Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Marianne van den Boomen part 2

So, more from Marianne... First her account of how she encountered the internet:

The Internet came into view in 1993, when I attended the famous Hacking at the End of the Universe camp (the HEU, as it is called) in a Dutch nowhere land polder, organized by the hacker-techno-anarchists of Hacktic (later called Xs4all, still my Internet provider, and I am proud that my e-mail adresses at Hacktic and xs4all are still working. I was there with my tent and laptop to write an article for De Groene about the hacker movement. Man, what fun did I have there! Hundreds of tents on a site, lectures, workshops and demonstrations in bigger tents, 300 public computers connected to the Internet, 1000 boys and 10 women/girls camping, talking, internetting, listening, laughing.
I notice that even then, there were far fewer women, but interestingly, Marianne felt the following way:
The amazing thing was that the atmosphere was really like what I knew of women's festivals - I came right out of the women's movement, and here there were boys and men all over the place, sharing their stuff and experiences, discussing how to get human right violations reports out of Gaza over weak telephone lines, how to get rid of the fascists on their bulletin board systems without betraying their principle of freedom of speech, talking about Gopher (the text menu based navigating system, no web yet) and newsgroups and mailinglists and FTP.
From here we talked further about gender stuff and Marianne had some interesting observations. I'm not sure a man who did not know how computers worked (who was not a nerd) would have felt any different than what Marianne describes below.
Mm, my prior experiences with computers did not really impress me. At school 'computers' were something unseen, a hobby of a few boys with the wrong clothes, who went studying math and physics. Classical nerds, and at that time 'nerd' was not associated with anything sexy or fun at all. When I studied psychology I had my first hands on experience with computers: mainframes behind glass...(the typewriters connected to the computer did not even have screens). I did not have a clue what I was doing and it did not interest me at all. ... no, not my cup of tea. For that matter, just a classic women stance towards computers.

The first time I had an idea about computers was again at the research institute were I worked, actually before they bought the word processors. In the hall there was a piece of furniture I did not understand. It was a huge table, in which a kind of typewriter was built in. No one used it, it was just standing there. I asked other people what it was, no one knew, but one day the publisher visited the insititute, he saw the thing and he told me that it was a word processor, on which you could save and edit text. And that is was a shame that the institute did not know how to handle it. At that moment I got a glimpse, I had a idea what could be done with such a device, I have been involved in several feminist magazines as a volunteer, and some of these we had to typeset ourselves at the printing house. ... Though there were ways to correct a letter or a word, you usually ruined the rhythm of the words and the sentence cause the font types were proportional, there was not enough space or too much space after deleting and then inserting a new letter. I realized that this problem would be solved with a word processor.

So in that sense my computing education is 'classical feminine': I did not see anything in computers as long as it was about calculation, but when it turned out to be about writing, language and typesetting I got it. Of course, this is a tricky stereoptype male=calculation, language=female, but it worked for me. I have to admit that I used this stereotypical argument in my book 'Internet ABC voor vrouwen' (Internet ABC for women, 1995) to convince women they had to get their hands on this stuff, because otherwise the Internet would remain a toy for boys. My message was basically: don't be afraid, the Internet it is more about language and communication than it is about computing and technology. I am still a bit ashamed for that argument... But it worked.
I really question the way we use this stereotype of pragmatism versus play. Marianne and others have said they cared about tech once they saw it could help them do something they wanted to do, and they seem to think this is more how women think, while men use tech more often for playful reasons. But This distinction rests on what we define at "just for fun" or "for a serious purpose" and no one seems to question those categories.
Oh, I suddenly remember another 'computing' experience which was perhaps also crucial. Actually, I would not call it computing, but it definitely had to do with micro-electronics and chips. I was playing in a punk band, and in Amsterdam Michel Waisvisz from STEIM (institute for experimental electronic music) had designed a so called crackle box, a very primitive synthesizer which did not have a keyboard as interface, but turning keys and a metal plate on which you laid your fingers. The resistance (temperature, moist. movement) of your fingers was then translated by VOC's (I don't remember what it meant, voltage operating circuits or centers, I think - anyway, they were computer chips) into eh... sound, noise, great noise! But you never knew before what noise :-)
To me, this sounds like just the kind of playful appreciation usually attributed to men.
I wanted to play a crackle box too! ... I went to STEIM and they gave me the drawings, the schemes, and a list of stuff needed: transistors, VOC's, and all kinds of other tiny little things you had to buy in a radio hobby shop. I had a friend who was deeply into electronics and soldering, and he taught me how to do this. I have ruined so many chips and two print plates by my unexperienced soldering! Eventually we never did a gig with the crackle box, it blew itself up all the time, and that was completely my fault since I changed the original design: I did not want to work with batteries but with a transformator and ordinary net current... Which was pretty stupid, since the thing worked by direct touch contact. I have had my portion of electroshocks...

I think for me the point was, both with the word processor and the crackle box: if I have an idea of what I want to accomplish, and if I have the idea that this can be done with a technology on which I can lay my hands on, which I can appropriate, adjust, tweak, then I am into technology. I am not a hacker, of course, but I always liked the old hacker's slogan: hands-on! Because it is both literal and figural a matter of hands-on, both with the crackle box and the computer (which' most important interface is the keyboard, and not the screen.) Strange enough such a basically pragmatic drive is not usual in women. I at least had no women friends who have the same fun in appropriating technology.
So Marianne seems to have really gotten into a kind of hardware hacking, or even circuit bending, which again is usually assumed to only be interesting to men. And she even describes this as atypical among women. I talked to her further via email about this, so I'll get into that in the next post, as well as finally getting to the in-person interview! --and if you think this has been long (even though I edited out a lot) just wait a few entries until I get to my interview with Florian Cramer, which I managed to actually record. Or rather he did. ;-)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Interview with Marianne van den Boomen

On the same day I interviewed Erna I went also to speak with Marianne van den Boomen, who is also working on a PhD at Utrecht University, in new media. Marianne has already been writing about technology for some time, so she has a very well-informed perspective. Before meeting in person we exchanged a series of emails, so I will start with some excerpts from that exchange.

I guess I have to make a distinction between new media and Internet, because I encountered these separately.

My first involvement with new media was in 1984. I was working as an editor of a magazine called Marge, a monthly magazine about social work, community work and social movements (feminist, gay, squatting etc). That year the research institute where we had our office had bought a word processing system (not even MS DOS, it was a dedicated Dutch word processing system, with huge 8 inch floppies, on which you could store I think 30 pages). The system was meant for just the secretaries, to type reports, but we, the three magazine editors, went with the secretaries on a course to learn it. We had the idea that with this we could publish the magazine without the expensive, bureaucratic and tiresome steps in between the editing and final printing (manual copy editing on typescripts, sending it by snail mail to the typesetter, getting strips back by snail mail, proofreading, sending it back again, doing the layout with the returned corrected strips, sending it back again, and then final proofreading - and always fights with the publisher about delivering to much typesetting work). So we started to do the typesetting by ourselves in-house - that indeed did save us money we had to pay to the publisher, and it was big fun, but of course it increased tremendously our working hours... First mistake :-)

Nevertheless, I was completely in love with those word processing machines - magical typewriters, which enabled bypassing intermediary institutions by doing-it-yourself, hands-on (I still consider PCs that way). The same year I organized a conference and a special issue of the magazine about 'The electronic social worker - Information technology and welfare'. The issue was about what would happen when computers would enter the field of social and community work. The issue and the conference addressed computer democracy, community building, client-registration systems, privacy issues, Orwell's 1984, new labour relations, changes in quality of labour, social and cultural impact etc.

To write the general overview article I visited several clubs and institutions, among these an open day of the Utrecht School of Arts, which showed the latest stuff in the field of computer aided design and games. It was impressive, color screens, moving images (I had never seen that before), proud technophilic teachers giving demonstrations. But the most impressive moment was when three boys sneaked in (I guess 14-year old, clearly not the intended student target group, they had the wrong age, the wrong coats and the wrong Utrecht accent). They asked if they could show their stuff, because they had 'some problems with sequencing' they could not figure out. The teachers allowed them to put their cassettes in a computer, and at once all the other CAD-stuff in the room looked bleak and dull: this was the real stuff, very professional funny animations and games, including music. Homebrew! The embarrassed teachers immediately pulled the plug. The boys left, and I now regret forever that I did not talk to them. But that was the moment I realized: there must be a whole subculture out there, doing things with computers which will amaze the world...

Later at my work MS-DOS computers with WordPerfect and 5 1/4 inch floppies replaced the Océ proprietary system, and we started to use telephone modems to send the magazine completely laid out to the publisher. I started working as a copy editor at a weekly magazine, the Groene Amsterdammer, and because I had a little bit more knowledge about computer systems I also became the system manager (teaching the editorial team Windows and e-mail!), and now and then I wrote articles about computer culture, and later about the Internet.
Marianne really took time to reflect on what she thought when she first encountered computers, and I note that for her as well there is an idea that they can confer some kind of freedom; freedom from layers of control, freedom from the constraints of some other medium. Also, like Sher and Erna, Marianne had the experience of being the most knowledgeable in a community or workplace, and so sort of fell into the role of tech expert, and in her case actually gaining a title of system manager. I have a tone of material for this interview, so tomorrow I'll post another entry but try to make it a little more of a digest.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Erna Kotkamp part 2

So I talked to Erna quite a bit about gender stuff, since she actually has worked in that area for some time and she has reflected pretty thoroughly on her own experiences and observations. For one thing, she finds that she does have to prove her technological expertise more often than male teachers, and when she observes the teachers she trains she sees the same thing. In a class on computer use, women teachers are still more likely to be asked "test" questions than men, which suggests that though men and women may use computers for daily tasks in the same ways, and may be aware that they use them in the same ways, when people talk or think about being "experienced with computers," they tend to use a narrow definition that depends on actual programming or other creation, rather than just use, and that men are still perceived as being more competent.

Also, Erna made a really good point in saying that she defined her own level of experience differently in different settings. Among her colleagues in Gender Studies, who are not so focused on tech, Erna describes herself as very experienced, but among people who program a lot, she describes herself as less so. So I think we need to look more closely at what standard people are using when asked to either describe their own practice or to evaluate others.

She also made an interesting comment about relationships and careers; as I said in part 1 of the interview, she mentioned herself still feeling like she had to have serious reasons to use tech, not just enjoying the playful aspect and that this was part of an old, embedded gender stereotype. She also later said that it was easier for lesbians to escape that dynamic because between two women (and I assume his would hold for gay men) choosing to work or not did not instantly force you into some stance in relation to traditional roles. Oddly, in a completely different context, a gay friend of mine here in the US recently said the same. So that may be a real issue, but hard to get at since if self-reporting about tech use is unreliable, I would guess that self-reporting about partner's attitudes or relationship issues connected to work with tech might be even less so! And I'd really prefer to avoid using tiny spy-cams.

Erna in particular found that ICTs were important to her because she doesn't like F2F communication so much. She claimed that she simply would not talk to people or stay as connected to them without email, chat applications, and Skype. This went really counter to the assumption most people seemed to make that connecting, speaking, or performing live was always better.

Finally, continuing the theme of socializing, she felt that while New Media as a field was more cooperative than some, it was not very cohesive, compared to E-Learning, for example. What I start to notice is that the artists I speak with find it quite cooperative while the academics do not, which suggests again another case where people are using different baseline criteria. Really a great interview in the way it helps me to start seeing larger patterns and figuring out which questions I need to ask next.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Interview with Erna Kotkamp

Erna Kotkamp 2008
Originally uploaded by cuuixsilver
My next interview was with Erna Kotkamp, who is at U. Utrecht where she has been doing work on gender studies, and more lately on technology. Erna described her use of technology in a way that, so far, more closely resembles the "classic geek mode" than any of the other people with whom I spoke. She said she was most comfortable with a screw-driver in hand, tinkering with a computer's guts. At the same time, even she was not completely comfortable saying she just found it fun, admitting any frivolous reasons for her use of tech. And she noted herself that it was interesting to find such an old gender old still affecting her so much.

Though Erna is not focusing explicitly on gender in her current research, which is on open-source software and e-learning, it was more explicitly part of this interview than in many, maybe because she notices that aspect in her work as a matter of course. She mentioned that 10 years ago, it was still common for people in humanities disciplines to feel comfortable ignoring tech or even announcing their ignorance of computers. At that time she was the "tech-y one" in Women's Studies at U. Utrecht and was often called on to help others do things with computers, even to make PowerPoint slides. Now people are not so comfortable admitting techno-illiteracy, but Erna still feels some she knows need to be more savvy, and more importantly to recognize that knowing how to use tech and how to think critically about it are both essential basic skills now.

This conversation seemed to be be much more organic (that is to say non-linear and recursive) so this write-up will also be that way and also since I thought I was recording it and the device turned out to not work, I will probably have to come back and edit details later. :P

Though Erna is the most inclined toward hardware hacking and of the women I've spoken with so far, one of the most proficient at coding, she seemed to get started sort of incidentally. Her family always was much more focused on arts and humanities kind of stuff, so neither she nor her brother were encouraged to do much with math, science, or tech. So though Erna feels her strengths lie in these later areas, she never really had much chance to develop them (or maybe even recognize them?) until by chance she took computer classes during her BA studies.

Anyway, Erna had quite a few insights into her own use of technology, the open-source scene, and the impact of gender...but that will be in the next post because in fact i have to go do family stuff myself right now!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Renee Turner part 2

Ok, slowly trying to catch up on these interviews... So, Renee is now working on an MA in fiction, and interestingly, she seems to share some of the same interests as Sher in thinking about writing or text as part of artistic practice. Right now she's finishing her MA project which involves both fiction and non-fiction intertwined and she's thinking about going on to a PhD in which she can explore narratives in electronic literary forms. Work she's already done in De Geuzen reflect some of these interests, like the virtual seance with Guy Debord or some aspects of the Female Icons series.

Along with discussing these aesthetic and theoretical aspects, we talked a lot about how she used technology and what really affects women's use. A couple of really interesting things emerged from this part of the interview. Because Renee has been a tutor at Piet Zwart this year, we were talking about that experience, in particular about women learning to program. Anyone who knows Florian Cramer (the director of the Media design MA program at Piet Zwart) knows of his preference for the command-line and has probably heard his reasoning on why graphical user interfaces are limiting to users. Since I know Renee is not a really avid coder, I asked her what her view on this was and how the students reacted.

(Since coding is almost always part of gender stereotypes around tech, this is a useful way to create an opportunity for gender to arise in the discussion without forcing it into the story artificially.)

Anyway, a couple of things came up. First, all of the students seemed to manage the coding without too much trouble (and the class is about 50/50 women and men). Second, at the same time, the students most likely to get into "tech as toy" thinking were men, but in such a small group, that doesn't really show anything. Third, and most interesting, she thought the real reason women appeared to have a harder time learning to write code or use the command line has to do with the way their time is structured, especially if they are taking care of kids or other family.

Renee felt, and I can certainly confirm this from my own experience, that learning a programming language or to use the command line takes a kind of sustained attention over time that often women don't have if they have families. She realized this after reading Martha Rosler's work on how women read magazines (among other topics). Apparently women read magazines like Vogue because they can put them down and pick them up easily, and being interrupted is not too much of a problem. So her idea is that graphical user interfaces enable a similar ability to put down and pick up computer work. Her own experience has been that if she is trying to (or succeeds at) learning how to code something or do something via the command line, if she then has an interruption of several days (or of course longer) she loses her place and has to start over figuring out how she did it. I have found this as well, and when I later spoke with Erna Kotkamp and Audrey Sampson, they each independently mentioned similar experiences

I don't think this indicates a difference between how men and women think, rather, anyone would probably have trouble if they were frequently interrupted and I think women are more prone to being interrupted or perhaps allowing themselves to be. Certainly anyone with children experiences this problem, and women are still more likely to be primary caregivers, especially when kids are very young (a time when one is lucky if one can squeeze out an hour of uninterrupted time from caretaking). But further, I suspect that women are less likely to insist on uninterrupted time because it may seem self-centered. --The persistence of this particular aspect of gendered socialization is still surprisingly strong and it showed up in most women's reluctance to feel using tech for fun was even relevant to our discussion.

So when I ask how or why they use tech, most women only talk about reasons they feel are serious, worthwhile, important, etc. Though some may actually play with it in the same way men do, or use tech in the same way for the same reasons, they seem to perceive or at least describe their use very differently. This raises interesting challenges in how to best interpret my interviews if I want to make any general comment about women and tech/new media in the Netherlands.

I'm sure I'm forgetting some other important ideas--but maybe the ones that stick are most important. Yeah, that's it... ;-) Well, I'll check with Renee, but that's it for now.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Renee Turner 2008

Renee Turner 2008
Originally uploaded by cuuixsilver
My next interview was with Renee Turner, a member of De Geuzen, for whom I gave a talk last January. De Geuzen is a group of 3 women conducting what they term "multi-visual" research, and most of it involves computers and digital media in some way.

Renee describes herself as a perpetual student and this is pretty clear looking at her educational history: BA University of Dallas, [1984-1989]; MFA University of Arizona, [1990-1992] and MAs from Rijksakademie, Department of Photographic Media, Amsterdam, The Netherlands [1993-1994], and the Jan van Eyck , Laureate: Theory, [1995-1996]. Now she's finishing an MFA in writing from a UK school and is considering going on for PhD in New Media or something like that. But this seems in a certain way another point in common among the people I've interviewed, especially the women--they are always pushing into new areas, learning new things. That's not to say this is reserved for women, or new media scholars/artists, but more people have explicitly mentioned that as a motive. I suppose maybe it's no surprise that people studying new media (and as a foreshadowing, I have trouble even writing that phrase now that I've officially interviewed Florian) are more interested in continually having to learn something new.

Anyway, Renee started really with photography, but soon got in to digital images. She said that for her, new media seemed to allow more freedom from disciplinary constraints, but also that it allows her to much more easily combine and remix media (the advantage of digitality, of course).

She summed up her overall view as this: "I want to be rigorous, but I'm not into being disciplined at all."

more on Renee's work soon...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sher Doruff part 2

Ok, so...the creative industries. I must say that so far I have not heard one good thing about the plan to change to this model, and Sher was no exception. She feels the added bureaucracy will prevent any really interesting and original project from ever getting funded. While maybe this will push some artists into doing much more interesting work because they have no funding,but do have some freedom, in the meantime the money is going to some kind of domesticated, tamed crap.

The issue of tech becoming tame is interesting. Sher felt really strongly about that; how the ease with which we can now do things has eliminated the wonder people used to feel, and also made the practice of connecting online really routine, so that people don't think about new possibilities, they just use it for pragmatic things. (Practice is really important for Sher, as I'll get to later). To illustrate, I can compare something like google docs which numerous people edit a doc, even simultaneously, or that site (I forget the name of course) that let's people kind of jam together and lay down musical tracks, to the tool Sher worked on for her PhD project at De Waag KeyWorx. The developers of this platform created a

Multi-User Cross Media Synthesizer - a distributed application that allows multiple players to generate, synthesize and process images, sounds and text within a shared realtime environment. As an instrument it allows communities of players to dynamically control and modify all aspects of digitized media in a collaborative performance.
and Sher described it as really exciting because you gave up control, couldn't always tell what was going to happen or what would happen because keyworx would let other people change not just the media files that were being produced, but the actual functioning of the scripts that transformed the files, so it was a kind of live coding as well. (I think) Anyway, this tool really only makes sense for people who know some scripting or programming languages, so the availability of other tools that do much less but are much easier may stop artists (or whomever) from going as far as they could to learn a more flexible but also more difficult practice.

We also talked a bit about specific institutions and while I feel like maybe it's gossipy, on the other hand, I think it's informative so... I had suspected last summer that De Waag had really moved away from an art focus to a much more creative industry kind of focus, yet they were still applying for art funding, and also in site of having some massive budget already (not sure where their other money comes from). --This is what I have gleaned from numerous conversations, but of course what defines an "art focus" is debatable. V2_ on the other hand has become really hermetic and narrowly focused, (again, this is what I thought last summer when Alex told me he wasn't really interested in outreach at all, and it seems to have been an issue for them this year. It's also problematic (I think) in terms of how they participate in the scene because in the end they are just talking to themselves and not really participating in the development of new media in a way that affects or takes into account what anyone else is doing, or the socio-economic events going on around them.

Steim, I learned, has been around for ages and continues to do interesting things (don't know as much about them) but they've never had enough money and don't seem as well publicised (but maybe that's because everyone already knows them?), which may also be why they have trouble. In fact, neither V2_ nor Steim seem to have communicated very clearly what they are contributing to the new media scene. --This is my sense because when I try to ask people about what they aim to do, I haven't yet met anyone who says clearly "oh yes, they aim for this."

--In fact since originally writing this I've emailed with Sher a bit more and she said that Steim is not actually interested in the new media scene, but rather is focused on instruments, interfaces and sound. Of course a group probably shouldn't worry about explaining to people everything they are not concerned with, but on the other hand, many other people have said I should talk to some members of Steim, and seem to consider them part of the new media scene, so there really does seem to be some confusion. The conflicting perceptions of both the scene of what's good for the scene or not are turning out to be really interesting. I think that I may end up with something like what one sees through a "dragonfly eye" rather than a single picture.

I mentioned Worm and Sher didn't know them very well, but was interested in the kinds of things they've done, especially the collaborations with Piet Zwart--it's funny but I find myself feeling the impulse to connect people I think would offer something good to each other, which seems to be a basic feature of this scene. I've seen Florian do it a lot, William Uricchio, Sher herself offered to help me contact people...I guess it really is very cooperative.

Finally, Sher spoke about a project she is working on right now with support from Brian Massumi and Erin Manning; it's an artist's residence, but her project is textual. She is trying to develop writing as an artistic practice and has evolved an approach that includes pasting texts and images onto an 8 meter scroll of paper everyday, taking pictures of that and reintegrating them on the scroll, cutting up the text, moving it around, and creating a kind of collage that represents the development of her ideas over time. Of course this immediately rang a bell because this process is very similar to things we have students do sometimes in the writing classes, but Sher is doing it in a much more sustained way, and also thinking more rigorously about it as a practice (or process, to use the comp. theory term). I'll be interested to see where it takes her.

So yeah, a really dense interview, and probably there are things I'm forgetting right now. More than any of the other people, Sher had a clear sense of herself as a practitioner, always looking for a new challenge, always exploring and testing. Like many of the people, especially the women, she seemed to really enjoy taking a moment (or several hours) to speak about these things. I'm wondering if it's because no one has really been interested before (which seems unlikely with Sher) or if being officially asked to reflect is somehow interesting... well, maybe that will become clearer as I go on.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Interview with Sher Doruff -- a different view of new media fragmentation

Or discontinuities, or whatever term captures the idea that a field that previously seemed really fluid and border-less no longer is so. Coalescence? Coagulation? Choosing the right metaphor seems much more important these days.

I spoke to Sher Doruff a few days ago and really wish I'd by then acquired a recorder--still working on that in fact--because it was a brilliant interview. She has been working on new media for a long time, much longer than most of the others with whom I am speaking. In fact since the mid 70s, before any one was even talking about new media the way we do now, Sher was working with electronic music. She was part of a band in this genre before moving more into computer work and even more experimental audio stuff --we didn't go too far into this part of her story though. I really started with the points at which she moved into new media, and at which she came to the Netherlands. It seems she feels she started with new media pretty early, as I said, and mainly because of the freedom she believed it would offer both because the technologies were so new, no one had any pre-conceived idea of technical limitations, they just tried anything and everything. Further, in those early days, there were no stereotypes about computers being only for men, or that men were more inclined or more skilled at them--no one really felt very skilled.

This was sort of a revelation to me because the other women I've spoken with are younger--between 25-45--so they entered the larger story much later. Most of the other women mention the lack of perceived limits when it comes to what the tech can do, or at least the feeling that it offered more freedom to them in some way, but most of them did not have such an experience of thinking they would be able to completely shed gender stereotypes related to careers or activities. --I can see this will be a point I need to look at in all the ineterviews since so many people have mentioned it.

Anyway, Sher had a pretty good career developing in New York but then her apartment burnt down and she decided to go to France, ended up doing a residency there, and they went up to Amsterdam where she started doing some stuff for Steim, and just stayed there for awhile. Most recently she was at De Waag, where I spoke to her last year, but now she is teaching at the Theater School (part of the Hogeschool in Amsterdam). She has had other more immediate reasons for leaving one path for another whenever she made a change, but she also seems to reach a point in any medium where she feels she has figured out what she wanted to know and then turns to something else. Sometimes she later goes back, and of course, she doesn't abandon any of them really, but rather shifts the focus of her inquiry (from what I can tell).

Sher had a mixed view of the New Media scene in general. On the one hand, she feels that new media artists, especially people working online, are paralyzed precisely because the tools are now so easy to use. I know what she means; it's similar to what happens with course management systems at the university. Those CMSs make it pretty easy to put stuff online for a class, but maybe not in exactly in the way you want to try. But it's so much easier than doing it all from scratch, and seeing how it works in the CMS can make thinking of alternatives even harder.

But my own experience has been that while the majority of people don't go beyond the limits built into most plug 'n play type software, usually there are some number who hit the limits, get frustrated, and switch to learning how to really do it themselves. Maybe artists who can do that ought to rethink their whole practice (or even career choice) anyway. So that's one of the more negative things she said. But she thinks there will eventually be a crisis, and then a renewal, or a new approach.

On the other hand, she was not so worried about the coagulation of the new media field. She feels that the separation into different subfields will create difference, which she generally regards as a good thing, and that these different groups will come up with different ideas, questions, and answers, and different ways of thinking about the shared ideas, questions, and answers. --And so these groups when they do interact, would have much more fruitful exchanges. I asked Sher if she thought the groups actually would interact and share, because so far I find that they don't seem to communicate so much lately, and William felt this as well. But Sher thinks that they still cooperate far more than most other disciplines. I wonder though if it's really that the new media organizations Sher works with are cooperative, but that other types, like universities, are not so much. I mean, maybe it's over-generalized. Another point to compare across interviews.

We also talked about the creative industries, some of the specific Dutch institutions, and her current work with Brian Massumi, but I'll put that in the next post.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

M/E/M/E 2.0 by Danja Vassiliev

Node Mode by Danja Vassiliev
Originally uploaded by cuuixsilver
Another great project was Node Mode which consisted of a computer that created a network, a mechanical device made of 28 cd drives that would open and close via a web interface, and a camera mounted on the device that sent pictures of the open cd tray back to the browser. In each tray was a disc made of circuit board material and etched with various "buttons" typical of those we click every day on webpages. The pictures of these discs became image maps in the browser windows.

Both this project and Gordo's are interesting in that they are concrete objects that a collector or museum could display and at the same time can be controlled by or have an impact on websites which anyone might access. This seems a much more interesting kind of interactivity.


Originally uploaded by cuuixsilver
One of the coolest of the projects I saw at the Piet Zwart graduation show was Playsureveillance by Gordan Savicic. There are several simple games that as you play, collect data about the user and post it to a Facebook page, including sexual orientation and dating interests. A great comment on privacy issues, among other things.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

William Uricchio part 2

So one of the biggest issues in many of my interviews has been funding and William talked about this as well. Right now there is a lot of money available for digitizing historical archives and so every school is looking through their library to see what might be worth proposing as a project. The money comes from both education and art funding, so this also represents quite a shift in emphasis from supporting art creation to supporting art history. Not to say that all the money is shifting, but a million or two million euros is still quite a big chunk, and some of the smaller organizations don't get much money, or have much of a budget at all, so even small cuts are big problems for them.

Also, there is a change to the funding system underway because of a decision to use a "creative industries" model. Since the 1980s arts funding has worked as follows: "a long-term grant is awarded with the proviso that once every four years all the institutions receiving these subsidies (more than 800 of them) will be inspected – all at the same time (Smithuijsen 2005)."

I know this system is still in place now because all the organizations I've been in touch with in the last year just recently got recommendations about whether or not their funding should continue and on the same levels. It turns out that many lost funding, in part because of the above archiving project, but also because a shift toward a "creative industries" model is underway. This refers both to Richard Florida's book about the Creative Class and also to a model of cultural policy developed in the UK over the last 10 years.

I encounter very mixed responses to this change; most of the artists and new media institutions seem unhappy and William also was intensely skeptical that this would be a positive change. I still haven't heard a systematic critique, but two problems seems to be the expected increase in bureaucracy and loss of control over arts/cultural policy. Clearly though I need to get more detail on what the new system will be and why people don't like it.

William and I also talked quite a bit about how new media is developing and I was flattered that he wanted to know who I thought were important voices and which I thought were important centers, both institutional and national. I mentioned Worm and Piet Zwart MDMA because I think they continue to do really innovative things, and I think Vienna is or will be important. In the US I find it much harder to estimate this because everything is so spread out and incoherent. I don't know of any cities with really strong new media scenes. Boston has some, NYC has some, San Francisco, maybe Austin. But none of these is organized the way they are in Europe because there is just so much less public funding for any art.

Finally we talked about whether or not the new media scene had any cultural specificity, and whether fan culture, to which we were drawing some parallels, has any. While he could see the point I was making about how national context my change how people can participate in new media, William feels (in spite of the fragmentation) that it is a global discourse. I think this is true to a degree, but that it can't be assumed. If one is studying the field, one has to check the extent to which discourse is local, national or global. For example, I can say that William certainly participates in a global discourse, because he travels constantly, publishes internationally, and works with other scholars who do the same. But this is hardly true of everyone I've interviewed. Most of them cannot travel so much, they may read international journals, but maybe don't publish on that level so much, and most of their work may take place at one school or in one city. Just being on the nettime mailing list or even a bunch of people connecting on Facebook doesn't make it a global field, at least not so far. I think that in fact the way scholars and artists participate in the new media field is quite variable--maybe I have to steal Mirko's concept of heterogenous participation and Kate Hayles' idea about emerging complexity to discuss this. Or maybe I just need to read Eric von Hippel on democratizing innovation. And he has this paper on actor network theory and user innovations...

One of the most challenging things lately in these interviews is that I begin to hear contradictory things and yet haven't spoken to enough people to judge very well what is a more accurate picture. Or maybe in fact there is no one accurate picture.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Interview with William Uricchio

So as in the last trips, I am doing interviews. The first was with William Uricchio, (and here's his page at Utrecht) from Utrecht University, and also MIT. In fact I knew William in the context of superhero comics long before I knew his new media work, but the latter turns out to be the thing bringing us together. We talked for quite a while; a recurring idea was the extent to which different cstituencies of the new media scene are fragmented, not communicating or working together. For example, academics ad hackers are not so much in touch anymore, or journalists and artists, unless they are journalists specifically covering art. This can be problematic in terms of knowledge production because people in these different field repeat the same research and come up with the same ideas over and over. Not that that's bad in itself, but just a waste of time and also leading to quite boring repetition in scholarly papers. --And this last seems harder to avoid than I would have thought, but lately I have found as well that so much work is produced that it's hard to keep track publications across disciplines on any one topic, especially since different terms are used in each discipline.

Anyway, back to William. He has been a professor at Utrecht University in the Media Studies group --which seems to have two or more different sets of pages-- and also teaches at MIT in the Comparative Media Studies department, which is where we first met. We talked about how he got into this field, and it was as a media historian. He takes a really long view of media history and had some thought-provoking ideas about when the history of new media starts, especially if you actually mean the history of virtuality, or digitization, etc. For awhile he was chair of the department at UU, but now that he essentially has one and a half jobs (seems almost full-time at both though) he doesn't have to deal with that. --But now he's co-director of CMS! He still is thinking about the future of the department and mentioned several challenges facing schools in the Netherlands right now. One is that the Hogeschool system (they are sort of professional schools) and the University system are being unified so that Universities and Hogeschools in every city are being pushed together. this creates all kinds of difficulties because the systems are very different and I would guess that in any case, being told to work together doesn't please anyone. I was surprised to learn that while Hogeschools can restrict their admissions and class sizes, Universities cannot.

Further, and I'm not sure if this is related to the above plan, media studies programs all over the country are jockeying for position--so for example, UU is starting to focus on games and locative media, while the media studies program at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) is trying to combine with informatics--but not clear yet whether that will suceed. This reminds me strangely of what happens in California; each branch of the UC and CSU system has to be sure they don't replicate programs at another branch and we are all supposed to be finding ways of being distinct. It that certain things at UU make it harder for them to distinguish themselves, one is that their students aren't held to high enough standards--I've heard this a from a few people now--and also, in the Dutch system, it seems that people can be tenured more quickly in the US and that once they are, their departments have no leverage if they don't keep up their work. But it's hard to tell exactly how things work because there are so many different grades of faculty, and many universities are changing their systems. I get the sense though that William is frustrated with the department at the moment.

This might also be connected with what I guess have so far been unsuccessful effort to for some kind of national-level organization of new media scholars in the Netherlands. It seems everyne agrees there should be one, but no one agrees on how it should be organized and discussion devolves into everyone just trying to claim turf. Talking about this problem, which I have also heard about from some others as well, lead of course to discussing funding. I'll save that for the next post though.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Bath Toy for Worm

Bath Toy for Worm
Originally uploaded by cuuixsilver
Interrupting my conference coverage to try catching up some of the other stuff I've been doing. This piece of art by Florentijn Hofman is out in front of Worm (about which I've written quite a lot already). I love the duck, but also I was interested to hear from Hajo that because Worm had some connection to the artist, they were able to have the piece anchored there for a few weeks at a much lower cost than was usually charged.

There are so many ways that social networks impact these scenes!

Emerging Themes

So here I am, we are in the last paper session before the wrap-up and I'm still trying to come up with some thoughts about emerging themes. Hampered a bit by the fact that rather than reading the proceedings yesterday after dinner, instead I stayed late at the dinner talking to David Krebs and enjoying the warm evening. But here are some things I notice keep coming up:

  • collective memory
  • failure of offline/online and real/virtual distinctions
  • persistent lack of quanititative data
  • most differences among users seem to have disappeared, except for age, and among the FLOSS community, still huge gender differences.

Data collection is especially tough because companies don't give away the data, and user surveys have all kinds of limitations. It seems the best way for a number of platforms is to design an application users would like to add for somereason that also collects data on them for the researcher.

Distinctions --all agree we need finer distinctions, but little agreement on what they should be, especially when ontological issues start coming in, or questions of whether or how online actions are carried into offline life. (to reiterate that stupid distinction!)

Collective memory is quite interesting because it's so overtly influenced by the platform being used and in what way things are archived or not. So for example, messages can be reviewed later, but battled can't (unless they were deliberately filmed.)

Disappearing distinctions --I was quite encouraged to hear from several speakers that use of technology seems more equal now except for age, and even around age, the issue is not so much using tech or not, but the manner of use. However, the gender issue in FLOSS communities is troubling because even though those communities are small, they represent an important measure of participation in creation. If women continue absent, then the tech developments will remain slanted toward what interests and works well for men, and the cycle continues.

Pausing now to hear a talk about blogging and identity.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Live from IFIP WG 9.5

Can't write too much at the moment because I will be speaking myself in 27 minutes. :-)

Some quite interesting talks here, but I am surprised (pleasantly) how broadly representative the panelists are. The conference is small--only one track of three speakers per panel for a total of 8 speakers including me! --Not counting discussants and the conference organizer, but still quite small. It leads to very interesting discussions between talks and I expect dinner will be quite nice that way as well. At least I hope so!

Some themes are emerging, but I'll wait until I have a chance to digest the ideas a bit more and read the proceedings before I comment on that. I did not get my revisions done in time to be included, but now both the slides and paper or online at Scribd. I was especially interested in David Kreps' talk and hopefully will find his stuff in the reader.

One trend though, to whet your appetites--agreement that the virtual/real or online/offline dichotomies are unsatisfactory ways to undersatnd any of this stuff. Finally!