by Ethan Miller
This Fall, as part of the inception of FUSE (The CADRE/Montalvo research initiative), we've had a chance to speak with a number of cultural producers engaged in work that re-purposes existing practices in various ways. GRL, Mongrel, Red 76, Natalie Jeremijenko, CLUI, Eddo Stern, and Jennifer and Kevin McCoy all work with materials, environments and conventions that are not unfamiliar, yet manage to shift how they function in the world and raise interesting questions in the process.
It's important first of all to clarify the terms brought up. What is being re-purposed, and what is meant by re-purpose with that in mind? Materials, environments, and practices can be approached together through the large sense of the word 'network' as articulated in Actor-Network Theory. The movements of all entities, human or otherwise, and the relations that emerge among them are networks. "Literally there is nothing but networks, there is nothing in between them, or, to use a metaphor from the history of physics, there is no aether in which the networks should be immersed. " (Latour)
Furthermore, there is a kind of recursive relationship in which an entity within a network is itself a network. A toaster can be treated as a simple entity within the network of a kitchen, but opening the toaster and studying how it works would reveal it as a network of its own, and connected to other networks (manufacturing industries, electrical engineering, etc.). To some degree, the ability to treat a given network (the toaster) as a simple entity (just a toaster) depends on it's continued and predictable functioning as a system.
...they are network packages -- routines -- that can, if precariously, be more or less taken for granted in the process of heterogeneous engineering. In other words, they can be counted as resources, resources which may come in a variety of forms: agents, devices, texts, relatively standardised sets of organisational relations, social technologies, boundary protocols, organisational forms -- any or all of these. Note that the heterogeneous engineer cannot be certain that any will work as predicted. Punctualisation is always precarious, it faces resistance, and may degenerate into a failing network. (Law)
With this in mind, we can outline a "strong" and "weak" sense of the word re-purpose. The weak sense of re-purposing takes an existing network (treated as an entity) and simply places it elsewhere. The toaster is being used as a door-stop: clearly not it's original purpose. This kind of re-purposing doesn't depend on any interruption in the network's functioning (it could still toast bread), and it doesn't reveal anything in particular about the network that wasn't already known (it was designed to toast bread, but is being used for another purpose now).
The strong sense of re-purposing essentially breaks the network, or at least significantly interferes with it's normal operations. This kind of re-purposing does function as a system (of some kind), but simultaneously reveals the interior of a network as opposed to abstracting it into an entity. Each of the FUSE artists use this kind of re-purposing as a strategy in their work. There isn't a serious concern for maintaining the integrity of the systems they deal with, they play with the networks, expose the component nodes, reconnect nodes, or simply break the network.
The networks CLUI deal with are the landscape and how it's inhabitants interact with, and frame it. The interventions are subtle but clearly interrupt our ability to treat the landscape as a simple background to our histories and activities. Similarly, Red76 trace histories associated with places that are often ignored. Their practice extends from there into social practices, and actions in urban environments where American culture has settled for prescribed, corporate approved forms of social interaction.
Eddo Stern explores the networks traced by game culture, game technologies and the larger cultural, military and industrial networks those are heavily interwoven with. His games feel broken to some degree, but function perfectly while opening questions about the expectations surrounding games. Many of those expectations surround narratives and the roles of media "consumers" and "producers." The McCoys explore these issues as well in a practice that is a kind of self-examination within the context of a media immersed culture. Their work simultaneously re-purposes cinema, sculpture, and autobiography and raises questions for each field.
GRL take a very active approach to disrupting networks within urban cultures that find themselves subject to control structures. Corporate/governmental regulation of urban spaces is opened for discussion when tools are re-purposed to give any given citizen the ability to intervene in their environment. Natalie Jeremijenko's practice also enables non-specialized citizens to intervene in situations normally sectioned off and reserved for experts. She has undone the assumptions keeping "scientific research" out of reach for most, and made a place for discussions and design strategies that can improve our environment.
Mongrel's work shares a commitment to encouraging active participation within public spaces, and exploring how media tools work within cultures. Each of their project re-purposes technologies or codes and create new entries into networks that are often presented as closed entities.
Questions of control within networks figure highly for all of these artists. It evolves naturally out of an interest in participatory culture, and the networks that support it. Alexander Galloway, in discussing more specific kinds of networks (TCP/IP and DNS) makes the distinction between a de-centralized network, and a distributed network. While the distributed network lacks defined control nodes that prevent other members of the network from communicating independently - it doesn't automatically lead to perfect freedom for actors within the network. Protocol is the means by which control continues to be concentrated, delegated or dispersed. (Galloway 11)
The work produced by the FUSE speakers series artists bring the control points within networks to light, as in the scientific institution for Natalie Jeremijenko, or corporate media producers and their copy restrictions for Mongrel. But this is ultimately just a part of the process of re-purposing a network, disturbing it's normal function for the purpose of complicating, and interrogating it.
If the discussion here of networks has produced too concrete of an image, like a graph, with the artist/interrogator carefully manipulating it - it's worth returning to some of Latour's discussion of networks. These artists can't be on the outside of the networks. The work they do is expanding the networks that they themselves are a part of, as well as the rest of us. Their movements are the network.
As I said above there is not a net and an actor laying down the net, but there is an actor whose definition of the world outlines, traces, delineate, limn, describe, shadow forth, inscroll, file, list, record, mark, or tag a trajectory that is called a network. No net exists independently of the very act of tracing it, and no tracing is done by an actor exterior to the net. A network is not a thing but the recorded movement of a thing. The questions AT addresses have now changed. It is not longer whether a net is representation or a thing, a part of society or a part of discourse or a part of nature, but what moves and how this movement is recorded. (Latour)
Latour, Bruno "On actor-network theory : A few clarifications plus more than a few complications" <http://www.fse.ulaval.ca/edc-65804/latour-clarifications.pdf >
Law, John "Notes on the Theory of the Actor Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity" <http://web.archive.org/web/20040214135427/http%3A//www.comp.lancs.ac.uk/sociology/soc054jl.html >
Galloway, Alexander Protocol : How Control Exists After Decentralization MIT Press 2004
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