Hyper War art
MATERIAL CONSCIOUSNESS Franz Thalmair and CONT3XT.NET
Translation to English by Gerrit Jackson
According to the hype of recent years, there are no more boundaries in the second generation of the World Wide Web: the public production of knowledge, global cooperation and translocal communication are flourishing and expanding in the form of networks in all directions. The utopias of freedom, inspired by the new medium and developed from the very beginning of the World Wide Web, at last seem to bear fruit and keep the visionary promises of a global and self-conscious culture. And yet, today, almost ten years after the bursting of the dot-com bubble and after 9/11, we are faced with new boundaries: namely, the boundaries of a Web 2.0 mini-bubble1, which is sustained by commercial and political interests and has relocated to an invisible level. The boundaries of the World Wide Web have become transparent2; they are both structural and individual.
‘There is no neutral technology. Neither as form nor as use. ’3
In the early summer of 2008 Ilias Marmaras, Daphne Dragona and Gülsen Bal presented the database project Folded-In (2008) at the Open Space in Vienna. Disguised as a 3D-online-multi-user-game, Folded-In is described as Hyper War Art by its initiators, the Greek artist groups Personal Cinema and The Erasers. The layout for the game, which is freely accessible on the internet, draws in multiple ways on the rich repertoire of the video platform YouTube. On a formal level, the mechanisms and characteristics of this prototypical Web 2.0-application are translated into the design of Folded-In in order to use them as points of departure for a reflection on the game’s own structures. The thematic point of reference for this form of détournement, or misappropriation4, is the explosive subject of war. If you rely in your definition of Web 2.0 – somewhat naively – on the relevant German entry in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, one of the biggest 2.0 platforms itself, you are told: ‘Today, contents are no longer just generated by big media corporations in a centralised manner but also by a multitude of individuals who use social software to create additional network links among each other.’ Similarly, but by no means more critically and also without consideration of the commercial interests of many operating companies, Web 2.0 is described in Wikipedia’s English counterpart as a ‘living term’ that expresses itself primarily in the changed use of web technologies and seeks to ‘enhance creativity, information sharing and collaboration’. Both definitions are similar in that they do not understand the web age under the label of 2.0 so much in terms of specific technologies but rather focus on the interaction and the networks between users. It seems, then, that we are first and foremost faced with the global cooperation between people in immaterial relations of production5, the creativity of which is mainly driven by technologies – of whichever kind.
This is exactly where the concept of Folded-In enters the discussion: on the one hand, Personal Cinema and The Erasers address the lack of critical engagement with the contents spread on the internet and the similarly lacking will to broach the subject of war. On the other hand, the project questions the aims of the possibilities that are only allegedly used for subjective and opinion-making participation in a bigger whole. To put it bluntly, the Web 2.0 networks may be described as art for the sake of art: they are about a sense of community which, in turn, creates even more community feeling and extends the search for the building blocks of the personal but publicised networks; in the end, they lead to a fake democratisation of infrastructures and contents. If you understand the notion of cooperation as the teamwork of clearly identifiable individuals, Web 2.0 universes are better seen as forms of collaboration, that is, more or less formalistic circuits of action and reaction that produce singularities and discontinuity. In this context, Florian Schneider explains the difference between these two forms of human interaction in the dictionary of war6: ‘They [the collaborations] rather happen.
They are about performative and transformative processes that are not interested in their contents, their respective constituent parts and possible results (...) They are about the sudden need to transcend the familiar boundaries of one’s own experiences, skills and intellectual resources, in order to enter nameless and alien territories in which abilities, which so far have been understood as individual, connect in a wondrous manner with those of others.’7 The aim of Folded-In is to adopt the ways in which Web 2.0 functions, in order to reallocate them in a reverse process to their own objectives – namely, critical reflection and opinion-making. In a conversation by email, the artists argued in favour of this type of self-reflection as it has been practiced by internet-based art since the emergence of the medium in the following manner: ‘For the moment, the reflection on the mechanisms is partly necessary to provide the audience with a kind of “material awareness” with respect to the hidden infrastructures that compose the plateau of media arts and consequently of social life itself’.
‘The utopia of freedom never finds its complete fulfilment.’8
Like conventional online games, Folded-In offers the initial possibility to choose between different 3D environments and between various forms of transport in the form of digitally modelled origami aeroplanes. Once users have entered the game and thus the space that Personal Cinema and The Erasers have predefined by a set of rules, they are not only in a shooter game but, most importantly, in a discursive situation, in which the structures of YouTube have been turned into elements of the game and – expanded by the subject of war – are accessible in a three-dimensional format. Countless templates, designs and gadgets offer contemporary media consumers a remarkable range of highly differentiated possibilities for action in the World Wide Web. Increasingly difficult programming languages and the structurally imposed inability to operate at the lowest level of source codes, however, restrict these alleged freedoms.
Admittedly, one may assume that most users do not feel the need to operate at the level of software. And yet, precisely for that reason these restrictions mean that artists who now work with new media and technologies have to be aware of the fact that, in the World Wide Web, they are inhabiting a space ‘in which corporate, governmental and big-media interests are moving to annexe newly discovered tracts of independent territory.’9 Thus, Folded-In not only criticises that users do not want to engage with the subject of war. The game also criticises the fact that it is hard to find independent spaces in the thoroughly commercialised virtual space of Web 2.0 applications. This position is supported by the assumption that these applications ‘are not just products but also services, watched and updated according to the constant dictates of their makers and those who can pressure them’10. On a formal level, players thus use the numerous functions offered by the so-called social web for the purpose of orientation: comments, the definition of keywords and word clusters, and the interaction with other users are only some of the features the role of which is just as important in this context as the construction of a loose narrative through the introduction of categories such as politics, gender, religion and culture.
The course of the game Folded-In depends on the use of keywords; a shot at these so-called tags opens a link to a group of thematically related videos, and the confrontation with moving images from crisis zones such as the Greco- Turkish border begins. Balkans, human rights and defense are some of these navigation nodes. Once they have been viewed, the videos also have to be rated, so that the user can continue to indulge in the information flow and does not leave it uncommented.
‘Expression and content, both are more or less de-territorialised; they are relatively de-territorialised, depending on the state of their form.’11 The basic question that Folded-In explores is about the ways in which meaning is produced in Web 2.0: who produces and reproduces which contents; in which context do these contents circulate; and, in particular, who are they produced for? YouTube is not the only structure in this context in which the widely propagated freedoms of user-generated contents are not, or only superficially, used. Such platforms function according to the same principles as conventional media, which draw their contents from official or institutional information machineries: clichés that serve the interests and values of nation-states move around YouTube just as unquestioned as religious, sexist, and other stereotypes do in public and commercial media.
To counter this tendency, Folded-In pulls the war videos out of context: out of the YouTube media context, on the one hand; and out of the context of war, on the other. Through its transfer into the harmless environment of the game, the propagated information is written into a new story line that can be personally experienced and shared with the public (that is, the fellow gamers). At the same time, an effort is made to create an awareness of the medium that is being used, the World Wide Web. The overlaying of the superficial design of the game and its functions with the content of war manifests itself in the seemingly endless regeneration of form and content. This results in a mechanism that, to some degree, can be described as game-immanent: ‘It is the interruption of the automatic sign action, of the placement and signaletic conditionings of signs in articulation and implementation, that define the open space of the game as well as its functions of fictionalization and movement to a meta-theoretically useful “as if”’12.
The designers of the project describe this semiotic process and the related objectives as a phenomenon that is generally intrinsic to the field of new media: ‘In Folded-In, content is generated by the users/consumers and by some artists. What is reflected inside the game are those elements that constitute the mechanisms of control and profit “with a human face” which is pre-established by YouTube. However, what is at stake for some part of the media arts nowadays is a process of a language formation that will allow artists in the future to articulate more demanding and even more – aesthetically – differentiated art works.’
‘Translation is a mode.’13
At the presentation of Folded-In in the Open Space – Centre for Art Projects exhibition area, the artists decided to do a screening. The original interactivity and playfulness were admittedly lost; yet they were replaced by videos and a collage that filled almost the entire room and consisted of components of current game culture. As regards the question of whether you can exhibit internet-based works, the artists claim: ‘It is true that media arts lack a specific environment of physical exposure but this is not necessarily bad. As we said before the creation of the language of media arts is happening now and as in poetry one first needs the language in order to write the poem.’ At Open Space, ‘there aren’t any long debates about whether art has to be political14,’ the media said about the newly established discursive space.
The treatment of media art could be described in a similar manner: you do not discuss at great length if this project is art and, even more generally, how significant the new media are in the art business. Folded-In simply continues the stringent and internationally rooted concept of space in the ‘reality of Web 2.0’ and thus in the field of new media. If you understand curating as ‘an adaptive discipline using and adopting inherited codes and rules of behaviour’15, it becomes clear that internet-based forms of art also have to be part of these reflections on social structures and the related political situation. The penetration of daily life by the new medium of the internet already calls us ‘to take the new media art out of the beta- phase in which it got stuck. (...) Frequently, it is only about putting the final touches to the narrative and its meaning (even if the contents themselves are technological). The balance between form and content requires radical clarity.’16 Through the presentation of Folded-In at Open Space, on the one hand, the project itself moves closer towards its ‘semi-utopian’ aim of enhancing the players‘ awareness of the relationship between form and content. On the other hand, however, the art space also accepts the task of bringing different fields of creative practice together, and of adding the finishing touches to form and content.
1. In his discussion of internet culture, Geert Lovink distinguishes between three phases of development: ‘firstly, the scientific, pre-commercial, text-based period prior to the World Wide Web; secondly, the euphoric, speculative period in which the internet became accessible to the broad public and which reached its peak in the dot-com mania of the late 1990s; thirdly, the post-dot-com crash/ post-9/11 period ended by the Web 2.0 mini-bubble [Lovink, Geert (2008) Zero Comments. Elemente einer kritischen Internetkultur. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, p.10]
2. In computer science, the term transparency means the opposite of what is commonly understood by it. Inke Arns explains this as follows: ‘The fact that the world around us is increasingly programmed means that rules, conventions and relationships that are generally changeable and negotiable are translated into and codified in software. (...) The secret act of making the world disappear through software does not only lead to a withdrawal from visibility and perceptibility but also implies an immaterialisation of structures. (...) Software thus proves to be very hard material, and immateriality a near-factual materiality which, however, escapes our (visual, tactile) perceptions.’ [Arns, Inke (2008) ‘Die Windungen der Schlange. Minoritäre Taktiken im Zeitalter der Transparenz’ [The Twists of the Snake. Minority Tactics in the Age of Transparency], in Jens Kastner and Bettina Spörr (Eds.) Nicht alles tun. Ziviler und Sozialer Ungehorsam an den Schnittstellen von Kunst, radikaler Politik und Technologie [Not Doing Everything. Civil and social disobedience at the interfaces of art, radical politics and technology]. Münster: Unrast-Verlag, pp.117-131 (p.120)]
3. In an email conversation, held in October 2008, Ilias Marmaras, Daphne Dragona and Gülsen Bal explained the following: ‘There is no neutral technology. Neither as form nor as use. It is well known that technology arises at the battlefield. Nevertheless, that doesn’t necessarily mean that its use is absolutely defined as a war instrument. People have always had the possibility to divert the use of technology and turn it into more productive and creative means.’
4. For Folded-In, the methodology of détournement – misappropriation as a reverse process – can be placed in the context of the Situationist International: ‘Misappropriation – that is, the re-use of already existing artistic elements in a new ensemble – is a universal tendency of today’s avant-garde, both before and since the establishment of the S.I. [Situationist International; author’s note). The two fundamental laws of détournement are the loss of importance of each misappropriated autonomous element — which may go so far as to completely lose its original sense — and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect.’ [Debord, Guy (2003) ‘Texte zur Situationistischen Internationale 1957-1961’, in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Eds.) Kunsttheorie im 20. Jahrhundert. Künstlerschriften, Kunstkritik, Kunstphilosophie, Manifeste, Statements, Interviews. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, pp.845-853 (p.849)]
5. Geoff Cox and Joasia Krysa summarise the thematic complex of ‘immaterial relations of productions’ in the following manner: ‘The increasingly immaterial form of social relations, communications networks and information systems has also been extended to the new type of production of ‘immaterial goods’ and – to use Maurizio Lazzarato’s terms – cast as ‘immaterial labour’. This can partly be recognised in relation to the computer, in the way it has redefined labour as well as the social relations that sustain Capital.’ [Cox, Geoff and Krysa, Joasia (Eds.) (2005) Engineering Culture: On ‘The Author as (Digital) Producer’. Brooklyn/New York: Autonomedia, pp.7-29 (p.10)]
6. The Dictionary of War is a collaborative platform for the generation of terms on the subject of war. The two-day events aim to introduce a range of terms that play an important role in the contemporary discourse on the subject of war, have been neglected or still need to be established. [http:// woerterbuchdeskrieges.de, 27.09.2008]
7. Schneider, Florian (2008) ‘Kollaborationen’, in Multitude e.V. / Unfriendly Takeover (Ed.) Wörterbuch des Krieges / Dictionary of War. Berlin: Merve Verlag, pp.170-175 (p.172).
8. Kozlowski, Jaroslaw (2005) ‘Art between the Red and the Golden Frames’, in Liam Gillick and Maria Lind (Eds.) Curating with Light Luggage. Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, pp.40-49 (p.49).
9. Redundant Technology Initiative (2005) ‘The Process in the Product’, in Geoff Cox and Joasia Krysa (Eds.) Engineering Culture: On ‘The Author as (Digital) Producer’. Brookly/New York: Autonomedia, pp.127-133 (p.127f.).
10. Zittrain, Jonathan L. (2008) The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It. Yale: Yale University Press, accessible at: http://yupnet.org/zittrain/archives/6, 27/09/2008
11. Deleuze, Gilles / Guattari, Félix (1992) Tausend Plateaus: Kapitalismus und Schizophrenie. Berlin: Merve Verlag, p.123.
12. Reck, Hans Ulrich (2005) ‘Terrain und Entwurf – Zur Bedeutung von Theorien über “Spiel” für Ästhetik und Bildende Kunst’ [Terrain and Design – On the meaning of theories of “play” for aesthetics and fine arts], Kunstforum International, Vol. 176. Ruppiuchteroth, p. 76.
13. Benjamin, Walter (2004) ‘The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens’, in Lawrence Venuti (ed.) The Translation Studies Reader, Second Edition. New York / London: Routledge, pp.75-85 (p.76).
14. Benzer, Christa (2008): Kunst und Konflikt [Art and Conflict], DER STANDARD, 11 September 2008.
15. O’Neill, Paul / Fletcher, Annie (2007) ‘Introduction. Paul O’Neill interviewed by Annie Fletcher’, in Paul O’Neill (ed.) Curating Subjects. Amsterdam: De Appel, Centre for Contemporary Art, pp.11-19 (p.13).
16. Lovink, Geert (2008): Zero Comments. Elemente einer kritischen Internetkultur. [Elements of a critical internet culture]. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, p.11.