[-empyre-] on -empyre- processes

Christina McPhee christina at christinamcphee.net
Tue Feb 26 16:35:42 EST 2008

Hi-empyre-,  as I mentioned the MagNet Reader 3 editors, Nat Muller  
and Alessandro Ludovico, have asked me  to write for the reader a  
brief essay about -empyre- 'editing' as a processual art form-- using  
a casual, personal voice.   I've finished a draft of the piece and  
wanted to send it on to all of you.  Comments welcome; much of the  
info you already know, of course. At the end there are some questions  
about future directions..  We'll start a new topic in March with  
Melinda, so if you want to offer feedback about this essay, right now  
is a good time,, while we're in a bit of a lull.

Many thanks everyone,

Christina McPhee

Processual Editing  and -empyre- Soft-Skinned Space : A Personal Account

Christina McPhee
christina at christinamcphee.net


-empyre- is a process based listserv on media art and culture, based  
in Sydney, hosted at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South  
Wales, and founded in 2002 by Melinda Rackham. I found out about it  
accidentally just as it began, upon stumbling into Melinda’s network  
based Contagion. in the online magazine  chairetmetal (metal and  
flesh), edited by Canadian media theorist Ollivier Dyens, who,  
coincidentally, had also selected one of my projects,  
Slipstreamandromeda, for the same issue Without even knowing what a  
listserv was, or, barely, a hypertext, I signed up, and joined the  
conversation with Melinda’s first guest, none other than Olliver who  
had just published “Metal and Flesh” with MIT Press in 2001. Olliver’s  
and Melinda’s shared fascination with the imaginative connotations of  
‘contagion’, as it were, moving about inside a vast ‘empyrean’ or  
empire of the sky, appealed to my sense of irony and adventure in  
equal doses. At first, I imagined the -empyrean- as a mutation of the  
Yellow Submarine, possibly carrying on board some weird, oddly  
pleasant pathology, or media path-lab. Melinda spoke of her utopian  
hopes for -empyre-, as it might develop a non-hierarchical, open forum  
outside the usual conventions of academia and the art world. Even the  
name declined to be capitalized, implying a delicious subvention of  
Empire into the empyrean. In the coming months, -empyre- proved to be  
a way to learn almost effortlessly about what was quickly developing  
into the contentious field some called ‘new media’, about projects and  
people. Fueled with a hopeful optimistic energy. -empyre-’s almost  
casual, self-effacing style (Melinda in those early days refused to  
even sign her name to her moderating posts) was most infectious, and  
grew rapidly. Our readers started in the south, but soon the list had  
moved beyond Oz and the Kiwis, while still retaining the laconic pithy  
tone of Down Under sensibilities. Soon -empyre- attracted other  
moderators, still almost all from the Americas or the Pacific Rim - a  
self-selected group. Each month, a new topic would launch with a  
question or thematic focus. As moderators, we would identify themes  
and provocative questions, and then contact artists, theorists,  
curators, media journalists, and others, weeks in advance of the  
topic’s launch. Our guests would command a broad range of practices,  
from critical theory to computational poetics, from political  
hacktivism to industrial design.

It was the mix that counted, and still does, as we’ve found that the  
best way to keep the flow going is to pick a broad topic or question  
to which we ask the guests to write specific responses and  
provocations. We ask each of our four to six guests per month to  
prepare an opening statement or query in short form, about three  
hundred words at most, in advance. This way, the formal character of  
the topic  -- its writerly exposition - is evident from the start. The  
-empyrean- readers react,  respond, and riff from here. Guests stay  
‘on’ for a negotiated period, from one to the full four weeks. Posts  
are usually in English by default rather than design, but sometimes  
(so far) in Spanish, French and Portuguese--we are not ‘imperial’  
about -empyre’s English. (Moderators sometimes also ask readers to  
contribute on-the fly translations or, when we are able to do so,  
provide translations from major languages into English).

  Participation occurs both through the ‘algorithms’ set up by the  
guests themselves as they put content out into the list milieu, and by  
the semi-random commentary and reaction on the part of the readers.  
You never know who among the readers will get fired up and start  
writing seriously, upping the ante on the official guests of the  
month. You never know when the list will go from mix to remix, from a  
simple set of themes to a fugue state. I find this exciting: if the - 
empyrean- implies a space of x, in the heights or the sky, then here  
we discover the unpredictable moves of communally generated narrative  
by multiple authors, who all have a stake in making the story  
interesting;who aren’t bound by any format other than the announced  
thematic, while possible transformations of the theme occur across a  
triple register of moderation, guest posts, and reader posts. The  
triplet  structure maintains -empyre’s unique dynamic of  open form.

As a moderator, I soon realize that I am deep into a kind of  
processual and collaborative editing, in which the readers become  
writerly and vice versa. Here guests and readers alike start to  
perform a special kind of tactical writing together --call and  
response--in waves. The guests have a privileged voice-space: they can  
write in the vanguard of everyone else. At the same time they have the  
obligation to respond, not to drop out or disappear during the time of  
engagement with the -empyrean- readers, who may as quickly turn into  
writers as consistent and trenchant as any of the guests.. Among the  
special guests, this dynamic of obligation ‘lite’- a sort of volunteer  
slavery to the list for a short time -brings out competition and  
generosity in equal measure. In the realm of the readers, there is  
attentiveness in free flow, like a background hum of thinking going  
on  through multiple time zones.

I’ve been interested in the remix like everybody else in new media.  
But it seems important to try to do something beyond just  
recontextualizing information. There is no dearth of opportunities for  
communicating online. It’s really about what makes people want to  
contribute, to write, even formally, or more conversationally, in an  
open self-generative work that still stays somehow grounded. It seems  
crucial to get past the tyranny of presets in digital media, the  
multiple choice aspect of everything web 2.0. And so the leanest most  
minimal structure, or rules of the game, seem delightful and even  
fanciful. If there is not a ‘formatting’ issue or a cgi interface for  
selection among predetermined choices, will people want to play? So  
the crux of -empyre- has until now been non-visual, focused on the  
word, on a sort of expanded - even trippy - aesthetic of letter- 
writing. It’s so old school it’s almost Jane Austen.

  Much virtual ink is bled over the problem of how to establish trans- 
border dialogues, how to create a public ‘heterotopia’. This is a  
desire with more than political and aesthetic overtones. Indeed it  
reaches into the realm of magical thinking: as if, we wish to believe,  
we can overcome the loneliness, isolation, and profound distraction  
secondary to the media glut, by the strange harmonics of a  
conversation through an archaic and non-visual a medium as the lowly  
email. I subscribe wholeheartedly to these fantasies. Or they may be  
the symptoms of an incipient delirium-- a fever of desire for some  
harmonics across a spectrum of human speech far wider than the normal  
audible range of the internet. Wider in the sense not of bandwidth,  
but of the human spirit. I hope for a kind of expansive mood of play  
to take hold amongst this self- selected, mostly silent group of a  
thousand readers/writers. For me, as artist and editor, this hope  
carries out through seduction and juxtaposition. I try to entice  
special guests to give of their time and to meet and respond to other  
guests whom they probably do not know personally, or have never met,  
and who are not necessarily likely to share a common argot. I remind  
them to post often and with generosity, and without expectation of  
response from the elusive -empyrean- readership, whose silence is the  
norm. The silence is a kind of nurturing presence: you get the  
feeling, when you write on -empyre- that many are paying close  
attention, or that perhaps your thoughts are winging into their  
drifts-- as they access email on high speed bullet trains via  
blackberries and pods. Or there is another kind of space on -empyre-,  
at times, a not-silent, ricochet space like a handball court where  
furious volleys rebound and strike. -empyre- is not a space of  
understanding, it does not explain itself. It does not require  
cooperation nor endorse neutrality. Posts, like hard balls at high  
speeds, smash at each other.  Often on my watch this condition of  
almost violent play erupts unexpectedly.  There will have been long  
silences on the list, practically nothing happening, and then someone  
takes up the game.

I‘ve been thinking a lot about Ant Farm lately. The late sixties/ 
seventies subversive architecture group was, in their own view, a self- 
described “art politics”. Asked to comment on “Media Burn”, an  
installation in which Ant Farm members drove through a wall of flaming  
televisions using only a video camera mounted on the back of the car  
hood for guidance through the flames, one Ant Farm member, “Uncle  
Buddy” responded with reference to a kind of detournement of cars and  
televisions into a (literally) explosive transposition. “The idea of  
looping back into television is the destruction of television.” Ant  
Farm wanted to break up the hegemony of television, by symbolically  
‘using’ stacked televisions and flaming in order to release, as it  
were, video for provocative deployment beyond what they saw as the  
malevolent reach of capitalist media. Might -empyre- want to figure  
out a way to create/perform some kind of ‘media burn” on  the  
aesthetics of Web 2.0,?  My analogy is television in the sevenities   
is to Web 2.0 now, as burning cars is to old-school emails (the  
latter, both taken for granted as ‘old’ technology, maybe on the scrap  
heap already). Web 2.0 and television are alike in the sense that both  
seem to promise a total hegemonic space, a ‘ritual pathos’ for  
everybody (the description is Ant Farm’s). Web 2.0 is unlike TV, in  
the current moment, as it makes possibilities for inclusion, remix and  
gift exchange. But if we adopt Web 2.0 styles, is there loss of  the  
power of literary and political rhetoric, especially satire and  
polemic? It’s as if we still need the ‘burning cars’ (read, email  
exchanges)  to deploy signification,  even as we ‘burn’ through the  
layers of multi-authored internet. I hope we don’t become the Vanilla  
Submarine. On -empyre- can we figure out how to do a latter-day ‘media  
burn’ that can use the dynamic participatory editing tools now online   
but also make sure that rich critical content emerges?

More on -empyre-’s mechanics, simple rules of the game, and past and  
current glories, searchably archived and otherwise, are online at http://subtle.net/empyre 
.  The list is archived by Cornell University Libraries/ Rose Goldsen  
Archive of New Media Art, and with the Pandora Archive, National  
LIbrary of Australia. The list is currently moderated by Melinda  
Rackham (AU), Nicholas Ruiz III (US), Christina McPhee (US), Marcus  
Bastos (BR), Jason Nelson (AU), Renate Ferro (US) and Tim Murray (US).


*The quotes from “Uncle Buddy” on Media Burn and context on Ant Farm  
are from Felicity Scott's new book, Architecture or Technoutopia,  
Chapter 8, "Shouting Apocalypse," p. 138.  Cambridge: MIT Press,  2007.

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