Reconsidering Networks


Reconsidering Networks

Former artistic director Kristoffer Gansing reflects on the 2020 edition of transmediale in times of social distancing and cultural shutdown.


“As long as the course of time was understood cyclically, it was considered to be unavoidable that the starting point would always be reached anew and that the same path would have to be traversed all over again. The concept of the ‘end’ was impossible. When it showed up in the Stoics’ ekpyrotic theory of the universe, ‘end’ was synonymous with ‘beginning.’”

—Günther Anders, “Apocalypse without Kingdom,” 1959. 1

In 1967, Robert Filliou and George Brecht published a poem in which they stated that “the network is everlasting.” This was a piece of pre-Internet culture, celebrating the interconnectedness of everyday lives and activities across an emerging global world, with specific relation to the authors’ practice of Mail Art, using the postal system as a democratic means of communicational art-making. Filliou further developed a poetic imaginary of “the eternal network,” referring both to an existing network of post-avant garde artist friends, and to “the network” as an overarching metaphor for the organization of work and culture within this emerging world. For its 2020 edition, titled End to End, transmediale took up the notion of The Eternal Network in the framework of an eponymous exhibition and publication, the latter adding the subtitle The Ends and Becomings of Network Culture. In this issue of the transmediale journal, we publish a selection of articles from this book that features artists, activists, and theorists who engage with the question of the network anew. The project on a whole was meant as a strategic reactivation of Filliou’s notion of “the eternal network,” as an idea(l) of network culture beyond the technical reality of the one we know from our day-to-day online experience.

At the time this editorial is being added as a form of afterthought to the festival exhibition and publication, we find ourselves in a period of “social distancing” and I can’t help but to critically reflect on the meaning of a festival that aimed to explore the limits or even the end of networks as a cultural imaginary and dominant form of techno-social organization. This assumption now begs to be reevaluated. One reviewer also doubted the claim of the curatorial text for the exhibition and its statement that “in times of environmental and political turmoil, networks have lost their mass appeal.” Contrary to that tagline, networks seem to be the lifeline of existence now that work, education, and in many cases even care is relegated to the home. However, it is important to note that the festival theme was not intended to say that network society or the Internet is in any way over, but rather that global flows and the Internet have moved from being objects of desire and projection to being infrastructural and self-evident. We all depend on networks now, and I doubt that the majority of people are euphorically looking forward to the next online work meeting, theater production, or the prospect of binge-watching another Netflix series. In such a situation of everyday networks it is important to also highlight other forms of digital culture. This is what transmediale 2020 set out to do, from both a historical and a forward-looking perspective: working with the limitations of the current network culture in order to build progressive alternatives. These alternatives can do something better than the status quo, in which the digital has been reduced to a mere replacement of analogue forms of culture, unfortunately also bringing back a dichotomy of the real and the virtual, which critical net culture theorists and practitioners have long fought to abolish.

That said, the pandemic crisis has quickly swept away the public function of festivals such as transmediale, with its intense physical networking. Indeed, under current circumstances, audience-driven festivals are impossible outside the online realm, and for me it already feels surreal to think back a few months to the luxury of those days of excessive socializing and public programming. Here, I think we need to start asking ourselves what to learn from the crisis, not only in terms of solutions through offering digital content, but also from what it might have to say about the conditions and forms of organization that we once had, and what will be desirable in the future. We should thus look back at the End to End edition of transmediale and its exhibition The Eternal Network to see what thinking and aesthetics had valuable implications, in the effort to work with and beyond the current moment of system crisis, including its measures of cultural shutdown and social distancing.

The book and exhibition each attempted to explore the limits of networks, and of “the network” —as a cultural and aesthetic imaginary, as well as a technological form—seeking forgotten and potential futures, with or without networks. Particular attention is paid to the legacies of a certain brand of critical Internet and network culture that developed in Europe and beyond throughout the nineteen-nineties, offering alternatives to the entrepreneurial ideals and solutionism of Silicon Valley. In retrospect, the exhibition The Eternal Network offered different types of work on the topic of networks, which could be loosely categorized as: a) mapping the limits of current networks with the Internet as main case (Louise Drulhe, Guo Cheng, and Solveig Suess); b) exploring alternative historical or aesthetic network trajectories (Bahar Noorizadeh, Contemporary And, Darsha Hewitt, and the works in the Revisions category, such as Piratbyrån); c) proposing new forms and modalities of networks (Aay Liparoto, Kyriaki Goni, Jelena Viskovic, Luiza Prado, The Pervasive Labour Union Zine) and finally; d) proposing alternate realities altogether (Johanna Bruckner, Keiken, Timur Si-Qin). A couple of works stand out by investigating the new networked intelligences of machine learning, namely Asunder by Tega Brain, Julian Oliver, and Bengt Sjölén, and The Man with the Personal Computer by Robert Luxemburg. Of concern in this issue is primarily the projects in categories c) and d), which were about building new networks and modalities of engagement as well as the question of cultural imaginaries beyond the network logic.

First out in the issue is Luiza Prado’s contribution “There Are Words and Worlds That Are Truthful and True” which takes us right into the despair and politics of the environmental crisis in Brazil. Recounting a research trip to her native country, she describes meeting with marginalized communities within the framework of attempting to establish what she calls “The Councils of the Pluriversal.” Instead of formal meetings with fixed protocols, these councils mutated into more fluid states of encounter between people, (failing) ecosystems, and Indigenous thinking, aesthetics, and, most importantly, local food ingredients. Such intimate, small-scale initiatives are now more relevant than ever as they move from a totalizing model of the universal network to something else: community and communications, conducted with the acknowledgement of multiple, often unequal, realities, and with them, the urgent need to decolonize knowledge cultures. A similar motivation to create trusted structures of communication, care, and knowledge exchange among peers is the focus of artist Aay Liparoto’s project, here explored in conversation with curator Lorena Juan. In “Everything We Build,” they discuss the collaborative practice of the queer-feminist wiki platform Not Found On, which Liparoto initiated in 2019. This is an attempt to create the online equivalent of a “safe space” for individuals and communities that, due to their precarious social status, do not necessarily want to be exposed on so-called open and participatory mainstream platforms. This critical topic is followed by Johanna Bruckner’s text, which takes us deeper into speculation on new forms of subjectivity within queer and hybrid human/non-human existence after environmental devastation. Bruckner’s “Molecular Sex and Polymorphic Sensibilities” is a speculative proposal for new types of interspecies organisms that could take us beyond oppressive binaries of sexuality and biology. Just as quantum computing promises a world of networks in which ones and zeroes simultaneously coexist with one another, Bruckner’s artwork describes a fictive future sexbot that is seemingly able to freely mutate from one state of being to another. In this reality, not only viruses mutate and spread across species, but species themselves behave in viral ways—a provocative prospect for a future that might be more resilient to future pandemics, not by shielding off humanity from everything else, but where being incorporates virality and toxicity in a never-ending process of “molecularization.”

The final article in this journal selection from The Eternal Network book is “Seven Theses on the Fediverse and the Becoming of FLOSS,” by Aymeric Mansoux and Roel Roscam Abbing. This is a thorough discussion of “federated networks” and is one of the most significant developments in alternative network cultures of recent years. Today’s discussion of the Fediverse echoes many aspects of everything that was on the agenda within the festival and its publication, including questions of selective online presence, care, and precarious communities, platform independent and co-developed platform infrastructures, and environmental sustainability. Mansoux and Abbing’s piece reminds us of the contradictions within network culture, often pertaining to the inherent neoliberal nature of digital networks. In this context, the Corona crisis might also be a chance to push things into new directions. In a recent post to the email list Nettime, the Austrian net theorist and sociologist Felix Stalder argues that the Corona crisis exposes the existence of systemic levels of power that neoliberal agendas have long tried to hide or divert attention away from. This exposure might lend more power to critical analysis such as that put forward by Ulises Ali Mejias at the transmediale 2020 conference. He delivered a strong statement on digital network colonialism, drawing parallels between the current model of exploiting user data and the rigid, inflexible contracts that Spanish settlers drew up for Indigenous populations. Here, there was an unspoken opt-in only logic that you would have to sign the contract or face extermination. While stating that the level of violence and historical developments are not completely comparable (so as not to belittle victims of colonialism), Mejias’s metaphor is still powerful, also concerning new forms of violence—especially if we think about the dialectics of enabling and disabling that make up the current digital culture. It is obvious now, in the pandemic crisis, that digitalization and the Internet give us essential tools for social life and societal organization on all levels. It is also easy to forget how these come at a price, which is not only about surveillance and data exploitation, but also about systems and infrastructure: we need them to stay afloat in the outsourced logic of the network society—financially, socially, and also culturally.

That the main model of networks comes from corporate and centralizing networks, which take away control not only from users but also from the state, institutions as well as self-organized communities should now be an even greater cause for alarm in a culture that urgently needs more solidarity and co-facilitation of resources rather than the dead-end choice between right-wing nationalism and neoliberal models of self-optimization, both resulting in aggressive group mentality. The transmediale 2020 boldly claimed to speculate on possible futures with or even without such network logics, asking if we are already seeing the limits of network logic altogether. The pandemic crisis now seems to expose those limits in new ways, and the conflicts that will play out can be seen as a chance to confront how society is currently managed through financially motivated cybernetics. A case in point is the neoliberal model of healthcare, which has become a form of socio-economic management that we should no longer be condemned to rescue at the price of democracy and, painfully, life itself. In an open-ended exploration of new, forgotten, and alternative network building, The Eternal Network exhibition and publication proposed queering and decolonizing networks, catering to different scales of organization and sociopolitical urgencies; even that of exiting networks and the overall rejuvenation of localized DIY practices. Such practices of course exist in a longer continuity, but solidarity with them is now needed more than ever and thereby, what seems to be a time of ending might, as the Günther Anders’s opening quote points to, also be a time of renewal.



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