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Tandem Surfing the Third Wave with Matthew Fuller

Matthew Fuller is an author (_ATM_, _Behind the Blip_), software artist and educator. Together with Simon Pope and Colin Green, he produced software projects such as the Web Stalker under the name I/O/D. He has also collaborated with Mongrel on works like "Natural Selection" that critically engages the often presumed neutrality of data technologies like search engines. He is currently the Course Director for the Piet Zwart Institute's MA Media Design program in Rotterdam, and directs, with Femke Snelting, the Institute's Media Design Research program.

The following conversation took place during the Fall of 2004 via email.

Ryan Griffis: I'd like to start by discussing the Media Design Research Program at the Piet Zwart Institute. Looking over the program and list of past and upcoming research fellows (including Brian Holmes, The Bureau of Inverse Technology, and Florian Cramer), while knowing something of your own creative work, it seems that there is an interesting overlap - which makes perfect sense, of course. But, how did the program come about? Were you asked to create the curriculum from the bottom up, essentially?

Matthew Fuller: The programme Media Design Research and the MA Media Design was initiated by the Willem de Kooning Academy, the art school in Rotterdam of which PZI forms the postgraduate arm. The Research Fellows programme that you mention is basically run as standard with this form of academic position. People are invited to make a proposal which is then evaluated by a board. We've been lucky with the Fellows so far, who have also included Alexei Shulgin and Lawrence Liang. If people are interested in what they've done at PZI they can check out material on the site. The work from Lawrence - two major texts, one on the implications of Free software and another a user's guide to open content licenses and issues - will be up soon after peer-review. I'd urge people to read them when they're ready

Like the Research programme, the Master of Arts programme (equivalent to a US MFA) also came about on the initiative of the Academy, and Femke Snelting and I, along with others soon after, were there to start the thing rolling and design the course. In June we just had the first round of students from the two-year course graduating so the course has been thoroughly road tested and also has some great projects under its belt. If people want to check out the exhibition guide to the students' work, it's online as a pdf.


RG: Having taught technology-based arts myself, I'm curious about how you handle (along with your colleagues) the different learning curves (for cultural awareness and techie know-how) involved in such processes. While there are such splits in many disciplines, the divide seems especially wide in "New Media," as some recent discussions in forums like Discordia and Nettime indicate. These discussions also brought up questions of the role of education in creating further dependency on commercialized technology.

MF: Yes, there are many differences to be encountered, amongst them between different kinds of knowledge and skill. For me this is one of the reasons that I find digital media interesting - the way that the absolutely reductive and binary can be at once infinitely rich and stirring. We see media design as a problematic, an area that needs inventing, a set of permutational fields to get stuck into rather than as a discipline to conform to. That certainly means headaches for staff and students but it also means there's more that we can learn from each other. And seeing as there's only six or so students per year, for a two year course, there's enough time to make those introductions to each other's fields and peculiar domains. This recognition of the area as being made up by many different dynamics also brings us into contact with students who want just that and who also come from practice in many different contexts.

Regarding the use of commercialised technology, for us I don't want to set up a moral position, especially in education in which the commercial is bad just for being connected to trade. Rather it's important to understand the question politically: what gives students the most power, as insights, as skills that are viable for work and for themselves. This is our role as educators, to create a context in which one of the processes occurring is that students take power, not simply within the confines of the school, but that they generate the terms for doing so outside.

RG: There seem to be a couple of trends in media arts that have surfaced in the last couple of years. For example, an intense interest in "locative media" and the ability to tag the experience of space with meta data, present in both Europe and the US. Another development is in gaming, though I'm more aware of it in the US. There have, of course, even been mergers of the two happening (Noderunner, Pac-Manhattan, various projects by Blast Theory). Some say that these developments come from the mere availability of affordable and accessible technology (mobile phone cams, moblogs, GPS devices, etc), and the pull of a consumer market that is taking over the entertainment industry. What are your thoughts on these trends, if you even see them as trends?

MF: Trends are significant, and certainly not something that is inherently negative. They can be seen as many people, working in parallel to sort something out, whether it's the heavily parametered variation on ways of wearing a certain piece of clothing that occurs in fashion or whether its possibly more considered work in media culture, they tend to produce a condition in which many people can interact with a set of conditions - such as a new technology - and work out some of its possibilities. Needless to say, with some technologies, these waves of attention are as revealing as a wave of First World War infantry going over the top into a curtain of machine gun fire as a flesh feelergauge for the generals.

There is a tendency in some material that is circulated via media art festivals, but which I don't see as art per se, more as what the Dutch call e-culture, to work with creative prototyping. I don't see this work as necessarily needing to work with reference to art, as it tends to put unnecessary pressures on it. Things can just be fun, a nice piece of work, a sharp use of a technology in an appropriate or telling context. Art requires a more rigorous attention to perception, to its function as a reflexive process. The work of Blast Theory clearly works in relation to art, and one of their achievements is to maintain collaboration with partners such as the Mixed Reality Lab in Nottingham, serious technologists, where both parties, from what I can tell, seem to have genuinely developed the capacities of the other. The two other specific projects you mention, I don't know enough about to comment.

Conversely, that work does not involve itself in the kinds of self-questioning that characterises art practice may in fact mean it has other things to offer. But it does mean that it also possibly sets itself up for the danger of mobwalking right into the machine gun fire of consumer-grade boredom.

I like the phrase used by Jonah Brucker-Cohen and others recently, 'Design for Hackability'. This seems to be a good minimum demand to make on any media technology. By these standards, mobile phones and other locked technologies are decreasingly interesting. By the same measure though, the relatively open practices of W3C and others in establishing Meta-data standards mean that there are real possibilities here. And indeed, the question of how to couple either of these currents of technology with an aesthetics that is productive and disturbing is still wide open.

RG: I'm interested in the notion of "software culture" explored in your _Behind the Blip_ and the type of work, criticism and pedagogy that you are involved in though the MA Media Design Program and your own work. Is there a desire to reshape the dominant culture(s) (that some may refer to as a technocracy) to be more self-aware, inclusive and reflexive? Or is it more interesting to create divergent, purposefully specialized and oppositional cultures? Perhaps this question is about working "inside" versus "outside" to effect difference.

MF: I think that it's relatively inevitable that, in shortly given terms, when people, whether students or not participate in a context in which they have space, time, good resources, and involvement with other people with skills and ideas, that something will come out that is not moulded by what might be called a dominant culture. Whether that domination might come from a teacher wanting to produce a homogeneous approach to software culture, one perhaps that is compulsorily speculative, or come from the macro-to-micro scale formations that attempt to subordinate or harness all thought, technology and aesthetics to a mediocrely conceived capitalism, the principle is the same. People, the compositional dynamics that they compose and that course through them, are usually idiosyncratic enough, deviant enough to foil or surpass anyone's expectations.

Perhaps the question is also, if we can understand art schools, other such institutions, organisations and groups as - at their best - what Guattari described as laboratories of subjectivation, places and moments when technologies, ideas, aesthetics, people and practices interact to produce something which is in excess of its 'list of ingredients.' How can we make an account of such processes which allows others to recognise and experiment with some of what comes out? Perhaps we need our own earnest researcher to carry out a version of 'laboratory life'? (The title of a ground-breaking work of anthropology/science studies in which the daily working life of scientists is followed and recorded)

The question you pose is one which has a long history. The twentieth century saw it disastrously posed as an opposition between reformism and revolution, leading to sad revolutionaries and timid, if not slavish, reformists. Perhaps as greater and more supple thought to the ethics and aesthetics of organisation and relationality is made in the area of art, and areas such as organisation studies become increasingly open to multiple currents of experience (despite being a least potentially constricted to the perpetual redesign of control), or, in political terms, self-organising currents, such as those who, in the London European Social Forum, become increasingly self-aware in such terms and define themselves as 'horizontals', and in many other contexts, we can begin (always again) to work through some of these possibilities. Perhaps including a 'grammar' as Paulo Virno has called it, in the areas of both education and media design?

RG: The anthropological research of science/technology, and by proxy, all authority, that you mention is probably one of the most interesting and important projects, in my opinion, at the moment for 'cultural workers.' Your (non)classification of 'not-just-art,' (from "A Means of Mutation") i think, provides some room for this kind of work to operate on many levels. I've been especially interested in the work of 'not-just-artists' that move through the art world when it provides convenient mechanisms for exposure and research facilities. Where do you see the most engaging forms of 'not-just-art' coming from/going at the moment?

MF: Perhaps alongside the recognition of, or the search for, 'authority' in scientific practices it is also useful to recognise in it, something more positive, a thread which continues from the enlightenment onwards which is the search for a more useful, accurate or suggestive understanding of the world. I'd question any discipline that attempts to unmask 'authority' without also working on itself. Whether this is a po-faced anthropologist, reality-policing scientist or self-righteous artist claiming access to the truth by simple virtue of their being produced by a discipline with greater access to the verities. Disciplines as such - and art, even as the arch 'anti-discipline,' is amongst them - are only ever a transitional stage, providing a certain perspectival rigour or training. They provide a motor for seeing and moving beyond themselves.

One obvious case right now is that of the Critical Art Ensemble. Their mobilisation of amateurism, the headlong and extremely artful plunge into biotechnology, molecular engineering and the integration of life at the sub-organismic level with regimes of property and militarisation is absolutely timely. It is also a kind of work that works with art methodologies, but outside of their normalised context. To use the term, 'not-just-art', this is work that deals with arguments about representation and materiality, about the location and visualisation of certain kinds of objects, with procedures of naming, positioning and knowing, with the making of certain hitherto popularly 'ineffable' knowledges (those accorded the status of the military industrial sublime) palpable and usable. The work also works reflexively on notions of truth, how it is arrived at, assigned value, made available to different kinds of people, organisations and instruments. CAE's work operates fully in relation to these questions, which are aesthetic, to do with the construction and experience of perception but also locates these aesthetics in terms of their striation by political forces. Crucially, (and this is where perhaps it becomes 'not-just-art' in the sense you mention) the points where such cutting up, such marking by power, occurs are not simply taken as a boundary point - the place where the slug of art meets the salt of reality - the place to turn back and to put up pictures, but as a crucial knot, a nodal point that can be mobilised by the reality forming principles of direct action.

Clearly CAE are not alone in attempting such work. In a more sensorial mode, Lygia Clark's work merging materials aesthetics with 'therapeutic' or phenomenal practices is extremely interesting. Equally, you can look at projects such as the txtmob that spring out of a bastardisation of art, engineering, and again, the idea of direct action, that of acting without representation now in the world in a reality-forming way.

(I was convinced about Clark's work, for instance the 'relational objects', when I saw some documentation in the exhibition 'Phases of the Kinetic at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2000. See Suely Rolink: 'For a State of Art, the actuality of Lygia Clark'

Recognising art methodologies as reservoirs of reflexive, critical and perceptual dynamics that can be put into play in, that ripple into, many contexts, not simply those of art systems per se, is in a sense, a next step. If not-just-art allows for things to be recognisable as working with art systems, but also outside of such a skin, we can also see art methodologies moving outside of art systems, not reporting back to the mother-ship but infecting and mobilising other parts of life, realising other compositional dynamics. (Tracking and developing such art methodologies in the realm of software is something that I'm currently working on for a project 'Softness' with Huddersfield Media Centre.) Partly perhaps this is to do with the massification of art education, art as a partly commodified cultural force, partly also because of a more general intellectuality which occurs in perverse, non-disciplinary, but still reflexive, self-aware and self-experimental, dynamics. Perhaps in the way that cellular automata sometimes produce 'gliders' that move across and out from their generative matrix in a dynamic manner, art methodologies are also launched by art systems which are themselves unable to pre-determine their patternings and behaviours. How can we best learn to set in play the creation of such sensorial and subjectival gliders, self-generating and relational patternings that spread knots, tingles and explosions of other becomings in contexts from which they are supposedly excluded?

RG: The development of meta-data standards is something that seems very promising to me, as it relates to a kind of 'opening-up' of information and processes that allows for comparison and relational research. But, at the same time, it's hard for me to not read these developments against Virilio's conception of speed and my negative (luddite?) reactions to the utopian fantasies of a singularity, as a primary motivation for meta-data seems to be the 'speeding-up' and universalization of the archive. I'm curious about your thoughts on the desire for a comprehensive archive, a universe of 'tagged' experiences. How do we formulate a dialectical approach that avoids the utopia/dystopia trap, yet remains politically and structurally engaged?

MF: Well this is a key question! I dare say that simply raising such questions, stubbornly insisting on the political and existential dimensions of these technologies is essential in itself to forming something of an answer. And it seems that many people working in the area of metadata are aware of this. The richness, the uncontrollability of life is what drives them on, that makes them hungry to find an expressive way of coupling it with the inherently reductive, but also manifoldly explosive powers of computational and networked digital media.

At the same time, this is a current recursion of an old media/anti-media problem. Does Plato call for poets to be imprisoned for betraying the lived immediacy of language or for being a vector by means of which the wrong things, tricky ideas, serious pleasures might be remembered and made mobilisable?

The notion of 'The Singularity', however, that significant computational intelligence will be developed, be networked and suddenly cross a threshold of richness into a new level of synergetic post-human intelligence used to express a totalisation, is a phantasm - control's dry dream of Daddy transmuted into God, but with the twist that God is, like Eve, 'simply' the result of man's parts, the multiplication of his tools. Needless to say, the fear is that, instead of the reverse transit into Eden, it is man himself who becomes the appendage and the tag becomes a tourniquet.
Given such a scenario, what more is there to do but to sit back and laugh?