Maybe the People Would Be the Times

By Marina Vishmidt, 5 January 2006

From Tomorrow On and Beyond

An eclectic gathering of practitioners met at Manchester’s From Tomorrow On: art, activism, technology and the future of independent media to reveal several important faultlines over purpose and approach. Marina Vishmidt reports on the ‘community’ that was fleetingly assembled there.

Manchester has always been the city that beckoned the rest of Britain into the twisting bowels of the future. From hotbed of dark satanic mills, to crucible of post-industrial counterculture, and latterly as host of locative media incubator Futuresonic, Manchester has a long history of prototyping the forms of a future most disconsolate and severe, most acerbic, most progressive and upstanding in benevolent red brick. An exclusive preview of the ascendant phases of capital for the rest of the country. Manchester's prospects as place of tomorrow are mediated by today's compliment of dwindling public services, urban dereliction and culture-led regeneration that is the odourless, colourless gas pervading every large metropolitan area in the UK. But aside from that tidily disaffected conclusion, Manchester has a lot going for it, or so it seemed over a couple of days. Compared to the glum impasse between abandonment and total privatisation faced by the European Capital of Culture 2008 (Liverpool), Manchester is far better at conveying confidence to its tourists.

From Tomorrow On: art, activism, technology and the future of independent media ran at Manchester's Cornerhouse from 28-29 October - two days of panel presentations and discussions that traversed alter-media production. The event took in a wide swathe of activists and practitioners, from Indymedia to Telestreet, from Copenhagen public access channel TVTV to Copenhagen public art machine Superflex, from activist video makers Undercurrents to socio-poetic practitioner Emma Hedditch and all points between in the attempt to evoke an actual or potential politics from irreducible differences and provisional similarities of practice. Although credited to a number of partners – the Cornerhouse, MIRIAD (Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design), Manchester Metropolitan University and the Research Group for Art and Democracy – the chief architects of the colloquium were Lesley Young, the Cornerhouse's Visual Arts Education Officer, and Will Bradley, member of the aforenamed research group, curator and writer.

Following a Friday night screening of The Battle of Orgreave (a gesture which could be read as a reflexive commentary on the enactment of interventionist media praxis in art contexts), the two days endeavoured to analyse the problematics of representation and ideology in independent media, the sorts of composition of affect or action that media technologies and distribution formats seek to mobilise, and the shifting connotations of 'independence' across economic, institutional and semiotic registers. There was also an intent to frame at least some of the discussions with a text by German media theorist and From Tomorrow On participant Hito Steyrl, ‘The Articulation of Protest’, in which she counterpoints the representational strategies of Indymedia's Showdown in Seattle with Godard and Mieville's 1970s video essay Ici et Ailleurs, concluding that the latter projects a more complicated, and implicated, subject of resistance than activist reportage deploying mass-media formulated meaning-making techniques.

The vexed permutations of independence also echoed through the juxtaposition of projects as different as Italy's Candida TV/Telestreet/New Global Vision and the Scottish art/politics publication Variant; a juxtaposition just as instructive for the divergent views of the role of the public sector as the methodologies at play. Agnese Trocchi's presentation of the three projects with which she's been heavily involved for a number of years traced an audacious, mercurial counter-media meshwork that operated through multiple platforms (pirate TV, street theatre, packaged content, peer-to-peer filesharing) and in the interstices of urban topography as well as Berlusconi's media oligopoly. Variant’s editor Leigh French, on the other hand, had one newsprint magazine and an unorthodox, but curiously inspiring, faith in the state as a resource commons that needed to be recaptured, not exited, by the radical and critical voices currently marginalised by it.

A second edifying faultline ran between perceptions of independent media as an arts-led technique for spawning social cohesion in 'deprived' communities, and those that swerved away from engaging with particular social subjects, citing an equally venerable tradition of independent media as aleatory and infiltrative rather than ameliorative. This contrast between production of communities and production of subjectivities (to be hopelessly schematic) set the scene for Superflex's Tenantspin presentation and that of TV-TV in the 'Virtual spaces, real networks: What can or should differentiate new, independent media systems from the mass media we already have? ' panel. This Copenhagen showdown crystallised already extant hopes and fears about Superflex. Having packed the rear of the auditorium with bottles of Superflex Guarana drinks and the front with amiable Liverpudlian seniors, Bjornsterne Christiansen gave a rundown of how operating their own community broadband network empowered a group of Liverpool council tenants – and for one shining moment, it seemed to be true, if only in the anecdote of the tenants going along and secretly filming the meetings of the estate development board. But this version of media as agent of social cohesion also exposed how really incommensurable, in some ways, such a notion was with Simon Sheikh's depiction of the aims of TV-TV as a targeted infestation of a regular terrestrial channel with experimental and locally-sourced lifeforms. A broad distinction between Superflex's programme as an intervention into the real, and TV-TV's as an intervention into TV seemed to short-circuit as quickly as it was made, as the premise for both Tenantspin and TV-TV was that television created reality, although the hiatus between positivism and critique made up the difference in the end.

Another observable variation in the panels was between the project-centred presentations such as those described so far, and the ones in which practitioners were induced to deliver up a cinescope account of their involvement with independent media if too long-term and transversal to be collapsed into a single project. The talks given by Pit Schultz (Bootlab,, nettime etc.), Saul Albert (University of Openness, Dorkbot London, NODE.London, WSFII etc.), Seda Guerses (de-center Berlin, VIFU [Virtual International Frauen Universitaet], dj, migration activist) and Micz Flor (Center for Advanced Media, Prague; artbag, convex tv, Crash Media, media developer in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia) flowed into this pattern, with Seda going the extra metadata mile and supplementing her talk with a computer-aided diagram that she drew as she spoke, visualising time, space and connections between persons and groups and filling in the white spaces with gossip and snippets of her dj sets. Guerses' evocation of the impossibility of representation in the very modality of her own talk was a deft reference back to Steyerl's text and also gave a performative spin to the staging of the 'conference event', and the staging of critical media practices within it, both endeavours that anticipate or are stimulated by the operative fiction of 'community.' If there is a community, it comes about perhaps in the evasion of the 'event', and in the 'being-together' provoked by it. This coming together could mark a confrontation and possibly erode the complacency embedded in 'strengthening networks' as a premise for assembling. It casts practitioners, as well as those finding themselves in the audience, back to first premises in their own enthusiasms and propositions. From the banality of alienation, a constitutive non-relation rooted in that very same banality may yet stir forth. In gesturing to this constitutive outside to the conference event of relations, non-relations and context that willy-nilly must be submitted to some degree of arbitrary filtering and objectification to make it into the conference event, Guerses' talk was engaging and quixotic, rounding off the two days of tomorrows.

From Tomorrow On:

‘The Articulation of Protest’