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Tandem Surfing with Joel Slayton

An artist, writer, researcher, organizer, and educator, Joel Slayton has contributed to a host of collaborative cultural ventures. As a professor at San Jose State University, he directs the CADRE Laboratory for New Media, an interdisciplinary program in the SJSU School of Art and Design dedicated to the development of experimental applications involving information technology and art, and is the Executive Editor of SWITCH, CADRE?s on-line journal of new media discourse and practice. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of Leonardo/ISAST (International Society for Art, Science and Technology) and as Chair of the Leonardo-MIT Press Book Series, and most recently is Academic Chair for the ISEA 2006 Symposia/ZeroOne San Jose: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge. Slayton's creative work includes the exploration of theory, technology, corporate culture, and landscape with his partners in the C5 Corporation, a hybrid form of authorship intersecting research, corporate culture and artistic enterprise.

RG: In your "Entailment Mesh" text, in which you discuss the art project of the same name, you write, "The conceptual basis of this work is centered within theoretical discourses of database and knowledge engineering. Where as domains of cultural art production centered as advocacy and critique are obsolete and in that the exposition of theory has clearly situated art as code, a new conceptual terrain for art is necessary. A terrain in which art as information system is understood in its fullest capacity." I'm wondering if you could elaborate and unpack some of these ideas, particularly the shift you describe in which art can be best understood as an "information system" while an understanding based on notions of advocacy and critique have become obsolete. When you say that a "new conceptual terrain for art is necessary," necessary for what?

JS: Advocacy and critique are two sides of the same coin, the yin and yang of art contemporary art practice. I respect the intention but it does not interest me that much. The complexities of modern politics and their economies of attention have created a social dynamic that demands more. More than art can give. It just doesn't have the gas. When I implicated 'domains' of cultural art production, I was making specific reference to those that take the easy way out. I was suggesting, that there really is little difference of approach or function for art that behaves this way. What I mean is it operates like entertainment--which can be both good and evil. We all know how the tools work to get that job done, and therefore any impact is neutralized. Art that does this does not interest me.

This text was written in 2001 which makes it almost ancient if not nostalgic. I hate being held to what I have said in the past. Oh well, the necessity that I was attempting to draw attention to was that of the nature of coding itself. I was trying to say something about how important I felt it was we develop a theory of code. Granted, I used the terminology very loosely and was guilty of 'advocating' myself. Caught in my own trap so to speak. That said, the basic concept is sound. In the late 1970s, Gordon Pask and Paul Pangaro described software for emerging knowledge through conversational interaction in a process called DoWhatDo, a software design that relied on relational procedures involving a network of expert system based machines. The terminology of Entailment Mesh referred to a mechanism of conversation for emerging a learning procedure through an ever-refining conversational method. The point being that this was the first process, to my knowledge, to adopt the notion that code could be operational as a social form in and of itself. Perhaps it was the first piece of software art, I don't know. Anyway, I stole the terminology and used in my own work to produce a system for mediating human conversation. All I was trying to say was that understanding art of this type is a different thing than experiencing the commentaries of individuals.

RG: I'm particularly interested in collaborative models employed and occupied by artists, which has inspired a series of interviews with various practitioners. While all of the individuals and groups I've interviewed occupy various positions in professional, academic, and peer networks, your range of activities is extremely broad within the very focused "field" of technology and culture (what is generally referred to as "new media"). This may be a sweeping question, but how do you conceptualize your work with, to just name a few examples, ISEA2006, San Jose State University's CADRE Lab, C5, and the Leonardo-MIT Press book series? I'm curious if your understanding and theorization of systems and social networking have an impact on your "on the ground" work within these very different institutions.

JS: I assume so. On occasion I have gone so far as to describe myself as an artist who designs collaboration models. Then I get nervous and back off quickly as those sorts of qualifications get you into trouble very quickly. From my point of view, every 'work' situation is different. Art practice, critical and theoretical authorship, publishing, teaching, business, research, family life, and my band. Well, ex-band. We broke up, although that was part of the model, it was still painful. Each situation is an opportunity to practice what you preach by instantiating some manifestation of a chosen theoretical model. In doing so I tend not to separate one instance of collaboration from another, it is rather more like an engine with different mechanisms referencing and informing one another. The one thing I would say is that my interest in information mapping, autopoieses, social networks, and emergent behavior is pretty central to everything. C5 is probably the most obvious in that regard in that it functions on so many levels. Oh yes, then there is the practical issue of getting interesting things done.

RG: Could you give some more concrete form to the last point, about "getting interesting things done"? Specifically, I think it would be interesting to know how the central interests that you mentioned play out differently in C5 and ISEA2006. What are the significant differences here if one looks at both of these as designed "collaboration models"?

JS: They are both designed as conversational systems through which specific structures, mechanisms and outcomes emerge. I mean this in the sense of Gordon Pask's elegant theory of learning systems. Pask viewed intelligence as emerging from learning systems based in conversational models of interaction and not as something resident in the head or compiled in a box. I am no expert on Pask but this approach made sense to me from the first time I encountered it, in the early 1980s, and has influenced my approach to collaboration design. The goal has never been to design for a pre-determined outcome but rather to formulate social systems of interaction through which determinate trajectories emerge. You don't exactly know what is coming until it comes and a lot of it depends on having the right players involved. On the other hand, it is not a mystery either. The trick is centering your personal control outside of the interactions themselves. C5 is a pretty decent example. As a model, what it does that is interesting is situate its outcomes in the blurred territory of business, research, and art. Exactly how it does that is directly dependent upon contractual legal and fiscal agencies that determine the forms of interactions between its partners. The business plan is simultaneously a binding contract and the artwork--the creative products: artworks, research, critical authorship--is only important as a reflection of the interactions. I am pretty proud of that. When C5 says it is not ironic, that is what we mean.

ISEA2006 is a different animal all together. For one, as the organizers we inherited a system that has a tradition of open calls for participation reviewed by an international program committee. From the outset we decided that we wanted to find out how ISEA might be 'organized' differently accepting these 2 factors. In December of 2005, an on-line forum was held to discuss appropriate strategies and structures for ISEA2006 response to the symposium themes: Transvergence, Interactive City, Community Domain and Pacific Rim. You can probably see the first element of strategy which was to offer up a set of thematics that require critical interpretation as to their relational dynamics. The Forum made numerous recommendations but perhaps the most significant in terms of your question is that the symposium should enable conversation and discussion. Certain decisions were forthcoming: no reading of papers, pre-publishing of abstracts and manuscripts on-line, limiting the number of tracks, offering of extended sessions to encourage audience interaction, having moderators for each session, a parallel track of nothing but artist presentations running continuously, a re:mote symposium to telcon-in participants who could not be present, a poster session staged in the main venue as an art exhibition, web and video streaming, a rapporteur blogging the event, and many other features. The International Program Committee was then able to evaluate proposal submissions while seeing the symposium as a platform for conversation that would take advantage of some of these mechanisms. Once the evaluations were complete they were passed to a Host Committee to review and structure into appropriate session configurations and sequences. Over 1800 submissions were received for symposium and exhibitions and over 400 artists, curators and researchers contributed to the selection and shape of the event. The point is that the goal was not only to produce the conversational model in a symposium but to also use the mechanisms of inclusion and transparency in doing so. Oh yeah, and then there is the entirety of having ISEA2006 as the platform for establishing ZeroOne San Jose as a new North American biennale. We'll see if this all works. Certainly worth a try.

RG: With your recent work in C5, the autopoietic is an important concept. (See C5 member texts such as Brett Stalbaum's "Toward Autopoietic Database" and Gerri Wittig's "Expansive Order", for example.) This seems to be a way of getting to that "new conceptual terrain" that we hit on earlier. Could you maybe discuss the importance of the autopoietic in terms of C5's work and the work of others that you think are significant here?

JS: Autopoieses is an important theoretical framework that has informed much of C5's 'work.' It is a subject terrain that we are rather passionate about. That said, C5 would never make the claim that we produce autopoietic systems as an art form. Trying to make something autopoietic is bit of an oxymoron. Autopoietic theory simply provides an alternative model that addresses how self-referential interactions emerge the world we perceive.

It is probably useful to be somewhat specific about the term because, it is so overused. Developed by Maturana and Varela, autopoieses refers to "the history of structural change in a unity without loss of organization in that unity." A central component of the theory is the notion of 'consensual domain.' Maturana refers to behavior in a consensual domain as 'linguistic behavior.' This behavior scales across the cellular level to the social. For example, a language exists among a community of individuals, and is continually regenerated through their linguistic activity and the structural coupling generated by that activity. C5 believes that autopoiesis, as related to data, code, software, and networks, could potentially be realized in linguistic, consensual domains as well and that procedural operations like searching and navigation which rely heavily on self-referencing operate have autopioetic character. It is all very poetic.

RG: Maybe as a closing question... Spatially-oriented practices have seemed to gain a lot of currency in the international arts lately, but looking through some of my own archives, it doesn't really seem all that new of a development, with quite a few big exhibitions of contemporary artists in the 1990s focusing on notions of site and location, Mary Jane Jacob's 1991 "Places with a Past" at the Spoleto Festival being a prime example. The connection with late 1960s/ early 1970s artists working in Krause's "expanded field" seems to be pretty strong even today. But with new geographic, networking, and imaging technologies, maybe the stakes have been raised, both for artists and for the general condition known as globalization. I'm wondering if you could summarize some of your thoughts on this, from your perspective as both an artist with C5 and organizer for ISEA2006, both of which exhibit a large investment in conceptions of the "local," "community," and geographic identity.

JS: In 2001, C5 initiated a series of projects involving mapping, navigation, and search of the landscape using GIS (Geographic Information Systems). The projects are designed to take place over the next 3 years and are an extension of C5's exploration into database visualization and cooperative management systems. The Landscape Projects examine the changing conception of the Landscape as we move from the aesthetics of representation to those of database visualization and interface. (See C5's "Landscape Initiative".)

Over the past decade, the instrumentation necessary for creating a detailed mapping of the earth's surface from space has become a reality. The USGS, together with NASA, The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a host of international partners are moving towards a complete mapping of the earth's surface destined to be at one meter of resolution. Like the human genome, the scope and implication of such a mapping points to tremendous social, political, and economic considerations. Conception and interaction with the Landscape is becoming an issue of database. I think it is fair to say that conventional landscape knowledge emerges directly from representational by-products of location, domain, and navigation and is necessarily political, in every sense taking into account borders, economies, and cultural ideology. Have the stakes been raised? Of course.

But this view is also restraining and has been responded to by artists primarily as a critique of such overt political trajectories. As an alternative, C5 has been thinking a lot about the Autopoietic Landscape (data landscape). We see this as a reformulation of the very idea of landscape as something less about the modernisms of observation and representation and more about a languaged space in which social consenuality is the terrain. Although it is mere speculation, it seems an interesting trajectory to explore. The idea that the landscape functions as transaction space suggests that the ontology of the landscape is a product of consenuality and not merely a collection of media objects and referentials. Terms like local, community, and geographic identity take on completely new meanings.

For ISEA2006 we have been talking a lot about edges, rims, and terrains. Of course, there is no single perspective or theory that serves to fully illuminate these discourses. The point is to create a platform through which the experiments can be both experienced and discussed.