Draft translation of a talk given at the seminar Informace mezi komoditou a komunitou [The Information Between Commodity and Community] held at Tranzitdisplay in Prague, Czech Republic, on May 6, 2014
My contribution has three parts. I will begin by sketching the current environment of publishing in general, move on to some of the specificities of publishing
in the humanities and art, and end with a brief introduction to the Monoskop
initiative I was asked to include in my talk.
I would like to thank Milos Vojtechovsky, Matej Strnad and CAS/FAMU for
the invitation, and Tranzitdisplay for hosting this seminar. It offers itself as an
opportunity for reflection for which there is a decent distance from a previous
presentation of Monoskop in Prague eight years ago when I took part in a new
media education workshop prepared by Miloš and Denisa Kera. Many things
changed since then, not only in new media, but in the humanities in general,
and I will try to articulate some of these changes from today’s perspective and
primarily from the perspective of publishing.
I. The Environment of Publishing
One change, perhaps the most serious, and which indeed relates to the humanities
publishing as well, is that from a subject that was just a year ago treated as a paranoia of a bunch of so called technological enthusiasts, is today a fact with which
the global public is well acquainted: we are all being surveilled. Virtually every
utterance on the internet, or rather made by means of the equipment connected
to it through standard protocols, is recorded, in encrypted or unencrypted form,
on servers of information agencies, besides copies of a striking share of these data
on servers of private companies. We are only at the beginning of civil mobilization towards reversal of the situation and the future is open, yet nothing suggests
so far that there is any real alternative other than “to demand the impossible.”
There are at least two certaintes today: surveillance is a feature of every communication technology controlled by third parties, from post, telegraphy, telephony
to internet; and at the same time it is also a feature of the ruling power in all its
variants humankind has come to know. In this regard, democracy can be also understood as the involvement of its participants in deciding on the scale and use of
information collected in this way.
I mention this because it suggests that also all publishing initiatives, from libraries,
through archives, publishing houses to schools have their online activities, back1
ends, shared documents and email communication recorded by public institutions–
which intelligence agencies are, or at least ought to be.
In regard to publishing houses it is notable that books and other publications today are printed from digital files, and are delivered to print over email, thus it is
not surprising to claim that a significant amount of electronically prepared publications is stored on servers in the public service. This means that besides being
required to send a number of printed copies to their national libraries, in fact,
publishers send their electronic versions to information agencies as well. Obviously, agencies couldn’t care less about them, but it doesn’t change anything on
the likely fact that, whatever it means, the world’s largest electronic repository of
publications today are the server farms of the NSA.
Information agencies archive publications without approval, perhaps without awareness, and indeed despite disapproval of their authors and publishers, as an
“incidental” effect of their surveillance techniques. This situation is obviously
radically different from a totalitarianism we got to know. Even though secret
agencies in the Eastern Bloc were blackmailing people to produce miserable literature as their agents, samizdat publications could at least theoretically escape their
This is not the only difference. While captured samizdats were read by agents of
flesh and blood, publications collected through the internet surveillance are “read”
by software agents. Both of them scan texts for “signals”, ie. terms and phrases
whose occurrences trigger interpretative mechanisms that control operative components of their organizations.
Today, publishing is similarly political and from the point of view of power a potentially subversive activity like it was in the communist Czechoslovakia. The
difference is its scale, reach and technique.
One of the messages of the recent “revelations” is that while it is recommended
to encrypt private communication, the internet is for its users also a medium of
direct contact with power. SEO, or search engine optimization, is now as relevant technique for websites as for books and other publications since all of them
are read by similar algorithms, and authors can read this situation as a political
dimension of their work, as a challenge to transform and model these algorithms
II. Techniques of research in the humanities literature
Compiling the bibliography
Through the circuitry we got to the audience, readers. Today, they also include
software and algorithms such as those used for “reading” by information agencies
and corporations, and others facilitating reading for the so called ordinary reader,
the reader searching information online, but also the “expert” reader, searching
primarily in library systems.
Libraries, as we said, are different from information agencies in that they are
funded by the public not to hide publications from it but to provide access to
them. A telling paradox of the age is that on the one hand information agencies
are storing almost all contemporary book production in its electronic version,
while generally they absolutely don’t care about them since the “signal” information lies elsewhere, and on the other in order to provide electronic access, paid or
direct, libraries have to costly scan also publications that were prepared for print
A more remarkable difference is, of course, that libraries select and catalogize
Their methods of selection are determined in the first place by their public institutional function of the protector and projector of patriotic values, and it is reflected
in their preference of domestic literature, ie. literature written in official state languages. Methods of catalogization, on the other hand, are characterized by sorting
by bibliographic records, particularly by categories of disciplines ordered in the
tree structure of knowledge. This results in libraries shaping the research, including academic research, towards a discursivity that is national and disciplinary, or
focused on the oeuvre of particular author.
Digitizing catalogue records and allowing readers to search library indexes by their
structural items, ie. the author, publisher, place and year of publication, words in
title, and disciplines, does not at all revert this tendency, but rather extends it to
the web as well.
I do not intend to underestimate the value and benefits of library work, nor the
importance of discipline-centered writing or of the recognition of the oeuvre of
the author. But consider an author working on an article who in the early phase
of his research needs to prepare a bibliography on the activity of Fluxus in central Europe or on the use of documentary film in education. Such research cuts
through national boundaries and/or branches of disciplines and he is left to travel
not only to locate artefacts, protagonists and experts in the field but also to find
literature, which in turn makes even the mere process of compiling bibliography
relatively demanding and costly activity.
In this sense, the digitization of publications and archival material, providing their
free online access and enabling fulltext search, in other words “open access”, catalyzes research across political-geographical and disciplinary configurations. Because while the index of the printed book contains only selected terms and for
the purposes of searching the index across several books the researcher has to have
them all at hand, the software-enabled search in digitized texts (with a good OCR)
works with the index of every single term in all of them.
This kind of research also obviously benefits from online translation tools, multilingual case bibliographies online, as well as second hand bookstores and small
specialized libraries that provide a corrective role to public ones, and whose “open
access” potential has been explored to the very small extent until now, but which
I won’t discuss here further for the lack of time.
The disciplinarity and patriotism are “embedded” in texts themselves, while I repeat that I don’t say this in a pejorative way.
Bibliographic records in bodies of texts, notes, attributions of sources and appended references can be read as formatted addresses of other texts, making apparent a kind of intertextual structure, well known in hypertext documents. However, for the reader these references are still “virtual”. When following a reference
she is led back to a library, and if interested in more references, to more libraries.
Instead, authors assume certain general erudition of their readers, while following references to their very sources is perceived as an exception from the standard
self-limitation to reading only the body of the text. Techniques of writing with
virtual bibliography thus affirm national-disciplinary discourses and form readers
and authors proficient in the field of references set by collections of local libraries
and so called standard literature of fields they became familiar with during their
When in this regime of writing someone in the Czech Republic wants to refer to
the work of Gilbert Simondon or Alexander Bogdanov, to give an example, the
effect of his work will be minimal, since there was practically nothing from these
authors translated into Czech. His closely reading colleague is left to try ordering
books through a library and wait for 3-4 weeks, or to order them from an online
store, travel to find them or search for them online. This applies, in the case of
these authors, for readers in the vast majority of countries worldwide. And we can
tell with certainty that this is not only the case of Simondon and Bogdanov but
of the vast majority of authors. Libraries as nationally and pyramidally situated
institutions face real challenges in regard to the needs of free research.
This is surely merely one aspect of techniques of writing.
Reading texts with “live” references and bibliographies using electronic devices is
today possible not only to imagine but to realise as well. This way of reading
allows following references to other texts, visual material, other related texts of
an author, but also working with occurrences of words in the text, etc., bringing
reading closer to textual analysis and other interesting levels. Due to the time
limits I am going to sketch only one example.
Linear reading is specific by reading from the beginning of the text to its end,
as well as ‘tree-like’ reading through the content structure of the document, and
through occurrences of indexed words. Still, techniques of close reading extend
its other aspect – ‘moving’ through bibliographic references in the document to
particular pages or passages in another. They make the virtual reference plastic –
texts are separated one from another merely by a click or a tap.
We are well familiar with a similar movement through the content on the web
– surfing, browsing, and clicking through. This leads us to an interesting parallel: standards of structuring, composing, etc., of texts in the humanities has been
evolving for centuries, what is incomparably more to decades of the web. From
this stems also one of the historical challenges the humanities are facing today:
how to attune to the existence of the web and most importantly to epistemological consequences of its irreversible social penetration. To upload a PDF online is
only a taste of changes in how we gain and make knowledge and how we know.
This applies both ways – what is at stake is not only making production of the
humanities “available” online, it is not only about open access, but also about the
ways of how the humanities realise the electronic and technical reality of their
own production, in regard to the research, writing, reading, and publishing.
The analogy between information agencies and national libraries also points to
the fact that large portion of publications, particularly those created in software,
is electronic. However the exceptions are significant. They include works made,
typeset, illustrated and copied manually, such as manuscripts written on paper
or other media, by hand or using a typewriter or other mechanic means, and
other pre-digital techniques such as lithography, offset, etc., or various forms of
writing such as clay tablets, rolls, codices, in other words the history of print and
publishing in its striking variety, all of which provide authors and publishers with
heterogenous means of expression. Although this “segment” is today generally
perceived as artists’ books interesting primarily for collectors, the current process
of massive digitization has triggered the revival, comebacks, transformations and
novel approaches to publishing. And it is these publications whose nature is closer
to the label ‘book’ rather than the automated electro-chemical version of the offset
lithography of digital files on acid-free paper.
Despite that it is remarkable to observe a view spreading among publishers that
books created in software are books with attributes we have known for ages. On
top of that there is a tendency to handle files such as PDFs, EPUBs, MOBIs and
others as if they are printed books, even subject to the rules of limited edition, a
consequence of what can be found in the rise of so called electronic libraries that
“borrow” PDF files and while someone reads one, other users are left to wait in
Whilst, from today’s point of view of the humanities research, mass-printed books
are in the first place archives of the cultural content preserved in this way for the
time we run out of electricity or have the internet ‘switched off’ in some other
Finally, I am getting to Monoskop and to begin with I am going to try to formulate
its brief definition, in three versions.
From the point of view of the humanities, Monoskop is a research, or questioning, whose object’s nature renders no answer as definite, since the object includes
art and culture in their widest sense, from folk music, through visual poetry to
experimental film, and namely their history as well as theory and techniques. The
research is framed by the means of recording itself, what makes it a practise whose
record is an expression with aesthetic qualities, what in turn means that the process of the research is subject to creative decisions whose outcomes are perceived
esthetically as well.
In the language of cultural management Monoskop is an independent research
project whose aim is subject to change according to its continual findings; which
has no legal body and thus as organisation it does not apply for funding; its participants have no set roles; and notably, it operates with no deadlines. It has a reach
to the global public about which, respecting the privacy of internet users, there
are no statistics other than general statistics on its social networks channels and a
figure of numbers of people and bots who registered on its website and subscribed
to its newsletter.
At the same time, technically said, Monoskop is primarily an internet website
and in this regard it is no different from any other communication media whose
function is to complicate interpersonal communication, at least due to the fact
that it is a medium with its own specific language, materiality, duration and access.
Monoskop has began ten years ago in the milieu of a group of people running
a cultural space where they had organised events, workshops, discussion, a festival,
etc. Their expertise, if to call that way the trace left after years spent in the higher
education, varied well, and it spanned from fine art, architecture, philosophy,
through art history and literary theory, to library studies, cognitive science and
information technology. Each of us was obviously interested in these and other
fields other than his and her own, but the praxis in naming the substance whose
centripetal effects brought us into collaboration were the terms new media, media
culture and media art.
Notably, it was not contemporary art, because a constituent part of the praxis was
also non-visual expression, information media, etc., so the research began with the
essentially naive question ‘of what are we contemporary?’. There had been not
much written about media culture and art as such, a fact I perceived as drawback
but also as challenge.
The reflection, discussion and critique need to be grounded in reality, in a wider
context of the field, thus the research has began in-field. From the beginning, the
website of Monoskop served to record the environment, including people, groups,
organizations, events we had been in touch with and who/which were more or
less explicitly affiliated with media culture. The result of this is primarily a social
geography of live media culture and art, structured on the wiki into cities, with
a focus on the two recent decades.
Cities and agents
The first aim was to compile an overview of agents of this geography in their
wide variety, from eg. small independent and short-lived initiatives to established
museums. The focus on the 1990s and 2000s is of course problematic. One of
its qualities is a parallel to the history of the World Wide Web which goes back
precisely to the early 1990s and which is on the one hand the primary recording
medium of the Monoskop research and on the other a relevant self-archiving and–
stemming from its properties–presentation medium, in other words a platform on
which agents are not only meeting together but potentially influence one another
The records are of diverse length and quality, while the priorities for what they
consist of can be generally summed up in several points in the following order:
1. Inclusion of a person, organisation or event in the context of the structure.
So in case of a festival or conference held in Prague the most important is to
mention it in the events section on the page on Prague.
2. Links to their web presence from inside their wiki pages, while it usually
implies their (self-)presentation.
3. Basic information, including a name or title in an original language, dates
of birth, foundation, realization, relations to other agents, ideally through
links inside the wiki. These are presented in narrative and in English.
4. Literature or bibliography in as many languages as possible, with links to
versions of texts online if there are any.
5. Biographical and other information relevant for the object of the research,
while the preference is for those appearing online for the first time.
6. Audiovisual material, works, especially those that cannot be found on linked
Even though pages are structured in the quasi same way, input fields are not structured, so when you create a wiki account and decide to edit or add an entry, the
wiki editor offers you merely one input box for the continuous text. As is the case
on other wiki websites. Better way to describe their format is thus articles.
There are many related questions about representation, research methodology,
openness and participation, formalization, etc., but I am not going to discuss them
due to the time constraint.
The first research layer thus consists of live and active agents, relations among
them and with them.
Another layer is related to a question about what does the field of media culture
and art stem from; what and upon what does it consciously, but also not fully
consciously, builds, comments, relates, negates; in other words of what it may be
perceived a post, meta, anti, retro, quasi and neo legacy.
An approach of national histories of art of the 20th century proved itself to be
relevant here. These entries are structured in the same way like cities: people,
groups, events, literature, at the same time building upon historical art forms and
periods as they are reflected in a range of literature.
The overviews are organised purposely without any attempts for making relations
to the present more explicit, in order to leave open a wide range of intepretations
and connotations and to encourage them at the same time.
The focus on art of the 20th century originally related to, while the researched
countries were mostly of central and eastern Europe, with foundations of modern
national states, formations preserving this field in archives, museums, collections
but also publications, etc. Obviously I am not saying that contemporary media
culture is necessarily archived on the web while art of the 20th century lies in
collections “offline”, it applies vice versa as well.
In this way there began to appear new articles about filmmakers, fine artists, theorists and other partakers in artistic life of the previous century.
Since then the focus has considerably expanded to more than a century of art and
new media on the whole continent. Still it portrays merely another layer of the
research, the one which is yet a collection of fragmentary data, without much
context. Soon we also hit the limit of what is about this field online. The next
question was how to work in the internet environment with printed sources.
When I was installing this blog five years ago I treated it as a side project, an offshoot, which by the fact of being online may not be only an archive of selected
source literature for the Monoskop research but also a resource for others, mainly
students in the humanities. A few months later I found Aaaarg, then oriented
mainly on critical theory and philosophy; there was also Gigapedia with publications without thematic orientation; and several other community library portals
on password. These were the first sources where I was finding relevant literature
in electronic version, later on there were others too, I began to scan books and catalogues myself and to receive a large number of scans by email and soon came to
realise that every new entry is an event of its own not only for myself. According
to the response, the website has a wide usership across all the continents.
At this point it is proper to mention the copyright. When deciding about whether
to include this or that publication, there are at least two moments always present.
One brings me back to my local library at the outskirts of Bratislava in the early
1990s and asks that if I would have found this book there and then, could it change
my life? Because books that did I was given only later and elsewhere; and here I
think of people sitting behind computers in Belarus, China or Kongo. And even
if not, the latter is a wonder on whether this text has a potential to open up some
serious questions about disciplinarity or national discursivity in the humanities,
while here I am reminded by a recent study which claims that more than half
of academic publications are not read by more than three people: their author,
reviewer and editor. What does not imply that it is necessary to promote them
to more people but rather to think of reasons why is it so. It seems that the
consequences of the combination of high selectivity with open access resonate
also with publishers and authors from whom the complaints are rather scarce and
even if sometimes I don’t understand reasons of those received, I respect them.
Throughout the years I came to learn, from the ontological perspective, two main
findings about media and technology.
For a long time I had a tendency to treat technologies as objects, things, while now
it seems much more productive to see them as processes, techniques. As indeed
nor the biologist does speak about the dear as biology. In this sense technology is
the science of techniques, including cultural techniques which span from reading,
writing and counting to painting, programming and publishing.
Media in the humanities are a compound of two long unrelated histories. One of
them treats media as a means of communication, signals sent from point A to the
point B, lacking the context and meaning. Another speaks about media as artistic
means of expression, such as the painting, sculpture, poetry, theatre, music or
film. The term “media art” is emblematic for this amalgam while the historical
awareness of these two threads sheds new light on it.
Media technology in art and the humanities continues to be the primary object of
research of Monoskop.
I attempted to comment on political, esthetic and technical aspects of publishing.
Let me finish by saying that Monoskop is an initiative open to people and future
and you are more than welcome to take part in it.
Written May 1-7, 2014, in Bergen and Prague. Translated by the author on May 10-13,
2014. This version generated June 10, 2014.