Hermit Networks

On Rhizomes, Parasites and Hermits Caught in the Webbing
Report 2020
Miloš Vojtěchovský

Works Cited

1. One of the panels and part of the exhibition at the 2020 Berlin Transmediale was dedicated to the revision or reinterpretation of some new media projects from the beginning of the 90s. The organizers (Kristoffer Gansing and others) hinted at links to the ideas behind the Eternal Network of Fluxus from the 1960s, see: 2020.transmediale.de/exhibition. George Soros cites the work of Karl Popper as the main source of inspiration for the founding of the Open Society Fund foundation https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/.

2. Ralf Dahrendorf, “K definici otevřené společnosti,” in: Atlas transformace (Tranzit: Prague 2009) monumenttotransformation.org.

3. For the story about the so-called “wild nineties,” including the fashion and lifestyles of various subcultures, see e.g. Dušan Radvanovič: “Svobodná a divoká 90. léta,” Prague, 2017.

4. Between August 23–30, 2019, Muzeum Moderního Umění and Muzeum Současného Umění Metelkova organized the international conference “The Big Shift: The 1990s. Avant-gardes in Eastern Europe and Their Legacy” dedicated to this topic. mg-lj.si/en/events/. For a report on the conference, see metropolism.com/nl.

5. The source for the word “autonomous” in this context comes from the vocabulary of the anarchist community and was popularized by the writer Hakim Bey (The book Temporary Autonomous Zone was first published by Semiotext(e) of Sylvére Lotringér by the New York Publisher Autonomedia). Other connections can be found in the open publication network which connected the journalists of the Independent Media Center (Indymedia or IMC) who focus on the political and social questions of the struggle against neoliberalism. IMC was born out of the street protests against the WTO Summit in Cologne (1998), Seattle (1999) and Prague (2000). See wikipedia.org/wiki.

6. In the 1980s, Czechoslovakia saw a spike in the activities of independent groups working in the fields of ecology, independent music, literature and theater, while, surprisingly, unofficial fine art was wholly marginal. The Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences founded the “group for inclusive history” which focused on the “study of marginalized groups within the context of general social, economic, cultural or legislative phenomena or discussions … General phenomena which are not found in the study of alleged mainstream culture surface during the study of marginalized groups (often found on the social or geographic periphery). Furthermore, such an approach helps integrate the historical experience of neglected demographics of the population into the interpretations of the histories of a given geographical area or state formation.” usd.cas.cz/pracoviste In the mid-1990s, the American artist and curator Chris Hill made an interesting excursion into the cultural community. She was resident in Prague and Brno on a scholarship from the American foundation Arts Links (see: hill.fcca.cz).

7. An interesting perspective on the topic of neurological, digital and social networks can be found in the work Uncanny Nervous Systems and the Digital Unconscious (world-information.net) as well as in the lecture “The Revenge of the Sirens” by anthropologist Michael Taussig (see: world-information.net). Other interpretations can be found in the book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.

8. “People-Driven Solutions for a Relentlessly Controlled Top-Down Society” (https://teamhuman.fm/). “The politics of détente, or reduction of tension by diplomatic means, has been used in international politics since about 1970 in relation to the Cold War and the attempts to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union, United States and China. The term “разрядка” was used in the Soviet context.” (cs.wikipedia.org/wiki).

9. See publication by Klara Kemp-Welch, Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern Europe 1965-1981, where the author for example focuses on mail art, building an international network around the Fluxus movement, the international shows of the Paris youth Biennial in 1967 and the Venice Biennial in 1964, strategies for fostering personal contact, the program of the Warsaw-based gallery Foksal, or symposia organized by Lazslo Bék in Balatonboglár. The question of networks is more generally addressed by Lutz Dambeck who, after years of work, finished a documentary film on the subject in 2003. By means of interviews, he explored the relationship between technology, media and society, also using the case of American mathematician Ted Kaczynsky, a.k.a. “The Unabomber” ([en.wikipedia.org/wiki])(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Netz).

10. See for example Art and Electronic Media, ed. Edward A. Shanken (Phaidon, 2009).

11. During the Romanian revolution of December of 1989, the Securitate secret police acquired a romantically hermetic infrastructure in the form of a labyrinth of underground passages and suspended rooftop walkways which permeated the entire country. Securitate did not have a firm center, and was not responsible to the government, nor to the president. In the culture of samizdat and dissent, we find analogous features of a networked, rhizomatic organism. These were labeled by the police organs as a foreign element, a parasite in the body of the socialist state or the community of workers. The non-working thus did not belong to the correct community, and it was necessary to apprehend, investigate, neutralize, or re-educate them. On April 6th and 7th, 1990, the Media Research foundation (Suzzane Meszoly a Keiko Sei) organized the media conference “The Media Are With Us!: The Role of Television in the Romanian Revolution” which focused on the role media play in social and political trasnformations of eastern and central Europe. Contributors to the conference included Vilém Flusser, Peter Weibel, Margaret Morse, Ingo Günther, Geert Lovink, Romanian television, Tjebbe van Tijen, and others.

12. Serres addressed the questions of parasitism in his monograph The Parasite and his Hermes trilogy. Understanding of language and philosophy as parasitic were, in the 1980s and 1990s, often reflect in media theory, similarly to Foucault’s later idea of “heterotopia.”

13. Here we can point out the affinity between Serres’ parasite, apotheosis of the free and cleansing pirating of Hakim Bey, and Flusser’s thoughts on art as a subversive tool for discovering the true nature of the technical apparatus. See Michel Serres, Hermès III, la traduction (Éditions de Minuit, 1974); Michel Serres, Le Parasite (Grasset, 1980); Hakim Bey, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes, hermetic.com/bey. Theories of the post-modern (wired) informational society are plenty. Apart from cybernetic systems and texts of Marshall McLuhan, various versions were framed by, for example, the social scientist Jan van Dijk (The Network Society, 1991), the Spanish post-Marxian sociologist Manuel Castells (The Rise of the Network Society, 1996), the German theorist and media historian Friedrich Kittler (Discourse Networks 1800/1900, 1985) and later, for example, Albert-László Barabási, The Center for Complex Network Research and many others. It would be worthwhile to explore the relationship of Latour’s theory of hybrid networks and Timothy Morton’s conception of the “hyperobject”. One of the important theoreticians of media networks, Geert Lovink, founded an institute in Amsterdam dedicated to critical studies of media networks. networkcultures.org

14. See, for example, Jaron Lanier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” (jaronlanier.com) or Geert Lovink’s “Hermes on the Hudson: Notes on Media Theory after Snowden”: “In 2014, we’re torn between the seductive aspect of coming together and the fear that we are consciously producing evidence that will be used against us. Let’s move away from the binary logic of online/offline, of participation/exodus, and instead design other forms of social interaction and organization together, based on sustainable exchanges, strong ties, and a sensual imagination that allows us to transcend the given cultural formats (from edu-factory formats to Facebook)”.

15. AE archive Web 90.146.8.18/festival1995.

16. I mention this without reducing the importance of the personal initiative or quality of other organizers, supporters or grant institutions which usually assisted in the foundation and maintenance of various “independent” cultural activities.

17. See Pavel Barša, “Nulový stupeň dekolonizace,” artalk.cz/2020, and a more general context is framed for example in the study “European Cultural Networks and Networking in Central and Eastern Europe,” Raimund Minichbauer and Elke Mitterdorfer, European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies / eiPCP IG Kultur Österreich in cooperation with kult-ex, Verein für internationalen Kulturaustausch (Wien: IG Kultur Österreich, 2000). The activities of the Open Society Fund and Soros Cneter for contemporary art and their role in determining the praxis of contemporary art in central and eastern Europe has still not been properly researched, at least not in English. See for example Nina Czegledy and Andrea Szerekes “Agents for Change: The Contemporary Art Centres of the Soros Foundation and C3,” tandfonline.com or the interview “A Way to Follow: Interview with Piotr Piotrowski,” artmargins.com.

18. See the interview of MV with Lenka Dolanová agosto-foundation.org/o-hermitu-sympoziich.

19. It is possible that without the internet, the Center for Metamedia Plasy would have floundered sooner than in 1999. Or, on the other hand, it might have focused more exclusively on the local Czech scene and the chance of the project’s continuation would have been greater due to the solidarity that would have fostered.

20. In 2018, a duo of authors, Paul Ingram from Columbia Business School and Mitali Banerjee who teaches at HEC in Paris, published a collaborative study entitled “Fame as an Illusion of Creativity: Evidence from the Pioneers of Abstract Art” in which they analyzed the relationship between success, creativity and social contacts within the context of the so-called first avantgarde and abstract art. The controversial findings were backed by statistical data, and raised an uproar in the media, initiating a debate which resonated with the theories and praxis of social networks of an era before Instagram and facebook, but also those of the present day. See also visualizations of the art scene: artist-info.com.


Classification

Essay

Project

Hermit Foundation

Venue

Plasy Monastery

Message! Submit a message! Bring a message! Carry a message through the tumult! Not to look back once, to run across an immensely sharp summit, carry a message, bring it, for god’s sake, on time, and still undistorted, to run ever faster, bring it fresh, bring it and fall to the ground, that is all.

—Ivan Diviš, Teorie spolehlivosti

 

This essay presents — albeit more as a sketch — one of the topics I consider important when considering some European cultural activities of the 1990s. It is more contextual and associative than documentary, and touches on a number of topics and fields, such as technology, semantics, social relations, infection, immunity, cultural stereotypes and communication networks. It is a far from sentimental reappraisal of long-concluded stories — today largely forgotten — or of mere incidents taken from archives and dusted off (for example, as part of this year’s Transmediale in Berlin). 1

I would like to thank those who have had the patience to read this work-in-progress, and have offered critical points and inspirational information: Dušan Barok, Martin Zet, Ondřej Vavrečka, Radka Schmelzová, and others.


I admit to a certain attempt at revision, as the established interpretation and reflection of the “little history” of the (Czechoslovakian) refurbishment of state-controlled surveillance capitalism towards market capitalism often seems unsatisfactory to me: the transition from a “closed” to an “open” society2, the shift from shared poverty and a state of need towards “surplus” and waste, from “de-nationalization” towards privatization3; these are often missing the proper context. Maybe that is because this decade is rarely analyzed more deeply or impartially.4

The question is: To what degree can these rather marginal, fringe, artistic and “pop-cultural” initiatives, labeled as “independent” or “non-commercial” truly be called “independent” or indeed “autonomous”?5 What, from today’s perspective, does the term “autonomous” mean? The various initiatives, the cultural centers, media labs, “anti-institutional” and non-governmental projects, artistic collectives (which were a thorn in the side of the neo-liberal wing of the then-contemporary economic forces), did they really spring up and close down of their own free will, by their own “decision”? Or was there also the interplay of circumstances? To what degree were the communities and collectives which served as intersections of, often opposing, economic and political forces and motives premeditated and constructed?

The seismic upheavals in the fall and winter of 1989 resonated across Europe in mutually connected, vertically and horizontally strengthening and fading signals. Some spread from east to west, some went the other way; some from north to south, from underground centers of dissent to official structures, sometimes vice versa. At the same time, a discussion raged on the geopolitical and ideological contours of how to define the new situation of “central” or “eastern” Europe. Are the Baltic states in the same (cultural) sphere as regions like Romania or Albania? What are the connections and what values are shared among Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, considering that the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had happened some 70 years previously? Is it even possible, after 30 years, to write a report on the artistic collectives and cultural networks which usually did not survive this decade of transformation? Can one find a common feature which would point to the strategies and motivations which might differ from those parallel networks where people used to meet, and where they would discuss the environment, humanitarian aid, rock music, religion, tramping, or other practices?6

Patchworks, Networks and Globalization

Patchwork, or patching is “a traditional hand-crafting technique which usually consists in the mechanical linking of smaller, variously colored pieces of cloth into a larger whole, so that geometrical patterns are created.” Patching is a technique similar to knitting and sewing, and people most likely started practicing it 40,000 years ago. It is in that time frame that we find archeological remains of plant fibers which were used to sew together pieces of animal skin or cloth. The invention of the needle and thread is predicated on the specific anatomy of the hand, its fine motor skills, as well as cognitive abilities such as imagination, causal thinking, combining formerly separate parts into a new whole. The technology of montage, connection, stitching, knitting, weaving, or crocheting can be found in almost all traditional agricultural societies. Apart from cooking, baking, fermentation and other forms of food processing, tinkering, metallurgy and agriculture, patching was in place at the dawn of modern industrial society.7

The term “networking” is usually a term used in management. It mostly denotes the methods and know-how necessary for founding and developing companies, meaning it has to do with commercial tactics and marketing. It uses the theory and practice of the sociological and economic sciences and we often see it employed as a strategic tool in team building or knowledge management. More generally, networking touches on interpersonal relationships and communication, social, psychological, as well as cultural and economic structures, formations and strategies. Social networking is increasingly part of information and communication technologies and, with the advent of the internet and globalization, the level of “networking” is at a point where “inhuman” entities, such as bots or algorithms are becoming integral to it. They are also most probably becoming ever more dominant. In tandem with militarized media, the “autonomous,” self-regulating technologies and markets are inconspicuously pushing civic society to the sidelines, “paralyzing our ability to think constructively, to make meaningful connections and to act with intent. As if civilization itself reached the threshold of extinction, as if we lacked the collective will and coordination necessary to solve fundamental life questions asking about the very survival of humanity,” writes media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in his Manifesto of 2019.8

Network theory was certainly a hot topic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, regardless of whether they were communication, social, or neural networks; commercial, control, or power networks, closed or discrete networks, chaotic or organized. In the post-war fractured world (which was however increasingly permeated and connected by a mesh of journalistic, energetic, informational and gradually electronic networks and communication systems) networks had ambiguous connotations from their beginning. Is it perhaps because we had become parts of mirroring, antagonistic systems: worlds which were closely connected and mutually dependent? It was due to the anxiety and the drive to achieve a fragile equilibrium of military capital and nuclear weapons. From the mid-20th century, ideas of a universalist re-connection of everything and everyone with everything and everyone else under the banner of one victorious economic system made a periodic return. It might be that the ascendant maxim of interconnection will not only lead to singularity and the end of history, but will also increase instability and open the possibility of collapse. It might at least pose a threat to personal rights, such as privacy and other features of a civil society. The nightmares of the future as prophesied in the 1950s by Ray Bradburry and Philip K. Dick have, with the 2013 testimony of Edward Snowden, become all too real.

Thinking “the network” along with the research done on transformation has, in contemporary vocabulary, come to be preferred over terms such a structure, paradigm, or system. Even before the advent of Web 2.0 and the reign of the “anti-social network,” the network has shown itself to be latently ubiquitous, and not only in the sphere of contemporary art and globalized culture.9

The theory of networks and agents and the theory of parasites

A good example can be found in the popular, albeit criticized, conception of the so-called Actor Network Theory (or ANT for short). This is a materially-semiotic theory developed by three sociologists — Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law, which they formulated as part of their research at the Parisian Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation. The authors adopted a generally methodological or epistemological frame for sociology, post-structuralism, general systems theory, texts of Michel Serres, Deleuze and Guattari (Assemblage theory) and other sources. ANT is a hybrid network constituted by all active nodes. It connects various artificial and natural elements — actors can be organic and cultural elements, as well as human, machine, institutional, animal, plant, food or resource-based. Each one of the actors/agents has an equal value for the whole. Communication or cooperation take place in relative stability, dynamic symbiosis, but only until the point when one of the actors disappears, dies off, or another actor appears. This brings tension and turbulence to the network which can lead to growth, debilitation, dissolution or collapse. The reason can be, for example, the collapse of a communication (telephone) network, malfunction of a military, control, commercial or banking system, the imposition of an unknown infection, parasite, virus, or the integration of a new — for example communication — platform (like the advent of electronic networks and their impact on the transformation of communication and commercial systems in the latter half of the 1980s). MacLuhan’s ideas about the impact of emergent technologies (for example of communication networks) which determine the economic, social and cultural relations, patterns and strategies — including the functioning of art institutions, artists and artefacts — are still relevant today, 70 years after their initial formulation.10

If we apply the concept of ANT to the sphere of “unofficial’ culture, or “artistically autonomous” happenings which took place around the same time as the fundamental upheavals in the region of central and eastern Europe, we can find a number of correlations in the increasing coverage of satellite TV (an assemblage of hardware, economic, symbolic and value formations such as culture and propaganda), the largely available apparatuses of data storage (audio tapes, VHS, video recorders) and technologies of copying and distributing texts (xerox).11 On the other hand, there was the formula of the censorship/surveillance system. We can also find signs of the “mysterious” or dark network in the workings of the surveillance/police state, which exhibits a complementary connection between the visible and hidden/discrete formations and agents which (just like in the case of the television network which connects the signal and the broadcast and receiving technologies) permeated both the public and the private spheres.

According to Michel Serres, the biological metaphor of the parasite was one of the first modes of human communication and excommunication.12 The term “parasite” comes from the Greek para sitos — “to sit next to,” and in Czech and other languages it has a similar, tripartite meaning: an animal which feeds on or from the body of another animal, a slothful person living off the spoils of others, and noise in the decoding of a signal. The parasite lives from the body of the host, either on the inside or outside, and is a burden on its host, but only to a degree, as its existence relies on the host’s survival. Parasitic life strategies allow for long-term co-existence, and often a feedback loop is formed, so that the parasite provides some type of reciprocal service, establishing exchange — symbiosis. Parasites live from the remnants of other parasites. According to Serres, culture, art and language show certain signs of parasitism. The parasite creates disequilibrium in the system network, bringing disorder, chaos, which in turn breeds a more complex form of order. The parasite becomes the initiator of something new, something which is at first regarded as alien, subversive or disruptive. Parasitic (or pirate) strategies are complicit with the art of discovering novelty: Ars Inventiendi which, for Serres, constitutes the very essence of philosophy and art.13

In 1967, two authors of the Fluxus movement, Robert Filliou and George Brecht — much like the Situationists, or later media activists of the 1990s — thought that the network is “eternal.” They adopted the practices of camouflage and the strategies of mass media, advertisement and commercial corporations, despite the fact that their aims were socially and politically very different. Geert Lovink, one of the activists and theorists of the early 1990s who started to articulate the essence and sense of autonomous, free media, has recently become much more skeptical towards networks. The threat of a global network, a single Web, is nowadays interpreted in a much more realistic and gloomy light.14

WWW

What was the situation of communication networks in the Czech Republic in the early 1990s? The first attempts at connection took place in the fall months of 1991 at Charles University. The line led from Prague (through the Czech Technical University) to an internet node located in Linz. Our Republic was officially connected to the internet on February 2, 1992 at the Czech Technical University. In 1991, the company Econnect was founded for a number of ecological initiatives around the Zelený kruh. Apart from the academic network, Econnect was among the first providers of access to the net. In 1991, Tim Berners-Lee, in collaboration with a team of colleagues, proposed a coding language for creating web sites (HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language) and defined the HTTP protocol for transmitting websites through the internet (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). Berners-Lee also became the creator of the NEXUS program which was used to edit and browse web sites. The original proposals for naming the web were “Mine of Information” or “Information Mesh,” but ultimately the “World Wide Web” won out, and its services were provided free of charge. In April of 1993 — two years after launching the service — the Austrian curator Peter Weibel addressed the phenomenon of the web as the main topic of a festival of electronic culture: “Welcome to the Wired World”. In the introductory text, Weibel writes: “The postmodern society is based on information. No more the dynamics of mechanical machines but the exchange of data in the network of information machines supports the social operating system. Every day billions of humans communicate billions of massages via a global network which is constituted of telephone, fax, picture phone, mobile telephone, GPS (Global Positioning System), public access terminals, radio, pagers, TV, ISDN data communication, cable nets, cable TV, mailbox, e-mail, global computer networks like Internet, etc. We don’t live anymore only in streets and houses, but also in cable channels and telegraph wires, in fax machines and global digital networks.” But the distribution of information in mass media can also become a component of control and a source of optimizing strategies of power. Data opens critical questions about the dogmas and myths of post-modern information society.15

I mention Latour’s Actor-Network Theory because it seems a fitting metaphor to frame the story of the birth, growth and dismantling of various NGOs, non-commercial, and other “independent” artistic initiatives in central Europe, most importantly between the years 1990 and 2000. I will try to show this using the example of the Hermit Foundation and the Center for Metamedia Plasy. I depart from the assumption that it was not only the personal motivation of myself and other involved initiators, but also the social-economic circumstances of the times, and the conditions, impulses, available technologies, time, space and the possibility of crossing borders. That is the amalgam of conditions for all the “actors” which rather became witnesses to the expected and feared disappearance of a long-riven and unknown world. Other factors, such as the chaotic state of the planned economy, the hibernation of the surveillance structures and the absence of a state-level cultural politics also played their part.

The moment of mimesis, or the intuitive ability to distinguish, interpret, appropriate, transplant, evaluate or “translate” the foreign cultural templates, strategies and conditions was also important.16 A slightly de-mythologizing approach can uncover determinative relationships among the art histories and cultures as they were found in the regions. They might also reflect the current discussions on colonialism, or “self-colonialism,” in art, including the art of central Europe.17

During the organization of the auditory, visual and textual archive of the Hermit Foundation and the Center for Metamedia Plasy — as the project was paradoxically called — I kept encountering the idea, whether the name itself might not be hiding a subversive kernel, possessing a “diabolical machine” ticking away towards its self-detonation. What role could the foolish idea of hermitage have played in the project’s gradual extinction?

The concrete idea and offer were drafted in the winter of 1991 and the spring of 1992, at two geopolitically and culturally distant places: in the abandoned buildings of the central European former monastery of Plasy, and the 900-km distant shores of northern Europe, in Amsterdam. The genealogy of the idea, which at that time was still sketchy, was much older but the uncertain, grim, nomadic, homeless zeitgeist of then-contemporary Europe, with its unexpected outcome of 1989, certainly played a part. Was it a concoction of romantic dreaming about art, community, friendship and collectivism mixed with a dose of reality?18 On the one hand, the situation in the diaspora, the anxiety from a possible nuclear conflict of the great powers, feelings of uprootedness and alienation, and on the other hand the unclear idea about what all can be done in derelict, abandoned Baroque buildings, “far from the madding crowd” and far from centers of the “art world.”

Looking back at the annals of case studies (which rarely exist), it might seem that most “autonomous” cultural projects share one feature: only a few were created in isolation, but were rather connected and maintained through personal, communicational and economic ties and links, providing each other with a network of nutrients. It is important that, together with technologies of communication and “excommunication”, the political-economic landscape has changed: from interviews with physical, stable networks such as magazines, books, and other publications, telephone wires, post services, vinyl distribution and magnetic tapes adapted to electronic, digital networks, Bulletin Board Systems and web sites.19

The authors of the provocative study Fame as an Illusion of Creativity published in 2018 write that social intelligence and a richness of social relationships was more important for the success of select European and American innovators of the first two decades of the 20th century than – as might be expected — their immanent artistic quality or creativity.20

It is true that subjectively I considered the residence, meeting and communion of all those hundreds of guests who frequented Plasy over the span of almost 10 years more important than the festival, symposia, exhibitions and concerts themselves. Self-indulgence certainly played a part in this, because him who invited all of them to the magical place of the Plasy monastery somehow became somehow important himself. But as time went by, I found myself thinking the heretic thought that if someone doesn’t come and replace me in the position of the person who makes the next year’s event happen, I will just drop and quit everything. And eventually, that is what, in a way, happened.

Photographer: Richard Giblett Bruno Latour Saint Bernard Michael Krondl: Waterwalk, 2003 — installation, Synagogue, Palmovka Praha (1998). Photographer: Michael Krondl  (1996)