NextFiveMinutes3: Party Like It's 1999

By Ted Byfield, 28 September 2006

This March, the latest in the Next 5 Minutes conference series (N5M3) took place in Amsterdam. It was dedicated to tactical media and net activism and gave an international assortment of media activists a chance to meet and debate strategies. Only weeks later the NATO bombing campaign began, lending a retrospective sense of urgency to the event. Newborn strategies that had fortuitously been discussed now swung into action. Ted Byfield considers the semi-permeable membrane separating theory from practice and the real from the virtual in the context of campaigning.

The gap between the Paradiso, a cavernous old church turned nightclub, and De Balie, a cultural centre with less obvious origins, is bridged in part by a postmodern colonnade on which the motto HOMO SAPIENS NON VRINAT IN VENTVM is inscribed: roughly, “the wise man doesn’t piss in the wind.” The faux proverb wasn’t visible to the people attending the third triennial Next 5 Minutes conference who shuttled back and forth beneath it; just as well, given the event’s overarching theme of ‘tactical media’ - pissing in the wind, basically, if by wind one means the seemingly abstract, impersonal forces that slowly bend and erode societies to their will. But even those winds change, sometimes quite abruptly; true wisdom may lie in learning to aim on the fly. Think of the N5M series as a training camp of sorts. And think very seriously about going to N5M4.

Conferences are elaborate affairs, and as such tend to be tailored to collective endeavours that can afford such luxuries: a disciplinary body (urologists, say), a professional body (SteadyCam operators), or bodies with too many organs (for example, the annual “Financial Cryptography” conference in Anguilla). The N5M series has no such formal disciplines or bodies: its sponsors are a coalition of Dutch cultural institutions whose mandate involves culture and things electronic; and its denizens are a motley bunch – unsteadycammers, activists, slacktivists, networkers, writers, theoreticians, artists, wackademics, and, most loveable of all, assorted cultural ‘spaß-guerrillas.’ The lure? Maybe like the advert Fellini used to take out in La Stampa when he was casting a new film (“Fellini wishes to meet anyone who wishes to meet Fellini”) minus the bit about Fellini. They’re a self-selecting group; and despite the fact that they’re at a cultural-political conference, they’re quite festive too.       

This sense of pleasure stems in large part from the thicket of friendships present, which has grown quite dense over the last few years, courtesy of the electronic networks, which have transformed the older social bonds and allowed a thousand new ones to bloom. Thus the trajectory of the N5M series. In the hazy past – 1993, to be exact – was N5M1, about which few who were present at N5M3 (myself included) probably know very much. N5M2, the first I attended, took place in January 1996 – the dawn of serious Net hype when, in the harsh light of the rise of Sun, questions of access for whom and access to what cast long shadows. John Perry Barlow was still swaggering through virtual saloon doors, the Open Society Institute (née Soros Foundation) was still ‘opening’ the East, and Wired was still the particoloured stalking horse of a new generation. But that age of heroes and villains has vanished down a hole in gopherspace: the virtual has revealed itself to be real, with all the ambiguities that transformation entails. For the strategic purposes of the conference’s organisers – who stick their necks out by guessing where the tactical will be a year hence – this normalisation of the Net is yet another unwieldy turn in the swerving course that ‘tactical media’ has taken since its origins in the rise of the consumer camcorder. But for those in attendance, many of whose affections (and disaffections) have been built largely in and out of electrons, the foggy end-of-the-century conceptual environment provided a relaxed scene for pressing real flesh and bonding over issues and ideas. Given that one of the series’ stated goals is “the construction of long-term partnerships and network structures,” it has surely succeeded. Whether that achievement is adequate is another question.

That this goal should be set forth in language lifted from IT-speak hints at the organisers’ ambitious agenda: they aren’t footing the bill for a lovefest or a reunion, after all. Those who know them will sometimes openly joke about the ‘Dutch imperialists’ or (in a noteworthy substitution) ‘digital imperialists.’ Like most jokes, this has more than a grain of truth to it, which some of the imperialists in question will not merely concede but acknowledge with a laugh – not a big laugh, but not a small one either. As with many things Dutch, the nature of this ‘imperialism’ is quite elusive. It’s not about domination, expropriation, or subjugation: it’s about ‘context.’ And not just any old context: context understood from the standpoint of a former hegemon whose people are forever redefining, reimplementing, restructuring, reapportioning, and rebuilding their land itself, ceding it to and reclaiming it from the waters, the forests, the farms, the cities, the countryside, the past, and the present –  all with an eye toward a functional future. They do it with a legendary pragmatism that strikes some outsiders as comically earnest – but they do it. It’s practical. And they’re practising. So the next time you hear a Dutch person say ‘context,’ look sharp: you’re about to be assimilated.

This fascination with context accounts for a curious aspect of the N5M series: why, in conferences ostensibly devoted to the streetwise theory and hands-on practice of ‘tactical media,’ the talk so often tends toward strategic historical imponderables – neoliberalism, globalisation, democracy, Asia, and so on. One could, of course, write this off as typical of conferences as a genre: the only way to lump together a dozen divergent speakers (for example, from Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Seoul, Tokyo, and London) is to give the panel a sufficiently abstract name (the ‘Inter-East Forum’). Sure, this plays a part in the organisation of N5M. But where, then, are all the other traits so typical of conferences – the glaring signs of corporate or academic sponsorship, the big-name speakers, the extortionate entrance fees, the grandiose public installations run amok? Nowhere. Organisational procedures account for a trend toward abstraction, but they don’t determine the specifics – those are ‘context.’ And context is a plan – a master plan. In the inter-East case, for example, it was a cooperative East-West project to think about alternatives to the territorialised stasis to which the West and its manifold tentacles (NLF movements, the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and so on) have consigned the fantastic heterogeneity between the Danube and the Pacific. But even a list of such specifics wouldn’t reveal much about the master plan, for the simple reason that context is one part imaginative effort, one part wind, and one part unpredictable result – in a word, dialectical.


N5M3’s ‘core themes’ – ‘the art of campaigning,’ ‘post-governmental organisations,’ ‘the technical and the tactical,’ and ‘tactical education’ – read like so many snappy banners marching by in a parade. But what then is falling under imperial sway? The presentations themselves formed a much more sombre procession: the strange fruit of U.S. prison privatisation, the ruthless punishments meted out to undocumented people and those who aid them, the ‘regulatory’ hurdles imposed on media that support class alliances across miscellaneous ‘ancient’ lines rather than vice versa in the service of oppression, the numbing quasi-slavery of globalised sweatshops, the long and sinuous arms of multinationals intent on suppressing reports of their scurrilousness, and so on - fertile ground indeed for dialectical engagement or, more plainly, context. Want a local context? There’s the Amsterdam Media Debate about the devolutions of free media in the host city. Too ‘cosy’? There’s European Affairs, or South Asia Forum. Something more gendered? Cyberfeminism / Feminism and Media Strategies. Not networked enough? Try Streaming Media / Web.TV.Radio.Text.Net, or Radical Software (moderated by yours truly). Wish you’d had a chance to show your own work? The Free Zone, maybe, or open screening sessions. This agenda is ambitious enough that to speak of imperialism isn’t, laughs aside, a joke: the contexts ordained for the assemblage as a whole – speakers, audience, specifics, rubrics – is the world. And if the imperialists succeed, in fostering partnerships and network structures, you won’t owe them a thing because they won’t need you to owe them a thing: merely playing your part in the larger context they envisioned will be quite sufficient. Welcome to the world of Dutch pragmatism.

Well, sort of. There is, of course, another Dutch imperium, which is quite real and far less benevolent - that of multinationals like Royal Dutch Shell, Philips, and numerous sprawling financial concerns, which with their multinational brethren are engaged in an effort of unimaginable scale to redefine, reimplement, restructure, reapportion, and rebuild the world and everything in it. Against the backdrop of these genuine empires, N5M is comically earnest and small – much as, against the backdrop of nations such as the U.S. or China, the Netherlands is comically earnest and small. But the organisers of the N5M series believe, I think, that contextualising the struggles against these monumental efforts – by building ‘partnerships’ and ‘network structures’ – is the key to building a counter-imperium. Not ‘alternative’ institutions established to fulfil this or that purpose on a ‘local’ or ‘global’ model, but autonomous formations constantly engaged ‘translocally,’ in a context both immediate and worldly. It may not be a new dream, or a unique dream, but the cult of novelty is itself a creature irredeemably swayed by and susceptible to the dominating, expropriating, and subjugating logic of these corporate hegemons. And since these hegemons seem to be doing quite well for themselves, maybe some of their idioms aren’t corrupt to their core – maybe they’re well suited to the spirit of the age. Welcome, once again, to the world of Dutch pragmatism. Please check your genealogical critiques at the door.

Whether many who attended N5M3 attended to these questions, I don’t know – I doubt it; just as well, probably, since context is naught without the ‘content,’ and the content of the conference lay in the presentations themselves, given in darkened rooms both small and large, and in the chance to make new pals and affirm old ones in De Balie’s cheery if hiply proper café. To say that the conference was a success in that regard would be true, I think, but it wouldn’t tell the whole story. It couldn’t, for the simple reason that the conference itself had (yes) a context. And a very ambivalent one at that.

Some years are watersheds – 1939, for example, or 1968. Another isn’t: 1984, an epiphany of gloom which turned out to be a wash, lost in the swirling tides of neo-rightism and ‘new wave.’ And 1999? It remains to be seen, of course; but none of the conferents at the Next Five Minutes 3 – more than a few of them from the ‘ex-East,’ some fiersomely well informed on Balkan matters – openly anticipated that within the Next 2 Weeks NATO would beat Y2K to the punch and inaugurate the Next Historical Period by liberally opening its bomb bay over the Rump Republic of Yugoslavia. And the fact that, only days before, several hundred ‘translocal’ tactical media practitioners, whose bonds by master plan span the boundaries of the Cold War, had gathered in what seemed to be an eventless and speculative climate – it hurt. Had NATO acted a few weeks earlier or the conference taken place a few weeks later, N5M3 could have been a devil’s workshop of tactical media and contextualisation. As it happened, luck alone left the conference’s connectivity and organisational structure in place to orchestrate the means to grab the signal from Belgrade’s independent Radio B92 and pass it through to the BBC for satellite broadcast over Yugoslavia within a day of the Milosevic regime’s confiscation of the station’s transmitter. This momentary ‘repurposing’ was a testament to the functional potential of tactical media networks; but the context – other networks that shrank from grappling with the concrete needs imposed by the war, the sad fact that the Yugoslav regime had all but left B92 in place as a token living specimen amidst the carcasses of independent media it had crushed – were bitter reminders of just how far these networks have to go.


This sudden eruption of war cast a harsh retrospective light on the blithe confidence that had freed the debates from any sense of urgency. In the face of this furious assertion of Machtpolitik, what had it meant to debate status and accountability of non-governmental organisations (NGO) or whether they're the precursors of a 'post-governmental' organisational (PGO) non-regime? Or to chat about the potentials of a complexified and historicised 'inter-East' only days before NATO would begin to bomb Serbia back into an all too familiar amalgamation of 'the past' and 'the East'? Or to play with shadows and digital retro on the ‘how low can you go’ evening on the eve of a militarist pissing match that would drive entire populations into bomb shelters and shit pits? There's no question that these and other discussions give to those who listen a comparatively concrete (compared, say, to endless reams of snow-white pages) entrée into sophisticated ways to think about the war's context. And it would be excessive, of course, for N5Mers to reproach themselves for failing to anticipate this turn of events – but it's that very excess and desire for concretion that brought them together to begin with. Hence, in part, the recurring plaints on the mailing lists that circulate through these networks – nettime, syndicate, 7-11, and others – about feelings of 'isolation' and 'powerlessness' as the war blossomed; hence as well, the quick realisation that this return of the real would test just how real these still somewhat virtual 'partnerships' and 'networks' had become.

To the extent that Art has played an enormous part in attracting people to these networks, this test became doubly problematic. Art, after all, was doing the virtual-real two-step long before the Net came along – equivocal enough to be virtual, real enough to support a cosmopolitan (or at least well-travelled) cottage industry, and ambivalent enough to be, well, ambivalent. But add yet another order of virtuality – 'virtuality' proper – to this hothouse, and the resultant microcosm within a microcosm becomes that much more befuddling: a handful of relentless practitioners attended by the usual bands of slavish imitators and fellow-travellers, but even more bedeviled by hordes – densely settled, not surprisingly, in Real Institutions – of sceptics. This hyper-rarefied postconceptualism made several appearance at N5M3, among them two rather wan cameos: a dispirited yet vaguely bilious debate about 'art after activism,' in which those who were utterly perplexed by the dichotomy shone, and a shiftless proposal for an money-dispensing 'Interfund' so loath to become institutionalised that amounts like $10 were earnestly suggested ("in order to attract other funding" – not matching grants, one assumes). But if indeed art has been ahead of its time, its predicament proved to be exemplary in the most exquisitely painful way: not only have the winds of change, in the form of networks, caught up with art and effectively made many of its separatist ideologies redundant, but also the formerly avant-garde problem of the really virtual or virtually real has been dumped in everyone's – including the activists' – lap.

Whether the organisers of N5M4 will propose an ‘art after art’ panel, I won’t venture to speculate; it’ll depend, I think, on the artists’ ability to negotiate with their context – and not just an ‘art context’ – in the space between 3 and 4. But that ability won’t be judged from on high, because the ability of those who deal in the real to effectively negotiate that same context, unlike any that’s been seen in a long time, is equally uncertain. What is certain is that a new day of long shadows is rising – and those shadows aren’t at all virtual. The particoloured stalking horses are gone, and the dialecticians may once again see the Zeitgeist riding across another battlefield, through winds far too strong for even a fool to piss in.

Ted Byfield: xtbyfield AT panix.comx


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