[iDC] Re: Interactive City: irrelevant mobile entertainment?

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at wanadoo.fr
Tue Aug 29 12:49:02 EDT 2006

Greetings everyone -

Nice to get back to this list. I didn't go to ISEA, but I've 
read the recent posts and I like the controversy. It's 
striking that it was touched off by Kanarinka, who is 
involved in such funny and playful work (infinitely small 
things). I too would feel constrained in a situation where 
play seems to be imposed as the rule, and war is the missing 
topic. Play has become so strange in public culture. We 
wanted the experience of freedom, sensuality, uproarious 
laughter, equal exchange and diversity; and we got something 
like neutralization, or control.

Mark Shepard wrote that the subject of play has been around 
a long time. It's true. A couple years ago I followed 
Debord's image of the "battle of leisure taking place before 
our eyes" (1957) all the way back to Schiller's "Letters On 
the Aesthetic Education of Man" (1794). It's a fascinating 
essay - maybe the foundational text of democratic cultural 
planning. It was written just after 1789; Schiller was so 
hopeful about the French revolution, then so horrified by 
the Terror. He saw aesthetic play as a possible mode of 
governance for the new democratic citizenry, and he wrote 
about a "play instinct" (Spieltrieb) acting as a mediator 
between two different aspects of human consciousness: a 
sensual drive, leading outward to a compelling diversity of 
experience in time, and a formal drive, leading inward to a 
coherent identity of self in the eternal realm of ideas. The 
part I found amazing was that his reflection on the uses of 
play led him to conceive two different ways that the ideal 
statesman could treat the ordinary citizen, or what he 
called "the man of time":

"Now two ways present themselves to thought, in which the 
man of time can agree with the man of idea, and there are 
also two ways in which the state can maintain itself in 
individuals. One of these ways is when the pure ideal man 
subdues the empirical man, and the state suppresses the 
individual, or again when the individual becomes the state, 
and the man of time is ennobled to the man of idea."

When the state suppresses the individual: that's ideology, 
or literally state terror, the guillotine, the thing we fear 
most. When the individual becomes the state, or is led to 
intimately accept the legitimacy of the state, through the 
diverse, sensual, and even liberating pedagogy of play: 
that's what Schiller saw as a solution. Yet this solution 
has become one of the things I really dislike in our 
programmed societies. Particularly in the corporate 
playgrounds where one sometimes finds oneself as an artist, 
or even as a critic.

Mark Shepard and Tobias van Veen mentioned my text "Drifting 
through the Grid." To my mind, it wasn't just about locative 
media, nor just about the Cartesianism of GPS - which is the 
part of the critique that Mark says was "internalized by the 
field." What really interested me was the concept of 
Imperial infrastructures - the world-spanning 
information-processing systems, derived from US military 
research and applications, which have subsequently been 
opened up for public use. Internet, GPS, satellite 
communications, etc. This "opening up" has made possible a 
global assembly line and marketplace, still defended by the 
military if need be.

The point of liberal capitalist society is to encourage the 
diversification of both desire and productive activity, for 
profit. The question for me was, how do our subversive 
cultural activities play out in this open environment? It 
seemed that the liberating aspects of many kinds of 60's 
aesthetics, which were originally meant to work against the 
imposed homogeneity of factory discipline, could have a 
blinding and neutralizing effect under a cultural-economic 
system that encourages expression and differentiation, but 
constantly tracks and surveils it. Unfortunately this seems 
ever more true. More recently I've been developing these 
ideas further, to see precisely how a cybernetic capitalism 
sets the parameters in which diversity and free play unfold 
under profit-making conditions - while governments monitor 
the results, and use the almost forgotten Cartesian 
characteristics of the military technology to identify and 
target certain kinds of actors, when certain thresholds are 
passed, when certain differences are judged dangerous.

Of course this is a dark picture, but we live in dark times. 
So what to do? turn off the broadband? hide from the 
satellites in a Faraday cage? I don't think so. Nor do I 
want to give up the risk of artistic play, which human life 
needs for pleasure and exploration and delirium and 
self-loss of every kind. I also like what Tobias said about 
the fundamental impurity and commodity status of 
art-as-prothesis. But where you play around, how, with what 
effects, are the questions. There are plenty of people to 
"adopt the model of research and development wholesale, 
looking for corporate sponsorship or even ventura capital," 
as Marc Tuters and Kazys Varnelis put it in the text that 
Mark Shepard cites. If you want an example of a 
industry-government quango looking to optimize cultural 
differences for the market, check out Proboscis, the British 
tech-art funder which is also cited in the same passage of 
that article. Those people are slick. To gloss over failure 
(Tobias again) is to gloss over death, and with it, the 
existence of others. And that's also been a major problem in 
the USA since the air-conditioned nightmare got humming way 
back when.

Cultural production still needs find ways to go against the 
grain, in this case the slick faux-panel of neutralization 
and blindess, in order to help create the resistance of a 
self, which Saul Ostrow has talked about in such an 
interesting way. The idea that autonomy isn't an issue - I 
don't say an achieved condition, but a problematic quest for 
individuals and groups - is unbearable to me in an age when 
being on the inside amounts to suporting the trends of 
corporate capital, and all that follows. I have no idea what 
there really was to see and do at ISEA, but the controversy 
over what such events are good for and how they work in 
reality must be one of the more interesting things it produced.

all the best, Brian

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