of representation, delegating important interactive and symbolic functions to machines that produce their own semantic input in the process of handling the respective data. The knowbots active in DWTKS are therefore just one example for the growing responsibility that we customarily hand over to increasingly self-organising technological devices. Additionally, the movement in the simulated data space is an elaborate representation of the detachment of knowledge from experience which media culture appears to propel.
In a yet rather tentative fashion I would like to suggest that it might be here, in relation to machine agency rather than human agency, that we can start addressing the power question with regard to the media. In human-human relations the question of power is frequently obscured by the understandably large impact of emotional investment that we have in asymmetrical power relations. Perhaps it is the idealist philosophical tradition that still makes us think that 'power enjoys repression', and that it is important to hate your own or somebody else's oppressor. Would it make sense to suggest that power - as it appears here in the form of deliberate visual representations which inform a certain perception and understanding of nature - is a line of force that is generated in a socio-technical aggregate? That its effects are culturally and morally arbitrary? And that it is therefore necessary to develop both technical and cultural critiques of particular aggregates without being blinded by prejudice against certain lines of themes and products? If this was a useful model for thinking about mediated power, it might also become possible to develop from here an analysis of the tactical impact of knowbots.
Knowbotic Research themselves emphasise the aspect of juxtaposing different levels of what is regarded as reality and of bringing these different realities into collisions whose effects of intensity and violence KR want to radicalise in the future.
"Such breaks have to be deepened, especially given an 'internet' that presents itself as a slick and perfect order for the exercise of prescribed individual, sequentially determined steps. We regard the harmonic and peaceful coexistence and community of various so-called interest groups on the internet and the world wide web as an unfortunate state which is based on the obsolete ideology of a rather abstract individualism. The fact that anybody can choose to deposit something on the networks cannot possibly define the ultimate boundary of this technology. We cannot see any progress in this. We hope to be able to induce unrest into such orders. In the first instance internet is only a communication structure. But on the www we can, at least for the moment, see no attempt at creating an independent quality. It is a cliché of what is happening anyway and of what is based on automatisms, on worn-out old metaphors which are coming back, like the metaphor of the digital cities. Such presentations transpose the established artistic contents and models straight into a new technology. They prove to be without imagination." (unpubl. interview, Nov. 1995)
The disruptive strategies that Knowbotic Research themselves seek to engineer are based on the contention that in the contemporary situation it is technology which forms the primary basis of radical agency:
"We believe that technology, the processual landscape of actions and their mediatisation, is the primary nature which we know and through which we can act. Transcendence can, joyfully, be rejected in order really to be able to play with contingency. (...) In order to reach one's own parameters one has to reconstruct the things, meanings and contexts accordingly. To extend communicative perspectives one has to find and invent places of a new art. Today these are more likely to be places of temporary intensity than institutions of permanence."
There seems to be a productive conjunction between this decentering approach to art and the invention of new strategies for media practice on the one hand, and the reconstitution of subjectivity described earlier with reference to Guattari on the other. Both take a decisive departure from a concept of subjectivity which would imply that the kernel of truth and reality resides with the continuous human subject, and suggest an active and transgressive play at the boundary of the known terrains of life, reality and humanity. The affirmation of singularity implies giving up the insistence on wanting to maintain that what we are. Siegfried Zielinski claims that subjectivity is the very product of such transgression which becomes a prerequisite of the project proposed by Guattari:
"What we need are models of working toward, models of intervention, of operation (opis=fortune, riches). This is what taking action at the boundary, that which I call subjective, targets: strong, dynamic, nervous, definitely processual aesthetic constructions, as for example, the unclosed bodies of knowledge of Knowbotic Research, are introduced into the Net, not in order to assume a virtual identity there that can then be retrieved in this or that state, but to demonstrate the impossibility of constructing identity through the exchange of pure symbols. The deficits that these constructions exhibit, namely that, quasi reeling, they have lost their connection to the real, is that which needs to be developed as their strength: they produce new, autonomous realities - in the case of Knowbotic Research, this is at the boundary between art, politics and natural science - that, daydream-like, develop beside our experiences and our experience into constructs of the mind, visionary models, precipitating meaningful interference with order, turbulence but also inertia, they irritate, they help to make greater complexity imaginable." (Zielinski, 1995)
Economy / Ecology / Subjectivity
This brings us back to the discussion about the media ecology which was left incomplete earlier. To reiterate, Félix Guattari insists that the concept of ecology does not only refer to nature - "The connotation of ecology should cease to be connected with the image of a small minority of nature-lovers and specialist-bureaucrats. It questions the entirety of the subjectivity and power formations of capitalism." (Guattari 1994, p.51) Therefore, the current ecological crisis does not only affect the natural environment, but it is a crisis of social, political and cultural dimension which requires a complete reorientation of the aims of the production of material and immaterial goods. "This revolution must therefore not only concern the relationships between the visible and large-size forces, but must also affect the micro-areas of feelings, of intelligence and of desires." (p.13)
The increasing pressure which the ecological crisis will generate is indicated by the fact that Guattari finds an unlikely ally in the Unabomber who is responsible for a whole series of bombings and killings in the United States, and whose 35000-word pamphlet was recently published by leading American newspapers in the vague hope that the attacks might stop. The essay is steeped in technophobia and hatred for the political Left and concludes that "revolution is the only alternative. ... Technology has gotten the human race into a fix from which there is not likely to be an easy escape .... The technophiles are taking us all on an utterly reckless ride into the unknown." Tim Druckrey who pointed me to this passage, continues to quote Kirkpatrick Sale's response in the Nation, left voice in American politics: "The central point the Unabomber is trying to make - that the industrial-technological system in which we live is a social, psychological. and environmental disaster for the human race - is absolutely crucial for the American public to understand and ought to be on the forefront of the nations political agenda .... I say this as a partisan." It is no accident that the triad of social, psychological and environmental is virtually identical with the three ecological areas that Guattari is so concerned with.
The defense of the concept of a media ecology, then, takes its departure from the claim that we have to understand our work as a subset of activities that seek to tackle the crisis in a productive and differentiating way. The Alien Staff, MediaFilter and DWTKS projects define three exemplary positions within this ecology that take on specific 'sore points' and suggest aesthetic and communicative solutions in which the potential of tactical media as machines of dissident power can be tested. Furthermore, what Guattari outlines as the 'logics of intensities' might be taken as the programmatic starting point for an aesthetics of intensities which, given its transitory, deterritorialising and singularising nature, might be an aesthetics appropriate for the tactical media:
"The logics of intensities (...) is not only relevant for human subjects unified in their corporeality, but also for all partial bodies in the psychoanalytic sense, i.e. the transitory objects (Winnicot), the institutional corporations (the 'group subjects'), the faces, landscapes, etc. While the logics of discursive totalities aims at focussing on the abjects themselves, the logics of intensities - which could also be called the ecological logics - only considers movement, the intensity of evolutionary processes. The processual which I here contrast with the systemic or the structural, aims at an existence which is, at the same time, about to constitute and define itself, and to dissolve its self-definition (to 'deterritorialise' itself). These processes of 'becoming' or of 'being born' only relate to specific expressive parts which have finished with merely being tied in in a summary fashion, and which have begun to work at their own costs and to ban their referential frameworks, in order to manifest themselves in favour of existential signs and processual lines of movement." (Guattari 1994, p.38)
Conclusion: A New Media Ecology
The great challenge of the 1990s for our thinking is that we can see a new regime emerging in the domain of media ecology. The electronic networks, especially the internet, have opened up a huge field of interaction which partly replaces and partly enhances the functions of the old media. Generating, distributing, accessing and deploying information, or media contents in general, have all taken on different forms and trajectories. We first need to learn what the structures, the possibilities and the limitations of this new ecology are, in order then to be able to understand the agency of information which we are dealing with.
The question of how power functions in this socio-mediatic environment is of great importance. The way we have learned to understand power is modelled on linear, mostly one-dimensional formations structured according to the series: power - repression - resistance - object. Getting a grasp on one of the channels through which power is exerted, like a radio channel, was always a crucial strategy of resistance. The question now is in how far such power structures are being changed through the formations of the electronic networks, how power concentrations are reconfigured, and how institutions and structures are reorganised. Furthermore, we have to ask how we conceive of power as a line of force in a hypermediatic environment. What would a non-linear notion of power imply for the conception of tactical media? Such questions will necessitate a reconsideration of our own agency and its goals, as well as the development of new strategies of appropriation.
In an historical perspective we can see that interfaces have always played an important role in the articulation of data. The use of human messengers, the distribution of handwritten copies of books or the delivery of handwritten or coded messages, as well as the production of individual art works or multiple printed copies of certain motifs - these are forms of interfaces which had a vital impact on the meanings and the effects of mediated communication. What we see now, however, goes further than the leap experienced, for instance, through the introduction of the printing press. Not only are communication and the related forms of interaction changing rapidly, but the very relation between humans and the domains of information, between mediatic and other realities, between the biological and the technological, are undergoing a severe transformation. The notions of life and what it means to be human itself are being transformed under the conditions of the new media ecology. These developments are not unique to the discourse of the new media but have their complements in socio-theoretical and philosophical debates which have been going on for decades, and it will be useful to reinvestigate these debates in the light of current developments. Both the practical requirements and the visual solutions of the new interfaces are still under development, but we can already see that the design of such interfaces will continue to change the way in which we communicate and define what we will become in the future.
The projects presented during the Next 5 Minutes seek to reevaluate the notions of information and social agency in the light of the new media ecology, and present preliminary solutions for the challenge posed by this ecology, playing at the intersection of art and technology. The goal is to help reformulating the theoretical understanding, the formal structures and the practical possibilities of the tactical media.
Bibliography and Hypertext References
* Timothy Druckrey: "Wild Nature, Free Radicals, and The Nerve Sell...." Lecture held at the DEAF95 Symposium, 24 November 1995, Rotterdam
* Félix Guattari: Les trois écologies. Paris: Éd. Galilée, 1989 (German ed. Wien: Passagen Verlag, 1994)
* -: Ästhetik und Maschinismus. Texte zu und von Félix Guattari. (H. Schmidgen, ed.) Berlin: Merve, 1995
* Knowbotic Research: In: Medien.Kunst.Passagen, 3/94: Nonlocated Online
* - Interview with Knowbotic Research by H. U. Reck (unpublished), Nov. 1995
* Manuel de Landa: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books/Swerve Editions, 1991
* Siegfried Zielinski [for Paris Revue Virtuelle] (1995), on mem_brane