On Communication Front 1999

It was not by surprise that Nina Czegledy in her opening presentation that set the beginning of the theoretical seminar and the discussions in last year's edition of the Communication Front Project, focused our attention on the controversies of our space and time with all the monitors, computers and technology… Terms such as local and translocal need a new definition. In our capacity of physical beings we are bound to experience the changing significance of these two terms.

A good deal of the issues discussed touched on the problem of how digital media influence society, whether they bring about more art and culture, what are the processes of creating such art, does electronic art allow of being treated as a type of technology, does the fact that more people have access to the media render the process more democratic, how do global themes alter, and what is the impact of the new media on art and its history.

Amos Taylor is based in Finland and takes interest in the theory of contemporary media-art. At the time of last year's Communication Front he was working on his PhD paper for the University of Lapland. Amos has a degree in stage-design but he also works in the domain of video and net-art. Using 'practical and real-life' design, he creates equipment for refuse-storage during the polar expeditions of scientific explorers. This activity helps him in the acquisition of a realistic sensitivity for the world and a sober view on digital art and the world-net, despite his belonging to the media community. His active interest in the theory and criticism of the new media culture dates back to his participation in the Virtual Revolutions workshop in Sofia, and his meeting the curator of the project Iliyana Nedkova in the summer of 1997 [more information on the VR Project is available on http://www.yourserver.co.uk]. As part of this project he attends the International Symposium of Electronic Art ISEA 98, Liverpool & Manchester <http://www.isea.gc.ca>. Provoked by the meetings and the discussions Amos made his first steps in the theory and criticism of media-art. At present he considers these professional activities as being most important to him. In regard to the social discourse of the net his opinion is quite clear-cut: This is the new utopia. The excitement caused by the emerging of multi-media forms could be compared to the excitement aroused by photography when people proclaimed the end of painting. But now we can vouchsafe: rather than being the end, this was the dawn of painting.

Behind the initial euphoria over the high-tech art, there surfaced new problems and the need for a strategy that would respond to these developments. In his presentation at the Communication Front '99 Amos Taylor addressed the relation between history and contemporary technology. He raised the question of the access to the World Wide Web with its social and spiritual implications:

Can new technology free us from the gregariousness of our societies? The utopia about the opportunities opened up by the Internet has a submissive role in contemporary history that relates to the political correctness of a society which can afford this technology. How do we project the society of multi-media culture on to history and the realities of our existence? Juxtaposed to consumers are those who produce new technology, the people who work in computer equipment factories, withour having the chance to make use of high-technology. Its production is usually located in less developed or economically unstable countries. What are the means of projecting these societies on to the history of our times? Are media neutral and homogeneous? Could we go looking for our post-identity in the online environment? The unisex essence of the Net is a crisis of the responsibility and the adequate reaction of the self. What is fake comes close to reality. The most powerful agent of exposing a counterfeit idea is the multi-media discourse marking the birth of a new utopia. Post-modern art regards art as a space where images constitute the things we know and the things we are. This is a world hungry for TV images. A visualised world counterbalances thousands of words. Our history is migrating to those images that put this same history to record. The multi-media discourse introduces a conflict in terms of art history: there no more seems to be a clear-cut, definitive way of walking ahead.'

At this juncture we can easily draw a parallel between the development of art and technology. Art seems to be increasingly adopting the approaches of this boom-market, somewhat spoilt by the new opportunities of creating and manipulating visual images.

Johan Artinyan representing Bulgaria put the emphasis on his partiality to conventional sculpture and hence his emotional ties with the overall positive context of the various periods of art-history regardless of where they stand in time. He spoke about the relation between meaning in art and its history in the times of digital technology.

'The artist's mind has ever paced centuries ahead of material culture in the by-gone history of art. Technologically speaking, the artist is now lagging behind not only in his understanding of technology but also in his capacity to overtake technology or make use of it.'

Albena Mihailova-Stussi, who has been for some time based in Basel, Switzerland, where she practises video-art, was to some extent inclined to share J.Artinyan's opinion: 'The contact zone between the digital and the visual, the gap between them has not so far exhausted the aesthetics of what we call video-art. In recent years we have been observing a huge wasting of technology. The artist repeatedly needs to catch up with technology. There exists an attitude of outright consumerism in the artistic community, a misuse of resources without exploring their ultimate meaning and capacities. The attitude towards video-art, I mean taped art, is the attitude towards something one is completely familiar with, something purely conventional, while recent years saw it being interpreted in a fresh light. This is what has been going on for the last 15 years: a new form, a new media is beginning to grow obsolete right from its birth.'

I shall take the liberty of pointing out some excerpts of the presentation of UK's Lisa Haskel. She mainly stressed the interrelation between means-technology and contents-idea in interactive art. In this type of work the vision of the ultimate product cannot be separated from the process of its creation. These are constantly dependent on each other in the sense that the product employs technology thus manifesting the hyper-links in the interactive space utilised in the conceptual costruction of the artistic project.

The means are chosen and created to suit the needs of the idea. The writing of novel software in connection with a project-conception is determined by the project's individual context. This is a rather different contact with the Net, lacking the superfisciality of the media environment. Apart from its other aspects, this artistic activity radically interferes with and challenges the established institutions, undermining the existing economy of sponsorship, donation and commercialism of the World Wide Web. It also raises the critical point of the extent to which software can become a part of art, how much is it neutral and how much committed to economy and military industry? As a result, a lot of artists will rather work in smaller, informal groups allowing them the liberty to choose the methods and the specific features of their projects' realisation.

The Mongrels Project is characterised by a perfect and conceptually motivated visional design. However, what Lisa Haskel and the creative team are most interested in is the investigation of the social context of the software used for artistic purposes. The notion of race is rather sparsely represented on the Net. There can hardly be found any papers on the topic. Afro-American people and the various ethnic groups carry out few on-line cultural activities. The Mongrels team was formed through an advertisement in a London newspaper, the aim being to provide authors of different races who barely possess any means of expression in the developing media-culture with the opportunity to get in touch with one another and work side by side, so as to share their varied ethnic experiences. The project is based on the connection between race and technology. It comprises critical contributions on the topic and a common installation piece. Ten artists have built up web-sites, incorporating a separate Photoshop version in the banners of the pages corresponding not only to visual but also to certain social structures. The basic idea of The Mongrels revolves around the production of two separate types of software designed by the group as instruments for cross-reference between a number of sites addressing the topic. The team adopts a commercial manner of work to be found on the web, while at the same time raising questions of social and political import.

'When it comes to racial culture, commercial search-engines are unable to link the corporal or physical with the communal or the cultural. In this case a modification in the software will result in a change of its function concerning its capacity to link biological and cultural factors.

One of the conseqences of this modified search-engine is the fact that all the files in the project will automatically count the percentage of people taking interest in racism placed against the back-ground of the utter commercialism of the Net. This is a good provocation that complements The Mongrles' function as a piece of art.'

The same line of cultural and social developments in the new media was carried on by Honor Harder in her presentation of the Radia Qualia Project. Honor's projects deal with the ways to foster long-term transnational ties between individual cultural communities. She is also a founder, manager and curator of the alternative Radio Qualia, http://radioqaualia.va.com.au/ that investigates the sound space on the Net trying to grasp its social implications. By experimenting with sound-installations, performance, and other practices the radio creates a live Internet of sounds. The physical experience for the listener is similar to that derived from ordinary radio-stations. Everything else differs. The realisation, the trasmitting methods, the gathering of information employ a radically innovative approach. The advantage of accessing the Net via low-tech equipment in order to draw far-off, local communities closer to the information processes and the global co-operation, lies in the more democratic way of disseminating information. The positive effect of using accessible equipment such as the telephone was most tangible during the Kosovo crisis. Radio Qualia presented one of the few chances to obtain uncensured information about what was happening in neighbouring Yugoslavia. It is quite positive that in the majority of cases the information is filed in by people outside the guild of journalists, which no doubt renders the communication process far more democratic.

Apart from the purely social aspects of her work, Honor Harger dwelt in her presentation on a number of technical issues concerning the electronic media. These two sides of her work are conceptually interrelated and reflect the very idea of launching and operating Radio QUALIA.

'How do we use the means of communication in a very easy and technologically primitive manner, accessible to the majority of people from various social and cultural levels? It is a well-known fact that information and technology are reserved ground for economically and politucally developed societies. How did the information network turn into a specific practice of transmitting information with its capacity of transmitting sound while the sound performs other functions.'

Radio QUALIA was meant to seek, and actually found similarities to the time when the trans-Atlantic radio-connection was established so that a world-wide radio-network could be launched back in 1930s. In those remote years, radio-communication was effectively used to stir the audience and consequently acquired far-reaching social implications. For the people working in the field of alternative interactive radio it is important to seek this primary purpose of the electronic media. The radio should remain faithful to the function of converting the audience from students to teachers. Thus, they would set themselves the task to create a self-dependent radio relying on the interactive models and the intercultural exchange, so that stepping on a related phenomenon called the World Wide Web they can re-define the traditionally established manner of producing radio-programmes.

'This is a two-sided project of transmitting information aimed at an interacting audience, who at the same time are gathering and filing in the material needed for the functioning of the Internet station. For the purpose, we use an autamatic programme, a self-forming list of all the incoming information pieces from the Internet. The listeners' expericences are collected from various parts of the world, which does not necessitate an access to the Internet, the whole procedure can be done over the phone. The file is then activated by an automatic interface.'

This fundamental theme of the access to the Net and the social approach is of chief priority to Radio Qualia as it tries to find new possibilities for contacting the audience and making its programmes more democratic. They consider it hugely important for artists of different cultural communities to have a greater access to the tools of communication. This will open new fields for artistic work and exchange of ideas. Stimulated by this idea Honor Harder and her partners are working on a new project concerning communication. It is called The Frequency Clock. In it they try to bring together several disciplines and electronic media: an installation, a web-project and a system for radio-trasmission over the Internet. This system enables people to listen to sound-art and information from the Net through a normal radio-set using the system of transmitting ultra-short waves from several short-wave transmitters connected into a network. The project naturally widens and further develops the range of interaction with the audience, the aim being to launch interactive communication programmes on the radio. The realisation of the project entailed the creation of new software, but also a slight modification of hardware. The Frequency Clock Project cultivates a broader system of overcoming the geographical boundaries and fosters the intercultural dialogue. This is how the people around Radio Qualia react to the growing need of interaction between the information community, the media, and the outer world. Not infrequently the Internet radio operates outside the established scope of norms in a market-economy. The team often goes beyond law regulations in distributing software and information for free, all needed for the implementation of their individual projects. As Honor put it: 'We impose no censorship when it comes to interpretation or communicating with Radio Qualia. Certainly, there is some kind of censorship on the radio but it is effected in a different manner that resembles the work of a curator. It is the radio's intention not to get isolated into ivory towers but to remain in touch with real life, to collaborate with other media, to utilise all the available technology for the building of a space where we could share our resources in order to strike a new balance between the local and translocal networks in the information high-way of the Internet.'

Tapio Makela is a Finnish critic, curator and artist. His creative and theoretical work is concerned with the theory and criticism of media art and the evolvement of the World Wide Web into a domain of cultural and creative work. As a matter of fact, he is unwilling to stick labels to his professional identification. He puts inverted commas before the terms 'art' and 'theory', being an inventor of new visual practices. Tapio's view, expressed in his presetation at the theoretical seminar of the Communication Front Project, is characterised by an explicit radical and critical approach towards new technology and the World Wide Web. As an exponent of the opposition he remarks on the decreased importance of traditional art-theory which is being supplanted by the new media culture. He takes interest in the various trends of politics and media culture, as well as the part played by communication technology within a society and its historical context. He is partial to the idea of public and socially committed art which is made possible through the Internet.

'The stages of history are far easier to grasp than the stages of technology. There is this interesting coincidence between the desire of the artists from the 50s and 60s to escape from the pedestal of galleries, and the working environment of contemporary media artists. As late as the 1960s the notion of 'public' was primarily associated with sculpture in parks and other open-air locations. Another strategy was to produce sufficient number of copies in order to thwart the market manipulation. The work of Martin Oslar, an American sculptor of 1960s, is a good example of a quite conscious overcoming of the restrainsts of gallery halls. In a series of carelessly typed poetic texts, she describes contemporary art as a table where you are being served or not being served, I hope you get the point. The restraints of the gallery are not grounded solely on the money or the art-market practices, they also lie in the interference with the author's work in order to make him/her a commercial product. Further complicating the discourse, we can introduce the notion of the 'audience'. The audience is compromised, the mechanisms for the perception of visual art in a market-society are determined by the very market and its demands. The behaviour of the audience reminds of a religious ecstasy of quiet commitment. That is why the questions raised already in the 1960s about the social commitment of the artist and his relation with the audience are quite relevant now as we attempt to look deeper into the different methods of producing art and communication. Nevertheless, we should be wary of the audience's interference with the creative process. We should take into account the context for the analysis of this involvement and communion.

The interactivity, this new category of the visual, is rather a possibility for contact between the artist and the audience. However, we should always accept interactivity as an instrument of manipulation, providing a good opportunity for the artist to implement his ideas. These are projects that do not easily allow of one-sided identification, they presuppose a multiple interpretation. Such projects frequently use the surpise factor, as is the case with the 'Parasite' Project from the Netherlands. Authors ought to think of new ways to involve the audience.

A walk in a museum hall will give only a superficial knowledge of the collection, while a web-site presenting the same museum will grant the chance for a profounder perception and reflection of its exhibits. There exists some interdepence between the expansion of media space and the scarcity of inner-city space.

We witness a variety of discourses, criticism and opinions concerning new media culture. The most important of them, it seems, is the newly-formed Media Culture Network. It is currently being talked over, built, there is an ongoing process of chrystallising the ideas provoked by the topic. This amounts to a change of vision, but also a change in the very idea of things that can acquire new and unexpected dimensions. At the theoretical seminar devoted to the new Media Culture Network held at the last edition of Dokumenta, the important theme of the translocal emerged. The notion of the 'Deep Europe' was coined. The significance of this purely European discourse was re-affirmed by the recent Kosovo crisis. We witnessed an unusually high level of activity on the Net. The information surpassed our capacities to digest it. Europe is at its deepest where most historical layers are accumulated. Our perceptions are burdened by the vertical cultural systems for measuring the various cultural communities, which is a rather restricted way of looking on the translocal. The question that I keep asking myself is that of my personal belonging to the European cultural paradigm.

Everything said so far is closely connected with another issue of no less importance, that of art and its funding, and of its involvement and status within the international network. Certainly, this lies in the scope of interest of governments and other organizations that work in the sphere of cultural policies. The media environment when analysed from an economic point of view provokes criticism towards our personal idea of what is contemporary and our adequate response to the information processes that sweep us into the network of the never-ending information high-way. To get you online is a way of entering the modern world and bringing it to your society, to your personal surroundings. But all this is highly relative. Our hesitation over the definition of modernity determines our lack of confidence when defining the categories and links between the traditional and the modern. Then comes the crisis of post-modern times and what follows the media utopias. Depending on the different geographical location there are different starting points, so that we should be very cautious in describing the Internet as a dimension of modernity. Yet, this is a new strategy, its basic goal being to bring together people of different social circles. The contrast to similar attempts and events is evident: this environment is not modelled around a fixed aim; for the artistic media-community this new strategy is a transition from curatorship to a more democratic form of collaboration. This is an essentially innovative approach presented by the new media in the history of art.'

Selected and recorded by Dimitrina Sevova, curator of The CFront'99

Translated by Ivan Ivanov

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