What is the role of media within society? How can digital technology and media challenge how we view and operate within society, and how does society enable us to change our view of media?
Mediengruppe Bitnik is a Zurich-based new media collective, whose exhibitions and installations are shown worldwide. Their first major UK exhibition, Too big to fail, Too small to succeed
, recently held at Space Studios
in Hackney, is based on something which has affected everyone: the global financial crisis. The size and scale of the collapse affected both ends of the financial spectrum, toppling the biggest companies while tearing apart those most in need.
Too big to fail, too small to succeed continues Mediengruppe Bitnik's practice of “intervention in systems”. The group aims to get an idea of how a particular system works within society, and how it functions once something is taken out of it.
An earlier work involved the “bugging” of the Zurich Opera
, and provides a useful example of how the group works. The opera is, of course, a closed space, based on an old art form: you have to be there personally in order to fully appreciate the performance. How can a more democratic use of media help to connect with it? The group's answer was to feed the captured audio into the Zurich telephone system. They would call random people, and invite them to listen for as long as they liked.
Thus, a re-appropriation of the performance was made: you didn't have to be at the opera, and were free to generate the imagery in your head, instead of what the audience directly experiences when being there.
With this in mind, the group wanted to undertake a similar intervention. The financial crisis of recent years had driven their interest in this sector, with an idea being formed of “re-appropriation” of the financial districts in Zurich and London. The self-contained nature of such districts was of particular intrigue. Carmen Weisskopf from the group explains why.
“We were using the old situationist system. With a psycho-geographical wandering through the city, could you re-appropriate these closed areas, and find out more about these centres than you would by not being there?”
The installation uses audio clips of “followings”: volunteers following city workers around each financial district, recording the event as it happened. Each volunteer was free to take their own approach. Clips are played back, with particular observations replayed in vision on a bank of two screens, digitally synchronised with the audio track. One screen shows these “followings” in London, the other in Zurich. These highlights read like frantic status updates.
The installation invites the viewer to examine and consider our interpretations of technology, advertising, and the meaning of openness within society.
If people think about their media uses, they may not feel constrained by them.
Carmen Weisskopf, Mediengruppe Bitnik
Carmen sees some possibilities for digital media to contribute to more “disruption” in society, but a greater possibility simply in opening up devices and channels for re-interpretation and re-appropriation.
“By suggesting uses which are not everyday or common, you can try to reinterpret what the device can do. With the opera, we could have retransmitted the feed to a radio station, but we tried to use the media in a very precise way. Calling people at home means that you can insert art into a space which is not there for art, not in that sense... it was similar in that the telephone just becomes a recording machine for subjective viewings.
“By listening to these recordings, people will be surprised at what you can see in the city, if you're just walking. The recordings have an intense quality, as they are done quickly.”
Technology needs a certain setting to become something else. The mobile phone in Iran
became something of a Utopian machine: a device operating within a given medium, that can become something much greater.
“In certain parts of Africa, because people could not always afford mobile phone costs, they would have the phone but not top it up. They wouldn't use the phone to call each other, but have elaborate systems of how long you let the phone ring. In European society, we forget about small, creative ways of using something.”
These “small, creative ways” are often prohibited by a top-down and locked-down view of what you can do with it, which is paradoxical with the view of technology as an enabler of personal freedom. “If people think about their media uses, they may not feel constrained by them. I don't think that there's a way from getting away from a certain level of media use. People need to decide for themselves, what ways are good for them, without having a company dictate to them.”
Issues surrounding the legalities of digital media use have certainly increased. Carmen gives the example of the Sony Aibo, with its community of people running “home-brew” programs on the firmware
. This called into question the intended use, and the freedom of the customer to do what they wanted once the item was purchased. Carmen makes the point that it was ultimately futile to prohibit the use of the Aibo by the community: those enthusiasts that had a genuine interest in the machine's capabilities.
The Aibo example, although almost ten years old, draws many parallels with the modus operandi of some contemporary tech companies, and their view of how communities should use their equipment. “With the iPhone, it's the same thing. People are making apps for the community, but it's becoming more professional. These issues are becoming more and more important.”
Leading up to Too big to fail was Parasite's Delights, concerning participation in media.
Carmen explains the thinking.
“Parasite is a Greek word, meaning someone sharing your food with you. This questions our point of view of media, the way in which they can be used and way in which they stand in society as having a parasitic 'other side': the side you can plug into and use differently. What we've been trying to look into, is: who else is at the table? What else can it mean, in search for other representations?”
The work is inspired by Professor Michael Serres, whose Parasite theory suggests that there is always noise in communication
, and that noise itself is part of the communication. A contemporary example of this might be the signal-to-noise ratio inherent in Twitter streams, or Facebook status updates.
Seeres thinks about how this noise can lead to other ways of listening or interpreting a certain message in a certain channel.
Parasite is also a French word, meaning “white noise”, a double meaning which Carmen appreciates: there's always something additional in the “channel”. You can't get around it, and it's not part of the message. It's a different message. There are only certain messages you can have in certain media.”
“I do think that it is good to think about how we use these technologies. In our artistic practice, we are very interested in how else you can use a certain device. Can you just do with it, what you are told? Are there other uses?”
These other uses will continue to intrigue the group for a long time to come, as digital media provides a rich seam of artistic challenges and engaging practice.