Computer Age is Coming into Age
Interviewed by Alexei Shulgin
AS: We know you have had a special interest in the different practical aspects of software use and development (such as online collaboration, content filtering, community creation and maintenance) for nearly ten years now through your collaborations with Handshake, Internationale Stadt and Nettime. What were the early promises of those initiatives and what were their successes and failures? What lessons can be learnt from your and your colleagues' experiences?
PS: it is interesting, the computer age is coming into age. first pioneers dying, others writing their
memoires. but it is also like the cat with 7 lives, or the net year which is 7 men year. computer
history is not a continuum, but rather happening in waves, like music styles and other histories too.
so there is the attack, decay, sustain, release phase. let's be a friend of the surfing metaphor
for a moment. i'm not a friend of hypes and mass psychologies, but i'm also not living in the illussion of the possiblity of completely untimliness observations, maybe waves are already visible long before the hype happens. this is usually the best time. and there are many smaller and bigger waves. it is something different than the avant-garde, which pretends to be always the only, the last one, and which focuses on the human, and everything.
same with the idea of movements, or deterministic linearity of asking what comes first, and who
was the author/father of an idea etc. it comes down to the pleasure principle, of what is worth
of spending your time with. what keeps your attention and what makes sense in a way that it has
a large potential of immanent possibilities to have an impact on a larger scale.
so all the projects i did have in one or the other way something to do with each other in
simple ways. they were collaborative, working with a group of people. they were non-disciplinary
in the way they included many different practices and theories, they were speculative or better
based on immanence of a field of potentials, and they were pragmatic in a way of causing a real effect in people's lives. also translation is interesting, applying certain theories in practice. applying
computer studies to art for example. groups and technology are both having an attraction to me
which are about maintaining and establishing spaces of possibilities, freedom is a more old-fashioned term. spaces to learn more about it. education and training without a textbook. experimentation. falsification. reboot. in this way the dream is to have many lives, time, and energy for many projects.
on another level, you really have to edit this, there is a sense of locality, of the city of berlin, and on the other hand my background, the romantic/academic city of heidelberg, my family, which is rather typical-non-typical, and on the other hand the biosphere/noosphere, the global and internationalist vector. the computer is just the agent of change, the thing you decide to work with after trying other fields like music, theory, politics and then see that it is convertible, compatible with these fields of interest. it is also rather authority free, because there is not much being done before, like with other modernisms, but this is only seemingly so.
the social patterns, the philosophical background resonate with the all-too-common, all-too-human,
so this is what handshake, nettime, internationale stadt, botschaft were about. plus the experience
of the fall of the wall, that history happens and catapults you into a new time, a field of openness,
which can be sometimes overwhelming, and sad insofar when more and more closures happen, commodifications, power discourses.
another level is a kind of aesthetic one, minimalist, ethical and pragmatic, but radical only insofar
as being as idiosyncratic as needed and as crafty and passionate with the tools and matter of interest
as you like. always be open to waste your time with a project, but also leave it if you think it's time.
there is timing and there is dry conceptualism which helps sometimes not to get lost with the candy cake part. and then there are countless hours in places like elektro where the ideas where born, talks on an informal level that it is hard to remember them.
AS: You once mentioned 'grey zones of software culture' - practices going beyond pragmatic programming or conventional computer use but not quite reaching the level of self-reflective 'art'. Could you briefly list some of those zones as you see them and perhaps show their interrelation and a rough timeline for them.
PS: there are several of those innocent initial moments of invention. the game space war on a mainframe computer done in the early 70ies. they reflect scifi of that time, odysee 2001. and the screen as a narrative space, a universe. until today computer games are not regarded as art. there is no godard of game development, but there are great pieces like tetris, defender, and many others which defined own genres. then there is the power user scene, rather born in teenage-suburbia than the universities and war-science-labs, the demo scene and their standards mostly the musical one, modules, is still a model for 'open source' music production, folkloristic indeed, based on
chart hits but distinctively different from what electronic dance floor music became. they are made in and for the bedroom.
then there is the field of gimmicks, nerdy tricks and playing with the given formulas, the eyes which follow the mousepointer. artists like perry hoberman are informed by such DIY tinkering. there is the useless software production, insider gags, easter eggs, hidden features based on mathematical jokes, the escher-tromp-d'euille effects of playing with perception, a sense of zen, of playful sense-lessness within a whole ecology of cultural production, hidden in technocratic productivity.
the timeline of these developments is rather continuous, one will find those phenomena on different
platforms, at different times. finally there is the other side, art which reflects the impact of the computer age without using the computer as a direct medium, but rather reflecting it on the
strategic level. archive art, art and language, art which has to do with the information age, as
everything else has. it borders to the grey zone insofar as it doesn't include 'media art'.
and finally there are people exploring possibilities of the technology, in architecture, drawing
comics, doing animations, it's all over the place, and not at all only on the professional level.
one example are the virtual planet worlds of the bryce community, or the kitsch of povray raytracing community. the community based aspect is central here. it replaces the function of the art system to some degrees, and has a village life aspect, of knowing each other,
in-fights and little rivalries included. even the presumption that this type of production is only based on male imagination cannot be taken for granted anymore, as well as the western centered view.
there are many pockets of digital culture. there is no such high standard of common web design
like in japan for example. and it is again different from china or korea, while possibly a side effect
of western perception of not being able to read the content. the aspect of watching some tribal, authentic somehow less alienated type of digital culture is not taking in account, that most of
more elaborated work comes out of such backgrounds or is informed by it, that there is no other, and trails of these folkloristic myths are defining not the backbone but the background of digital culture.
AS: You have proposed the category of 'Digital folk and artisanship' for the Runme.org software art repository. We know that folk art has always been a source of inspiration for 'high culture'. The Russian composer Glinka once said that "Music is made by the people, we artists just make arrangements".
The disappearance of real folk and, consequently, of folk culture is seen as one of the causes of the crisis of contemporary western culture. Do you think this new, digital folk has the potential to renew this exhausted culture through software art that naturally appropriates it?
PS: folk has to do with the people, what the people do, what defines them. it is replaced by global
patterns like hiphop but still has these backgrounds, takes the history with it. i rather like the
approach of bela bartok, getting inspired by simple tunes, but not simulating authentic true-ness of happy village life. it is more about structural simplicity without getting into formalisms. and even those formalisms, fractals, julia-sets, html, become a signature of a certain 'rural' culture, insofar as
it is not established but ubiquitous, not fully commercially organized but productive. it is the small
form, the stupid dialogue, which then suddenly gets put into the spotlight as pulp, trash, etc. as
a strategy to refresh authoritarian regimes of quality control, which just represent social structures.
(economical, political) folk also has to do here with low threshold of entering an ecology of micro-production, which can lead to new patterns again. but it is no general remedy for cultural decay. nothing which can preexist if it is put out of context into a museum. the unimportance of a specific
folk work, it's similarity to countless other works, is a feature. naivety is not, because it is as
hard to be informed as to keep uninformed today. the element of innocence is rather the absence or
resistance to put itself into a certain set of quality control mechanisms.
countless mp3 archive tools, countless pieces of shareware of the same type have folkloristic qualities, especially if they do not run well. they show a richness of a certain kind, which can be only called cultural.