notes from ada -emerge- symposium

Dr Melinda Rackham

No use without permission

I'm going to tell you a story about how I become entwined in networks and network culture.

In the mid nineties I discovered the internet, interestingly enough by doing a Masters Degree and having to research the pornography and censorship debate that was emerging online. At that time less than 5% of net users were women and cyberfemminism was the site of the most interesting and inspiring theory.

I got together with 3 other women to do an online project for 1995 United Nations Year of Women and had to learnt to write html in order to teach other women how to do it for the project. This was before there were Uni classes that taught you how to do it, before Dreamweaver, before the one before Dreamweaver.

Out of necessity I joined mailing lists to find out how to make art, and I had the pleasure of being helped by people whose real name I often didn't know and who I will never meet, yet they gave generously of their time to assist me to learn. In today's "every person for themselves" society I though that was something special and it cemented my desire to work on the internet. At the time I lived in tiny village on the east cost of Australia 2 hours form Sydney. So I had no local community to be in and my boyfriend worked in Japan for part of each month so the net became my (love)lifeline.

I started to make work about living ones life online, exploring my virtual identity and sexuality. People saw my work and emailed me and I started to look for an online artist community and discovered Eyebeam list run by Jordan Crandall (which is now a book). I saw a tiny post on a list and replied quiet casually and end up at Polar Circuit in Finland doing a residency with 60 artists from round the work for a month. I discovered networks were pretty transformative things. Here I started to develop fleshy networks. Someone told me about Syndicate list, it all seemed very mysterious and eastern European.

The more familiar I became with the world the more I stated to contemplate the terrain theoretically and I felt grown up enough to post to Nettime. I was amazed how i had instant access to the people whose writing I had admired and who in turn took what I had to say seriously. On the yellow brick superhighway I realised I wasn't in Kansas anymore.

In Australia lists like the Recode came and went, then Fibreculture started, however, as I felt it was academically focused it excluded practicing artists, so in January 2002 I started -empyre-.

Being Australian based -empyre- strategically aimed to create a third space - a soft space which is accessible and inclusive to artists, writers theorists, curators and others, especially those who live and work in the arenas outside the USA and Western Europe. Its aim was to discuss issues which are often neglected in online arts practice such as those of race, gender and regional biases. It maintains a policy to not feature only the usual suspects or media stars, although some of the guests are very well known, but to provide a level platform for artists and theorists working in interesting critical and artistic interstices.

Its format is that each month by featuring different guests, from diverse locations around the world who exchange views with, and among, the empyre community. -empyre- forum is an autonomous, non-hierarchical collaborative entity consequently there is no dominant group or philosophy at -empyre-, but rather, a zone for focussed improvisation about ideas that matter amongst a global community.

The list has this specific format for a number of reasons. Over the years I had been getting frustrated with the low ratio of signal to noise on other lists, and seeing lists like Recode and Syndicate be torn apart by the constant revision of the social structure of the list - i.e. discussions over what was appropriate in mailing list etiquette in terms of announcements and postings. How to deal with those who were perceived to break these codes of behaviour overtook actually talking about media arts topics and the lists died.

I also wanted a discussion space which would explore topics specific to the issues I was exploring in my PhD - 3d multi-user and game spaces, online community, the diversity of online practice, distributed intelligence, etc, as I had been working around those areas of practice for a few years. I had discovered a vibrant global community discussing the technical issues associated with web3d, but no avenues for the more aesthetic or theoretical discussions of networked dimensional environments, and I saw other lists where the culture of the Internet and impacts of technology were being discussed by writers and academics, but not by artists who were making work in the field. There was an obvious g ap and I-empyre- filled it
Offline -empyre- would equate to a casual lecture series, or a resident workshop program. The list provides the space and the audience, the guest decides the topic, and is responsible for posting. The list aims to have diversity in its scheduled topics, and to be flexible enough to adapt to current events and on several occasion has augmented online discussions within a geographically located show or event including Lab 3D in Manchester: 2004 Australian Culture Now Biennial at ACMI in Melbourne and ISEA04 in Scandinavia.

The list is also the topic of other art works like Marcos Westkamp's Social Circles and discussions also often end up being edited and published in other arenas such as the freewear Lab 3D reader, or in Intelligent Agent. It is now a well respected main stay of media art theory and -empyre- will run a series of forums online in the lead up to the next Documenta.

When I launched -empyre- as an experiment, I thought it would be a cosy intimate group of around 50 people, however it attracted diverse subscribers. The numbers go up and down as people try it out to see if they like it, some people who've been there a while leave, others join for a specific guest or topic. Currently it's around 1000 subscribers, with around 30% from the Australia/Pacific region, the rest from North America and Europe with a splattering from Eastern Europe, South America and Asia. It grows at about the rate of 25 new subscribers a month

It is a low to moderate traffic list with an average of 50 messages a week. Regularly about 15% of subscribers post - there are a few who have something to contribute to the discussion on every topic, as well as constantly changing posters dependent on the guest and topic. The rest of -empyre- are silently lurking… which is an interesting form of participation. Recently I overheard someone on the list who had never posted, discussing a list topic in an offline context, and I realised that a mailing list's influence is far beyond what happens publicly online, it reverberates - becomes interactive in the wider community. People contribute by reading, nothing is passive. A lot of people also make interesting observations either to myself or to the current guest instead of the whole list, as it does take time to become involved with an online discussion.

List etiquette issues of course are always present… from its inception I had had strong guidelines as to what are appropriate postings, for example -empyre- is not a chat space, nor an announcement or self-promotion list, nor online performance space. It's for topic discussion only, and I state up front that I will unsubscribe anyone who consistently disregards these guidelines without entering into debate. And I've had to remove or ask a few people to unsubscribe already. So it is quiet strict in that sense, however if people don't like those guidelines there are many other lists available.

Initially I thought -empyre- would run for a year and then close, as it takes time and energy to maintain a list, however because it worked so well and the format has built a momentum, it continues to go form strength to strength. Christina McPhee, a US West Coast media artis became the first co-moderators and co- administrators, and Adrian Miles from RMIT, Melbourne and Rebecca Cannon from Selectparks assisted for a while. Christina and I were then joined by Michael Arnold Mages a sound artist and theorist from Denver , and then later by Felix Sattler from Bauhaus Uni in Germany and Canadian net poet Jim Andrews. When I left in July 2005 to take up the position of ANAT Director the team was augmented by net artists South American Marcos Bastos, and Tracy Benson from Australia. They all give freely of their time to make it the successful dynamic community that it is.

Directing ANAT, which is another much more formal and funded network, builds on that work I have done over the past decade in a global community.

I believe that successful networks give something very valuable back to their members. Otherwise why would you want to join up? When I looked at ANAT's website I was horrified. This is our face to the world and on eof my first priorities is to completely redevelop the site into a data base driven global showcase for our members. They then can keep their work and info about themselves in an attractive, self maintained format, which will be regularly and highlighted on the front screen of our site.

Online we will be publishing our thematic Filter articles, Plug-in events listings, Geek corner (with all the crazy and fabulous sites which circulate round the office), artist and curator and theoretical interviews. We also produce a print magazine people really want to read, which will expand to include DVDs next year, and give ANAT members up to $3000 to go to conference and workshops nationally and Internationally.

We run Synapse Residencies, where artists work in science laboratories for periods up to three months,; our annual residential media labs for up to 20 participants at different locations through out Australia. In 2006 our lab will focus on wearable technologies with jewellers and d fashion designers joining media artists, and h following year we will focus on open source with participation of Asia Pacific regional artists at the Biennial of Electronic Arts in Perth. We also partner with other organsiations to produce event such as New Constellations: Art Science and Society conference at the MCA next year, and the Adelaide Festival to produce the Media State program of events forums workshops and exhibitions.

I am also initiating a series of Asia Pacific residencies online and simultaneously in a gallery space so that there is dialogue locally and regionally and globally. This will build a solid Asia Pacific network of arts and art Instutitions who are committed to developing residencies and dialogues and making media arts more mainstream and visible, thereby developing opportunities for artists and enriching the wider community.

Although -empyre- existed on nothing and continues to flourish, however i burnt out, even with 4 other people programming it, as I was ultimately responsible. What we need to develop are networks that's are energetically sustainable from the point of view those running them as well as the content and health of the community. Ones which don't rely on one or a few individuals sacrificing their time and income and life style to maintain communities. This of course takes institutional support, academic and community recognition and money, but then the community risks becoming rigid, defined, stagnant.

I'm quiet excited to be now in the position at ANAT to have the resources to be beginning to draw together the networks which already exist throughout our region which can support and promote new and mutated digital forms as they emerge.

I want to end by showing a networked artwork that charts, through sound and text, the global connections between us:

Listening Post (2002) by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin is an art installation that culls text fragments in real time from thousands of unrestricted Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards and other public forums. The texts are read (or sung) by a voice synthesizer, and simultaneously displayed across a semi circular suspended wall of 231 fluorescent screens. It cycles through a series of six movements, each a different arrangement of visual, aural, and musical elements, each with it's own data processing logic.

The texts re personal revelations, angry outbursts, seductive lines, factual statements, beginning with 'I am', 'I like' or 'I love'. As the messages increase in complexity, the light emanating from the displays brightens the room, while the texts start to form a meta-narrative, or as Rubin says a 'strange quilt of communication'. Viewers of the piece react with awe, most lying on the floor for the half hour or so that Listening Post takes to cycle through each of its six movements.

It is a truly reverential artwork - its scale and immediacy producing a culturally transcendent experience in the gallery space. At once an immersive electronic cathedral, a Wailing Wall or a Buddhist prayer wheel, the homogenised synthesised uttered texts echo our common humanity.

It makes visible and audible the intensity of the online networks with which we engage on a daily basis, but which often remain invisible to the wider community. In our age of distributed community and networked media, our emerging connections through media arts, the threads which bind us loosely together, grow in strength locally, regionally and globally.

Thank you





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