Open-grown dialogues in trans-local experiences
This article is based on the conversations during the Hybrid Space workshop held at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium in May 2008. It aims to reflect upon and extend some of these conversations into a speculative commentary, looking at the relationships between hybrid space (in which physical and digital realities are strongly intertwined), globalised society and digital technology, from the perspective of contemporary technological arts and culture. It discusses ways in which global flows can be diverted to enrich local and trans-local cultures; examines the differences and similarities between connections in networks and connections in dialogues; inquires after an alternative imaginary of science and technology and looks at the changing role of art and other creative practices in relation to hybrid space and everyday life.
KEYWORDS: Translocality, Imaginary of Technology, Presence, Experience, Dialogue, Thalience
The article was published in 2009 in the book "Space cowboys: how art creates, networks & visualises hybrid spaces", edited by Niels Hendriks and Rosanne Van Klaveren.
The following pages are a reflection on several conversations held during the Spacecowboys workshop (http://www.spacecowboys.be) in Hasselt, in May 2008. During the workshop, in both formal presentations and informal dialogues, various topics related to the notion of hybrid space were discussed. Seeds of possible theories and actions were sown, then taken back into the participants' own contexts. In this article I have made a selection of topics and conversations that are most relevant to my practice at FoAM (http://fo.am). It is not a comprehensive, nor an objective overview of the workshop, but a personal contemplation on issues surrounding the notion of hybrid space. The structure of the article mirrors the process of the workshop. It consists of several self-contained, open-ended but related parts that will rely on the reader to find some of the unspoken connections. The titles and arguments are a mixture of statements by workshop participants, as well as my own musings, offering insights into both the content and the somewhat fragmented flow of Spacecowboys. As the workshop itself, which ended without a formal conclusion, but with many fertile connections, it was not my intent to formulate a coherent thesis by the end of the article, but to incite further conversations on some of the more urgent topics related to living in and with hybrid spaces.
As land-masses on a topographical map are criss-crossed with river-flows, so can a map of the globalised society be visualised as a flowing tangle of people, resources and information. Economic globalisation and its foremost product - the consumer society, is the ultimate space of flows, that “radically deploys distributed network technologies and media” (Kluitenberg, 2008). The connections in this space are maximised for their exchange value, for their ability to let the flows gush through the nodes as fast as possible, while accumulating gains and broadening their beds. This has led us into increasing environmental and economic turbulence. Similar to river-waters, the streams of people, food, fuel, currency and knowledge are punctuated by local diversions, such as damming, diverting or flooding. Even though the global flows remain unpredictable, they can be diverted to enrich local environments. The key aspect of these diversions is the continuous translation of flows from the space of unbounded virtual exchange to a place of uncertain physical experience, in which presence plays a crucial role. Even though they form a part of the global network, the local diversions maximise the quality of the connections themselves, rather than focusing on maximising their exchange value. They focus on increasing the quality of experience within and nurturing difference between the connections. It is this difference between the nodes that gives the places on the flows their long term resilience – becoming densely connected trans-local societies.
Networks and dialogues
At the Spacecowboys workshop, John Hopkins mentioned that both networks and dialogues are about making connections. However, the quality and the purpose of these connections differ. In today's society, networks (both social and technological) are a part of a global techno-social apparatus. They are about generalising collective protocols and standards, such as language (both natural and artificial) and “eliminating individual idiosyncracies” (in Hopkins's words). The purpose of networks is to create more connections, through increasingly longer, but also thinner 'pipelines', streamlined for global (virtual) exchanges. The rhetoric surrounding today's techno-social networks would have us believe that they are designed for reciprocal interaction. However, it is a very skewed reciprocity: the networks' influence on our daily lives are substantial, but our influence on their fundamental workings and structures is minimal and superficial. Knowing that we do have to (and often want to) live with global techno-social networks, how can we work with and around them to facilitate trans-local diversions, in order to enrich the local contexts, rather than just the networks themselves? Individuals and small groups can approach global, or trans-local connections in a different manner – focusing on the quality of connections (rather than just the messages that are transmitted and received), changing the pipelines of a network.
We can start from a base-line of connecting with people directly in an engaging dialogue (and if possible in a physical space). In a dialogue where the conversation partners listen, understand and respond to another person, slowly building a web of shared and complementary experiences. In such a conversation, diversity and trust grow out of the connections, rather than being superimposed on them. Sometimes, when a dialogue is truly engaging, a dialogue itself becomes a hybrid space including, but also extending both individuals. An ephemeral space, a temporary autonomous zone that can remind us of a need for more heterogeneous, richer and thicker connections between people.
Many of conversations that people around the globe engage in on a daily basis are mediated by digital technologies – computers, (mobile) phones and other communication technologies. The original intent of these technologies was to maximise the efficiency of exchange between the nodes (of tactical information and scientific findings). Presence and emotional state of the individual nodes weren't considered a priority. It is then no surprise that the types of communications that these technologies encourage are quick, efficient exchanges of urgent information. Amassing the flow, increasing the need for speed and bandwidth, extending the power and impact of the network itself. Making the nodes increasingly dependent on its existence. And with dependence comes control... In a hybrid space of digital networks, what can we do to turn this global dependence into trans-local interdependence? Reframe communication as conversation?
Creating a new imaginary of technology
The current imaginary of digital technologies (the quintessential engines behind contemporary hybrid spaces) was dreamed-up within techno-scientific and military circles, both rather rigid social systems operating with various degrees of hierarchy based on command and control structures. This imaginary, as Armin Medosh noted during the Spacecowboys workshop, “projects power and creates power by it”. It reduces the complexity of biological and social systems, in order to manage and manipulate them more “efficiently”. A present danger in our technological society is this self-perpetuating technological determinism and reductionism, based on an essentially a(nti)-social imaginary. So the issue that contemporary cultural and tactical workers should be asking is not so much how to subvert the technology, but how to create a different imaginary of technology. Perhaps one that is not based on power-hungry poking and pushing of communication systems, but on discovering, gesturing and smiling of conversation. Imagining a conversational technology, that could suggest, rather than control; strengthen, rather than restrict, the complex fabric of social connections.
“Can we imagine a technology that is able to disentangle itself from technocracy, the idea that all the world's problems can be solved by the application of a narrow band of productised science?” (Fuller, 2006)
If we are to suggest an alternative imaginary of technology, the early adopters and 'lead users' can be instrumental in devising it. People who are not afraid to tinker both with the technology itself and its social applications. They can be found among playful children, devoted scientists, hackers, DIY enthusiasts and concerned citizens. Where in this picture are the artists and designers? As strategies for facilitating creation of presence and experience, what is the role of artistic actions in this context? Are we critiquing the situation, or attempting to hack the world? Are we able to infuse the technological world with new imaginaries? How are these new imaginaries contributing towards fundamental behavioural and cultural adaptation to the life around turbulent global flows?
In order to be able to perceive, experience, or act with these turbulent flows in mind, human-scale technologies could become more in tune with ecological-scale transformations. This requires a shift from short-term, mechanistic 'action-response' driven gadgets, to long-term, systemic and environmental “spimes” (Sterling, 2005). Technology which enables, rather than discourages us to engage with intricate issues and relationships. Moving from objects to relationships, from collections to communities, from structure to process and from contents to patterns, it would be a technology based on whole systems thinking and the arts and sciences of complexity. This kind of technology could support inclusive and participatory cultures to generate systems, actions and behaviours, better suited to an existence in turbulent situations. The realm of art and other contemporary creative practices can be a testbed for such cultures and technologies. These culture-laboratories could permeate through physical environments and digital simulations, traditional crafts and emerging technologies, artistic and scientific endeavours. They could integrate thinking and making, ethics and aesthetics, where the 'built' and the 'grown' are interdependent aspects of diverse and abundant patterns of life. Everyday life.
“The process of unfolding goes step by step, one pattern at a time. Each step brings just one pattern to life; and the intensity of the result depends on the intensity of each one of these individual steps.” (Alexander, 1979)
"Where are the real people?”
The art of creating a new imaginary of technology could begin with re-imagining the context and purpose of its deployment. In other words, it can begin with people - our needs, behaviours, stories, dreams and actions; our everyday lives. But where to find them? Their existence is diffused through various layers of place and space, through relationships of various complexities, both physically embodied & electronically mediated. It is sometimes difficult to understand what and where the real people are, when their many selves are mediated, interpreted, deconstructed and technologically reconstructed. In this context, it seems like the technological systems have began re-imagining humans, rather than the other way around.
In the workshop Eric Kluitenberg talked about the density of today's space and experience and questioned what can still be done to reconfigure them. He mentioned the “double problem of invisibility” that permeates our daily lives: on one hand the miniaturisation of technology, on the other the opacity of strategic decision making that occurs within technocratic systems. How do we re-imagine something invisible, something we breathe in as fine dust every day, without realising? Can we change it before it changes us? How do we find the real people among the whirlwinds of techno-social dust? And once we find them, how do we engage with them to adapt the spaces within which we can begin to re-imagine a trans-local culture and technology? Kluitenberg proposed several strategies for engagement, which can help with both diverting global flows to enrich local environments (such as violating top-down spatial programmes, or encouraging disconnectivity) and assisting us in re-imagining technology (by increasing public visibility through tactical cartography, for example). From our discussions, there were two strategies that seemed most appropriate. Firstly, reducing the scale of action, “growing by spawning rather than scaling-up”, which allows more space for social agency; and secondly directly intervening in a physical space by creating a place for dialogue. Starting small and slow, disentangling simple habits and situations from imaginaries of power and control.
Amplifying the moment
Being fully immersed, absorbed and engaged in a social situation, such as a dialogue, determines our feeling of presence. Presence is the physical sensation of connectedness, of touching, of experiencing, of believing. It is linked with the notion of performativity, where we act in a space without referring to another space – performing rather than representing, acting rather than interpreting. It is a sensation of being able to feel a full spectrum of sensory stimuli and being able to instantly respond to them. By responding we affect the situation, and the situation affects us back. Presence paves the road for agency and engagement. As Jeanne Van Heeswijk noted in the workshop, it allows the participants to re-imagine their own community and potentially reframe existing social dynamics.
We can use these attributes of presence to draw attention to spaces and situations that would otherwise go unnoticed. In the white noise of information and media that threaten to numb our senses on a daily basis, it is exactly this amplification of moments that can make us notice the world with different eyes. Where the invisible becomes visible, even briefly, and the layers of technologically mediated dust blow away, revealing the naked reality of messy hardware & wetware. This is the sphere in which artistic interventions can make a difference. Art can help us find an emergency brake, a freeze frame (Benjamin, 1991) that makes us look again at the everyday reality around us and realise that “every inch of this ground (could be) the last instance of my life” (Pedro Rosa Mendes, quoted by Alice Miceli in the workshop). Artistic interventions in social life can attract our attention to the preciousness of each and every bit of space, each and every moment of life.
By amplifying, slowing and sometimes freezing reality, art has a way of setting change in motion. It is like being in the eye of a storm, where the world goes quiet, but the silence is electrified, a “potentiality of becoming something” (Levy, quoted by Kurt Vanhoutte at the workshop). We know the world will change, soon, but don't exactly know into what. These moments are simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. We are uncertain and exalted about the future, but more than anything we are present and alive in the moment itself. In a time of such heightened awareness, imagination is rich and malleable. Such moments unveil both the world and ourselves in a different light, steeped in emotional connections. With other people, other living or non-living things, with whole environments, with time and space. This kind of imagination cannot be based on power and control, as it becomes obvious that both strategies will become obsolete in the violent onslaught of the imminent turbulence. It is an imagination that synthesizes, connects and conciliates. It is on this kind of imagination that we can base a different kind of technological society.
To end (For now)
Engaging with a technological society requires that we speak the language of technology. As with any language and social convention, the language of technology can evolve. If we, as the cultural proletariat, don't engage in its evolution, it may become something incomprehensible and unusable for social and cultural purposes. Before engaging in this evolution, it would be beneficial to imagine what kind of technology we want to facilitate our daily lives. By imagining and acting upon this imagination, we are acting to change our own experience of technology and necessarily influencing the experience of others. Thereby, our imagination needs to be negotiated and enriched with other imaginaries, in a trans-local process that encourages difference, rather than abolishing it. One potential pointer to such an imaginary is what Karl Schroeder calls “thalience” (Schroeder, 2004), a post-science, that relies on experience and dialogue (rather than solely on interpretation and analysis) to understand and act in the world. Thalience accepts the existence of a myriad of consciousnesses, quite different from our own. Instead of designing technologies to compensate for our failures, it focuses on generating diversity. Of dialogues, spaces and realities.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank all participants of the Spacecowboys workshop, whose words and thoughts have seeped into this article. The paragraphs above are a only a peephole into many interesting conversations that were held during the workshop. I would especially like to thank Alice Miceli, Liesbeth Huybrechts, John Hopkins, Armin Medosh, Eric Kluitenberg, Kurt Vanoutte and Jeanne Van Heeswijk, whose thoughts have lingered in my head for several months until they found their way onto the pages of this article.
- Alexander, C., 1979. Timeless Way of Building. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.
- Benjamin, W. 1991. Gesammelte Schriften, in Tiedemann R. and Schweppenhaeuser H. (ed), Gesammelte Schriften 3 Bände, Surhkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
- Fuller, M., 2006. Towards an ecology of media ecology, in Maja Kuzmanovic et al. .x-med-a. FoAM, Brussels, Belgium, pp 4-8.
- Kluitenberg, E., 2008. Public Agency in Hybrid Space. Available at: http://www.z33.be/spacecowboys/index.php/tag/eric-kluitenberg/
- Schroeder, K.,2000. Ventus. Available at: http://www.kschroeder.com/my-books/ventus/free-ebook-version
- Sterling, B., 2005. Shaping things. MIT Press, Cambridge, USA.