Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Process Philosophy of Conditional Design. Jonathan Puckey at Resonate 2012.

Jonathan Puckey, co-founder of Amsterdam based Moniker design studio, held a presentation of his and Conditional Design group's creative philosophy at the Resonate Festival 2012 in Belgrade. The group was founded by Luna Maurer, EdoPaulus, Roel Wouters and Jonathan himself.
Even though we all work with technology, it is not the main thing, we are more interested in the idea of technology. Working with things that aren't finished, that won't find the final shape.”

The group put together the Conditional Design Manifesto to frame these common interests. The manifesto is of beautiful clarity and programmatic brevity, unlike the usual hammering style and fatiguing length of many an art manifesto. The subject of the manifesto spills way over the frame of design, and interests all creative disciplines, from literature to visual arts. For that reason, it is worth examining sentence by sentence, as Jonathan did at his talk.

The manifesto's first line is a statement closely resembling the first line of Wittgenstein's Tractatus:
The process is the product.”
The basic equation or formula of Conditional Design is INPUT + LOGIC = PROCESS.
Input should come from our external and complex environment: nature, society and its human interactions.”

The illustrative example Jonathan presented is his Zeitgeist project. It shows how, building on input, logic and process can be shaped. Zeitgeist is a newspaper which prints all the editorial versions of a given headline story as they are modified over 24 hours. We are used to live in the stream of information, but we rarely have the tools to carefully examine what happened through time with the same headline. As it gets refreshed, previous versions vanish from our sight, whereas they can contain precious insights. This work is of amazing straightforwardness and complexity at the same time. It can be confronted with Joyce's incessant evolution of Finnegan's Wake, a never ending re-elaboration through which the process is revealed.

On the other hand, input can come from the technology itself, or, from our use of technology. For a typographic project where Puckey moved letters along vertical axis, the idea came from an old typewriter which could be mis-used in that manner.

Input engages logic and activates and influences the process.” This is a too often over-looked point in visual arts, design and architecture where the logic imposes itself on the input and kind of creates it, and sometimes even falsifies it. The movement from observation and gathering of input up to the logic formation should be fluid, and I'd say, relational.

Logic is our tool.” A tool, not a finality, as in much of conceptual art, and in so-called Process Art as well.

What exactly is logic to be used for? “Logic is our method for accentuating the ungraspable.
A clear and logical setting emphasizes that which does not seem to fit within it.”
This affirmation is wonderfully poetical and practical at the same time. Logic seems to be an instrument to find out the parts of the input that are eccentric, anomalous, and not to reduce all the parts in a homogenous mass.
It's interesting to think about a couple of Sol Lewitt's Sentences onConceptual Art from the remote 1969. “2) Rational judgements repeat rational judgements. 3) Irrational judgements lead to new experience.”

We use logic to design the conditions through which the process can take place.
Design conditions using intelligible rules.”
Conditional Design put this in practice by a series of workshopes intitled Conditional Design Tuesdays. Each week, a member of the group would invent a set of rules, and then they would collectively try them out on a collective drawing.
The series of exercises is worthwhile looking entirely. What is greatly inspiring is Jonathan's observation on the nature of the mistake the Kaleidoscope workshop. This drawing consisted in persons “leading” the drawing for 30 seconds each, whereas the other three, at the same time, tried to mirror his drawing. Naturally, as drawing evolved, they made mistakes. What happened eventually is that some continued drawing from the mistake, which caused a great deal of confusion among other participants. So the others were in some way compelled to introduce the mistake in their drawings too. This is a wonderful example of “learning by doing”, of continuous adjustments of the process as it goes on.
These exercises seem to be limited by the edges of the paper, but they should be understood as paradigms of other participatory actions, which could be carried out in public space. (Jonathan cited a couple of examples, but unfortunately, they are still not published on the web.)
Conditional Drawings challenge the logic of bottom-up and top-down organisation of participatory art projects. The appearance of the mistake in the process refreshes also the input over time, so the initial conditions of the process do not remain unvaried. It is a reminder that we should keep our eye on the entirety of the process over time.
This can be confronted with other two Sol LeWitt's Sentences. “28) Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist's mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. 29) The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.”

So, contrary to expectations, more stricter the rules are, more sensible parts of the environment are highlighted, but we should try not to forget the rules.
Avoid arbitrary randomness.
Difference should have a reason.
Use rules as constraints.
Constraints sharpen the perspective on the process and stimulate play within the limitations.”

These statements are certainly useful, but the constraint is not an unsurpassable wall. Improvisation emerges, and some of Conditional Design projects nuance the constraint.

Returning to the initial part of the manifesto:
 “The process produces formations rather than forms.”
This is a significant distinction, as it draws the line between the definite result, and a possibly infinite series of possible outcomes or formations. 

We search for unexpected but correlative, emergent patterns.”
This is highlighted in the public space project the group distributed the stickers to be glued on the floor following a single rule, not to put them from other stickers at greater distance than the length of the sticker. A multitude of persons, respecting the rules, eventually used them in a variety of manners. Highly organised forms surfaced, as well as pretty unordered ones.

Even though a process has the appearance of objectivity, we realize the fact that it stems from subjective intentions.“
This is a significant statement, as we should bear in mind that we are those who invent the logic or the rules. It is a back and forth movement between our subjectivity and subjectivity-made-logic, provisional objectivity. As Jonathan says: “maybe the input fights, or collaborates with logic, maybe it dances with it (..)”. This constitutes the poetic part of any process.
These are some ideas that can be quite useful in arts in general. Many an art project is way too often closed by the a priori established and fixed input and logic, so it seems only like their mechanical realisation. Worst of all, this makes the whole project entirely predictable and dull.Conditional Design, instead, is not anchored on conditions, but it springs from them.
An interesting example of playing with logic happened during the “Inane Asylum” project by Ben Davis in New York in 2006. Funnily, it also involved a kind of taping the floor. “Ten foreign-born artists seeking "creative asylum" (a rare status granted to a handful of cultural-capital-rich supplicants each year) were locked into the cavernous White Box space for five days. Each was allotted a cot and a small square of bare floor, demarcated by masking tape. A list of rules, posted on a whiteboard, banned participants from speaking languages other than English, talking to other contestants and leaving their spaces without permission.”
What happened over time is that the artists asked visitors to bring them new objects, and, one of the participants, Dušanka Komnenić, got hold of more masking tape so she eventually moved her confinement around the space, eventually reaching the door.
There can be many other examples as well.

So, I understand the Conditional Design's equation as a trialectical, not a linear, movement, something like this:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Information Streams. (News Streams as Lived Experience).
Jonathan Richards at Resonate 2012.

Drawing based on Jonathan Richard's presentation slide.
 Jonathan Richards of The Guardian Interactive department held a speech at the Resonate festival on March 15, 2012. He offered an extraordinary elaboration of information streams, the argument I have tackled recently, so I felt compelled to share his talk with you, (and to add a couple of comments to it). 

Jonathan introduced us to the concept of streams through a historical parallel with energy. In the 1st AD, Claudius, the emperor of Rome, has built the greatest power plant of the time. The city of Arles, in south-eastern France, is sited near the mountain chain of Alpilles. Romans cut into the slopes of nearby hills, where they installed 8 pairs of wheels which directed water from the river and acted as a mill. It was an enormous baking enterprise, producing daily 4,5 tons of flour and, thus, nourishing 6 thousand people.

A stream has always been the source of enormous transformative power. It's a thing you can turn into other things.”
Now, Jonathan re-introduces his main thematic. “Stream has emerged (..) as a dominant metaphor for the distribution of news in our time.” The stream is used to describe how the news are conceived today. [At the same time, it is also the major paradigm of how news are perceived today, as a “24/7 stimulus”.]

The news have adopted this paradigm quite recently, essentially in the last 5 years. “Before 2004 none of [news streams] existed, even the Facebook introduced its news feed in December 2006, now its key feature. So, it's been only 5 years. We all use them, we know how they work, any individual can create the stream, choose the input, turn the stream on, and then the information gushes in (..)”.

Drawing based on Jonathan Richard's presentation slide.
With the introduction of the Facebook frictionless sharing, “without active gesture, the simple act of visiting and seeing something can trigger the input into other people's streams. (..) it's just happening”. So, different people's streams are interacting “seamlessly”. [Of course, to great extent, this streams inter-connectivity depends on a series of decisions on user's behalf.]
In the news sector, Jonathan cites the examples of The Guardian's live blogs and Storify to explain the significance streams have gained. But, there is a sort of on-going dialectic or power struggle between the traditional front page layout of information (for example, The Times web site), and the streaming experience. Who will make the difference are maybe the smartphones, true bearers of streaming revolution. Their compact displays, in the same way Twitter did, radically transformed the monolithic front page by the introduction of “refresh” button, which really opens the door for many things.

This new logic is essentialy based on this properties: a) streams come from multiple sources [and, eventually, merge into a single flow or a more scattered flow depending on the platform or software]; b) information in streams is distinguished, it comes in order, in sequence; c) streams are refreshable, they are frequently updated; d) streams do not end [they are potentially infinite].

Jonathan compares this state of things with “auto runner” games. They are derivatives of side-scrolling games, such as Super Mario Bros. Still, in older games, a player could stop and simply enjoy the landscape, whereas in newer iterations, there is no other option but to run, as “the world rushes on you”.

Jonathan classifies different kinds of information display in a very interesting diagram.

Drawing based on Jonathan Richard's presentation slide.

As we see, book is a sequential and non-hierarchical medium per excellence. It is meant to be read in order (with few exceptions), and, at least by the layout, no part of the text is more important than the other. On the other hand, Jonathan cites travel guides, which present the information in a thematic, and more hierarchical way. [This could apply also for theoretical or science books where the chapters sub-division permits a focused reading. As the most extreme example we could think of encyclopedias.]
On the other hand, newspapers “like to consider themselves as grand-daddies of hierarchical information”. News web sites, compared to their paper kins, are sequentially organised to lesser extent. They combine thematic and sequential organisation in still a more complex manner than newspapers.
Still more recent developments, such as Facebook, Twitter and RSS feeds, are very similar to book's organisation. They represent the course of real life time by placing the events on a single temporal line. [The iconic example in this sense is the novel Facebook Timeline.]

But, streaming of information poses considerable challenges to readers. Differently from books, which are necessarily a reduced number of streams of information, news feeds reflect multitudes of disparate streams of events. And, in doing so, news feeds do not provide context. [So, even if the resolution, the density of the representation, of information augments, the clarity seems to diminish. I would say that news feeds get nearer to the complexity of real life events. This higher level of complexity requires a different kind of information organisation, if it is not to lead to chaos. Reading cannot be based on mechanical left-to-right, first page-to-last page logic.]

Aggregation of information is a try to make out some sense from news feeds. Bits of information are connected based on the occurrence and popularity of key words and / or visited links. For example, the recent Twitter acquisition, Summify, performs exactly that kind of task. But, aggregation is still essentially an automatic process [a quantitative one]. Instead, where journals can contribute majorly now, is contextualisation of information. It is becoming less important to to have the story and distribute it before the others. Increasingly, the focus is shifting on outlining the context of the whole picture.

Finally, Jonathan provides two examples of contextualisation. He insists on the importance of “re-invoking the sequence”, graphic display of how information unfolds throughout time. The first example, still a prototype, attempts to sort out streams carrying different kinds of information in a parallel representation. In that way, a reader can see amounts of data, minute by minute, as iit appears in live blogs, pictures, social networks etc.

Drawing based on Jonathan Richard's presentation slide.

The second example, here above, is the demonstration of the live follow-up which The Guardian provided for the Parliament hearing of Murdoch Senior and Junior. In the upper part of the screen is a scrollable timeline which shows also the amount of information concerning the event. In the left column, in the upper box is the journalistic coverage with quotes and key events. In the lower box is the most retweeted message concerning the event. The central space of the screen is occupied by a photo of the event, surrounded by bubbles displaying the most frequently tweeted words.
This information display merges many different sources of information and their streams, journalist's blogs and social networks activity and thus permits to understand the event in a wider perspective. It does not only represent the event itself, but also the society within which it takes place, or, at least the internet part of the society.

Jonathan concludes, “streams are one particular piece of the news cycle. No one, for a second, is going to say that the ability to extract news from the stream is going to be what the news are to become.” The ability to take event, to understand them, to guide people through a narrative, will still be pretty much the core of what Guardian is doing.

To conclude, I will put forth two observations. I believe that one of the points is that journals should focus on story-telling. Hence the proximity of news feeds to books in Jonathan's diagram. What do books, at least fiction, try to represent? The live stream of events in which protagonists are immersed. That is also the aim of journalism. So, what is enthusiastic about the recent streaming nature of information is that it is coming closer to real life. Streams try to interprets the real life flow of events. I wrote “interpret”, as they are not about transmission, or reportage, of events. Their objective is to provide a “bigger picture”, a more complex idea of what is happening. The problem of context or frame is essential, as, in the course of events, as the causes and consequences change, we need to shift focus also.
On one side, journalists are compelled to re-consider and refresh their opinions to match the course of the event. The same applies to readers which cannot comfortably read the newspaper, or even visit a news feed, and believe that they have grasped a social process entirely.

This apparently incessant refreshing of information does not mean we are living in an incomprehensible tornado or kaleidoscope of news. Without doubt, streams are causing greater stress in the news industry, with its tighter deadlines, and they can cause more stress on behalf of the reader, as he tries to grasp the constant updates. But, maybe this is the price to be paid if we are to gain true knowledge on social processes around us. In that sense, news streams explicate the true phenomenological characteristic of social processes, the fact that they cannot be never fully dissected and explained, so we should try to forget the ready-to-use news. Only if we engage, or immerse ourselves in their stream, their transformative potential can be realised.

News feeds, if organised textually and graphically in a determinate manner, can bring about a real epistemological transformation in how we live our everyday experience. Information streams move away from mechanical logic of understanding social processes, based on linear causes and effects, to systems logic. In systems, events are reciprocally correlated through chains of feedback loops, as they are in real life. Maybe news streams are already disseminating systems logic among us seamlessly? What social effects could this have?

Jonathan, thank you for the most inspiring talk. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


The piece was written for the group show of the eponymous title, "Tačka linija tok", at Gallery Zvono at Belgrade. Opening on March 13th, 2012 at 7.30 pm.

What is your point of view? Are you on line? Are you at current?
Are these questions linguistic metaphors or do they refer to tangible states?
Euclid has written like this some time ago. “Point is that which has no part.” “Line is a breadthless length.” “Extremities of the line are points.”
On the other hand, we are figures, we possess length, width and depth. So, the above mentioned words are mathematical concepts, they live in a geometric, an imaginary field, out of our reach. But, the science pretends that geometry is closely correlated to reality. This does not mean that geometry tries to decipher it, or to represent it, instead it is a mean of the production of reality.
To series of points and lines we have confided, and we still do, flows of our thoughts, desires, fears, loves. Sound, too, or music, is created by the oscillation of lines, or strings. By resort to points and lines we have contrived and built almost everything from ziggurats to football arenas, from wheel to space shuttle.
The entire globe has been transformed into a grid of horizontal and vertical lines, which divides it into an infinite, but potentially determinable, number of points. Thanks to two numbers or coordinates, whose intersection expresses a point, no one can get lost, no one can feel dropped out of the count.
Since the surface of the Earth has been transposed in points, other dimensions were taken into the process as well. A great part of our lives consists of watching or reading points, either on paper or on screen. When an image or a word appears vague or hazy, a billion of points is to be added and then the previously indefinite element becomes more real. But, when we squeeze our nose onto the computer or television screen we grasp the colourless lines, and then we may think that maybe not something slips between the dots.
Maybe the lines are slightly more tangible. The grandest form of social organisation, a country, is a perfectly circumscribed line which divides interior from exterior. Apart from this border use, and somewhat not corresponding to their true nature, lines are essentially links. A river at the same time divides a terrain and connects different places, but it is necessary to be able to swim, down or up stream.
A physics theory claims that the entire universe is an extraordinarily intricate weaving of lines, more precisely, strings which oscillate. Based on this idea, or maybe on a more at hand example of spider's activity, we pasted it in our realm. The stretching out of webs and networks of visible and invisible lines, or wires, is a sport number one world wide.
So, we are not speaking about a hypothetical scientific model, on the contrary, being „on line“ today is a real state of mind, and of body, similar to breathing. In order to be on line, we have to compress ourselves into a point, be it a telephone or an internet protocol number. What passes through line is only one signal at a time, in this case, zeroes and ones.
But, points and lines are only prerequisites for flows. One cannot be on flow, only immersed in its stream or out of it, soaked together with lighting fast information and even faster capital. The alternative is being secure on shore, a dry and happy by-stander. But, let's not forget that we are intimately liquid, as our life depends on our inner, and interior-exterior, circulation.
Then, points and lines really do persist fixed on, for example, the surface of a painting. Or do they spill over the edge of the painting, over the edge of the wall? Are they in our flow, and/or are we in theirs?

What is this about?

Welcome to
I will do my best to treat some facets of the following subjects:

You can expect more or less tangential digressions, you will excuse me for that.
All ideas are welcome, as the project intends to be, that is, to become, of collaborative nature.
I think that some of these questions concern lots of us.