Interact or Die! Symposium Report

Report about the symposium Interact or Die! of the 2007 Dutch Electronic Art Festival by Arie Altena.

Interact or Die! Symposium Report

DEAF07 Symposium poster

What makes the symposium of the DEAF-festival generally an exciting moment, is the fact that it is neither an academic conference, nor a collection of (artist) presentations and discussion panels. It is somewhere in between, mixing a bit of both: one gets both the academic research and the artistic ideas. This years symposium took place on the 14th of April, on a day with a fierce almost relentless sun and a temperature that was way too high for the moderate climate zone of the Netherlands. It should've felt like the first nice sunny days of spring, and certainly many took it to be that, preferring the beach for a darkened conference space. But the sun was so strong at midday that I was quite happy to find myself in the enclosed space of the conference hall, listening to the lectures, and looking at the pictures that the lecturers brought to illustrate their points. Yet climate change was somehow more on the mind, as I was thinking that maybe even 'Northerners' like the Dutch will have to take cover from the relentless sun. Blame it on science fiction: I had just read Philip K. Dick's 1964 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, depicting a world where human beings fry to death would they leave their houses without a protective shield. We need technology to keep us warm in the winter, cool in the summer.

Seeing the 'line-up' of the symposium, with its title "Interact or Die!", rather a truism, one wondered how the day would come together. What is the bridge between an art historian, an architect, a historian of technology, a political philosopher and a community artist?

The day started of with Detlef Mertins, who talked about what he calls bioconstructivism. In his research of Mees van der Rohe and modernist architecture he had discovered, years ago, that Mees had been very influenced by the biology of his day, especially by the books of Raoul Francé, like Der Pflanzer als Erfinder, which showed the beauty and inventiveness of plants in creating biological constructions. Guiding the audience along many pictures of Mees van der Rohe, El Lissitzky and Moholo-Nagy, he showed convincingly that modernism is not purely technological and abstract, but teeming with organic structures and bound up in a discourse about organic structures, structures derived from nature.

The transition to the presentation of Dutch architect Lars Spuybroek, could not have been smoother, as he is well-known for using the biological concept of self-organization, transferred to software, as a method for his designs. Apart from showing and explaining some of his own designs he talked at length about the aesthetics of variety, taking is cue from Hogarth's analysis of the serpentine line in The Analysis of Beauty (1953) and Ruskin's account of the gothic.

Howard Caygill added extra layers to the already quite extensive (art) historical overview that came with Spuybroek and Mertins' presentation, by digging deep into the fascinating cultural and technological history of the second half of the nineteenth century. He did this through focussing on the extraordinary figure of James Clerk Maxwell, and his work on electricity and magnetism.

Having our mental batteries loaded up with these inspiring overviews, the last two presentation made the turn toward the 20th and 21st century, and the concrete, political lived experience. In her lecture entitled "There is Drama in Networks" Noortje Marres tried to rethink politics for a world that is characterised by networks. She presented her argument in quite a complex way, both criticizing and using or even rescuing elements of contradictory theories of politics and networks. Touching upon such different figures as Dewey (an important influence for her) Goffman and Burke. Networks, for instance, normally lack drama, whereas for most political theories, dramatic staging is a key ingredient of politics. She does not want to join the field of political theorists who deny that a politics is possible in a network society. For her the question becomes: how to find, or stage drama in the networks?

She might have been talking a bit too much to traditional political theorists – a specific audience that one will not meet a DEAF – as they have criticized her 2005-PhD thesis No Issue No Public on the point that she did not take into account that 'network' always has been a negative term in political philosophy. Network had always been more or less identified with for mafia, secret underground organizations and 'the old boys network': associations that are not democratic at all. Her lecture let to a short and heated debate with a few members of the audience, who did not agree with her, but nevertheless showed themselves to have been challenged by her attempt to redefine politics.

After politics we landed on the streets of New York City with Jeanne van Heeswijk's current research of empathy. She recently had been filming people on the streets, asking them if they could tell us what makes the city work, and, by doing so, collecting stories about random acts of goodness. She believes that it is empathy that makes our urban environments work, a human environments – in a time when urban life is all the time being anesthetized by malls, muzak and fake comforting images of commercial well-being. Hers is a view of urbanity that is quite far removed from the master plans of modernism.

In the end, the day came beautifully together. Not in the sense that the different speakers turned out, in the end, to have been discussing the same issues. Neither was it the case that there was a difference of opinion. Rather there was a serpentine line running smoothly from architectural history, over the history of science, political philosophy, towards community art, it was a line that ran from the very abstract to the very concrete. In a sense Jeanne van Heeswijks concrete dealing with 'the street' is a counterpoint to the 'organic', but still purely structural obsession of modernism, but after following the trajectory there was not really anything to discuss. No occasion (no issue) presented itself for discussion. Rightfully a panel discussion between the speakers was skipped.

Issues that presented itself in the lectures had been discussed already. The heated discussion that arose after Noortje Marres' talk, brought one person from the public (also, as I learned later, coming from the field of political philosophy) to say almost in despair: "Sorry if I sound rude, but I don't get what you're doing", and attacking Marres' use of Goffman and Tarde. That moment also showed what was lacking a bit in the other presentations: here something was at stake. Not that there's nothing at stake in for instance the architecture of Lars Spuybroek or in van Heeswijks approach – there's a lot at stake there, and not only on the level of aesthetics – but it did not present itself, on this day, as an issue. So afterwards one walked out, either discussing political theory, or enjoying the sun, which now was a bit lower in the sky, and began to feel agreeable


2007 Arie Altena

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