Interview with Geert Lovink

For Flirt Magazine, Lisbon

Flirt: What is the importance of virtual communities such as Nettime? Could you explain us the term Tactical Media and how it is related to that type of networks?

GL: Mailing lists such as Nettime are informal networks of people, texts and debates. It is hard to measure its importance. There are for instance 3000 people on the international list, 500 on a Dutch, there is a Spanish/Portuguese list called nettime-lat. A lot of these people work with new media and are mediators themselves. The importance of such lists and weblogs can only be seen understood if you know how today’s cultural producers operate–and how dependent they are from informal, networked information environments. They do not read the daily newspapers or watch TV. That’s all last years’ rubbish. Old media have huge filters installed to prevent that signs from society get in. Networks are much more sensitive, and agitated, if you wish. They are open, up to the point of producing merely noise. What lists such as nettime do is ‘collaborative filtering,’ a collective process in which people together try to make sense what is going on. The topic of nettime is the cultural politics of new media, but that topic could as well be something else.

The term tactical media is not related to the Internet as such. It came up in the early nineties, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a post 89 concept, beyond the dichotomy of alternative versus mainstream. The tactical use of a personal and localized mix old and new media is geared to create new, temporary zones of freedom. This can be a techno party, pirate radio, producing a xerox zine, an electronic mailinglist or a festival.

Flirt: You say that the baby boom generation is not investing in the Internet. Do you think that happens because they don’t believe in the economical and social potential of it?

GL: I said they were not interested in new media. I don’t know their investment portfolios. I can only hope the best for their once so cashed up retirement funds. No, I was actually referring to the subtle resistance of many of the 68-generation against the uptake of new media, in particular those working in the (mainstream) cultural sector of festivals, book publishing, radio and TV. The suspicion against technology in the post-war generation, those who are in power right now, remains high. They suffer from an obsession with authenticity, in particular their own. It is not a favorite topic to discuss new media in terms of the wars of the generations. I can already hear the outcries. But it is a fact to me that new media are a major treat to the power base of the baby boom generation. By the way, it is true that there is no real economical potential for new media. What they mean by that is that they cannot control it. That’s why so many young people are attracted to peer-to-peer networks, weblogs, chat rooms, games and sms messaging: the parents don’t get it.

In the end it is all about the redistribution of diminishing resources. New media pose the question of power. In the cultural sector we cannot copy-paste the dotcom dreams of ever growing audiences and profits, generated by technology, into our context. Quite the opposite. Increasingly, worldwide, the cultural sector has to live from less money and is forced to act as a commercial player. This shift is nowhere near new but has happened over the past decade. The problem is: what can we learn from all this? How to further develop a critical new media culture without creating a ghetto? The main danger is self-isolation, not a sellout to commercial interests, as many think. I wouldn’t advice people to enter the arena of (international) new media arts altogether. Instead, it would be better to infiltrate the contemporary arts system. New media has to be subordinated to something else. It is not a viable practice in itself. I am very sorry to come to that conclusion because I have been involved in this field myself for such a long time. In Europe, but also elsewhere, technology and culture are enemies. We all wished it was different but that’s the way it is. At least in this era of never ending budget cuts and conservative cultural politics. The neo-liberal policies have created a cultural war zone, a Hobbesian war of all against all. Perhaps it all would have been different if we lived in the seventies– but we don’t.

Flirt: You are not an Internet skeptic. You talk about the lack of visibility of artists and social movements on the web and also the disenchantment of the younger generations on it. What can we expect from the “new media” in the future?

GL:  That it disappears–as soon as possible. That would be in interest of most of the players in the field. New media will be integrated in society, in the existing art forms and in the media landscape, in one way or another. Let’s not fool ourselves. Electronic arts only have very few friends. Technologists and scientists don’t know what to do with new media arts, and largely ignore it. The same counts for the museums and galleries, with their curators and critics. Politicians ‘smell’ the inherent failure of new media arts. And the general audience is not very interested either. This has all nothing, but absolutely nothing, to do with the quality of new media art works, its intension, its innovative drive etc. That’s the sad part of the story.   I remain wildly optimistic about the potential of new media. I just don’t see a future for it as a separate art form. If you want to work in this field anyway you have to make a living with other, related work such as web design, programming or teaching. Unless we develop our own alternative streams of revenues there is not much future in new media expect for those who sell hardware and a limited number of online services.