Ubiscribe Report

Report written by Josephine Bosma about the UbiScribe: Collocollaboracontentquery? colloquium.

The state of affairs in writing and publishing was the theme of the Ubiscribe day, a public colloquium held at V2_ itself. Ubiscribe is a five year research project initiated by the artist Jouke Kleerebezem at the Design Department of the Jan van Eyckacademie in Maastricht. It initially focussed on the new dimensions of writing that developed because of the internet, but quickly expanded to publishing in the broadest sense to also include the publication of images and the development of archives. Ubiscribe now deals with the state of affairs in publishing rather then in writing. Moderator Florian Cramer was an excellent choice for the day, because of his research in comparative literature at the University of Berlin, but also because of his ongoing efforts in the field of experimental writing on and offline. He stated that the main question this day would be how software will influence writing styles. Cramer also remarked how tagging has become more and more important in online publishing. He introduced Jouke Kleerebezem as founder of the Ubiscribe project.

Kleerebezem explained how he felt as if the project is always one step behind the practice, because of the flight publishing took in new media. Kleerebezem mentioned the term ‘pervasive publishing’ in connection to this, which unfortunately wasn’t expanded on much throughout the day. ‘Pervasive publishing’ is one of those buzz-terms that actually seem to make sense, but which are seldom discussed in detail. Kleerebezem criticized the theme of DEAF, ‘Interact or Die’, stating that interaction is simply necessary to stay alive. This criticism was quite often heard at DEAF, but one wonders whether that does not mean that the theme was actually quite well chosen, since it provoked so much debate. Florian Cramer added to this debate by asking himself whether this DEAF has a “dangerous ideology” at its basis. The human versus machine interaction question that was so prominent on thursday April 12th was to be a central issue again. Cramer stated that “we can distinguish what is human and what is machine feedback” [my emphasis, JB].

What was very nice of the Ubiscribe day was that each Ubiscribe participant/presenter chose another speaker whose work he or she thought was exemplary for the practices described. This opened up and contextualized the Ubiscribe project in a similar way as it does online, or in other words: links and overlaps were created on the spot, to reveal the physical network of people and activities behind online publications.

Sandra Fauconnier
The first presenter was Sandra Fauconnier, who works on the V2 archive. She is currently also part of the Ubiscribe project at Maastricht, where she investigates the design process of participatory websites of civil society groups, mainly cultural organisations. She said she “wants to mediate critical net culture to a broader audience”. An important issue she feels needs to be tackled is the “technological indifference” people show, even when they use specific technologies for important social and cultural exchanges. She pointed at the digital and cultural divide that has been developing online, where homepages have been replaced by myspace and flickr accounts. People no longer seem to own their own content, with the exception of some of the blogging community maybe. The key issue seems to be creating tools that encourage learning (or that create “net literacy”), while these tools still connect to our opportunistic ways of using the net. Fauconnier’s presentation was passionate and informative, but in my opinion lacked in the humor and creativity department, in which I know Fauconnier has a lot of talent. Sandra Fauconnier chose the ever charming speaker Saul Albert to present his work.

Saul Albert
Albert is described in various ways in online biographies, from “Saul Albert is a londoner who makes art, writes, codes and organizes things with groups such as the University of Openess, The People Speak (www.theps.net), Twenteenth Century (twenteenthcentury.com) and others” to “Saul Albert writes, codes, learns and teaches at the University of Openess where he is a janitor” (the latter probably is his favorite). Saul Albert tries to escape the almost unavoidable traps within collaborative projects and media activism, like bureaucracy (which also Sandra Fauconnier mentioned as a problem) and an obstructive simplification of terminology. Even if it also makes his words connect to many practicioners’ experience well, it does make his position (and more importantly his point of view) seem more vague. Saul Albert seems to question all common structuring efforts within organisations. His work is highly emphatic. Saul Albert is interested in creating and promoting collaborative public projects that are playful and empowering (or educational). He described projects such as ‘The People Speak’, ‘Talkaoke’, the ‘Distributed Library Project’ of the University of Openess and his most recent experiment with the gameshow format of ‘who wants to be… (a millionaire)’ (in the Netherlands known as ‘Lotto Weekend Millionaires’). The latter is described as a direct democracy gameshow, in which the audience gets to vote on everything, even the rules of the game. It seems Saul Albert likes to walk the thin line between chaos and freedom, something he is all to aware of himself. He gave the audience a reading tip: ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ of Jo Freeman, a classic feminist essay on the fallacy of structurelessness and manipulative tendencies in small groups, almost as if he even wanted to question his own experiments. Albert’s talk really emphasized that it is the nature of all practice to escape theory and to be fallable, a popular position at the Institute for the Unstable Media (V2).

Tsila Hassine
After a short break the next Ubiscribe presenter was artist/designer Tsila Hassine, who is also a former Piet Zwart Media Design student. She developed a software tool called ‘Image Tracer’, that reveals the history of an image in the google stats. She wants it to be a “more reflective platform of content consumption” (quote from her CV at the Jan van Eyck website). This reflection however is only superficial, as she refuses to draw any conclusions from the outcome of a search with her tool. Hassine calls the view her ‘Image Tracer’ gives its user a kind of “worm hole” to a different view of the meaning of particular images online. Hassine leaves the reflection on the outcome of the tool to its users. What annoyed me a little was that this is another project in which google seems to be used as if it were a neutral data source. Because of Hassine’s lack of positioning and critical distance to google, this ‘Image Tracer’ loses a lot of its potential as a research tool for images online. ‘Image Tracer’ is just another nice idea now, nothing more, or a sketch for a new tool. Hassine’s choice for a guest speaker showed she did think ‘in the right direction’, even if it does not really show in her tool.

Jorge Blasco
Jorge Blasco is an artist who has been working with the archives of the Spanish secret service from Franco’s age. Blasco has re-presented some of the content of these archives in a new context, leaving the documents speak for themselves in a different way. He gave an interesting lecture about the space between archive and exhibition. This is of course not so much a space, but rather a movement or process. Both archive and exhibition are culturally defined and re-definable. As far as Blasco sees it, an archived document is potentially always in this ‘in between’ space. Through its placement within an exhibition a document or object is given a new identity. Even an archive like that of the secret service of a dictatorship, which has been created as a form of repression or oppression, can be opened in a way that changes its meaning. The original intent behind the creation of the archive can be separated or lifted from the archive, after which this intent can be ‘re-attached’ to its creator. Blasco had an interesting view of closed archives like those of the police. In his view these are “private exhibitions”, open to members of the police and justice departments only. In this view all archives seem to be publications of sorts. Closed archives then become like a form of secret or privileged knowledge, hidden histories that are no less re-interpretable or unstable then public discourses, rather then allegedly neutral information collections. Lastly Blasco unfortunately only briefly touched upon the issue of preservation and copying techniques in archives, which create changes within an archive of a techno-cultural nature that can be just as influential as socio-cultural interferences.

Arie Altena
In the Ubiscribe book, which is currently only published ‘on demand’, blogging is an important issue. In the book the blog and blogging as an act are referred to as not only the ultimate realization of Tim Berners Lee’s idea of the web as network of personal links, but also of blogging as voice and as “anti-spectacular” (Kleerebezem). Arie Altena’s presentation was entirely dedicated to blogging, in which he mostly spoke about the technological developments within blogging and the influences these developments had on both the experience of the blogger her/himself and of the reader. He carefully emphasized he was not presenting a definite history of blogging, but his personal view on this history. According to Altena, blog software changed blogging from being “the voice of an author” (a monologue?), in which writing content and writing html were combined, to “an invitation to a conversation” due to the implementation of blogsoftware with standard reply features. The ready-made blog created a separation between content and software. Even if it is still possible to make personal changes within blogsoftware, like changing a stylesheet, hardly anyone does it, says Altena. The third stage in blogging is, according to Altena, the syndication of bloggers (a side effect of the growth of the blogging community) and the dispersion of content (spreading content over various services, like for instance flickr or myspace), which is not just a typical blogger’s issue. In this kind of publishing metadata are crucial. In fact: the author becomes a metatag her/himself. Probably due to the context at DEAF Arie Altena very much focussed on publishing as an audience related act, whereas he expressed his sympathy for media without an audience at several other occasions before, also in relation to blogs. Reader and writer have grown closer, sharing a contradictory growth in importance and obscurity at the same time.

De Geuzen
Like Tsila Hassine the Dutch art group De Geuzen have designed a kind of ‘Image Tracer’. Theirs is called the ‘historiograpic tracer’ and it is also based on the google image archive. The ‘historiographic tracer’ is more of a visual arts project, in that it also changes the pictures. Images are more unclear or fuzzy when they have a more unstable history. Although both ‘tracers’ try to represent the changes in image search results in Google, the ‘historiograpic tracer’ seems to be embedded in a stronger theoretical and artistic background. It is less a tool and more of an artistic statement. This was also reflected in the presentation. Femke Snelting explained how the existence of the images depends on how they are embedded in code, after which she made a short reference to code as language. She also mentioned how she felt it was necessary to work exactly with Google, because it is one of only two popular image search engines left. Renee Turner and Femke Snelting of De Geuzen next presented another project, their ‘Global Anxiety Monitor’. In this partly performance work the same words in different languages are submitted to the google image search engine again, to reveal more or less subtle ‘image (and google history) scapes’. De Geuzen shows with both their tracer and the ‘Global Anxiety Monitor’ that search engine results are not just simple piles of data, but that it is possible to read different views and histories into these data, in which the reading can also simply be a projection of the reader’s feelings. Their representation of it stays on a poetic level, and as such reminds of the data detective in William Gibson’s novel Idoru or the Google Tea Towels by the artists Thomson and Craighead.

Paul Perry

Perry was the first speaker who chose not to use any visuals. He looked like he stayed up all night. I mention his appearance because it somehow added to the bohemian allure his talk was full of. He sat in the center of the stage and read from a piece of paper. Paul Perry is a very interesting artist, who was always among the first to experiment with new technologies. This interest in new technologies first and foremost seems rooted in Perry’s thirst for knowledge and expansion of his work into unknown, sometimes even dangerous territories. He has experimented with smart drugs and even with near death experiences. He was one of the founders of the new media art department of the master courses at Groningen’s art academy, first known as media-gn, now called the Frank Mohr Institute. Paul Perry started his online diary ‘alamut.com’ in 1998 and ended in it 2006 (it is disclosed only till 2005). Perry explained he is by nature a collector, and that he was “old enough to remember the dissemination of ideas and dreams before the advent of the net”. He seemed mostly dedicated to refining the language and terminology used in this context (not unlike Saul Albert), and he emphasized that “it is the nature of our language to be slippery”. Like other speakers at DEAF he criticized its theme ‘interact or die’, which reminded him of the academic stanza ‘publish or perish’. In his point of view “interaction can not be see as a creative act”, since we cannot exist without it. Perry’s definition of publishing is “making information available rather then known”. For him “artists don’t publish, publishers publish”.

Jouke Kleerebezem
Last but not least Ubiscribe founder Jouke Kleerebezem took the floor. Kleerebezem has worked with Mediamatic and the Doors of Perception in the early nineties. He mostly stayed away from the rumble and excitement of international mailing lists during that time, which I think is a great pity. His work would have been very interesting in the development of online art discourses, just like his work would have benefitted from those same discourses as well. I say this because Kleerebezem’s work is all about collaboration and exploring new models for writing and publishing in an art context. Kleerebezem described how he still feels related to the culture of the early web, in which the web was seen as an author archive. He claimed “there is too little specificity of the author/content/recipient relationship”. It was interesting that he used the word ‘recipient’ rather then ‘reader’ or ‘user’. Kleerebezem also joked about ‘authr’ and ‘readr’, referring to the flickr and myspace generation of new authors and readers. The situation as Kleerebezem described it reminded me very much of my own view of radio and music (described in the text ‘Musaic’), in which the distinction between audience and creator has also almost dissolved. When Kleerebezem speaks of “the signature of the reader” in an era in which the author largely disappears as an ‘identity’ or ‘star’, he does so because now, in his view, “the reader becomes the author”. This unwitting empowerment of the reader creates problems not only for copyright, but also seems to create something one might call ‘unintentional publishing’. Kleerebezem confessed he “always hesitates before publishing something”, indicating publishing for him is always intentional. Kleerebezem also briefly spoke about his ‘Enclav’exquise’ project, in which he created several web adresses for specific real life locations, something he called “fixed adresses”. I didn’t really understand the connection to the theme of online publishing and writing, other then that book or magazine publications are always ‘local’ and unique objects in their own right and this might be an experimental online approach to that.

Panel Discussion
In the closing discussion moderator Florian Cramer suggested to the speakers that their approach seemed highly speculative. This was denied by Arie Altena, who said the Ubiscribe approach was really about observing and describing what is happening. Cramer’s reply to this was how he did see a tendency to not just describe, but to also make changes. Altena, Snelting and Kleerebezem explained how an experimental project can also develop from how things could happen, how Ubiscribe is part of a tradition at the Jan van Eyk academy in which design is a form of making (“an interplay between different practices”, Snelting), but how this tradition might also need an upgrade. Kleerebezem’s remark “I wonder how much institutional support such a project really needs” seemed a little bit utopian.
Saul Albert wondered whether one is really “building on an existing tradition or practice” when publishing. The question of intent seemed to haunt the Ubiscribe project all day. Arie Altena stated that “there is a difference between ‘publishing’ and ‘making a publication’”. For him writing to a mailing list is now publishing – in the sense that is it making something available to a public – whereas it did not feel like that for many mailing list participants in the mid nineties. The significance of certain online writing seems to have changed as the internet evolved. The notion of ‘reader as author’ was criticized by both Altena and Paul Perry, who thought the reader as author was a “mindless” concept, “magpie” even (“the artist is an incredibly careful reader”). Altena questioned the value of involuntary, unintentional, writing.
In Florian Cramer’s view the distinction between trace and publication is now completely fluid. He explained how, in order to maintain the difference, al kinds of technological systems have been developed (tagging, page ranks etc) “which are supposedly careful reading, but this is an illusion and a problem”. Femke Snelting’s closing remark “It is a double faced practice, both negative and positive” revealed we are far from solving it, if we intended to.


2007, Josephine Bosma

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