Alessandro Ludovico on Tue, 16 May 2000 01:33:50 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The User interview

Interview excerpted from 'Neural', Italian magazine about the digital
culture at large,
web:  mail:

Is the office the ultimate performative space?


we live in a society where art has been commodified. like architecture,
art is an expression of power: those who have money can afford to
patronise the arts. indeed, beginning with the Renaissance, artists were
only considered such by merit of this patronage. the institution of
patronage has developed 'fine art' as a discipline somehow separate from
'real life'. 

as Calvino's story of "The Workshop Hen" illustrates, the worker is only
as valuable as he is efficient - he does as he is told without stopping to
ask why. if one views art as a reflexive, considered questioning of
aspects of one's environment (be it space for architects, sound for
composers etc.) and artists as individuals who bring their creative
questioning to aspects of everyday life then it is easy to understand why
art has not been welcomed in the workplace - that is to say, work is not
to be questioned. 

by bringing art into the workplace (ie by making art with and about the
objects and spaces of everyday life) the artificial schism between art and
life is brought into question. 


2.  Anonymity is a consequence of some absurd society's laws, or the
unavoidable mutation of the modern man? 

"man is a social animal" - anonymous

this question reminds me of something that i heard a few days ago from the
mouth of Mike Holboom, a film maker from Toronto. he remarked that we live
in a world of strangers. this may seem self-evident, but what makes it
interesting is that this is an entirely new phenomenon. before the
industrial revolution, you would never have met anyone you hadn't known
since childhood. it is only after industrialisation and mass migration to
the city that the stranger becomes the rule rather than the exception. 

whether industrialisation should have or could have been prevented is
beside the point; what is not in dispute is that its consequences are
unavoidable. for western society (barring unthinkable catastrophe) there
is no going back to a rural existence. also, if predictions of future
housing needs are anything to go by, then the direction we are taking is
towards the individual as opposed to the family as the basic societal

it is interesting to note that as we become evermore a society of
individuals our collective obsession tends to be with communication - the
telephone, the internet, mobile phones etc. interaction with our friends,
family, even our lovers, take place courtesy of (and mediated by) these
networks. could it be that these highly elaborate 'virtual networks' of
social interaction are a response to the loss of the collective social
existence of rural community? 

so yes, in this sense, anonymity is an inevitable consequence of
modernity. if our reaction to it is anything to go by then it might not be
one we are particularly comfortable with. 


3.  If you'd implement sounds into an office building, what you'd like to

I think John Cage might answer this by saying, "There are already sounds
in an office building. Nothing needs to be changed, it sounds interesting
as it is." If you asked R. Murray Schafer (composer and sound ecology
pioneer) he would probably take the opportunity to criticize the kind of
sound design that prevails in most office buildings - ie, dealing with
unwanted sounds by creating more, even louder noise to mask them. 

In agreement with both of these writers, I would say two things.  First of
all, I'm deeply distrustful of introducing something into a situation that
wasn't already there. It begs the question, "why did you introduce that?
What was wrong with the things that were there before?" I find it more
subtle, and therefore potentially more subversive, to re-arrange
environments than to create new ones. The Symphony for dot matrix printers
is one example of this approach - and we have always been interested in
installing/performing the Symphony in an actual office building. 

Secondly, I'm especially reviled by the use of piped music in office
buildings. I wonder when we, as a culture, decided that music is a layer
suitable for spreading onto any situation, as opposed to being a complete
situation in itself. I think radio and piped music have a lot to do with
this attitude. Not radio or piped music themselves, but the way that they
have come to be used. 

So to answer your question, I think that the only way I would want to
implement new sounds into an office building would be to re-design the
whole office. 


4.  What kind of 'machine' is lost forever? 

At the top, there is a kind of an inverted funnel made of variously aged
scraps of sheet metal riveted together with rusty bolts and wood screws.
>From the top of this spews forth an intermittent belch of steam. An
improbably sinuous bit of plastic ductwork joins this spout to the rest of
the machine, which is populated by a dense intertwining of cogs, wheels,
gears, and belts. The entire wheezing contraption teeters precariously
atop a unicycle, propelling itself forward in short and unpredictable
spurts of energy. The lack of reliable balance of this clattering
apparatus dictates that the machine is perpetually deciding between two
possible destinies: either to continue aimlessly forth in no particular
direction for the sole purpose of remaining upright, or to come crashing
to the ground in a sudden and definitive halt. 

This kind of machine is lost forever. 


5.  Is it 'the user', the 90's paradigm for the illiterate ? 

in many ways the User (i.e. not us [The User]) is someone that conforms,
more or less, to the expectations of the designers of the systems and
products that surround us. given the rate of creation and the multiplicity
of disciplines involved, the average User cannot hope to keep up with, or
even simply to understand, the vast array of technologies that mediate our
everyday interactions with the world. whether it is fixing our cars,
making our computers behave or buying genetically modified fruit the User
is faced with a quintessential illiteracy - one of knowledge. 

just as literacy empowered the church and the state in pre-industrial
society, so this technical literacy empowers the new ruling class - those
who create and shape the desires and needs of the User with the tools and
techniques of marketing. 


We can speak of three classes when it comes to information society.  At
the top are the systems designers, the elite who not only possess the
ability to function in this multiplicity of systems but also are empowered
to create and change them. The Users are the vast middle class,
understanding and obeying rules, those for whom the systems are designed.
Frequently forgotten are the non-Users, an even larger group, functionally
illiterate of the proliferating technological (and social) codes. 


6.  If you'd be the director of the Office Workers of the World (unite) 
Online Orchestra, what kind of nations would you like to start the opera
with? And why? 

I'm still not sure what you mean by 'nations'. I'm reminded, however, of a
publication from San Francisco called Bad Attitude, the authors of which
hold that in a post-manufacturing, information-based capitalist economy,
there is potentially huge political power in the hands of those who make
the information move, those who handle it on a daily basis. It is no
coincidence, they continue, that these people, who live on the dregs of
the information business (bicycle couriers, secretaries, html
programmers), are the most able to bring the whole machine to a standstill
and would also stand to gain the most from applying such pressure. 

The combination of sound and mass action has been a powerful political
tool since the time of the wall of Jericho, and your idea of an OWW(u)OO
is one that fascinates me and which I'd like to think about further. 

This fits in with an old idea [The User] has had for an opera entitled The
Socio-economic History of the Grease Monkey... the scene: Manila, Tampa
Bay, Oaxaca, Seoul, Dusseldorf, Johannesburg. The year: 1999, 1992, 1989,
1931, 1649, 1491. One by one, the dramatis personae log on: field hands,
grocery store cashiers, coffee pickers, LAN administrators, child carpet
weavers, night shift cleaning staff in the office tower. 


7.  The word 'automatic' has a positive or negative meaning for you? Why? 

Automation is a doctrine which is hotly contested in the field of
industrial relations, and in this context "automatic" obviously carries a
negative meaning for me. The question becomes more complex when applied to
the differences between installation art and performance: there is an
underlying assumption of automatism that runs through installation art, be
it interactive or not. The faculty of setting up an entirely
self-contained environment, a clockwork-like creation which the creator
can then withdraw from, is pleasing to both industrialists and the rest of
us in that it enables us to cast ourselves in the role of God. What is the
antonym of the word "automatic"? "Manual", perhaps, implying the human
hand and a constant involvement of a constructive or manipulative kind.
Hence the philosophy underlying performance and process-oriented art. 


8.  The net open a door through office subversion and liberation. Is there
a possibility that people'll free even part of his working time with
tactical strategies? 

if, as it sounds to me, you are asking if i think that the net will reify
de Certeau's ideas elucidated in the 'practice of everyday life' then the
answer is no. de Certeau's suggests that each and every one of us take a
little of our employer's time and resources to produce something
unnecessary - to practice a minute but universal form of subversive
creativity from within the rational project. while an admirable goal, he
suggests no practical 'strategy' to incite this behaviour in people who
don't read his book (the vast majority i suspect). 

the net is a tool for the multidirectional broadcast of information. 
right now it offers, as content, perhaps a slightly more balanced
selection of views and opinions than traditional media of newspapers, tv
and radio (how long this will last, given demonstrated commercial
interest, only time will tell). this content is available (as it always
was) to anyone who wants it. however, the desire to subvert, to liberate,
to be free has to exist before anyone will act on it and as i mentioned
above, our desires are to a great extent shaped by a small group of people
who have no interest in the subversion of the workplace - quite the

while the net has been cited as instrumental in the organisation of
coherent resistance to such things as the Multilateral Agreement on
Investments or MAI (which would have conferred the sovereignty of
corporations over nation states) it is only a tool for communicating.  the
desire to subvert is pre-supposed in the act. perhaps we should all go
into marketing. (ǟark from the US have excellent 'strategies' to incite
subversion - 


9.  If you'd committed to compose the soundtrack for the newest Microsoft
Office release, what kind of music you'd like to realize? 

9a. Soundtracks and redundancy in audio-visual environments - My first
reaction to this is that Iive never really seen the point of soundtracks
for things like office software. I realized this recently when I was
working on my computer, which I had placed near an AM radio, and something
quite surprising happened. The radio was not tuned to any station, so a
sort of dull static was emanating from it, along with a few varying high
frequencies. However, whenever I carried out an operation on my laptop
(especially opening, moving, and resizing windows, selecting a large
amount of text, scrolling through text, etc.) the radio would produce
noises which were obviously being caused by these operations. Variations
in the pitch, number, and intensity of the high frequencies, changes also
in the colour of the static. It was a great soundtrack for working on a
computer, unlike the majority of these newfangled pinball-machine-like
soundtracks they have on new office software versions. They insult your
intelligence! Hyperactively associating different sounds with actions like
cut, copy, paste... I know when Iive pasted something! I can see that the
text has just been pasted.  I donit need an aural confirmation which just
duplicates information that I already knew. 

9b. Corporate lackeys - When he answered the first question, Thomas made a
point about art as an expression of power. Sound design for software firms
and corporate intranet is an excellent example of this. It cannot be
overlooked that while Brian Eno (or whoever) has a large influence on the
sound of the new Microsoft soundtrack if he's the one who gets the
contract, the influence of Microsoft on the soundtrack is even greater
since they're the ones that pick Brian Eno. Castles and churches were all
built by skilled workers in the service of royalty and the church. Of
course the physical nature of such structures, the details, reflect the
workers who worked on them, but none of that would have been possible
without the economic and political structures on which these works

9c. What would I do - Microsoft Office, huh? Probably sounds of a lot of
people heard from the distance, being tortured and screaming, struggling
to break free of their oppressor... Meanwhile, a calm and immaculately
service-industry-trained voice would repeat ad nauseum, "Have a nice day." 
...not that they'd ever give me the contract though. 


10.  In your opinion, does the copyright still have sense? 

i'm in two minds about this one. on the one hand copyright serves one
master: the record company. when a record company sues for copyright
they're not doing it out of some altruistic defense of intellectual
property. no, they're doing to protect their interest, to make a buck.
music is a multi-billion dollar international industry that makes a lot of
people (very few of whom are artists) a lot of money. these people are the
ones with vested interest in copyright. 

on the other hand, nothing makes me angrier than intellectual theft. 
claiming someone else's work as your own is inspiringly pathetic
behaviour. the discussion becomes interesting at the border between theft
and quotation. sampling and djing are creative activities and should not
be restricted by copyright. however, this should be a debate between
creators and not between publishers. 


[The User] are Thomas McIntosh, Emmanuel Madan


Alessandro Ludovico
Neural Online -
Suoni Futuri Digitali -

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