fibreculture: oh my god I'm not alone!

Dean Kiley

There’s a kind of Virilio-vertigo acceleration that virtuality lends to a developing online community…and if its remit is also its language is also its constituency is also their profession…then you add academia’s Blakean-mill publishing pressures, plus a core of prominent voluble new media thinkers and outworkers, you end up with, well—fibreculture.

It was founded as a mailing list in January 2001 by David Teh and Geert Lovink to allow critical/speculative and ideologically-engaged debate around new media arts, theory, politics, policy, education and culture. As the year went on, it expanded its subscription-base (300+) and phase-shifted at fast-forward through list, website, archive and editing/feedback forum, then offline into a public debate, conference and book publication.

As a discussion venue, it’s been hyperactive, capacious but also determinedly on-topic, threads unspooling with unusual focus, measured and generous with argument, references, snapshots of current research, useful forwardings and painstaking feedback. It’s impossible to convey the range here, but it can flip, in one day, from competing histories of independent anti-globalisation media, through to the usefulness of Slavoj Zizek’s uber-psychoanalytic pomo-postcolonialism for analysing multicultural rhetoric and systemic racism in Australia. Go visit the archives: it’s an exceptional cumulative resource.

Towards the end of 2001 the list convened itself as a peer-review forum for participants to post articles intended for collation in the Reader, shifting up several gears, ploughing through more compacted academic text than an overdue-thesis-ed doctoral student on speed. The process lasted 6 weeks, the editing 2, printing the Reader only another fortnight, during which time a full-scale debate and conference was organised. Any given component of fibreculture’s proliferating activities would be welcome, but given the momentum and quality of the outcomes, the whole shebang (to use the technical term) is a remarkable achievement.

fibreculture being such a paradigmatically virtual network, most of the fibreculturalists (fc-ers?) only met for the first time at the Public Debate. This may explain a certain logistical flux, and perhaps, at a stretch, Victor Perton, who is the Victorian Shadow Minister for Technology, Innovation and Glib Technodeterminism. Before he said “we could talk about this all day” (at which point I fled), he gave a very-slightly reheated generic Powerpoint presentation, overstuffed with utopic rhetoric, featuring both an un-ironic use of a Bryce Courtenay quote and the apparently-conclusive evidence of his Mum, who lives in Doncaster (plush and Tory) but nevertheless did herself up a website chronicling her recent trip to India, bless her. Dale Spender as Jehovah’s Witness. Got people talking though.

But this was an aberration: the majority of the papers (and the interleaving formal-but-brief responses, setting up a dynamic that could have been usefully extended into more effective wider discussion to give the word ‘Public’ in ‘Public Debate’ some scope) were solid. Matthew Allen on the uses, abuses and recuses of virtuality was coruscating, and fortunate in Esther Milne as his respondent, who was elegant-structured, deft, and witty in suturing Allen’s critical issues to her doctoral focus on email as epistolary remediation. Tom Worthington, as the self-proclaimed un-academic anti-jargon geek with Palm Pilot, responding to Perton, was admirably decorous in addressing all the issues Perton should’ve. The Arts/Culture and Education sessions were as pragmatically realpolitik as the earlier ones were intellectualised and thematic, working as complements and sketches for the conference and Reader to fill out.

The conference per se was more like a series of unexpectedly-well-organised postgrad seminars, informal and structurally-fluid, with core groups of speakers addressing set themes, drawing from their peer-reviewed papers but not rehashing them, followed by whole stretches of actual, real, live discussion of the kind that’s always promised at Big Time Conferences but then evaporates. The opening session was my favourite, with everyone introducing themselves and their areas: a new-media-academia version of a Babylon 5 council, gathering for the first time a galactic diaspora of ex-alien and once-anomie-ed species, all going Oh my god, I’m not alone!

The publication (echte print, complete with early-edition typos), springboard for the conference, final stage in the peer-review process, is a bit Gutenbergly overdetermined: it’s a “Reader”, it’s the “Inaugural fibreculture Conference Proceedings” and it’s “An Inventory of Australian Net Culture, Criticism and Theory.” And yes, irony aside, it is. One of the most focused and functional texts to come out in Australia to provide prismatic analyses, rather than just a snapshot, of the topography across the different competing disciplinary and theoretical territories. Trying to yank out any given piece for more-detailed critique or especial praise makes me feel like a conflicted eisteddfod judge.

It was officially launched by Lev Manovich, the recently-lauded author of The Language of New Media (see interview), who adroitly maintained his Slavic Wellington-bear persona throughout, albeit while magisterially slicing through debate. The Reader, fortunately, preserves something of the flavour of this debate, and the listserv interaction, by including collaborations, manifestos, interviews, position papers and dialogues (as well as reproducing quoted posts on the flyleaves), the articles (subsequently?) more condensed and concentrated than the usual over-anxiously over-footnoted loquacious fare. A cross-section? McKenzie Wark, Anna Munster, Sean Cubitt and Scott McQuire are all their usual rigorous, risky, incisive selves, Ned Rossiter is terrific on analytic borderlands, agonistic polities and discursive historiography, Guy Redden is devastating on utopic deterritorialisation and net.activism, Chris Chesher’s superb at typographies of institutionalisation and disciplinarity in media studies. Oh dear, perhaps I liked the book too much. Incipient nationalism?

The inevitable ‘What next?’ session and debriefings continued online after the meeting wound up, canvassing: soliciting a wider diversity of new media producers, artists and activists to leaven the academica; stepping up policy advocacy; a further series of Readers; a free ‘un-academic’ uni-distributed fibreculture newspaper; curatorial or logistics support for a net.art forum or online exhibition; setting up or facilitating collaborative and community-based offline projects; developing a directory of courses about, or using, new media; and liaising with existing organisations to construct a portal web database of current artistic and research projects.

Regardless which matrices of these divergent possibilities it decides to develop, fibreculture’s agenda already constitutes an overdue, productive, politically-engaged, theoretically-informed and critical—in all senses—intervention.

fibreculture, “Digital Publics: A Debate”, Melbourne, Treasury Theatre, Dec 6, 2001; Inaugural Meeting, Melbourne, VCA, Dec 7-8; Hugh Brown, Geert Lovink, Helen Merrick, Ned Rossiter, David Teh, Michele Willson (eds), Fibreculture Reader: politics of the digital present, 2001.

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 21

© Dean Kiley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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