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Interview with Sawad Brooks + Beth Stryker

Steve Dietz, 1999 (Steve Dietz interviewed Brooks and Stryker via email in the summer and fall of 1999)
"The chains between people evidenced through the Internet allow for a sense of distributed, or decoupled, time and presence; that is, neither classically mechanical nor "present force."

Steve Dietz: Tell me about the genesis of DissemiNET and specifically about the content--the stories.

Sawad Brooks: It is difficult for me to think of this project as having a single origin. One could say that the project grew out of earlier projects Beth and I made together and with others. These projects had in common a desire to inscribe or record the presence and/or absence of those who in some way played or touched them. Aporia: Doubt in Forms, for example, attempted back in 1995 (with Gong Szeto, in the first minutes of the Web's Big Bang) to discover and disclose various senses of co-location and physicality possible when working with/in the Web. Later, some of these elements were brought into other works we created together, such as the Bowling Alley website (1995, Walker Art Center; in collaboration with Christa Erickson to interface with an installation by Shu Lea Cheang) and the Radarweb site (1996).

Beth Stryker: DissemiNET evolved out of our ongoing collaboration. In creating DissemiNET, one of our concerns was how to articulate what is missing. While there has been a lot of talk about online "communities," surfing the Web has often been a very solitary experience. This piece attempts to comment on or mark the accumulation of people passing through the site, and to create some sort of intertextuality that evolves through the participation of viewers so that users are not just passing along set routes. We were also interested in the ways in which communities are constituted in this distributed environment; we sometimes speak of having conceived DissemiNET to try to elaborate a diasporic community on the Web. We envisioned the stories which would be deposited in this space as tales of errancy, recollections of being lost, searching for others, experiencing displacement. The core texts are testimonies of children who were disappeared during the civil war in El Salvador. These testimonies were contributed by a group called Pro Busqueda de los Ninos, which is based in San Salvador and with whom I've had previous involvement.

SD: How does the gallery installation function in terms of the overall project. Is it simply a different interface? Was it specific to the Wexner context somehow? Is DissemiNET a different project with the installation?

SB: The physical component was integral to the project from the beginning. One of the ideas around which we conceptualized the project is that something that you can do on the Web, such as search for people's names, can have a profound effect in the world we usually regard as "outside" the Web. The physical installation sort of concretizes this idea by displacing mechanisms (such as off-the-shelf computer equipment) we take for granted when we work with electronic information, thus framing the physical aspects of our contact with such information. The physical installation was important all along in that we conceived DissemiNET as a system to disseminate data. For this to happen, we planned to have physical instruments we could send out into the world, and serve as stations where people could collect as well as view stories and images. Unfortunately, we have not yet fulfilled these plans, mostly because of a lack of funding. However, the current installation is a prototype, or lab/gallery model, for what might still be.

BS: The gallery installation presents two networked instruments as interfaces to the DissemiNET storyspace. These instruments occupy the public, transient space of the gallery and create a multiple viewing environment for the public, cumulative space of DissemiNET. They were not specific to the Wexner space, since all along we'd hoped to be able to transplant these instruments to other environments. Later, we came across the term furNETure, coined by Jan Abrahms (editor of If/Then), which I think aptly describes these instruments, the input table and output table. The input (collection) table allows viewers to browse the same interface that is available to the net public; they can read and add stories. The output (recollection) table creates a playful interface for multiple users; this interface is mapped onto the table surface and can be manipulated by users interrupting the flow of data along an axis of images and texts. While we aimed to create a piece that reflects on a distributed, diasporic community constituted across a digital space, the physical tables are somewhat staid and in some ways domestic. They are a different take on familiar objects. I like how the term furNETture speaks to the way these physical objects become part of the distributed space of the network. It also touches on the way we see the home being opened up and reconfigured through the influence of distributed computing.

SD: Talk a bit about how you have constructed DissemiNET as a kind of curatorial infrastructure. Do you have plans for creating new content--either yourselves or with others?

BS: We've constructed DissemiNET so that stories may be uploaded from the public interface and from a private editorial interface. The site's write-in space allows the public to participate in the work, to add stories that are automatically indexed according to a set of underlying concepts which we may change over time, using the editorial/curatorial interface. The system exerts a certain amount of "automatic" curation by finding key themes and similar words throughout the texts. As one browses, the system finds connections among texts that may not have been constituted through conscious direction (by reader, author, or us as artists). We also utilize this curatorial/editorial interface to influence the images that appear in the shutter as viewers surf the storyspaces. These images are grouped and tagged thematically so they form reconfigurable video vignettes that play out beneath the texts, shifting as the content of the stories shifts among narrative passages. We also created a back-end curatorial/editorial system for adding "core" texts. We used this interface to curate and upload the first set of texts from Pro Busqueda de los Ninos. We would like in the future to open this interface up to guest curators/editors, especially now that the site has an ongoing "home" at Gallery 9.

SB: At a conference panel on the subject of online curation, a curator in the audience suggested that what we were doing through this work was perhaps not curating. We had not conceived of the work as a curatorial system per se, but given that we were participating on this panel, the subject was open to interpretation. Thus it seemed to me that some of our concerns in choosing work for DissemiNET were of aesthetic derivation. Furthermore, our choice was modified via our "themes" table, through which the database engine connects and groups stories and images. If a curator can be said to impose a diegetic voice when she presents a group of works, I can't see why our choices do not also reflect a curatorial concern. At the same time, it is important to note how we are playing with the notions of choice and voice when we introduce programming code into the process. But I think that these procedures, rather than distinguishing what we do from what classical curatorial practices have been, shed light on how such practices have been developing, and are perhaps expected to change in the coming decades.

SD: If part of the aim of DissemiNET is to provoke community--that which is missing in solitary surfing--how do you evaluate your success?

SB: I don't know that I am ready yet to evaluate this. But I would begin by looking at what has been done: DissemiNET assembles and presents via Internet and visual technologies a set of "testimonies." But our presentation of these textual (stories) and visual (video vignettes) documents is different from what a newspaper or even most websites might do, thereby seeming to change what the texts represent as well. I focus on this because Beth and I spent some time recently talking about what Walter Benjamin [1892-1940] said information was doing to communication in his time and, of course, reflecting on what his insights (and blindnesses) might mean from our perspectives. Benjamin identified the ubiquity of information, exemplified by newspapers, as an important factor in what he called the atrophy of experience. He speculated that because everyone had access to the same information through newspapers there was increasingly less need to ask someone else to share their experiences.

For Benjamin, information was also marked by timeliness, meaning that it held its value (and even meaning) temporarily, until the next news day. This condition was part of a process characterized by the decline of storytelling. While Benjamin was aware of the modern novel's importance in the 19th century and in his own time, he insisted that storytelling was an oral--"mouth to mouth"--tradition. And while this distinction may appear a bit nostalgic, it is clear from Benjamin's essays The Storyteller and On Some Motifs in Baudelaire that he was not seeking to regain a lost intimacy, but to articulate an absence made palpable in the wake of transforming communication technologies.

An important feature of Benjamin's theory of storytelling is that when a storyteller tells his story, the listener is immediately involved in listening. The intimacy of this mode of communication is based on the necessity of both the storyteller and the listener being present. Based on this condition, Benjamin asserts that in his time "the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force." He says that storytelling is coming to an end. The mouth-to-mouth image is puzzling when compared with a mouth-to-ear relation. Relating mouth to mouth, as in a kiss or sharing breath, draws continuity and symmetry through the process of telling. Beth notes that the passing of a story from one mouth to another involves a sender and a receiver, but that this relation can be inverted as the receiving mouth becomes a sender and the sender becomes a receiver; one can imagine a chain forming as one mouth receives then turns to send to another receiver-mouth. On the other hand, the ear, though it too is a container or receiver, seems curiously mute. The ear has no voice, but it's an important conduit in relating oral experience.

BS: Benjamin's assessment, based on the changing technical modes of communication, is important in our consideration of the effects of network and information technologies on present-day storytelling and communication in general. These networks are built upon a system of telephony--of senders and receivers, earphones and mouthpieces--that connects mouth to ear, that "connects" people who are not present in the same space (or perhaps in the same time) in spoken moments of immediacy. The chains between people evidenced through the Internet allow for a sense of distributed, or decoupled, time and presence; that is, neither classically mechanical nor "present force." Internet communication seems neither exactly like classical publishing, nor exactly like Benjaminian storytelling. Yet it relies heavily on many of the tropes of printing and graphic layout. But, as has been pointed out by many, the Internet "author" can also be considered a publisher, suggesting a renewed intimacy between writer and reader. Nonetheless, it feels to us that the predominant understanding of the Internet is as a vehicle for delivery, in several senses: delivery of information and delivery from the limitations of mediation and institution through the instantaneity of digital networks.

Through DissemiNET we posed a question to ourselves and others regarding the relation between so-called content and the form of its delivery, the interface and the network. If the infrastructure of the Internet is built figuratively upon earphones and mouthpieces, it is important to note the role interfaces play in interrupting and conditioning these networks. It is fair to say that today all of our access to networked information is mediated by interfaces designed to engage our eyes and hands as well as our ears. In DissemiNET we created a technology that is both database- and interface-driven to put in play connections among texts, which are themselves about (broken) connections: not only strictly textual, but also familial, political, and visual. Although these texts are testimonial, giving accounts of disappearances, what I think we tried to do was let the connections among the texts suggest alternative texts that are not limited by the logic of an account, but that run from one account to another via words which exhibit syntactic (different from semantic) similarity. In these ways we wished to disturb the informative aspects of the texts, ideally displacing them into a more playful, perhaps contemplative space while all the time respecting and being responsive to the loss they represent.

SD: What is a specific example of how you collaborate?

SB/BS: As we mentioned, we've been collaborating for a number of years, so the process itself is ongoing. It is not so much production oriented as it is experimental. In the case of DissemiNET, we conceptualized the piece and worked through it on paper long before we began any digital production.

SD: If I recall correctly, Sawad has commented before that coding/programming is the "medium" and in particular that Java is not "elitist" compared with "low tech" HTML. Can you tell me what you really said/meant? Is this a net version of the high-low art debate?

SB: The remarks to which you refer were made on the shock of the view list as part of a thread about low-tech vs. high-tech net art. As far as the question of whether using Java is elitist or not, it would seem important to first ask where and how such lines are drawn? Is all programming elitist, or only Java programming? Is HTML coding programming? Are the products of programming elitist? Spreadsheets? Editors? Browsers? Is working on a spreadsheet programming? Is word processing programming? I think you have to look at what is made [by programmers] in relation to other practices and artifacts within the field of cultural production. If one is talking about employing a team of 100 programmers to produce an online banking system, then perhaps there is reason to connect this practice with elitist culture. But if what is being advanced is that if one has the knowledge to deconstruct software and, more important, build new software, then one is elitist (even elite), then either we've given in to the worst cynicism or we're a bunch of hypocrites.

Here is the relevant passage:

"[T]his distinction [between high and low tech] resembles another one familiar to those aware of the rhetoric of spontaneity which runs through modernist discourse of the past 150 years. Looking back to arguments advanced in late-19th-century France by 'independents' against their 'academic' counterparts, we find (academic) technical proficiency (mediation) cast in opposition to (anti-academic) artistic originality (immediacy). The critic Castagnary, a contemporary of Zola, wrote of the landscapist Jongkind:

'[C]raft hardly concerns him, and this results in the fact that, before his canvases, it does not concern you either. The sketch finished, the picture completed, you do not trouble yourself with the execution; it disappears before the power or the charm of the effect.'"

Art critic Richard Shiff in his study of Impressionism (Cezanne and the End of Impressionism) notes how Zola made similar claims about Manet's work (as well as Jongkind's). Shiff says that despite these critics' enthusiastic responses to self-effacing procedures, "one must suspect" that such critics "knew well that specific identifiable, visible techniques had been employed. Indeed, Shiff ironically points out that at issue for these critics and artists, rather than the absence of technique, was the difficult definition of the "technique of originality."

Likewise, in the current high/low distinction, works utilizing such technologies as Java and Shockwave are characterized as high tech and placed in opposition to "early" work by artists such as jodi.org. High tech is to be "rejected," "broken down." The relation is set up as a techno-ideological choice: "Mac over PC."

Thus, Alex Galloway writes:

"I think lo-tech is a crucial characteristic among many: the interest in text, low bandwidth; ... the rejection of Java and Shockwave; being forced to extend the limits of the browser; the art of the breakdown; Mac over PC. These are the things that characterized jodi from the very beginning (only with 404.jodi.org did we see them expanding beyond what simple HTML could do)."

While I like to break down technology (and rhetoric) as much as anyone, the above pattern of argumentation seems to me founded more on a resistance to acknowledging the ubiquity and multiplicity of technology, rather than on a critical approach to the problems posed by technology in/as (our) culture. I don't know that dividing technology into high and low serves critical and historical approaches to understanding its effects on us. This distinction can be shown to be relative and shifty, even within the context of the art world.

I don't know that writing a small Java applet is more difficult or requires a higher level of skill than making a desired thing in "simple" HTML, especially using those earlier versions of HTML. I acknowledge that it requires a different set of skills. But my feeling has always been that it is much easier to make the things I want to make in Java than in HTML. HTML lacked precision. This is not to say that Java doesn't provide opportunities for discovering "happy accidents." Java can surprise you, as can any language (for programming computers or otherwise). If making a work with Java (or Shockwave) requires a more robust system to view the work than simple HTML, this requirement is due more to choices made by the computer and operating system makers than to the relative techno-artistic skill or ideological biases of artists. Just as critiques of literatures must be undertaken carefully and systematically, with regard for histories and the pressure of presents, critiquing technology can take on various strategies, all requiring technique: rhetoric, HTML, knowledge of programming, DOS, Unix, etc.

SD: What is Utensil?

SB/BS: It is a place from which we work. The name focuses on the notion of tool, but from a perspective that interrogates the utilitarianism of "tool." Around Utensil we have tried to launch a number of "toys." These toys are deconstructed tools, prototypes, or after-types. They engage existing software and information systems by miming them technically, technologically, but simultaneously, offering divergent uses and forms of appearance; it is our studio.

SD: Are you working on any other furNETure? What are you working on now?

BS: In our work we continue to explore the ways in which network technologies can interface with various objects, appliances, and architectures. These studies sometimes blur the boundaries between art practice and commercial design concerns. We consider these experiments "failed products by design."

SB: Well, we are looking for investors (dare we say patrons?) to fund some of our toys, which we hope to grow into big tools.





First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center, December 1999.