Connective Tools - Lectures: report

Report by Nadia Palliser about the Connective Tools lectures

Electronic networks connect more and more workplaces, meeting rooms, concert halls and all sorts of machinery. In this way they form a new social and cultural territory in which acting and co-operating are no longer tied to a specific place. 


"Connective Tools" are instruments for communication and creative exchange, which are based on net network technologies. They bring about new possibilities for co-operation and thus also new forms of artistic work. During this evening a number of such "Connective Tools" will be presented. Their cultural and aesthetic possibilities will be elucidated and we discuss how these possibilities can be used by artists who want to go beyond pure functionality. 
Connective tools may bring innovation as instruments for communication and creative exchange, but how can their cultural and aesthetic possibilities find expression and definition in artistic practice? Are "connective tools", based on network technologies, part of this new nomad territory, which implies different social, cultural and economic relations? In this changing field where public and private spaces are redefined, interfaces have an important role to play. Instead of focusing on the purely technical instruments, different interfaces, especially cultural ones, will help define these new spaces of networked activities. 


How do we re-organize our context so that the complexities on the edge and in-between work together and create variety through connective tools? John Thackara posed the question as a self reflection of his work as somebody working with designers. Design can become extremely linear, working with frozen products towards a future situation. It has a beginning, a middel and an end, whereby one is designing "for", not designing "with". According to Thackara, design doesn't necessarily have to be finished, a metaphor should be brought into design, creating different contexts which are not only directed towards the result. Real-time and real-world design could then form a motto for a new approach of networked design. Citing Bruce Sterling, connecting this design interface with technology, Thackara emphasized the urgency of technological intelligence, which is speeding up dramatically at present and should not be underestimated: "soon when you go into the garden, the garden will look at you." 


Thackara presented a project called "Presence", in which interfaces were sought through technological intelligence and cultural innovation. Researching the adaptibility, responsiveness and improvisations through "real-time, real world" on the net, the project asked the question "what does the internet mean for elderly people?" Expecting the usual reactions (don't see my grandchildren enough...) they were surprised to find out that the elderly people involved in the project had different, more general ideas concerning their community. In the Bijlmer, Amsterdam, the group worried about the negative image of their neighbourhood. In Oslo (Norway), they worried about isolation in the home, and in Peccioli (Italy) the elderly inhabitants were irritated by generalizing tourists on their way to the sun, flashing past "a quaint little village" such as Peccioli. Though the technologies used were relatively simple, the processes involved turned out to be quite complicated. The idea of huge billboards, next to the railway tracks surrounding the Bijlmer, was brought up whereby photos of inhabitants could be installed through the site, showing commuters that there is life in the Bijlmer. In Oslo a "book service" was designed, enabling elderly people to order books which were then brought to their home by other more mobile elderly people. On the site you could see the books themselves, travelling to their destinations. In Peccioli, a sound orientated project was designed. Tourists stopping off at laybacks for a quick break, were confronted by sound feedbacks from the village, a mass in the church for example or the tranquil nature, these were also installed and changed on the site. Thackara's conclusion on the project concerned these shifting borderlines of design through connective tools, showing that this interface with territory, moves the design process from a finished result to a process with people. 


"Wir suchen das Unbedingte und wir finden überall nur Dinge". Citing Novalis, Siegfried Zielinski suggested turning this idea round "Why don't we look for the ideal thing in-between the things? " According to Zielinski, the present focus on the interface causes an inflationary realm of talk on everything and nothing at all at the same time. In German "interface" can be translated as "Schnittstelle" connotating drama and an unability to rest, instead of the more tranquil and smooth movement of the "interface". The dominant trend of humanization of the interface, a concept looking for standardization, makes the interface somewhat bland, stripping it of its drama and the possibilities of exploitation and tension. Zielinski seems concerned with this "humanization" of the interface and entertainment through present technologies. Talking of Bertolt Brecht"s ideas on theatre (esp. in the text "Small Organum for the Theatre"), tension should play a central role in our understanding of interfaces, not dualisms between different quantities. Time processes also seem crucial in the understanding of new interfaces. Looking for a kind of aesthetical sphere to relate to contemporary interfaces in entertainment, Zielinski poses an essential and often forgotten problematic within all these new connective tools: how can a form of aesthetics through tension manifest itself in the technological interfaces of today? 


Montage seems lost within the over-abundance of imagery for example. This over-abundance of well-made imagery through technological tools causes a lack of attention for the single image or shot, it is in fact an aesthetic problem. Only through strategies of reduction can the richness of the single shot be found once again. The instability of network systems, such as the computer, can thus only be made stable with some kind of aesthetical strategies. These strategies, far from stable, consist of a certain tension through experiment. For as Brecht insisted "tension is wonderful..." 


Zielinski's highly literary and as he said himself quite conservative and romantic view, sheds new light on all the talk about new media and interfaces, and the discussion seemed to automatically revolve around time processes in the past, present and future. For Zielinski, Thackara's "real-time design" is a fiction. The moment can not be created on its own but relates to duration, dual data proces being both "chronos" and "kairos". We are not forced to live in an acceleration, this is only taking place on the surface, in extreme form, yet without encompassing absolutely everything. Michiel Schwarz suggested that, in depth, less has changed than we think, the networking, weaving, navigating tactics have always existed, but then in a different form, the idea is to at least weave, navigate or network something. From the audience, Zielinski's aesthetical strategies of reduction were attacked as being modernist by Lars Spuybroek. Proclaiming an aesthetics of acceleration: montage has become dated, morphing is what happens now, the machine becoming uncontrolled by humans and creating its own outcome. To which Zielinski responded that morphing is not new, it already existed in the 16th century - and above all, is it not an illusion that something "other" exists in the machinic? 


Thackara's criticism of the artistic involved the personal and critical approach of the artist towards the public, without giving the public the tools to create their own criticism. Just as good theatre is something to look at and also to take part in, Thackara hopes design and artistic practice will do the same. Finding "the in-between" through critical interfaces seems to be the answer. The main contradiction, however, between the artistic and the designable looking for "the in-between", is that designers look for it in the middle, whereas artists look for it in the periphery, in niches. Both, however, look for new experiences, regardless of where they find it, weary of the disneyfication of experience permeating connective tools today. 


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