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Exploring the Avant-Garde of Digital Entertainment

Alessandro Ludovico is a media theorist and editor-in-chief of Neural, a printed magazine established in 1993 dealing with new media art, electronic music and hacktivism (http://neural.it). Besides being a renowned professor (at the Willem De Kooning Academy of Art in Rotterdam, at the University of Bari, at the NABA Academy in Milan, at the Fine Arts Academy of Ferrara, at the Parson Paris New School, at the Ontario College of Art & Design University, and now at the University of Southampton), Ludovico has also published some fundamental writings about post-digital publishing (Post-Digital Print: the mutation of publishing since 1894, Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2012), and he is one of the authors of the award-winning « Hacking Monopolism » trilogy of artworks (Google Will Eat Itself, 2005; Amazon Noir, 2006; Face to Facebook, 2011). As a pioneer in research around digital culture and a veteran hacktivist, he has answered some questions about, among other things, new and old ways of artistic production and publication, and artistic responsibility facing today’s pervasive presence of new media. Here are his precious, generous and thorough perspectives.

This year is the 27th anniversary of Neural, how do you feel about the evolution of digital culture from the 90s until today? What changed the most?

Well, it’s a long trajectory, quite difficult to summarize in a single answer… Let’s say that the world has radically changed since then, and we have become increasingly dependent on digital technologies and networks up to the point that they are an unavoidable part of our essential living infrastructure. Digital culture has evolved accordingly, from the 90s internet avant-garde to the current faster-than-ever changing technical and economic environments. To shorten a long a way more articulated process I think that we have shifted the focus from the early technical to the digital as a medium, till now when, luckily, the ethical has started to play a crucial role. With Neural we have tried to reflect what the critical part of digital art and culture has produced over the years in a printed magazine, apparently with some results. We have accomplished to print it with zero public funding in 27 years, still experimenting with the paper medium.

Now that social media are often used as a publishing platform, are we still living in a “post-digital” era?

Actually, in my humble opinion, social media have determined the transition to a post-digital environment, where notifications seem more ‘real’ than the chat we’re having in person with another human being.

Social media have literally revolutionized public communication (and so publishing) at least as much as the internet infrastructure. Although I highly respect those who exclude themselves from these platforms, it is impossible to understand and elaborate about contemporaneity without actively participating and studying social media and their imposed mechanisms. They have assumed such a crucial role for personal communication at so many levels (including intimate, social, and work-related) that is hard to imagine to completely exclude ourselves from them. And the pandemic has just strengthened this position even more. The constant amateur and professional nano-publishing in the form of posts has just multiplied the previous mediascape several times.

Do you think online publishing puts in danger the traditional ideas of authorship and artistic agency?

Online publishing has quite different meanings, indeed. For example, the paywalled major newspapers’ publishing, coupled with free articles, is not really putting in danger the concept of authorship. But the digital information is infinitely replicable and modifiable. So the diffusion of digital publications is not per se a guarantee of their authorship unless we can very much trust the hosting platform.

I think that the current main threat to authorship is actually coming from the fakes, both the machine-based, increasingly realistic, and the human-based, increasingly heinous in creating plausible, but completely fake ‘publications’. Artists have already started to play with fakes, the manipulability of digital information, and its impact on a global audience. Having proper political artworks (like ‘Spectre’ by Bill Posters and Daniel Howe) challenging the trust in online publishing will surely help to maintain what you define as ‘artistic agency’.Lots of things evolved in digital culture from your collaboration with Paolo Cirio and UBERMORGEN, do you still feel like a hacktivist?

Hacktivism, as the merge of hacker and activism in a single word, has been in the subtitle of Neural magazine for quite a long time, because it well-rendered our closeness to the most informed and political hacker culture. The ‘Hacking Monopolism’ trilogy of artworks with Paolo Cirio was evincing our attitude to manipulate online giants (Google, Amazon, Facebook) with conceptual ideas and technical skills.

But definitions, like hacktivism, are related to specific contexts and specific times. At the moment I’m as critical as ever, and although I can still relate myself to the ‘hacktivist’ concept, I think that I would need different words to define this condition in contemporaneity.

Who are today’s net-pirates? Do you think they gained more responsibility now that (almost) everybody’s online?

It depends on what you exactly mean by ‘net-pirates’, but in any case, practices which are at the edge of internet rules, or exploiting the legal level to allow actions or interventions are still enacted, although compared to the past, they have to be enormously more subtle than in the past. And I agree, they have a higher responsibility because the user mass has become huge.

Do you think online information is more “free” from censorship than traditional types of publication ways? Is the digitization of information feeding or neutralizing online censorship?

There’s a historical and a technical perspective. The historical is that ‘digitizing’ guarantees an immediate global availability, as the WikiLeaks platform proves. And as it was with the latter, the trust of sources would make the difference in contrasting censorship even at the highest level (although in that specific case, the system and its impact became way more complicated). The problem with living in a single instantaneous time is that digitalization and its immediate access are felt as truth even when they are not because they have the form and aesthetics of what we used to trust.

But the technical perspective instructs us about how digital information can be trivially but infinitely modified and so manipulated. There is a lot of misinformation, let’s just think about Trump tweets, and we lack even the time to react, that there’s already more. The problem is still in the lack of time to understand: there’s no time to manually filter, no time to deepen the information, or even to read beyond the titles, and there’s no time to do the main action: check the sources.

On one hand, digitization grants access, which is a positive quality in general, on the other hand, it enables an uncontrollable spreading and often polarizing, which triggers conflicts. The main compass should be to reclaim the time to think and to discern, selecting reliable sources, and avoiding those constantly and globally competing for our attention.

Most net.art and hacktivism practices have proudly been part of counterculture and expressions of anti-institutionality. How does this claim of independence and experimentation manifest itself today?

Today there’s a fraction of the counterculture it used to be for one simple reason: it is increasingly difficult to define and be acknowledged about what it is being ‘counter’ to something else. Institutions of all kinds have started to have policies and communication which sounds more ‘counter’ than ‘establishment’. And the ‘counter’ condition has been appropriated at all levels, including right-wing groups, and more in general by a lot of people who have realized that they can have a micro audience on social media. Furthermore, we probably need institutions now more than ever, to defend cultural and social rights in our society.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of artists who are still using subverting, or critical strategies. It manifests in playing with the harsh contradictions of our relationship with technologies, like pretending to forget about the environmental impact of our dependence on digital devices and infrastructure, or namely caring a lot about privacy, but giving up any sensitive data for banal games on social media.

Artists like Disnovation.org, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Ben Grosser, Joana Moll, Shulea Cheang, Dasha Ilina and Vladan Joler (just to mention a few among many many others) are addressing these contradictions with meaningful works not necessarily being anti-institutional, but often opening the wounds of our incoherent behaviours.

From an aesthetic point of view, low-quality elements, DIY practices, glitchy images, and Html language, have always characterized anti-institutional and independent art forms. Is the paradigm “low-tech = avanguardia” still valid?

‘Low-tech’ was initially a term used to define a specific aesthetics in pop music, but it has been adopted by other cultural fields. Recently low-tech has been appropriated by communication science, including glitchy images used in major advertising campaigns. So I guess that this equation is not valid anymore, but the value of low-tech per se (the use of cheap technical means, with inspired symbolic use) is directly manifesting the machines behind the production, providing a level of interpretation which is not possible in the same way in other works.

What do you think is fundamental in building awareness around the new media today? Do you think art has some power in this sense?

I think that new media is just everywhere, and especially during this pandemic it is more present than ever. What we would need is to understand the mechanisms and act accordingly. Even if it is hard to convince the institutions to give up Microsoft or Google integrated platforms, it would be good to devise different working methodologies, which would not succumb to the big digital corporations’ dictates.

And especially what is vastly needed at the moment is to re-connect with people we can’t meet, as the physical proximity is dangerous. In this sense I would foster the idea of (re)building our own networks, abandoning the obsession of micro-popularity, and embracing the scaling down of our friends/followers to build meaningful smaller networks. Artistic methodologies surely have the power to debunk the dictates and facilitate alternative practices.

What advice would you give to an emerging media artist or researcher?

I would advise especially to care about the quality and research behind the produced art, which can make a big difference. Furthermore, I would equally advise to forget about quickly becoming temporary ‘stars’ and instead to invest in the medium-long term, through the creation of their own network of trusted people: fellow artists, curators, researchers, technical consultants, journalists, and gallerists. Being able to learn from experienced people and to aim to constantly improve the produced art would probably help them to be and remain sustainable.

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