Lunch Bytes

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Earlier this year I attended a Lunch Bytes conference at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. (HKW generally puts on fantastic conferences at reasonable costs, and as such, is worth checking out). Also at the conference were vis-com-des people Sophie Dyer and Solveig Suess. The conference was a summary of other various symposia that have taken place under the Lunch Bytes banner (an initiative of the Goethe Institute) on the topic of Post-Internet Art. This is a highly contested term, and rather than try to write up what everyone said, (you can see the videos of the presentations here), I asked if Sophie and Solveig would be interested in exchanging questions and answers from the conference. They generously agreed, and that exchange can be read below.

SD: Most of the weekend was given over to conversations around Post Internet Art. I want to know if you think the term can be applied to design in the same way previous art movements have been. Or do we need a different vocabulary? If possible, give an example in your reasoning.

NM: If someone said ‘where art leads, design follows’ how would you feel (as a designer)? Does this do a disservice to communication design (or design more generally), always following in the visual and conceptual slipstream of contemporary art practice? I first became aware of this (in a contemporary sense) when (and this is from recollection so may be inaccurate) Andrew Blautvelt wrote a piece on Design Observer about what he called ‘Relational Design’. I recall a few years back we picked up on this, and on altermodern design murmurs, on the Com Des blog. So I, unfortunately, am going to fudge my answer to this question and say ‘a bit of both’ – Post Internet Art, for all its flaws as a term, exists, and is part of contemporary culture. Therefore, in part at least, it must be a term that can be used (interpreted?) as part of Communication Design practice. I like the idea of these debates and tensions as being lenses through which we can look at particular forms of practice and pieces of ‘work’. Its a terrible case of having my cake and eating it, but I don’t believe there is anything inherently right or wrong about the term (applied to either art or design) and provides another interesting angle from which to interrogate the world.

SS: I am not too well read on my design history but from what I gather with the relationship between art and design is that their boundaries have always been so blurred. And in design, where ‘the medium is the message’, to be aware of the medium that carries the content as well as the content being delivered, makes it in a way bound to run in parallel with art. As movements encompass a whole set of critiques and thoughts that are from ongoing political and social discussions, it makes the ideas flexible for other discipline’s contributions- and so I don’t consider the Post-Internet Movement (?) as an exception to that. But perhaps as soon as you get into the more design specific crafts, such as typography, where it was clearly born from graphic design, there might be a need for it’s own vocabulary.

NM: What was the most interesting disagreement (or difference in opinions) that you heard at the lunchbytes conference? What did it reveal, or make you think about?

SS: The loudest one was definitely in the last discussion, between Hito Steyrl and the art historians.

SD: I agree, it was the most impassioned disagreement of the weekend. Hito looked genuinely hacked-off.

SS: She was quiet for much of the conversation until asked to respond, almost laughing she said that she had a made a mistake thinking she had to be present for the rest of the discussions to contribute to the closing panel. She then said, “Art historians are the natural enemy of artists.”

SD What I understood it is that Hito wasn’t interested in discussions about the categorisation of art, whether or not it was ‘post-internet’, but about the issues that art can address. Also, how relieved she was that Laura Poitras’ film, Citizen Four, had been brought up in a previous panel.

SS: Why was she relieved?

SD: It was an example of artist and journalist practice as social political intervention.

SS: I feel like audience felt relieved as well – relieved from the confusion over trying to pin down the term ‘post-internet’. Being the last of the lunch-byte series, this conference was promising quite a bit. It was meant to be broad, in which it was, but somehow in the end it lacked a comprehensive discussion that went beyond the performances and presentations. I found this from the event’s description: “How can we enter a discourse about the internet’s influence on art that moves beyond the “post-internet” hype?” I think the conference was not able to move beyond the hype, trapped instead in debates obsessing how to put it into some sort of context, and from what Hito also underlined, was probably not the most interesting or important topics of the event.

SD: Yes! No-one else was prepared to say, ‘The king’s got no pyjamas!’ Sorry, I mean, ‘The emperor’s new clothes!’

To his credit, in summing up the American art historian (David Joselit), said he didn’t mean to devalue art as he absolutely believed in the important contribution it makes by producing new knowledge and new forms of knowledge, which, for whatever reason, other disciplines can’t for won’t. We could easily substitute ‘art’ for ‘design’.

SS: Now that we are on the topic of disagreements, I thought that when Jesse Darling commented on Stephan Dillemuth’s keynote presentation after he discussed issues over rights to your own data and surveillance, she brought up some really good points. She pointed out how male centric his talk was. That coming from a female perspective, the relationship between surveillance and being surveilled or the right to our own bodies, mean something very different.

SD: Jesse Darling started her friendly troll by, I’ll paraphrase here, saying “I don’t mean to troll but this is an all white, male panel.  Women are used to the idea that we do not have total ownership over our bodies. Therefore that cannot be (taken) from us, as it already has.”

SS: It did feel like the topics discussed by men and women were very different. For example the ‘Life’ panel was all women. They tackled the gender stereotype of women being seen as closer to nature. (See A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway) The panel addressed ideas of identity, gender and feminism on the web.

SD: I also felt a bit uncomfortable about the apparent gender divid. It made me feel feel torn between wanting to address issues of patriarchy on the web, like 91% of how Wikipedia editors are male. And wanting to hear an all female panel debating something completely different, like surveillance or another techy subject.

SS: The conference opened up with a presentation mentioning the left-to-die boat. I thought this immediately pointed to the potentials of how art and design can address and use methods that actively questions and readjusts our relationship to freedom and agency, access and property, visibility and disappearance. I know your plane was delayed and you missed this, but what do you think about this, Neil? 

SD: Neil, as you missed the welcome speech in which the left-to-die boat case was mentioned I can try summarise it here quickly. The case was taken on by the Research Architecture department at Goldsmiths who were in the midst of an EU funded research project called Forensic Architecture. The multi-disciplinary team investigated the deadly drift of a migrants’ boat in the Central Mediterranean, in which sixty-three people lost their lives while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime surveillance area. The maritime area was quite possibly the most observed in the world at that moment as it was the peak of the Libyan crisis.

The Goldsmiths team used available surveillance data to prove that multiple vessels and aircraft were in proximity of the left-to-die boat and would have been aware of it’s presence, even that the migrants had had contact with two unknown military crafts. The evidence collated has been used in ongoing legal petitions filed against NATO member states. If individual states fail to act, the case may be brought to the European Court of Human Rights.

I have paraphrased a lot here from the introduction at the HKW and the publication ‘Forensis’ published by Forensic Architecture. The Forensis exhibition, that featured the left-to-die boat case, took place over a year ago in the same venue as the Lunchbytes conference. I think the reason by that particular case was picked out is that it exemplifies a post disciplinary approach that puts to use the expertise of artists, architects and many others to bring to account urgent political concerns. The majority of the data collected was already in the public domain, so it can be replicated again by other groups. This also links back to Laura Porta’s film, Citizen Four, which although the circumstances were exceptional, replied upon thorough investigative journalism and film footage shot, unassisted, by her. I have over simplified both projects and don’t mean to romanticise them, but they are empowering examples of political intervention in an age when the gross a-symmetry of power and wealth can be paralysing.

NM: So, I don’t know so much about this project, but by combining your information about it, and a general life-long reluctance to let not knowing about something get in the way of expressing an opinion about it, I’d say that it shines a light not just on whether art and design can use these methods (to explore agency, freedom, property and other political concepts), but how these projects provide a far more subtle and sophisticated understanding of what it might mean to be create politically engaged ‘design’ work. As much as I have a soft spot for agit-prop and direct populist engagement, the range of skills, insights and knowledge deployed in this project by their nature force us to confront the politics of all disciplines in a much more subtle way. I’ve long been interested in designers as journalist, and the ability to not necessarily abandon discipline, but stretch and shift roles, and what new affordances that might open up in terms of how we think, and how we operate.

In relation to the conference, I sometimes found it hard to get a handle on the roles, relationships and registers in which the contributing artists saw themselves as operating, as I think that (possibly unlike design) there is a reluctance (justifiably) from some artists to frame themselves and their work in this way. Perhaps for that reason, I don’t know that anyone speaking at Lunchbytes discussed anything that seems as interesting as this project you mention.

The left-to-die boat also makes me think that ’the academy’ could be far more imaginative about what it means to be interdisciplinary in approach. This seems to me like a really vital and relevant project because it creates connections and alliances between disciplines (across sciences, arts etc) with a degree of political urgency.

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