Virtualité, adieu mon amour...
What happens when ‘our’ media encounter the ‘real’ world?
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
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
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...
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
We measured the
distribution of nodes in the network:
of Nodes: Inhabitants per
Germany 721.847 115
Japan 734.406 170
Romania 8205 2600
India 3138 300.000
Cameroon nodes: 0
, July 1997)
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.”
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
“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....
both matter and symbol at the same time, a pre-digital hybrid, how
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.
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
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
Try to integrate
that in your marketing strategy!!!!
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....
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....
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.
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
Public Space is a Hybrid Monster....
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
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?
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
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?
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....
This essay was written for the final publication (Book & DVD)
"Debates & Credits - Media Art in the Public Domain",
a Dutch /
Russian art and media project.
& Eric Kluitenberg (ed.)
Publisher: Uitgeverij De Balie, Amsterdam
Year of publication: 2003