Image via Post-Digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing since 1864 from Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine, 1935
Artists have often been at the forefront of technological innovations in publishing media — experimenting to push boundaries in new directions. They create new ideas about interactions with emerging media and spark fresh conversations about legacy practices and formats — think; David Horvitz, Metahaven, and Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited, to name only a few. This phenomenon of experimental publishing isn’t new, but Alessandro Ludovico puts the enterprise into a unique and digestible perspective in Post-Digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing since 1864. His research reveals the deep history and early seeds of current publishing media remix in their original surroundings — from Fluxus promotions to the rise and fall of zines and up to the interventionist work of Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev’s Newstweek and beyond.
In our present digital era, the ‘death of paper’ has become a plausible concept, widely expected to materialise sooner or later. The ‘digitisation of everything’ explicitly threatens to supplant every single ‘old’ medium (anything carrying content in one way or another), while claiming to add new qualities, supposedly essential for the contemporary world: being mobile, searchable, editable, perhaps shareable. And indeed, all of the ‘old’ media have been radically transformed from their previous forms and modalities – as we have seen happen with records, radio and video. On the other hand, none of these media ever really disappeared; they ‘merely’ evolved and transformed, according to new technical and industrial requirements.
The printed page, the oldest medium of them all, seems to be the last scheduled to undergo this evolutionary process. This transformation has been endlessly postponed, for various reasons, by the industry as well as by the public at large. And so the question may very well be ...
You've been participating in the tech and art community for over a decade now. You're work spans everything from establishing an artistic game-development collective to pushing the boundaries of privacy on public wireless networks with custom hardware. Just this past year you published the Critical Engineering Manifesto with Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev. Was there a specific event or moment that inspired its creation and were their any earlier iterations of the ten statements that didn't make the final cut?
Danja, Gordan and I felt a long standing need to frame our respective practices a little more acutely, foregrounding the languages and cultures of Engineering, rather than Art, in the creative and critical process. We'd each found ourselves frustrated under the vague, ballooning term of Media Artist - like trying to swim in a bathrobe. This came up in conversation enough times to explore alternatives. Afterall, it didn't seem to matter whether we called what we made 'art', even ourselves 'artists', people were quick to do it for us anyway.
One thing that regularly came up in conversation between us is that Engineering, not Art, is the most transformative language of our time - informing the way we communicate, move, trade and even think. The reach of Engineering is so deep that it's hard to disagree it has become part of our environment, with vast impacts on human culture, the Earth and how we understand it. So it follows that to ignore the languages, logics and ideas that make up this thing we call Engineering is to assume a critically vulnerable position - we become unable to describe our environment.
As thinkers with technical abilities in several areas, we want to take on our built and increasingly automated environment by the terms in which it's given, opening it up for post-utilitarian conversation, for play and interrogation. If there's ever a time to be doing that, it's now, especially with opaque and hidden infrastructure in the telecommunications space deeply impacting diplomatic relations and civil liberties world wide.
The Critical Engineering Manifesto grew directly from conversations along these lines and was generally very well received, soon translated into 14 languages. A couple of people wrote in that they wondered why we didn't include or reference 'hacking' as a critical practice to draw upon. Admittedly none of us had an instinct to include it, as it is also a term that has an increasingly vague meaning. I think Danja and Gordan would agree that those that hack in a way we appreciate are already Critical Engineers!
The Transparency Grenade and Newstweek are projects that are designed to disrupt traditional systems of information distribution in news organizations, companies, and governments. Do they achieve your desired affects on the systems they are designed to criticize? Have you been satisfied with the results of the two projects?
It's true that both projects are real implementations with tangible and disruptive effects. That said Danja and I developed Newstweek primarily to spur critical attention to the vulnerabilities of our increasingly 'browser-defined reality', to return an eye to the network infrastructure that plays an integral role in the distribution of fact. If you can control the infrastructure, you can control what's understood to be fact. Newstweek has certainly achieved what we'd hoped in this regard, inciting plenty of productive, healthy paranoia - helped along by us releasing a full HOWTO so that others can build their own Newstweek devices.
The second dimension to the project surrounds an intervention on the top->down news distribution model. We know that our news is being 'tweeked' anyway - an endemic symptom of the (rather bizarre) fact we traditionally depend on privately owned news corporations to inform our summarial view of the world. Newstweek seeks to intervene on this model, an on the ground solution for civilians to have their chance to propagandise or simply 'fix the facts' they know to be untrue.
The Transparency Grenade has been a tricky project as all of sudden some people think I'm in the cyber-weapons business, which I'm not. Like Newstweek, it's first and foremost a conversation starter. It seeks to directly manifest the fears we have, whether state, corporation or individual, around the increased political volatility of data. Indeed it is an implementation that can be used but I'm not selling grenades to be used as weapons. In fact they're limited edition finely crafted objects that look enough like a grenade for you to /not/ want to take with you into a corporate meeting. The Android application I'm still developing will mimic much of the functionality of the grenade and is better suited for such purposes, though I certainly will never suggest it be used and nor will I use it myself. That would put me in a very different legal position.
Many of your works challenge the implicit trust people have in the wireless networks they use - from cell phones to public wifi. In that same way your pieces often blur the boundaries between gallery space and the public sphere. Why is revealing and breaking these boundaries of trust and perception important to you and your work?
Again it comes back to infrastructure and how our inability to describe and understand reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable.
Opacity is an important word here too, as is the term 'black box'. Most of our engineered communications infrastructure is not just extraordinarily abstract for people to come to grips with but is actively kept hidden. There are some valid reasons, of course, for keeping infrastructure hidden but the fact is it out of sight is being increasingly exploited in and out of supposedly democratic contexts, largely by surveillance initiatives we were never told about.
Image from CMD SHIFT 3 .NET by Emilio Gomeriz
Everyday we use digital tools to create, edit, and document our work. We click fastidiously into the graphical user interface (GUI) of applications, seeing expected results while trying to ignore the friction of bad design, failed UX, and glitches. Most actions are conducted successfully and the interface holds its transparent position. But despite the GUI’s seemingly innocuous presence, its aesthetic leaches its way into our own. How we view our creative process and documentation is minutely and incrementally shifted by the frame of the interfaces we routinely use.
Douglas Engelbart's 1968 demo of NLS (online system)
The current paradigm of the user interface had its first introduction on December 9th in 1968 when Douglas Engelbart demoed his famous NLS (online system) at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in held at the Convention Center in San Francisco, CA. Engelbart and his team at Stanford had an innovative vision driven by desires to improve the ways people communicate and interact with each other and computers. It was the public debut of the mouse. The work produced by his group went on to inspire the most basic interactions used in Xerox’s Star graphical user interface and almost every operating system since...
A page from David Horvitz's A Wikipedia Reader,2009
“Very few people are being promoted into the humble, hard-working positions which make Wikipedia work.”
- Robinson Meyer via The Atlantic
Earlier this month Wikipedia held its annual summit in Washington, DC. Afterwards, The Atlantic summarized the event in an article outlining how Wikipedia is slowly running out of admins to edit the site’s content. A trend is emerging. Fewer people are applying, and the current editors are slowly leaving. The long-term future has a flicker of uncertainty. To spark some discussion, I surveyed four artists and writers about the decline. We can all speculate what effects a decline in editor participation will have on Wikipedia as a global knowledge-base, but what are the implications for artists who use it as a tool for research and making work?
A healthy creative practice in the 21st century demands a baseline level of unencumbered access not just to information but to a broad range of cultural practices in general. While some of the most successful artists of the digital age are, as Mark Amerika has put it, 'remixologists' of information and culture, such a practice isn't sustainable without grassroots archives to draw from such as Wikipedia. For my own work, Wikipedia has long been a crucial entryway to information on the history of computing and digital art - Wikipedia pages on these topics are remarkably detailed and informative in ways often unmatched by books or print-based articles. I fear that the potential decline of Wikipedia would not only severely impact creative-critical practices but it also indicates more broadly that while we have made tremendous strides in opening access to information, we do not yet have any strategies in place for a long-term curatorial practice of maintaining and preserving this access ...
Photo by Laura Swanson
Jason, our former editorial fellow, is back to guest blog while Joanne is on vacation this week. He is a practicing artist, writer, and designer who originally hails from Georgia but now lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Last year he graduated with a Masters in Fine Art in Digital + Media from the Rhode Island School of Design. His work is currently featured in Daphne, a show at FJORD gallery in Philadelphia, PA that opened this month. Keep an eye out for American Pyscho, a collaborative piece he completed with Mimi Cabell scheduled to be published later this year by Traumawien. His work is also included in the Special Collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art.