decoding the agora

I wanted to write something here about the event I am just on the way back from, CODE: Building the new Agora, put on at the Knowledge, Media Design Institute at the University of Toronto... check it. First I want to say THANKS to Nina & Charles for bringing me in and putting this together. What follows is not a comment on their efforts or the general purpose of the conference nor its participants. What I wish to impart is the kind of output and feedback one hopes for if one is to take the idea and implementation of the agora with some weight. The agora is the old Greek word for the space in which the people meet. In myth the agora was the marketplace of Athens in which Socrates would be seen finding some poor sod to engage in with his dialogues along with the various Sophists -- politicans, really -- practicing their scribes while the hub-bub of commerce bubbled around them. It was the informal place where decision-making was really worked out; a kind of open-air backroom for lobbyists. But ideally it is also the impure space where the people form themselves as a people in work and play.

The afternoon panels featured members of Barcamp and The Clearing as well as myself speaking on behalf of UpgradeMTL and talking a bit about the Upgrade network. As far as I can see it, both Barcamp and the Clearing are networks and organisations of technologists. By technologist I mean what was expressed often in their own terms: those convinced of the significance of web and mobile technologies to the condition (if not progress) of humanity.

In the case of Barcamp, the focus is on "unconferences," kind of a first-come, first-serve event with open spots for presentations and get-togethers. In Barcamp, participation yields citizenship; the more one participates, works on projects, steps up to the plate, the more one accumulates loose cultural capital and thus the ability to stage successful camps targeted to issues one would like to explore. The scene is basically technocratic (their words), as participation is through a level of technical competence (we're talking coders & programmers here) -- though the focus of each event can go in any direction (Podcamp, Codecamp, DrupalCamp, etc.). Certainly their most successful model appears to be TransitCamp, which transfers the model to the broader social realm; the event brought together the Toronto transit-riding public and officials of the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission). In what I am about to say below, the TransitCamp seems to break many of the otherwise technocratic limits of BarCamp as a whole.

The Clearing is an entirely different beast, something of a "transparent secret society" dreamed up by Jesse Hirsch and which exists first as a loose community of technologists and second as a network to support member's projects (from gatherings to business ventures to open source endeavours). Its model is the golf club, in that it is a way to manage the scarce resources and time of dedicated members. For me The Clearing appears closer to an avant-garde artist's organisation or even a network such as the Freemasons than anything new; it's just that its goals -- ultimately like Barcamp's -- are tending toward first the primacy of the network (the network as the most important aspect of networking, even before the content of a project; the network for-itself) and second the Clearing, like BarCamp, operates under or through a model of service and utility. Let me explain what I mean here. I will expand on the above two points in detail below. But first the objections which are evident: The Clearing certainly can drift away from what I mean, as it also forms a close friendship group, even a place to discuss the relationship between spirituality and technology (and this is an explicit mission of Hirsch's work for example with 3D-Dialogue). And BarCamp can certainly be staged in such a way that its event, for example, could become an ArtCamp or XCamp which didn't so readily become a means to the general ends of networking for networking's sake under the overall thesis of the beneficial utility and service of technology to humanity (TransitCamp being the moment wherein, perhaps, these two assumptions are challenged by a more diverse, less technocratic involvement of participants).

What I want to observe is how, at a certain level, these two organisations exist to further connectivity and networks. Barcamp made this explicit: the event grew out of a reaction to (invite-only) conferences and thus favours the "hallway discussion" rather than the formal presentation. That is, it favours the connection, the encounter, the fervent ideatalk of the conference coffee (and so the careerist chit-chat too), than the content of a presentation. It also appears to favour removing the content entirely -- though obviously content remains in the camp's theme and purpose, it has been changed drastically, say from a presentation of research or questioning to a focus on action: new projects, new collaborations, new assemblages; praxis. The move here is to make the form of the network itself the new content (this is something I called several years ago the transition from memes to semes). The network is the content. This is kind of the McLuhan move: the content of the (new) media is the form of the old -- which for some time now has been the network. And in a way The Clearing -- as a place off-road, wherein one finds a clearing in which to gather -- is more or less about creating a space than having any idea as to what to do with it, or why it was created to begin with. Its openendedness is certainly intriguing but the framing of the Clearing still retains a sense of utility and purpose toward similar goals of BarCamp (of the members present, many were active in both). To these two organisations is an impulse greater than either, and it is one that propels Upgrade too: that of the seme, of the network as content itself, and sufficient content at that; that all one needs is the network, that it is enough in and of itself.

(Of course this isn't the entire case: the politics of OS/FS, and so forth, everything that comes in here; but this was what the panels boiled down to.)

Now the difference between Upgrade and BarCamp/The Clearing -- and one which I couldn't find the place nor invitation to express -- is that Upgrade isn't so easily incorporated into the service and utility model. It has excess to it, useless excess, nonserviceable, and this excess which drags down the purity of the seme is art itself. Upgrade exists to further the creation of artistic objects. Artistic objects, be they real or conceptual or what-have-you, are rarely thought of as useful, at least in the kinds of terms we are thinking here.

By this I mean that both BarCamp and Clearing, for the most part, serve to form noncorporate networks that nonetheless act as resource pools for corporate development, venture capital, and so forth, even while members of these networks work within Open Source and even Free Software contexts of volunteerism. Almost everyone involved, though often involved in OS/FS projects, also ran some kind of business. Now ultimately the kinds of businesses we are talking about are quite radical and I by no means am playing some naive argument of art against (venture) capitalism. But it is mere fact to point out that none of those present were involved in the arts or were thinking about what place art (perhaps even as techne) had in their framework.

Now Upgrade too exists in all kinds of relations with various corporate artworlds and of course the production of art itself is an entire economics. But the experience of the panel itself displayed a noticeable schism in which what I had to say about Upgrade passed with little comment or movement to bring it into dialogue with the over-represented BarCamp and Clearing organisations (or better: disorganisations... abbreviated from now on as BC/C). Discussion moved instead to topics such as IRC or debates on the power and structure of BarCamp -- that is the debate was inward focused -- than outward towards bringing Upgrade and the kind of artistic network it represents into conversation with the technocracy.

Being in Toronto I should not have been surprised that there was a Toronto-centric focus. But the inwardness was also a problematic of the inability for technocrats to see beyond their own worlds -- their own clearings. A discussion concerning IRC took up much of the first panel; it described the way in which alpha code geeks in BC and other OS/FS communities when meeting in person are often unable to communicate f2f and thus sit down to IRC with each other even when in the same physical space. I found that this phenomenon encapsulates exactly what was so frustrating; the exchange of emails among the panelists just before the event even touched on this ("how weird it will be to see each other in person!"). And from what I could tell several panelists were Skype swarming in round 2 of the afternoon; thus there was an entire other level of the conversation which was exclusive and nonparticipatory and which reinforced the inwardness of the technocracy.

While the framing of the conversation was very much enfolded into thinking of networks as useful, the concept of utility in play was not meant to express function -- artistic networks function and are useful in this regard -- but in a way which saw most university / academic reflection, critique and involvement as a hindrance if not useless. And by extension, art simply had no place in the undercurrent of the discussion which somewhat pitted the visionary technologists against the caricatures of the slothlike universities. The whole attitude made a lot of sense when I heard that many of the BC/C members were PhD drop-outs who then went into the hi-tech industry; there's a bone to pick here (and one I fully understand: the frustration of dealing with university bureaucracy in failing to grasp the urgency if not necessity of addressing technology still remains; and furthermore, in my view, it should be executed with an aim to adopt open-source and free software; that it pursues instead venture capital "knowledge transfer" wasting away large government grants is both comic and depressing; that universities continue to run off Windows is a bad joke).

Beyond this underlying tension, expressed outwardly at lunch, the realm of art and the pivotal role artists have played in forming transnational grassroots networks was all but ignored. So was the problem we struggle with in Upgrade of communicating beyond project specific goals and with an end not neatly wrapped up into networking-for-networking's sake or toward a useful end which can be neatly packaged into an acronym (TransitCamp, etc). In some ways Upgrade is closer to the Clearing, but the Clearing has no artistic essence at its core (its core seems to be about furthering the goals of others -- whatever they may be). That is, Upgrade in its dominant tendency is about forming qualitative and not quantitative networks. Of course Upgrade struggles with all of the quantitative tendencies (growth, expansion, the necessities of careerism) yet in short, the quantitative is not the explicit purpose of its formation. And, unlike say the Situationist International or the Surrealists, nor is there a unifying aesthetic or political agenda. Upgrade inhabits a netherworld between 20thC art organisations and 21C seme networks.

The struggle of the Upgrade to facilitate movement and communication between its local and global nodes is the problem of the agora itself: its open-endedness, its existence without telos, its questions of whom should speak, and why, and when, and where, and how, its immersion in the creation and genesis of art, of what art is in this moment, under the sign of techne, of technology, of how art operates, what it does, and how, and why, and why is it that art, as this excess, this useless but seemingly essential quality to the movement of existence, still feels on the outside, out in the margins, not quite part of the conversation, the boy's club networks, the Clearing, the Camps. I felt it unfortunate that in many ways the chance for an encounter between what Upgrade challenges and reinvents and the BC/C crews was missed, due in part to an inward-looking focus of the Toronto atmosphere, a kind of strange pressure to speak and perform for others, as if a conversation was already going on in which I had stumbled like a foreigner, halfway through some IRC chat, without bearings, bearing only useless gifts of the aesthetic excess to which few opened their arms...

posted. Wed - April 11, 2007 @ 07:11 PM           |