[-empyre-] on -empyre- criticality

rtf9 at cornell.edu rtf9 at cornell.edu
Wed Feb 27 01:48:30 EST 2008

Thanks Christina for the amazing history and summary of -empyre . 
What I love about -empyre is that it is a space where artist's or 
architects or theorists or philosophers or writers or whomever can 
come together in cyberspace to discuss what is bubbling at the 
moment.  It's a generous group that continues to make me rethink my 
own work and energy in relationship to an expansive, international 
community.  In response to the allusion to Ant Farm's Media Burn... 
by -empyre remaining dedicated or engaged in  critical thinking is 
not the 'burn' being realized?

Renate Ferro

>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, 
>empyre forum
>empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au

Renate Ferro
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art
Cornell University
Department of Art, Tjaden Hall
<rtf9 at cornell.edu>

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