DEAF96 - Digital Territories

DEAF96 Dutch Electronic Art Festival - Digital Territories

DEAF96 - Digital Territories


Sep 1996
Sep 1996
location: V2_ and various locations, Rotterdam

The making of Architecture is a major coalescing activity in society, bringing together many flows into a single complex stream. In classical terms, architecture is a socially significant synthesis of the old anti-theses: public/private, art/science and capital/labor. As long as society is dominated by institutions of authority that require a basis external to themselves for their existence (divine right of kings, social contract), monumental architecture is required to embody objective knowledge. (...) However when society can no longer define itself in classical deterministic, objective terms, but only in terms of continuously shifting, fluid dynamical fields of activity, then architecture must forsake the monumental because there is no human experience to codify.

(Lebbeus Woods in War and Architecture. Pamphlet Architecture #15 1993)

DEAF96 is about the relationship and interaction between the city and computer networks as social, cultural, economical and political spaces: the city with its often hierarchically structured architecture, infrastructure and geographically local communities (neighborhoods, boroughs) and the networks with their virtual communities and their heterogeneous, non-hierarchical structure.

Computer networks present us with a 'space' that can no longer be described in terms of Euclidean mathematics: everything and everyone is omnipresent, things that are far away seem close and things that are close seem far away. 'Locality' only manifests itself at the outer end of the network where we log in, but it meaning and structure changes by being logged in. These networks have caused an ever increasing (con)fusion of public and private domains. Radio, television and Internet as forms of public spaces have penetrated our living rooms and have become windows, not only on the world, but on ourselves as well. The 'subject' can be seen as the representation of the individual in the public space which, through the media, is constructed more and more by the forces of economics and politics.

The interaction between computer networks and the city takes place on many levels. It is a complex field of (social) links, that continually show new formations and condensations in both spaces. Architecture and 'unstable' art therefore have in common that both are subjects of a 'metadiscussion' mixing social, economic, scientific and philosophical issues.




As a result of the industrial revolution large industrial cities have emerged in the past 150 years. Technological innovation applied to the realization of ideals is one of the characteristics of this industrial revolution, with self-realization and self-determination of the individual as key concepts. These ideals are realized in some ways by gaining control over the environment. Applying technology is increasingly important in this, as it renders the world 'makeable' and controllable, but at the same time making the structure of fragmentation more complex.

Simultaneously with the rise of large industrial cities we see a strong fragmentation of the city and the urban community. The fragmentation of a world view in a general sense had begun long before with the onset of modern science. This can be seen on a physical level in the modern city by the revolution in transport, amongst others. It starts at the end of the last century with the arrival of the train, followed by the automobile and the airplane and seems to have reached its ultimate destination in digital communication media. This revolution in transport has greatly influenced the 'densifying' of the city as it pulls more and more towards it and at the same time expands ever outwards. The city: 'polis' of knowledge and power.

Modern science attempts to describe the laws of reality by methodical observation. At the same time, a search is undertaken for the very nature of the 'autonomous' individual in which self-realization and self-determination can best be accomplished. The analysis of the individual takes place from the conviction that the rational, objective world, the world of constant values, is a model by which to understand the social, political and cultural processes in which the individual is functioning. Mostly, such theories and models are applied in an all-encompassing fashion, trying to make the world fit within these models. Centralization, hierarchy and linear progress are the operative words here. This type of organization of the world is strongly defined by social and political forces like the state, the church and, increasingly so, commercial institutes. A lot of the urbanization and architectural projects from the end of the last and beginning of this century can be understood if we look at the models described above: the city can be 'read' as a linear succession of gradually compiled developments. This view of the city however is no longer sufficient, because the city no longer is experienced exclusively through the physical presence of its inhabitants in time and space, but increasingly through the interaction with forces that affect it via computer networks. Television, telephone, radio and especially digital computer networks have fragmented the experience of the individual and/or the community which traditionally took place in a 'continuum' of time and space, into a multitude of influences and meanings. Because of the discontinuity of the virtual worlds within computer networks 'time and place' can no longer be understood in the traditional, physical sense. Place now means everywhere.

In this view, the city is a matrix of varying structures and relations. These express themselves in the city's infrastructure, architecture and design that among them constitute the territory of the urban environment. It has become a field of force with constantly changing centers of gravity and a scarcely defined core, much more a hypertext in which temporary connections exist between many points and many developments. A world of variables with complexity and chance as its underlying structure.


Acceleration and networks

People are connected in time and space. Their relationships are shaped by the organization and experience of time and space. Radio and television have changed this dramatically, placing the individual in a totally different context, in a world that is forever coming towards us without the need for us to move ourselves. 'Place and time' that form the context of the sounds and images that come to us through the electronic media are not the same 'time and place' that the viewer/listener is experiencing. Computer networks accelerate this process, resulting in the timeless, spaceless virtual environments of digital networks. The context of words, images and sounds seems to have been completely lost here.

The impact of digital networks is felt in the dissociation of individual experience of place and time. This leaves the individual in a fragmented world with a complex structure and redefines the way in which individual experience comes about. The individual has become both receiver and transmitter, constantly switching among many frequencies, in a continually changing matrix of connections between fragments. The individual's articulation of experience and perception in time and space are discontinuous here. Science and the arts, as expressed in (image)language and digital media amongst others, are the tools with which to reconstruct this fragmented reality time and again.


Instability and networks

Almost daily we read about companies that invest in the infrastructure of communication media, in computer networks like the Internet. Cable networks are being acquired by companies that see a golden future ahead. Potentially, the market is enormous. The Internet brings millions of consumers within reach who can buy individually tailored services without leaving their homes. At the moment, companies are emphasizing infrastructure and direct economical functionality in order to open up this market and by and large ignore the social and cultural implications of the medium.

These past few years have seen the emergence of lots of interfaces that, either through the Internet or otherwise, are designed to offer accessibility and functionality to virtual worlds. The emphasis here is on the comfort of interfaces and on the removal of obstacles that are inherent in technology. Aspects that are characteristic of electronic technology, like the amount of instability it causes in the environments where it is applied, are not regarded as possibly positive qualities. They are not included in the design of interfaces and virtual worlds. Every eventuality and any disfunctionality we know from reality is avoided in order to create environments from which experience and danger are all but banned.

On the 'drawing boards' the designers produce 'pretty pictures' and interfaces and works of art that strive for complete control over the system and its users. It seems no attempt is being made to make a connection between the experiences of individuals in a world full of physical resistance and the mental discontinuity of the world of virtual environments.

Are these the virtual worlds we really want? Worlds that have been completely hollowed out for the sake of functionality and comfort? Technology should not be regarded as an autonomous, fully controllable system, but should be seen within the context in which it is functioning: the whole of social, political and cultural ties within which users are operating and in which coincidence and instability are important elements.

Inextricably linked to the design, accessibility and functionality of virtual worlds is the question of which metaphors to use. The city and the house are both metaphors one encounters a lot on websites. Undoubtedly they have strategic meaning with regard to the structure of the Internet. But in more general terms they refer to an organizational structure which is historically defined by a modernist view of the city and the place of the house therein, resulting in a makeable and controllable environment, whose organizational structure is primarily derived from geographical organization and the restriction of the individual.

The network consists of the communication structure and the different forms of communicative interaction between people and between people and organizations. It has no geographic orientation and cannot be mapped out in a geometrical sense. In computer networks a variety of metaphors is being used for the virtual worlds that are under construction, but the computer networks themselves can be seen as metaphors as well. The network metaphor shows us a changed insight in the way our world is organized and in the way in which we function as individuals in this world. The use of this metaphor indicates that insights are changing in fields such as brain research, robotics, economy, urban planning and other scientific and cultural projects being developed today. This metaphor contains concepts like heterogeneous, non-hierarchical, coincidence and instability.
These concepts are not new, but they are being radicalized in the interaction between the analogue and the digital worlds and they influence the way in which we think about and organize computer networks.

As these concepts currently have a theoretical foundation, they should eventually be implemented in practical applications and models. What the possible consequences are for the organization of our environment and for the functioning of the individual in this environment, is a question that will put to the artists and scientists who are present at DEAF96. No doubt this question will be tackled extensively in discussing the many concrete projects and presentations.

The question is not whether art has a place in the telematicised world, but whether art might be the vehicle to take us to new conceptions of individual identity, ... and notions of community.

(Roy Ascott, catalogue Prix Ars Electronica 1995)

DEAF96 introduction text by Alex Adriaansens, 1996



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