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Radical Media Pragmatism
Apr 27, 1998 :: Geert Lovnik

Editor's note: This piece originally appeared in an unabridged fashion on the nettime mailing list.

The simultaneous condemnation and embrace of the pragmatic approach to new media has resulted in a state of confusion within our brand of cyberculture. There is a new belief system on the rise, sandwiched between cold cynicism and overheated optimistic theodicies. Here comes the blurry logic of communicative capitalism. What are new media? Especially what is there beyond the hype inherent to their embryonic state? Where stands media theory now that the age of speculation is behind us? What is interaction beyond the fascination of demo design? Will the developers of the early media architectures slip back into mainstream-as-usual? Or will they display a modicum of 'civil courage' and reinvent the notion of underground once again?

Well, it is neither/nor, in fact. This is the age of cybernetic promiscuity of concepts, after all; exploring the deep, gray spaces of the new economy is its motto. Innovative media cultures are connecting many to many -- business models that is -- as long as it works. We are witnessing a magic blend of art, design, music and radio, content merging with software, or with TV, or with the Internet. Even dramatic failures get praised as instructive endeavors. What is important now is quick and dirty production, and not the unique 'concept' as such but rather 'serial' manufacture fueled by the hope that one of the mixes will turn out to be the Killer App, the Next Big Thing, the Golden Mean, or the Ultimate Combination.

Welcome to the fast-expanding universe of radical pragmatism.

We feel a natural ambiguity towards pragmatism and its successes, especially when it comes to the mediascape. How do we run a high quality media lab, a (preferably profitable) ISP, a radio station, a design studio, a media cafe, or even a website or a mailing list? There are many models to choose from--some local, some national, some international or cosmopolitan. There are so many models that it is becoming less and less clear what is meant when we speak about exchanging 'concepts'.

Recently, the cyber conference circuit spent a great deal of time -- maybe too much -- demoing successful projects. Now the time has come time to look at the failures also and to assess them in the same way. Take for instance the case of the Internationale Stadt in Berlin, and ada'web in New York...

.....Internationale Stadt.....
Berlin's 'Internationale Stadt' found its origin in 'Handshake', an art project which connected several techno-clubs over IRC. It later merged with the small Internet provider ''. The concept of IS was blurry from the start. Sometimes it claimed to be a public-access network freenet-style, yet, by and large, it kept presenting itself as a content provider for culture and the arts--which was closer to the truth. As an access provider, it never grew beyond 300 paying customers, but this was almost beside the point. On the other hand, their connectivity problems were legendary, culminating in one period when they were offline for a full three weeks. Insiders may have a good laugh about this genially amateurish gesture, but one should keep in mind that Berlin is not an easy place to work from as a far as connectivity goes.

IS was, in essence, a work-in-progress project, in the 'hacker' sense -- they endlessly tweaked the interface, but were never really concerned about the commitment to the customer implied in the idea of 'service'. Indeed, not-working' was proclaimed to be part of the work of art (a perfectly legitimate position, by the way).

When Internet-hype eventually hit Germany in 1996, IS transmuted itself into a private company and took on several big clients. In a perfect world -- or maybe in a just slightly better one -- this commercialism might have cross-subsidized the non-commercial public service part of the venture. But it did not work out that way. Being a collective, IS ran into severe management problems, and before soon the artists began to leave.

The IS-group eventually fell apart, and the members returned to their previous occupations as 'true' artists, videomakers, programmers, and so on. Internationale Stadt finally shut down on April 1, 1998: a black day for independent European cyberculture. If you understand how long it takes to build up such lively, informal networks in which artists, musicians, activists and critics can work, you'll understand how much was lost.

What has emerged from the rubble of IS is the server, and the mikro group -- a project that will first and foremost focus on the (re)organization of the Berlin indy-cyber scene on a grassroots level. Yet it still remains to be seen how long an electronic culture like this one will last in such a big metropolis, without its own technical (and economic) infrastructure.

In February, 1998, New York's ada'web, one of the most dynamic destinations for original Web-based art, came to an abrupt end. Co-founder Benjamin Weil announced that AOL's Digital City Studio, the site's sponsor, had withdrawn funding.

No sooner had Weil had stated his point than a fierce debate erupted on the nettime mailing list over (net)art's dependence on corporate money. Video/net activist Paul Garrin stated that corporate sponsorship necessarily results in censorship. So, "next time you get caught off guard and lose your "free" net resources or your sponsorship.... don't be surprised! There is no free lunch. Everything has it's price."

Weil responded. "This reminds me of those people who keep on saying that artists have to starve in order to produce good work," posted Weil. "It is at best romantic, at worst idiotic. Art has *always* been supported by wealth, may it be individual patrons, corporations, of the state [...] The whole notion of a disinterested state that is so much better than the corporate world, in that it supposedly does not have any agenda, is again one of the most worn out and preposterous statements that can be made at this point."

This is a prime example of everyday pragmatism. Are you able to pull your own weight, or will you go for sponsors or state funding? Now that the wild Wired years of speculation about the metaphysical essence of the 'Le Cyber' are over (as our French friends put it so charmingly), the mean and lean years of survival have begun.

So, who will survive? Will it be the long-term non-commercial projects on a small scale? Or will it be, on the contrary, those projects which are going for economies of scale?

The Internet is a social network, and it's that aspect that makes it so different from previous media. And yet, because there aren't any fundamentally new aspects to the 'cybereconomy,' business is still business, and remains focused on the bottom line. What counts in culture and the arts are illusion and imagination -- but these fluid, untamed elements are precisely what is endangered now. We clearly cannot revert to visionary sales talks or neo-luddite anti-technological persuasion. The time has come for radical forms of media pragmatism -- living paradoxes rooted in a messy praxis, unswervingly friendly to the virtual open spaces that are being closed everywhere else.

Geert Lovink is a radio program producer, the project coordinator of Hybrid Workspace at Documenta X, and, with Pit Schultz, the founder of nettime, which promotes 'net criticism.'



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