Monoskop/Zagreb 2011 talk

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I'm not quite sure what you expect, I guess some of you may came to see the guy who carries around 100 gigabytes of art on his harddrive. On one hand, it's true, and it's not about 4 high definition videos from Blu-ray discs. On the other hand, I wish there would be many more gigabytes and that I actually could get rid of them from my harddrive and make them public. So as you can see, I will talk about a work-in-progress, and it's the first time I present it in public.

Let me begin with giving you a broader context of how I got here. Several years ago back in Bratislava, Slovakia, I was part of Burundi media lab. It was a place, similar to Mama, in which we organised free software workshops, moderated evenings of media theory, a media culture festival, did the street projects, recycled hardware, played videogames, 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 and at the same time fascinated by technologies, and 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, or philosophy.

The main thing we struggled with was a limit of what audience we can reach. There was definitely a gap, almost a void.. 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; on the other hand the people from academy of fine arts thought of us as complete charlatans. There was a recurring topic, of what makes new media "new". Computers, software, and internet have had been around much longer, and we were by no chance the first interdisciplinary community around. Of course a large portion of enthusiasm came from a contact with many groups internationally, but that exchange was on its own not enough to legitimize our work. It was mainly this frustration which led me to look more into past with a hope of finding people in similar situation, artists working with technology of their day.

I couldn't come up with anyone even from 1990s in Slovakia.. neither in the East. Until then my attention was pointed almost exclusively on Austria, Germany, the States, and fragments of the West. I realised we were pretty much disconnected from previous generations. Monoskop 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 digital culture in the central Europe and the Balkans. Quickly the focus was expanded on the whole continent, and we started to invite more people to the initiative.

The website exists for more than 7 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.

Maybe you are familiar with some of these lists. Nettime is rooted in net culture of 1990s, many talks deal with politics and to the most part it's a platform of people who authored many books. NetBehaviour treats it as academic, and while it has similar roots it is more inclusive. Liberationtech on the other hand is more down-to-earth many times technical self-help list where people would develop communication tools for activists in Syria and so on (it's quite active, have a look). This is to illustrate that it is an open question why would these things share the same folder, the same category. What bounds them together? For the time being, it is media culture (or you could also say net culture), as you can see in the title of the page.

Which connects to the very definition of what is this site about. There is another entry gate, Media art and culture which defines the field of this wiki: "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' more and more looks like a 'genre'. And when I say 'yet another art genre', I mean that it lost its avant-garde charge, and emancipatory potential of breaking away from institutional constraints of art-business-as-usual. There were thousands of media artists CVs 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 it is a historical term. And as you can see from the overview of definitions, it started to be looked at that way in 2005-6-7. The same thing can be traced for net culture, digital art, internet art and so on.

This is to say that when I show you this entry gate (bottom of the page), its content is problematic and its title is a working title. It is interesting to see that some of these phenomena emerged from local and international grassroots networks (Tactical Media, Open Spectrum, FLOSS), some from corporations (Web 2.0), from academies (Digital Humanities), others online (surf clubs). Yet they intermingle.

What I found crucial and what is also unique about Monoskop is particular focus on local scenes, which serve as another entry gate [frontpage]. We can have a look at Zagreb's page. It contains mainly the last two decades, and as I said the site is open to everyone, you are welcome to add what you find missing. There is a similar page for Bratislava where Burundi was active and what we realised later, mainly after talking to artists active in previous decades, is importance of a process of self-documentation. It does not contain only a nostalgia for the past, but also created cultural content which many times ends up in private archives not linked to the common.

Index of countries goes deeper into a history. We began with Slovakia, and basically we were tracking the emergence of what we considered 'new media', or new technology of the time. We followed history of technology and history of science. 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 how it intersected with the art, 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 art and related stuff in general. And while we ran a library of similar scope to yours in Mama, we could hardly get what we needed or wanted.

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 (re)publish electronic versions of books, proceedings, magazines, journals, catalogues, and also diploma and dissertation theses, which directly or indirectly related to media culture. It directly builds upon what became an educational purpose of Monoskop and became to serve 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, 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 quite 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 4 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 SK, CZ, PL, BR and USA. A few months ago a friend mailed me that on her trip in China she met Dajuin Yao, father of chinese sound art. When she mentioned Monoskop, he not only did know it, but told her that for many chinese intellectuals and students he is in contact with, Monoskop/log is a saviour. They have a big problem getting to this kind of literature and even though this site is blocked by the officials, many know how to bypass the blockade.

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 the 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 the CEE. It combines and selects stuff from national histories and it is very interesting to see them in a wider context.

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 what we have been doing we do need a broader context.

Another question is to, if to remind the original force behind Monoskop, and namely to bridge a gap, to get to more people, to be more relevant, so the question is whether providing a historical context, a proof that, historically speaking--"we're not alone"--is sufficient. The answer is that it does part of the job. Marcell was telling me that the most successful action at Mama was by far your political work, Right to the City, which brought you the 'largest' audience and connected you to the people. It's very telling that it was organised by a 'net culture club'.

Anyway, the other thing you don't see here is--art.. There are no artworks here! This is due to the 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. Which brings me back to the archive I mentioned at the beginning. How to make it public?

Even though there are thousands of various databases and archives, most people and researchers search google database to get the content. So if the archive is about to 'rewrite' art history it shall be indexed by search bots.

After discussions from the recent weeks I see the three options right now. (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.