Saul Albert on 28 Oct 2000 11:08:39 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Access Space

This has just appeared in the November issue of "du" German.
( Here' the English version.

Access Space: the Redundant Technology Initiative get low-tech in Sheffield.

The Access Space is a cyber-café in an advanced state of decomposition:
clunky, steam-driven computers, eye-melting monitors and a rag-bag of tired
looking mice, dot-matrix printers and unidentifiable heaps of circuitry.
Every few minutes tiny robot "birds" hanging from the ceiling spring to life
and fill the room with electronic chirruping. This aesthetic departure from
the emerging tech-art norm of the "imac on a plinth" is a physical
manifestation of what has been labeled "low-tech", a genre characterized by
the use of out of date, apparently redundant technologies to produce
something exciting and original.

Constantly flitting from one burnt out old computer to another, James
Wallbank, a core member of the Redundant Technology Initiative (RTI) tells
me how the Access Space grew out of everyday RTI activities. In 1997 they
sent out a flyer asking UK businesses to donate their old computer equipment
for creative and eco-friendly recycling, rather than just dumping them into
landfills. Cunningly combining the allures of cultural benefaction and
eco-credibility worked wonders on local companies. Wallbank laughs as he
recalls how, having given out 200 flyers to friends, donations flooded in
and RTI panicked, hastily canceling their plans to send out a further 2000
flyers through the UK Department of Trade and Industry for fear of being
buried alive. A tour of the Access Space basement reveales why: an endless
maze of rooms filled from floor to ceiling with the grubby beige veterans of
the information revolution. Even the RTI's larger sculptural projects,
stunning arrays of ancient, crumbling technology, each requiring several
tons of computer equipment could never even make a dent in this. "The
obvious thing to do", says Wallbank, "was to get other people in on it."
Net-art is all very well, he argues, but it's production and reception are
limited to an exclusive club with a £1000 starting fee for an "entry-level"

The general problem of public access to technology has been one of the
driving forces of the low-tech scene and explains its emergence in areas
such as South Yorkshire where most people cannot afford to participate in
the so-called "information society". However, the robot birds (made for
Access Space by French low-tech artist Paul Granjon creator of
and the wonderful Cybernetic Parrot Sausage) show low-tech to be an
international trend, probably because under-funded artists in most countries
have to make do by recycling the effluent of the computer industry.

The Access Space offers a low cost alternative to buying and mastering a new
PC by allowing locals to use RTI's ever growing stockpile of re-purposed
computers and encouraging collective pedagogy in the use of Open Source
(free to use and modify) software.

"The dominant, industry perpetuated myth about art and technology" sneers
Wallbank, "is that to make "cutting edge" art one needs to use "cutting
 edge" technology." This prevailing lie finds many artists struggling in a
never-ending cycle of fundraising to finance computer upgrades. Access Space
undermines this assumption using financially worthless computers,
encouraging members to use them in far more violent and interesting ways
than are recommended by manufacturers. My initial shock at seeing the pile
of brightly spray painted computers in the storeroom made it clear to me how
inhibited my approach to computers has been. The freedom to physically
engage with the computers, to cover them in paint or rip out their guts,
gives a spontaneous, experimental atmosphere to the Access Space, so
different from the sanitised officiousness of most "new-media labs" where
permission is often required even to download programs from the Internet.

Heath Bunting, retired low-tech artist ( has called RTI's
ability to turn their lack of funds into their greatest advantage "ninja
economics". It is in this area of securing funding without being slavishly
dependent on business or government grants that RTI's use of low-tech works
so beautifully. The company donating the computers gets the warm glow of a
public relations accomplishment with none of the related responsibilities of
internal funding acquisition, tax manipulation and involvement in the
project. RTI gets equipment that would have been worth tens of thousands of
pounds a few years previously and no corporate interference and censorship
problems. Compare this to the situation when applying for loans of flashy
new equipment for arts projects, where the company's PR success hinges on
the art project being, as Wallbank says, "a sales demonstration for the
latest technology."

Wallbank grabs a pen and paper and draws me a graph showing the use value of
a computer relative to its age and market value. As the market value drops
off sharply after year 4 (the point at which most computers are scrapped)
the use value hardly varies at all. This is how the RTI's tactics continue
to work so well: as computers become more and more powerful, Access Space
will get regular free upgrades as each generation of computers are thrown

It is obvious from his polished presentation and graph drawing skills that
Wallbank has been very successful at explaining the RTI idea to funding
bodies and council officials, a success that is, for some reason, often
frowned upon in arty circles, particularly those purporting to be
anti-establishment or "radical". The reason for this is that if the
supposedly deep and intricate concepts underlying an artwork can be
explained in concrete terms and justified economically to non-artists and
petty bureaucrats, the insinuation is that the artwork cannot possibly be
radical or original. Wallbank acerbically dismisses this attitude, well
aware that RTI's ability to communicate the idea effectively outside of
art-world cliques has been vital to their project.

The tendency to be five years out of date seems to have spread from the RTI'
s use of technology to their use of publicity. The language of the Access
Space's promotional leaflet is peppered with tired pseudo-corporate
catchphrases: "Just do I.T." it commands, while offering "skill sharing
sessions". This is definitely yesterday's hype, but somehow it still works
in RTI's favor. By recycling old buzzwords, RTI is able to communicate
effectively with local businesses, the managers of which have no doubt read
the Internet magazines that propagate this short-lived techno-jargon.
Wallbank affirms that this deliberately "clunky presentation" makes it easy
for companies to grasp exactly what is going on, as well as feel comfortable
with the project. The name itself, "The Redundant Technology Initiative
Access Space" like the names of many of the surrounding Sheffield businesses
has just the dry self-explanatory lack of ring to it that would perfectly
camouflage any subversive intentions.

The effect of this "redundant jargon" on official funding bodies such as the
Arts Council of England is debatable. The ten-year window of opportunity
that allowed any project bearing the keyword "Web" to be instantly
bankrolled is now tightly closed. They either react to the cheesy hype in a
similar way to the businesses, lulled into feeling calm and secure by its
familiarity they somnolently allow their wallet to fall open or more likely,
they actually understand enough of it to get excited and want to fund it. In
the latter case the old buzzwords still work beautifully because although
they sound great they carry no meaning whatsoever. And so the RTI finds
itself in the pleasant position of having secured funding and made no
promises as to exactly what they will do with it.

However, the wide appeal of the Access Space shows that their jargon is not
just a distraction. It is (as was intended by advertisers) upbeat and simple
to grasp. The twinned intimidation of art-speak and techno-speak could
probably confound anyone. By using techno-hype to which everyone has been
constantly exposed through advertising, RTI make both the art and technology
facets of their projects easily accessible to potential users of the
resource. I can testify to their success in this respect, as within two
hours of my arriving at Access Space I found myself infected with James'
enthusiasm, rummaging through piles of techno-debris, gibbering with
excitement and getting involved in their grand low-tech schemes. In fact,
maybe some one reading this can help. All you need to do is dig that ancient
PC out of your basement (or requisition the 500 being scrapped by your
company every month), put them in a big box and send them to Sheffield.

[NB - The Redundant Technology Initiative is very keen to accept your
donations, particularly of computers with a 0.76 processor or better.
Contact them at or e-mail ]

Saul Albert 15/08/2000

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