Tag Archives: Netherlands

Interview with Sher Doruff — a different view of new media fragmentation

Or discontinuities, or whatever term captures the idea that a field that previously seemed really fluid and border-less no longer is so. Coalescence? Coagulation? Choosing the right metaphor seems much more important these days.

I spoke to Sher Doruff a few days ago and really wish I’d by then acquired a recorder–still working on that in fact–because it was a brilliant interview. She has been working on new media for a long time, much longer than most of the others with whom I am speaking. In fact since the mid 70s, before any one was even talking about new media the way we do now, Sher was working with electronic music. She was part of a band in this genre before moving more into computer work and even more experimental audio stuff –we didn’t go too far into this part of her story though. I really started with the points at which she moved into new media, and at which she came to the Netherlands. It seems she feels she started with new media pretty early, as I said, and mainly because of the freedom she believed it would offer both because the technologies were so new, no one had any pre-conceived idea of technical limitations, they just tried anything and everything. Further, in those early days, there were no stereotypes about computers being only for men, or that men were more inclined or more skilled at them–no one really felt very skilled.

This was sort of a revelation to me because the other women I’ve spoken with are younger–between 25-45–so they entered the larger story much later. Most of the other women mention the lack of perceived limits when it comes to what the tech can do, or at least the feeling that it offered more freedom to them in some way, but most of them did not have such an experience of thinking they would be able to completely shed gender stereotypes related to careers or activities. –I can see this will be a point I need to look at in all the ineterviews since so many people have mentioned it.

Anyway, Sher had a pretty good career developing in New York but then her apartment burnt down and she decided to go to France, ended up doing a residency there, and they went up to Amsterdam where she started doing some stuff for Steim, and just stayed there for awhile. Most recently she was at De Waag, where I spoke to her last year, but now she is teaching at the Theater School (part of the Hogeschool in Amsterdam). She has had other more immediate reasons for leaving one path for another whenever she made a change, but she also seems to reach a point in any medium where she feels she has figured out what she wanted to know and then turns to something else. Sometimes she later goes back, and of course, she doesn’t abandon any of them really, but rather shifts the focus of her inquiry (from what I can tell).

Sher had a mixed view of the New Media scene in general. On the one hand, she feels that new media artists, especially people working online, are paralyzed precisely because the tools are now so easy to use. I know what she means; it’s similar to what happens with course management systems at the university. Those CMSs make it pretty easy to put stuff online for a class, but maybe not in exactly in the way you want to try. But it’s so much easier than doing it all from scratch, and seeing how it works in the CMS can make thinking of alternatives even harder.

But my own experience has been that while the majority of people don’t go beyond the limits built into most plug ‘n play type software, usually there are some number who hit the limits, get frustrated, and switch to learning how to really do it themselves. Maybe artists who can do that ought to rethink their whole practice (or even career choice) anyway. So that’s one of the more negative things she said. But she thinks there will eventually be a crisis, and then a renewal, or a new approach.

On the other hand, she was not so worried about the coagulation of the new media field. She feels that the separation into different subfields will create difference, which she generally regards as a good thing, and that these different groups will come up with different ideas, questions, and answers, and different ways of thinking about the shared ideas, questions, and answers. –And so these groups when they do interact, would have much more fruitful exchanges. I asked Sher if she thought the groups actually would interact and share, because so far I find that they don’t seem to communicate so much lately, and William felt this as well. But Sher thinks that they still cooperate far more than most other disciplines. I wonder though if it’s really that the new media organizations Sher works with are cooperative, but that other types, like universities, are not so much. I mean, maybe it’s over-generalized. Another point to compare across interviews.

We also talked about the creative industries, some of the specific Dutch institutions, and her current work with Brian Massumi, but I’ll put that in the next post.

William Uricchio part 2

So one of the biggest issues in many of my interviews has been funding and William talked about this as well. Right now there is a lot of money available for digitizing historical archives and so every school is looking through their library to see what might be worth proposing as a project. The money comes from both education and art funding, so this also represents quite a shift in emphasis from supporting art creation to supporting art history. Not to say that all the money is shifting, but a million or two million euros is still quite a big chunk, and some of the smaller organizations don’t get much money, or have much of a budget at all, so even small cuts are big problems for them.

Also, there is a change to the funding system underway because of a decision to use a “creative industries” model. Since the 1980s arts funding has worked as follows: “a long-term grant is awarded with the proviso that once every four years all the institutions receiving these subsidies (more than 800 of them) will be inspected – all at the same time (Smithuijsen 2005).”

I know this system is still in place now because all the organizations I’ve been in touch with in the last year just recently got recommendations about whether or not their funding should continue and on the same levels. It turns out that many lost funding, in part because of the above archiving project, but also because a shift toward a “creative industries” model is underway. This refers both to Richard Florida’s book about the Creative Class and also to a model of cultural policy developed in the UK over the last 10 years.

I encounter very mixed responses to this change; most of the artists and new media institutions seem unhappy and William also was intensely skeptical that this would be a positive change. I still haven’t heard a systematic critique, but two problems seems to be the expected increase in bureaucracy and loss of control over arts/cultural policy. Clearly though I need to get more detail on what the new system will be and why people don’t like it.

William and I also talked quite a bit about how new media is developing and I was flattered that he wanted to know who I thought were important voices and which I thought were important centers, both institutional and national. I mentioned Worm and Piet Zwart MDMA because I think they continue to do really innovative things, and I think Vienna is or will be important. In the US I find it much harder to estimate this because everything is so spread out and incoherent. I don’t know of any cities with really strong new media scenes. Boston has some, NYC has some, San Francisco, maybe Austin. But none of these is organized the way they are in Europe because there is just so much less public funding for any art.

Finally we talked about whether or not the new media scene had any cultural specificity, and whether fan culture, to which we were drawing some parallels, has any. While he could see the point I was making about how national context my change how people can participate in new media, William feels (in spite of the fragmentation) that it is a global discourse. I think this is true to a degree, but that it can’t be assumed. If one is studying the field, one has to check the extent to which discourse is local, national or global. For example, I can say that William certainly participates in a global discourse, because he travels constantly, publishes internationally, and works with other scholars who do the same. But this is hardly true of everyone I’ve interviewed. Most of them cannot travel so much, they may read international journals, but maybe don’t publish on that level so much, and most of their work may take place at one school or in one city. Just being on the nettime mailing list or even a bunch of people connecting on Facebook doesn’t make it a global field, at least not so far. I think that in fact the way scholars and artists participate in the new media field is quite variable–maybe I have to steal Mirko’s concept of heterogenous participation and Kate Hayles’ idea about emerging complexity to discuss this. Or maybe I just need to read Eric von Hippel on democratizing innovation. And he has this paper on actor network theory and user innovations…

One of the most challenging things lately in these interviews is that I begin to hear contradictory things and yet haven’t spoken to enough people to judge very well what is a more accurate picture. Or maybe in fact there is no one accurate picture.

Interview with William Uricchio

So as in the last trips, I am doing interviews. The first was with William Uricchio, (and here’s his page at Utrecht) from Utrecht University, and also MIT. In fact I knew William in the context of superhero comics long before I knew his new media work, but the latter turns out to be the thing bringing us together. We talked for quite a while; a recurring idea was the extent to which different constituencies of the new media scene are fragmented, not communicating or working together. For example, academics ad hackers are not so much in touch anymore, or journalists and artists, unless they are journalists specifically covering art. This can be problematic in terms of knowledge production because people in these different field repeat the same research and come up with the same ideas over and over. Not that that’s bad in itself, but just a waste of time and also leading to quite boring repetition in scholarly papers. –And this last seems harder to avoid than I would have thought, but lately I have found as well that so much work is produced that it’s hard to keep track publications across disciplines on any one topic, especially since different terms are used in each discipline.

Anyway, back to William. He has been a professor at Utrecht University in the Media Studies group –which seems to have two or more different sets of pages– and also teaches at MIT in the Comparative Media Studies department, which is where we first met. We talked about how he got into this field, and it was as a media historian. He takes a really long view of media history and had some thought-provoking ideas about when the history of new media starts, especially if you actually mean the history of virtuality, or digitization, etc. For awhile he was chair of the department at UU, but now that he essentially has one and a half jobs (seems almost full-time at both though) he doesn’t have to deal with that. –But now he’s co-director of CMS! He still is thinking about the future of the department and mentioned several challenges facing schools in the Netherlands right now. One is that the Hogeschool system (they are sort of professional schools) and the University system are being unified so that Universities and Hogeschools in every city are being pushed together. this creates all kinds of difficulties because the systems are very different and I would guess that in any case, being told to work together doesn’t please anyone. I was surprised to learn that while Hogeschools can restrict their admissions and class sizes, Universities cannot.

Further, and I’m not sure if this is related to the above plan, media studies programs all over the country are jockeying for position–so for example, UU is starting to focus on games and locative media, while the media studies program at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) is trying to combine with informatics–but not clear yet whether that will suceed. This reminds me strangely of what happens in California; each branch of the UC and CSU system has to be sure they don’t replicate programs at another branch and we are all supposed to be finding ways of being distinct. It that certain things at UU make it harder for them to distinguish themselves, one is that their students aren’t held to high enough standards–I’ve heard this a from a few people now–and also, in the Dutch system, it seems that people can be tenured more quickly in the US and that once they are, their departments have no leverage if they don’t keep up their work. But it’s hard to tell exactly how things work because there are so many different grades of faculty, and many universities are changing their systems. I get the sense though that William is frustrated with the department at the moment.

This might also be connected with what I guess have so far been unsuccessful effort to for some kind of national-level organization of new media scholars in the Netherlands. It seems everyne agrees there should be one, but no one agrees on how it should be organized and discussion devolves into everyone just trying to claim turf. Talking about this problem, which I have also heard about from some others as well, lead of course to discussing funding. I’ll save that for the next post though.

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.

I am so behind…

Even though I’m not teaching as much this term, I am just buried in work. I’m co-chair a conference that takes place in two weeks and will so glad when it’s over. What a headache. Plus I am trying to work on some grant proposals, sent in the two IR 9.0 proposals, and just sent off a chapter proposal. Whew. On the up side, if the conference and chapter proposals are accepted, I will have a lull on those fronts until summer at least.

Speaking of summer, I will be headed to the Netherlands again for more interviews. I’ve been doing some via email, but I also need to go on site to visit some of the new media programs/centers. I may also give some talks, but that’s up in the air right now. Whatever else happens, I will see all my Rotterdam friends again, and finally (I hope) meet Brenno de Winter in person, plus a new acquaintance, Elfi Ettinger. Elfi is on one of the panels I put together and teaches at the University of Twente.

In spite of being so busy, I spent most of the day in a workshop about writing successful grants, except for the last two hours in which I heard Clark Buckner speak about “Autonomy, Plurality, and Play in Contemporary Art.” It was a good talk, and the workshop was informative, but I’m just exhausted now. More later.

Book Project Update

So I guess I do have a book project; it’s official. –By that I mean that I’m applying for grants to fund the research. So far I’ve applied to be nominated for an NEH Summer stipend; every campus gets to nominate only two, so I have to be selected for nomination before I can even contact the NEH.

Here’s what I said :

Since the mid 90s growing numbers of cultural institutions and post-secondary educational programs devoted to “new media” (as defined by Manuel Castells) have emerged. However, there has been little organized study of their function or of their creation of knowledge about new media and of new media texts themselves. Certain cities, projects, people, or organizations have been studied in isolation by pioneers in the field such as Howard Rheingold, Geert Lovink, and Ned Rossiter, but so far no comprehensive studies have appeared. I intend to continue a study of the new media dispositif in the Netherlands over the next three years. During the award period I intend to make my second visit to the Netherlands to conduct interviews and site visits. I aim by the end of the period to have completed a book proposal that includes 1-2 chapters.
Recent work by Frank Kessler (unpublished seminar paper) suggests that Foucault’s notion of the dispositif may be a fruitful concept to use in understanding the new media scene. Foucault first defined his use of this term in 1977 as follows: “What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements (interview 1977).”
Of particular value will be a better understanding of how different philosophies, goals, and choices of new media institutions shape the work they produce and their place with local, regional, and national communities. Foucault went on to say that a dispositif arose in response to an urgent need and this will be another important question to explore: to what need does the new media dispositif respond?
The Netherlands offers a unique opportunity to extend our understanding of the complex relations among the constituents of the new media landscape. According to Peter van den Besselaar, The Netherlands has been on the forefront of both research and cultural production in new media since 1993 when the Digital City was founded in Amsterdam and because since then substantial resources have been invested in education, musea, and other cultural organizations devoted to the creation and study of new media(“The rise and decline of the great Amsterdam digital city,” Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 67). Thus it now represents a comparatively mature context to study offering at least as complex a dispositif as many geographically larger countries.
I plan to make repeated trips to the Netherlands of about two weeks each over the next few years. In each trip I will conduct new interviews and site visits, and also follow up with previous interviewees to learn the outcomes of plans they have shared during earlier contacts. I have been in touch with my current contacts who are pleased for me to continue my investigations, and I have begun contacting additional groups. Of particular interest is that all of these groups are taking some position on the development of a “creative class;” a debate that is at least several years ahead of a similar transformation in the US, and seems a good predictor of what may happen here, so I certainly will track its development.
Further, because the country is geographically compact, but diverse in both human and organizational populations, many different opportunities for interviews and site visits can be carried out in a reasonable time and at reasonable cost. Additional advantages are being able to carry out all of the research in English, and, because of prior acquaintance with some of people involved, easy access to many institutions and people central to the creation and study of new media in the Netherlands. Ultimately this research will lead to a better understanding of how new media dispostifs work, and yield a better idea of how certain organizational or personal strategies contribute to the evolution of the cultural and educational institutions involved, over time. My preliminary work with these groups and the individuals involved in them has convinced me that a more comprehensive study in the Netherlands would produce a valuable new understanding of how a variety of factors shape the new media dispositif, not just in the Netherlands but in general.

at de Waag Society for Old and New Media

Today I went to visit de Waag and met with Bart Tunnissen and Sher Doruff who are finance manager and head of the research dissemination program, respectively. This was an interesting meeting because de Waag takes a very different approach from either Piet Zwart or V2; though they conduct research they are not academic and they have a very broad target audience, and have many community connections. Though they have not been around for so very long–11 years, they have become very important in shaping the agenda for the “creative industry” in the Netherlands, in part it seems because their founder and director general, Marleen Stikker earlier created the “Digital City” in Amsterdam, and so has been a real pioneer in this area. Also, like V2_, they have established a reputation for good practice and innovation.

So where to begin, well Bart gave a brief run-through on the history, but that’s on the website so I won’t repeat it. Mostly they talked about how they go about connecting with the community, choosing projects and carrying them out, and then some about funding and those challenges. They get 6-10 proposals per week and make a first pass through them to look for those that will a)match one of the 4 domains and 6 programs they have chosen to focus on, and b) appear to have a good chance of really succeeding–I’m not sure how they measure that though, except it may mean they can create new knowledge that eventually leads to a new product heading to market.

Bringing products to market seems to be one of the bigger challenges for de Waag, because the Netherlands doesn’t have so many venture capitalist types (comparatively). –After the tech crash I’m not sure how easy it is anywhere, really. This is one way the are really different from PZI and V2_ though, in having this as a goal. But they also emphasized that you can’t start working with a partner and have profit as a goal, or why would that partner trust your intentions? Intellectual Property issues are thus a double concern for them, both in theory but also in their practice. –In fact I think this must be quite tricky and I will have to email some follow up questions because de Waag really emphasizes what they call a “user as designer” approach, so if something does eventually end up being developed for the market, then what? Who is the designer and to be blunt, who profits? I admire the approach for its Freirean quality, and I think it certainly would strengthen the commitment from community groups to a project, and strengthen ties between them and de Waag, besides of course being more educational for everyone. I appreciate though how balancing different concerns takes real skill.

Well, there is more to say, but today Remediating Lit. starts and I have to get ready for the trip to Utrecht.

Alex Adriaansen at V2_

This afternoon I had a lengthy meeting with Alex Adriaansen, director at V2_ ; he could not have been more generous with his time or forthcoming with his views about the context for New Media studies in the Netherlands or the challenges they face. So I will note it all down before I forget!

First, V2_ has been around for 25 years and that means that by now they have established a reputation as doing interesting, edgy things and also having good practices. Alex emphasized how important it was to them to be truly interdisciplinary themselves, and this brings it’s own challenges because scientists have one way of doing things and, people concerned with business have another, and artists still another, and so on. But he felt this was something they had succeeded in working out over the years, and now these other groups respect their way of doing things.

Another characteristic of the Dutch context is the focus on projects rather than on structural funding schemes for the long term. Alex attributes this to politicians and business people tending to take a short view that always judges success by some concrete result, rather than on what is learned or on long-term possibilities. The problem for V2_, (or any organisation, because I see this in the US as well) is that you have to always follow whatever trend the funding agency is hot for, which means first that you may not be able to really follow through on ideas that need more time, and, perhaps a greater problem, you can get caught up iin the hype so that you lose your critical perspective. I’ve heard this from Florian at Piet Zwart as well, and I will be sure to check on it at De Waag tomorrow.

But Alex felt that they were navigating these challenges successfully. I think V2_ audience may be less prone to falling for hype as well, because most of their programs are aimed at the “creative class” meaning artists, designers, theoreticians, etc. Except for the DEAF Festival, they aren’t very concerned with reaching a wide audience. However, they have decided to strengthen their ties to some educational institutions. They have a pretty strong connection to Piet Zwart MDMA already, and now they are pursuing a PhD programs with some universities (he didn’t say which). I think that sounds like a great idea, and it makes me wish I had time to take on another degree!

The biggest challenge Alex sees ahead for V2_ is reorganizing itself so that it can on the one hand strengthen it’s artistic focus, but on the other build on the more “practical” possibilities suggested by their research. So I look forward to seeing what happens in the next year. –Or rather the next four, as these things go in the Netherlands.

In addition to talking about V2_, we also talked about the program under development at my school, CSU Stanislaus, and the challenges we face in being rather isolated from any big cities or cultural institutions. He suggested looking at the IAMAS program in Japan; from their website, IAMAS is:

AMAS consists of two schools: the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences and the International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences. The Institute is solely a graduate school (for obtaining a Masters Degree) and has one faculty and one course, namely Media Creations. There are 20 students in each year of the course. The Academy is a vocational college accepting 30 students each year who must have at least graduated from high school.

That sounds like an interesting program to investigate.

In addition to thanking Alex for his time, and for sharing of the electronic proceedings of DEAF with me, I also have to thank him for being so gracious about my being almost an hour late! On my way there I got completely loast in the tram system and every time I thought I figured it out, I went even more wrong. Finally I just took the Metro, which I seem to understand better. Lucky for me I had already purchased an OV-chipkaart, which iis a smart card for the metro, buses, and trams. My strippenkaart would never have lasted through that maze, and then I would have had to search for a shop to buy one… But anyway, all’s well that ends well.

I may edit this later if I realize I’ve forgotten something.

Later last Friday

So those first parallel sessions ran so late–well, the whole schedule was already running behind–that when we got down to lunch there was almost none left, and by the time it was refilled, I had about 5 minutes to eat before I had to find the session where I was speaking. But I did find it. I did have a nice if brief chat with Mirko Schäfer before/during that abbreviated lunch. He says he’ll be at the Piet Zwart graduation show; I hope we meet up there and can talk further. Anyway. My panel was ok; the other talks were interesting, and mine went fine, but we each only had 15 minutes, which is a nuisance, and our moderator didn’t cut people off, so we lost most of the time we could have used for Q & A. We still had some, but a couple of people took all of it up…

Anyway, then I had to dash in order to catch the 5:26 train back to Rotterdam, so I could be in time for the opening of the Piet Zwart MDMA first-year show at V2. Except that there was some big accident on the line right outside Rotterdam Centraal, so no trains could go through Rotterdam… Well, after scrambling around trying to figure out another route, finally it’s announced that anyone bound for Rotterdam should go to this other track…so I get that train and get to R’dam at 7:15 instead of 6:30. The show was scheduled to start at 7, so I run through the station and grab a taxi, and get there at 7:30. Luckily (for me) they are running late too, so I didn’t miss anything. –But it was strange because I thought the Dutch were so punctual!

The show was really good, an impressive demonstration of hardware hacking and in some cases reflection on the web/internet, or on our relationships with “new” media. I had the chance to speak at length with a student about to graduate, which was really informative and gave me a very good impression of the program. –Also good to see that graduating students would come to the first-year show. I will post pictures or links to others’ pictures later.

At the show I got to meet Jaromil, which was an unexpected treat. He’s a hacker/artist/activist from Amsterdam who has released a lot of free software specifically designed for media artists and also has been a teacher at Piet Zwart. We had a really good conversation about teaching; what students need or don’t. So I ended up staying until about 10 or 11, and then I was starving because I never really got any dinner during my mad dash back to R’dam. Luckily some people, including Jaromil and Florian, were going for Roti around the corner, so I went along. It was yummy, and we all talked more about US politics and political activism (or lack thereof). A bunch of the students wandered in and it was like the show was spilling into the neighborhood. Good thing I could sleep in on Saturday.

More on Saturday later. Now I need food.

NNT, Day 2

Here I am again and this time I’ve snagged a seat near one of the few electrical outlets in this lecture hall. I’ll try to catch up some of my earlier notes before the morning plenary starts–we’re already 15 minutes late though…

Yesterday I also saw Tiziania Terranova and she had interesting things to say about immaterial labor, capturing customers and harnessing collective intelligence. She compared Yochai Benkler’s ideas with Maurizio Lazzarato and Gabriel Tarde. Mainly she was arguing that social networks and even more online communities are about relationships, not economics, even though they have real economic consequences. One of many instances when it was unclear whether a speaker really meant to talk about networks or communities–this is a problem in my paper as well. Also some trouble just with the microphones hampered her talk, which was too bad, because I think she was getting at an important idea.

Next was Wendy Chun talking about imagined networks. This was the best of the first three presentations. She started with some questions: what needs to happen so that we think of interactions as networked; how do social and technical abstractions coincide, interact, etc; and a third question I missed because my jet-lag made me fuzz out for a minute… Maybe it was the most basic: are networks communities?

An important point to note before she gets started: public/private has shifted to all private that are open/closed. Her primary example (which unfortunately is not so well known in Europe) was Facebook which she argued is a profoundly nostalgic in its drive to create a feeling of intimacy. And, people join networks when they feel excluded. –probably true, but I think almost everyone feels that to some degree, or in some arenas, so is it a useful distinction? She went on to describe Facebook and how it works and eventually got to the idea that these networks are enduring though ephemeral. But, they aren’t memory, they are just data storage. Memory requires “diligent regeneration.” I’m sorry to say that by this point I was really getting unfocused, so I hope her paper will be available online–it seems that hardly anyone turned one in on time for the proceedings CD.