Panel Discussion
Antoinette LaFarge, Alluquere Rosanne Stone, Vernal Bogren Swift

 

 

Antoinette LaFarge: ‘Agree’ is the wrong word, but everything Sandy said rang true with my own experience of cyberspace. It’s really like she said it. The only thing I wanted to comment on was the problem of the dreaded phrase, ‘new media.’ I agree this is a serious problem in that I spend agonizing amounts of time trying to say what I’m doing, and failing. Half the time, I’m saying, It’s not this, and it’s not that. This is a problem that’s dogged me since I first started out in art school, when one of the first comments that I can recall was, I don’t know what you are, but you’re not a photographer. It’s been like that ever since. It’s gotten worse in one sense and better in another. Ever since I first got involved with computers and cyberspace, I have felt at home in that it’s all right that I can’t put a clearly defined label on what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I’m comfortable about having to say, all the time, It’s not this or that, but it still is really interesting and has a lot to do with certain experiential modes of being. It’s a very real problem—but ‘problem’ is the wrong word. What I mean is that this lack of definition is not going to go anytime soon.

Audience: I wanted to ask about something Sandy talked about quite a bit in her talk. But I realize now that I’m virtually illiterate, so this might be a rudimentary question. It sort of applies to something that came up a couple of days ago, when Sarah Charlesworth mentioned technology and how computer programs, for example, structure the way we receive and interpret information. That’s a power structure that is not entirely free. I guess I’m wondering, just on a practical level, with the Internet itself, what kind of issues or questions does that raise? What kinds of things do we have to be aware of or think about, when it comes to how our use of technology is limited or controlled by the way it actually functions?

LaFarge: I don’t have a good answer to that, except that I agree that software tends to impose limits on the people who use it. Basically, what you do when you use any software is you come to terms with it. In terms of virtual worlds, which is the only thing I can comment directly about, there’s a tendency to shut them down and close them in, to work against the anarchic tendencies that Sandy talked about. The anarchic tendencies are something I deeply value in these on-line worlds, and it’s very hard to keep them as open as I want them to be. In fact, I started up a small MOO at one point, the whole purpose of which was not to have the kind of laws and rules, democracies and ballots, ‘thou shalt not spoof,’ that are rules one virtually every other moo now. Very few people actually want to be in that kind of space. It’s too scary, it’s too annoying, it’s too weird, it’s too much involved with death, mutilation, unkindness, and all sorts of scary things. But without those spaces, virtual worlds look more and more like bad and uninteresting copies of the world we already live in. I see this tendency to want to corral everything, shut it down and control it, as a primary problem. I don’t know how to fight against it in any organized way.

Alluquere Rosanne Stone: Developing the distributed, serverless computer was one way that I already talked about. I don’t know if I have anything intelligible more that I can add.

Vernal Bogren Swift: I was living in Papua New Guinea and there came a time when the anarchy in the country was making it dangerous for everybody living there. About that time, five or six expatriate families that we knew decided to leave the country and go live on an island in the South Pacific that had hardly any people living on it. The objective —this was ten years ago— was that they could go, create a new country and live a life that was based on what they had come to value and know from both Western and Eastern points of view. I’ve often regretted that we didn’t go with them. When they speak of new places, I think of the South Pacific island.

Audience: I have a couple confusing links between the three of you. One has to do with what Vernal said about the notion that every seven years or so we have an entirely new body because each cell regenerates and replaces. We have this inherent structural memory, but at the same time we are, physically and literally, one hundred percent new. How do you think that relates to this notion of memory, skin and sensing? Then, from there is this notion of structure being the underlying question of the Internet and communication? How do form and function coexist, both in terms of our physical skin and the technology we use? There is this cyborgian interrelation between biology and technology, whether that technology is a blade of grass, another person or whatever. Part of what I’m coming to is an existential question, whether or not existence precedes essence or how they intertwine together at the very roots? I don’t think they can be separated.

Bogren: Sure, it makes sense. For my little piece of it, the seven year skin, that would only apply if you remain an individual. But if your skin is going to stretch out to include the other skins, and you stay in the physical plane, then that regeneration is going somewhere else, to some other skin. So, nothing got lost.

Stone: In New York, we're tearing down buildings and putting up new ones all the time. It's still New York. In an individual, you replace all the cells over a number of years, but it's still the person. Land masses rise and fall, are subducted and blow up out of the center of the ocean, travel to the edge, but they're still continents. There's a similarity across scales. Parenthetically, one of the interesting things about bodies, as well as about continents, is they have detail at all scales. It's the scales that hold the interest. It's the totality that provides the coherence. You can change a lot of things. There's an old and quite false exercise in cognitive science that says, Well, if you replace the neurons in your brain one by one with transistor gates until, eventually, you've replaced them all, all you have left is this huge thing of artificial parts. Your brain is still there, you'll still be thinking, but you're not home any more. Well, that's bullshit. If nothing changes, nothing changes. It doesn't matter how many times you replace the component parts, the gestalt that you're operating with doesn't inhere in the component parts. It inheres in something else. It's figuring out what the something else is that is the item of interest.

LaFarge: I’m not qualified to talk about existence and essence. I don’t have a philosophic mind and I shy away from those kinds of questions. But, memory was the kind of thing that I picked up from your comment that I wanted to say something about. The thing I like about memory is that the more they look at it, the more complicated it’s turning out to be. It’s a real mess, in terms of trying to understand it. One of the things I get from reading the writings of people like Olivers Sacks on neurological problems in people is that there’s no simple division of the world into the people who remember and everybody else who is messed up, for some reason. Probably all of us have different types of peculiar and faulty wiring. What you call memory is your own particular, random mess, that is partly fictional and partly real, but also alters itself over time to a greater degree than we understand. Memory’s another thing that I find hard to talk about, but fascinating to contemplate.

Audience: I have a question about some of the things Sandy said in response to a question about technology. It sounded to me like you were saying that what gives meaning to technology is the way that it is used. But people make technology and people choose what technologies to make. I’m wondering if there’s some meaning in the potential for technology to be used. Could you talk about that a little bit?

LaFarge: One of the things that’s happened with MOOs is that people aren’t doing with them what they were supposed to do, which is to meet, exchange ideas and be research and educational spaces for the community good. People are using these spaces to have all sorts of fun, play and screw around. Sex is just the most obvious of the diversions we’ve found. The people who are most obsessed with these worlds are those who are the most deeply involved with them as a form of very complicated play intersecting with life. Life and play are not supposed to intersect, really, after the age of twelve but, in these worlds, they do. The beauty of this thing is that it’s gone in a direction that people didn’t expect and that a lot of people disapprove of. This is also the problem of games, in general.

Bogren: I just find it fascinating. A friend sent me in the mail an 11-year-old computer, and then I got Eudora email, so I feel like I’m really advanced in the system. It’s fascinating what you’re saying about the idea of play intersecting with life. That’s wonderful—I didn’t understand that.

Stone: Technological objects have things called ‘affordances’ which is something that comes from the work of J. J. Gibson. An affordance is like a handle, that which presents itself to a human as an entry point, or a point of engagement, with the technology. Affordances can be rather obvious. Generally, whether we like it or not, weapons have better affordances than anything else. When you pick up a gun, it fits in your hand, there's a place where the trigger goes, etc. When you pick up a large soup tureen, it's got handles on it --those are the affordances. When you have a computer with a touch screen, the screen is the affordance. You enter that world by means of moving your hand around on the screen. Those are put there by the designer. There's any number of ways that affordances can be designed into or onto a piece of technology. Consequently, it behooves us to study design. That's an odd place to stop --it sounds like I should go on from there-- but I wanted there to be a long pause.

One of the reasons that I've begun to study pure design is to understand more about how beautiful affordances are. This was taken up early by, say, the fur teacup piece in the MoMA collection. An object like that is an object whose affordances have been messed with, and you no longer see it as an object whose sole purpose is to hold coffee. That's a way of playing with the entry point into the particular technology. Again, how do we ask those sets of questions of any new object? Of course, they are best asked from the conceptual point on, before the thing actually concretizes into some visible shape.

Audience: Cyberspace, the way its often presented, is kind of like a place of promise. The promise is linked, in a sense, to a sort of erotic ontology, which is again linked to a sense of discovery. We started, today, talking about a sense of place, which has been extended into something else, as well as into poetic notation. We have a series of URLs now, which end in the epithets .edu, .org, .com, that give us a place or a space for poetic notation. This is a kind of institutionalization or commercialization of what is most people’s encounter with this promise of discovery, this erotic ontology of cyberspace. How can they be reconciled? Is there still a promise or sense of discovery?

LaFarge: I have a couple things to say. I think we’ve passed through the first stage, that of the raw excitement of the early days of the Internet when there wasn’t much besides Telnet, and the Web didn’t even exist. A lot of what is happening now is extraordinarily uninteresting, at least to me. On the Web, in particular, the things people are doing are the most obvious. That is rarely interesting. There has to be more ahead that people haven’t stumbled on yet. It can’t all be over in twenty-five years. I think that multi-user, real time communities and those types of things are going to have a longer term promise, because that’s what people are obsessed with, and I have a great deal of respect for things that people get obsessed with to the point of spending sixty hours of week. ‘Addiction’ is a word that is often thrown around, but that’s just a word for things people get obsessed with that other people don’t like. I see a lot of potential for psychologically interesting things in that. ‘Promise’ is a weird word to use, because you start to feel like you have to say something utopian, and I am no utopian at all. I don’t think it’s going to make the world better, it’s just different. That brings me to the other thing I wanted to say, which is that ‘cyberspace’ is a beautiful word, and I use it all the time, but I think it’s misleading. We are comfortable with architectural and physical metaphors, but, actually, the temporal dimension of what is happening is more important than the spatial. The experience of being on-line has a lot to do with altered temporalities—different speeds of communication, different types of waiting, anything about real time responsiveness. Responsiveness, as Sandy said earlier in another context, is really where the life of this comes from. The temporality is what’s interesting, in a more fundamental sense, and we haven’t done much with fully exploring how this is a ‘cyber-time’ rather than a ‘cyber-space.’

Stone: I've always felt that Michael Heim's expression, the erotic ontology of cyberspace, has been very misleading. It puts a particular slant on it. It prejudges and preframes something that's happening that quite escapes that frame. I think it's fun to examine some of those things in cyberspace but they certainly don't define it. I don't agree with Michael that the ontology of cyberspace is erotic.

Bogren: I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have to, really. Once, I made a drawing on a piece of cloth—it was a quilt, to cover you—that was an image of dogs, real friendly dogs with their tongues hanging out, fun dogs playing. There’s something wonderful about play. Play is prayer, actually. I understand that. So, here are these dogs in this drawing, playing. What they’re playing about is that they’re on land, but they’re going to jump into water. As the water goes upstream, you can see that the dogs have, in fact, started jumping into the water, and now they’re swimming. It’s real hard work, because swimming is hard. As they’re swimming, what they’re doing makes them change from dogs to dogfish, which is a form of small shark. Because the fact is that if you change your element, if you get from what is familiar to what you can do, but is not your place now, you will become what you’re doing.

Audience: I want to ask anyone who wants to answer about this issue of class. We seem to be moving more and more towards to what I see as this myth of being a cyber-something —cyborg or cyberculture. And there is the myth of everybody being on-line, which is, of course, not true, since there are people who, for economic reasons, don’t have televisions or telephones. As we move more in this direction, we are beginning to really disempower this lower class. I wonder if we could talk about that. I don’t know if I know enough about history to make this statement, but I suspect that we’re disempowering the lower class more than, perhaps, we have in recent history.

LaFarge: More than before —I don’t know if that’s true. I suspect that it may be the rule more than the exception with new technologies, that they disempower somebody. Since the question of weapons has already come up, I’ll say that one of the things that fancy new weapons do is immediately kill a lot of people, who aren’t the people running the weapons or the culture that bought the weapons in the first place. What has to happen is that, over a long period of time, technologies filter out into the culture and change as that happens. Yes, they start off with only the people who can afford them. This is never good, but everything starts somewhere, and it’s usually with people with money.

Audience: I have a question for Antoinette and one for Sandy. Maybe they are the same question. Antoinette talked about how artists always try to multiply the worlds. I was wondering what that means, exactly. Sandy talked about changing the world, and we talked about the utopian aspect of this whole discourse. It seems that people are divided into either apocalyptic or utopian sorts of camps, when we’re talking about technology. I’m all for utopian ideas or thinking but, at the same time, you said, You change the world by changing people’s experience, and I was wondering what possibilities you see. Of course, there is always a chance for change, but can you talk about this in a more specific way? For instance, within the next six months—these things move so fast that it’s hard to talk about it—what is happening? Maybe it’s connected, also, to the issue of class. I don’t really know.

LaFarge: As far as changing the world goes, my feeling is that there’s two approaches, direct and indirect, to changing the world. The first is normally identified as political, and the second is considered the artistic strategy. I think they’re largely a matter of temperament, as much as anything. Everyone wants to change the world. As far as what that has to do with multiplying worlds, my feeling has always been that I was born into this world, it’s one world and, for my purposes or interests, it’s always felt inadequate. A lot of what I’m interested in doing is thinking about the way things could be in other respects. Just small changes, like what if everybody was a forger, and that was okay? Or, what if people had twelve different personalities and that was absolutely normal, and what you did day in and day out actually had to take advantage of all those personalities? But that’s making it sound bigger than it is. It’s that people don’t see the possibilities of things that don’t exist until someone puts them on the table. There’s a whole lot of ways of putting that on the table, and one of them is just trying things, even if a lot of them don’t work. Another one is having specific ideas, not just trying things out at random, but saying we need x, y, and z, and putting those on the table. I’m not very good at being specific in terms of what’s going to happen in six months. I’m a terrible prophet. I only know what I’m interested in, and that I follow my gut. If I’m fascinated with something, I go on and do it. You aren’t going to get any prognostications from me. When I say multiplying worlds, I mean just showing possibilities. I think that’s what artists do best.

Stone: I just wanted to agree with what you just said. I always feel acutely uncomfortable in question and answer sessions, which is why, normally, I don't do them. This is really unusual. The reason I don't do them is that, basically, I'm a storyteller. When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, he didn't expect to get asked questions about whether the map to find the gold is accurate.

Bogren: The idea of play, again, and of saying the what if? is so wonderful. All the time that the war in the Balkans was going on, I was saying, What if, instead of hitting on one another, we were increasing our level of hospitality? Knowing what it means to get a money grant as an artist, to do my work, think what it would mean if you were under pressure to be gifted with something that you need, rather than to be interfered with. It’s an issue of creative paradigms that are really simple and come out of what we already know as humans. I think that’s how change is created. It gets created because it’s more fun.

Audience: I wanted to go back to what Ellen said. The reason I want to go back there is not to ask a question but because it’s being recorded. I would like to say that I know the two of you work with technology and computers, that’s your heartfelt work, so I don’t mean to make a personal statement. But I take what she said very personally. You said that technology needs to begin somewhere, and you also agreed that it was created in an elite arena. Although the technology does trickle down, it also permeates our society in the way that it was created. I think it’s important to remember that it can be a tool for education but can also be a tool for control, and we shouldn’t lose touch with that. That’s the way that I feel about technology. It’s a personal feeling. I use technology to an extent, for a tool for very minimal things, but when I look at the way it globally permeates, I get very nervous.

Stone: It's easy, I think, to collapse the idea of technology permeating everything with the force that drives technology permeating everything. I would suggest that the thing we need to pay more attention to, rather than to technology, is the force behind it. Why is technology so powerful? Why does it penetrate everything? It's partly because, in and of itself, there is something transformative about technology, but it's also being driven by market and political economics. Nobody ever says, Gee, political economics are penetrating everything, what are we going to do? We're already totally permeated and this is just the latest instance. If we are going to talk about the dangers of technology --and they are real-- let's look beyond that to the people who control the making of those technologies and who have the power to make them dangerous. We can try to figure out ways to keep the benefits, of which there are many, while finding ways to dislodge the structures that control them. That gets back to what you said before about who we are disempowering. There are tremendous forces operating in the world today to disempower as many groups as possible. Technology is like a stain, in a way, a way of following or making more visible the way those structures are operating. I'm sure we all know what I'm talking about: the way those structures, both corporate and political, operate, particularly here in the U.S., to disempower, wherever they feel disempowerment doesn't interfere with the ability to sell stuff or in other ways interfere with the spread of global economic change.

LaFarge: I guess I feel like I should say, fairly bluntly, that if you don’t like the forces that are driving technology, you have to get involved, particularly if you consider yourself part of a disenfranchised group, women or otherwise. You have to wade in with both feet and not run away from it. I say this as somebody who, unlike Sandy, didn’t have a transformative moment with technology early on. In fact, early on, I had a disdain for anything that had to be plugged in. I got involved with technology by a fairly indirect route, but not a small part of it is that, in general, I’m interested in power. That’s not one of the prettiest parts of my personality, but if you’re talking about power, then you have to go out and grasp it.

Bogren: I just want to say that, regarding that power, is that I understand technology, too. When I was a nurse, I used to walk around with these paddles that had electricity charging through them. Any time I came across a freshly dead person, I just slammed the paddles onto the body, pushed a switch and brought the body back to life. That’s a real good example of technology being used well, don’t you think?

Audience: This is for Sandy. At the risk of sounding like one of your administrators, I bring to you my quandary, which is that, to the extent to which I’m excited by your structural questioning that you explicated so eloquently, I’m also frustrated by its inherent resistance to applicability. You spoke so well of breaking down and addressing structures, to refer to your metaphor of the balls in the air between the courts. I find it powerful and, at the same time, I’m interested in my frustration with the need to directly apply this.

Stone: You want me to get more specific about how that works? I'd rather not in this brief forum, so I won't. If I can get out from under the necessity to respond, I will. Maybe later. I appreciate the comment.

Audience: I’m hesitating to ask this question, because I’d like to switch gears and I don’t know if my question is intelligent enough. But I really want to ask what you guys do for fun.

Stone: You really want to know? Where do you want me to start? One thing I don't do is watch television. I like going out to movies, hanging out with friends, and having strange discussions. Of course, what I'm doing in answering your question is quoting from my yearbook: Sandy Stone, always merry and bright! What do you do when you are asked a question like that?

LaFarge: All the obvious things that you might think of are on my list. We don’t even have to go into them, they’re the basic ones of American culture: sex, drugs, movies, books, wasting time, slacking off, masturbating, you name it. However, the one I thought I’d bring up because it has some more direct relevance, is that I fish. I come from a family of people who fish, I love to fish and one of the things I like best about it is that people think, Ah, phew! She has a real, feet-on-the-ground connection to physical reality. But what I like best about it is that it is, in effect, another fantasy world that I enter for limited periods of time. It has a completely ridiculous object, which is catching primitive, slimy creatures by trying to trick them. And, once your day of fishing is over, you get to go somewhere and tell lies about it. Frankly, what more can you ask of life?

Bogren: I thought, today, hearing these two people speak and being a part of this was one of the most fun things I’ve done in ever so long. This was just fun.

 

 

Analysis by Ann Mansolino

 

 

The panel discussion with Antoinette LaFarge, Sandy Stone, and Vernal Bogren focused on issues surrounding technology and digital media. The panelists represented very different perspectives on the matter, as LaFarge and Stone are deeply involved with digital technology and Bogren's interest is in pre-electric information systems based in nature.

The panel began by considering the problems, possibilities, and implications of the rise of the so-called ‘new media.’ LaFarge and Stone found the term ‘new media’ problematic and inadequate for discussing the ‘experiential modes of being’ that characterize on-line worlds and the technology which makes them possible. While both asserted that the existing terminology and institutional structures are inadequate for describing and containing what is occurring in their work with digital media, neither panelist seemed interested in proposing an alternative framework for understanding or discussing these technologies. This reticence on the part of two artists deeply committed to working with new technology is in itself problematic, as, if they believe that most individuals and institutions are not equipped to discuss or understand their work, then they themselves must play an active role in initiating dialogue and establishing new and relevant ways of approaching it. Nonetheless, I believe that the inability of the panelists and of others to define ‘new media’ reveals not their own shortcomings, but rather the shortcomings of existing art and educational vocabularies in relation to current developments in these fields. A new terminology is indeed needed, as it is not sufficient to simply recast new media in old terms. Issues surrounding what such a vocabulary would be like or how to begin constructing it need to be addressed if work in digital media is to be relevant to a broader audience than new media artists themselves. Where might such a new vocabulary come from?

For LaFarge and Stone, the ‘new media’ is not just another new tool used in the service of traditional artistic practice; rather, it provides possibilities for a new way of being in the world. The on-line world is, according to LaFarge, not just one world but rather many multiple worlds characterized by openness and anarchic tendencies. Bogren, though unfamiliar with on-line worlds, also spoke of the value of the openness of unstructured spaces. Thus, while positioned very differently in relation to technology, all of the panelists seem, through the information systems they explore, to seek experiential modes of being defined by imaginative qualities rather than external controls.

Several of the program fellows questioned the panelists about the social and economic implications of new technologies - in particular about the intended versus the actual uses of technological objects. Stone spoke of the ‘affordances’ of technological objects, of the ways of interacting with them that are put there by designers. She advocated questioning affordances and their implications at the conception point, before new technologies are concretized. Yet questions remain: how do we respond to existing technologies? How do we intervene when we discover that the affordances that characterize technological devices (such as weapons) cause them to be used in consistently harmful or violent ways? If affordances are mutable, as Stone claims, how do we go about changing the uses of existing technological objects through an investigation of their affordances?

Also significant are the issues regarding the effects of technology on individual subjectivity. LaFarge sees much promise in multi-user real time technologies. She is drawn to the altered psychology resulting from such technologies, and asserts that we are now witnessing a changed attitude toward the notion of time. She thus speaks of ‘cybertime’ rather than cyberspace. I wonder how these changes will affect our long-standing conceptions of the individual being existing in time. Will our psychology and sense of temporality in the real world change as a result of experiencing multiple multi-user on-line worlds? To paraphrase Bogren: when we change what we're doing, we change ourselves. We become something else. We become what we're doing. It seems to me that traditional notions of individual subjectivity and community are threatened by such changes, and that we must therefore proceed with great caution, as there is much at risk when we willingly allow our technologies to mediate our experience of being in the world.

Ultimately, it seemed, the discussion came to focus on issues of power. Questions were raised about economic power, as access to computer technology is often contingent upon having the means to afford it. While acknowledging that technology (and the power associated with it) is concentrated in the upper socioeconomic classes of society, the panelists glossed over many important implications of this. Those who have the technology are those who shape its development and uses; it therefore comes increasingly to reflect their concerns and hence further reinforces existing socioeconomic class divisions. Much could have been said (but was not) of the possible repercussions of this class-based participation in socially transformative technologies and of various possible ways to changing this, such as educating children of various social classes about computers and thus beginning to efface current technology-based class divisions in future generations.

Both Stone and LaFarge agreed that technology and power structures are tightly entwined, and consequently advocated involvement with technology as a means of changing the economic and political forces that drive technology to permeate our society. Yet, do our activities as artists and individuals using technology actually have the potential to alter these power structures? I question whether most new media artists are actively affecting the uses of technology or merely being passively affected by them. Would greater participation in technology on the part of artists change where the political and economic power associated with technology resides?

Toward the end of the discussion, Bogren stated technology can be both a tool for education and a tool for control. She alone among the panelists expressed anxiety about the way technology is rapidly permeating society. It is an anxiety that I, as an artist who uses digital media in my work, have come to share. While I am optimistic about the potential of new media described by LaFarge and Stone, I remain skeptical about the psychological, social, and political implications of unreservedly embracing new media. I hope that we, as members of society and as artists working in an increasingly technological world, have the wisdom to approach the tools we have created with sufficient caution and criticality to realize their vast potential while simultaneously retaining our identities as individual beings existing in real time and space.