Interview with Eduardo Navas

Posted by Trebor Scholz | Mon Mar 21st 2005 2:26 p.m.

Listening To Yourself While Playing With Others

An interview with Eduardo Navas (adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
As part of WebCamTalk1.0
http://www.newmediaeducation.org

Trebor Scholz:
In February 2003 you founded Net Art Review (NAR), a collaborative weblog reviewing media art that for the most part is web-based. There are several fairly large conversational fora that address media art. New media researchers and educators already greatly benefit from mailing lists like Empyre, FibreCulture, <nettime>, New-Media-Curating, Rhizome, Rohrpost, Sarai, and Spectre. What was your motivation for Net Art Review?

Eduardo Navas:
I noticed that there was debate about technological issues and exchange about cultural theory, but rarely were there detailed writings focusing on the actual art in the form of reviews. Most online artists would release their own statements, and it would often end at that. Sometimes casual comments would follow by members of the different lists, and other times there would of course be heavy exchange of ideas and that was good; regardless, there was no consistency in how this criticism happened, which is good for lists but also made it obvious that there was room for other forms of critical practice online. For example, contributions to Rhizome were often very good (and still are) but at other times loose and/or ended in flame wars: people flooding the list with personal insults. There were/are good articles on C-Theory and Switch, as well as on <nettime>, which always had very intense exchanges. But mostly these discussions around cultural issues do not directly focus on specific artworks. And the Empyre list is also quite strong with its focused, month-long conversations. I noticed that there was a need for a specific type of criticism, which was actually being met in part by Neural.it and Random, both in Italy. (See references for list of online journals.)

Net Art Review was launched early in 2003, a few months after Rhizome became a membership pay-service. Rhizome was heavily criticized for the introduction of membership fees. There was the perception that Net Art Review was developed in reaction to Rhizome's decision, but I never saw it like that. I had been trying to set up a critical forum for about a year, but did not get to invest sufficient time into it before the beginning of 2003. The criticism of Rhizome probably gave Net Art Review some extra attention, but it was more complex than that.

So, to reiterate, Net Art Review offers a focus on artwork, something that I see is missing in relation to online culture. Rhizome's net art news comes the closest to that but I was not satisfied with it because their texts are limited in length. They do not focus on criticism, but mainly on descriptions of the works with some supportive commentary. Net Art Review was founded as a small, decisively low-tech, very simple web portal that focuses on content production without a feedback option. The feedback option was not a common feature of blogs at the time. A response option would also demand more time from the administrators: Lora McPhail (Los Angeles), me (San Diego) and more recently Molly Hankwitz (Brisbane/ San Francisco). It will also make things more expensive. But when readers contact us we correspond quickly. Blogging boomed in early 02 (and apparently still is increasing in popularity)-- a weblog seemed like a good tool to try out the idea of a review site. However, we hope to develop the site further. The regular contributors communicate through a dedicated mailing list. Lora McPhail, our editor-in-chief, coordinates the writings and oversees the mailings that are sent to us as either submission or concerns. Molly Hankwitz is contributing editor and is in charge of the weekly features. Garrett Lynch is working on a new, more efficient set-up so that we can eventually leave the commercial Blogger service behind. It is important to note that Net Art Review is open for anyone who is invested in new media practice and wishes to share her opinion. (For additional contributors see references.)

http://netartreview.net

TS: Some technologists and cultural producers may question the title "Net Art Review" as they perceive Internet Art as something that they left behind us. Net Art fortunately rather quickly overcame its initial hype and is now one option among many others in the realm of "new media art." I use "new media art" as an operable term with the clear understanding that, of course, today's new media will be tomorrow's "old" or "dead media." It does not statically refer to any particular technology. It's dynamic in its reference. Reviews in Net Art Review do not entirely focus on Internet Art but the title of the review site asserts set boundaries. Did you intend this focus?

EN: I ran the name by a few people who have been part of new media art communities for a long time, some of them said that the title was limiting, referring to something that was left behind, or that it could place a label on things that were not related to net art. Net Art Review addresses art in the networks. It is about net art without the dot. It was odd that when I mentioned the term many referred to the net.art group specifically, which demonstrated their influence. For me, net art refers to activities that function online and challenge the borders of web-based practices. We can include online hypertext literature, early blogging (starting about 1997), e-mail art, and online activism just to name a few areas. If you notice, the description on the website reads: "Net Art Review focuses on net-art and its crossover to other fields in new media." A lot of the featured work uses online technologies as both medium and tool (Christiane Paul uses this approach to consider work in her book, see list). Reviewers write about anything that is considered creative online practice. They also address offline exhibitions and conferences, which I think is appropriate. Once people start to look for specific definitions, it becomes obvious very quickly that even terms such as "netart," "net art" or "net-art" are not that easy to define. This is something that Julian Stallabrass does a good job in explaining in his book Internet Art The Clash of Culture and Commerce on the Internet. Here he shows that even among the early Internet artists and critics there was debate about what "net art" could be or what it should do. So, I do not completely understand the ambivalence to the term by some people.

At this point the term "net art" is becoming more widely used. When I founded Net Art Review I considered it a good "bridge" to those researchers not yet familiar with net art. Net Art Review is usually listed among the first ten hits for the search term "net art," which gives it a wide audience. Once the surfer arrives we provide links to all kinds of new media resources, not only "net art."

I want to further comment on this idea of not using certain terms, or wanting to leave them behind; it might have to do with artists being somewhat aware and ambivalent of the regressive listener, as described by Theodor Adorno in his ideas of modern music. The regressive listener, in general, wants to be served new material, which in reality is what they had already been served in the past. We, of course, see this in Hollywood movies, but this phenomenon really permeates throughout all specters of society. Artists' practice is often driven by the ideology of constantly moving forward, trying new things. But in order to achieve this, it appears that some would like to destroy or dismiss the past. They feel that the past limits them from exploring the new. This is not too far-off from how Adorno sees the regressive listener trying to destroy the old demanding something that is new. The new in the end is a reconfigured version that makes them feel progressive. According to Adorno, they are "regressing" to that which they already know. I understand that artists might not want to be related with certain terms because once they or their work are recognized as a paradigm this starts to limit the artists' options to experiment due to the process of historiography that is put into effect. However, if we consider Adorno's position (which I know is quite difficult for many, including myself) the tendency for artists is to often change the tools and the name of what they do, but they are re-using the same ideological model--the model of the avant-garde, which has been repeated and re-proposed several times in different forms either as "myth" of something that only happened in the past, or as something that is always in action. This depends on whose history you read, of course. But this is pure regression either way. So, I think worrying about terms is a way to dismiss something that will only be reconfigured to make people comfortable.

I propose a listener who does not try to destroy the old, but one who actually moves forward with it. If it gets old and people want to move on, it is because the ideology of innovation is demanding this of them. "We are past net art"-- that's regressive listening. This starts to sound a lot like "painting is dead"- an art world cliche that has been brought up too many times, yet painting is alive and kicking.
In the end, it is useful for people to be able to latch on to terms, and reinvest in them. If we consider Guy Debord's theories on the festival, we learn that we live in a "spectacular time," and that in the past people (mainly prior to invention of the clock) lived in what he calls "cyclical time." Festivals demand that people reenact their "history" at the moment of the gathering. However, this does not really happen in contemporary culture today. Even though it appears it does when people gather for different holidays- those meetings are dependent on the clock, on a measurement striving for perfection, asking us to move forward linearly and not in a circle. "Progress" is defined on linear terms, even after the self-reflection postmodernism supposedly made possible. How many times can you ask the same question? Or actually wait for nothing? If this sounds boring it may be because the ideology of regression is deep inside of us. I am not saying that we should go back to cyclical time, but we should understand what we are proposing when we try to move past a term because it has had its day.

Guy Debord. Society of the Spectacle (see chapters V, VI)
http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/
http://www.huzzam.com/etext/debgsociespec/

TS: Earlier you mentioned that accessibility is a large part of what draws you to net art. When talking about access to technology we cannot leave out the vast discrepancies between the digital have and have-nots. How do you take this divide into account?

EN: This is actually an issue I am very aware of. Through NAR I collaborate with people in different countries to make new media more accessible for as many people as possible, by providing material in various languages. We do not use translation tools mainly because they are unable to translate the subtleties of language. Translation is not just about exchanging the proper terms, but about considering the sensitivity running in between the lines of text. By also presenting texts that are not in English we show the real limitations on the web: the politics of language barriers.

TS: In your recent text "The Blogger as Producer" you draw a parallel between Walter Benjamin's observation of the popularization of printed media. According to Benjamin readers became "collaborators" as their tastes and desires dictated the emergence of new columns in newspapers at the time. This way the reader felt in touch with her culture and became an author of sorts. In your essay you say that Benjamin suggested the inclusion of news writing into the history of literature. We are currently facing a similar challenge in which many online forums struggle to achieve the same kind of legitimization that more established peer-reviewed scholarly print magazines have developed. New media researchers find many different forms for their work and weblogs are extensively used. Was this struggle to legitimize online content part of your founding idea for New Art Review?

EN: Net Art Review (NAR) was founded with the idea of legitimization in mind. The site would need to contend with its perception by different communities. In the end, I realized that the online resource would position itself based on the rigor, seriousness, and shortcomings of the site which is grounded in the commitment of its collaborators, its authors. Our investment is the delivery of material online. Academics may look at our work not so differently from the way Axel Bruns observes online activity; by the way, I am very much interested in his anthropological approach to the blogosphere that I read in one of your recent interviews in this series. He has a fascinating scholar-eye view on blogs. But to answer your question, the type of writing we do on NAR would not be possible without blogging technology. The people who write for NAR could be considered producers in Benjaminian terms.
However, I wrote "The Blogger as Producer" with a more open idea in mind. The original essay was 25 pages long. This short and general online version only introduces my proposition.

http://www.netartreview.net/monthly/0305.3.html

TS: Much of the inspiration of self-organizational cooperative art projects is founded in their extra-institutional vitality, in finding collaborative formats for unlearning and foster performative, experimental, and engaged research that has agency. Their research output in some cases exceeds that of some small brick and mortar universities. Net Art Review is an online forum. Are you interested in the creation of networks of discourse also offline?

EN: Yes, we try to negotiate the online/ offline divide. As it was previously mentioned some of the writings on events are not always immediately related to online practices. Local and global activities are becoming more connected. Web cams conversations (like this interview) allow for things to get more physical. We see each other-- things get less disembodied. We are about to enter a time where the physical will become even more emphasized through new technology. GPS devices are an example of this. I am invested in trying to meet people in person whenever possible. This does not have to be at a professional event like a conference; it could simply be a meeting with somebody who happens to visit the city I live in, or vice versa. The interpersonal bond makes cultural connections much stronger in the long run.

TS: You are a media artist, a facilitator and writer. Currently, you writing your Ph.D. with Lev Manovich. Your crate linkages between people. You produce artwork. Online you facilitate community around discourse. Is it easy for you to bring these different parts of your cultural practice together?

EN: The artist as writer is by no means a new model. Just take Art in America, New Art Examiner, October, and Art Forum. Some of their writers play the very defined role of the artist/ critic. Our role as new media artists is more blurry. The culture of new media requires artists to function as curators, writers, critics and producers. Slowly this is changing though-- I saw this when I studied at CalArts where I met Natalie Bookchin, and learned about Alexei Shulgin's work. Natalie curated shows, wrote about net art, produced artwork-- all in parallels. Amy Alexander worked in a similar way. When I met her I mainly knew her piece "The Multi-Cultural Recycler." But Amy Alexander became more active as a multi-tasker. She is a founding member of runme.org, an initiative grouped around software art.

http://recycler.plagiarist.org/
http://runme.org
http://readme.runme.org/index.php

This multi-tasking was and to an extent is born out of necessity. People who create challenging work in whichever medium (be it music or code or concrete) most often have an understanding of many of these areas. Especially in earlier online art practice, you had to create the exposure for your work or that of others. This is where a network is useful.

Now we see increasing levels of specialization. Here at the University of California San Diego, new media art is now taught in the art history department-- it is recognized as an art historical field. However, new media as a field of art history requires a breadth of practical knowledge. Somebody who has no practical understanding of coding will not be able to fully integrate theory with the work. You cannot develop a historical narrative about a piece without a real understanding of its back-end. You need to get your hands dirty for new media research. You have to be willing to wear many hats-- it is almost like a foundational paradigm. The critical distance expected in other fields falls apart in new media research.

TS: What is your take on networking-- between a mafioso-like pulling of strings to get ahead with ones career and the establishment of networks for discussion there is a big difference. How do you understand this term?

EN: New media scenes can function removed from the mainstream art worlds, although the lines are becoming more and more blurry. It is common knowledge that some artists who have a history as online practioners are now represented by galleries. In any case, I believe that networking is a necessity and can be productive if one does it with a good attitude. I, personally, become suspect when I sense dishonesty, and in fact I dislike people who are dishonest in their intentions. I have met people who try to "network." But it becomes quite obvious that they are not really interested in sharing ideas. They simply want to belong to a network. In the art world that means meeting the right people to get that "show" that will break you in. I do understand this as I experienced the politics of art school. I see it at openings, which, at this point in my life, I try not to attend unless a friend is having one. I am quite social and I want to meet people because I learned from experience that it gives me an opportunity to share my ideas. And ideas is what I consider my "product."

In the end, I want to share, and I think that networking needs to be about topics, it needs to be honest, it needs to be about the other person. If networking focuses on the creation of work, or about research. I think the term networking may have a dirty connotation offline sometimes because it is often related with a straight-up business practice. But online it is a necessity at this point.

TS: Maybe the word shmuzing better describes the type of art world social behavior that you refer to. When thinking of arts publications the Austrian magazine Springerin demonstrates that one can think of art by focusing on issues instead of the hegemonic star system with its brand name recognition.

http://www.springerin.at/en/

Networking, in its positive sense, has changed with the new technological possibilities for cooperation, online or off. With more possibilities for interconnection through technological channels from wireless enabled devices to the Internet-- the question comes up how all these options are used. Do open publishing, open archives (e.g. encyclopedias), or social software foster civil society? Networks can build small temporary platforms zooming in on otherwise overlooked or purposefully ignored topics. Networks can be powerful 'collaboratories' of people with diverse backgrounds who organize around a single topic in which they all have an investment (as Ernesto Laclau describes). However, I do not suggest that all networks or collaborations are successful.

EN: In the art world it is implicitly accepted that if you want something to be art it is always about self-interest. Artists want to survive. They want to be recognized. The question is how to make this self-interest productive for others. The term "self-interest" may be a bit too negative. I would suggest the term "personal interest." I can offer an analogy that relates to your concerns.

I think of collaboration and networking in terms of an Afro-Cuban rumba. In a traditional rumba, like the Guaguanco, you need at least four members. One plays the Tumba (the bass in the conga drums), another the Conga (the mid-range conga drum), another will play the Quinto (the drum which improvises), while someone else will play the clave sticks (for keeping the rhythm). One of the performers will sing or they will all sing depending on the particular tune. Each drum has a specific rhythm that contributes to the overall groove, and even though the Quinto is designed to improvise, the other drummers have a chance to express themselves from time to time. They perform sporadic accents to support the soloist. Each drummer has to keep her own rhythm tight, and swinging, while others flow in different directions. Each drummer has to know and not know simultaneously where everyone is going, this is possible because they will always keep the clave within their timing. When people are introduced to rumba improvisation they learn the basic patterns. But once the group moves to a more advanced stage, they may at times become confused when they listen to how others are hitting the drums. They often want to listen, while they are expected to keep playing. Rumberos think of soloing in terms of "talking" with the drum. It is not about a specific pattern or perfected licks. It is about forming complex phrases, which include several moments of silence. The best drummers literary talk with the drum, and this throws-off even experienced musicians who are new to Rumba improvisation. Musicians in general are able to listen and play at the same time, but rumberos do it in a very particular way that is really different from the paradigms of traditional Western music. It really is a philosophical approach. Most importantly, rumberos must learn to listen to the improvisation of others. They learn to appreciate it as listeners in a traditional audience. We could dare say that they listen with a certain disinterest, while playi!
ng their
own groove. This is not easy to do because people are not used to "talking" at the same time that they are "listening." Each performer must learn to be an individual at the same time that she/he contributes to a collective. The drums must sound like one inseparable rhythm. Western culture is not brought up to function this way. We either listen or we speak- even trained musicians do this ideologically. Once we start to play and listen simultaneously, like the rumberos, we may be getting somewhere; then terms like "self-interest" might not have a problematic connotation, or maybe they will not be used at all.

Acknowledgments:
Eduardo Navas thanks Carol Hobson and the Center for Research in Computer and the Arts (CRCA) for providing an iSight camera. http://crca.ucsd.edu/

References

Online Journals:
http://ctheory.net
http://fibreculture.org
http://lists.burri.to/mailman/listinfo/geowanking
http://nettime.org
http://neural.it
http://random.exibart.com
http://post.openoffice.de/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/rohrpost
http://rhizome.org
http://sarai.net
http://subtle.net/empyre
http://switch.sjsu.edu

The NetKru:
http://netartreview.net/netkru.html

Daniele Balit (Rome, IT/Paris, FR)
Ana Boa-Ventura (Austin, TX, US)
Linda Carroli (Brisbane, AU)
Nicholas Economos (Alfred, NY, US)
Peter Luining (Amsterdam, NL)
Francesca De Nicolo (Rome, IT)
Ignacio Nieto (Santiago, CL)
Kristen Palana (New Jersey, US)
Isabel Saij (Cologne, GE/Paris, FR)
Ana Valdes (Sweden)
Ocassional Collaborators:
Furtherfield.org (London, UK)
Evelyne Rogue - artcogitans.com (Paris, FR)

Rumba in context:
http://www.centralhome.com/ballroomcountry/rumba.htm
Radio:
http://www.afrocubaweb.com/almadelbarrio.htm
http://salsastream.com/

Afro-cuban Music:
Los Papines
http://www.afrocubaweb.com/papines.htm
http://www.spun.com/music/browse-artist.jsp?productId$91196
http://www.descarga.com/cgi-bin/db/20869.20?gYr4Kopj;;151

Others:
http://www.ibiblio.org/mao/cuba/music.html

Amy Alexander:
http://discordia.us
http://recycler.plagiarist.org/
http://plagiarist.org/
http://toplap.org

Natalie Bookchin:
http://jupiter.ucsd.edu/~bookchin/
http://www.calarts.edu/~line/history.html
http://www.action-tank.org/
http://www.newmedia.sunderland.ac.uk/crumb/phase3/nmc_intvw_bookjack.html
http://contactzones.cit.cornell.edu/artists/natalie_bookchin.html

Blogs:
Blogs and RSS Feed Search Engine
http://www.faganfinder.com/blogs/

Blog Directory
http://www.blogarama.com/

Latin American Blogs
http://www.hacer.org/latinblogs.php

Theodor Adorno
The Culture Industry
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0415253802/104-6656645-5714333

related links:
http://alum.hampshire.edu/~cmnF93/culture_reconsidered.txt
http://www.wright.edu/~gordon.welty/Adorno_84.htm
http://home.ddc.net/ygg/etext/adorno.htm
http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/SWA/Culture_industry_1.html

Richard Barbrook, "The Hi-Tech Gift Economy," First Monday, 1999,
(10 May 2004). <http://firstmonday.dk/issues/13_12/barbrook/>

Relevant Books:
Net ARt 2.0 by Tilman Baumgartel
http://www.artbook.com/3933096669.html

El Tercer Umbral by Jose Luis Brea
http://www.casadellibro.com/fichas/fichaautores/0,1463,BREA32JOSE2LUIS,00.html

Internet y Despues by Wolton Dominique
http://www.casadellibro.com/fichas/fichabiblio/0,1094,2900000708605,00.html?titulo=INTERNET+%bfY+DESPUES%3F%3A+UNA+TEORIA+CRITICA+DE+LOS+NUEVOS+MEDIOS+DE+COMUNICACION

Internet Art by Rachel Greene
http://www.thamesandhudson.com/en/1/0500203768.mxs?2996dd4fdecf95e7c50c0dbc012859ae&0&0&0

Digital Art by Christiane Paul
http://www.thamesandhudson.com/en/1/0500203679.mxs?fb2d7492a18ab40ceb5888753f8432a9&0&0&0

Internet Art The online Clash of Culture and Commerce
http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPageA8

Net_Condition: Art and Global Media by Peter Weibel and Timothy Druckrey
http://www.com.washington.edu/rccs/bookinfo.asp?ReviewID3&BookID5

Information Arts by Stephen Wilson
http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?tidB44&ttype=2
  • Eduardo Navas | Fri Mar 25th 2005 1:06 a.m.
    As it has been a few days since I was interviewed by Trebor Scholz, I find it necessary to comment on the interview; in particular, the last question.

    I request Trebor Scholz to include this comment in the newmediaeducation.org website, right after my last answer and before the list of references. I also ask that he send it to other lists that received the original interview that I may not be including in this e-mail.

    The overall interview process was rather organic, both Trebor and I adjusted our questions and answers until we were happy with them. However, when I read the last question as it was published in its final form, I realized that my answer was not responding to Trebor's final question, but rather it was still largely left untouched extending a commentary on the "art star system,"  an element that was brought up by Trebor in previous questions when he started to talk about networking in the artworld vs. online communities.  My commentary on "self-interest" was commenting on his original point of view on "art stars."  As readers will notice, Trebor took this specific comment out of his final question/commentary.  When he did this he also added a long comment on networking that set up a reasoning for my Afro-cuban analogy.  And this makes my comment on "self-interest" rather odd in its final form.
    Admittedly, when I read his adjusted commentary, I decided to also adjust my rumba analogy to support the dialogue, not really knowing that my answer was becoming something else.  I did not realize that with this I ended up turning Rumba improvisation into something exotic. This hurts me because this is a musical activity that I have practiced for over ten years.  Had I realized this at the time, I would have pulled out my rumba analogy, but I admit I liked it and thought it made sense, at least it did for the initial question.

    I cannot take back the fact that I let the Rumba analogy stand in direct relation to a commentary on networking as a new media actvity.  But I can say that I would not have used it to talk about networking in such terms had that really been the initial question.  As it stands, I find that I can only write this comment admitting my mistake of letting the process of editing lead me to accept a position I never intended.  This was my choice, asI approved the interview for publication.  At this point, I find myself entitled to clarify that I do not find my analogy appropriate to Trebor's comment on networking.

    So how would I answer or follow up his comment on fostering a civil society?  I would say that it all starts with basic communication. Something we lost track of at the end of the interview.  It is ironic that I made a comment on "listening" while "playing," and while this may work for some activities such as rumba improvisaton, it certainly does not work for others.  It is obvious that we both lost our "tune" on that last question.  Neither the question nor the answer really correspond.  

    Best,

    Eduardo Navas
    http://navasse.net
    http://netartreview.net

    -----------------

    Trebor wrote:

    > Listening To Yourself While Playing With Others
    >
    > An interview with Eduardo Navas (adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
    > As part of WebCamTalk1.0
    > http://www.newmediaeducation.org

    full thread here:
    http://rhizome.org/thread.rhiz?thread736&text1858#31858
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