Thursday, July 10, 2008

Information Network Systems Q&A

INFORMATION NETWORK SYSTEMS
Linda L. Lambertson: Q & A with Communications Artist Mark Bloch



Linda L. Lambertson, the Education Coordinator and an Associate Curator at the Maine College of Art’s Institute of Contemporary Art has created a show “SEND: Conversations in Evolving Media” lasting June 11 to August 10 which had an Opening Reception on June 20th from 5-8 pm. The show features Artists Meggan Gould, Alex Kahn, Jason Lewis, Young-Hae Chang, Heavy Industries and my late friend Carlo Pittore, whose art about his mentor Bern Porter was featured. Lambertson posed these questions to me and they helped me clarify my opinions on Communications Art prior to an event she has coordinated tonight in conjunction with the show.

Linda L. Lambertson: How do you approach/use correspondence and information network systems as part of your practice?

Mark Bloch: I see myself as a node, or temporary endpoint in a network web. I receive and send information. For the info I send on from elsewhere, I am a conduit. This is a very important part of mail art. I used to be afraid to send the information on but i didn't realize that in an information system, unlike a normal commodity system, if I have information and I give you information you have more and I don't have less. We mustn't fear sharing information. It will make us all rich. Malthus said there wasn't enough to go around when it came to goods in the world. I am not sure if he was right but it caused a panic, for countries to hoard what they had, it led to a lot of the fear and suspicion and greed that we see today in economic systems. Surely this is NOT true of information.

I created the term Storàge to encompass what gets stuck at my node. Artists love storage. We store our art as if it was something noble but there is nothing noble about it. We must let our art flow out into the world. We must send it out like our children to take a fantastic journey.

One of the new models for the Internet is giving stuff away for free and then becoming famous as a result and eventually charging for something else or for advertising etc. To trust that by creating something good and sending it out, it will come back to us. Mail artists have been doing that for years.

I want to hear what others are doing. I use the networks to take the information I have and send it out into the world and let people know what I am doing and hear about them.

LL: Evolution of the form, from basic print media, to Dada, Fluxus, to mail art, to internet: Has it really changed?

MB: The Italian Fututusts, like Fluxus, used the mail to stay in touch… to complete mundane tasks by communicating by mail. The Dadaists did less utilitarian mail art that, like all their art, didn't necessarily make sense. That used to shock but now art that doesn't make sense is not shocking. Our society has embraced Dada. Television and rock and roll music are full of non-sequitors. The Internet is a combination of both. Some internet art is practical, some is just wacky. Dada invented the wacky art to confront a wacky society. Now our society is so used to being wacky that it accepts even the wacky art as normal, the same way it accepts its own wacky behavior, it accepts wacky artist contributions as un-remarkable. It could be tolerance but it is probably something more akin to numbness.

Also important to form is money. Money was involved with mail via stamps. Each piece was taxed. With the Internet we pay to join the network and then get unlimited use. This relatively inexpensive aspect of the Internet has yet to be explored fully.

LL: The nature of correspondence art: action vs. object… Are these documents of a moment that was art? And anonymity and personalization- how do these key factors alter a conversation’s potential?

MB: Action versus object and personalization? Speaking of the relatively inexpensive aspect of the Internet being yet to be explored, in the early 1990s I tried to get people to use the Internet to download art, change it and re-post it. Then others could do the same with THAT art. People did not have the resources to do so then. Or the know-how. Today they do. I should try that again. I wanted to focus on the process, using gif and jpg files as objects to be downloaded then sent into the 0's and 1's of the Internet. Dissolving them as objects, if they ever existed it all, and transforming them into pure process. But people didn’t know how to scan their art objects or create digital art from scratch. I have had Photoshop and other art making computer programs since the mid 80s. I guess other people have that ability now. Somehow they are able to create images and upload them with greater ease. I hope this keeps spreading.

As for anonymity, if I was a dog, a dictator, an unpopular president, a rock star, how would my words be different if they were anonymous? If Paul Mc Cartney is on Facebook and nobody knows, how does it affect his communications? I watched a movie the other day: "Elvis Meets Nixon." In it, Elvis walked around the Haight Ashbury and nobody cared. He looked like everybody else-- dressed weird in a cape and people just said, "Hi, man." They didn't know he was Elvis. On the other hand, George Harrison was the only Beatle to do the same—-walk around the Haight in the 60s. He was mobbed by the crowd. It got bigger and bigger as he walked. He was getting scared. He went without a team, just him and another guy. Eventually he had to beat it out of there. So there is anonymity and there is anonymity. Anonymity allows freedom. For people who are not as public as they would like to be, anonymity is a bad thing. Something to be overcome. Anonymity equals invisibility. I invented Storàge to mock my own tendencies in this direction.

LL: Public and private simultaneity: how do you see the relationship of “cultural consciousness” and individual perception, as it relates to network and correspondence art? Public art “movements” have occurred cyclically throughout the last century. How does this relate to cultural climates?

MB: Public vs. private communications. When a person says “Hi Mom” on TV they are breaking the law. Broadcast TV is made to reach everyone. It casts out a blanket of communication that everyone is supposed to be able to receive equally. Technically, “Hi Mom” is point to point communications on Broadcast TV and is therefore illegal.

I’ve written about “Proud Mary” which is the societal machine that chews up art movements and eats them. It shits out the results and the public consumes that. It used to be more automatic. Today there is a more varied array of fecal matter being produced by the Proud Mary machine. In fact. some of it is not getting eaten at all, it is just moving from producer to the consumer without Mary sucking out the nutrients. This is a much more healthy process. There is a more splintered approach to mass media these days and it is getting more extreme. It is possible for fringe movements to dominate consciousness and completely avoid what is going on in the big networks, by the major publishers, the big record labels etc. In fact those giants have become irrelevant. That kind of behemoth-dominated culture no longer flies.

The current cultural climate has no major dominant molder of attitudes. What molds it is the increasingly-splintered media and the multi-faceted approach to culture; it doesn't matter what people consume, just that everyone consumes OR DON'T CONSUME what they want and it needn't match everyone else or even anyone else. People can mix and match according to their individual needs and likes.

I’ve thought about the cyclical movements of the 20th century a lot and how they build on each other, resulting in either a real or imagined “arc” of “progress” moving in a direction. I have my opinions about where it is leading, if anywhere. Lately I tend to think it is leading toward the splintering of culture and toward cultural Balkanization. But this flies right in the face of an opposite international “racially” motivated trend toward actual Balkanization-- At a time where the history of the world can be seen as constantly moving away from that, away from race, away from the differences between people. The current political trend toward nationalism and Balkanization seems to me like a last ditch effort to preserve some really old human stuff that I have never really understood and that I think we will eventually outgrow but not without some serious growing pains. I am more inclined to encourage cross-cultural blending. If we all started out as separate tribes, we are naturally all growing together into one big tribe-- and we always have been. So if we can overcome this caveman mentality, the future will embody both trends at once--a world with people being organized by their interests and likes rather than by their race or ethnicity.

LL: Navigation of systems: How can this be used or seen as a radical act? How do the system and the navigation process determine formal structure? Systems contextualize...

MB: Remember what I said before. It is radical simply BECAUSE it moves people from the behemoth-based media to something more personal and individually designed. Also, when the big electronics companies offered us hardware to help us violate copyright laws, VCR's, computers, tape machines, they gave us a license to steal and SURPRISE--we did it. It is radical to mash up and make acid jazz and recombine other people's copyrighted materials but only in a society that holds "all rights reserved" as an outmoded symbol of ownership.

And the media determine the way we navigate so with a TV we navigate with the remote. With the internet we navigate with the mouse. The click. In the future all the media will grow together. I have a hard time believing the Kindle that Amazon is developing will be the way we read books in the future if it is not in the same box as an i-phone or a mini-lap-top.

Did you know that when the people at Xerox PARC developed the mouse they got the idea by watching very young babies choose what they wanted? They point and reach for what they want. That realization lead to the mouse. Eventually everything will be within reach and we won’t even require a mouse as a tool to navigate. We will be our own interface.

LL: How are the works in SEND an examination of context? How do you consider the factor of shifting context in your own practice?

MB: It is interesting that correspondence art is lumped in with this other art in SEND. I haven't seen SEND so I don't know. But I do know that mailart used a network system to create a network mentality that existed for 40 years before the Internet made it possible. Zine culture and cassette culture got on board in the 80s because it was a system that worked and had its own paths and practices already carved out. When the Internet came along, it ended up using some of the same grooves whether they evolved naturally and independently or as a result of overlap and influence. Communications systems tend to resemble each other. In fact I would say they grow to resemble each other as they evolve.

LL: Information saturation: Sound bytes, icons, texting, Google-- Is less more? With so much information available, there is an inherent conflict between immediate gratification and surface information vs. depth and qualitative research. What do you see as potential widespread problems in communication networks? What do you see as the idealistic potential?

MB: There is clearly too much information in the world. The Fluxus artist Robert Filliou addressed this with his concept of "The Eternal Network." Mail artists love to confuse their mail art network with his Eternal Network and they do go together well, but I believe that they are two separate things. Filliou was onto something larger. He knew there was way too much info for any one person to know or use so he proposed the Eternal Network as a way for us to combine forces to digest this giant growing glut of information, facts, figures, images. It is even more true today with us drowning in our sea of endless files than it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he was talking about it. But to limit information creation is unnatural and counter-productive. Any given piece of information must be seen as available but not essential. The old school behemoth culture is more about gobbling up whatever you can and that mentality lingers in today’s society and it is not necessary. If you go to an all-you-can-eat buffet every once in a while, you are free to boogie 'til you puke. But if you LIVE in an all-you-can-eat buffet, you can eat sensibly, nibbling as needed. I have a Greek-American friend who constantly puts out little bowls of food as we sit around talking. She tells me this is a Greek tradition dating back to when people picked figs and olives off of trees as they talked: No need to engage in a big gorge-fest when nibbling is more pleasant and does the trick.

LL: Language as art object: Politics and rhetoric- Audiovisual properties for emphasis/audience manipulation are used in very sophisticated ways for commercial, political, and artistic purposes becoming? How is this changing the ways artists create visual messages?

MB: The TV commercial is the most sophisticated art form ever invented. It uses all the art forms that movies use, plus a big extra: mind control. Steven Spielberg has worked this into his movies when he controls our emotions. His movies are programmed to make us cry here and laugh there. I suppose they all do, but some are better than this than others. TV commercials do that as their number one behavior. They are designed to control our minds. They take ideas and symbols and transform them into actions by us. TV Networks sell US as the commodity in the forms of eyeballs to the advertisers because together they assume that a certain percentage of us will go out and do the behaviors they want us to do. 27 per cent will buy beer. 19 percent will use this soap when they need soap. They use numbers to back up their findings. It used to be vague now it is more sophisticated that ever. With the internet, advertising is even bigger because they can measure our behavior via clicks minute by minute. They know what we do because they know what we click on it. The old Nielsen ratings were a joke compared to the precision of the Internet analytics. This has all made marketing king.

Do we really need to talk about political advertising? One promising thing is that this year we will get to see if Barak Obama, by pretending not to play the game, can emasculate the Republican attack machine. Sometimes it seems to be working-- like by just deflecting every attack as NOT being about CHANGE, Obama has de-programmed the electorate. This has interesting possilitites. We need to do this sort of re-programming as much as possible. The fresher people can come to any sort of communication whether it be about art or commerce, the better off we will be. We can enjoy or at least experience things more if our responses are less predictable and more "real." What is real authenticity? Some years ago I proposed the theory of the Internal Network as a supplement to Filliou’s Eternal Network. Each person must consult their inner network of voices, archetypes and parts of the whole person and come up with their own integrated sense of authenticity.

LL: How sophisticated are audiences? Mark of the hand/mark of the machine- both are human, but not always perceived as such. What are your views and feelings about both?

MB: The machine is part of us. If people do mail art just for the sense of smell and the tactile nature of a postcard or other art object, they are really fetishizing something of the past. The machine is everywhere. Itr mediates our experiences and has since the age of mechanical reproduction that Benjamin spoke about. Smell and the tactile are important potential elements in a communication just as the speed of delivery is. We prefer Fed Ex over the mail because of speed and we prefer the Internet over Fed Ex because it is faster still. But the Internet cannot deliver a box. Yet. They can compress information. How long until we get those units on “Star Trek” that create food that magically pops out of a wall? In the past it probably would have been difficult to conceive of money coming out of a slot in the wall like the ATM machine. Yet we all do it today. I remember at one point--quite a long time ago, actually-- I knew who was old and who was young because the young people had never set foot in a bank and I had. Now no one needs to set foot in a bank yet there is one on every corner. But that is because they are symbols of the dying money culture. The banks have created the branch office as a giant billboard for the fact that they still control your cash and have no intention of relinquishing. What event will have to take place before them taking a cut of every transaction is recognized for what it is? Or is it necessary because they are the ones that build and maintain the ATMs?

And by the way, if they can track every penny of every transaction via PIN numbers and ATM cards, how come we still don’t have a voting machine that everyone can use? Believe me, if counting votes was as important as counting money, they wouldn't miss a single ballot.

Some day people will have sex with robots. Will human interaction be necessary? It is more cumbersome to deal with actual people. They talk back. They don't just agree and obey. But it is more rewarding. The intimacy possible with people is not possible with machines and hopefully intimacy will not disappear although already it is out of fashion.

LL: Bern Porter said, “The bomb splintered language, turned the tower of Babel into a shadow.”

Are you sure he said it? Maybe he just found it imprinted on a discarded car muffler.

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