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On Personal cinema, media, and Homo Ludens (the man of Play)

Alex Spyropoulos

Personal cinema is a group of artists, theorist, programmers and curators that work with on the media. I use the word media first of all because of how rapidly new media and platforms change from new to old and secondly because, for the exact same reason of the constant change, we focus on the narrative forms and interface structures of media like TV and video games and not on the media themselves.


A. The main motivation to form a group with that kind of synthesis was to address Balkanization not as a local form of fragmentation but in the context of a global Balkanized and marginalized media and/or art scene. I mean by that that we were people in crisis observing the fragmentation of discourse in various levels. We examine the isolation of disciplines and languages, the lack of common discourse in between old, not very old and new media. We wanted and we still want to address the lack of dialectics between periphery and centre between the “other” and/or the “same”. To examine if such a distinction exists, I mean the bipolar periphery / centre or the “same” and the “other”.

B. After September the 11th the main part of the discourse produced has been neutralized by the media and politicians with a few easy steps. It is not only a mere representation of individual political thought when Judith Butler mentions in her book ‘precarious life’ that after the tragic day the characterisation of humanities as an unholy, unnecessary discipline found roots even in the academia itself. The reasons that created this balkanization or schism of the public with arts and humanities belong to a bigger analytical discussion. For us this discursive battle has been one of the biggest challenges, how as a political artist or organization you can communicate with the audience in a battle which has already been lost. However I would like to mention that the self-referential methodology, the demanding concepts and writings for an audience trained for mass media, subjectivity itself as a notion beyond doctrines are an easy target to be silenced. However the instant neutralisation of the progressive thought result to a new more communicative way in philosophy and arts and somehow the war in Iraq redeem discourse in a way beyond what seemed to be possible a few years ago. In other words the shock of exclusion created a different reaction and a new potential resistance. A lot of writers and artists adapted a new language of communication mostly because they recognise the importance of the political era we faced. Somewhere there Personal Cinema has been formed.

C. Another point that gathered our group-in crisis was the understanding of bare life from Giorgio Agamben. Bare life in my misreading means a diligent body, a citizen determined to obey an illegal, legislation which in his understanding is embedded in the essence of politics. The Bare Life lives in a form where politics defined with the ‘ban’ and formulated by the exclusion of the citizen from ‘polis’ (the city). The bare life is isolated from any kind of power and it forms the contemporary biopolitics. It is a life which is not so far away from what M. Foucault called a product of power. Even if his reading of politics and capitalism is extremely radical and in some points questionable, this was one of our major concerns not only for the Balkans where we face the precarious neo-liberal present but in the balkanised world as well.

Action - Distribution.

In this terrain personal cinema a group- in crisis as an answer to the big question of “what to do” focused on distribution of political art and discourse. We started in a form of rereading, to explore the field between media and humanities, trying to explore the borders between bare life and bare intelligentsia… or just bare life. We just acted using methods that hackers use, do and run.

The mythology of internet and new media as ‘The democratic’ medium and the solution to all of our political problems has been one of the major discussions amongst the group. I will say an example concerning the museum, the Google and the new media. As it is already very well known new media created a new problematic in the context of distribution because they are and were most of the times incompatible with the current notion of the museum. Catherine David organizer of the ‘Documenta X’ said in an interview that there is no reason to present net. art within the museum while you could easily see it at home. On the contrary the authoritarian and qualitative purpose of the museum still remains the same. This qualitative characterisation of a piece of art or a text is not a job that Google could do in the field of digital arts. There is a common misconception there, which is mentioned by Catherine David as well, on the way that Google functions which is based on popularity. That means that it qualifies websites quantitatively according to the amount of hits that a website gets, the more the people enter the site the highest the rank would be in Google. This is a quantitative way to evaluate information and by no means has Google had any relation with knowledge or the process of knowing the keywords that you want to use. Knowing the keyword presupposes distribution by nodes of information, which take the qualitative role of a museum. This distribution is not so polarized at the moment as in television but it is getting there. Rhizome, ZKM, PS1, Eyebeam are major portals and centres who distribute what happens in the field between art and media. I mention this quite obvious fact in order to avoid the mythology of the ‘democratic’ medium called internet. We talk about a ‘more democratic’ medium than television but not ‘The democratic’ medium. The mythologies of new media were one of the main concerns that we wanted to reveal in our projects.

But Why Balkans?

Vesna Goldsworthy said that ‘everything and everywhere seems to be in danger of becoming “balkanized,” with only a tiny proportion of these cases taking place in the Balkans themselves.’ But except for the generalisation of a global political and art scene there was a ‘locative’ element referring to the area of Balkans that we wanted to address. The transformation of the post-socialist world in combination with the transformation of poor cousins of capitalism called Greece and Turkey was and still is a point to explore media, politics, identities and metaphysics. It becomes even more interesting if we agree with what S. Zizek claim. They said that every observation that analyses or argues about the Balkans is as ‘’Balkanised’’ as the Balkans themselves.

This area as you already know in this process of becoming had about 700.000 victims in the last decades, though the numbers are always a matter of mythology. The struggle for identity in a form of identity branding combined with the notion of ‘revolutionary capitalism’ after the collapse of the USSR hegemony created the necessary platform to examine the post-post-colonial strategies of the over-developed world. These exact post-post colonial structures made the Balkans more homogenous than ever and justify why we use the term Balkan Wars in our title. In this precise point there is a romantic disagreement with M.Todorova’s Balkanism where she criticises the generalisation of the use of the term Balkans and the homogeneous approach that European Union deal with Eastern Europe in general. We criticise badly as well the tactics of generalisation but in practise in 2006 we perceive Balkans more as Texas and less as distinctive cases. The homogenized ‘non-exotic other’ which means the ‘same’ is a much clearer scheme. The scheme of de-Ottomanisation , which is not as far as it seems, has been succeeded by de-Communistisation which found its final destination in Europeanization, a revolutionary capitalistic state. It would be extremely helpful to mention that a few years ago I received an invitation for an exhibition, and the address was from Ljubljana, Slovenia, Europe.

The interpretation of new liberal policies at the (east) of Europe, as Marina Grzinic accurately describes the name of the area, results to realities that the west is afraid to hear about. The free market established in the area combined with the new, for the post-socialist world, sublime hedonistic image of western design and advertising produced less a world free from propaganda and more a collective depression for workers that they have to remain at the borders of Europe for reasons of competition. The mafia, the drugs and the prostitution trafficking, are not the only elements which characterise the Balkans as ‘black’ as they seem to be. The collective depression, the visa barrier in ghost countries exploited by the sovereign power as much as possible is far more realistic than the cinematic approach of terrorists and pimps. We shouldn’t forget that Balkan mentality has been one of the most exploited myths in popular discourse and an operative term in many scholarly studies. Amongst this field of research the rhetorical question “What is the Balkans?” is directly related to another question “Can we separate what we know as the essence of “Balkans” from how we know it?” Can we separate what we know about a place full of mountains that has been exploited from the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans, Europe, Churches, USSR, USA and any available empire from how we know it? The “Blackans” or the “Vlakans” for those who speek Greek …are not the innocent victims. Personal cinema emerged from that realm of thought and even if this paper is a personal - personal cinema the main ideas and problems where something similar to the above.

So back to action…. one nice day in 2000 Andy Deck and Ilias Marmaras decided to create Personal Cinema and a small project about the Balkans called “The making of Balkan wars: the game”. A few months later, among others I came on board and I took the already occupied place within the group of technology and schizophrenia. Focusing on the abuse of the area in the frame of media, Hollywood and video games personal cinema wanted to reveal what media means from the inside, and to play a dirty game itself. So we created a video game called “The making of Balkan wars: the game” as I said before, which was a virtual space hosting artworks by 52 artists not only from the Balkans but from the rest of the world as well, who wanted to say something about the area, the media, identities and war. After a lot of discussions we decided not to use any form of curating and accept all artworks submitted which is the essence of simulation. What we did was worse than curating a big Balkan show like the Gorges of Balkans, Blood and Honey, and Cosmopolis etc.

The Interface of innocence

The artist Calin Dan from Romania who created the Happy Doomsday video game in 1998 said that “…an interface is also a sculpture, and the social body you aim to work with is fluid material that can be modelled “ For us it wasn’t just a sculpture, we made a human computer interface that was a story itself. An interface of a video game seems to be the equivalent of the theatre hall with all its blackness, the seats, the stage etc but not including the action itself. For example in Microsoft word the interface is consisted of the menus, the spell correction, the templates of letters etc. and most probably not the writing itself. Lev Manovich said that ‘The human computer interface is a cultural language that offers its own ways of representing human memory and human experience’. So instead of a corporate “innocent” interface we created a dominant narrative of a temporary museum, not a museum created by architects but by artists and writers. It is a space existing far beyond neutrality. An “identity factory”, “a Balkan zoo” are just a few examples of our “neutrality”. The reason of doing this was not only to challenge the artists, the audience and ourselves but the system of art and media as well. We wanted to raise the questions, what is the meaning of an interface? Of the platform which hosts arts? even if this platform is a museum an institution, or television.

Tactics of warfare

The funny story is that most of the times we distribute this project as a piece of art not different from the others. Our provocative simulation was presented in other provocative simulations with analogue ‘interfaces’ in the museums. Within that frame we presented the project in Media lab Madrid during Arco, Montevideo in Amsterdam, and a preview in Kassel in the context of the exhibition In the gorges of Balkans. In the Balkans we presented it in Cluz Romania, Belgrade, Macedonia and in Athens at the Art Fair. The project was also awarded with the annual price at the European Media Art Festival 2005 in Osnabrueck, Germany. This is not exactly a situationistic approach to art but it could refer more to what is called “Tactical media” in a reading related to corporate strategies. Geert Lovink and David Garcias said about the tactical media and Wodiczko “Like other migrant media tacticians, Wodiczko has studied the techniques by which the weak become stronger than the oppressors by scattering, by becoming centre less, by moving fast across the physical or media and virtual landscapes. "The hunted must discover the ways to become the hunter."

That form of “tactical media” seems to be quite popular in the last years with the formation of soft groups, flexible media companies and other fragmented organisations for politics, arts and humanities. What was the most interesting is how during the last decades these almost immaterial organisations formed different corporate strategies and structure. Personal Cinema collective functioned with that way as well, finding extremely helpful the gathering of people under the scope of the production of image and discourse.

This fact doesn’t mean that we weren’t aware of the political context we function when we show our work in a museum. In fact most of those exhibitions have been used as a way to stabilize the area to create a dialogue based on the guru artists who constituted the discursive space of the area and give the platform for the Europeanization of the Balkans. The trade though wasn’t so innocent since Europeanization for my personal Personal Cinema means selling cars and creating nested colonial states. Greece for example took a role of establishing for the first time after many centuries a mini scale post-post-colonial colonization. It is a state with citizens of the second speed (Greeks) who took advantage of the citizens of the third speed (some parts of the Balkans) So in practise even if we didn’t got funding from them we went together with the creation of a few factories in Bulgaria, which everybody from the west hates, a few European telecommunication companies, European super markets, Banks etc… This Balkan project together with the big ones happened the last years hasn’t got only the role of an artistic exchange with or without political context but it has as well a second interface which functions politically for an unconditional Europeanization of the area.

Anyhow this double pretension as a scheme is not only applicable to the structure of politics and art, but to the broader bipolar of audience/media, too. In a discussion we had with Ilias Marmaras from Personal Cinema he mentioned that “Perceiving and interpreting images and their messages is a socially and politically defined activity where the viewer, him/herself, believes that s/he determines the disposition towards spectacle in a form of a bidirectional fraud.” In other words the viewer gets the necessary disposition in order to watch her/his myth even if the myth is called information and the TV producer pretends that s/he creates the dilemmas of the truth. In that point we have to disagree with Boris Groys who disagrees with himself. He said that he has “…[to] confess that he has been severely criticized by almost all its reviewers precisely for “concealing the fact” that the public already knows very well what the inner core of the media looks like - because it has all the technical instructions to use the computer and internet, etc.”

Of course in order to perceive the practise and theory of the image production someone has to be in the state to reveal the politics of broadcasting. The structure and the phenomenology of the practise are of minor importance since what is important is to be aware of the state of power which manipulates people.

Avant – Garde

One other fragmented mythology of new media is the notion of avant-garde. Innovation, novelty, new, newer, newness, revolution and so on. Here I will quote the Californian Peter Lunenfeld director of the Institute for Technology & Aesthetics. Who said:

“ I am very careful using the term avant-garde, even as I spend a great deal of time looking at what other generations did indeed term avant garde art and media. The very phrase avant-garde needs to be given a rest, like a good horse that has been ridden too hard for too long. When stylistic and technical “advances” come from all spectra of digital media production commercial, artistic, scientific academic etc – the notion we have inherited of a singular, oppositional avant-garde serves little purpose anymore. If our software, music videos, computer games, and WAPs are all to be termed avant-garde, then that phrase has indeed been reduced to a marketing phrase like “revolution”. I do not see the digital artist as being an avant gardist in any classical sense of solidarity or shared artistic destiny; and, in fact, too many mediocre talents have hung on to just such exhausted tropes to support their own, weak brands of practise.”

The ongoing need for novelties and avant-garde is based mostly on the structure of the media. The media themselves are a ‘forget’ mechanism and their supposed qualitative characterisation of information is not only a portal to the definition of the ‘important’ but also a definition of what to forget. There exactly lies the problematic of the analysis of the simulation which raises rhetoric questions like is the Kyoto treaty still active? Does the war in Iraq still plays? Is creating a virtual environment still sexy? And the forget mechanism works very well. It creates the confrontation of novelty and avant- garde against the closer, deeper examination of popular culture and political thought.

Permanent media

In addition to the telesthetic forget mechanism we have to take into consideration the new media scene in arts which constantly change platforms against any form of writing. We face a situation of ‘commodified gadget art’ dealing directly with the market. It seems that narrative, writing, thought in most of the cases is not of major importance. What is important is to use the latest device available and create a barrier of technical know how. With personal cinema we preferred again to be “boring” and explore the forms of narrative in an established medium. As Boris Groys says: “This faith in technical know-how is produced in people’s minds by combination of a very naïve interpretation of Mc Luhan’s “the media is the message” and a very naïve interpretation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s “the language precedes every individual speech act. “ In other words I am not able to understand the message (or massage) by establishing a communication with a chicken in an augmented reality through Bluetooth. This kind of a constantly moving medium in technology is just a fraud. The exploration of a programmable visual language is qualitative and based on discourse and not on branding and gadgets. In that context we don’t have to be technophiles and because the new media justify the “newness” of the media we say that we use just media.

If we approve the post-media era as Marcel Broodthaers dictated is because we see a similarity on the different media and not because media disappeared in their “newness”.

In this context of permanent news and permanent media we have to mention, finally, what we wanted to say about the Balkans under the scope of media radio, TV and cinema. The Balkans is an interesting and at the same time dramatic field of exploration of the stereotypes reproduced by the media. This field not only dictates with which ways populations deal with their existence and of course with their neighbours (the un-exotic other) but also forms the understanding of their position in the shaping of the global map. That’s all. This was our motivation and the main subject we wanted to address in our project.

Homo Ludens

I will start quoting Johan Huizinga “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them playing…” We don’t have to go towards this structuralist approach but it is for sure that Play apart from any biological approach is embodied in society from the beginning. As Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois supported on their studies on Homo Ludens and the definition of play respectively we can see play in kids and savages. Rituals, Liturgy , Spectacle, Metaphors, any kind of imaginary constructions or myths, and at an extreme end even the creation of language is a form of play. Of course we can get to the trap to read play as a form of abstraction that defines the whole world, as the capital for C. Marx and G. Deleuze, or simulation for J.Baudrillard and information for McKenzie Wark, love for the Pope and so on. In the metaphor that Ferdinand de Sausur created between chess pieces and language he described that the value of the chess pieces is related to their position on the board “…just as in the language each term has its value through its contrast with all other terms ([1916] 2000, 88) therefore, the meaning of a chess piece stems from its relation to other pieces in the game, and is independent of its shape or makeup.” with exactly the same way play is related to other ‘games’. My point here is that play and Homo Ludens doesn’t define the whole world but is more than just a search for fun. Play is involved in more things in our lives that we usually believe. An action that is simultaneously ‘pointless and significant.’ Homo Ludens doesn’t reveal what happened in Balkans, but it makes us to reread what an imaginary construction like Balkans means and at the same time reveals that the author of the rules of the game is the narrator of the story.


Let’s take a minute to thing about what Sid Meier said. Sid Meier is one of the most successful game developers of strategy video games and he is one of the key figures of the Californian Video game industry. In the context of the creation of video games he examines what options ‘choices’ a developer has to give to the user. He summarizes the rules of user’s choice in virtual environments in three points 1. No single option should be the best. 2. The option should not be equally good 3. The player must be able to make an informed choice.

We could observe here the similarity between the games and the creation TV news. And at the same time to reposition the question of the author as, I said before, behind the obvious narration. At this point we could raise the question is there any author behind hypertext, hyper narrative, mass media, essays, articles and any kind of let’s say “dialectic”, interactive or active media?

Does the Homo Ludens, the one who belong to the audience, has any kind of choice? In Hypertext, internet most of the times we read a specific kind of information and then we see an interesting keyword and we jump to another page most probably after we finish what we want. There is not any “Body without organs” who jumps from topic to topic without realising what he reads or what he sees. My favourite button is called back. In other words we have an already determined position on linear stories and consequently to read authors. Another common case is the nested narratives like two different endings in a DVD, or a hypertext novel with multiple stories nested in one where obviously the author is present and dominant. The same goes in the video games dilemmas that most of the times you have a lot of parametric choices. Of course there is author again and if s/he is not a writer with the traditional sense s/he is the author of the rules. We cannot fall in the trap of the technophiles who believe that we experience the era of the democratic medium. As in a book you can visualize the surroundings or the expressions the heroes do, with the same democratic way you can choose what to think in between two scenes in film, or few different choices in a video game. The common misconception is that the algorithmic parameters such as creating your character in a video game with thousand of options such us colour, hair etc is a form that works against the author. No, again, the fact is that you have to create a character for a video game inside a world created by authors. It is a “more democratic” medium which expands the role of the author from creating the narration to create the narration and the rules. The rules themselves are narrative. The phrase ‘more democratic medium’ is what we have to keep in mind. A ‘more democratic medium’ that didn’t change the long Aristotelian tradition as the new media mythology suggests.

1Judith Butler, 2004. Precarious Life (the powers of mourning and violence), New York, Verso.
2 Giorgio Agamben, 1998. Homo Sacer (Sovereign Power and Bare Life), Stanford University Press, 1
3 Michel Foucault (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatari) (preface by, 1970. Ant Oedipus,
5 Vesna Goldsworthy edited by Dusan I.Bjelic and Obrad Savic, 2002, Balkan as metaphor. The MIT press Cambridge and Massachusetts, p.32
6 Maria Todorova, 1997. Imagining the Balkans. (New York and Oxford) Oxford University Press, p 156
7 Maria Todorova, 1997. Imagining the Balkans. (New York and Oxford) Oxford University Press, p 180
8 Colin Dan interviewed by Geert Lovink. Uncanny Networks, , 2002, The MIT Press p.328
9 Lev Manovich interviewed by Geert Lovink. Uncanny Networks, 2002, The MIT Press p.87
11 Boris Groys interviewed by Geert Lovink. Uncanny Networks, 2002, The MIT Press, p.258
12 Peter Lunenfeld interviewed by Geert Lovink. Uncanny Networks, 2002, The MIT Press, p.236
13 Boris Groys interviewed by Geert Lovink. Uncanny Networks, 2002, The MIT Press ,p.258
14 Mark.B.N.Hansen, New philosophy for new media, 2004, The MIT press, p.31
15 Ibid, P24
16 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, Beacon Press (1971) (1938 Dutch) p.1
17 Ibid. p.2
18 Johan Huizinga, edited by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.The Game Design Reader ( A Rules of Play Anthology. 2006, The MIT press, p.112
19 Jasper Juul, Half real. MIT press, 2005 P.8
20 Johan Huizinga, edited by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. The Game Design Reader ( A Rules of Play Anthology. 2006, The MIT press, p.112
21 Jasper Juul, Half real. MIT press, 2005 p.91
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