Florian Cramer on Fri, 15 Mar 2002 22:57:37 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Hacking the Art OS - Interview with Cornelia Sollfrank [2/2]

[continued from part 1]

me knowing what it is. Later when I realized that I asked Geert again
what it meant and if he could send me a few references.

FC: [Laughter.]

CS: But there was not much available in 1995/96. He sent me sure enough
a reference from Sadie Plant and VNS Matrix - and 'Innen', which was a
female artist group which I was involved in myself. He sent me back quasi
my own context as a reference. That was a real little surprise. That he
had done this was definitely no coincidence. So I thought to myself,
OK, I assume he knows [laughter] which references he sent to me. I
kept mulling over that in my mind. Then came the invitation to 'Hybrid
Workshop' at the documenta x. Once again Geert was involved. He wanted
me to plan a week or block - not on Cyberfeminism, but rather on one or
other female/feminist issue. And this invitation was the catalyst for
me to start working on the term 'Cyberfeminism'. By then I had found
real pleasure in it and discovered that there was an enormous potential
involved and which both Sadie Plant and VNS Matrix had not capitalized
on. They had only dabbled in a few areas.

What is interesting in Cyberfeminism is that the term is a direct
reference to feminism, and therefore has a clearly political notion. On
the other hand though, due to this disastrous prefix, which sure enough
is a real burden and very loaded, it also shows that there is something
else there, an additional new dimension. That this 'cyber' is present
does not mean that much - apart from the fact that in all this hype it
worked quite well. Taking a pre-fix that has popped up out of a good
deal of hype, and what's more using it and attaching it to something
else, creates a real power. Especially when everyone cries out (apart
from you of course), Oh my God - feminism! It was this potential not
to begin again from scratch with feminism, but to find a new point of
departure - as well as the motivation to get people to begin engaging
again with this term. Theoretically we could have made an attempt to
redefine feminism. But it's history is simply too prominent and the
negative image too powerful.

FC: The difficulty I have with this no doubt stems from an academic
point of view. We are in the midst of a discussion about net culture,
which includes mailing lists like Nettime and other forums, where one
no longer has to discuss the absurdity of 'cyber' terminology. That's
been done. Then along comes something that one knows is not to be
taken completely seriously. However when I set foot in academic
circles, I found myself being criticized - like I was at the Annual
German Studies Convention - for debunking dispositively the terms
'cyber'/'hyper'/'virtuel' which are still used there as discursive
coordinates. These terms have gathered their own dynamic and have been
written down and canonized for at least the next ten years. And it is
precisely here that 'cyberfeminism' fits in, as a term which does not
sound so experimental or ironic when one puts it into the context of
something like Cultural Studies.

CS: But what do you mean? Is that actually a problem?

FC: Well, isn't it the problem that one thereby creates a discourse
which in academia can gather its own dynamic and then no longer...?

CS: ...in that case, yes. I fully support you there.

FC: Another problem: what always becomes very apparent in the context of
Feminism when one reviews its history from the Sufragettes to Beauvoir
to the difference feminism of the seventies right up to Gender Studies
is that 'Feminism' as such does not actually exist.

CS: No, that's obvious.

FC: There's an anthology of American feminist theory, which sensibly
uses the title 'Feminisms' - uses the plural. Shouldn't it also be called

CS: It's been called that often. For example in the editorial of
the second OBN (Old Boys Network) reader it's referred to as 'new
Cyberfeminism' and then 'Cyberfeminisms'. Or in a definition by Yvonne
Volkart: "Cyberfeminism is a myth and in a myth the truth, or that, which
it engages resides in the difference between the individual narratives." I
think that is one of the really good definitions of Cyberfeminism.

FC: You initiated the cyberfeminist alliance 'Old Boys Network',
whose Internet Domain is registered in your name. Organized by OBN the
'Cyberfeminist International' had its first gathering at the documenta
x. Is the impression I have right that the group or the discourse consists
mainly of women who are active in net art culture?

CS: No, that's not right. We did have our first big gathering at documenta
x, but especially this documenta, namely the hybrid workspace where we
were located, brought different contexts together. Not only the art world,
but also the media and activist scene for example.

In the 'Old Boys Network' we have always experimented with different
organisational forms. The ideal form does not exist. One has to somehow
organize a network, because it doesn't exist by itself. Finally however
there was no form that functioned really well, which means we always have
to conceive of new forms. For a while we had what could be identified
as a 'core group' of five to six names. From those less than half were
artists. There has always been a predominance of theorists, from the
literary experts to the art historians...

FC: That means theorists who situate themselves in the context of art,
and it reeks as ever of net art.

CS: For me personally that's correct. But there are many people in OBN
who would refuse to see it that way. Our goal was always manifold. Our
main idea was not to formulate a content with a concrete political
goal. Instead we considered our organizational structure as a political
expression. To be a cyberfeminist also makes demands on us to work on
the level of structures and not just to turn up at conferences and hold
a seminar paper. On the contrary, it means to tend to financial matters,
or to make a website, a publication or create an event - hence to engage
in developing structures. And 'Politics of dissent' is a very important
term. It means placing the varied approaches next to each other, finding
a form so that they can coexist and act as a force field to set something
going. That's why we tried to incorporate women from the CCC - female
hackers - as well as female computer experts. Fourteen days ago at the
third 'Cyberfeminist International', for the first time there were several
women from Asia, as well as women from 'Indymedia' [The anit-globalisation
news network]. It is very important to keep extending the connections.

FC: I find it very interesting that you focus on structures when I ask
you about the term Cyberfeminism. Is it then just another platform,
another system that you have programmed generatively as an experiment
to see what will happen?

CS: That's pretty extreme, but yes one could say that. When I was asked
to define Cyberfeminism, what was always important for me was building
structures, and like Old Boy Network disseminating the idea through
marketing strategies.

FC: In 1997 Josephine Bosma asked you in an interview: "Do you think
there are any specific issues for women online?" - and you answered:
"No, I don't think so really".

CS: [Laughter.] I still believe that.

FC: Yes? - That was my question.

CS: After four and a half years of Cyberfeminist practice and contexts
such as 'Women and New Media', and a series of lectures and events,
I've come to the conclusion that one can divide this topic into two
areas. One is the area of 'access', meaning, whether women have access
to knowledge and technology, and which is a social problem. The second
area is if the access exists, and the skills are there, what happens on
the net or with this medium? What factors determine WHAT is made? About
that there's very little which is convincing. Mostly it is a lot of
arid ill-defined essentialist crap, with which I want to have little
to do with because it reaffirms the already existing and unfavorable
conditions rather triggering something new. Feminist media theory that
extends beyond this definitely is a desiderat.

FC: Regarding the phrase 'essentialist crap': is my assumption right
that your focus of attention on systems and regulationg structures
as experimental settings - whether that is Cyberfeminism or net
art generators - can be see as an anti-essentialist strategy, which
includes your appropriations, plagiarizing and the use of already
existing material?

CS: There are not that few female artists whos' approach is the idea
that women have to develop their own aesthetics in order to counteract
the dominant order. But I've always had problems with that and didn't
know what that could be without predicating myself again in strict
roles and definitions. That is the problem with essentialism. The
claimed difference can easily be turned against women - even when
they defined it themselves. That doesn't take you anywhere and is just
another trap. Besides one of the miseries of identity politics was that
the identities certain communities and groups had developed seamlessly
got incorporated, for example by advertisement, what meant a complete
turn around of its actual intentions.

FC: That would be the case for the art referred to in the two volume
Suhrkamp Anthology 'Women in Art' by Gislind Nabakowski, Helke Sander
and Peter Gorsen...

CS: I don't know that one [laughter]...

FC: ...or such art as Kiki Smith's, which I see as the antithesis to
your work.

CS: Maybe. My problem at present is nevertheless that the theme,
Cyberfeminism, has to some extent driven me into the so-called 'women's
corner'. What would be a broader definition and would include a more
extensive notion of my art is hardly taken into consideration. That is
why I am determined to take on other themes. The work about Schönberg
was the first step to expanding the spectrum - although as ever I still
like to surround myself with many great women. [laughter]...

FC: When you say that you want to come out of the Cyberfeminist corner,
I have to ask myself whether - as in the Schönberg installation  -
your anti-essentialist strategy of constructing and producing systems
and situations as well as plagiarizing, nevertheless have a feminist

CS: A feminist component is always implied, because I basically have
a feminist consciousness. So all my engagement with the art system
includes that aspect, irrespective of what I do. That was the case in
'Female Extension' and ... it is always implicit.

FC: What I have noticed is that women are amply represented in the
code-experimental area of net art.

CS: Really?

FC: From what I've seen, yes. Jodi for example is a masculine-feminine
couple, the same goes for 0100101110111001.org. Then  springs to mind
mez/Mary Anne Breeze or antiorp/Netochka Nezvanova, which we now know
has a woman from New Zealand forming the core figure.

CS: No!!!

FC: Yes!

CS: Are you sure about that?

FC: Yes!

CS: I'm currently working on an Interview with Netochka Nezvanova...

FC: ...Great!

CS: Yes, she tells me everything! What she thinks about the world -
and especially about the art world. [laughter]

FC: That is someone then who also fascinates you?

CS: I find it extremely interesting as a phenomenon, and ask 'her'
things such as...  how much does her success have to do with the fact
she is a woman... Ultimately though there are several people involved
in forming the character.

FC: But the core is a woman.

CS: Great! A new concept of N.N. I have asked so many people about her,
and everyone had contradictory information about her. The last theory that
I heard led me to the media theoretician Lev Manovich as the core of N.N.

FC: [laughter] It is a good concept. Another social hack and a system
that is triggered off...  And something that dematerializes.

CS: That's why I am working on finalizing this concept. I want to kill
'her' by doing an interview in which she reveals all of her strategies -
something she would never do anyway. That is my idea...

FC: In your interview with 0100101110111001.org you were pretty tough on
them - which by the way I thought was good - discussing the 'biennale.py'
computer virus. You described that out of it an aesthetic code-attitude
would emerge which is not really progressive, because no one can read the
code. Would you nevertheless admit that this intervention was a form of
'social hacking'?

CS: Of course. That's what it is first of all. The way how the code has
been aestheticized is secondary, something that happened more by mistake
because the artists probably had not thought so much about the traps
of the art system before. The virus clearly was a social hack. And it
would have already been sufficient to call it 'virus'. Even if the code
would not have worked or would have been just some nonesense it would
not have done any harm to the project.

FC: Is it then necessary to use labels like 'net art' at all when the
medium is not so relevant?

CS: I think it makes sense to use such labels in the beginning, when a
new medium is being introduced, and actual changes come along with it;
in the phase where the actual medium is explored like jodi did for
example with the web/net, or Nam June Paik with video.

You could compare it with video art - which is in this sense a predecessor
of net art. I don't think that it is useful any longer to talk of 'video
art'. The ways how video is being used today are established and it
becomes more meaningful to refer to certain contents. That is, by the
way, the problem of the whole thing called 'media art'- too much media,
too little art...

FC: Looking at your art, isn't it the case that projects like the net.art
generator develop their concept, their systems of 'social hacks' from
the media?

CS: That's true in this case. But it is not necessarily the way I
work. The term 'net.art' functioned also as a perfect marketing tool. And
it worked until the moment it gained the success it had headed for. Then
everything collapsed. [laughter]

FC: Would it be possible for you to work in any context? We met here at
the annual conference of the Chaos Computer Club. But would it also be
possible to meet at the annual congress of stamp collectors, and this
would be the social system you would intervene?

CS: Theoretically, yes. [laughter] I think anyone who managed to get along
with the hackers, the hacker culture doesn't shrink back from anything -
not even stamp collectors or garden plot holders.

FC: ... or hotel corridors.

CS: No, theoretically a lot is possible, but not practically. My interest
is not just formal and not only directed towards the operating system. It
is an important aspect, but when the arguments and the people within
the system are of no interest for me, I can hardly imagine to work there.

FC: That would mean at the hacker's convention your reference would be
that people here play with systems, and critically think about systems?

CS: And what's also interesting for me is the fact that hackers are
independent experts, programers, who work for the sake of programming,
and are not in services of economy or politics. That's the crucial point
for me. And that's also the reason why hackers are an important source
of information for me.

FC: But that takes us straight back to the classical concept of the
autonomous artist coined in the 18th century, the freelance genius. He
is no longer employed, and gets no commissions, but is independent and
does not have to follow a given set of rules.

CS: Maybe you're right, and my image of a hacker has in fact a lot to do
with such an image of the artist. But reflecting upon the role of art
in society in general, I would prefer to consider art as autonomous,
to considering the individual artist as autonomous - given that the
idea of autonomy per se is problematic. The idea of art as observing,
positioning oneself, commenting, trying to open up different perspectives
on what is going on in society is what I prefer. And that is exactly what
is endangered. The contradictory thing about autonomy is that someone
has to protect/finance it. And it is most comfortable when governments
do so, like it was common here in Germany over the last decades. I think
this ensures the most freedom. Examples which illustrate my theory are
Pop Art and New Music; in the 60s and 70s artists from all over the
world came to Germany because here was public funding, and facilities
to work which existed nowhere else. I consider it as one of the tasks
of a government to provide money for culture. And the development we
are facing at the moment is disasterous.

A short time ago somebody asked me how I would imagine the art of
the future, and after thinking for a while I got the image of a an
open-plan office, packed with artists who work there, all looking the
same and getting paid by whatever corporation; the image of art which is
completely taken over and submitted to the logics of economy. This does
not mean that I would reject all corporate sponsoring, but it should
not become too influential.

FC: Doesn't the new media artist make the running for the others,
because they are so extremely dependent on technology?

CS: Absolutely, and I think this is really a major problem. They make
the running for the others...

FC: ... but in a purely negative sense.

CS: Basically yes. It is a difficult field to play on. Some artists
are thinking of work-arounds, like low-tech, and as another example,
I would highly appreciate if ars electronica, which obviously suffers
from a lack of ideas and inspiration, would choose the topic of Free
Software. They could do without their corporate sponsors, and only give
prizes art works which are produced with the use of Free Software. It
would be really exciting to see what you can do with it.

FC: But not to forget that Free Software is also dependent from corporate
sponsors. You almost don't find any major Free Software project where
no big companies are involved - directly or indirectly trying to bring
an influence to bear.

CS: At the latest with the distribution ...

FC: Yes, but it starts already with the development. The GNU C-Compiler
for example belongs to Red Hat, IBM invests billions in developping
Linux further, and these are, of course strategic investments. Almost
every well-known free developer receives his salary cheque from some

CS: Are you saying that Free Software, in the end, is nothing but
another utopia?

FC: No, I wouldn't say it's an utopia which does not become true. The
code always stays free, and even if there's a recession, the developers
are able to work quite self-determined. - But I do not believe that this
equals the type of the autonomous artist.

CS: We are mixing up several things now. Hackerdom for example is not a
profession. A hacker may be employee in a company, but this has nothing to
do with being a hacker. And here you can make comparisons with art. How
about being an artist: Is it a profession or not? Would I still be an
artist even if I would make my money by practising a different job?

I am organized in the German trade union for media workers--in the
department for artists--and am interested how generic interests of artists
can be represented. Being an artist should be an acknowledged profession,
secure, and insured like the Social Insurance for artists does here in
Germany (Künstersozialkasse). But this point does conflict a lot with the
idea of autonomy. I am not sure myself how it can go together. Although,
I basically insist on my professional rights, it often seems to contradict
the status of being autonomous. And this uncertainty of the artists very
often gets abused, by treating artists unprofessionally, and exploiting
them shamelessly.

FC: A while ago you have said that you contradicted Gerfried Stocker
when he equated art with creativity. Being an artist is a profession
for you, and therefore a definable and distinguishable subsystem of
society. This would also be an anti-thesis to the idea of 'expanded art'
['erweiterten Kunstbegriff'] à la Fluxus - and to Joseph Beuys' idea of
"Everyone is an artist".[Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler.]

FC: I would simply add 'potential'. I think there shouldn't be any
mechanism or criteria which includes certain people per se, but certainly
not everyone is an artist, although everyone could be an artist. But
most people don't feel any desire to become an artist anyway.

[At his point we switched off the tape recorder and kept on talking about
the necessity of doing things on the one hand side, and discarding them
again on the other hand. During that the conversation turned to Neoism
and its internal quarrels.]

CS: Such quarrels can become very existential, very exhausting, and
weakening. Things tend to become incredibly authentic - something I try
to avoid otherwise.

FC: But this is important. When I hear standard accusations, saying that
dealing with systems, disrupting systems through plagiarism, fake, and
manipulation of signs, is boring postmodern stuff, lacking existential
hardness, my only answer is that people who say this, never tried to
practise it consequently. Especially, on a personal level, it can be
deadly. You have mentioned the group `-Innen' before, a group you have
obviously been part of in the early 90s, before the days of net.art...

CS: Yes, this was in '93-96.

FC: And, if I get it right, it was also a 'multiple identity' concept.

CS: Yes, and although we handled it very playful and ironic, it started to
become threatening - so much that we had to give it up. We had practised
the 'becoming one person' to an extreme by looking exactly the same,
and even our language was standardized. And then we felt like escaping
from each other, and not meeting the others any more.

FC: Is this the point where art potentially becomes religious or a sect?

CS: Maybe, if you don't quit.

FC: ... if you don't quit. I am thinking of Otto Muehl and his commune...

CS: That is exactly the point where you have to leave and go for the
unknown, leave the defined sector, and reinvent yourself - which  might
be not so easy. To do this together, in or with the group is almost
impossible. There's probably some marriages which realize to do so,
to reinvent themselves and their relationship permanently, to keep it
vivid. But with more people than two it's too much.

FC: Are your projects kind of marriages for you, or sects or groups?

CS: Well, it has a lot in common. That's amazing! It starts already with
the reliabiliy, which must be there. Because nothing works, if there
is not a certain degree of reliability, also regarding the dynamics,
how roles are assigned or how people choose them.

FC: Designing such systems also has something to do with control and
loosing control, right? In the beginning you're the designer, you define
the rules, but then you get involved and become part of the game yourself,
and the time has come to quit.

CS: Well, certainly I do have my ideas and concepts, but the others might
have different ones. The whole thing comes to an end when the debates and
arguments aren't productive any longer. With the 'Old Boys Network' we
are currently experimenting with the idea to release our label. To think
through what that actually means was a painful process. You think:"Oh
god, maybe somebody will abuse it, do something really aweful and stupid
with it. That's shit." But if we want to be consequent, we have to live
with that. And the moment comes where you have to learn to change the
relation you have towards your own construct - what might be difficult.

FC: What was the case with 'Improved Tele-vision', where the system
already had been set? As far as I can see, this work was the first
where you did not design the system yourself, but engaged in an already
existing process.

CS: Yes, that's why it was so easy for me.[laughter] I didn't have to
work too hard on that one.[laughter]

FC: Can you imagine to consciously leave 'Old Boys Network?'

CS: Oh yes - meanwhile!

FC: ... and ignoring it for like three years - or longer - and after
that period trying to engage again, but with an artistic approach which
is observing, like in 'Improved Tele-vision'...

CS: Sounds like a good idea, but I am afraid it would not work. My
presumptious idea is, that three years after I have left, OBN would not
exist any longer. [laughter]

CS: At the same time it is a generic name. 'Old Boys Networks' have
always been around; usually, they are not exactly feminist. [laughter]

CS: One big trap for us was, that we called it 'network', although it
actually functioned as a group. And we refused to realize that for too
long. OK, there is the associated network of hundreds of boys, but the
core is a group.

FC: But this seems to be a very popular self-deception within the
so-called net cultures. I also say that also 'nettime' and the net culture
it supposedly represented was in fact a group, at least until about 1998.

CS: And that is the only way it works. There's no alternative way how a
network can come into being. At some point there have to be condensations,
and commitments. And 'networks' don't require a lot of commitment.

FC: So, how do network and system relate in your understanding?

CS: I think a system is structured and defined more clearly, and has
obvious rules and players. A network tends to be more open, more loose.

FC: Now, I would like to know, if in your view, systems as well as
networks necessarily have a social component. One could claim that purely
technical networks as well as purely technical systems do exist. Your
work alternatively intervenes in social and technical networks. But,
in the end, your intervention always turns out to be a social one. Can
you think of networks and systems - referring to the definition you just
have given - without social participation?

CS: Not, not at all. Because the rules or the regulating structure always
is determined by somebody. Like computer programs are often mistaken
as something neutral. 'Microsoft Word' for example. Everyone assumes it
just can be the way 'Word' it is. But that's not the case. It could be
completely different.

FC: ... as Matthew Fuller has analyzed in his text Text "It looks like
you're writing a letter: Microsoft Word" in every detail...

CS: Yes, there are endless individual decisions involved - decisions
of the programmer, and from the person who designs the program, and
decides how and where to lead the user, and to manipulate the user,
making him/her doing certain things.

FC: There's also earlier experiments within art, on designing
self-regulating systems. Hans Haacke has built in the 60's his
'Condensation Cube', made of glass. On it's side-walls water condensates
corresponding to the amount of people who are in the same room. Such a
thing would not be of any interest for you?

CS: No, I don't think so. It is also typical for a lot of generative
art that one system simply is being transformed into another one. I find
this totally boring. For me, it is important that the intervention sets
an impulse which results in - or at least aims for a change.

# The interview by Cornelia Sollfrank and Florian Cramer was
# commissioned for the new transcript series of books on Contemporary
# Visual Culture published by Manchester University Press in association
# with School of Fine Art, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and
# Design, University of Dundee.  A shorter version of this interview
# will be published in volume II of this series  'Communication,
# Interface, Locality', edited by Simon Yuill and Kerstin Mey,
# forthcoming autumn 2002. Please see MUP website:
# www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk

# This text is copylefted according to the Open Publication License v1.0
# <http://opencontent.org/openpub/>; restrictions on commercial
# publication apply.

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