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Virtualité, adieu mon amour...

What happens when ‘our’ media encounter the ‘real’ world?
Eric Kluitenberg
July 2003


Donna Haraway already pointed it out, hybridity is a defining characteristic of our cyborg lives. We are always multiple, always living in more than one world. Our realities are always composed of an arrangement of incongruent parts. We have to unite the incommensurable, on a daily basis: it’s called survival. “Welcome to the real world”? Come on!! The Matrix is already a nostalgic image, more Debord than Baudrillard, as if there is a “real” world beyond or underneath it all, this continuous enactment, this consensual hallucination we wake up in every day...

Maybe that is where we missed an important point, back then, in the nineties, in the previous millennium, before the crash, before the meltdown, before the bubble burst. When the temporary general denominators, with their high “vagueness coefficient”, instilled a false sense of unity to our endeavours, a mistaken sense of coherence (if only for a short while). Some of the most brave (or naïve, or maybe both?) declared our new space “independent” - that idea was shot down in a day (“hey!!! what about our bodies?!?? will they become independent too...??”). But still, the feeling was strong that a new parallel sociality could be constructed. Something that would be less bothered by borders, class, protocol, institutionalisation - in short power...

When limits started to emerge, we went on to question electronic borders, inclusion / exclusion and the digital divide. Our friend Castells was talking about two spaces, the space of flows, of networks, of communication channels, of high-technology where increasingly power was getting organised, versus the space of place, the physical, the embodied, the dreary space of ordinary people’s lives, living in vast majority in dread and misery. Time to build bridges Castells concluded - how right he was... But before the bridges were there the dams broke and both spaces flowed into each other, a dirty mess. It turned out the virtual was not so virtual after all, pretty real in fact: money, power, fraud, corruption, idolatry, dependence, delusion...
(WorldCom, World-Online, Enron, Quest, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AOL..... The list is long and indeed hybrid...)

What we have come to understand the hard way is that the space of flows is deeply entrenched in our everyday social realities. We cannot make the neat separation between the wired world and the embodied one, just as we cannot make the separation between the virtual and the real. Media is the stuff our social reality is made of, and the real is composed of and composes the symbolic codes that circulate in the media networks that define the social.

What in fact needs to be done is to introduce the strategies of the nineties autonomous media cultures in the embodied spaces we inhabit, and it paradoxically requires the use of the very technologies that have created the mess we have now been flooded in. One step in that direction is to articulate a new sensitivity, a sensitivity for the hybrid, for the necessarily impure, for the nestedness of our living environments, a desire for contamination... The disembodied media worlds need to be infused with the virus of the real, as much as the living spaces of everyday social reality need to be infected with viral media. We are looking for models that break the illusion of perfect control....


Public Domain 2.0

Amsterdam has a famous history for exploring the new social spaces that emerged when the internet slowly became a public medium in the beginning and the middle nineties. The model of the Digital City, a metaphoric analogue to structure and understand social processes mediated on-line by the rapidly developing internet, was a direct extension of the squatted local media landscape.

First rule of engagement: Never ask permission, just appear.

In the Amsterdam squatter movement the urgency of finding a decent place to live quickly replaced the decency to ask if it was ok to take over an empty building. From that point it is not so hard to make the conceptual leap to also claim the media spaces that were left open, vacant and unused, to fill the gaps in the media architecture, use the loop holes, find the entry point. Famously in Amsterdam, the squatters found their entry via an open satellite dish taking in corporate and state TV propaganda from abroad for the docile home TV viewer. At night, when the couch potatoes were asleep, they beamed their signals into the dish and thus right into the nightly living room screens. They created an alternate environment for night birds, derelicts, the insomniacs, artists and other marginals...

Upon complaints, not least by cable operators, telcoms and concerned viewers, in an unimaginably pragmatic Dutch turn of the cards, the city decided to legalise rather than to prosecute the media squatters. Importantly, with legalisation this new social sphere that had emerged on Amsterdam nightly TV turned from a space of pure freedom into a regulated space, be it one that allowed more of the city’s populace than ever before their highly idiosyncratic access to the screen. A variety of voices and media cultures emerged. Every little group their own little corner; ethnic, religious, aesthetic, political, even the squatters themselves received their own regulated corner in the media house. Thus Amsterdam became an idyllic test bed for a new kind of public sphere, a space for the public that unfolded through the media channels rather than in the street or on the square.


May we have your bandwidth please?

In this environment it became a logical next step not just to claim TV and radio space, but also the space of the internet, a new medium for communication and exchange that was slowly opening up for the wider public from the confines of the academic and research community. The Digital City, the famous community network, achieved considerable success alongside the steady growth of internet use in The Netherlands in the mid nineties. Decidedly localised, a Dutch language network on the supposedly “global” internet, it became a famous attempt at establishing a digital networked public sphere, indeed as a parallel space, taking the metaphors of the physical city and slowly discovering its own dynamics.

Within its own limitations the Amsterdam squat/media elite was highly privileged. A demonstration of early adopters in the city centre of Amsterdam, carrying banners claiming “We Want Bandwidth!”, became the catchy ident of an international campaign and research project. As part of the temporary media lab Hybrid Workspace 1997 during documenta X in Kassel the Bandwidth campaign started to ask difficult questions. Bandwidth, the transmission capacity for a network connection, was chosen as an emblem for the right and the capacity to connect: Connect to the world’s information resources, connect to the other connected on the digital networks, but also an expression of new value systems expressed in technological terms and a new economic order where the available bandwidth can be understood as a measure for the capacity to participate in the unfolding new global economic order.

May we have your bandwidth please? we asked documenta visitors, and they already seemed fairly well connected (what a surprise!?). But when we started to ask outside our own little circle the picture quickly got dramatically different....

We measured the distribution of nodes in the network:

Country: Number of Nodes: Inhabitants per
Node:

Netherlands 270.521 57
Germany 721.847 115
Japan 734.406 170
Romania 8205 2600
India 3138 300.000
Cameroon nodes: 0
( http://www.waag.org/bandwidth , July 1997)

The situation today may be somewhat different, but the general picture remains the same. Even if today the internet is an enormous success with well over 500 million people regularly on-line, it still means that 90 percent of the world’s population has no or virtually no access at all. If we speak about a new public space than this fundamental inequality must first of all be addressed.

Access to information and communication should be a fundamental democratic right for all citizens of the world.

A year later the people who created the bandwidth campaign along with some fresh faces went on to develop an extensive "Public Research" called "Public Domain 2.0", which was carried out at the Society for Old and New Media (De Waag) in Amsterdam in the beginning of 1998. We sought to question the definition of this new public space that was seemingly emerging with the growth of the internet. A new version of the public domain, 2.0, still very much in beta-testing phase...

We were quite aware of the incongruencies implicit in the very notion of this public domain 2.0, the discrepancy in addressing real-life divisions, and the impossibility of bridging them in one go. One of us, David Garcia, cried out that the new space of flows might be becoming a dominant social, political and economic force, but “PLACES DO NOT DISAPPEAR!!”

Garcia: “In the wider cultural and political economy the virtual world is inhabited by a cosmopolitan elite. In fact put crudely elites are cosmopolitan and people are local. The space of power and wealth is projected throughout the world, while people's life experience is rooted in places, in their culture, in their history.”

Nonetheless, we tried to understand what “public domain” actually meant, how it might work in the new context of networked digital media. So, we first asked the most obvious question: “What is the public domain?”

Our answer at the time:

“First of all the public domain as a social and cultural space should be distinguished from its juridical definition. The public domain is traditionally understood as a commonly shared space of ideas and memories, and the physical manifestations that embody them. The monument as a physical embodiment of community memory and history exemplifies this principle most clearly. Access, signification, disgust, and appropriation of the public monument are the traditional forms in which the political struggles over collective memory and history are carried out.”

Thus, our venture into the space of networks (what hollywood and some confused theorists called “virtuality”, or even worse “virtual reality”), lead us back to the monument!!!
That crude symbol of authoritarian power, the piles of brick, mortar, stone and steel....

The monument... both matter and symbol at the same time, a pre-digital hybrid, how fitting....


Leaving Virtuality

Leaving virtuality is a painful process for sure, not just for the cyber-enthusiasts. Also in our critical counter cultures on the net we had revelled in the dream of a digital temporary autonomous zone. Yes the temporary was already there, from the beginning, we knew it would end, but probably we hoped that it would last a bit longer. The crash of the new economy in 2000 brought us all right back in muddy reality...

But there is a significant change. The hype maybe gone, but the net is still there, and growing. What we got in return for the wide open cyber frontier was the ugly face of surveillance and control, accelerated, enhanced and powered by 9/11... The naissance of the network society of control.

First commerce, then the state again, the autonomous spaces of the net are firmly entrenched again in the regular social order. No independence. But something was gained from this window of opportunity in the nineties, a shift in mind set. If anything, networked media managed to question the professional monopoly on the media channels. Where else can you find the open channels of Amsterdam’s local TV? In Berlin, ok, a few places in the US, here and there, but they are the utter and extreme exception. Like the public city space, the media space is generally tightly controlled and kept well in the hands of the professional and power elites. But when we ask the same for the internet the answer is surprisingly the reverse: Where could we find the open space of the net? Well..., in the middle nineties basically everywhere where there was an internet connection. The open channels model was thus radically dispersed and a new generation could experience this new model of media first hand.

It seems all too obvious, but it constitutes a fundamental shift in thinking about real-time electronic media: a system more geared towards distributing the multitude of different and contradictory voices to the few (willing to listen), rather than the well established industrial model of media production channelling the few voices to the multitude of silent receivers. Brecht finally got what he truly deserved, what was taken away from radio 70 years before...., a radically open media space. The pandemonium was unleashed...

This ‘just-do-it-yourself’ model of media has become deeply ingrained in the consciousness of a young generation of artists, activists and ordinary media users, who will not easily let go of this heritage. Something was learned: that media production is easy, that “quality” is an arbitrary norm, that the sign of the subjective is far more engaging than the requirements of professionalism. Media could take many different faces, from the dilettante to the poetic, from the absurd to the grotesque, from the banal to the dandyesque. Important in the media game is articulation of a different voice. Also marketeers recognised that, but they are in for a big surprise, because the mere appropriation of the unprofessional look of media will only bring them into contact with the passive media consumers already sold to their daily capitalist/terrorist media-barrage. When tests were conducted in new housing districts with high-bandwidth connections the statistics of actual use flabbergasted everyone: people were transmitting more than they were receiving with their new media toys: ecce homo medialis....

I transmit therefore I am!

Try to integrate that in your marketing strategy!!!!


Hybrid Space

This young generation will do more than simply port the model learned from the net to the old and established trenches of the analogue media landscape. We can call this teleportation the emergence of hybrid media, the interconnection of digital and analogue, of networked and wave spectrum media, of internet and TV, of radio and net.audio. It’s already happening and it is fusing, no need to speculate, just watch and see....

Hybridisation, however, goes far beyond the confines of media. With the emergence of a plethora of new wireless protocols, digital media become portable and move into the physical spaces. The mobile phone teleported audio to everywhere. The new devices take the image to places where no image has gone before. The contamination of the global landscape is complete. Disconnection becomes the true privilege of the age of wireless media!!

With media becoming mobile they start to melt with the physical environment. What emerges is neither a different kind of media space, nor a different kind of physical space, but a new hybrid space, a space of interconnection. What is the logic of this new space? Paradox! Fundamentally incongruent, and still happily alive... What is the most frequently asked question on the mobile phone...?

Where are you?

Who cares, since you’re on the phone it’s already clear that you are not together, and since you are still physical, a body, you cannot travel with the speed of light (like information can), and thus you are thrown into the incommensurate... And still, mobile phones are unimaginably popular.... what a drag!!! Phone bashing?? Not an option, there are simply too many out there, resistance is futile....


reBoot

In ’99 we put 50 artists on a boat stuck from bottom to top with media equipment, to find out something about the contradictory logic of the new hybrid space, the fusion of the physical and the mediated. We found out more than we liked about the tenacity of the old physical limitations (and the economic for that one). The boat was going along the Rhine from Cologne to Rotterdam and Amsterdam, but surprisingly when we tried to strike a deal with one of the biggest mobile phone providers about connecting the boat during the week it was going down the river continuously to the internet, they refrained in the last moment - why? Because they could not guarantee full coverage. Damn masts!! In one of the most densely populated and most highly developed regions of Europe. We were amazed.

Architect and professor for Hybrid Space Frans Vogelaar at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, was highly interested in the contradictory interface between physical space and media space. Together we worked on this project and involved a wide variety of young artists, underground media makers, net.audio experimenters, sound artists, performance artists and other genres to fill the boat for a week with media related art projects. Results were aired continuously on-line and were possible via the Amsterdam local TV channels. The first interesting outcome was the spatial discontinuity of the project: While the media location of reBoot was fixed (a url and a channel on Amsterdam local TV), its dispersal (within Amsterdam by TV, and everywhere else via the net) was radically decentralised, yet the physical location was ever changing (the boat going down the river) and at the same time entirely localised (on the boat). This gave us an interesting set of spatial coordinates to work with.

The fact that we could not get the full bandwidth all-the-time and real-time connection, that some materials had to be physically shipped by car to the Amsterdam studio, that we often needed an analogue telephone cable in the harbour to actually go on-line, was in the end nothing to lament. Altogether these points of friction constituted an important indicator; a reminder of the messiness of hybrid space. When media move back into the physical environment they invariably collide with the limitation of the lives of ‘bodies’ in ‘places’....

So is this the ‘real’ world?


Public Space is a Hybrid Monster....

Well..., isn’t what is real that what is publicly shared? But what is publicly shared? Is it something we tell ourselves in our circle of friends, or is it the pieces we conveniently take from the daily media-barrage to construct our own particular perverted realities? Isn’t the public something that constructs itself in space? But what then is public space?

Today we can no longer think of a uni-dimensional public space. Meetings that happen in the physical (embodied) public space are already constructed and defined in advance in media terms. When politicians address a crowd they usually look over their heads at the camera’s, knowing that the true space where they message will be heard is mediated. It does not make the media ‘unreal’ since reality itself is constructed, at least on the social plane, in the terms defined by the media game. It is there that a collective consciousness and collective memory is formed and continuously reformulated. Media are the stuff social reality is made of, they continuously transform the physical environment. Yet, the physical environment remains the substrate of the media sphere.

If we want to transform the public sphere in the era of hybridisation we need to operate strategically with multidimensional tactics. The media in and of itself is not enough, that painful lesson has been learned. Without connections to the rest of the world, to the embodied places where people actually live (and where even the virtual class is forced to reside, if only, out of biological necessity), the media space, the internet, the networked communities, can easily become a post-modern-day ghetto. If we wish to break the isolation of the media sphere there is no choice but to move out into physical space.

What other locus to choose than the site of contemporary urbanity. It is in the density of the urban space that one encounters the ultimate degree of tenacity of the so-called “real” world. Ever heard of “permissions”? This word may sound odd for the internet generation. Why need permission, when all that you want is to speak in your own personal voice?

Did we forget about systems of surveillance and control?

The post-modern city is a site of power interest. It speaks to the imagination, and thus, through its mediated multiplication to the masses. The triangle of city - media - imagination is what defines its vectorial power, to paraphrase McKenzie Wark. It is within this potent locus of media power that struggles will necessarily end up, the sites of collective identification that are both symbol and embodied site at the same time: The image that can be symbolically consumed and physically visited at the same time. It is here that the sign of the real inscribes itself most vigorously.... If you don’t believe that 9/11 happened you can go to the tip of Manhattan and find out for yourself.


The Monument Appropriated...

The Debates and Credits project, executed in Amsterdam, Ekaterinburg, and Moscow called for a multidimensional urban visuality. Like Rafael Lorenzo Hammer who exclaims about his Relational Architecture, “we don’t want less images in the city, but more”, we were also looking for other narratives in public urban space. To find ways how to bring the urban into the media environment, and the media into the urban landscape, cross connecting and hybridising them through cross-pollination and contamination. When Rafael calls for more images in the city he is not merely pointing at quantity - when walking on Moscow city streets one would hardly consider such a request seriously! Instead, what we all are after is a greater variety of images, of narratives and discourses in public space.

Highly deliberate was the choice within Debates & Credits not to be seduced into a purely political (or counter-political) position. That would be a capitulation. Instead the project tried to identify a multiplicity of models to articulate different and other voices in public space. The cross connection of media and public space here is not used as a marketing scheme, nor as a propaganda tool. Rather the hybridisation opens up a new sensory and communicative space for sovereign experimentation. The projects moved far beyond the didactic. The guerrilla model was much more inspiring for us: just appear!! (obviously, we did not crash fancy art parties in gorilla suits - what a lame act!)

We asked: How does public communication constitute itself in hybrid space?

In confrontation.

You should not fear friction once you move into hybridity, it’s the most natural thing. Confrontation is the unwarranted encounter with the unforeseen. It is so natural, but apparently the prime source of panic for most ‘advanced’ contemporary societies, where control seems to mean the exclusion of the unpredictable. The public in the first world, thus, is locked up in communities of mutual self-confirmation. The illusion of world-wide consensus (to name just one; the “end of history”) is only broken in the crash, when it is too late.....

Better to break those illusory surfaces before the crash.

How does one enter the public imagination in the era of hybridity?

By going to places that are both symbol and embodied presence at the same time: in our case ideally embodied in the public monument in city space. When we put our digitised messages on Mukhina’s Worker and Farmer, the infamous cultural icon of the Soviet era, we layered shifting personal narratives on top of a multi layered history embodied in steal, stone and symbolic form. In retrospect it was the ultimate locus for exploring the models for a multidimensional urban visuality we had aimed at from the beginning. Finally we had arrived in hybrid space....

Eric Kluitenberg
July 2003


This essay was written for the final publication (Book & DVD) of
"Debates & Credits - Media Art in the Public Domain", a Dutch /
Russian art and media project.

Project webiste:
http://www.debates.nl

Tatiana Goryucheva & Eric Kluitenberg (ed.)
Publisher: Uitgeverij De Balie, Amsterdam
Year of publication: 2003
pp. 144
Includes DVD
ISBN: 90-6617-298-3