Dekker & Barok
Copying as a Way to Start Something New A Conversation with Dusan Barok about Monoskop

A Conversation with Dusan Barok about Monoskop

Annet Dekker

Dusan Barok is an artist, writer, and cultural activist involved
in critical practice in the fields of software, art, and theory. After founding and organizing the online culture portal
Koridor in Slovakia from 1999–2002, in 2003 he co-founded
the BURUNDI media lab where he organized the Translab
evening series. A year later, the first ideas about building an
online platform for texts and media started to emerge and
Monoskop became a reality. More than a decade later, Barok
is well-known as the main editor of Monoskop. In 2016, he
began a PhD research project at the University of Amsterdam. His project, titled Database for the Documentation of
Contemporary Art, investigates art databases as discursive
platforms that provide context for artworks. In an extended
email exchange, we discuss the possibilities and restraints
of an online ‘archive’.

You started Monoskop in 2004, already some time ago. What
does the name mean?

‘Monoskop’ is the Slovak equivalent of the English ‘monoscope’, which means an electric tube used in analogue TV
broadcasting to produce images of test cards, station logotypes, error messages but also for calibrating cameras. Monoscopes were automatized television announcers designed to
speak to both live and machine audiences about the status
of a channel, broadcasting purely phatic messages.
Can you explain why you wanted to do the project and how it
developed to what it is now? In other words, what were your
main aims and have they changed? If so, in which direction
and what caused these changes?

I began Monoskop as one of the strands of the BURUNDI
media lab in Bratislava. Originally, it was designed as a wiki
website for documenting media art and culture in the eastern part of Europe, whose backbone consisted of city entries
composed of links to separate pages about various events,



initiatives, and individuals. In the early days it was modelled
on Wikipedia (which had been running for two years when
Monoskop started) and contained biographies and descriptions of events from a kind of neutral point of view. Over
the years, the geographic and thematic boundaries have
gradually expanded to embrace the arts and humanities in
their widest sense, focusing primarily on lesser-known
phenomena.1 Perhaps the biggest change is the ongoing
See for example
shift from mapping people, events, and places towards
Features. Accessed
synthesizing discourses.
28 May 2016.
A turning point occurred during my studies at the
Piet Zwart Institute, in the Networked Media programme
from 2010–2012, which combined art, design, software,
and theory with support in the philosophy of open source
and prototyping. While there, I was researching aspects of
the networked condition and how it transforms knowledge,
sociality and economics: I wrote research papers on leaking
as a technique of knowledge production, a critique of the
social graph, and on the libertarian values embedded in the
design of digital currencies. I was ready for more practice.
When Aymeric Mansoux, one of the tutors, encouraged me
to develop my then side-project Monoskop into a graduation
work, the timing was good.
The website got its own domain, a redesign, and most
crucially, the Monoskop wiki was restructured from its
focus on media art and culture towards the much wider
of the arts and humanities. It turned to a media
Symposium. Accessed
28 May 2016.
library of sorts. The graduation work also consisted of
a symposium about personal collecting and media ar3
chiving,2 which saw its loose follow-ups on media aes
thetics (in Bergen)3 and on knowledge classification and
Many. Accessed
archives (in Mons)4 last year.
28 May 2016.

Knowledge. Accessed
28 May 2016.

Did you have a background in library studies, or have
you taken their ideas/methods of systemization and categorization (meta data)? If not, what are your methods
and how did you develop them?




been an interesting process, clearly showing the influence
of a changing back-end system. Are you interested in the
idea of sharing and circulating texts as a new way not just
of accessing and distributing but perhaps also of production—and publishing? I’m thinking how Aaaaarg started as
a way to share and exchange ideas about a text. In what
way do you think Monoskop plays (or could play) with these
kinds of mechanisms? Do you think it brings out a new
potential in publishing?


Besides the standard literature in information science (I
have a degree in information technologies), I read some
works of documentation scientists Paul Otlet and Suzanne
Briet, historians such as W. Boyd Rayward and Ronald E.
Day, as well as translated writings of Michel Pêcheux and
other French discourse analysts of the 1960s and 1970s.
This interest was triggered in late 2014 by the confluence
of Femke’s Mondotheque project and an invitation to be an
artist-in-residence in Mons in Belgium at the Mundaneum,
home to Paul Otlet’s recently restored archive.
This led me to identify three tropes of organizing and
navigating written records, which has guided my thinking
about libraries and research ever since: class, reference,
and index. Classification entails tree-like structuring, such
as faceting the meanings of words and expressions, and
developing classification systems for libraries. Referencing
stands for citations, hyperlinking and bibliographies. Indexing ranges from the listing of occurrences of selected terms
to an ‘absolute’ index of all terms, enabling full-text search.
With this in mind, I have done a number of experiments.
There is an index of selected persons and terms from
across the Monoskop wiki and Log.5 There is a growing
list of wiki entries with bibliographies and institutional
Index. Accessed
28 May 2016.
infrastructures of fields and theories in the humanities.6
There is a lexicon aggregating entries from some ten
dictionaries of the humanities into a single page with
hyperlinks to each full entry (unpublished). There is an
Humanities. Accessed
28 May 2016.
alternative interface to the Monoskop Log, in which entries are navigated solely through a tag cloud acting as
a multidimensional filter (unpublished). There is a reader
containing some fifty books whose mutual references are
turned into hyperlinks, and whose main interface consists
of terms specific to each text, generated through tf-idf algorithm (unpublished). And so on.


The publishing market frames the publication as a singular
body of work, autonomous from other titles on offer, and
subjects it to the rules of the market—with a price tag and
copyright notice attached. But for scholars and artists, these
are rarely an issue. Most academic work is subsidized from
public sources in the first place, and many would prefer to
give their work away for free since openness attracts more
citations. Why they opt to submit to the market is for quality
editing and an increase of their own symbolic value in direct
proportion to the ranking of their publishing house. This
is not dissimilar from the music industry. And indeed, for
many the goal is to compose chants that would gain popularity across academia and get their place in the popular
On the other hand, besides providing access, digital
libraries are also fit to provide context by treating publications as a corpus of texts that can be accessed through an
unlimited number of interfaces designed with an understanding of the functionality of databases and an openness
to the imagination of the community of users. This can
be done by creating layers of classification, interlinking
bodies of texts through references, creating alternative
indexes of persons, things and terms, making full-text
search possible, making visual search possible—across
the whole of corpus as well as its parts, and so on. Isn’t
this what makes a difference? To be sure, websites such
as Aaaaarg and Monoskop have explored only the tip of


Indeed, looking at the archive in many alternative ways has





the iceberg of possibilities. There is much more to tinker
and hack around.

within a given text and within a discourse in which it is
embedded. What is specific to digital text, however, is that
we can search it in milliseconds. Full-text search is enabled
by the index—search engines operate thanks to bots that
assign each expression a unique address and store it in a
database. In this respect, the index usually found at the
end of a printed book is something that has been automated
with the arrival of machine search.
In other words, even though knowledge in the age of the
internet is still being shaped by the departmentalization of
academia and its related procedures and rituals of discourse
production, and its modes of expression are centred around
the verbal rhetoric, the flattening effects of the index really
transformed the ways in which we come to ‘know’ things.
To ‘write’ a ‘book’ in this context is to produce a searchable
database instead.


It is interesting that whilst the accessibility and search potential has radically changed, the content, a book or any other
text, is still a particular kind of thing with its own characteristics and forms. Whereas the process of writing texts seems
hard to change, would you be interested in creating more
alliances between texts to bring out new bibliographies? In
this sense, starting to produce new texts, by including other
texts and documents, like emails, visuals, audio, CD-ROMs,
or even un-published texts or manuscripts?

Currently Monoskop is compiling more and more ‘source’
bibliographies, containing digital versions of actual texts
they refer to. This has been very much in focus in the past
two or three years and Monoskop is now home to hundreds
of bibliographies of twentieth-century artists, writers, groups,
and movements as well as of various theories and human7
ities disciplines.7 As the next step I would like to move
See for example
on to enabling full-text search within each such biblioghttps://monoskop.
raphy. This will make more apparent that the ‘source’
is a form of anthology, a corpus of texts
representing a discourse. Another issue is to activate
within texts—to turn page numbers in
All accessed
28 May 2016.
bibliographic citations inside texts into hyperlinks leading
to other texts.
This is to experiment further with the specificity of digital text. Which is different both to oral speech and printed
books. These can be described as three distinct yet mutually
encapsulated domains. Orality emphasizes the sequence
and narrative of an argument, in which words themselves
are imagined as constituting meaning. Specific to writing,
on the other hand, is referring to the written record; texts
are brought together by way of references, which in turn
create context, also called discourse. Statements are ‘fixed’
to paper and meaning is constituted by their contexts—both




So, perhaps we finally have come to ‘the death of the author’,
at least in so far as that automated mechanisms are becoming active agents in the (re)creation process. To return to
Monoskop in its current form, what choices do you make
regarding the content of the repositories, are there things
you don’t want to collect, or wish you could but have not
been able to?

In a sense, I turned to a wiki and started Monoskop as
a way to keep track of my reading and browsing. It is a
by-product of a succession of my interests, obsessions, and
digressions. That it is publicly accessible is a consequence
of the fact that paper notebooks, text files kept offline and
private wikis proved to be inadequate at the moment when I
needed to quickly find notes from reading some text earlier.
It is not perfect, but it solved the issue of immediate access
and retrieval. Plus there is a bonus of having the body of
my past ten or twelve years of reading mutually interlinked
and searchable. An interesting outcome is that these ‘notes’
are public—one is motivated to formulate and frame them



as to be readable and useful for others as well. A similar
difference is between writing an entry in a personal diary
and writing a blog post. That is also why the autonomy
of technical infrastructure is so important here. Posting
research notes on Facebook may increase one’s visibility
among peers, but the ‘terms of service’ say explicitly that
anything can be deleted by administrators at any time,
without any reason. I ‘collect’ things that I wish to be able
to return to, to remember, or to recollect easily.

Can you describe the process, how do you get the books,
already digitized, or do you do a lot yourself? In other words,
could you describe the (technical) process and organizational aspects of the project?

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time exploring other digital
libraries which served as sources for most of the entries on
Log (Gigapedia, Libgen, Aaaaarg, Bibliotik, Scribd, Issuu,
Karagarga, Google filetype:pdf). Later I started corresponding with a number of people from around the world (NYC,
Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, Boulder, Berlin, Ploiesti, etc.) who
contribute scans and links to scans on an irregular basis.
Out-of-print and open-access titles often come directly from
authors and publishers. Many artists’ books and magazines
were scraped or downloaded through URL manipulation
from online collections of museums, archives and libraries.
Needless to say, my offline archive is much bigger than
what is on Monoskop. I tend to put online the files I prefer
not to lose. The web is the best backup solution I have
found so far.
The Monoskop wiki is open for everyone to edit; any user
can upload their own works or scans and many do. Many of
those who spent more time working on the website ended up
being my friends. And many of my friends ended up having
an account as well :). For everyone else, there is no record
kept about what one downloaded, what one read and for
how long... we don’t care, we don’t track.




In what way has the larger (free) publishing context changed
your project, there are currently several free texts sharing
initiatives around (some already before you started like Textz.
com or Aaaaarg), how do you collaborate, or distinguish
from each other?

It should not be an overstatement to say that while in the
previous decade Monoskop was shaped primarily by the
‘media culture’ milieu which it intended to document, the
branching out of its repository of highlighted publications
Monoskop Log in 2009, and the broadening of its focus to
also include the whole of the twentieth and twenty-first
century situates it more firmly in the context of online
archives, and especially digital libraries.
I only got to know others in this milieu later. I approached
Sean Dockray in 2010, Marcell Mars approached me the
following year, and then in 2013 he introduced me to Kenneth Goldsmith. We are in steady contact, especially through
public events hosted by various cultural centres and galleries.
The first large one was held at Ljubljana’s hackerspace Kiberpipa in 2012. Later came the conferences and workshops
organized by Kuda at a youth centre in Novi Sad (2013), by
the Institute of Network Cultures at WORM, Rotterdam (2014),
WKV and Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart (2014),
Mama & Nova Gallery in Zagreb (2015), ECC at Mundaneum,
Mons (2015), and most recently by the Media Department
of the University of Malmo (2016).8
For more information see,
The leitmotif of all these events was the digital library
and their atmosphere can be described as the spirit of
hacker culture that eventually left the walls of a
Accessed 28 May 2016.
computer lab. Only rarely there have been professional
librarians, archivists, and publishers among the speakers, even though the voices represented were quite diverse.
To name just the more frequent participants... Marcell
and Tom Medak (Memory of the World) advocate universal
access to knowledge informed by the positions of the Yugoslav



Marxist school Praxis; Sean’s work is critical of the militarization and commercialization of the university (in the
context of which Aaaaarg will always come as secondary, as
an extension of The Public School in Los Angeles); Kenneth
aims to revive the literary avant-garde while standing on the
shoulders of his heroes documented on UbuWeb; Sebastian
Lütgert and Jan Berger are the most serious software developers among us, while their projects such as and should be read against critical theory and Situationist cinema; Femke Snelting has initiated the collaborative
research-publication Mondotheque about the legacy of the
early twentieth century Brussels-born information scientist
Paul Otlet, triggered by the attempt of Google to rebrand him
as the father of the internet.
I have been trying to identify implications of the digital-networked textuality for knowledge production, including humanities research, while speaking from the position
of a cultural worker who spent his formative years in the
former Eastern Bloc, experiencing freedom as that of unprecedented access to information via the internet following
the fall of Berlin Wall. In this respect, Monoskop is a way
to bring into ‘archival consciousness’ what the East had
missed out during the Cold War. And also more generally,
what the non-West had missed out in the polarized world,
and vice versa, what was invisible in the formal Western
cultural canons.
There have been several attempts to develop new projects,
and the collaborative efforts have materialized in shared
infrastructure and introductions of new features in respective platforms, such as PDF reader and full-text search on
Aaaaarg. Marcell and Tom along with their collaborators have
been steadily developing the Memory of the World library and
Sebastian resuscitated Besides that, there are
overlaps in titles hosted in each library, and Monoskop bibliographies extensively link to scans on Libgen and Aaaaarg,
while artists’ profiles on the website link to audio and video
recordings on UbuWeb.




It is interesting to hear that there weren’t any archivist or
professional librarians involved (yet), what is your position
towards these professional and institutional entities and

As the recent example of Sci-Hub showed, in the age of
digital networks, for many researchers libraries are primarily free proxies to corporate repositories of academic
journals.9 Their other emerging role is that of a digital
For more information see,
repository of works in the public domain (the role
news/2016/04/whosneered in the United States by Project Gutenberg and
downloading-piratedInternet Archive). There have been too many attempts
Accessed 28 May 2016.
to transpose librarians’ techniques from the paperbound
world into the digital domain. Yet, as I said before, there
is much more to explore. Perhaps the most exciting inventive approaches can be found in the field of classics, for
example in the Perseus Digital Library & Catalog and the
Homer Multitext Project. Perseus combines digital editions
of ancient literary works with multiple lexical tools in a way
that even a non-professional can check and verify a disputable translation of a quote. Something that is hard to
imagine being possible in print.

I think it is interesting to see how Monoskop and other
repositories like it have gained different constituencies
globally, for one you can see the kind of shift in the texts
being put up. From the start you tried to bring in a strong
‘eastern European voice’, nevertheless at the moment the
content of the repository reflects a very western perspective on critical theory, what are your future goals. And do
you think it would be possible to include other voices? For
example, have you ever considered the possibility of users
uploading and editing texts themselves?

The site certainly started with the primary focus on east-central European media art and culture, which I considered



myself to be part of in the early 2000s. I was naive enough
to attempt to make a book on the theme between 2008–2010.
During that period I came to notice the ambivalence of the
notion of medium in an art-historical and technological
sense (thanks to Florian Cramer). My understanding of
media art was that it is an art specific to its medium, very
much in Greenbergian terms, extended to the more recent
‘developments’, which were supposed to range from neo-geometrical painting through video art to net art.
At the same time, I implicitly understood art in the sense
of ‘expanded arts’, as employed by the Fluxus in the early
1960s—objects as well as events that go beyond the (academic) separation between the arts to include music, film,
poetry, dance, design, publishing, etc., which in turn made
me also consider such phenomena as experimental film,
electro-acoustic music and concrete poetry.
Add to it the geopolitically unstable notion of East-Central
Europe and the striking lack of research in this area and
all you end up with is a headache. It took me a while to
realize that there’s no point even attempting to write a coherent narrative of the history of media-specific expanded
arts of East-Central Europe of the past hundred years. I
ended up with a wiki page outlining the supposed mile10
stones along with a bibliography.10
For this strand, the wiki served as the main notebook,
org/CEE. Accessed
28 May 2016. And
leaving behind hundreds of wiki entries. The Log was
more or less a ‘log’ of my research path and the presence
of ‘western’ theory is to a certain extent a by-product of
my search for a methodology and theoretical references.
Accessed 28 May 2016.
As an indirect outcome, a new wiki section was
launched recently. Instead of writing a history of mediaspecific ‘expanded arts’ in one corner of the world, it takes
a somewhat different approach. Not a sequential text, not
even an anthology, it is an online single-page annotated
index, a ‘meta-encyclopaedia’ of art movements and styles,
intended to offer an expansion of the art-historical canonical
prioritization of the western painterly-sculptural tradition




org/Art. Accessed
28 May 2016.

to also include other artists and movements around the

Can you say something about the longevity of the project?
You briefly mentioned before that the web was your best
backup solution. Yet, it is of course known that websites
and databases require a lot of maintenance, so what will
happen to the type of files that you offer? More and more
voices are saying that, for example, the PDF format is all
but stable. How do you deal with such challenges?

Surely, in the realm of bits, nothing is designed to last
forever. Uncritical adoption of Flash had turned out to be
perhaps the worst tragedy so far. But while there certainly
were more sane alternatives if one was OK with renouncing its emblematic visual effects and aesthetics that went
with it, with PDF it is harder. There are EPUBs, but scholarly publications are simply unthinkable without page
numbers that are not supported in this format. Another
challenge the EPUB faces is from artists' books and other
design- and layout-conscious publications—its simplified
HTML format does not match the range of possibilities for
typography and layout one is used to from designing for
paper. Another open-source solution, PNG tarballs, is not
a viable alternative for sharing books.
The main schism between PDF and HTML is that one represents the domain of print (easily portable, and with fixed
page size), while the other the domain of web (embedded
within it by hyperlinks pointing both directions, and with
flexible page size). EPUB is developed with the intention of
synthetizing both of them into a single format, but instead
it reduces them into a third container, which is doomed to
reinvent the whole thing once again.
It is unlikely that there will appear an ultimate convertor
between PDF and HTML, simply because of the specificities
of print and the web and the fact that they overlap only in
some respects. Monoskop tends to provide HTML formats



next to PDFs where time allows. And if the PDF were to
suddenly be doomed, there would be a big conversion party.
On the side of audio and video, most media files on
Monoskop are in open formats—OGG and WEBM. There
are many other challenges: keeping up-to-date with PHP
and MySQL development, with the MediaWiki software
and its numerous extensions, and the mysterious ICANN
organization that controls the web domain.

as an imperative to us to embrace redundancy, to promote
spreading their contents across as many nodes and sites
as anyone wishes. We may look at copying not as merely
mirroring or making backups, but opening up for possibilities to start new libraries, new platforms, new databases.
That is how these came about as well. Let there be Zzzzzrgs,
Ůbuwebs and Multiskops.


What were your biggest challenges beside technical ones?
For example, have you ever been in trouble regarding copyright issues, or if not, how would you deal with such a

Monoskop operates on the assumption of making transformative use of the collected material. The fact of bringing
it into certain new contexts, in which it can be accessed,
viewed and interpreted, adds something that bookstores
don’t provide. Time will show whether this can be understood as fair use. It is an opt-out model and it proves to
be working well so far. Takedowns are rare, and if they are
legitimate, we comply.

Perhaps related to this question, what is your experience
with users engagement? I remember Sean (from Aaaaarg,
in conversation with Matthew Fuller, Mute 2011) saying
that some people mirror or download the whole site, not
so much in an attempt to ‘have everything’ but as a way
to make sure that the content remains accessible. It is a
conscious decision because one knows that one day everything might be taken down. This is of course particularly
pertinent, especially since while we’re doing this interview
Sean and Marcell are being sued by a Canadian publisher.

That is absolutely true and any of these websites can disappear any time. Archives like Aaaaarg, Monoskop or UbuWeb
are created by makers rather than guardians and it comes





Fuller, Matthew. ‘In the Paradise of Too Many Books: An Interview with
Sean Dockray’. Mute, 4 May 2011.

articles/paradise-too-many-books-interview-seandockray. Accessed 31 May 2016.
Online digital libraries
Library Genesis / LibGen,
Memory of the World,





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