MIKRO - initiative for the advancement of media cultures

Inke Arns interviewed by Joanne Richardson

>> Can you recount the history of mikro? When was it formed and what are the backgrounds of the people in the association?

  In March 1998, fifteen artists, theoreticians, journalists, organizers and other cultural producers founded mikro e.V., a Berlin-based non-profit initiative for the advancement of media cultures. The founding members work mostly in the field of independent media culture - from video art and electronic music, independent radio and TV production, to creative use of the Internet and digital multimedia technologies.

What brings this multi-faceted group together is the need for a critical discussion of the cultural, social and political impact of media in today's society. We felt that there was an extreme lack of this kind of critical discourse in the city. Many of the founding members had been working in independent, media cultural projects all over the place in Germany or in Europe, but there was no platform, no place or institution in Berlin where we could have connected all these issues to. Internationale Stadt had just closed down. Many of us knew each other before as we had been cooperating in projects, like, for example, the Hybrid WorkSpace during documenta X in Kassel 1997. Concerning mikro the notion of a "platform" emerged again and again, as we felt that the media cultural scene in the city was extremely heterogeneous and disparate, in fact so heterogeneous as to prevent any communication between the different projects. Therefore one of mikro's goals certainly was the cartography of the media cultural landscape in the city, and also the establishment of some sort of communication and exchange between the different projects.

>> What are some of the projects and events mikro has organized?

mikro's explicit aim is to foster the development of an open and democratic media culture by presenting and discussing the artistic and cultural applications of the digital, computer-assisted media in public events, including panel discussions, project presentations, workshops and conferences. Between March 1998 and March 2001 we have organized 31 mikro.lounges at the Berlin WMF club focusing on themes ranging from copyright & music on the Net, cryptography & security, diasporic communities, "cooking pot markets" and the gift economy, to net art, political activism on the Net, software patents, and ICANN. These lounges combine the different formats of video screenings, lectures, panel discussions and DJ sets.

The setting in the WMF club and the mixing of formats were very important: the lounges were not only about "transferring knowledge" and discussing the issues at stake, but also about fostering informal meetings between people from various contexts. Having a drink together at the bar in a nice lounge atmosphere and doing some kind of casual talking can sometimes be more effective than putting people together on a panel ... or, let's say, it worked exactly in this combination: focused discussion first and casual get-togethers later on. That was the format developed by the mikro.lounges.

For these lounges we did not only invite representatives of local cultural initiatives and companies for a presentation of their work but we also invited media cultural experts from other parts of Germany and the world, thereby enriching cultural debates in the city and making accessible these specific themes for a broader audience. In order to initiate a critical public discussion of the impact of the Internet and new media technologies on today's society I mentioned earlier we saw it as absolutely necessary to raise a broader awareness for these topics beyond specialist (private, or semi-public) circles.

Given the nature of the whole field which reaches out way beyond economic reason, for discussing these topics we found it necessary and appropriate to approach these topics in a genuinely trans- or interdisciplinary way, i.e. bringing people together from the most varied backgrounds: from computer science and net art, from the games industry and net activism, lawyers and hackers. This interdisciplinary approach also goes for the larger international events which mikro has organized: The net.radio days '98, an international meeting of net radio & net audio activists, and two Wizards of OS conferences, the first in July 1999, and the second in October 2001.

The first Wizards of OS conference was entitled "Open Sources and Free Software" and focused on surveying free software and its practical applications. In retrospect, Free Software really was an eye-opener for us. It proved that freedom, openness and community work. Which is even more surprising since this was established in the very area of technology that forms the core of the digital "knowledge society" and, as such, is the battlefield for fierce competition. It has become clear that open contributory knowledge cultures and community-based innovation can be found most anywhere - in law and genetics, in journalism and in the arts. The second Wizards of OS conference on "Open Cultures and Free Knowledge" invited representatives of these cultures to Berlin to talk about cooperation and tools, the legal position of informational common goods, different software cultures, security, an open and open source e-government and governance, and a possible future beyond capitalism. The conference centered around the changes in the conditions of intellectual creation of any kind, the mediation of its results and their collaborative continued development. In the "knowledge society", questions of the production, distribution, archiving and reception of software-based knowledge enter center stage. It is precisely this set of topics the conference wanted to address. Extensive documentation on each of these events is available on the mikro website www.mikro.org. In the beginning of 2000 mikro initiated Rohrpost ["pneumatic post"], a German-speaking mailing list for media and net culture. The events and mailing list have fostered a critical discussion of the impact of new media on today's society, not only within the initiative itself, but among a wider interested public. In this way, within the last three and half years, an independent Berlin-based platform for media critique has emerged.

>> How do you define "independent?" Independent from what? From state institutions? From academic institutions? From monolithic, well funded cultural institutions? How does independence or autonomy relate to sources of funds and, consequently, to the goals of the project and the internal organization? And what is the significance of the name you have chosen - mikro - in this context?

I just came back from a panel discussion at the Hamburger Bahnhof [including also other Berlin based independent cultural initiatives like kunst+technik, Botschaft, loop, plattform] where exactly these questions were discussed. Independence - at least for me - means to be independent from all the (inherently monolithic) institutions you mentioned: state and academic institutions, well funded media centers, commercial sponsors and the like. Perhaps it might indeed be better to talk about autonomy here, especially concerning mikro.

From the beginning, the name "mikro" was programmatic: the initiative never intended to develop into an institutional makro structure, but instead focused on the small, distributed, yet no less influential capillary structures, through which the media and technologies exercise power within art and society. The field within which mikro operates is characterized by its heterogeneous, multi-faceted and networked elements. These networks exist parallel to commercially formed social structures and are based on relations of trust and the gift economy. The diversity and the fragility of this network of relationships is the reason for the careful formulation of the aim of the association: "advancement of media cultures". mikro thereby stresses the importance of the heterogeneity of social and cultural practice.

  Back to the question of autonomy: During the three and a half years of its existence mikro has successfully avoided developing into an institutional structure. mikro never had its own space, it never had an office, it never had an administrative or bureaucratic overhead, (and/because) it never had a significant budget. It essentially was non-existent on that level. It never wanted to have all these nice things as they would have reduced mikro's mobility and flexibility significantly, i.e. its ability to quickly react to new topics. I think that different speeds/velocities are a very significant difference between institutions and non-institutionalized associations. mikro basically consisted of a group of people who communicated via e-mail and who met regularly face to face every two weeks in some smoky back rooms of restaurants in order to discuss media cultural topics.

The internal organization of mikro is loose and based on different projects. On the mailing list and during our regular meetings every two weeks we discussed possible topics & focuses for the lounges. Somebody would suggest a topic which then would be discussed (refocused, broadened conceptually, alternative panelists would be named) by the present mikro members. It was essentially a collective discussion process. The realization of each lounge would then be taken over by individual members, a so-called task force, one would take over the moderator's part, the other would prepare the technical set up, etc. This worked rather like an rotational system, even if some of the mikro members always suggested more topics and invested more time an energy than others (that's quite normal, I guess). Everybody could essentially do everything. On the other side, when it came to the official level, the whole fact of setting up a non-profit association requires an official interface which includes the assignment of specific functions, titles and responsibilities to individual people. We officially (have to) have a "president", a cashier, a public relations person and an archivist. But within the initiative this was totally meaningless as all the members were considered equal.

Except for single larger events like the net.radio days or the Wizards of OS, mikro did not receive any kind of public or private funding for its ongoing activities. For the net.radio days in 1998 we received a small amount of money from the Berlin Senate for Cultural Affairs, which meant that most of the international participants organized their own funding. The Wizards of OS 1 was co-organized by mikro, the working group Computers and Society of the Humboldt University and the ZKM. It was largely funded by the Berlin Senate for Economic Affairs in the framework of the initiative "Projekt Zukunft - Der Berliner Weg in die Informationsgesellschaft" (Project Future - Berlin's Way into the Information Society) and supported by the House of World Cultures, and many Berlin-based, European and international small and large-scale companies and media cultural institutions active in the field of free software. For the second Wizards of OS in 2001 mikro cooperated with the German Federal Office for Political Education (who also gave the largest portion of financial support) and the working group Computers and Society of the Humboldt University, and was supported by the Center for the Public Domain, the Berlin Senate, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Technology, and by many local and European media cultural institutions. Large institutions are interesting for strategic partnerships. Strategic partnership in this context means: To cooperate or to co-organize specific issue-oriented events together with larger bodies whose aims concerning these specific topics are compatible with those of mikro.

The mikro.lounges, i.e. mikro's ongoing activities since 1998, have been exclusively funded by a very moderate entrance fee of 5 DM (= 2,50 US$) taken from the audience (roughly around 100-150 people) and by the fact that all the mikro members were working as "volunteers", or, to formulate it positively, out of amateurism in the original sense: doing something for the love of it. There are different modes of doing things: for earning money ... and out of a sense of necessity, interest, or topicality. We managed to keep the mikro discussions free of arguments like, 'let's do an event to make money and fill the mikro koffers' or 'we need to "professionalize", carry mikro activities to a new level, therefore we need full-time, paid executives, therefore we need a regular source of income'. The most fascinating for me during the last three and a half years has been to see how through this cooperative effort not only by its members, but also by many friendly initiatives, it was possible to bring into existence public discussions and raise awareness for themes we all felt an urgent need to discuss.

>> Why the urgency? Can you talk about the local context in Germany, and more specifically, in Berlin? Did a tradition of this kind of critical discussion about net culture and the social implications of the free software movement, copyleft, net.radio already exist in Germany? Or has the context been created during your years of operation?

There definitely existed a critical discussion concerning free software, copyleft, surveillance / encryption and other net cultural topics independently from mikro. I think what mikro achieved is really that it raised awareness for these topics beyond these hermetical specialist circles. In this sense I see mikro's work in a line with the aims of Internationale Stadt (IS, 1995-1998), a Berlin-based cultural Internet access provider, or, rather, a "context system" similar to that of The Digital City Amsterdam developed in the mid-1990s. IS' aim was to provide affordable access to the Internet at a time when this still wasn't available everywhere. What IS tried to do was to broaden the usage of net tools that previously had been accessible only to specialists, programmers, hackers, etc. These specialists themselves were not able or willing to get larger/broader audiences acquainted to the possibilities the Internet offered. In my book "Net Cultures," which will be published by Rotbuch in spring 2002, I describe this as a significant paradigm shift between the net culture of the 1980s and the 1990s. IS did some first practical steps towards the establishment of critical media literacy for a broader public. In this sense I see mikro's work as a continuation of that of IS: it's about raising awareness, about critical media literacy, and about extracting knowledge from specialist, hermetic circles and bringing these topics out into a broader public, and all this with an inter- or trans-disciplinary approach. In contrast to IS mikro did not develop Web tools but tried to establish a certain level of media cultural discourse in the city. And it succeeded to a certain extent.

>> I was surprised to find out that mikro does not have a space, a fixed location for events and meetings You suggested previously that mikro is not an institution but a non-institutional association. Can you explain the difference? I think of institutions as being bound up with a physical location, a building, an infrastructure. Is an association more "mobile"? And what are the reasons that you prefer to organize events in places that belong to other people rather than to have your own - which would be associated with the identity of the group?

  To answer the association/institution question: yes, mikro is rather an association or initiative than an institution. For me, institutions are intrinsically connected to having a space of their own and a more or less clear and more or less long-term budget. I explained earlier why mikro was never really keen either to get its own space or to have a fixed budget, i.e. to become an institution. I think a very important element for staying out of the vicious "becoming-an-institution" circle was the fact that mikro members never had any financial interest in the association's activities. They made a living out of projects (grants, jobs, etc.) other than mikro itself. It would have made a great difference if some of us would have had concrete plans to turn mikro into a viable structure in economic terms. Then it could have been quickly turned into an institution with all its (dis)advantages.

While mikro did not have its own space we were, however, identified very strongly with the WMF club where the mikro.lounges took place every first Wednesday each month during the three and half years. As I said earlier, the WMF club/lounge setting greatly added to the atmosphere of the lounges, and certainly was associated with mikro's identity. Even if it was not our "own" space. We just happened to organize events there quite regularly.

>> mikro was involved in setting up the cooperative media lab, bootlab, which has since become independent. What were the reasons for the parting of the ways of the two projects?

Concerning mikro's involvement in the bootlab and the parting of the two initiatives one can describe the developments as follows: mikro was involved in setting up the bootlab in summer 2000, a cooperative workplace which by now has become an independent initiative. In the beginning there were many mikro members who were interested in renting/establishing an office for themselves. As many of these mikro/bootlab members soon got regular jobs (with offices), they understandably lost their immediate interest in the idea of a cooperative workplace. It soon turned out that the bootlab group consisted more and more of non-mikro members, and therefore it seemed only natural that the bootlab would develop independently from mikro. And apart from that, what would the anti-institution mikro be like with an office? ;)

[Notice: Some people might wonder why I am talking about mikro in the past tense. Well, mikro does still exist, but it is unclear how the initiative is going to continue. This can partly be explained with individual life planings (new jobs, new projects, new families, new cities, etc.). Perhaps projects like mikro reach their maximum life span after three and a half years. After that there will be new projects in ever new constellations. Be sure about that. ;) I am.]

November, 2001

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