Monoskop/Brno 2012 talk

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This is an edited version of the opening talk of the Remake conference held on 11 April 2012 at The House of Arts, Brno, Czech Republic.

First I would like to thank especially Barbora Šedivá, Katarína Gatialová, and also other people, for organising this conference, and the Remake exhibition. There have been events dealing with central and eastern European art organised in recent two decades, but we still did not have many opportunities to discuss media culture and media art in a historic context with a special focus on this region. But why would we? Why would _any_ region need any special focus, and similarly why would _media_ art need to be researched as a specific field? I can assure you, I have been asking these questions too. I don't have any straightforward answers, but from when I began looking into these fields eight years ago I haven't found a reason to stop. The opposite.

I will try explain why I got involved in such endeavour.

Almost a decade ago back in Bratislava I was part of Burundi media lab, one of the four founding NGOs of A4 - Zero Space culture centre. It was a place where we organised free software workshops, evenings of media theory, a new media culture festival, did the street projects, recycled hardware, and so on. Burundi members were involved in many other projects, for example Buryzone, 3/4 magazine, Atrakt Art, and so on. The culture we were part of, whatever niche it was, was perceived as "new media".

New media was definitely a productive social phenomenon. It connected people who were involved in art while being fascinated by technologies, and, as in my case, people with technological background and creative tendencies, let's say. That was a year 2003, 2004, and Burundi was a base to students and graduates of art history, cognitive science, architecture, librarian studies, musicology, and philosophy.

Main thing we struggled with was a limit to what audience we can reach. We certainly attracted a certain crowd, and started many collaborations and friendships, but there was definitely a gap.. which makes you think. For example, even though we promoted free software to make art, many people treated us as promoters of high art they will never grasp. Some people from the Academy thought of us as complete charlatans. Others as serving the IT industry. And it was often said that by adhering to open and participative methods in organising events we are only producing mediocrity, the average.

Notion of art has had an ambivalent connotation in new media scene. It was certainly not attacked, only that it was not that much in a forefront, partially because of diverse backgrounds of the media culture practitioners. Similarly the 'objecthood' of the works: not that people would not create installations or performances, but many times these were left under-documented and were looked at as 'events'. As far as I can say the creative process was often not aimed at a particular 'work of art' as we know it from art history books. Notion of 'media art' and 'new media' was used to point out some kind of friction with business of art as usual.

There was also a recurring discussion about what makes new media "new". Computers, software, and internet have had been around much longer but while we were by no chance the first inter/media community around we knew very little about what was happening in new media in the 1990s, even in Slovakia. Our practise was pretty much disconnected from that of the previous generations. Large portion of enthusiasm for our work came from a contact with many groups internationally, but that exchange on its own did not suffice to legitimize our work, it didn't translate to a wider audience. It was mainly this frustration which led me to look more into past with a hope of finding people in a similar situation, artists working with technology of their day. And since our practise was very much rooted in community and culture and I worked with people coming from very different backgrounds, I was also very interested in their cultural and social context, in where these media artists came from, what they learnt from their parents, what did they study, who they worked with and why. By no means were we alone in this endeavour, there have been similar new media scenes in other cities. We still need a historical distance to analyse them in their cultural and political context.

Coming back to our question, I think that development of history of _media_ art as a specific field will help us better understand the media culture scenes active in the last decades, their aesthetics, intermediality, collaborative processes, and so on. And what I find important: we shall see them not only against the background of art as a primary discipline, but in much wider context, particularly on the background of developments in technology and communications in transforming societies, while seeing them rooted in culture, to particular _practices, values, networks, people, places_.

That brings me to Monoskop which is meant to serve as a resource for such research. It began by discussion with Mária Rišková and Guy van Belle who were living in Bratislava at that time about an idea to set up a wiki website for research of media culture in the central Europe, the Balkans and Baltics. Quickly the focus was expanded to the whole continent, and we started to invite more people to the initiative.

The website exists for almost 8 years, and it's quite broad in content and covered themes. In principle, the content is created openly and collaboratively - everybody is welcome to edit and add new information, similarly to Wikipedia, with a difference that Monoskop is primarily focused on media culture in Europe. The site is in English, but if you add something in other language, it would not be a reason for deletion.

You can browse the content through several entry gates. For example, through categories, listing programs where you can study media, community servers where you can host your work for free, mailing lists you can take part in, and so on. These lead to wikipedia-style articles about particular subjects.

There is another entry gate, Media art and culture, which defines the field of this wiki. Let's see: "The term media art is useful and used for artistic projects bringing up the technological, aesthetical, social, cultural, legal and political issues that come along with the emergence of new media. Since 1990s the new media have included internet, web, mobiles, wireless, GPS, and others. Media culture in this regard uses and is used by new media." This was written sometime in 2004, and as you can see, it builds upon the term new media and kind of user perspective. Even though Burundi split into two groups in 2005 and does not exist anymore, we kept on working together for instance on organising Multiplace festival, which started as a new media event, but as the time passed we were noticing that new media and media art are getting more established. One could argue that over the years it lost its avant-garde charge, the emancipatory potential of breaking away from institutional constraints of art-business-as-usual, to cause the change. Today there are thousands of CVs of media artists floating around the internet, and in many countries media art became a funding category. Transmediale inserted a comma between media and art in its subtitle in 2007 I believe. And although by 2007 you could find its echo at SuperCollider conferences, FLOSS Art festivals, or surf clubs, these communities stopped referring to it. From today's perspective, I claim, it is a historical term. And as you can see from an overview of definitions, it started to be looked at that way in 2005-6-7. The same thing can be traced for digital art, and so on.

This may sound a little surprising in regard to what I said earlier about a need to develop history of media art. I am coming to a conclusion that the terms media art and new media are useful to talk about the previous decades, their narratives and historisation. It was a term used widely in the 2000s and there were many reasons for that. Many things changed, the field expanded dramatically, and in order to understand contemporary media practises we need to look beyond media art, particularly at the role of software (as in software studies), internet activism, open data and open knowledge movement, FLOSS and FLOSS art, and so on.

What I found crucial and what is unique about Monoskop is particular focus on local scenes. These serve as another entry point. We can have a look at Brno's page. It cover mainly recent two decades, and as I said earlier the site is open to everyone, you are welcome to add what you find missing. There is a similar page for Bratislava, Prague, etc.

Index of countries goes deeper into history. We began with Slovakia, basically tracing the emergence of new technology of the time. We mainly followed history of technology. This includes audiovisual synthesis and mobile computing in 2000s, web and streaming media in the 1990s, and earlier robotics, software, computers, video, film, photography, and you name it. At the same time we were looking at how these intersected with the arts, how artists approached emerging technology, what ends they put them to, and what culture emerged around it. I collected an extensive bibliography, and besides realising it is very very fragmentary and barely covers this field I also realised that while many articles are online, it is much much worse with books and catalogues. And this applies not only to Slovakia but media culture in general.

This led me together with Tomas Kovacs to launch a side project, Monoskop/log. We set up a blog with a cheap design template and started to republish electronic versions of books, proceedings, magazines, journals, catalogues, and also diploma and dissertation theses, which directly or indirectly related to media culture. Building upon what became an educational purpose of Monoskop the blog now serves as a study tool for schools and researchers. Blog functions for almost three years, there are sometimes even 10-15 new entries a week. These come from multiple sources, either submitted by users, forwarded by friends, scanned, found on mailing lists or social media, or from sharing sites like aaaarg.org, or now defunct library.nu. You can search in annotations, or navigate via tags, we put effort to tag well. For instance click on 'software' doesn't give you software manuals, but literature about software culture and so on.

It became popular fast, even though it's still hidden from crawlers. We're getting quite positive feedback. Much of the content is published under copyleft licenses, so it is free to distribute. There is of course a lot of copyrighted stuff, although in almost three years we only got six complaints. Paradoxically some authors were happy to find their book scanned finally, others send us their stuff themselves. I know that it is being used as a resource to build curricula at several school departments in Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Brazil, United States, and China.

We want to publish more older and rare books, if you happen to have anything interesting scanned, please write us.

Right now there is about 2000 publications on the blog, but only very very small portion deals with media culture in central and eastern Europe. I also noticed that many media departments at schools in central Europe follow a mix of American and national discourse, while there is a lot to say about the whole region. I made a page on the wiki, some kind of an entry gate to this field in CEE. It combines and selects stuff from national histories and it is very interesting to see them in a wider context. The westernized curricula in media studies overlooking the regional connections are the main reason why I think that special focus on CEE still makes sense. We need more publications, we need to know more.

It may look like a very far-reaching and wild mix--but this is what we ended up with. So far. What you see, or rather, what you don't see are at least two things. Firstly, there is no story, no narrative, it is a cold list of people, terms and things. This is for a reason--I would argue that developing a grand story, a grand narrative is not only incredibly hard task, but also counterproductive (producing myths, exclusions, etc). On the other hand, to understand media culture of the previous decades we do need a broad context.

Anyway, the other thing you don't see here is--art.. There are no artworks here! This is due to original decision not to dig too much into copyright issues. So the CDs, DVDs, files scraped from websites, downloaded private torrents, closed academic archives I collected throughout the years ended up on my harddrives. I collected about 100 GB of the content, then the question raised: how to publish it?

After long discussions I could see the three options. (1) Technically, the easiest would be to make one large torrent, but this would create high demand on users since not everyone is familiar with how torrent works and not many people would be willing to download 100 gigs of stuff they don't know much about. (2) distribute across already existing P2P and media archives; (3) let the archive sit on our server, upload media to biography pages on the wiki, and activate the automatic torrent backups, which could be mirrored by users.

One thing is certain. Even though there are thousands of various databases and archives, most people and researchers search google to get the content. So if the archive wants to reach people it shall be indexed by search bots.

I also want to very shortly mention a freshly launched interview series, Monoskop talks, the first is online, more are to come.

I am looking forward to hear other presentations, if you have any questions, feel free to ask now, or catch me later.


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