Steve Dietz on Tue, 14 Mar 2000 10:16:19 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] DissemiNET 2.0

DissemiNET by Sawad Brooks and Beth Stryker was first commissioned by
the Wexner Center for the Arts in May 1998. In the fall of 1999,
DissemiNET began to be hosted as part of the Walker Art Center's
Digital Arts Study Collection. In February 2000, Geert Lovink was
asked to guest edit a new set of stories for DissemiNET. Below is
Geert's editorial statement and an interview with Beth and Sawad. --sd



With the end of the Cold War and the introduction of computer networks
to a general audience, both in the early nineties, real people as well
as virtual data have begun shifting. A classical response of
conservative and neo-liberal governments has been to raise real
borders and take down the virtual barriers.  But the flows of
immigrants towards the centers of capital and networks can hardly be
stopped and are constantly undermined by a growing need for low paid
workers and real needs of families and communities to re-unite in the
new home country. In Disseminet we would like to collect stories
("testimonies"), arguments and discussions around how borders between
the real and virtual are changing, how new borders are being erected
and how people are trying to overcome these obstacles in the real and
virtual world, in order to achieve their goals and live their lives.
It is obvious that cyberspace is a zone of exclusion. But the culture
of complaint about these so-called dangerous new technologies is not
empowering immigrants, nor is it in any sense appealing to a growing
number of young people, NGOs and individuals who are making use of
numerous communication devices to get in touch with others. So what is
new virtual geography? What are the real and virtual 'vectors' (as
McKenzy Wark asks)? Is there indeed a computer literate working class
in the making? The growing demand for skilled Information Technology
personnel in the metropolitan areas around the world is putting
pressure on the tough immigration laws. Whereas skilled workers from
India do get into the United States, unskilled migrant labour is put
behind bars and sent back. How do people make use of mobile phone
these days? We can hardly call this an elitist medium anymore. The
same is increasingly the case with the personal computer. (Though
some, such as Marion Baruch, suggest the contrary may be true. She
notes that in the mailing list  Pajol - the site for the sans-papiers,
few of the sans-papiers are sending communications,  the transmissios
are always about them. And she asks, do prisons allow inmates email
communications in France?) What is the tactical use of these tools?
And which stories do they generate?


"DissemiNET" is a Java-based system created by artists Sawad Brooks
and Beth Stryker, which hosts a cumulative, database of texts and
images. DissemiNET re-elaborates terms such as "origin," "home(site),"
"Diaspora," and "search," in terms of and through the mechanisms of
the web.Drawing parallels between diasporas and the dispersal of
meaning over the web, DissemiNET in response provide spaces (lacunae)
for people to recall and recollect, gathering there to re-tell stories
about their own experiences with displacement and dispersal. Over
time, DissemiNET becomes a collection of such stories of errancy.
DissemiNET was seeded with a set of testimonies collected by Pro
Busqueda de Los Ninos; an organization which helps located children
disappeared during El Salvador's 12 year civil war. Geert Lovink acts
as guest editor of this second set of texts. This collection is in
collaboration with Marion Baruch, paris.

 DissemiNET was commissioned in part by the Wexner Center for the
Arts, and is now part of the Walker Art Center's Digital Studies
Collection/ Gallery 9.

DissemiNET 2.0 is being featured as part of the exhibition Arts
Entertainment Network, curated by Steve Dietz for the Walker Art
Center, from February 12-April 30, 2000.



Interview: Sawad Brooks + Beth Stryker This interview with Stryker and
Brooks was conducted via email in the summer and fall of 1999.

Steve Dietz: Tell me about the genesis of DissemiNET and specifically
about the content--the stories.

Sawad Brooks: It is difficult for me to think of this project as
having a single origin. One could say that the project grew out of
earlier projects Beth and I made together and with others. These
projects had in common a desire to inscribe or record the presence
and/or absence of those who in some way played or touched them.
Aporia: Doubt in Forms, for example, attempted back in 1995 (with Gong
Szeto, in the first minutes of the Web's Big Bang) to discover and
disclose various senses of co-location and physicality possible when
working with/in the Web. Later, some of these elements were brought
into other works we created together, such as the Bowling Alley
website (1995, Walker Art Center; in collaboration with Christa
Erickson to interface with an installation by Shu Lea Cheang) and the
Radarweb site (1996).

Beth Stryker: DissemiNET evolved out of our ongoing collaboration. In
creating DissemiNET, one of our concerns was how to articulate what is
missing. While there has been a lot of talk about online
"communities," surfing the Web has often been a very solitary
experience. This piece attempts to comment on or mark the accumulation
of people passing through the site, and to create some sort of
intertextuality that evolves through the participation of viewers so
that users are not just passing along set routes. We were also
interested in the ways in which communities are constituted in this
distributed environment; we sometimes speak of having conceived
DissemiNET to try to elaborate a diasporic community on the Web. We
envisioned the stories which would be deposited in this space as tales
of errancy, recollections of being lost, searching for others,
experiencing displacement. The core texts are testimonies of children
who were disappeared during the civil war in El Salvador. These
testimonies were contributed by a group called Pro Busqueda de los
Ninos, which is based in San Salvador and with whom I've had previous

SD: How does the gallery installation function in terms of the overall
project? Is it simply a different interface? Was it specific to the
Wexner context somehow? Is DissemiNET a different project with the

SB: The physical component was integral to the project from the
beginning. One of the ideas around which we conceptualized the project
is that something that you can do on the Web, such as search for
people's names, can have a profound effect in the world we usually
regard as "outside" the Web. The physical installation sort of
concretizes this idea by displacing mechanisms (such as off-the-shelf
computer equipment) we take for granted when we work with electronic
information, thus framing the physical aspects of our contact with
such information. The physical installation was important all along in
that we conceived DissemiNET as a system to disseminate data. For this
to happen, we planned to have physical instruments we could send out
into the world, and serve as stations where people could collect as
well as view stories and images. Unfortunately, we have not yet
fulfilled these plans, mostly because of a lack of funding. However,
the current installation is a prototype, or lab/gallery model, for
what might still be.

BS: The gallery installation presents two networked instruments as
interfaces to the DissemiNET storyspace. These instruments occupy the
public, transient space of the gallery and create a multiple viewing
environment for the public, cumulative space of DissemiNET. They were
not specific to the Wexner space, since all along we'd hoped to be
able to transplant these instruments to other environments. Later, we
came across the term furNETure, coined by Jan Abrahms (editor of
If/Then), which I think aptly describes these instruments, the input
table and output table. The input (collection) table allows viewers to
browse the same interface that is available to the net public; they
can read and add stories. The output (recollection) table creates a
playful interface for multiple users; this interface is mapped onto
the table surface and can be manipulated by users interrupting the
flow of data along an axis of images and texts. While we aimed to
create a piece that reflects on a distributed, diasporic community
constituted across a digital space, the physical tables are somewhat
staid and in some ways domestic. They are a different take on familiar
objects. I like how the term furNETture speaks to the way these
physical objects become part of the distributed space of the network.
It also touches on the way we see the home being opened up and
reconfigured through the influence of distributed computing.

SD: Talk a bit about how you have constructed DissemiNET as a kind of
curatorial infrastructure. Do you have plans for creating new
content--either yourselves or with others?

BS: We've constructed DissemiNET so that stories may be uploaded from
the public interface and from a private editorial interface. The
site's write-in space allows the public to participate in the work, to
add stories that are automatically indexed according to a set of
underlying concepts which we may change over time, using the
editorial/curatorial interface. The system exerts a certain amount of
"automatic" curation by finding key themes and similar words
throughout the texts. As one browses, the system finds connections
among texts that may not have been constituted through conscious
direction (by reader, author, or us as artists). We also utilize this
curatorial/editorial interface to influence the images that appear in
the shutter as viewers surf the storyspaces. These images are grouped
and tagged thematically so they form reconfigurable video vignettes
that play out beneath the texts, shifting as the content of the
stories shifts among narrative passages. We also created a back-end
curatorial/editorial system for adding "core" texts. We used this
interface to curate and upload the first set of texts from Pro
Busqueda de los Ninos. We would like in the future to open this
interface up to guest curators/editors, especially now that the site
has an ongoing "home" at Gallery 9.

SB: At a conference panel on the subject of online curation, a curator
in the audience suggested that what we were doing through this work
was perhaps not curating. We had not conceived of the work as a
curatorial system per se, but given that we were participating on this
panel, the subject was open to interpretation. Thus it seemed to me
that some of our concerns in choosing work for DissemiNET were of
aesthetic derivation. Furthermore, our choice was modified via our
"themes" table, through which the database engine connects and groups
stories and images. If a curator can be said to impose a diegetic
voice when she presents a group of works, I can't see why our choices
do not also reflect a curatorial concern. At the same time, it is
important to note how we are playing with the notions of choice and
voice when we introduce programming code into the process. But I think
that these procedures, rather than distinguishing what we do from what
classical curatorial practices have been, shed light on how such
practices have been developing, and are perhaps expected to change in
the coming decades.

SD: If part of the aim of DissemiNET is to provoke community--that
which is missing in solitary surfing--how do you evaluate your
success? SB: I don't know that I am ready yet to evaluate this. But I
would begin by looking at what has been done: DissemiNET assembles and
presents via Internet and visual technologies a set of "testimonies."
But our presentation of these textual (stories) and visual (video
vignettes) documents is different from what a newspaper or even most
websites might do, thereby seeming to change what the texts represent
as well. I focus on this because Beth and I spent some time recently
talking about what Walter Benjamin [1892-1940] said information was
doing to communication in his time and, of course, reflecting on what
his insights (and blindnesses) might mean from our perspectives.
Benjamin identified the ubiquity of information, exemplified by
newspapers, as an important factor in what he called the atrophy of
experience. He speculated that because everyone had access to the same
information through newspapers there was increasingly less need to ask
someone else to share their experiences.

For Benjamin, information was also marked by timeliness, meaning that
it held its value (and even meaning) temporarily, until the next news
day. This condition was part of a process characterized by the decline
of storytelling. While Benjamin was aware of the modern novel's
importance in the 19th century and in his own time, he insisted that
storytelling was an oral--"mouth to mouth"--tradition. And while this
distinction may appear a bit nostalgic, it is clear from Benjamin's
essays "The Storyteller" and "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" that he
was not seeking to regain a lost intimacy, but to articulate an
absence made palpable in the wake of transforming communication
technologies. An important feature of Benjamin's theory of
storytelling is that when a storyteller tells his story, the listener
is immediately involved in listening. The intimacy of this mode of
communication is based on the necessity of both the storyteller and
the listener being present. Based on this condition, Benjamin asserts
that in his time "the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no
means a present force." He says that storytelling is coming to an end.
The mouth-to-mouth image is puzzling when compared with a mouth-to-ear
relation. Relating mouth to mouth, as in a kiss or sharing breath,
draws continuity and symmetry through the process of telling. Beth
notes that the passing of a story from one mouth to another involves a
sender and a receiver, but that this relation can be inverted as the
receiving mouth becomes a sender and the sender becomes a receiver;
one can imagine a chain forming as one mouth receives then turns to
send to another receiver-mouth. On the other hand, the ear, though it
too is a container or receiver, seems curiously mute. The ear has no
voice, but it's an important conduit in relating oral experience.

BS: Benjamin's assessment, based on the changing technical modes of
communication, is important in our consideration of the effects of
network and information technologies on present-day storytelling and
communication in general. These networks are built upon a system of
telephony--of senders and receivers, earphones and mouthpieces--that
connects mouth to ear, that "connects" people who are not present in
the same space (or perhaps in the same time) in spoken moments of
immediacy. The chains between people evidenced through the Internet
allow for a sense of distributed, or decoupled, time and presence;
that is, neither classically mechanical nor "present force." Internet
communication seems neither exactly like classical publishing, nor
exactly like Benjaminian storytelling. Yet it relies heavily on many
of the tropes of printing and graphic layout. But, as has been pointed
out by many, the Internet "author" can also be considered a publisher,
suggesting a renewed intimacy between writer and reader. Nonetheless,
it feels to us that the predominant understanding of the Internet is
as a vehicle for delivery, in several senses: delivery of information
and delivery from the limitations of mediation and institution through
the instantaneity of digital networks.

Through DissemiNET we posed a question to ourselves and others
regarding the relation between so-called content and the form of its
delivery, the interface and the network. If the infrastructure of the
Internet is built figuratively upon earphones and mouthpieces, it is
important to note the role interfaces play in interrupting and
conditioning these networks. It is fair to say that today all of our
access to networked information is mediated by interfaces designed to
engage our eyes and hands as well as our ears. In DissemiNET we
created a technology that is both database- and interface-driven to
put in play connections among texts, which are themselves about
(broken) connections: not only strictly textual, but also familial,
political, and visual. Although these texts are testimonial, giving
accounts of disappearances, what I think we tried to do was let the
connections among the texts suggest alternative texts that are not
limited by the logic of an account, but that run from one account to
another via words which exhibit syntactic (different from semantic)
similarity. In these ways we wished to disturb the informative aspects
of the texts, ideally displacing them into a more playful, perhaps
contemplative space while all the time respecting and being responsive
to the loss they represent.

SD: What is a specific example of how you collaborate?

SB/BS: As we mentioned, we've been collaborating for a number of
years, so the process itself is ongoing. It is not so much production
oriented as it is experimental. In the case of DissemiNET, we
conceptualized the piece and worked through it on paper long before we
began any digital production. SD: If I recall correctly, Sawad has
commented before that coding/programming is the "medium" and in
particular that Java is not "elitist" compared with "low tech" HTML.
Can you tell me what you really said/meant? Is this a net version of
the high-low art debate?

SB: The remarks to which you refer were made on the shock of the view
list as part of a thread about low-tech vs. high-tech net art. As far
as the question of whether using Java is elitist or not, it would seem
important to first ask where and how such lines are drawn? Is all
programming elitist, or only Java programming? Is HTML coding
programming? Are the products of programming elitist? Spreadsheets?
Editors? Browsers? Is working on a spreadsheet programming? Is word
processing programming? I think you have to look at what is made [by
programmers] in relation to other practices and artifacts within the
field of cultural production. If one is talking about employing a team
of 100 programmers to produce an online banking system, then perhaps
there is reason to connect this practice with elitist culture. But if
what is being advanced is that if one has the knowledge to deconstruct
software and, more important, build new software, then one is elitist
(even elite), then either we've given in to the worst cynicism or
we're a bunch of hypocrites. Here is the relevant passage:

"[T]his distinction [between high and low tech] resembles another one
familiar to those aware of the rhetoric of spontaneity which runs
through modernist discourse of the past 150 years. Looking back to
arguments advanced in late-19th-century France by 'independents'
against their 'academic' counterparts, we find (academic) technical
proficiency (mediation) cast in opposition to (anti-academic) artistic
originality (immediacy). The critic Castagnary, a contemporary of
Zola, wrote of the landscapist Jongkind:

'[C]raft hardly concerns him, and this results in the fact that,
before his canvases, it does not concern you either. The sketch
finished, the picture completed, you do not trouble yourself with the
execution; it disappears before the power or the charm of the

Art critic Richard Shiff in his study of Impressionism (Cezanne and
the End of Impressionism) notes how Zola made similar claims about
Manet's work (as well as Jongkind's). Shiff says that despite these
critics' enthusiastic responses to self-effacing procedures, "one must
suspect" that such critics "knew well that specific identifiable,
visible techniques had been employed. Indeed, Shiff ironically points
out that at issue for these critics and artists, rather than the
absence of technique, was the difficult definition of the "technique
of originality."

Likewise, in the current high/low distinction, works utilizing such
technologies as Java and Shockwave are characterized as high tech and
placed in opposition to "early" work by artists such as High
tech is to be "rejected," "broken down." The relation is set up as a
techno-ideological choice: "Mac over PC." Thus, Alex Galloway writes:

"I think lo-tech is a crucial characteristic among many: the interest
in text, low bandwidth; ... the rejection of Java and Shockwave; being
forced to extend the limits of the browser; the art of the breakdown;
Mac over PC. These are the things that characterized jodi from the
very beginning (only with did we see them expanding
beyond what simple HTML could do)."

While I like to break down technology (and rhetoric) as much as
anyone, the above pattern of argumentation seems to me founded more on
a resistance to acknowledging the ubiquity and multiplicity of
technology, rather than on a critical approach to the problems posed
by technology in/as (our) culture. I don't know that dividing
technology into high and low serves critical and historical approaches
to understanding its effects on us. This distinction can be shown to
be relative and shifty, even within the context of the art world. I
don't know that writing a small Java applet is more difficult or
requires a higher level of skill than making a desired thing in
"simple" HTML, especially using those earlier versions of HTML. I
acknowledge that it requires a different set of skills. But my feeling
has always been that it is much easier to make the things I want to
make in Java than in HTML. HTML lacked precision. This is not to say
that Java doesn't provide opportunities for discovering "happy
accidents." Java can surprise you, as can any language (for
programming computers or otherwise). If making a work with Java (or
Shockwave) requires a more robust system to view the work than simple
HTML, this requirement is due more to choices made by the computer and
operating system makers than to the relative techno-artistic skill or
ideological biases of artists. Just as critiques of literatures must
be undertaken carefully and systematically, with regard for histories
and the pressure of presents, critiquing technology can take on
various strategies, all requiring technique: rhetoric, HTML, knowledge
of programming, DOS, Unix, etc.

SD: What is Utensil?

SB/BS: It is a place from which we work. The name focuses on the
notion of tool, but from a perspective that interrogates the
utilitarianism of "tool." Around Utensil we have tried to launch a
number of "toys." These toys are deconstructed tools, prototypes, or
after-types. They engage existing software and information systems by
miming them technically, technologically, but simultaneously, offering
divergent uses and forms of appearance; it is our studio. SD: Are you
working on any other furNETure? What are you working on now? BS: In
our work we continue to explore the ways in which network technologies
can interface with various objects, appliances, and architectures.
These studies sometimes blur the boundaries between art practice and
commercial design concerns. We consider these experiments "failed
products by design."

SB: Well, we are looking for investors (dare we say patrons?) to fund
some of our toys, which we hope to grow into big tools.

First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center, December 1999.


Steve Dietz
Director, New Media Initiatives
Walker Art Center
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