dynamics, electro-electives affinities and networked memories in
the contemporary cyberculture: the nettime list.
Interview with Patrice
Casalegno, March 1999
the very start, Patrice Riemens has participated in the elaboration
of contemporary cyberculture. His view of these phenomena is that
of both critic and connoisseur, and he speaks from personal experience.
Rather than being a central actor, he has always been present in
the margins of the various social movements and digital cultures.
In the Netherlands, he is among the founders of Nettime (1), and
he monitors changes in communitarian networks, activist circles
in particular. It is within this perspective that his testimony
is interesting for the "Living Memory (2)" project, especially in
regard to the dynamics of shared memory on the network. We shall
begin by asking what strategies allow for communitarian networks
to take place...
PR: I have indeed participated in an interesting movement and have
long followed the expressions of contemporary cyberculture. In answer
to your question, I would say that this type of network can only
crystallise in the presence of two factors: common affinity and
personal relationships. To better understand the movement we must
go back to the origins of the process. Consider Amsterdam, where
there was a very strong "alternative" movement of squatters, a broad
group resembling a "youthful elite", a group of active young militants,
intellectual, wealthy and well-educated, from good families. In
this respect, we can't really say we're confronted with a mass movement
of the populace. The movement first expressed itself through the
occupation of empty houses. Then it broadened to include everyday
environment in full; restaurants, hair salons, and garages were
operated in squatted locales without any sort of licence. It was,
in brief, a total and alternative arrangement of daily life. They
also had a system for communication and publication. At the time,
they communicated through telephone lists and Press releases. They
had their own magazine, Bluf, and a publishing house, Ravijn. As
soon as the network arrived, they took it up as well. Next to this
alternative movement, there was also that of the Dutch hackers who
had the good sense to quickly dispense of the outlaw or cyber-terrorist
label and were recognised as a social movement. This is an interesting
characteristic of Dutch pirates as compared to other hacker groups.
In any case, the two movements, hackers and squatters, never fusioned,
but they did come together in their contribution to the budding
of the alternative digital culture. In the early 1990's, the Amsterdam
Digital City (3) saw the day, as did "XS4all" (4) and the Society
for Old and New Media (5). These expressions of digital culture
were therefore born of people who knew each other well and frequented
the same milieu. Within the context of the constitution of these
"virtual communities" characterising contemporary cyberculture,
we come back around to the good old system based on personal relationships
and intellectual, social and political and even class affinities
between participants. The third founding factor in the Netherlands
was a system of social allotments which, up until about ten years
ago, enabled people who chose not to have a job or career to get
by on government financial aid. Hundreds of people were thereby
able to spend a lot of time on these activities. I think this should
not be underestimated because it is what freed people of material
worries and allowed them to get involved in alternative and digital
FC: These nuclei created a critical mass of people who now make
up communities like Digitale Stad or Nettime's (6) Discussion list.
PR: Yes, but that's not all. On the one hand there was this alternative
system in Amsterdam where people were fairly connected, let's say,
physically, through human relationships, before the electronic network
existed. Of course there were disputes and controversy, but at least
they formed a real local community. At the same time, this local
community had outside contacts, especially in squatter communities
in other cities like Berlin, Zurich, London, Milan and Paris. Here
were people who had the leisure to travel, who were used to functioning
in a network, to creating reticules of relationships and to having
connections on an European and world-wide scale.
FC: Are you referring to an exclusively social, political and intellectual
PR: No. Art also played an important role. Nettime, for example,
was created at the Venice biennial in 1995. It was created on the
margins of the event because some people were part of the biennial
while others just dropped in through an alternative network, "cultural
piracy". This is how Nettime was created.
FC: It's interesting to see how the electronic network made way
for the emergence of a community that existed before the network
itself, with all that that implies. In the case you are illustrating,
we see that not only is there an emotional charge subjacent to the
formation of communities that go on-line, but there is also a important
form of chance and spontaneity.
PR: It is true that no founding "will" or organisation pre-exists
community. On-line communities are characterised by games of chance,
of coincidence, that crystallises with an alchemy impossible to
FC: This brings us back to what we were saying earlier, that affinity
and personal relationships are the basis for on-line communities.
PR: Even Amsterdam Digital City (begun in 1993 and functional as
of 1994) is based on this dynamic. Then there is the need to so
something, even if it remains a bit foggy. For example, in creating
Amsterdam Digital City (DDS), there were three partners who wished
to "do something", but they didn't know quite what. The hackers
wanted to spread the use of the network, the cultural centre of
Balie (7) wanted to do something concrete with its program of conferences
on "technological culture", and the municipality wanted to bring
the public closer together with their political representatives.
FC: It is interesting
to see how these groups form. You have already described archetypal
figures that characterise these networks, but what are some of the
other key figures in these networks?
PR: First of all, at time Nettime was created, fifty or so people
formed the group. Half of them were a little more involved than
the others, and a small core, half a dozen people, were the most
active. There within were the moderators (8). Their function is
relatively void and does not, at first glance, represent much, since
apart from resolving conflicts, rare on Nettime, there is not much
concrete work to do. In fact, we could say that there are more conflicts
to resolve between people than content. Moderation may be invisible
work, but it is capital. The work involves monitoring exchanges
and also keeping in touch with those who provide information. If
we consider the Monde Diplomatique (9), we come across the same
dynamics; the problem is that there are eight employees to manage
2,500 more or less volunteer collaborators. Nettime, on a smaller
scale of course, encounters the same difficulties, and this is where
the moderator's energy is consumed. It is not so much in the censure
or writing of texts that the moderator's role is important, but
in the threading together of community members, writing to them,
keeping them and making contact. In terms of concrete work, it is
difficult to understand what a moderator does. If we look closely
at what Nettime's moderator does, we could not quantify the activity,
no matter how indispensable it is. Yet in general, managing the
community takes an incredible amount of time. It is not necessarily
gratifying, but it is fundamental.
FC: In reference
to the network's exchange system, with its increasing possibility
for stocking information digitally, J. Baudrillard has hypothesised
a "fossilisation of memory". Considering that communities are increasingly
able to preserve memory on computer, we are witnessing the formation
of a parallel system in which we place memory outside the community
itself, by creating a self-sufficient and nearly independent circuit.
In this hypothesis, the fact of archiving information is more closely
related to extradition than the constitution of shared memory. Do
you see this process at work in network groups?
PR: That's a good question and I'll reply somewhat instinctually.
For example, think of people who, taken with the desire to keep
up to date on the one hand, and to keep track of information they
find important on the other, never throw away magazines or they
stack news clippings. Do they really look at this information, these
pieces of newsprint, once stored? I would tend to say, and I'm exaggerating
of course, that this is a loser's behaviour, because those preoccupied
with the past with no particular goal are losers of sorts. If we
now look at Nettime's archives, it is interesting to consider the
number of consultations. I get the impression the archives are not
used much. Spontaneously, I would say that community memory, rendered
more evident by electronic means of storage, is illusory, and much
like these piles and piles of dusty news clippings. Certainly, the
archives mustn't be destroyed, on the contrary, it's good that they
are there when needed, but they are not "living".
FC: In a sense, you're saying that these archives would better serve
people within the community than people outside it.
PR: Yes. I would even draw a parallel with the work of the moderator
of a discussion list, who's work is only noticed when he's not doing
it. With archives, it's sort of the same.
FC: You seem to be in syntonia with J. Baudrillard when he says,
with a certain irony, that it is something like the Labour Ministry;
it gives people a sense of security with its imposing presence,
but it does not give people work.
FC: E. Morin says that the sharing of collective memory allows human
beings to lead a "poetic existence", by reminding us that life is
not purely functional or utilitarian. Does this dynamic exist in
Nettime or the other communities you know of?
PR: Generally speaking I agree, but I'll take a little detour to
reply to your question, and draw your attention to the fact that
in certain communities, like Nettime, it is rather ill-regarded
to self-reflect on the community, to question "what this means to
us", etc. At the beginning of the Nettime adventure, even if some
people posed questions about the group itself - what direction it
should take, the objectives to be reached and so on, - the other
members considered such introspection to be self indulgent. In the
United States, and I've got the Seattle Community Network (10) in
mind, we're on another level, with communities tending to formalise
their existence with a "mission", "objectives", etc. So the idea
put forth by E. Morin seems to apply to the trend of networks like
Nettime, that do not give too tight a framework to their actions
or norms, but whose attitude tends to be to let the community live
its life. In this, the attitude is poetic.
FC: Here we're at the heart of the community problematic, especially
the elaboration of European thought and its differences with American
PR: Yes, in the sense that a tendency to rationalise community function
is more evident in the American environment, even when referring
to forms of community aggregation based on common affinity. But
these communitarian forms are experienced quite differently by the
FC: To come back to what we were saying, thanks to this sharing
of memory we are able to break away from a purely functional view.
PR: I hesitate on this subject. I think we're in a situation in
which we have less appreciation for this memory when it is there,
available, and we regret its absence when looking for it. In a sense,
its lack is clearer than its presence. Obviously, a community without
a history is not a community that works. On the other hand, it is
difficult to say what a community actually does with its history.
FC: S. Moscovici says that community requires commemoration, that
is to say it must celebrate events, together, and even more than
commemoration, is the symbolic re-living of things in common. It
is a question of recalling in common, common things. You have already
shown how in Nettime, for example, the fact of self-questioning
is more or less considered self-centred. In other communities, does
any dynamic of commemoration come to mind?
PR: I would say activist movements, or centres for independent media,
or other movements that characterise the network counter-culture.
Let's say they were part of the innovating forces that used, from
the start, forms of remote network communications. However, the
physical encounter of people is at the basis of their movement.
Even if they use Internet a lot, they get together physically. Even
if everyone is connected, it's said a locale is needed to organise
any action. My friend Gert Lovink published an article on Nettime
entitled "On the importance of meet space (11)", precisely in order
to emphasise this complementary and fundamental dimension of network
communities. A centre is therefore needed where people can get together,
and this reminds me of the function you define as commemoration.
In these locales, these places where there's a coffee machine or
a refrigerator to put beers in, ties are created are reinforced.
Here, groups have common forms of commemoration; this is where shared
adventures are remembered. In this dynamic, the new network communities,
though perhaps more international, work just like classic communities.
Another interesting factor here is that the hackers, who in Holland
are considered a social movement, after having created various societies,
also created recreational centres. Recreation is a virtual activity,
an encounter through an electronic list and web site (12), but they
also have many occasions to get together, like parties, and they
have a physical locale, the Hangout. Paradoxically, a group like
that of the hackers, that knows and masters remote communications,
gives priority to real, physical socialisation. Their web site is
a good illustration in the sense that there is no veritable content,
but rather a family album in which they publish photos of get-togethers,
hackers reunions in Italy, or camp Kevin Mitnick at the Ars Electronica
FC: This leads me to mention P. Virilio, who points out the dangers
of the "present memory" that is developing along with the network.
To explain, he uses a metaphor from boxing. For a boxer, the present
instant is fundamental, for all is played out in anticipation of
the coming punch. He must take the place of his adversary in order
to beat him. There is therefore a phenomenon of confusion between
opponents in boxing which we find in interaction on Internet. There
is a memory of the present instant, still poorly developed, exceptional
and paradoxical, and that puts into action a confusing contraction
of temporalities, of the past, present and future. A temporal crash
which characterises our hyper-mediated societies and of which films
like "Enemy of the State" and "Snake Eyes" pronounce a darkly imaged
tele-surveillance. There would exist, then, a memory of the present
which would not so much oppose memory of the past, but replace it
in some destructive real time.
PR: I don't really share his hypothesis in the sense that P. Virilio
doesn't really have hands on experience, that is to say the concrete
practise of the network, its constant use.
FC: You're referring to the hands on imperative of the hackers who
touched, put together and took apart machines and programmes.
PR: Yes. P. Virilio, while his hypotheses make a lot of sense, does
not have practical experience of the new communications and information
technologies, so he sees things from the outside. His view is of
the mass consequences on the one hand, and the return effect on
the other. So if we take the boxing metaphor, the boxer is not really
the author of the movement at its source, but he tries to anticipate
the movement and its consequences. He draws conclusions from the
conditions of possibility. So, I can't really share Virilio's seeming
"techno-pessimism". At the same time, I admit to being in a somewhat
elitist position, that of the digital nobility (13). I think we
can control these technologies and keep a critical position in regard
to this acceleration in time. It may be illusory, but it is not
FC: This situation is not entirely new.
PR: Certainly. "Lacking memory" is an old complaint that runs down
through the history of humanity. If we examine the problematic related
to memory, we notice that memory, more than being inscribed in a
logic of common remembering of real facts, is inscribed in a perspective
of inventing the past, what anthropologists call the invention of
tradition. The ancient and authentic traditions of a community are,
in reality, a play act invented at a precise moment for the needs
of a cause. I therefore insist on the fact that the past, memory,
tradition, are only of any value in the present and do not exist
on their own; what is important is the re-appropriation of the present.
The past has always been reappropriated in the present. Of course
there are archives, images, testimony, but they are the theatre
set that we rearrange in the present. The past in itself is dead,
or at least, mute.
FC: This recalls the fossilisation of memory mentioned earlier.
Also, community memory only happens with the imaginary construction
of a shared past, and therefore through re-appropriation.
PR: Exactly, moreover, memory is highly personal. Of course we have
memories in common and we share information and histories, but each
goes through a highly personal process of elaboration and reappropriation.
An illustration of this is a project I had with Manuel Castells
for the reconstruction of the history of the "digital public culture
of Amsterdam" (I wrote an article on this subject with Geert Lovink14).
M. Castells' idea was to get the key people involved in the movement
to speak with the purpose of arriving at a history. Not entirely
objective, of course, but at least to enough to get basic testimony
as to what the main actors thought about this culture, with their
desires, theirs goals, etc. My feeling was that not only these people
are now busy with other activities, but that they would explain
their experience and what they did at the time with the frame of
understanding they have now, with their new occupations and activities.
In a certain sense, the history of Amsterdam digital city is like
an encyclopaedia in Stalin's Soviet Union! Entire passages have
been erased. This does not mean their is some dark conspiracy, but
there are events and facts that become re-interpreted in view of
the present. Selective memory and the re-interpretation of the past
always play a role.
FC: How do you see the process of elaboration of common language
that takes place in network communities?
PR: There are different cases which vary according to the communities
to which they refer. For example, in Nettime's community, there
is no gap between the people who organised the group and the participants.
They had a common language, affinities and their own culture. But
obviously, in other cases, like in service communities or civic
communities such as Iperbole in Bologna or Go-goettingen in Germany
(15), the organisers must address a broader public and the problem
of elaborating a common language, a common ground, becomes immediately
FC: In conclusion, what can you say about the obstacles that communities
may encounter when they form on-line?
PR: The problem is vast, because sometimes the formation of collective
memory must be intentional. For example, with Nettime, we hoped
to have "working" archives. This came to be thanks to one of our
members who's a computer genius and who created on-line archives
that work really well. This is not a technical problem however.
Had we asked the group from the start what they thought about having
working archives, what was the function of such archives, etc.,
our philosophical discussions would probably have prevented us from
ever setting up the archives at all. I prefer to draw your attention
to the fact that community life is highly complicated and difficult.
It is not easier that individual life. I think the use of the word
community is often too simplistic. With the diffusion of network
technologies we speak a lot about it, and we think we are creating
communities with an ease hitherto unknown in human history. Network
communities, however, require a lot of effort, attention and participation,
which are not taken into account in these idyllic visions of volontarists
and activists. To use an ex ample from the text of a friend from
Nettime, it is like sex, in literature and cinema, sex is grand
and glorious, but the reality of a settled couple's bed is something
else! With the new network forms of aggregation and community we
are in this same perspective and we must maintain a critical distance
between discourse and reality.
3 The digitale staad: http://home.dds.nl/
5 Society for Old and New Media: http://www.waag.org
8 On "moderating" on nettime, see, for example, the article "remember
the Kosovo war on this list?" 19/9/2000; http://nettime.org/nettime.w3archive/200009/msg00200.html,
or "Between moderation and extreme", nettime, 22/9/2000; http://www.nettime.org/nettime.w3archive/200009/msg00275.html
13 Barbook, Richard, "Cybercommunisme", on Nettime and to appear
in "Mulitudes" http://www.samisdat.net/multitudes/.
14 See the archive on http://www.nettime.org : "Amsterdam Public
Digital Culture 2000. On the Contradictions Among Users Profiles",
15 http://www.comune.bologna.it; http://www.go-goettingen.de