Matthew Fuller on Wed, 19 Aug 1998 18:11:05 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> James Stevens Interview

The following is the initial part of an interview with James Stevens, one of the founders of the Backspace centre in
London. Their web-site is at:  The address of
the place is Clink Street, London, SE1. 

MF>People who are new to the space never seem quite sure if Backspace is a
squat, lounge area for multi-media industry casualties, gallery, cybercafe
or private club. It's probably all of these except the first. How was it
imagined when the place first opened - and how does it run now? 

JS>To start with there was a loose group who met in London between summer
94 and 95, made up of those interested in the rise of the internet,
networking and tech art. During this time Heath Bunting and I met on
several occasions and talked about access/workshop spaces ''
etc. and how to do it. Over this time I met Jon Bains and later via IUMA
Kim Bull. Obsolete, was an attempt at working with the web which began in
summer 95, to develop new platforms for creative work establish a server
onto which we could present our efforts, those of our mates and earn
enough money to live on (for a change). This worked very well except the
gush of cash from our more corporate clients became a major distraction
and point of distortion. 

Our open studio became temporary family home to the growing group of
artists coders and writers working on Obsolete projects, many of whom
slept, ate, lived and worked in the space. In addition, our widening
circle of friends and interested groups visited us more and more. This
expanding use began to collide with the growing client requirements to
deliver work and present ourselves. 

A new space was found in the wharf to somehow accommodate some of these
needs and to instate our wish share an access point of presence. I was
left to me to follow this through so in March 96 we opened very quietly to
engage first users. We adopted a quarterly subscription system which
anyone could join, use the equipment and make non commercial stuff to
present on our servers. Each member got several hours free with the
subscription (=A310= ) then paid =A34 an hour therapeutic. This failed to
raise enough supporting cash but did present an alternative to the
mainstream cyberafe-commerce. This loose arrangement continued until in
March of 97 when it was clear Obsolete should cease and Backspace would
have to fend for itself. 

Over the first year over 400 people took email addresses and used the
space, we held web site launches, group meetings, film screenings, events,
and mini conferences. Some users held there own training sessions and of
course there were many boozy late nights. 

=46rom April 97 backspace has moved most of the way over into self
sufficiency and the 80 or so subscribers each month cover the very basic
costs. We have made adjustments to the fee to bring it closer the line and
it has settled at =A320 per month. We now have six or seven people hosting
2 four hour sessions a month each in exchange for reasonable expenses
(=A310) =46or this they must look after the space and support subscription
and help maintain, contribute and develop at whatever level they can. We
are closed on Monday to allow for repair relaxation and reflection, though
it is very often as busy as the week. 

MF>Describe backspace: it maintains quite an unusual presence in the area
of London that it is in, a smallish tech-cluttered room hugging close to
the river in an area that has been increasingly dominated by business, and
also internally - it certainly doesn't fit the archetypal layout of a
cybercafe. Inside the building, how do all the elements (computers,
kettle, music, seats, people) work together? Does it fit into any real or
imaginary network of related spaces? 

JS>Being on the river here has an effect on everyone in the building not
just in backspace, and that euphoria permeates all the interaction that
occurs. Certainly, part of any great environment is the sense of space
that is extruded in its presentation and use. We have always tried to make
the best of the qualities of the room, acknowledging its inadequacies and
building on a relationship with the location history future etc. 

The question of business encroachment has become part of the mantra for me
of late.. I just have to keep reinstating my commitment to resistance of
commercial or cultural co-option and out of the fug at Obsolete it seems
more and more appropriate I do this. We are sidestepping the interuption
of corporate concerns and I will not now work on any other than
sufficiency enriching projects i.e. No Levis or National Gallery no
British Nuclear =46uels or whatever their name is now.....We are not
participating in the Lottery scrummage for contrivance and inffective
capitalisation, rather edging into the areas around us and finding the
energy we need to prevail. That is not to say we will not take support
cash when it is appropriate and have received two modest payments from the
arts council for specifically short project periods. 

Individuals who subscribe have found to their delight that an application
for funding to any of the public funding bodies receives serious attention
and is considered a reasonable prospect for award when associated with the
space. When possible we will support these projects as equally as we
support any other initiated from within the membership. There is little
pretention to celebrity from within the group and this is refreshed
refocused by the flow of enthusiam, contribution and contact we have with
those who come and use the space. These characteristics are reflected in
the platform for presentation at and associated sites, it is a
churning wash of ideas experiments and effluent, a non hierarchical
representation of the collective state of mind. 

The use of the space is a meandering and confounding collision of the
inarticulate, lucid and languid to the strains of rap and riverwash and no
sooner have we settled the arrangement of the facilities and utilities
around the room then we are upturned and overdriven. I love it

MF>In terms of funding, Backspace itself occupies an interesting position.
Can you describe your attitude to state funding and corporate sponsorship? 

JS>All these models hug a formula for creativity and work practise that
reinforces dependency. Whilst any genuine declaration and provision of
cash in support of non commercial product ( i.e.,. not a commercial) can
be applauded, however it at this point the inevitable distortion occurs,
the mediation, whatever..... 

I am now more adamant than ever that backspace exist free of any
dependencies on public or corporate funding and that it flower or fail on
its own abilities. We are not employers, teachers or fundamentalist nor
are we a web design agency or recording studio, we are not experts we are
chaotic and persistent, slacktivist. 

There have been many opportunities over the last year for me to get very
involved with arts council funding in particular. I have spent time
talking with funding administrators to see if there is an economic way of
dealing with them. Again and again I run into fundemantal problems of
perception and projection. On The face of it I think we satisfy most
criteria and are in an attractive proposition for them to associate with,
yet I cannot bring myself to sort it all out with them. Maybe I need
help... or to just look outward and pass them. 

So far the absence of a fund has not prevented project work from
proceeding. If you build and present with components of an appropriate
scale then bankrolling and other control issues recede to the background
where they belong. I am always looking to ways of consolidating the flow
of supporting cash and to this end have recently extended subscription to
include ISP for an extra =A35. I still get confronted my those who insist
al= l this should be free and are offended by our model of openess and
dispair at our non complience. 

MF>Do you bring any ways of going about things to this project from your
background in music that other people could learn from? 

JS>There are massive parallels with the music and independent film and
video scenes that I have been involved with, for as with any public work
it is massively embroiled in crippling landscape of mythology and
manipulation. Only those who sidestep, re-navigate or coerce prevail with
their clobber intact. I drag entrails of experience from previous
engagement. My baggage arrived with me on my first days of involvement
with the web and contain some tools for survival that I employ alongside
those I find on site, to ground and elevate new work. I use them all in a
soup of evocation.  There is nothing more convincing and compelling to a
crew then the realisation of ideas and intentions and little more
rewarding then finding support for your actions. 

There is no map or set of instructions that can be extracted and
replicated each situation responds best to a custom set of atunements. 

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