Tag Archives: Florian Cramer

Florian’s moment of revelation

Florian at Ars Electronica 2007.

Note, visit Ars Electronica 2007 for more info. about Florian winning the Prix Ars prize for theory.

I was still a student in 1995, in Comparative Literature, and there was a conference in Berlin. It wasn’t really a conference so much as a public culture event, and it was called Soft-Moderna –soft modernism and basically it was organized by people from the American Studies program from the John F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin, and it imported the whole Brown University Hyperfiction discourse. So it was about literature and the internet and computing, but heavily based in the whole hypertext-hyperfiction paradigm. And bringing together Robert Coover for example and some German people who were doing early experiments in that field. And you could see the whole helplessness of people there, and they also operated in the new media paradigm so they asked a couple of media journalists and media studies people to be on this panel and discuss this whole thing. And you could see this complete helplessness. And I was just this young student and I just stood up and asked critical questions. I didn’t talk so long, maybe two minutes or so, but I was really critical of what they had said. And then basically the organizer of the conference said well, you seem to know more about that stuff than the people we had on the panel, so do you want to be in the next conference? So that was actually my first public lecture and I was on a panel with Friedrich Kittler (!) and Andy Müller-Maguhn the spokesperson from the chaos computer club. And from there I got writing commissions and I gut sucked into this whole field.

This is a short one, but next time I’ll be covering what Florian likes about the field, his concerns about the art being produced, and his own role.

I’m interested though to learn how closely connected new media and hyperfiction were early on and how hyperfiction/text was really one of the basic paradigms because today in the US, hyperfiction seems like a narrow genre that a few people are really getting into, like Nick Montfort, but at least on the conference circuit it seems to have lost it’s place as being so basic, being something everyone knew about and discussed.

Florian Cramer on the problem of new media paradigms

We moved on to discuss “new media” as a discipline and I mentioned how both Sher Doruff and Renee Turner had said one thing that attracted them (among other characteristics) was the lack of constraints on the field, because no body knew what was possible or not, and no one expected or required that any particular methodology be used. I’m afraid I also indulged in a mini-rant about how often I’ve seen presentations that were basically just descriptions of the speakers encounter with some situation involving new media, and just stopped at that–no analysis, no theory, no further data… Ahem. Anyway, Florian (as usual) had a far more thoughtful take on this issue.

I go even deeper than that and say that there is a lot in the so-called new media field, especially in the more alternative, or activist, or off-mainstream field, a kind of naive continuity of cybernetics. What do I mean by that? Well cybernetics in the 1950s and the 1960s was basically the idea that we operate with a notion of system-feedback-control and that these are descriptors that we could commonly apply to both artificial and natural systems. So that means we can analyze a society in terms of feedback, control or whatever. We can describe human organisms, we can describe politics, but we can also describe a machine.

And here I noted we had arrived right at Katherine Hayles! Florian agreed and continued.

Then what I see in the so-called new media field is that it was from the same paradigm except that it doesn’t work with this classical behaviorist model which is really about almost totalitarian control fantasies, but their model is something like the rhizome. But the rhizome is just another cybernetic model and it is based on the same idea of using that structure in order to compare the internet to human society, etc etc etc. And that is something I find very questionable and I also want to do more critical writing on. And I think there is little reflection and little awareness of the continuity of these cybernetic paradigms. And nobody questions for example the notion of “system.” System is a highly speculative construct. I mean you say we are systems, society is a system, the human body is a system, and a computer is a system. But I think this kind of rhetoric obscures and clouds more than it actually helps to analyze things and I think we have to go beyond that. For me, really critical media studies would be to question both notions.

But I see when I say this that I’m really making myself enemies. And even with people with whom I wouldn’t have thought it. Well I thought they also come from a really critical camp. But it’s really astonishing to see how deeply these paradigms are really embedded into the whole field.

So now, after these two entries, we are about 17 minutes into the interview, and I already feel like I’ve swallowed a rich media text! In the next entry we finally get to the actually reasons Florian got into this work.

The secret origins of Florian Cramer

Ok, there aren’t really any secrets but I haven’t seen any really biographical interviews with Florian anywhere else, so maybe it will be some kind of revelation. 🙂 I’ve known Florian for a long time now, about 15 years, but when working on my projects in the Netherlands, I realized we had never talked very explicitly about his own history with technology, art, culture, etc. –For reasons that will become clear, I am not using the term New Media.

In fact my first question was how Florian got involved with new media to begin with, and this led immediately to a a lengthy and detailed explanation of the problems with the term from a historical perspective. I will try to encapsulate it:

  • First, new media means something totally different in the US than in Europe. Here it means digital or computer media, ala Lev Manovich, but in Europe TV and radio are often included in that, in fact, from a historical perspective, all media is new at some point.
  • Second, the terms medium and media are being used incorrectly throughout the field. For example, if we speak of radio, one of the earliest technologies to be discussed as a medium, then technically the medium, the carrier of radio waves, is air. This was then extended metonymically to include the waves themselves, then further expanded to include the devices themselves, the senders, and even the receivers (that is the people sending and receiving). So that the term now encompasses so much, it’s not even very useful.

I explained that while I agreed with this critique, I’ve been using the term as the most broadly understood as covering the territory I mean to explore, but I am coming to believe that it’s really time to dispense with it altogether. At any rate, I reiterated my question, how did he get started?

According to Florian he started by programing his own computers when he was 13, and in fact might be considered to have been doing the same stuff for 25 years: he used computers to generate random poetry which he published in his own punk fanzine. 🙂 The most fascinating thing for him then was the random generator, though of course now that he’s “older and wiser” he knows that the randomness of a computer is not true randomness; it’s “pre-determined chance.” This shaped his interest; the kind of meta reality, textuality, emergence of code, and also the connection to society and all the arts.

But back to the timeline; I asked how at this starting point at 13, in 1982 how he even had a computer. Through friends he started using them, especially an older friend who used computers to trigger the light show for his music–all of this was programmed in Basic.

But his interest in computers went up and down; in the very early 90s he was on the internet but found it really boring; it was all controlled by system administrators and not much was going on. Now he reads papers by his students that glorify the old days, he says “oh but you couldn’t do much then; you couldn’t use your own server or install your own software; you could only dial up the university mainframe.”

I contrasted this to Sher Doruff’s experience that people felt even a sense of wonder at being able to connect at all. But of course she is older than Florian or I and so had a different set of expectations about what might be possible. Further, and I think this is a crucial factor affecting people’s attitudes toward computers and “new media,” Florian has always been quite skeptical about the technology itself and the promise it might hold. (A skepticism I share.) As he puts it:

They’re not the perfect machines and they’re not the dream machines, and this is what also cripples the whole new media field. Basically there have been all these kinds of utopian expectations. The first machine I had was incredibly primitive; it had 1 kb of memory. But today’s machines cannot really do more. And the structure of programming is not at all different, it’s just more comfortable. The machines have become faster but they haven’t become smarter. And what also surpised me, when I came to the Netherlands, is that even more than in other parts of the world, is the expectation that somehow computers will become smarter or less deterministic. And you can name those expectations with certain names such as artificial intelligence –where computers are not just stupid sytactic machines, but become semantic machines that have a true understanding. Or artificial life; that you have something like emergence , or whatever, out of computers. And the third one I think is new media. The whole idea, especially in the 1990s with the whole virtual reality nonsense, is that somehow through multi-media interfaces, the machine wouldn’t be this whole command-line deterministic thing, but would become more intuitive, less deterministic…. but if you’re a smart computer user you know that a mouse click is the same as typing a command. The logic remains the same.

So that is Florian’s take on new media as such, and a tiny bit about how he himself got involved. But in the next part we talked much more about the actual conditions of the field (however one names it) and about his own history, from being a graduate student in comparative literature to his current role as Director of the Media Design MA course at the Piet Zwart Institute.

Summer Research

So I am once again traveling to the Netherlands to do some research, scraping away at these interviews, as many as I can cram into about ten days without going insane. I leave on 23 June and go directly to University of Twente where I will meet Elfi Ettinger in person (one of my IR 9.0 panelists) and possibly speak in their seminar series. I hope to also meet not only her immediate colleagues, but some people from other departments who work on new media and ICT stuff, but I only will be there for about 24 hours, so we’ll see.

After that I head to Rotterdam and start interviewing; I plan to speak again to Hajo Doorn (from Worm) and Alex Adriaansens (from V2_) about the state of arts funding, and finally I will interview Brenno de Winter, who who had the flu in January when I was originally planning it. Then I go to Germany to speak at the IFIP WG 9.5 –part one of scholars on Facebook–and then back to Rotterdam and more interviews. I will speak with all of De Geuzen, with Sher Doruff, Erna Kotkamp, and Marianne van den Boomen, and Jaromil. And last but far from least, I will formally interview Florian and Mirko.

I may fit in a few more interviews, depending on how well I can schedule these so that for example, I see all the Utrecht people on one day, all the Amsterdam people on one day, etc. Otherwise the travel time will probably prevent me from adding anyone else. Plus I have to allow time to write up–I learned that in January when I didn’t really have enough time to make sufficient notes here in the blog.

While all this is going on, I have to also finish a book chapter and work on my paper for IR 9.0 because the full papers are supposed to be turned in at the end of August. I think that for panels we have to get some papers in by the deadline, but maybe not all. As the organizer though, I feel I have to be one of those papers that gets in on time…

More soon, including a very protracted but increasingly useful and interesting email conversation I’m having with Aymeric Mansoux from goto10.org.

Final (for now) project proposal

Earlier this month I posted a proposal which did not get accepted for further submission and evaluation. I have to really thank Florian for being quite forthright about completely incoherent the first version was, and asking pointed questions that allowed me to see what needed to be straightened out. So I revised and revised and revised, which isn’t always my favorite thing… But this was fun.

If I hadn’t been so pressed for time, I would have enjoyed revising even more, but anyway, thanks to Mirko‘s willingness to spend hours talking me through a revision via Skype, I enjoyed it. Sometimes the hardest part of writing (for me) is just staying at the computer and continuing to write. Having a friend on the line (or in a chat window) really helps. A deep bow to Mirko for that heroic effort. After the extremely helpful feedback from Florian and help with revisions from Mirko and Betsy (one of my colleagues here) I submitted, three drafts later, this:

With the introduction of the Internet and WWW in the 1990s, scholars, artists and activists began a critical engagement with technology. These early adopters were a loose collection of individuals that came out of many fields, including philosophy, literature, film studies, sociology, computer science, and also from outside of the academy; journalists, politicians, artists, activists and business people have participated in this discourse community as well. This diverse group was united by their shared observation of and concern with the effects technology was having on their respective fields.

There were few possibilities then to reflect on new media from a scholarly perspective; instead the issues were debated in popular discourse, in the networks of the early adopters’ various fields, and were explored in conferences and festivals. For example, in 1988 Ars Electronica featured contributions from Kittler, Baudrillard, Flusser, and Weibel, each of whom was trying to elucidate what we now commonly describe as new media. But while early scholarship on new media came from traditional fields such as literature, sociology, art and art history, film and media studies (Hayles, Kittler, Castells, Uricchio, Manovich); recently institutionalization has been driven by former members of the early adopter networks entering academia (Fuller, Lovink, Cramer, Juul, Montfort, Rieder, Schaefer, van den Boomen, Terranova).

As this field and its knowledge are crystallizing, the process raises immediate questions: what is the relation between institutionalization and the people, physical things, and symbols in the networks that gave rise to new media? How are institutions constructed that critically reflect on emerging technologies? How is the fluid knowledge shared between participants becoming crystallized, being canonized, such that some groups are included or excluded? And finally, what do we gain and lose in knowledge production through this process?

Because European countries hosted the first networks and festivals devoted to a critical engagement with new media; has invested far more public funding into cultural and academic programs around it; Europe now has far larger, more varied, and more mature institutions producing, studying, and teaching about new media. This diversity makes it fruitful ground for study, but while some cities, projects, people, or organizations have been studied in isolation by pioneers such as Manuel Castells (The Internet Galaxy), Geert Lovink (Dark Fiber) and provide preliminary insight into the institutionalization of new media, no comprehensive studies have yet appeared. I intend a rhetorical analysis of the scholarly discourse on new media in Europe which I will approach as a dispositif. While Foucault applied this concept to historical archives, I propose exploring the human archive embodied in the actor-network of individuals and groups currently working on new media, beginning in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is the best starting point because some of the first university programs in new media began there, and thanks to early and extensive government funding, a wide array of other cultural institutions have developed simultaneously. The Dutch context was originally characterized by heterogenous networks of people, things and symbols that were ad hoc and informal, but now all of these disparate elements contribute to the establishment of formal knowledge, specialization, and the construction of a canon. These activities are a clear sign of institutionalization, which also inevitably involves the development of gate-keeping processes. However, while institutionalization is taking place, the cooperative polder model still shapes socio-economic relations and allows for the continued emergence of new voices and new groups. Thus the whole spectrum of development is available for study.

In addition, the development of new media in the Netherlands allows study of other important questions: how are a loose group of people, the early adopters, who were not at first members of the academy, contributing to the creation of a field, a discourse, and knowledge by running events, funding grants and supporting themselves in the process, and how are they molding what started almost as folk practice into official knowledge, bringing not only their experiences, but their networks into the establishment? New media institutions are developing rapidly and successfully in the Netherlands; which conditions are necessary for fostering and speeding this process as it has happened there?

For this study I have begun visiting and observing a variety of groups, including De Waag Society for Old and New Media, V2_Institute, Worm Rotterdam, and De Geuzen artist collective. Further visits to these institutions have been arranged for the award period, along with observations at the University of Utrecht Department for Media and Culture Studies, the Piet Zwart Institute Media Design program, among other academic institutions. Observing this network over time will allow a comprehensive rhetorical analysis, using Burke’s pentad to better understand the functioning of actors within these networks, and will yield a better understanding of how knowledge in an emerging field is institutionalized.

Yet another cool institution in Rotterdam…

I realized that while I’ve written quite a bit about the Piet Zwart first year and graduation shows, and have mentioned them in connection with Worm, but I haven’t said that much about what this school is or what my connection is. I’ll warn you now that if my last post about Worm was alarmingly enthusiastic, well, this one is, hmmmn…ardent?

In brief, my school is developing a new Master’s program, as yet untitled, but basically it’s about media, technology, design…suggestions are welcome! So I’ve been working with other faculty on that idea since early last fall, and then I ran into Florian Cramer, an old friend from grad. school, at MLA 2007 . As it turned out, he is the director of the Piet Zwart Institute Media Design MA and they would be interested in working with us. They have been running this MA since 2002, but because they are part of a hogeschool (The Willem de Kooning Academie) instead of a university, their MA is recognized in the Netherlands as a special case, and so is a bit precarious. After talking a bit, we realized our programs each had something that would help the other, so we decided to attempt a joint MA. When our program comes online it will be for a regular accredited MA, so that helps PZI, while they have gained valuable experience pioneering a novel (and as it turns out really successful) approach to this kind of program and that experience will really help us.

This summer when I realized I would be coming to the Netherlands for conferences and other interviews, I arranged with Florian to soak up as much info about the school as I could. I went to the first year show and the graduation show; I went along with him to the final shows of the Willem de Kooning Academie BA programs to look for potential recruits, I talked to many of the students and some of the teachers as well, and met with officials of the Academie, and generally did all I could to learn exactly how they did things and how successful their approach might be.

It is extremely successful.

A lot of factors contribute to this success; several are structural. Students enter as a class of about 10 and proceed as a cohort through the program, all taking the same classes. This creates a strong community that can at least offer its members adequate feedback on projects, even in groups that don’t have terribly good chemistry. When the chemistry is good, the students become really supportive of each other and are able to learn even more thanks to both the collective intelligence effect and the reduction of the affective filter (anxiety).

Further, rather than having several classes each day, classes are divided by days, so that students spend an entire day focusing on one topic which creates an intense immersion. It might sound daunting, but the students I spoke with were very enthusiastic, one saying that she had never liked school before joining this program, which she loves. In fact, because some of the students enter without much experience programming, this approach might even be crucial to their being able to become skillful enough programmers by the time they are done that they can realize their final projects.

I think the balance of theory, practice, and reflection also makes an important contribution to this program’s success. Students get a thorough grounding in the critical theory relevant to Media Design; not just in aesthetic concerns, but also in the ongoing debates over licensing, privacy, and so on. They learn hardware and software hacking techniques, and they are required to produce a quantity of academic prose reflecting on these experiences. After seeing both the student exhibitions and reading the final papers each graduating student made available, I could see clearly how well all of these pieces had worked together and because synthesis is one of the hardest skills for students to learn, I was all the more impressed. Some students of course created more sophisticated projects or explored their ideas more thoroughly in writing than others, but all displayed competence and many were inspired. In fact, two were subsequently selected from a Europe-wide pool of students as part of a small group to display their work at V2, and another has been invited to Ars Electronica.

Also, this balance works on a cognitive level because it combines several different modes or intelligences (depending which educational psych theories you like best). The programming, writing, design work, hardware hacking, oral presentations, and performances pull in many different ways to learn material in a way that comes as close as I’ve ever seen to an optimal environment for learning (as defined by the various theories). I don’t know if this was deliberate, based on these theories, or just lucky, but either way, students really learn.

Finally, the Media Design program succeeds because it has great teachers. I haven’t had the chance to speak with all of them personally, and some change from year to year, but those I did speak to were intensely dedicated to the students, and all of them were very good at their jobs. One way the program enriches students’ education is to have visiting tutors each that supervise that term’s thematic project. These tutors are all active designers, programmers, scholars and artists; many are very well known and influential in their fields, such as Jodi, Geert Lovink, Lev Manovich, Peter Lunenfeld, Sandra Fauconnier….

I have to single one person out for recognition though he may find it embarrassing, and that is the Florian, the MDMA Course Director. Now I have known Florian a long time, since we were both in graduate school (yikes, since 1993!), and I’ve always known him to be a first-rate scholar, but this summer I had the chance to observe him as a teacher and director. Now that my friends and I have all been out of grad school for a few years, I keep having this weird experience of getting to know them all over as professionals. It’s kind of like seeing a sibling on the job or as a parent, and realizing that in some way, there are parts of that person you never knew, though you might have known him or her for many many years.

Anyway, Speaking as someone who has made a study of pedagogical practice (it comes with the territory for people in Composition) and as someone who trains future teachers, I was mightily impressed with this “new” friend. Scholarship is no guarantee of good teaching or managing, and in fact sometimes (perhaps even often) really good scholars are terrible teachers and managers because they are so focused on scholarship. But I could see that Florian is one of those exceptional people who excels at all three.

Not only did I see him spending tremendous time and energy on the program, (that could just mean he was bad at time management, after all!) but I saw how the students and other staff felt about him. The staff I spoke with at PZI all had good things to say which they were apparently compelled to share since, I wasn’t actually trying to solicit these comments, and the students I spoke with, especially those finishing their first year, were positively devoted. As if all this wasn’t enough, Florian is a good manager. I have to say that this struck me even more than the rest because since I also direct a program at my school, I know how difficult balancing responsibilities can be.

Well, I’ve probably put him to the blush enough now. But it’s a great thing to see my friends from grad school doing so well. I get a feeling I might put into words this way: I thought back then they were terrific, but it was all just gut feeling, easily marked down as the bias of friendship, but now I have proof; I was right about these people. They are really wonderful. –I’ve shifted to plural now because I’ve just learned that another close friend from grad school has been made dept. chair at her school. My friends rock!

I’m sure then it should be no surprise that we at CSU want to partner with this program and hopefully create an MA course that works as well for our students. More about that later; but your next treat will be “letters of intent–what the hell are they really?”

Back to live blogging

OK, I charged the battery a bit, so now back to live reporting on the first day, just in time for the very last talk by Florian Cramer. I’ll go back and post my notes from the others later. A nice intro by Matthew Fuller who mentions that among other things, Florian has won in a new category for Prix Ars Electronica for best contribution to media theory. He seems embarrassed by it being mentioned. Unlike most of the other speakers, Florian is (as usual) eschewing slick presentation styles and just giving us white on black screens that look like (and in fact I think are) what you get in a terminal window.

I had the chance to see Florian’s original presentation notes and of course he’s not following them, which means now I have trouble identifying what I really need to note down. So what is he saying…he starts with talk of an “elegant paradox” between the syntactic, linear aspects of language and the paradigmatic, that is associative meanings of words. so there has always been a sort of weblike character to texts and in fact textus actually means web.

Then we are on to Barthe turning everything into a text, from beefsteaks, to striptease, to well, anything. At the same time, traditional philologists think of text as only about paper. Computer tech though has allowed us to see what really texts are or aren’t. Ok, now I know where we are.

Syntax –> what is computable
Semantics –> what is computable only if turned into syntax

so text is just an amount of (in most cases alphanumeric) symbols

You can’t really get this from a beefsteak or striptease.

So webs and networks have comparable limitations.

You can describe any network in a flat linear way, the complexity can be boiled down. But he is not proposing this as reduction, but as analysis. So maybe networks are not so different from anything else. (such as texts).

Just as texts were initially defined as anything, and we were in linguistic trap, now everything is networks and we seem to be falling into a technological trap. Despite the humanist agenda, since the 40s, the sciences were mapped onto culture, which leads to a variety of problems.

(big jump here, because I had to stop and really listen. Damn him for saying something interesting and dense)

With the assumption that the media is the message, media theory became sort of a rehash of cybernetics. The network is another cybernetic metaphor that conflates things should be differentiated. But cybernetics also takes these things literally, so interdisciplinary work always teeters on the edge of falling into the trap of mistaking a metaphor for a model.

Critical theory should be wary of taking these metaphors too far. Cultural studies and media studies have too often bought into techno-hype, and used technological terms too sloppily. He gives an example of how “signal-to-noise-ratio” is a concrete mathematical concept, but also is used in discussion lists, first as a metaphor, but then applied in the creation of semantic filters, which is questionable.

So remember:
Storage is not memory, feedback is not interaction, data is not knowledge, computation is not cognition.

A new network theory would have to consider the networks of metaphors spun and the conflations in a critical way even as it uses them. (that’s rather provocative since he’s basically implying that up to now we haven’t been doing this…in fact could be read as a criitique of this conference’s themes…) Oops low battery again, questions are interesting and so are Florian’s answers, but I have to stop. More later.