Facilitating a Dialogical Platform for Creative Engagement
Interview with John Hopkins (adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
As part of WebCamTalk1.0http://www.newmediaeducation.org
Trebor Scholz: You have taught all over the world: from Reykjavik and Helsinki, to Bremen and Boulder. Working in between cultures you encountered
difficulties finding relevant reading materials in the native language,
which led you away from introducing texts and instead you started to focus more on the creation of 'dialogical spaces.'
There is also the aspect of new media research texts most often being authored and distributed in English, which comes with the danger of imposing one cultural context onto others. In a previous conversation you said that teaching without using much theory felt liberating to you.
John Hopkins: Yes, I would definitely use the word liberating. In 1992
when I founded the new media area at the Icelandic Academy of Art
there were no relevant texts available in Icelandic. And I hesitated to assign foreign language readings as this felt imposing, imperialistic even. Often I found my Nordic students to have a better command of English than my Northern American ones -- so that was not the reason I shied away from texts in English. But text governs so much of the hierarchy of control -- to toss this out is a very powerful step. It frees the students up as well as myself to get to their specific issues, which are relevant in relation to their local context. A socially constructed framework such as a text may not speak to the situation at hand despite the widespread perception that if a teacher assigns a text that it must somehow be relevant to the student's life. Often you just do not get to this situation of social, cultural, and geographical relevance when you slog through a mass of critical texts. (But, just to be clear, I do not want to devalue theory. It is one specific type of socially mediated information. But if it appears as a prevailing input that forces discovery into one single focus, then I am highly suspicious of it.)
While I do consume mediated information much of the time, I do give higher
value to the lived local experience. I could teach theory until I am blue in the face as they say. But unless there is an associated and relevant praxis arising, there would be no point. I did occasionally assign texts by Geert Lovink or David Garcia, both of whom I find very inspirational. I also introduced the first zkp4's* to American students hot off the press in 1997 and they surprisingly engaged with the texts. I have also been known to even assign the UnaBomber Manifesto from time to time. But I find my teaching of texts pointless unless it is on a pathway to a lived practice.
TS: Earlier we spoke about Martin Buber's influence on your work and how you
mobilize his ideas of dialogical space.
JH: I use the term dialogue", borrowed from Buber -- which I define as an
energized exchange between the self and the other. A bi-directional exchange, not just verbal but a full exchange of human energies. This is what dialogue is about.
Starting from this concept -- talking about distributed exchanges. Martin Buber's essay "Genuine Dialogue and the Possibilities of Peace" deeply struck me as it promotes dialogue as the pathway to a more democratic, caring, just, and sustainable world. He proposes that societal changes are made on a granular human to human level and not on a world political scale. Otherwise, he claims, we are just playing around with social systems. My personal idea of an energized encounter is a full-spectrum dialogue between the self and the other. It requires a shifting into a space modeled by quantum physics, Taoism, and Tibetan Buddhism: the universe as a field of energies. When two people meet and they walk away with more energy than they had prior to this encounter then something has happened. When we engage with the other and an excess energy remains after we part-- that is inspiration. My teaching is a facilitation of open frameworks, of platforms in which these inspirations can grow. I am of course also sympathetic with Hakim Bey's "Temporary Autonomous Zone."
With students I designate a time period -- between 6 hours to 24 hours --
in which they first experience each other and then use the available networked technology to express themselves. I may give one student an hour on a stream and they have to curate this time. This could be a poetry reading by a friend or a live performance-- there is no set topical agenda or issue that they respond to, it is entirely a response to their particular local situation. This mostly also involves cooking and eating together. This is very important. To break bread together is a powerful experience.
TS: Did you see much of this inspiration unfolding in the universities at which you taught?
JH: A lot of full-time faculty get burned out, they lose energy, they are under extremely high degrees of daily stress in a heavy power structure. Thankfully, I can give 15 workshops in a row in different countries and I am in the end still energized because I am open to receiving something -- through energized relationships. And that is because I kept myself open in the teaching situation. Fortunately, I let go of the idea that I am the only source of knowledge and energy, which is a great feeling.
TS: What you describe as inspiration coming out of an encounter. In his book "The Third Hand" Charles Green referred to this as the "third body."
JH: Yes, there are many models for this and Christianity (among that host
of other models) formulates this when Christ says: "For where two or three
are gathered in my name, I am there among them." This merely describes the
excess of energy that arises when two or three people are in focused
engagement. Interaction between self and the other is fundamental -- it is a
fact of everyday life. I start all my courses with the task for students to
pair up and connect with each for two full hours in a focused and
concentrated way. I see this as an anchor with the topic being absolutely
open, it is an encounter with a stranger. It is simply two human beings
engaging with each other. Engaging with a stranger is of course related to
fear -- the uncomfortable engagement with the unknown other. Once you pay
attention to these face-to-face encounters then you have a much better
understanding of what happens in the mediated, extended, remote, disembodied
TS: Which open source software tools are you using?
JH: First, I seize whichever hardware is available and then I use software
such as iChat, IRC, Quicktime/Darwin servers, REAL servers, and Audion.
I don't exclusively use open source software but I do try to stay clear of
I refuse to let situations be crippled by a lack of hardware, or a
limited infrastructure. I don't walk into a situation and say: "Oh, no,
there is no streaming server, I can't do this project..." I always seize
what is available. I have problems with techno-prima-donnas who come in and can't "do art" without this or that tool. We can always set up ad-hoc networks -- all one needs for an artwork is two human beings. I never failed to see a group of people to seize their resources and do something interesting. I would never let the technology lead a situation -- that, to me, is a proven concept. Technology needs to follow the human elements and not the other way around. As somebody who comes from deep inside the military industrial complex I have seen the dangers of letting technology lead. We have all seen those results. When has there have ever been something good that came out of a situation where technology led people? Frankly, I could not think of an example. It is critical that people understand that tools mediate human situations and that we understand the loss that comes from this mediating process between the self and other.
The more there is a technological mediation between self and other -- the bigger the loss. That is something that is not often addressed in depth. On the other hand I use technology that allows a focused and attentive exchange with an other person. Of course the degree to which people can put up with telecommunication tools varies. Some person accepts this kind of loss on a cell phone but would be critical of the connective possibilities of video conferencing.
TS: Earlier you framed your networked practice as art. I am not so interested in grouping the discussion in art or non-art terms. This debate all too often leads to attempted definitions that then stand in as power tools for admittance or exclusion. But I am curious about the emergence of a social aesthetics in the technological channels that we use and I wonder if this can be related to histories of that-- of art.
JH: I had a career in science and technology and only then made a formal
transition to art. I personally try to shed terms like artist or engineer. I refuse titles. If anything, I would use the term networker. People who are networkers seem to be a little more able to let go of those kinds of frameworks and can imagine what other people's contexts are like. Who is this other person in the network -- what are they about? How can I express empathy for that person? Exchanges here become extremely subjective. All these identities are transitory -- in my practice I do not label people but rather discover them dynamically while engaging with them, not defining them by their social standing or rank. This opens up more possibilities for truly human interactions. The rewards are much greater than the costs. You may irritate people when you refuse a label like "artist." They may even get desperate -- they will do anything to put you in some kind of box. So, art, engineering, science, technology-- these are all important areas that I move across but I found that dropping a reliance on those terms and boxes is necessary to crack situations open.
John Hopkin's Bookmarks:http://neoscenes.net/links/bookmarks.html