Interview of Regine Debatty

Gosh, a WMMNA banner on this blog??? It's actually to introduce a short interview I've done of Regine Debatty, the instigratrice (sorry for the french-icism) of the We Make Money Not Art blog. Not to mention it's part of my daily read, I want to stress here that the goal of this interview was to stop for a while and discuss some of the issues that I found pertinent in her work. Of course, this is not an exhaustive overview, it's just a snippet from discussions we have.

We won't get back on WMMNA history (because it's here) but I just have this introductory one: after X years, how would you described WMMNA perimeter?

It's evolving, slowly but constantly. first, in its form. It used to be the traditional blog: just a series of posts one after the other. After some time, I decided that it was pointless and boring. Now the blog is more and more mimicking a magazine with reports from events and interviews.

Now about the content. I've stopped blogging stories about consumer electronics. Other blogs do it much better than me. I'm more focused on art works that use emerging technologies as a medium. by technologies, I mean the usual suspect (mobile phones, internet, etc,) but also the emerging fields of biotechnology, in-body technology, nanotechnology, etc.

It's quite difficult for me to describe the perimeter of the blog. I talk about interaction design for example, but not everything I see there really excites me. I like edgy, brain-challenging, experiemental projects and yawn when i'm in front of sleek and perfect designs of new mobile phone interfaces. Same goes for art, I've seen so many "wave your hand and see how the projected images are modified" projects. What i'm looking for are projects that and as time passes, i'm becoming more and more choosy ;-)

Is there a more global project behind WMMNA?

No big strategy nor ambition. just trying to get ideas and talents out there. I like to think that wmmna is a platform where people with ideas and critical view on technology, media and their social, ethical and cultural implications can be heard.

After X years of blogging, what underlying picture do you now see in the scene? Phenomenons that amazed you?

That it remains such a niche phenomenon. The traditional art scene seems to believe that the so-called "new media artists" are just playing some kind of geeky games. I wasn't expecting my blog to sparkle so many interest from the technology world and be ignored by the "traditional" art sphere. I think it's slowly changing. It took decades to accept photography as an art discipline so let's be patient.

In what sense do you think your blog is of interest to researchers, R&D peopld and foresight managers?

I should ask them. I guess the projects described in the blog might be interesting because many of them give a snapshot -albeit sometimes whimsical- of people's desires or of what tomorrow could bring. I'd illustrate the first idea (people's desires) with several projects that allow people in public space to regain some control over technology in their surrounding: husman haque's floatables, the EM shelter booth by anthony townsend, katherine moriwaki's recoil.

We all need these communication technologies but sometimes we might feel overwhelmed, right? surely there should be a way to get some control over them. The industry has had little incentive to address the problem and give us more control. I hope that they are already getting their designers and engineers to work on that (especially when it comes to the technology that seems to frighten everyone: RFID). in the meantime artists are exploring methods of self-defense. hopefully they will inspire someone out there.

About artists using technologies to give us a glimpse of what tomorrow could bring, my favourite examples show how artists have explored the kind of dynamic mapping and sighseeing experience that google earth bring today. In the 80s, there is naimark's golden gate fly-over, in the 90s there is art+com terravision installation. I think if one is willing to look beyond the quirkiness and delirious aspect of some installations or applications, there's a lot to learn and get inspired from.

What I like in WMMNA is the very sober nature of your posts, the way you get straight to the point when describing the projects. Is there a reason behind this "no stance" attitude?

Several reasons: the main one is that i don't want to influence people, I want readers to form their own opinion. i give mine in a subtle way: when i don't like something i just don't write about it. it's also quite difficult to always have a view on interaction art/design. you have to experience the installation yourself to really know what it is like. then of course sometimes i don't give my view for a very simple reason: i have no opinion, i just "feel" that a story is interesting enough and hope others will make sense of it.

In your talks, after dealing with how what media artists do is relevant for technology thinkers or why fake projects are relevant, what are the new trends that you find appealing and strikingly worthwhile?

I'm not sure they are brand new but here's a list of some interesting trends (in my humble opinion):

What one of futuresonic's panels this year called social art. Jose luis de Vicente (elastico, copyfight, OFFF barcelona, sonar, art futura, etc.) gave a series of example of projects that are meaningful for everyone: the consumer, the activist, you and me: fallen Fruit, Garbage Scout,,, nathalie jeremijenko's How Stuff Is Made, etc. works that give us some form of control through un-mediated knowledge most of the time. anthony dunne was part of this panel as well and he totally vowed the crowd with his talk "Design for Debate". I think he and his partner Fiona Raby are onto something with their willingness to create fictional spaces and scenarios relevant to everyday life and based on technological progress (in the field of communication tech but also biotech, nanotech, etc). With their students at Interaction Design (soon to be renamed Design Interactions) RCA, they try to come up with fictional products or services that might inspire, raise awareness, stimulate discussion that could eventually lead to a change and prevent any kind of unwanted future to happen. Their projects bring about scenarios that should trigger all sorts of thinkings in our minds, make us imagine what our daily life could be like when synthetic biology, nano and biotechnology or other emerging technologies will mediate it even more. Here's a good example of such projects. Raby and Dunne like to point that what they do is not art but design. Labelling their work "art" means that people would dismiss their research as "just art", and not take them seriously.

Evolving systems: machines, installations that are "trained" and which behaviours changes over time according to stimuli, passersby feedback, players moves, etc. Like U.W.M or project nero.

On a totally delirious level: animals computer interaction: not always for the animal benefit (auger+loizeau: augmented animals, internet poultry, pacman against crickets, blogging pigeons, etc).

To me, humor plays an important role in what you're posting in WMMNA. How do you think this dimension can bring critical elements about technology usages?

I think humour is very important. it helps getting the attention of the audience. humour puts the piece into a non-threatening, non-intimidating light. which helps a lot to get the message out.

At the beginning of your blog, it was called "Near Near Future" (I have always been jealous of this term), then you switched to WMMNA. To me, NNF is still very pertinent and connected with what you blog about: weak signals about today, that may be signs for what will happen tomorrow. Let's focus on this NNF concept, why did you coined that term? Did you manage to put what you post in a temporal perspective (when would some signals be more distributed when)?

The NNF title was exactly what you describe. the projects of these artists are deeply grounded in the world as it is today, they follow the technology as it is sold or presented to us today. They are just looking a bit further, not 30 or 40 years in the future like science fiction might do, but in the very near future.

Since I am doing research about location-based applications, I would be happy to know what you think about locative media. It seems that the scene failed (see for instance what Marc Tuters and Kazys Varnelis says about it), do you have any thought about that? You were curator at Sonar about locative media project, have you seen new project that would foster a revival of this trend?

Nothing i can think of at Sonar itself as it was mostly showcasing some "classics" of the locative media trend. In general I'd say that locative projects that deal with environmental issues are the most relevant (to me at least), like myriel milicevic's neighbourhood satellites. In the "map" mode of her project, the system receives data from the other "satellites" carried by people in the area, and displays on a map, their location and contamination level. This mode could generate some interesting behaviours: A group of players, gathering in larger numbers at polluted street junctions, navigating their satellites through thick air, might just as well be interpreted as a silent protest. Or (at a very selfish level) imagine what it could be like to have direct information about the quality of air and light in an area and be able to bargain the price of the house on that basis. Another example is the Feral Robots by urban tapestry. I like this idea of using locative media to give the man on the street the tools to understand what's going on in his own neighbourhood, to do that in a playful, non-academic, non-threatening way.