diane ludin on Sat, 12 May 2001 22:29:52 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Harvesting the Net: MemoryFlesh - Interview with Diane Ludin by Rachel Greene

Harvesting the Net: Memory Flesh
Interview with Diane Ludin
Rachel Greene

Rachel Greene: Harvesting the Net: Memory Flesh is part of a series of
works on genetics, and the new technological realities of bio-humans. Can
you talk about how your earlier pieces informed what you wanted to do with
this latest one? Clearly, it makes sense for you to have taken on the
Genome proper... but what else?

Diane Ludin: About three years ago I started investigating what the human
genome was attempting to make. I found it almost impossible to sift
through the emerging public discussion around it; it was and still
continues to be a subject that stages a certain type of information
warfare. But it kept making the papers and getting a lot of media
attention with inflated projections of its potential.

After 6-9 months of pretty focused research I was able to recognize some
recurring themes. I had enough information to build proposals for online
projects that would get funding from Franklin Furnace and Turbulence.org.
These projects, at the intersection of performance, the body, computer
technology and the Internet, gave me a more concrete understanding of the
surrounding info-science. My projects became containers for reflecting
recurring themes I was beginning to recognize. Some of the themes being:
the economic inflation surrounding biotech companies; the invention of
online software tools to help track information such as patenting on
sequencing research for companies and research initiatives; the inflated
projections by pharmaceutical companies and medical practitioners of
biotech's potential.

Like any futuristic phenomenon it takes projections extremely well. It was
very hard to get to some of the practical mechanisms and real-time
processes behind the hype being manufactured.

So Genetic response system 1.0 was about imaginary visual projections from
movies that would draw together a broad approach to biotech in general,
and not specifically the human genome. It had a series of quotations from
various sources (none of them scientific), invented terms, and links from
friends' projects, all mixed with biotech companies and scientific
research initiatives. I had spent a few years working in collaboration
with artists such as Francesca da Rimini, Ricardo Dominguez, and the
Fakeshop gang whose work projected critical, imaginary scenarios
approaching technology and science in an art context. Genetic response
system 1.0 became a disembodied structure framing my work with these
practitioners in my (impulsive) reasoning at the time.

In 1998 I began studying with Natalie Jeremijenko. I found many
commonalties in Natalie's critical view of science, technology and
culture, with that of Francesca, Ricardo and the Fakeshoppers. However,
Natalie had a different practical relationship to the discussions of the
designing of that technology and it's journey into culture and economy.
Her ideas and work gave me a contrast for thinking about different
cultural projects that technology and emerging sciences were bringing
forward. I was able to modify my working practice and build my own
investigations. This and financial support from Franklin Furnace and
Turbulence.org allowed me to build some projects where I was responsible
for the conceptual structure.

Genetic response system 3.0, commissioned by Turbulence.org, was more of
solo meditation than Genetic response system 1.0. I decided to radically
reduce the materials I was pulling together. I was chasing after computer
companies advertising biotech and related sciences, and began archiving
images of economic behavior through online news services like CNN. I mixed
these still images with educational video on cellular behavior. It was a
place for me to start conceptually mixing the imagery I was drawn to in a
more focused manner.

When I finished working on Genetic response system 3.0, I was still
feeling the need to go deeper. I had been considering trying to build a
search engine, thinking that would be the ultimate way of tracking the
shifting and large amounts of information on the human genome without
spending much energy weeding through unnecessary information. I looked
into what it would take to build a search engine, how they were
programmed, and what their limitations were. I concluded that building a
search engine kept me too far away from the information content I wanted
to capture, and there would need to be some heavy duty filtering of that
data to get the returns I was looking for. This, and the thought that I
would be making temporary links based on information that other groups
maintained, made me realize what I really wanted to build was a repository
to record searches that I and other people I was working with could make.

So I proposed a database project whose contents I would gather and
re-purpose for viewers over the course of a year. I then began working
with Andrea Mayr to design a database that we could use to archive online
materials I wanted to work with. We used MySQL with a php3 interface.
MySQL is an open source database software, and php3 is a scripting
language with html embedded in it. So Harvesting the Net: Memory Flesh is
a more complete framing structure in that it contains the original source
material discovered through my time-based searches online. As far as some
of the differences in the type of collage this project makes, it is a
relatively more permanent one. Its contents are more focused conceptually.
The relationships between all the visual elements are clearer and more
generalized. Part of what I accomplished with this project, which I was
unable to reach with the others, was to capture what the laboratories that
make the human genome look like. What are the tools of the scientists who
are making history? What do the laboratory workers look like, and what is
the type of imagery these new factories are manufacturing to tell their

RG: How has Natalie has influenced you, and what have you learned from
her? Not only am I a fan of her work, but I think seeing these
exchanges/pedagogical relationships at work can be interesting. Especially
since as women we are often discouraged from this kind of exchange, and or
get caught up in, or held up by, the goal of technomastery.

DL: Amen, been talking a lot about this phenomenon with Shu Lea Cheang,
Yvonne Volkart, Diane Nerwin, and Ricardo over the last couple of days.
They are part of the show I presented some work in here (in Lucerne,
Switzerland). We have been calling it technoformalism, but I like
"technomastery" better.

RG: Cool! So what did you take from Natalie's work and teaching?

Many things... the most recurring phrase that comes back to me as I am
working on this project and technowork in general (be it devices or the
internet), is a phrase that I got from an essay of hers you published on
RHIZOME.org called "Database Politics." She wrote: "...technologies are
tangible social relations. That said, technologies can therefore be used
to make social relations tangible."

I often ask myself whether or not I am making tangible the social
relations I am interested in--apparent or not. It has become one of the
standards I use to evaluate my output. I was curious as to what that meant
when I read it. I was only able to imagine it partially. It seemed that a
technological relationship had its own category, and very little social
interaction within it, by the fact that it has only begun to move into
public awareness in the last couple of years, (therefore having low
contrast and only extremely minimal social experience could be accessed).
It became an idea I understood more as I activated it, and layered it into
my thinking.

RG: You said "... Natalie had a different practical relationship to the
discussions of the designing of that technology and it's journey into
culture and economy." Let's talk about that.

DL: Ricardo and Fakeshop did not work through the institution the way that
Natalie does. Francesca began with a more organizing interface in
Australia (and a background in corporate technological purposing), so
there are specific differences that we in New York, outside institutions,
had yet to access. Ricardo and Fakeshop were trying to mobilize their
cultural activity through art, writing and activism and are more bound by
these filters than Natalie. Natalie worked at Xerox PARC, and was doing
her doctorate at Stanford in Silicon Valley, which I consider a social and
developmental root of the computer industry. Stanford was where a lot of
the industry stars were educated. It seems that it offered her interior
access to the industry development that we as East Coast artists and
activists were struggling to grasp. She was able to practice her work and
social activity with access to the machinery that was, and still is,
defining technomastery.

RG: I really like that for a number of your projects you use links,
images, text, or often some basic, frames technology. In your statement
you use terms like "search strings" "conceptual parsing engine"--you're
using somewhat inflated tech terms to talk about your own subjective
hunting, gathering, and filtering. Can you talk about that as a strategy?

DL: I think emerging or progressive technological distribution language
contains inflated projections. It is a creative process that is accessed
by various types of PR media machinery building it. The distribution
language we are fed needs to be regenerated. It is often very sci-fi, and
applies inflated technological language to simple software and Internet
manipulations. This is a way in which I can locate the tangible social
relation in whatever technology I am working with and behave it. It is in
the concept and creative manipulation of that language that I can move the
fastest. Visualization technology and visualization culture move at a
different speed in relation to text, and writing within computer
technology. The part of my practice that is regenerating technological
terms is often the most fun for me. Word-processing interfaces and text
manipulation are closer to innate computer language. The database that we
designed for Memory Flesh is a simple relational database.

RG: Tell me a little bit about what it's been like as an artist
circulating through some of the institutional hallways of interactive art?
New media art has been so trendy and privileged lately; it worries me! I
worry that the elements I cherish most about it--hacktivism, tactical
media, and its capacity for institutional critique and social engagement
will be lost in favor of presentation or dumb technomastery.

DL: Part of the work I have been developing is possible because of the
privilege that institutions are now affording to net-specific work. A
major reason for my building on the net has to do with what I am
financially supported to do. I have other work, both artwork and labor for
living, but I am not paid enough to develop it, not to the level I am to
work on the net. In some ways it makes my work as an artist easier, that I
don't have to work as hard to promote myself, propose projects or convince
institutions of its significance. The institutions are doing this for me.
It is also helping me activate a practice that is more culturally
motivated, as opposed to artwork that has a set relationship to culture,
and a history of cultural expectations that categorize it.

There is currently a scramble to find work that utilizes the net in the
way that I have been using it in the last few years. I don't know how long
this will last, but I have been fortunate recently to propose ideas that
institutions are willing to promote, and to fund. And last but not least,
it is easy to translate my artistic practice into experience as a designer
and technical consultant for companies wanting to use the net.

The institutionalization or trendiness of any emerging artistic or
cultural movement of attention goes hand in hand with the weaving of
standards that are driven by previous historical traditions of mastery. As
far as socially engaged/politicized work being replaced by technomastery
work, I think technomastery work is already given more attention. There is
the entertainment industry driving novel visual affects, not to mention
the speed with which technology companies are infecting the economy and
popular culture with hardware and software. Such technology is framed as a
"must-have:" cellphones, cellphones with email, palmtop's, wireless
palmtops, beeper's, digital cameras, portable mp3 players, etc. These
cultural mechanisms shape our expectations of computer technology's
purpose. As a result so much attention and time are given to keeping up
with the latest trends in devices and software that there is little left
to consider the impact of them. So we are left

with a technology for technology's sake attitude in our culture. This is
an agenda that drives a lot of institutional funding of art. Artists are
great for manifesting what doesn't yet exist in culture at large. For me,
when considering my recent projects, I think of what I want to do with
people's attention. I assume that the user of my sites will pay attention
to all the choices I've made in assembling the elements of the project.
This allows me to play with associations within the given set of text and
images, and begin to interact with the expectations we are given when
considering work on the net.

The potential we are losing in the transfer of art that is technologically
based/interactive to being evaluated for it's technomastery is the
possibility to reach audiences that may not have been looking for socially
engaged or politicized work, or even the opportunity to encounter it. It
seems to me that the committed, politically motivated and socially active
types will always find each other as will their work. And yet the Internet
offers a new layer of communication continuum that can help motivate or
mobilize groups of people quickly.

Then there is the sensational nature of issues connected to the Internet,
which has been promoted as being more than it is, offering more than it
delivers. Perhaps this is the result of wildly successful distribution and
advertising campaigns by star computer industry companies like Microsoft
and Cisco. Not to mention the inflated, economic impact venture capital
injects into the system via companies and jobs. I have faith that there
will always be artists who redirect our attention to social issues, and
discussions around social issues, to see the limitations of authoritative
representation we are fed. And there will always be a parallel group of
artists who are uninterested or uninspired by what is behind what
infotainment tells us is happening in the world. For them technology for
technology's sake will allow an easy transition to new discussions of
aesthetics made possible by new media.

RG: Your work takes on quite a weird industry sector. Have there been any
conflicts or issues you want to mention? Have any biotech
companies/webmasters/publications objected to how you have been using
their material?

DL: I think they are way too busy trying to develop, expand and distribute
their industry and its potential economically to be aware of the way in
which someone other than themselves would be using their imagery. Last
year at this time I wasn't able to find the imagery I now have. Most of
the imagery in the database was loaded in the last six months. This
suggests to me that the speed with which they are currently operating
doesn't allow for careful examination of a sophisticated
advertising/company representation campaign. Plus they, as biotech
companies, aren't expected to put forth an advertising campaign that
compares with older more traditional companies.

RG: One of the central phenomena your project points to is the
homogenization of rhetoric and language around the Genome Project and
biotech more generally. And I think you effectively undermine some of the
bureaucratic, marketing-speak of the current discourse with your projects.
But did you ever worry that the barrage, remix of images and text (what
you explained as your own process to "drive conceptually and mix imagery
you were drawn to"), would create more confusion for the user?

DL: I don't think it could be more confusing than the way in which the
human genome and biotech in general is represented. This media mess
allowed me to take a simple approach, combining the language around
economic distribution and promotion with images of the tools and the
environment the tools exist and operate in. The interjection of phrases
like "genetic landlords" and "point and click genes" are little bits of
spin that nonscientific types can interpret and more easily understand
when considering the battle over the human genome.

RG: I wasn't sure if you were just showing how the genome discourse
reproduce its masters' images--or if it was your experimental aesthetic in
effect. What do you think?

DL: It starts in my experimental aesthetic. But when placed on the content
of the human genome, its press, generative environment, and tools--these
elements lead to the larger issue of how "the genome discourse is using
technology to reproduce its masters' images."

RG: what do you think is powerful about the tools of new media? Compared
to the tools and mechanisms of euro-corporatism?

DL: It is a space that is open to interpretation in a way that older media
has been defined. There is more room to work, more work to do to translate
the drives that various groups find in it. It was originally designed as a
communication and research source for computer geeks and research
scientists to share their findings. This communications nature and the
audience it was originally designed by and for still remains at its core.
The distribution and buzz from computer companies to wire the world and
create stable ecommerce markets still has yet to be fully realized. The
business models used to try and make it profitable are not working. We are
seeing the limits of artificially generated economic value that venture
capital creates with recent NASDAQ crashes, and ecommerce companies
dropping out of business. In order for the net to be successful as a
commerce circuit, it would have to be as prevalent in our individual homes
as television currently is. It is not and I can't imagine how long it
would take for this to be a reality. The mainstream media attention it is
given creates an opportunity for attention redirection on a global scale,

RG: You spoke about deflating some of the projections and claims of
technology and the rhetoric of "distribution" and "network," but let's end
in a place where you encourage folks to use tools.... ;)

DL: It is important to me, always to translate what I am given into my own
terms. In this way I examine the limits of what is distributed via
mainstream media representation. In this process I find various strategies
that wrestle with the same questions and varying strategies for how to
deflate the rhetoric of distribution. It is a beginning, a reintroduction
to allow a more realistic view of what is happening behind the hype. I
can't imagine coming up with a sound strategy to build work on without
this more realistic view of practical mechanisms within a given industry,
be it new media or biotech. Since the culture at large are rushing to also
go through this process of translation, new media has a cultural currency
that other forms of media do not. As a result, reflections on translating
net-specific topics like the Human Genome are a beginning that I look
forward to seeing expand. And I am optimistic that the route that this
expansion takes will be unexpected, and not defined by companies
distributing for monetary profit.


Harvesting The Net: Memory Flesh is the latest iteration of a series of
projects by Diane Ludin. This work was commissioned by Gallery 9/Walker
Art Center with funding from the Jerome Foundation.

Rachel Greene interviewed Ludin via email in March 2001.

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