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texts on free networks and wireless communities  

subcultural publics and tactics for engagement
tapio mäkelä     print
Okno public brought together a good mix of practitioners into a flexibly moderated set of talks, discussions and performances. During the workshop I was left thinking about the distance created by an investment of value into technology as a source, not the site of expression, communication and construction of meaning. Practices for whom concepts evolve around systems, technical networks over human ones have perhaps their own subcultural publics; those who practice in similar technological labor as work or as a hobby. Insistence of political positions via self-built or shared code or technology erodes its political potentiality if publics, users, subjects cannot engage in a way that new meanings and practices can evolve from the technological labor. So there is a distance often between technological concepts and their physical manifestations, and the latter’s capability to communicate or generate meaning.

In a recent paper I gave in ISEA2006 San Jose, I looked at location based media practices with a set of critical questions. The following extract suited very well Okno public day 3, not least due to the discussion of apo33 project Octopus.

How then, to engage with motivation while being critical with new technologies in these mutating junctions where the fumes of economical and political interests intertwine with artistic and activist ones? A good starting point is to weigh discourse and practice (imagine a scale which has tentacles rather than two sides to it) by asking whether there exists a dynamic balance? But where is this scale located? Practice-theory relationship for example within contemporary visual art can still consider theory as moldable material and practice as that which works the words and physics inside the white cube. Then we have these festival cubes, temporary lab islands, interconnected yet often isolated networks as environments for reflecting the effects of the tentaculous practice-theory scale. A key issue to investigate is the relationship with the multiple outsides and unknown insides of practice-theory combinations. For example, if location based media practitioners claim that they are re-configuring the public space through practice and theory, how does that manifest itself in lived everyday life environments?

How to counterbalance the junction of the New with recent and more remote historical contexts? How to develop tactics for engagement, in the kinds of work each one does, to break out of or be conscious of one’s own permutable boxes, be it festivals, exhibitions, institutions or mailing lists as publics?

One of the questions that emerged during the workshop was related to the theme of “reinvention of everyday practices”. If the context of work is everyday life – are we talking about the everyday of practitioners themselves, or that combined with particular communities or geographically dispersed subcultures?

The first day with Réseau Citoyen presentin its independent WiFi network in Bruxelles set the tone of discussions of the following days also. For example, Guy, Annemie and myself talked about a need of alternative economical models with a reference to Réseau Citoyen. Those who followed the stream and chatted on the IRC missed this context, and it may have seemed like a interest in current economical models in the commercial sector. I want to expand a bit on perhaps why it was important to talk, critically but I hope constructively, about Réseau Citoyen.

I was struck by the distance between Réseau Citoyen's politically geared aims and its existence as a network that cannot, yet at least, engage people via content or local practices. Why to expand the network beyond two antennas before experiments giving a demo of some of its artistic or community driven practices are tangible? Am I too impatient? Maybe. But let's imagine what one could do with a local WiFi network that is city-wide but not connected to the Internet. Or to be more precise, what are things one can do with it, things that are not possible via landline or already existing WiFi Internet.

Arguments for an independent local network could be:
1. Economy - to provide free access to Internet (this is not the case here).
2. Copyright ethics - to enable usage of copyright protected materials "secretly" within the network. Not sustainable, as any network distribution is distribution whether commercial or not.
3. Community file sharing in a protected mode - well, yes, a network which is only available locally is protected from people who are not local at a given moment. However, this would be very easy to hack and build bridges to the Internet. What is such content that a local community does not want to share on the Internet, but on Réseau Citoyen? The fact that there were no answers to this question, or ideas about it, shows that this argument isn´t really what Réseau Citoyen is based on. With regard to Internet use, when text or audio would be in Flamish, only other speakers of Flamish could participate/share in any case. Unlike imagined and marketed, vast amounts of content on the Internet is not often global but quite local, or at least tied to a language.
4. When asked, Reseau crew was not so interested in uses of WiFi networks on the street level or for radio. They considered there are hardly any locations to use networks there (due to traffic and so on). In my mind, WiFi vs. copper or fibreoptics makes sense only if it provides additional qualities to its use than existing network access models. If there are no such arguments, building parallel networks is a waste of both human and material resources, in other words, non-economical and non-ecological. I would consider micro radio concepts, local urban content/games/social software projects that use WiFi triangulation & content delivery to be examples of projects that could make a case, an argument for Réseau Citoyen.
5. I am afraid that the sheer interest of building a WiFi network and experimenting with such technology on a technosocial level is where the project is at. Also it was suggested that it constructs an imagination of the city, as discussed during the OKNO workshop, a kind of fiction. Until one involves content+communication tactics, in my mind, the fiction lacks subject positions other than that of a hacker or a technology hobbyist.
6. Independent networks could form economical or practice models that would challenge existing ISPs or Telecoms, within legislation. With wifi, co-op telephony (free community phone calls for example with shared investments) would resemble early Scandinavian telephone co-ops. But is there a need for such a thing, as VOIP works over the Internet also?a Also being able to connect any devices on the network with an i.p. (or other form of) address would mean that different types of interfaces in the city space for sharing text/image/video/sound/ could be realized. Yet, there are not many such exercises that could not be done via existing ISPs.

In environments where copper cables are old and limited, WiFi or Wimax have become important models for building Internet connectivity. Maybe in some locations also WiFi offers legal loopholes for radio or publishing practices if it forms subnetworks that are _not_ open. Closed networks would seem a difficult, but perhaps necessary route to take for a project, which is built on openness.

As I don't speak French, maybe I missed nuances in Réseau Citoyen. The project may require a long research and development period and then evolve into a social, critical, artistically interesting environment. As it was presented, I would argue that network structuralism is not network activism, unless content and people matter. What could Réseau Citoyen do together with Citymined, BNA-BBOT, So-on, FOAM, OKNO and other local initiatives? Brussels seems to have a rich local scene of small cultural organizations who know each other and sometimes collaborate. I think though that bandwidth and data networks are not the primary need in town. Funding resources for research, residencies, production and mostly people would seem a higher priority.

I was inspired by many presentations at Okno public. Site specific sound work by Justin Bennett, participatory radio practices by Sarah Washington and Knut Aufermann, and a tactical semantic web approach by Alejandra Perez Nunez to mention a few of them.

As I am currently thinking about tactics for engagement by using combinations of radio and public spaces, I am unsure of how well experimental sound art fits in. Number of sound performances at Okno were interesting as such, but I could also sense a repetition of minimalist and tech/gear based aesthetic, which when dealing with FM transmission or public spaces, would find only a few interested listeners. Conceptual sound art, experimental radio including voice, participatory sound content production with communities seem to me perhaps the kinds of directions I would work with the upcoming Translocal Radio workshops.


Tapio Mäkelä is a Helsinki based media artist and researcher



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