Pit Schultz on Tue, 29 Apr 1997 07:53:24 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> play with me ! - Oliver Marchart

"Play with me!"
Oliver Marchart

"Play with me!"
Or: Cyberspace as Toyspace

It has been frequently remarked that the realm of electronic networks bears
some resemblances to a new continent. If this is true then it is perfectly
clear that electronic networks at least partly represent a new America: an
always receding horizon/frontier which has to be discovered and at the same
time protected in its untouched innocent state.

But how come we experience the Internet as a New Continent, and how come we
construct this continent as playground. My main claim is that it is
especially electronic art that constructs this new continent as a space for
playing and the continent itself as toy. Cyberspace is a kind of Toyspace.
Here, allegedly "cold" technology suddenly looks at you - with big eyes -
and says: "Play with me".

In Austrian - and not merely Austrian - electronic art the construction of
this New Electronic Continent as playground is prevalent. Examples - partly
of the people participating in this event today - might be Eva Wohlgemuth's
"Diana's Digest" (a whole webside on Diana, featuring the princess as a kind
of Barbie-doll), Robert Adrian X who, in collaboration with ORF Kunstradio,
produced the sit-com "Auer Family" where PlaymobilTM-characters stage a
family narrative; a third example might be the winners of this yearÕs Ars
Electronica's Golden World Wide Web Nica who call themselves "e-toy",
thereby bearing their relation to Toyspace already in their name. In public
performances they appear themselves as toys. And a last example might be the
theory-island "e-lands in the web" by Konrad Becker and myself, which
heavily relies on adventure games. In this project - which was presented in
a workshop in Dublin's Arthouse - we tried to avoid the idea of a
cyberspatial playful happy-go-lucky-land by including "war-zones" (Guerrilla
Camp) and "market-zones" (Trade Zone), thereby shaping the New Continent in
a more realistic fashion while at the same time not forgetting about its
fictual character. So, on the other hand one can find there a
"psychogeographic", "mystic" or "enigmatic" space as well (Neo Town, Synreal
City) (there are religions, there are Gods, there are demons).

Now taking the assumption that the Internet is nothing else than a new
continent, a continent modelled upon America as the New World and upon the
narrative of the "final frontier" as a starting point, the question arises
why and how the playfulness and childishness of the American imaginary is
transferred into "cyberspace". Therefore, the central thesis - or rather,
hypothesis - would go somewhat like this: The Internet as playground
specifically relates to one New World Narrative (characteristic): to the
Hanna-Barbera-cartoon Yogi-Bear.

Yogi-Bear as cartoon character also belongs to a New World-space,
"Jellystone-Park" (a parodic variation on Yellowstone Park), which is
located - very much like the Internet - somewhere in between a
post-fordistic theme park and a wild-life preserve. However, behind this
playground we find a fundamentally bad conscience. Yogi-Bear, who - in the
cartoon narrative - stands in for the American Natives, incorporates the
primal trauma of the American imaginary. An imaginary that is torn between
extinction and "enculturation" of its Other. The other - the natives.

Mary Fuller for example speculates that "the drive behind the rhetoric of
virtual reality as a New World or new frontier is the desire to recreate the
Renaissance encounter with America without guilt: This time, if there are
others present, they really won't be human, or if they are, they will be
other players like ourselves, whose bodies are not jeopardised by the
virtual weapons we wield." (Fuller and Jenkins, 1995: 59) Please note: SheÕs
speaking about other players instead of real human people.

Fuller might be right - we can have a playful and harmless relation with the
other in case of electronic networks - although her approach leaves out the
economical motives of colonisation. Nowadays electronic networks are about
to be colonised by banks, tele-industries and corporations who simply want
to sell their products. The "natives" are forced into - for example -
teleworking. Some of the electronic netart tend to leave out this other side
of electronic playfulness tend to forget that behind the playful encounter
with the other - an other who - according to Mary Fuller - has not to be
killed and extincted this time - most of netart tend to forget that we can
find both economic and political motives that are not innocent at all.

So if we understand net-art and net-culture as a form of play which on its
part establishes a specific object-relation towards techno-toys, then the
Yogi-Bear narrative might help us to understand this dark side of cyberspace
as playground. As Yogi-Bear teaches us, playing in cyberspace is not an
innocent enterprise - it is as cruel as children are.

Why, you might ask, we have to take Yogi-Bear as a cruel postcolonial story,
a paraphrase on Internet culture apres la lettre and not only as a
children's cartoon? Jellystone-Park is a kind of realised Utopia. Therefore
it is no Utopia anymore, it has already finished to be a Utopia which on the
other hand is the condition of possibility of its partial realisation.
Electronic networks are "realised" Utopias too. But how is it to live in
such a realised Utopia. Let's ask Yogi-Bear.

The Hannah-Barbera-Cartoon can be read as an apocalyptic Meditation on the
relation between America and its "natives". Yogi Bear has to be kept in his
wild-life preserve but he also has to be preserved as a rare species. The
series contains a single dramatic element: the chasing of Picnic-baskets, or
as Yogi calls them: "pickening"-basket. But whenever Yogi Bear gets one of
the visitors picnic-baskets, he has to be caught in the act by Ranger Smith,
the chief ranger of the Park. In most cases, Ranger Smith, who is a kind of
Habermasian relies on the power of rational discourse, trying to convince
Yogi Bear not to steel picnic-baskets. But in the end he always says he
would transfer Yogi-Bear from the wild life preserve into a Zoo (which means
- bearing in mind that we are confronted with a variation on the
colonisation of America) from the preserve into a kind concentration camp).
But even these drastic measures don't succeed.

Interestingly enough Hanna-Barbera construe this preservation space as a
non-technical space. The state of nature has to be reinforced by the
detechnologization of this kind of rotten paradise. In the Rousseauistic
idea of the Internet as a state of nature between equal neticens (think of
the Jeffersonian democracy-idea by John Perry Barlow), which is coupled with
the Californian ideology of the net as a huge beach party, the electronic
network is precisely conceived as non-technological.

So on the one hand the setting of Jellystone-Park - and with it the
Californian ideologist's Internet - stands in the tradition of the American
romantic Rousseauism of Emerson or Thoreau. Yogi-Bear is nothing else than a
nice and happy and dumb native. But because of the American Genocide the
American Rousseauism is not innocent: Yogi-bear is a kind of incorporated or
drawn bad conscience of American Rousseauism. The WASP-coloniser Ranger
Smith gets to grip with his bad conscience by constructing his prisoners as
naive, funny, nice and as addicted to picnic-baskets (like parents who
construct their children as children - whereas children tend to construct
themselves (via playing) as adults).

There is no technology in Jellystone Park. And the same goes for the
Ideology of the Internet as social playground. In this ideology,
paradoxically, the Internet is an untouched rural happyland despite its
technological nature. And the Rousseauistic ideology of the net, which seeks
to defend the net as a wild life preserve against economic-political
colonisers, is caught in this very illusion: they see the state of nature of
a general friendliness and solidarity and playfulness amongst net-natives as
threatened by politicians and capitalist.

This is not totally wrong, but the Net-Rousseauists and -Beach Boys forget
that they themselves are already colonisers, that their own state of state
of nature is only one definition or model of the net, which fights a war of
interpretation with commercial projects for instance. And the model of the
Internet as playground or Toyspace is in no way privileged. Nature is only
one specific form of culture and not at all logically primordial to culture.

This means that many artist's form of playing is not as innocent as they -
or we - suppose and their toys might turn against their users. Very much
like a Matell doll recently did:

"Matell Inc. is withdrawing its Cabbage Patch doll that mimics eating, and
is offering comsumers $40 refunds in response to about 100 reports of
children getting hair and fingers caught in the doll's battery-powered
mouth. The doll has no on-off switch." (International Herald Tribune,
January 8, 1997, p3)

            This paper has first been presented at the opening of
           the "Data-Panic"-show, Jan. 10th 1997, Arthouse, Dublin


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