Tag Archives: Hajo Doorn

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.

More on the trip

After my talk at De Geuzen, I wandered around downtown a bit and then had dinner with Florian at a cheap but good Roti place near Piet Zwart’s new location in the Kareldormanhoff. We are still trying to think about how to do a joint MA, but it’s proving much tougher than I originally expected. I think we (the CSUStan group) will have to get our MA going, and maybe first try some simple exchanges for course credit. Also, the the CSU is under threat of major budget cuts, and so any new projects will be harder if we are all tightening our belts.

I was still really jet-lagged, so after dinner I went back to the flat and tried to answer email or read, or something, but while I had trouble sleeping I also couldn’t think very well. So annoying. I should have drunk more at dinner. 😉

Wednesday I had another interview scheduled with Hajo Doorn, director at Worm, and thanks to my jet-lag I woke up barely in time to dress and race over there. This time we talked less about Worm itself and more about how Hajo sees the Dutch new media scene and his own role in it. I was impressed at how ambivalent he felt. I say impressed because Worm seems to be doing very well and Hajo himself has gained some influence, including serving on some kind of committee or board that awards grant money for projects. I’m not sure how many people in this position would question what it meant, whether it was right, so I am impressed that Hajo does.

He made several striking comments in this vein. First, and this seems to be a shift since last summer, he thinks Worm is in a way forced to be too big now that they are successful and receive funding themselves. They have to employ a lot of people in order to comply with the requirement of receiving funding, and maybe its good that all these people have jobs, but a lot of money is now not spent directly on projects. Also, he’s not even sure that their projects are always the most deserving or successful–that goes back to our earlier discussion of how success is measured. Also, based on his comments on certain other groups, I think Hajo worries that he will become disconnected from real innovative work, because he’s so wrapped up in administrivia. Finally, he’s not sure the project he is involved in evaluating are always so great, but who knows, maybe that’s not so important either, maybe the experiment is worthwhile. I haven’t met anyone else willing to be this forthright and I admire that like hell, because of course it’s a risk, both personally and professionally.

We also talked about what kinds of work is most interesting right now, and what is overrated. Hajo is completely fed up with what passes for interactivity, and I agree with his critique. He gave the example of an art piece in which people step onto a platform with sensors that measure their feet and if their feet are one size, a light this color glows, and if they are that size, a different color light appears. So what? Unfortunately a lot of interactive pieces do seem to remain at this really basic level and so they very quickly become really boring. I further agree that for real, interesting interaction we would probably do better with artificial intelligence.

When I think about, for example, the web sites that are interesting, they are those that facilitate interaction with others–whether we speak of something like FaceBook, World of Warcraft, old-school MOOs, or what have you. And compare this to static texts like novels, paintings, movies. Though these don’t change, they represent (I think) a density of the creator’s/s’ thoughts that readers or viewers can interact with over time. So, interactive new media, to succeed, has to either connect us to other people, or in someway recreate the experience of a conversation with another intelligence.

I’ll have more on the conversation with Hajo later on, but I have to to catch up on other stuff–I am so behind on my entries!

European Science fiction meet-up

Ok, so my going to SFRA 08 is not looking so good, unless I get major grant money. But we’ll see. I and my partner in crime have had several discussions about investing in our own research, so maybe… In any case, I’ve been talking a bit to Sandor Klapcsik (who doesn’t seem to have a webpage anywhere) about how to increase European participation and the sort of vicious circle that can occur because if you don’t have a European event, it’s hard to get people involved, but if a lot of people aren’t already involved, it’s hard to have an event. Because I already think that meeting in person is crucial, I am going to try organizing some kind of meeting next summer, probably in early July, so it won’t conflict with SFRA. While we may have some scholarly discussion, my main hope is that people connect sufficiently that we are inspired to collaborate and more people get involved with SFRA. Maybe I’ll do something like the Barcamp held recently in Rotterdam. In fact, that might be just the thing, only for two days. Maybe Worm would even be a good space, if Hajo were willing. Hmmmn. The question would be finding inexpensive housing for everyone. Rotterdam is less expensive, but hotels anywhere…ideally I’d find university dorm rooms or something like that.

Before deciding though I will talk to Paweł and see what he thinks, since he seems the resident authority on the European SF scene. –And I’ll just gloat for a minute that now another scholar has joined Facebook at my instigation. Mwahahahah. How long can I resist having my vampire bite him… 😉

Well, I’ll post updates here, as plans solidify.

Evolution of Worm

Now I will also finally finish writing about my meeting with Hajo, which I only half-covered before it was time for me to leave the Netherlands, and I’m anxious to get it all down. –I’m sure at least a few other people will write about the conferences I attended, but I’m the only one who spoke with Hajo and it was such a great conversation that I think it would would be much worse to leave that undone. Plus I enjoyed the conversation so much that I really want to get back to it–in fact I’ve sort of been saving it as a treat for myself. The more I think about it, I think I have a crush on Worm. –I realize that sounds perfectly stupid, to have a crush on an organization, but I was so impressed with it that I find my self wanting to prattle on in the most ridiculous way. Apologies in advance if my prose becomes tiresomely gushy.

In the first half I wrote a lot about how people-centered Worm (and Hajo) seemed to be, but he also describes himself as a Darwinist, saying that the situation for cultural institutions in Rotterdam and in the Netherlands generally is a war and that this is good; “it keeps a alert but it’s not personal.” Hajo also feels that the competition helps the whole scene to expand and attract attention. Of course people often say that things aren’t personal when in fact they are, but in this case I was convinced that at least Hajo really felt it wasn’t personal, because when I asked if there was anything we had discussed that should not be published, he said no, it was all ok. –I know, maybe our whole conversation sounds pretty tame, but he did make some comments about the other groups that might not perceived as very, ummm, flattering. But Hajo claims that he likes his counterparts at other institutions in spite disagreeing with their approaches and attitudes, and at the same time recognizes that he and Worm are not immune from those same criticisms. As he said, “those guys at V2, they are so smaakie; we are smaakie too, but we know it….ten years from now someone might be saying ‘those guys from Worm…’ but that’s ok.” –I haven’t yet been able to find out exactly what smaakie means, but you get the picture.

In fact Hajo is trying to seed the next crop of contributors to the Rotterdam cultural scene by getting involved with the Media Design MA students from Piet Zwart, but it started pretty casually. As Hajo put it, they were working with Piet Zwart because of people. First of all because he and Florian [Cramer] had met, hit it off and decided they would like to work together. I’ve come to realize that many many collaborations start this way in both the academy and the art world, and I suppose it’s no surprise. To succeed, people have to work very closely toward shared goals, so I think it’s natural and helpful to work with people you like and with whom you share at least some ideas. Anyway, Hajo and Florian started talking and this is the first project. For Hajo it brings new blood into Worm; some of the students may decide to work or perform here later. Hajo is also always looking for new ideas, to see something new that they can combine with something old in public programs to inspire people. Hajo is always asking “what can we learn from past innovations to inspire new ones?”

To the right you see Audrey Samson’s graduation project, ‘spectres’? as it was installed at Worm, 7/7/07.

He goes on to say that “I want to contribute as much as we can…making it [new technology] into a social context, interesting, being an ambassador, making it[computers] into a normal field.”

Hopefully in a few years the students can contribute something back to the field. This is a long term investment for Hajo because he believes you have to be a little older to be radical. At first this sounds counter-intuitive because young people are often assumed to be radical by nature, but I think he’s right. It takes experience to know where the boundaries are and what would be a real innovation.

At this point in the interview, Marco, who does all the accounting, walked by and commented jokingly that the people at Worm are technocratic conservatives, but with love. Hajo laughed and agreed; they try to leave good things in place and alter the bad things. They don’t follow trends just for the sake of them, so they are multidisciplinary not as a goal, but as a practice. Their experiments have taught them that a party can be a medium; so can a meeting. So they will use whatever media best let them explore a possibility and bring it to people–in this way they are “radically pragmatic.” This holistic approach means that rather than regarding meetings as a necessary evil or parties as merely celebration after the fact, both are an integral of the discovery process.

This sounds like a productive way of working, but also perhaps more challenging. I asked Hajo what the biggest challenge was, especially when collaborating with another institution. After some thought, he replied that “dealing with really talented people means making a structure in which they can operate.” In this instance of collaboration with Piet Zwart, some of the people working at Worm stayed up all night once or twice to help students who (proving that there at least some universals) needed to do a lot of work at the last minute. Hajo asked them how they felt about that, if it had been fun to work in that intensive way and apparently it had been.

Here Florian talks a member of Worm in the the Wormshop about possibilities for future collaboration. I was impressed by how open everything was; they all just did their business as usual, even though I was just hanging around snapping pictures, a stranger to everyone except Florian.

Worm is not a rich organization; they started as an artists’ squat and now depend mainly on grants from foundations and the government to support more ambitious projects, so they have to think about their spending priorities. This is another way they work on providing a structure–“so the office is crap, but the performances are good. Eventually they will get fed up with the office and fix it.” Again, it depends on what the people working at and with Worm most need.

The group has worked in several locations before moving to their current space in an historic building in Delfshaven that presented quite a challenge. Because it is protected as a historic monument, Worm could not make any structural changes except those required by fire codes, so they took a novel approach to constructing their space. Working with architects who followed the principle of “superuse,” they constructed a new interior structure entirely from salvaged material, and all either free-standing or attached only to a metal frame made with clamps braced between the walls, floors and ceilings. This frame is held in place only by pressure, it is not fastened to the building’s structure. (For more on the construction, read about it in the Superuse book, or visit the 2012 Architects’ Worm set on Flickr.)

Hajo likes the space but is not especially attached to it and had thought that it would be fine if they had to move when the city finally decided what to do with the building. But, he discovered during the weekend of the graduation show that some of his colleagues had come to really care about the building, and didn’t want to juts give it up. So now Hajo is working on a proposal to buy the building, because he wants the people he works with to stay and be happy, and to do that, they need to have a more permanent home.

Given his other beliefs, it’s not surprising that Hajo prefers a DIY approach, but he also has pragmatic reasons as well. Superuse is not only environmentally sound, but is significantly cheaper, just as switching to Linux allowed Worm to operate with a collection of salvaged computers without having compatibility issues. But this also allows them to be “masters of new technology rather than slaves.”

At the same time, Worm no longer works outside the system. When talking about the difficulty more radical groups have with a transition to working with the system as they become more established, Hajo exclaimed “don’t complain about the system if you aren’t taking part in the system.” Worm maintains a balance between a DIY approach and being a regular institution. “If freedom is 0–>100, we are 85, and this is a success. That freedom allows them to present acts, artists, films, or speakers that might only attract a few people, and count them as successes if they are interesting, rather than measuring success only by numbers in the audience or money in the till. Measuring success also takes time; Worm started the practice of “Live Cinema” which is occurs in venues all over the world. In that way it was a great success, but no one remembers that it started at Worm. But in Hajo’s words, “if you really do something, you make a difference and that makes it fun.”

The heart of the Worm

Having caught up everything about the graduation show, now I’ll get to the meeting I had this morning, with Hajo Doorn, director of Worm. I’ll start by saying that of all the meetings and conversations I’ve had about how different institutions work here in the Netherlands, this was by far the best. In addition to offering me a wealth of information, Hajo let me really see inside Worm, as if I wasn’t some random person dropping by, but somehow part of things. I’ll explain that a little better later, but let me go in order.

Worm really is unique–of course every place wants to think that, but usually it’s not true. In this case though, I can’t think of any other cultural or arts organization I’ve ever seen that runs exactly like Worm. First of all, the range of activities is amazingly broad. Events held there include dance parties, film screenings, live bands, sound art installations, electronic/computer art installations, lectures, and educational activities like the recent Piet Zwart graduation. Worm also stands out because of the way they balance their growing role in the community, which gives them more chance at funding and at shaping the local conversation about art and culture in Rotterdam, with still maintaining the freedom of an outsider to take risks and to do things a little differently. That last is no small feat when dealing with civil servants and funding agencies. Finally, Worm is focused on people, inside the organization and those they collaborate with or invite in, rather than on their own institutional status.

This last characteristic was what Hajo most emphasized. But before I expand that point let me back up a bit and first say something about Hajos’ take on the whole scene. The Netherlands is a small country, so it’s not so hard for a group to get started and get some attention. They all compete with each other, which Hajo thinks is productive because it draws more attention to the scene as a whole. But, established institutions try to claim the discourse, which shuts out groups; this means they have to work hard to find a niche and show how they are different. Taking V2 as a contrast for example, according to Hajo, “V2 is big in their scene, but it’s very small scene.” He also commented on how they were not very connected to the local community, or to the open source community. I had noticed the latter when talking to Alex and everyone seems to recognized the V2 is very narrowly focused, the only question is whether they think the narrow focus is a deliberate strategy, or something that dooms V2 to shrinking relevance. Other organizations also seem far more hierarchical; both V2 and de Waag have a clear and seemingly rigid hierarchy with the people on top exerting very firm control over everyone else and having set guidelines for how they do everything. I’d say de Waag is not as rigid as V2, and maybe they need more structure since they have so many community stakeholders.

But Hajo and the others at Worm take it as a principle that they “design for people, not for systems,” which means they have often asked their funding organizations or the civil servants they work with if they really want this kind of report or that kind of procedure, because it will cost so many thousands of Euros to produce. Often, the answer is no, and they find a different way to provide what the funding agency or civil servants need. In fact, while the other organizations I visited explained their goals and criteria, which were all about art, culture, and sometimes the community, I didn’t get as clear a statement from them on their operating principles. Worm has several worth listing here:

  • Energy is the most important quality [of a work or project]
  • It’s all about people
  • Let’s not pollute
  • Design for people, not for systems
  • Challenge the system
  • Try to pay people, even a little

But they try to challenge with a smile, not in a nagging way. Also, note that the Netherlands has worked for a long time with the “polder” model of consensus, which is very different from the way government works in most other countries. Because just about the entire country is below sea-level, and because so much of it is made of reclaimed land, or polders, people had to agree on managing the dikes–at least that’s one story. Regardless of its origin, the polder model basically means that all stakeholders consult and cooperate, even if they are competitors. In the case of arts/cultural groups this has pros and cons. On the one hand, it encourages collaboration and sharing resources, but it also means that no one group can get very much money, so it’s hard for groups to grow beyond a certain point or become international.

In fact, Hajo wasn’t too concerned about this. He thinks that art should be local, and also he’s really into a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach, which doesn’t require huge chunks of money and isn’t really consistent with international ambitions. Because he’s always trying to do a lot with a little, Worm uses Linux running on computers that were salvaged, and Worms physical space is made with 80% recycled materials, mostly industrial salvage from the port (of Rotterdam). Along with the Polder model, the Rotterdam context is also very “flat” compared to other cities in the Netherlands, meaning that it’s pretty easy to get access to officials, which helps groups to get started.

Hajo shared a lot of other information–it was a three-hour meeting, including coffee and the chance to listen in as he talked over the success of the Piet Zwart graduation show with Florian (who was there with students making official documentation) and as he talked about possible future collaborations, plans for the building, how to spend out the remaining budget–I’ve never seen another group be so casual, except maybe my own department–maybe that’s why it was so comfortable. Anyway, I’ll post more tomorrow because it’s getting late!