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A Network of Networks
The SAT and Luc Courchesne offer sociability that flows
by Sara Diamond

Human networks contain many elements: acts of intimacy, miraculous encounters, dwelling, boldness, shyness, redirection, and at times discomfort. As few as two persons can form a network, and yet each network has its own unique requirements; each needs to be the right size, and have the correct configuration, in order to maintain its pace and flow. When it finds its rhythm, a network hums, vibrates, and resonates. Montreal's Société des arts technologiques (SAT) and the creative works of Luc Courchesne represent two very different kinds of network, yet both embody such virtues. Both saturate their visitors with a constant flow of highly charged communication; both provide moments to dwell and contemplate, to feel shy, sad, and then ecstatic. This is sociability with an edge - as it should be.

The nature of a technology ultimately shapes the human actors who use it, and they in turn eventually exert influence upon the network. SAT operates in a similar way: by linking physical events of the liveliest sort with the day-to-day operation of an arts organization, it encourages inclusivity. People start hanging around at various events, and suddenly they are part of making it all happen.

This too is a quality inherent to the Internet. Electronic Café International (www.ecafe.com) - the now grown infant of Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz - was a warm virtual (and also physical) home to many artists and writers through the 1980s and early 1990s. They hosted Web cam exchanges, remote poetry readings, and various other mediated events using low-tech tools such as videophones. In so doing, they brought together communities in conflict. These artists would perform to, and with, each other over twisted pair wire, finally achieving reconciliation. In many senses, they represent a counterpart to SAT.

Networks assume flow, whether of information, goods, or knowledge. These flows can be disruptive as well as rational. Any kind of flow implies power and its movement through a system. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Perennial: 1993), proposes that there are sources of reception and of transmission. In the case of peer-to-peer technologies, of course, the same points (i.e., servers) double as both sender and receiver. Peer-to-peer returns to the distributed nature of the original Internet, and lends its structures a kind of contra-hierarchical organization. (See: Peer to Peer: Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies, edited by Andy Oram; O'Reilly: 2001)

Artists have also used the network metaphor to consider flows and activities outside of the Internet.1 Flows move around obstacles, creating new and unexpected representations and relationships. Flow infers smoothness, an unending well of pleasure, of pure source. Flow proposes a utopia of optimal experience, as Csikszentmihalyi insists. In many ways, Google is a gigantic surrealist association machine, with circles of meaning and absurdity eddying out from the core question that you ask, or the relationship that you seek. In similar ways, the SAT has flowed around obstacles of funding and territoriality.

Time is a key component of how relationships emerge within a network, with synchronous and asynchronous experiences providing very different feels, proximities, and forms of consciousness. Yet these experiences pile up on top of each other in ways that allow social relationships and expressions to become a thick texture of condensed time. These different time zones and paces have varying relationships to presence. Many have argued that consciousness is different in the network - that networks illustrate ways in which the whole can be greater than, and highly differentiated from, its parts.2

Without a doubt, networks amplify intelligence. If one links ten stupid machines together, distributing their processing power and capability, the result can suddenly be a smart system. This functionality works for human capacity as well. The smarts are not always equally distributed among all the nodes, some lights can be brighter than others, but the total effect is brilliance. Just look at the distributed efforts of the ongoing tactical media movement as an example.

For participants, a.k.a. audiences, time spent in the network is both highly social and at times deeply lonely. The work of Luc Courchesne captures this contradictory feel. Networks are chaotic as well as stable. Technologies and systems that we invent for networks often result in other experiences, even inventions, far distanced from their original purpose.3 Networks do not distribute their content evenly; nodes and sub-networks reference each other. Distribution - finding content and providing some sense of its original context, as well as its transformation over time - could be considered the curatorial prerogative. It is this prerogative that the SAT, a network of networks, takes on so ably.

Not all museums were open to the invigorating demands that media art exerted on audiences and resources in the 1990s - particularly an engaged and activist media art. The obstacle represented by the museum itself provided an opportunity for artists to flow around the museum, constructing another practice independent of the traditional art world - one that relied on social and technological networks. The SAT provided such a context.

As the Web developed so did Web art, installation-based new media art, performance art, net.art, music, and audio, as well as cultural discourse. Such projects represented individual expression and new forms of group identity.4 Artists engaged in collaborations that reused and reframed networks, and created new collectivities.

Of course, artists who come from outside the media arts have also moved onto the Web, perceiving its social and performative possibilities as desirable, and seeing it as a place for practice or intervention. The SAT's ongoing interest in streaming rich media and interactive performances corresponds to its strong sociality and roots in music.

The new media space is one that combines collective authorship, an intensified elision of the traditional curator/artist/critic/audience division of labour, and the exhibition space. By flowing through and around traditional institutions, incorporating new forms of expression and organization and amplifying intelligence through distribution, networks enable democratic cultural exchange.

Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.

Notes :
1. For example, artists have created alternate networks of artist run centres in Canada for both visual and media art - eg, the Independent Film and Video Alliance. This also happened in the UK through the media workshops of the 1970s and 1980s, many of which later formed the backbone of Channel Four.

2. There is a long list of such discourses. One recent iteration was delivered by Roy Ascott during his lecture at ISEA, 2002 in Nagoya. This material has now been published in the recent book Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology and Consciousness, edited by Edward A. Shanken (Duke University Press: 2003).

3. Nortel Networks had a research group entitled Disruptive Networks which was dedicated to analyzing the ways in which new technologies disrupt traditional communication. It was ironic that they were unable to predict the shifts in social use of technology, and over-investment in infrastructure, that would lead to the company's protracted crisis in the early part of this decade.

4. This was discussed and demonstrated at length at Curating and Conserving New Media, a Banff New Media Institute symposium held in 1998.

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