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It's been over a year now since the idea was broached of digitally transforming a work which physically existed in three-dimensional space, yet referenced spaces beyond one room. I decided to focus on reconfiguring the material which was gathered for Import / Export Funk Office, with the globalization of cultural products, like hip-hop music, and the ensuing ramifications in variety of localities, in addition to technology's role in the creation and dispersion of these forms, this work continues to retain my interest and continues to be a work-in-progress.
The elements of the material I'd been working with and which have been in the process of being transformed digitally so far consists of:
Data: videos, audio recordings, photos, text, flyers, stickers, books and magazines.
The videos comprise approximately 26 hours of conversations, which are either between myself and someone knowledgeable about or who has an opinion about hip-hop culture; conversations between me and Diedrich Diederichsen (the german cultural critic who was my primary subject); conversations between Diedrich and the above-mentioned people. The locations for these conversations spanned Cologne, New York and Los Angeles. Other footage is shot in clubs, bars, in the street, in other people's or Diedrich's residence, or in my residence, or anywhere Diedrich might go or I might go.
Specific elements of the work included a Sourcebook in which there is a list of all of the audiotapes which were recorded from D.D.'s collection ranging from what he listened to at the age of twelve to the present. These are listed under the heading "Diedrich Diederichsen Developmental Tapes".
There are the audiotapes themselves. These include the above and also a conversation between Isabelle Graw, publisher of Texte zur Kunst and an art critic, and myself about Ulrike Meinhof and Angela Davis as role models; selections from my collection of tapes and D.D.s collection of tapes (focus on hip-hop); excerpts from radio programs in New York and Los Angeles, excerpts from the Black Popular Culture Conference held in New York in 1991.
In the original version of the work, shown in 1992 at Christian Nagel Gallery in Cologne, part of the collected material (entitled "Collectania") were books I borrowed from D.D.'s library, most relating to African diasporic culture or to "bohemia" and "subculture" as well as those relating to a mixture of these categories. I also included some books from my library, which overlapped with the kinds of books D.D. had, in addition to magazines and newspapers in German and English from different periods.
Another element of the work is the "Lexicon", the long version of which was recorded by a native German speaker reading American slang terms which span the beatnik years of the fifties to early sixties, the sixties, the seventies hippie and counterculture slang &endash; which intersects, as does beatnik slang, black slang &endash; to hip-hop slang of the late seventies, eighties and nineties. In the short version, which is presented as sixteen rubberstamped plaques and sixteen typed translations the overlaps of meaning between the different time periods are noted by colored dots which designate the definitions in use current to these times. I wrote definitions which combine references to the various eras which were in turn translated into German. A long version of the english terms is provided in text form as a list.
Since the work in part refers to the process of information gathering and the international, national and local transfer of cultural products (specifically hip-hop music and various material produced as a result of the African diaspora in this case, although it alludes to other forms of cultural commerce as well) it lent itself very well to a digital transformation which makes the information which was gathered accessible, but in a playful and hopefully compelling form which links sound, texts, video, photos, magazines and books. Thus the disk is a new work. The possibility of actually having a form (location) which is compact, yet can store quite a lot, allowed me to move into another level of thinking about the work and how the work can exist beyond its spatial presentation in a gallery or in a museum. The way the 3-D version of the work is presented in an exhibition setting and how the CD-ROM version might work as an actual resource vary, yet can both be viewed as kinds of resources. Up until now the presentational aspects of the work have been the ones most present and its other levels of meaning haven't been fully explored, there has in fact been some confusion about how I intended the work to function. I knew that it wouldn't be possible to absorb all of the information which coexists in the installation, yet the sensation of these various forms coexisting, some forms being more discernable than others at varying times, was intended to allude to the mesh of impressions possible and how people consume cultural products and information in a fragmentary way.
In its first incarnation (it has since existed in institutional settings in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Hamburg and Munich) in a small gallery in Cologne local inhabitants would spend hours physically browsing &endash; listening to tapes, watching videos and reading. Especially among the young Diederichsen has virtual cult status in Germany as a cultural critic and writer. Since he lives in Cologne and worked at the popular music magazine Spex many of his colleagues and readers were curious to watch what he said, to whom he said it and to observe where and how he said what. They were also interested in fingering his books and observing his genealogy.
The CD-ROM format became appealing as a way of developing these ideas and forms in a different way, given that the conditions under which it could be viewed as it continued to grow were always institutional and weren't amenable in some cases to long hangout sessions or to noise or to touching the contents. For people who had never experienced the intimate version as well as for those who wanted to probe aspects of it in depth the CD-ROM enables that to happen. In it it is possible to read transcripts of the interviews as well as to hear and see people involved via Quick-time videos, to hear samples of music and to follow links between the texts, the music, the photos, the videos, the books and magazines, which indicate the richness of these cultural migrations, and in thus the CD-ROM format seemed capable of serving a different possibility than that of a book. The CD-ROM grows out of an amalgamation of above-mentioned forms, yet isn't one of them. Yet while this material can benefit from being represented in book form and as a video library of the complete tapes (which because of their length can't be included), or as a reinstallation as a spatial encounter the distinguishing features of this format involve the links created between media which can be obtained in one form.
Of course the question can be asked, will anyone actually use it? The answer is still unknowable, yet there is an interest in this material. In the book Technoculture, the editors describe their intent, which echoed my desire to work on this project. They present examples of existing technoculture and demonstrate how it may be possible to work as a practitioner and as a theorist:
"Wary, on the one hand, of the disempowering habit of demonizing technology as a satanic mill of domination, and weary, on the other, of postmodernist celebrations of the technological sublime, we selected contributors whose critical knowledge might help to provide a realistic assessment of the politics &endash; the dangers and the possibilities &endash; that are currently at stake in those cultural practices touched by advanced technology  We consider it naive to think that the simply "nonpassive" use of a videocam, a VCR, a cassette recorder, or a personal computer constitutes a heroic act of resistance, or that it represents an achievement of political autonomy in itself." (Constance Penley & Andrew Ross, (eds.). Technoculture)
This project was undertaken with the University of Lüneburg in the hope of benefiting the students as well as myself. The students came from different backgrounds, some working more with computer science and others coming from art history and sociology backgrounds, both of these areas being embedded within the developing discourse of cultural studies. As an artist with a liberal arts background I hoped to bring additional perspectives to these ideas.
Between then and now many discussions have occurred and many faxes and much material has circulated back and forth between me and those working in Lüneburg. Now a digital version of Import / Export Funk Office exists as a work-in-progress. The continual accretion to this version, as well as ways in which to conceptualize this unending process, are among the points I'd like to discuss here.
What now exists is a new work, different in a variety of ways from the physical version. The differences and overlapping aspects of these works continue to inform my thinking and raise questions. What follows is an outline of concerns which emerged as I tried to imagine how I might describe what's taken place since the beginning of this project to the present. It was my wish to thoroughly analyse step-by-step what occurred, but this was not possible for several reasons: Because of the kind of project this is &endash; one in which more and more information could be added daily from global sources; also because of conceptual and market shifts which have occurred in the field of hip-hop and in technology; in addition to the way I perceive my own shifting self in relation to hip-hop culture through the course of time, as well as how my perceptions shift while in the process of continual learning about developing technologies and changing cultural forms. For these reasons a fragmented approach seems suitable. This outline and the commentary within its categories are open to elaboration.
"Quantity removes mastery and authority, for one can only sample, not master, a text." (George P. Landow. "What's A Critic To Do?", Hyper / Text / Theory).
Preliminary Frustration With Form via Installation
Sensorially Import / Export functioned effectively. It had been described by someone from the music press as displaying how much there is to know. In terms of viewers having access to more in depth possibilities of probing the connections which were being made, depending on the institution in which the work was installed and whether the work was perceived as a passage or as a discrete room, and whether the viewer had time to investigate the materials and return, the contact with the material tended to be stimulating, but limited by time and spatial constraints.
Entering the Digital Universe: Another Way of Conceptualizing Fragmented Knowledge
Unlike the adaptations of print media to digital formats described by George P. Landow in Hyper / Text / Theory, Import / Export consisted of material which existed in a room within which it was possible to spatially move back and forth between collected books, video tapes, audio tapes and photos all organized spatially by shelving, or in "Funk Stations" or in "Data" boxes. Multiple sounds could be heard simultaneously and cross-references occurred between the material. That particular organization of material seemed suited to adaptation to a digital format which could be arranged by using hypertext. Locating keywords as links began the process of reconceptualizing how the material could be rearranged digitally.
While attempting to give digital form to this material I encountered some contradictions which seem to comprise decisions which are often made when one decides to translate perception into form. Describing an ecstatic experience, for example, causes one to step back from the euphoria of the moment to notate. Similarly putting the material I amassed in interviews, from video and in audio tapes, print media collected from clubs, shops, newspapers, magazines, conferences &endash; everything had to be tagged in some way and given a category so that it might be linked and retrieved. The question of what kinds of categories to make loomed large, as it still does.
The possibility of creating yet another museumification of material which is constantly changing was frightening, yet some categories had to be established for initial entrance into the material. Hoping to retain the irony which was initially intended I decided to use the basic categories which had existed in the 3-D version, such as 'collectania' and 'lexicon,' as openers while I continue to elaborate on subcategories.
Significance: Always Yet To Be Determined
"CD-ROM technology, which tantalizes art historians and other students of culture by its promise off near-instant access to large bodies of visual information, nonetheless represents only a crude and costly hint of things to come, because it brings with it some of the basic problems of book technology." (Landow. op. cit.)
A Public Response
The prototype of the Import / Export CD-ROM premiered in Berlin at the neugerriemschneider Gallery in February of 1995. This provided a chance to present the material to people who had some knowledge of the 3-D version, yet may have only read about it. The audience consisted of artists and those interested in art, as well as some people who are critical of most art and who are more interested in communication technologies.
The techno people (who in some cases do overlap with the art people &endash; as well as exist within other categories which I won't attempt to define) seemed pleasantly surprised that the prototype actually functioned as an information as well as entertainment source, yet couldn't be described as infotainment because the material was to complexly layered to be perceived as only witty information bites. The links were perceived as idiosyncratic.
Some Critical Response
Through word of mouth a few critics who now cover CD-ROM reviews were interested in checking it out. One critic compared it with the World Wide Web in terms of the way one browses through.
When thinking of how I'd like it approached I'm reminded of this quote:
"After a lecture on the general subject of nonlinearity by Aarseth at the Brown University Computer Humanities Users Group in 1991, discussion moved to the role of criticism and theory in relation to hypertext and cybertext. Several of those attending agreed with Robert Coover's call for a participatory criticism, one that must take place within hypertext and not in print form, which provides inadequate translation from one medium to the other. Aarseth himself offered the model from anthropology of the participant observer who admits that he or she influences the narrative and thus inevitable colors all results." (Landow. op. cit.)
"The great and defining power of digital technology lies in its capacity to store information and then provide countless virtual versions of it to readers, who then can manipulate, copy, and comment upon it without changing the material seen by others." (Landow. op. cit.)
Since the time in which I began the physical version of Import / Export back in 1991 many changes have occurred culturally and in terms of information transfer. From questioning the reception of hip-hop in Germany to currently being able to locate hip-hop sources around the world on the World Wide Web, much has been in transition. If Import / Export functions as an information source, albeit an idiosyncratic one, how might it best be distributed and continually amended?
It does function at present as a trace of some of my thinking processes and subjective choices, not as an authoritative guide, i. e. "Here are some ways to think about the circulation of cultural products, trends and ideas".
In terms of legal issues regarding permission of music, these are in the process of being sought by presenting the material as a valuable archive which contains ways of approaching and contextualizing hip-hop culture in a manner more varied and complex than is usually done and which includes the media response to the music's and the culture's existence and to the Import / Export Funk Office as well. Responses are still pending. The music in this version of the CD-ROM is used as a demonstration reference, not as an all-encompassing or definitive source.
Not quite utopia
Where to go from here?
"Furthermore, communications sciences and modern biologies are constructed by a common move &endash; the translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange." (Donna Haraway. "A Cyborg Manifesto", Simians, Cyborgs, and Women)
Translation and the extent to which anything can be translated, from one place to another, or between people of varying backgrounds, in addition to that which occurs between those who speak different languages, was an initial impetus for this work, in both versions. The ways transformations come about in forms (such as has happened with the globalization of hip-hop or even within languages, such as in creoles or with the use of english words in german sentences for example) as a result of the attempt to communicate beyond what might be presumed to be one's own turf, have since this project began, become much more possible and prevalent, at least in virtual reality. Meanwhile, in concrete reality it seems as if nationalisms are being exerted even more fervently than ever and that civil wars between those inhabiting the same country, but of different "tribes" are erupting globally.
This project will hopefully avoid being consumed by the "culture wars", which have also become prevalent and in which decisions over preservation of canonical vs. so-called "multicultural" material, among other topics, have been debated. Perhaps an examination of what Donna Haraway has described as the "informatics of domination" could be useful in helping to navigate through these conflicts:
"The frame for my sketch is set by the extent and importance of rearrangements in world-wide social relations tied to science and technology. I argue for a politics rooted in claims about fundamental changes in the nature of class, race, and gender in an emerging system of world order analogous in its novelty and scope to that created by industrial capitalism; we are living through a movement from an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous, information system &endash; from all work to all play, a deadly game. " (Haraway. op. cit.)
It's my hope that this digitized material from Import / Export
Funk Office, which functions in many ways as a mirror of the times,
or could function perhaps as a fertilizing time capsule &endash;
depending on how long this technology can survive obsolescence and
whether enough capital will be available for continued digitization
and upgrading &endash; will be able to survive, circulate and
Last but not least this could be the place for the credits.