Informing matter, re-arranging media

Arie Altena

In December 2008 the Masters in Media Design at the Piet Zwart Institute of the Willem de Kooning Academy made news. As part of a trimester project two students -- one of them from Piet Zwart -- had programmed a Firefox add-on, Pirates of the Amazon. Once installed it would automatically redirect a visitor of to one of the largest bittorrent sites in order to download, rather than buy, the desired goods. It was meant as a parody, as a critique on how we deal with cultural goods on the internet, as well as a take on the sometimes stifling grip of copyright legislation. It also tied into the discussion about the attempts of both Amazon and Google Books to define and control the distribution of culture for the future. Amazon was not amused of course, and threatened with legal action. The students weren't willing to go into such a battle, and took the work offline. Pirates of the Amazon 'disappeared' into the deep trenches of the semi-illegal internet underground, and officially only survived as documentation.

Pirates of the Amazon shows how 'easy' it is to make something (a piece of software) that puts into practice a different way of dealing with the elements of reality. Internet culture is highly 'makeable'. But this makeability is -- as opposed to what some technicians might believe -- is not only dependent on technology, but just as much on law, rules, culture, and behaviour. A different culture does not come into existence because of new technologies -- but only through the interplay of human social behaviors, customs, politics, law and technology.

Obviously the computer -- with its programmability -- and the internet have transformed our culture, thanks to how we adapted to them, and how they have been adapted to fit us. It's less obvious to many people that 'the internet', 'the computer', or 'Facebook' are what we could call 'arrangements'. They are put together, made, configured. There are many layers upon layers of technical and media arrangements. Using the term arrangement in this context signifies that many different interests have joined in a formation, a settlement. But such a settlement may become unsettled, or be settled differently.

We could also use the Foucauldian term 'dispositif' here, which is most often translated as 'apparatus'. This is a somewhat wider term, recently defined by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben as "anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourse of living beings." [1] Everything -- from language via agriculture to a mobile phone is a 'dispositif'. Such a 'dispositif' produces subjectifications; according to Agamben, in our capitalist times it rather produces desubjectifications.

Agamben makes a much larger philosophical argument, and in a metaphysical move -- that I might understand, but am unable to follow up -- argues how we could recuperate for common use what the 'apparatuses' have taken from us. Yet Agamben underplays the enabling capacity of apparatuses. Whenever the possibility of changing things comes up in his texts, they typically turn towards a Messianic perspective. Yet, in a more Latourian vein, one could equally accentuate a pragmatic perspective: things are made, can be unmade, remade, built and combined differently. And certainly they can be used in different ways. The world is full of alternative proposals or small set-ups which at least point to a different way of doing even if they do not embody and propagate it in actuality. This is one of the roles of art: showing how things can be done differently.

The students of the Master Media Design work with and reflect on this 'dispositif' of internet culture with all its different apparatuses, from the IP protocol to social network sites. They are a generation of designers and artists who grew up with the internet. Even those who do not feel rooted in it at least feel the need to position themselves towards its dispositif,taking the computer as a medium, or rather, to use a term of Alan Kay, a metamedium: a machine which allows one to create one's own medium. [2] There are many levels to this, from working on the interface to programming code, but at each level one deals with more than just technology. Issues of particular interest to the students are, for instance, the way in which media arrangements, like social network sites, call for a certain behavior; the issue of free circulation of ideas; and the relation between programming and design.

With Vil´m Flusser we could say that design is in-forming matter. In such a view design always works at a content level as well as on that of visual surface. Yet the current web paradigm enforces a strict division between structuring content and (visual) representation of content. Structuring is done at the level of databases and by XML whereas the designer often comes in only to define how to represent the various dynamic parts in an interface. This division is not necessarily a bad thing -- it is quasi-necessary with regard to how we prefer to access data. But it does raise a question: shouldn't designers -- to be true designers -- be able to work on the level of structure? Programming works on a structural level. Should designers be able to program, or at least understand programming? Though there is no clear-cut answer here (as there are different levels of programming), it makes sense to ask that same question again for every single project, revealing which layers of the media and technological arrangements need to be peeled off in order to get to an understanding of what it means to truly 'design', to in-form content.

It is no surprise then that contemporary designers and artists, like these students, explore databases, meta tagging, social networks, archiving, copyright, editorial design, programmable filtering, user profiling, analysis of large amounts of data, programmable designs, even open application programming interfaces (APIs), as well as coming up with beautiful interfaces and clear typographic designs.

Sauli Warmenhoven made a tool that visualizes complete movies on the basis of the use of language in dialogues and voice-over. A filmstrip is, for instance, compressed into a single image, yet scenes are not shown relative to their length in time, but according to how much language they contain. Warmenhoven's interest lies in showing the compressed visual impact of a complete movie, as another way of thinking about how movies have impact. One condensed image, manipulated on the basis on an analysis of certain aspects of the movie, might reveal something that had been unintelligible otherwise, a much quicker sense perception of the macro-structure perhaps.

Timo Klok works with a similar way of analyzing and breaking down complete movies. Inspired by semiotics and narratology, he is more interested in narrative structure and the possibilities of database cinema. As source material he uses the six James Bond movies with Sean Connery: a nod to Umberto Eco who uses James Bond stories as a stock example. Eco showed how every Bond story is similarly structured, combining the same characteristic elements. In Timo Klok' s project, the six movies are analyzed and compared using image comparison software (developed by Carlo Preitz for Geert Mul), but also manually with the intention of showing an endless loop of similar scenes from different movies.

Leonie Urff made a tool that enables the visitor of an exhibition to record, store and share the experience of seeing (and hearing) an exhibition. It is basically a spy-camera worn around the neck. What is recorded can be taken as a highly personalized audiovisual exhibition catalogue. This tool is just one step further for exhibition design -- with its mp3-audio-tours, touch-screen-information panels, PDAs and RFID-readers. Seemingly innocuous, it brings up issues of surveillance, spying and privacy. What if one's recordings are streamed live on the website? What if it's used to enact little theatre plays? Would it reveal that visitors actually are looking at other things than they think they do?

Dennis de Bel made beautiful sculptures from household equipment, musical instruments and turntables -- like the Sew-o-phone (sewing machine + LP-record) and the Vacumonium (Harmonium + vacuum cleaner). He is very critical of the Web 2.0 hype, and the energy which people invest in social network sites. Why all the profiling? Why always make a 'profile'? One of his artistic strategies is a benign guerrilla inside social network sites (he for instance proposed to design a platform for trading user profiles), another one is the translation of ideas from the virtual domain back into things. He is making the immaterial tangible, and making it strange: one of the most important characteristics of art. It enables us to see reality in a new light.

Marc Chia is concerned with breaking down barriers: his music builds an energizing stream of noise from glitches. When performing he plays with the laptop closed -- in order not to hide behind a screen --, and walks into the audience to further break down the division between audience and performer. For his final project he built a piece that infinitely sends sounds to a networked computer (using the Icecast streaming software), plays it back, and sends it again to the Icecast server until the system crashes -- another way of tearing down a division.

Serena Williams uses a more classical form of design criticism. In the course of her research she collected about 250 quotes from Dutch designers mostly taken from their own articles in design magazines. Archived in a database and tagged in various ways, these quotes can be accessed through a well designed website. As a mapping tool for the Dutch design community the website shows how much self-made jargon, neologisms and doublespeak is used. The self-congratulary aspect of the 'Dutch Design' hype becomes apparent, as well as a lack of international perspective. Williams states: "The texts usually have the pretense of being very important while often they are long captions that describe an object or image in words."

Stéphanie Vilayphiou directly deals with filtering, censorship and the limits to the free circulation of culture created by current copyright enforcement. Archivez enables a user to view a text according to different filters: conforming to copyright; according to the GoogleBooks contract; completely blacked-out; showing only texts written by Pierre Menard (after Jorge Luis Borges). Her choice of texts reflects on these issues too: in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 books are forbidden, but literature lives on since everyone in a community of outcasts has memorized one of the masterworks. Presented in this way, her website -- which could be a platform for sharing texts -- becomes a way of reflecting on the consequences of our copyright laws, and is an experiment in imagining new systems of accessing and distributing texts.

Alexandre Leray fully takes on the question of the split between programming and visual (surface) design. He set out to program an automatic manifesto machine on the use of algorithm in the design process, and applying its technology at the same time to provide a design tool for users. For his practice, design is programming, and vice versa. He states that he works with programmable "deep objects", designing at the level of document structure rather than only on the level of flat visual rendering. At the same time his manifesto machine also challenges the myth of software as a neutral tool.

These designers and artists work as much with tangible objects, as with digital information. They make books as well as websites, sculptures as well as software. Their projects take very different forms -- a sign of the manifoldness of internet culture, or our culture. What connects most of them is a critical attitude towards the existing media arrangements. There is no sign of taking things as they are, but a willingness to construct something new aiming at a heightened awareness of the implications of our media arrangements. Their work shows that there is no whatsoever need to take the existing forms as the only possible ones. It is a reminder that there is an open field of possibilities -- even when we see the computer and the internet with their layers of protocols, as a given.

[1] Agamben, Giorgio. What is an Apparatus, and Other Essays, Stanford University Press 2009, p. 14.
[2] "The computer is the first metamedium, and as such it has degrees of freedom for representation and expression never before encountered and as yet barely investigated." Kay, Alan. "Computer Software." Scientific American 251.3 (September 1984): 52-59.

Written for the 2009 Piet Zwart Institute, MA Media Design graduation catalogue, 2009
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Arie Altena