[iDC] Interview with John Hopkins

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Wed Mar 2 15:09:35 EST 2005

Facilitating a Dialogical Platform for Creative Engagement

Interview with John  Hopkins (adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
As part of WebCamTalk1.0

Trebor Scholz: You have taught all over the world: from Reykjavik and
Helsinki, to Bremen and Boulder. Working in between cultures you encountered
difficulties finding relevant reading materials in the native language,
which led you away from introducing texts and instead you started to focus
more on the creation of 'dialogical spaces.'
There is also the aspect of new media research texts most often being
authored and distributed in English, which comes with the danger of imposing
one cultural context onto others. In a previous conversation you said that
teaching without using much theory felt liberating to you.

John Hopkins: Yes, I would definitely use the word liberating. In 1992
when I founded the new media area at the Icelandic Academy of Art
there were no relevant texts available in Icelandic. And I hesitated to
assign foreign language readings as this felt imposing, imperialistic even.
Often I found my Nordic students to have a better command of English than my
Northern American ones -- so that was not the reason I shied away from texts
in English.  But text governs so much of the hierarchy of control -- to toss
this out is a very powerful step. It frees the students up as well as myself
to get to their specific issues, which are relevant in relation to their
local context. A socially constructed framework such as a text may not speak
to the situation at hand despite the widespread perception that if a teacher
assigns a text that it must somehow be relevant to the student's life. Often
you just do not get to this situation of social, cultural, and geographical
relevance when you slog through a mass of critical texts.  (But, just to be
clear, I do not want to devalue theory. It is one specific type of socially
mediated information. But if it appears as a prevailing input that forces
discovery into one single focus, then I am highly suspicious of it.)

While I do consume mediated information much of the time, I do give higher
value to the lived local experience. I could teach theory until I am blue in
the face as they say. But unless there is an associated and relevant praxis
arising, there would be no point. I did occasionally assign texts by Geert
Lovink or David Garcia, both of whom I find very inspirational. I also
introduced the first zkp4's* to American students hot off the press in 1997
and they surprisingly engaged with the texts. I have also been known to even
assign the UnaBomber Manifesto from time to time. But I find my teaching of
texts pointless unless it is on a pathway to a lived practice.

TS: Earlier we spoke about Martin Buber's influence on your work and how you
mobilize his ideas of dialogical space.

JH: I use the term dialogue", borrowed from Buber -- which I define as an
energized exchange between the self and the other. A bi-directional
exchange, not just verbal but a full exchange of human energies. This is
what dialogue is about.
Starting from this concept -- talking about distributed exchanges. Martin
Buber's essay "Genuine Dialogue and the Possibilities of Peace" deeply
struck me as it promotes dialogue as the pathway to a more democratic,
caring, just, and sustainable world. He proposes that societal changes are
made on a granular human to human level and not on a world political scale.
Otherwise, he claims, we are just playing around with social systems. My
personal idea of an energized encounter is a full-spectrum dialogue between
the self and the other. It requires a shifting into a space modeled by
quantum physics, Taoism, and Tibetan Buddhism: the universe as a field of
energies. When two people meet and they walk away with more energy than they
had prior to this encounter then something has happened. When we engage with
the other and an excess energy remains after we part-- that is inspiration.
My teaching is a facilitation of open frameworks, of platforms in which
these inspirations can grow. I am of course also sympathetic with Hakim
Bey's "Temporary Autonomous Zone."

With students I designate a time period -- between 6 hours to 24 hours --
in which they first experience each other and then use the available
networked technology to express themselves. I may give one student an hour
on a stream and they have to curate this time. This could be a poetry
reading by a friend or a live performance-- there is no set topical agenda
or issue that they respond to, it is entirely a response to their particular
local situation. This mostly also involves cooking and eating together. This
is very important. To break bread together is a powerful experience.

TS: Did you see much of this inspiration unfolding in the universities at
which you taught?

JH: A lot of full-time faculty get burned out, they lose energy, they are
under extremely high degrees of daily stress in a heavy power structure.
Thankfully, I can give 15 workshops in a row in different countries and I am
in the end still energized because I am open to receiving something --
through energized relationships. And that is because I kept myself open in
the teaching situation. Fortunately, I let go of the idea that I am the only
source of knowledge and energy, which is a great feeling.

TS: What you describe as inspiration coming out of an encounter. In his book
"The Third Hand"  Charles Green referred to this as the "third body."

JH: Yes, there are many models for this and Christianity (among that host
of other models) formulates this when Christ says: "For where two or three
are gathered in my name, I am there among them." This merely describes the
excess of energy that arises when two or three people are in focused
engagement. Interaction between self and the other is fundamental -- it is a
fact of everyday life. I start all my courses with the task for students to
pair up and connect with each for two full hours in a focused and
concentrated way. I see this as an anchor with the topic being absolutely
open, it is an encounter with a stranger. It is simply two human beings
engaging with each other. Engaging with a stranger is of course related to
fear -- the uncomfortable engagement with the unknown other. Once you pay
attention to these face-to-face encounters then you have a much better
understanding of what happens in the mediated, extended, remote, disembodied
communication channels.

TS: Which open source software tools are you using?

JH: First, I seize whichever hardware is available and then I use software
such as iChat, IRC, Quicktime/Darwin servers, REAL servers, and Audion.
I don't exclusively use open source software but I do try to stay clear of
Microsoft products.

I refuse to let situations be crippled by a lack of hardware, or a
limited infrastructure. I don't walk into a situation and say: "Oh, no,
there is no streaming server, I can't do this project..." I always seize
what is available. I have problems with techno-prima-donnas who come in and
can't "do art" without this or that tool. We can always set up ad-hoc
networks -- all one needs for an artwork is two human beings. I never failed
to see a group of people to seize their resources and do something
interesting. I would never let the technology lead a situation -- that, to
me, is a proven concept. Technology needs to follow the human elements and
not the other way around. As somebody who comes from deep inside the
military industrial complex I have seen the dangers of letting technology
lead. We have all seen those results. When has there have ever been
something good that came out of a situation where technology led people?
Frankly, I could not think of an example. It is critical that people
understand that tools mediate human situations and that we understand the
loss that comes from this mediating process between the self and other.
The more there is a technological mediation between self and other -- the
bigger the loss. That is something that is not often addressed in depth. On
the other hand I use technology that allows a focused and attentive exchange
with an other person. Of course the degree to which people can put up with
telecommunication tools varies. Some person accepts this kind of loss on a
cell phone but would be critical of the connective possibilities of video

TS: Earlier you framed your networked practice as art. I am not so
interested in grouping the discussion in art or non-art terms. This debate
all too often leads to attempted definitions that then stand in as power
tools for admittance or exclusion. But I am curious about the emergence of a
social aesthetics in the technological channels that we use and I wonder if
this can be related to histories of that-- of art.

JH: I had a career in science and technology and only then made a formal
transition to art. I personally try to shed terms like artist or engineer. I
refuse titles. If anything, I would use the term networker. People who are
networkers seem to be a little more able to let go of those kinds of
frameworks and can imagine what other people's contexts are like. Who is
this other person in the network -- what are they about? How can I express
empathy for that person? Exchanges here become extremely subjective. All
these identities are transitory -- in my practice I do not label people but
rather discover them dynamically while engaging with them, not defining them
by their social standing or rank. This opens up more possibilities for truly
human interactions. The rewards are much greater than the costs. You may
irritate people when you refuse a label like "artist." They may even get
desperate -- they will do anything to put you in some kind of box. So, art,
engineering, science, technology-- these are all important areas that I move
across but I found that dropping a reliance on those terms and boxes is
necessary to crack situations open.


John Hopkin's Bookmarks:




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