NEW MEDIA, 'COMMUNITY ART,' AND NET.ART ACTIVISM
Natalie Bookchin interviewed by Beryl Graham


> You've had experience of 'hacktivism', and net.art. Would you differentiate them, and if so, how?

At times the two practices overlap, but other times they don't. Early net art tended to have an activist bent to it, in part because it emerged in the context of an on-line scene active in the free distribution of information, software and ideas in the face of the imminent commercializing and 'malling' of the net On the other hand there are hacktivists and net activists who do not see themselves as artists per se, but I would argue that their practices can often be seen as a form of art, in their creative and subversive uses of form and content, and their symbolic, representational and practical work which rubs itself against the commercial and corporate grain.

On and off line activism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, net activism often works quite effectively in conjunction with simultaneous off line practices. This is the case for some of the most effective projects of the on-line activist group rtmark, the collective actions known as Toy Wars, and the activities of Electronic Disturbance Theater.

Gatt.org was launched during the few weeks before the World Trade Organization was to meet in Seattle in the Fall of 1999 Soon after the site was published the Director General of the WTO distributed a press release harshly criticizing gatt.org for being "deceptive", thus assisting rtmark in bringing even more public and media attention to our site. While a series of exchanges between rtmark and the WTO were taking place, thousands of activists were protesting in the streets in Seattle. The on-line activities did not replace the off-line ones, but instead each reinforced the other The rtmark site was produced by 4 people with limited resources, yet it can reach on-line audiences as well as the media that love to cover these technologically 'sexy' actions.

> You've had experience both in the USA and Europe. Would you say there are national differences in approach?

In my experience as part of the American-based collaborative group, rtmark, I found that the work initially received more attention from European audiences than those in the USA, even though one might argue that the group has a particularly American approach. One of the tactics rtmark has developed is tailoring the work to the mainstream media, by using humor, satire and wit when addressing serious political issues. This works well in the USA, where news is often reduced to a catchy sound bite and well placed image, but the popularity of rtmark internationally (including the international media) means that this sensibility is not unique to the States, and that local political differences are to some degree transgressable


> At the Terminal Futures Conference (ICA, London, Oct 1994) Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble argued that because multinational companies oppressed people nomadically (choosing the least empowered countries), then resistance should be Net-based rather than community-based. Matt Fuller suggested that this might be an example of a privileged "White Flight into cyberspace" away from the physical problems of actual communities

I would agree with Matt Fuller that the CAE position from 1994 can be seen as a cynical and privileged position. I wish that CAE would write a follow up to their polemic essay of that same year, "Electronic Civil Disobedience" where they argued that the streets are dead, and "Electronic Civil Disobedience" in the form of "electronic disturbance" (blocking the flow of information in cyberspace) should replace traditional civil disobedience in the streets.

Institutional power may indeed be located in electronic data streams, but the streets are not in any sense dead, and very effective political grass roots practices still can emerge at a local level [see La Fiambrera's actions in Seville]. However, I would argue that work produced on the net can also carry powerful socially charged meaning with real effect. Fuller has certainly shown this, for example with his group IOD's production of an alternative browser The Web Stalker that has been freely distributed to thousands of people on-line

It is not an either/or situation. I also believe, as I argue in my project Street Action on the Superhighway that the Internet can function like a street, as a way to build networks and connections and lead to real action, just as the street can also function as network

> The problems of subaltern access to new technologies have been well discussed. Have you come across any particularly good solutions/approaches to this (including lo-tech solutions)?

I don't find new technologies any more or less elitist than other communication forms of the last century the real challenge is to turn these activities into politicized and socially charged activities

There are vast audiences of bored surfers on the net. My interest lies in trying to get them off their normal tracks, and onto others The Intruder looked like a game but in fact was a critical commentary on computer games and patriarchy.

Last week I was in Marseilles where I had been invited to give a series of workshops and lectures based around this project. The art space that invited me, La Compagnie, is located in a poor Arab neighborhood. I gave a series of workshops to local neighborhood kids in which I had them remake my game, replacing my images and texts with their own. They responded immediately because not only were they attracted to the possibility of playing a game, but they realized that they could intervene in the process - that is become producers rather than simply consumers of a popular culture. This was just a short 2-day workshop where they learned how easy it was to actually make something they previously assumed was only consumable. Mervin Jarman, based in Jamaica and London, has been working on this type of distributed production with his Container Project, where he takes new technologies on to the streets and keeps them there for a sustained period of time.

In my current project in development [at manalife.com from Sep 2001] I am making a real functioning on-line virtual pet game, where the virtual pet in this case is a human worker. This game will seek to attract not simply an audience looking for art, but on-line game players looking for games. In order to get points needed to keep ones pet alive, players will need to leave the game and perform other on and off line activities that have potential political effect.

> Mainstream art galleries and museums sometimes engage with activist or hacktivist art - have you experienced any particularly good (or bad) examples?

The Whitney Biennial decided to expand their exhibition and show net art in 2000. Unfortunately they presented half a dozen or so projects on one single computer, on a pew-like bench and with a screen projection of the work. It was not clear why one needed to sit in an uncomfortable museum setting, and look at projected work on a screen. What is the motivation to pay an admission fee and see the work in the less comfortable space of a museum?

On the other hand there is a new space being developed by Annette Schlinder in Basel called plugin where she is creating a comfortable media lounge like environment that encourages people to stick around for more than the normal brief time it takes to consume art objects, and to mingle with others on and off line.

> What three bits of advice would you give to arts workers and curators engaging with new media activist or community art?

More than three bits of advice can be found by simply doing research and checking out what has already been done on the net, following debates and examining past tactics. see http://www.calarts.edu/~line/history.html OR http://www.calarts.edu/~line/words.html


This contains excerpts from an interview that first appeared in Crumb in January 2001. The longer pdf text file can be downloaded at www.newmedia.sunderland.ac.uk/crumb/phase3/nmc_intvw_bookjack.html

 

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