Absolute Positions

“Listening to Firefox” – presenters

“Listening to Firefox” is finally here! After months of planning and organising, our inaugural North West salon/meet-up for discussion across “wider implications of software culture” is happening at 2pm Sunday 15th of May over at Manchester’s MadLab.

5 practitioners have been invited to present extremely short (<3mins) single-slide examples of work across a spectrum of digital-art-technology. From there, the emphasis moves to an open and critically aware roundtable discussion of the wider implications of this practice:


Stephen Fortune – Data and Reality


Markus Soukup -  relicts / 2011

John O’Shea – Open Source Swan Pedalo

Nick Holloway – UK libraries cuts map

Caroline Heron – “Precarious Labour”


Listening to Firefox exists to create a space for open and engaged discussion across a spectrum of digital-art-technology practice with an emphasis on the social, cultural and political implications of this work.  This inaugural event has been co-organised by John O’Shea, Simon Poulter and Hwa Young Jung at MadLab.


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MadLab Manchester 15th May 2011


Wider Implications of Software Culture

The Event

  • What: Salon discussion and short presentations at Mad Lab in Manchester
  • When: Sunday 15th May – 2pm-4pm
  • Theme: “Open Source vs. The Big Society”


Listening to Firefox exists to create a space for open and engaged discussion across a spectrum of digital-art-technology practice with an emphasis on the social, cultural and political implications of this work.


Theme for this event: Open Source vs. The Big Society


Format: 5 practitioners are invited to present extremely short (<3mins) single-slide examples across a spectrum of digital-art-technology practice. From there, the emphasis moves to an open and critically aware roundtable discussion.


Rooted in practice, the event will facilitate greater peer awareness, cross-pollination and hopefully instigate conversations which need to be had!

Origins: Listening to Firefox emerged out of discussions held at the 2011 Metal/DEC Digital LAB held at Metal’s Chalkwell Hall in Southend on Sea. The LAB was facilitated by artists Graham Harwood and Simon Poulter and attended by 8 artists from a wide spectrum of disciplines.

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Paranodality in Southend-on-Sea

This morning we found ourselves talking about activating peer groups and their different modes of organisation.  Simon brought in ideas from network theory and if I understand correctly the point – the strength of the weakest links in a network will correlate directly to the effectiveness of the network.  Caroline maintained throughout a skeptical viewpoint of the forces involved which act to instrumentalize the role of artists into a capitalist media machine.  Disparagingly she quoted Chris Morris’s satirical Shoreditch anti-hero Nathan Barley: “I am a self-facilitating media node.”


From my own perspective I agree that it is important to challenge and reflect upon existing models of collective energy, and work and how this activity becomes constituted, ritualised and institutionalised.  What limitations can we place, in the form of an “ethic” or “attitude”, which might prevent or subvert the emergence of patterns of behaviour which we do not want to perpetuate?


In conversation with Metal chair, Jude Kelly yesterday a very intriguing (and perhaps paradoxical) question was posed:

“How can intimacy be scaled?”


These fascinating discussions are, of course, from the privileged perspective of viewing and building a “model” and this activity and speculation must be distinguished and recognised as only one small part of building relationships within the “cultivation” of a peer-group.


An interesting email I read several years ago seemed to posit a counter-view to “network-logic” by thinking in terms of something called “para-nodal” space (the ‘space’ which is not represented on the network map of nodes and their connection).  I am going to copy and paste the email below (I’ll send a quick email to the author too – I’ve never followed this idea up really but I think it has had a profound effect on how I think about the relationship between “models” and “life”).


//Updated 12:45 – here is a link to a website for Ulises Mejias //


From: “Ulises A. Mejias” <EMAIL ADDRESS>
Date: 22 April 2008 01:57:01 BDT
To: empyre@lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
Subject: [-empyre-] unwired sustainability
Reply-To: soft_skinned_space <empyre@lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>

My apologies for not having posted as actively to this list during my time as moderator this week (technology is partly to blame, but mostly it’s my fault). I want to end by providing my own take on wired sustainability.

I believe networked forms of production, collaboration, activism, and mobilization will be essential to figuring out how to engender more sustainable relationships with the world and with each other. However, in my own work I try to examine the very unsustainability of the network episteme, of this ‘wired’ logic.

Since the distance between two nodes within the same network is zero, and the distance between a node and something outside the network is practically infinite, it follows that a node can only see the world in terms of other nodes. Something that is not a node is, for all practical purposes, invisible. I call this tyranny of nodes “nodocentrism.” Nodocentrism is the assertion that only nodes need to be mapped, explained or accounted for. It is a reductionism that eliminates everything but the reality of the node. Nodocentrism informs a model of progress or development where things not on the network must and should be incorporated in order for them to exist (this is the ideology that informs the discourses of the digital divide, pervasive computing, etc.).

In opposition to nodocentrism I use the concept of paranodality. Contrary to what is represented in network diagrams, the space between nodes is not empty or dead, but very much alive. In fact, this space–the paranodal–acts as the only sustainable site from which we can articulate a subjectivity separate from the network, from which we can unthink the network episteme. The paranodal is, as Ranciere would
say, the part of those who have no part, the site where disagreement, not consensus, takes place (and hence, the locus of the political).

Of course, to unthink the logic of the network is not to pretend the network doesn’t exist, or to refuse to deal with it, but to re-imagine one’s relationship to it. The relationship of the paranode to the network is perhaps like the one of the parasite to the host (and here I’m borrowing from Serres): the parasite inserts itself into the
communication process, between the sender and the receiver, disrupting the communication by being ‘noise’, and forcing the system to adjust to its presence. In this context, the paranode can be described as a parasite of the network, an element that lodges itself between nodes, distorting or introducing noise into the information that passes between nodes, and forcing the network to adjust to its presence.

I guess what I am suggesting is that perhaps sustainability is not wired, but unwired. What is subversive and creative is not the network episteme (wired logic), but the parasitical disruption that can provide a way to think outside the logic of the network, to disidentify from it, and to resist its nodocentric view of the world.

empyre forum empyre@lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au http://www.subtle.net/empyre


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reference points

Some reference points:

The point I was making yesterday in discussion with Graham regarding a two-tiered understanding of the nature of law – part “natural” : part “technological” – is largely drawn from my reading of H. L. A. Hart’s late sixties text: “The Concept of Law“.  This very accessible book was completely at odds with existing legal orthodoxies at the time of publication (late 60′s) however, today it is widely regarded as a benchmark and primer for undergrad law students.  It went to print around the same time as McLuhan’s “Understanding Media” and this may give a clue as to why McLuhan never explicitely discusses law in terms of his conception of “media”, as this idea of law as technology would likely have been outside of his understanding of the term “law” (and indeed the contemporary understanding of the idea of law.)


Regarding some of the pitfalls of operating institutions and projects without agreed structures I would refer to this 1970′s pamphlet “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” which maps the rising feminist movement and how its absolute resistance to replicating prior (male) hierarchies actually sowed the seeds of power for the development of hidden & unspoken elites which limited the movements development.

By the way, continuing the discussion on absolute positions, my thoughts regarding this debate in technological culture have formulated a little since yesterday: I would like simply to state that, from my perspective, it is wholly possible to “drill down” and engage at a deep level with cultures of software and technology without constantly beginning from base elements (silicon, electricity) and core principles (the Enlightenment, Linux OS) and that the constant “hammering” of these particular reference points is in danger of being interpreted as simply the same-old high-culture vs. low-culture snobbery-binarism in disguise.

To try and make this argument I would point to the resonant example of sampling culture in Hip-Hop / DJ music where often artists are not musicians in a traditional sense – they do not use (nor would they know how to use) traditional instruments or notation in constructing their music – instead they work from the available and existing musical culture within which they live, allowing this to “flow through them.”  In my experience a similar strategy can be taken to working with existing consumer technologies and that, if this is done with a level of critical awareness, then this approach can actually subvert, rather than replicate, “the system”.

I’m interested to know if other people find this analogy useful?


My final reference to be shared (on a separate subject) was the text I referred to “The Construction of Social Reality” by American philosopher John Searle: In my reading convincing arguements are made here for the material (even biological) consideration of events and factors in the social realm as being objectively “real”. (I have this book in the car.)

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Anarchy and the Big Society Machine

Anarchy and the Big Society Machine

talk prepared for Goldsmiths MA Interactive Media (2011)

Anarchism in an electronic age defies definition and will always tend towards sets of values or ways of thinking and doing that evolve from tensions in the individual and collective process. We could say that in this respect anarchism is defined as useful tension between community (or state) and self. Correspondingly, any dogmatic attempts to discuss anarchism are simply evocations of a dynamic process, illuminating, infuriating and then discarded. But they are not without purpose or an element of progression from one place to another, that is to say in negotiating the behaviours of the individual and the state.

We might think that the effect of the growth of electronic media has been to dissolve the power of the nation state in our affairs and the opposite in the case of China – the creation of what has become known as ‘the Great Firewall’. The unregulated and unprecedented movement of information has, as McLuhan predicted, decentralized our actions, as we move from conventions of trade of goods and services to an electronic world economy. The parcelling up of toxic debts within electronically facilitated trading was estimated by the International Monetary Fund in 2009 to be 4 trillion dollars. The consequence of such spectacular meltdowns has been the reappraisal of financial regulation throughout the developed economies. Neo-liberalised economic processes have brought many states to the point of self-destruction.

Negroponte in ‘Being Digital’ proposes the shift from atoms to bits, as industrial production moves from the material to the digital. This seems now techno-utopian and simplistic. Newsprint or the book, if we follow this idea, are replaced by onscreen media navigated by increasingly responsive interfaces. These interfaces can be increasingly attendant and responsive to our patterns of behaviour, reducing ‘wasteful’ search time. However these interfaces often reach back to forms of representation of prior media, what McLuhan called the ‘rearview mirror effect’. So in an iPad advert the user gestures towards a virtual bookshelf.

But now attention has become money or commodity too, at the same time that technological fetishisation or lifestyle technologies have become symbolic of global culture. Bernhard Stiegler has written extensively on the effects of mass media, the effect of which is the homogenisation of culture and its messages, leaving no space for transgression or alternative tempo or meaning.

The cultural supremacy and pervasiveness of computer generated movies seems undeniable. Could we argue that Toy Story 3 is the ultimate artistic statement of global neo-liberal culture? Its messages, aesthetics and modes of production convey a complete set of values in which the mass audience are emotionally tugged, puppeted and entertained. We might compare this to North Korean propaganda films (featured on YouTube) that take on a warped propagandisation of a dark-side “axis of evil” state. Is there a collective amnesia and form of control in CGI blockbusters?

McLuhan connects literacy with money. Work he says does not exist in the non-literate world, because the ‘whole person’ is in fact a hunter, fisher or even artist. They have no need for money because their activity is directly connected to subsistence. It is within this reduced or non-digital realm that everyday transactions become more meaningful, rewarding and creatively transgressive. This compared to the anxiety of the digital workplace where the extended self is locked into a puzzling world of making and responding to electronic messages, not necessarily knowing where priority lies.

Modern economies break down human activity into jobs and roles, fragmenting this whole person and thus creating a co-determinacy or dependency. McLuhan further suggests that the clock or means of calibrating time promotes a commodification of individual labour. Labour becomes subjugated to a time and motion study. McLuhan was aware that as electronic media and networked extension increased in the digital age, effectively knowledge would become the prevailing currency. Hence automation, as he put it, becomes a way of programming knowledge. We now live in what is termed as the ‘knowledge economy’.

The process of technics or technologisation can be seen as an open prison, where the non-productive post-industrial workforce are occupied in data entry and management of information. Then perhaps in its promotion and optimisation. The trap in negatively portraying digital culture is to imply some alternative ideologue or Eden of self-sufficiency. In ‘Walden’, Henry David Thoreau has provided an enduring example of the problems of disconnecting from the state and ‘the machine’.

McLuhan gives us a resounding picture of where we are with online culture. He says:

“In the age of instant information man ends his job of fragmented specializing and assumes the role of information gathering. Today information gathering resumes the inclusive concept of “culture”, exactly as the primitive food gatherer worked in complete equilibrium with his entire environment”. Our quarry, in this new nomadic and “workless” world is knowledge and insight into the creative processes of life and society.”

This is an intriguing point at which to assess what artistic practice or production looks like in an extended electronic age. John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing’ within his first book ‘Silence’ points towards transgression and a reordering of the collapsed temporal-spatial modes of new technology. There is an implicit understanding that breaths, silences and events taking place in the world outside, will form a new version – each time – of the creative work. As a form of resistance, it serves to locate experience right in the moment, nuanced and unrepeatable. It is in effect undigital, manifest and if you wish it ‘spiritual’.

Quoted here from John Cage:

I am here                  ,                 and there is nothing to say

If among you there are those who wish to get               somewhere                          ,                                 let them leave at any moment                .

What we require           is                    silence                         ;                               but what silence requires is                                that I go on talking                 .                        Give any one thought                                    a push                            :                            it falls down easily                           ;

but the pusher                                    and the pushed                             pro-duce                             that entertainment                                             called a discussion               .                                 Shall we have one later (now)?

What I’m saying is that art is often transgression.


Simon Poulter © 2011



A little bit of history repeating itself…

We have been talking about the open source, proprietary debate within this lab. Harwood is very clear that we are surrounded by ‘technologies of power’. His recent work takes on a forensic quality asking questions that illuminate current technologies. Where does the energy come from to power our laptops? What is the human cost of the industrial revolution and now the post-industrial out-sourced production base? A framework that for him has manifested as a series of contraptions. Connected to this is the adoption of open source processes and ethical production models, so within this debate PERL runs before FLASH, LINUX before MacOS etc.

Tim Kindberg, also contributing, takes a different line. In essence the design processes and production models are directed towards a successful robust outcome. Still experimental in mode but utllising what works. Harwood’s assertion is of course that the very way in which these technologies are configured ends up directing the outcome.

John O’Shea has been experimenting with a Swan Pedolo as an open source form. This serves to break out of the orthodoxy of open source tropes (LINUX, PERL etc) leading off in a new direction. The vessel becomes a platform in its own right for creative expression and tension. Perhaps what comes out of this is the need for more debate around open source development, that leads us away from familiar territory located around software and hardware. (Simon Poulter)

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