VITA VOTI

JORDAN CRANDALL

1 KASIM 2013

Voti Hero Postcard sent from Hans Ulrich Obrist to Susan Hapgood, 1998<br />
Postcard sent from Hans Ulrich Obrist to Susan Hapgood, 1998

In the late 1990s, when VOTI was formed, participation on the Internet was optional rather than obligatory. The World Wide Web, still in its infancy, had little commercial allure. You clicked through pages that were often slow to load due to the limited bandwidth of your dial-up modem, with minimal opportunities to input your own content. Blogging tools were beginning to become available, yet social media, at least as we know it today, was barely conceivable.

For discursive engagement, the action happened elsewhere. It happened in text-based environments like Usenet newsgroups, telnet-enabled role-playing environments, IRCs and listservs. The latter, also called mailing lists, were especially conducive to sustained conversation. They were popular largely because of their convenience. You did not need a special application. You could subscribe to them by e-mail. Once subscribed to a particular mailing list, you could send one message to the addresses of all the subscribers on that list. People's subsequent replies were then sent to all subscribers, and in this way an ongoing conversation would play out simultaneously in the e-mail boxes of all of the members of the forum. You responded at your own pace, in the context of attending to your mail.

Through this very simple technological means, complex and dynamic communities of interest were formed. They brought people together through shared interests and affinities. They were engaging to the extent that they were relevant to users, and so they ebbed and flowed in rhythmic undulations that were unpredictable, invigorating, and sometimes unsettling. The best listservs tried to stay relevant by maintaining a level of quality and focus sufficient to hold the interest of members. This often required organizational effort to ensure that topics were well- selected, that an adequate number of competent participants were invested and that conversational frameworks were conveyed with clarity. The organizational structure had to be firm yet agile enough to accommodate spontaneity: the unanticipated lines of action that could vitalize the discussions. The thrill of the unavailable had to be courted, yet this was not without risk.

Mailing list forums were like living things, strange conglomerations of urban actors, and they had rhythms, intimacies, and moods. Their instantaneity could be intoxicating, their silences haunting. Since participants were only visible through their writings, dialogue required careful attunement to quality of voice: not only what was said but how it was said. As an urban space, the openness of communication had to be respected, yet as in all social situations, forms of modulation and subtle regulation were crucial. An argument that got out of hand could gather momentum and completely subsume a forum; left unchecked, it could destroy it. Forum moderators were often required: an arduous job that was something like an air traffic controller, book editor, psychologist, and dinner host combined.

I was involved in organizing many of these forums in the latter half of the 1990s. They were interesting to me for the kinds of conversations they could enable and the kinds of communities they could help develop. They were also interesting to me as artistic forms in and of themselves: assemblages of people, technologies, places, rhythms, thoughts and sensations. I was interested in the formal and affective qualities of the global, networked spaces that they helped enable, cut through with unresolved localities, intimacies and divisions: volatile spaces that were never as unified or seamless as the lulling glow of the monitors suggested. I was interested in the strange new politics that they anticipated, centered around actors who were no longer bound by the same kinds of allegiances. Small, often situational networks of affiliation among dispersed constituencies, whether cultural, erotic or economic in nature, seemed to allow vibrant identifications that did not fully align with conventional boundaries.

It is important to remember that, during this time, the digital was defined by a condition of impermanence: it was the opposite of materiality. Concepts of virtual space, cyberspace, and virtual embodiment abounded, registering a dislocating dynamic that seemed to offer the abandonment of the complications of bodily identity and physical place. Yet at the same time, in the face of this seeming dissolution, the network was simultaneously working to enable new corporealities and localisms: frameworks of physical, cultural, and regional specificity that were not so divorced from history and territorial alignment. They were subject to the imperatives of new technologically- mediated economies, not free of them.

These are the conditions under which the planning for the VOTI discussions began. As Carlos Basualdo, Hans Urich Obrist, Susan Hapgood and I developed the architecture for the forum, we aimed to create conditions that seemed most appropriate for the discursive community we hoped to enable. We conceived a structure that would involve a fluctuation between private and public modes. In private mode, the permanent members of VOTI would have a space for discussing issues pertaining to their own curatorial practices, plan upcoming events and conferences, and develop topics for the public discussions. While this private mode was ongoing and free-flowing, the public mode was of a specific duration and organized around a particular theme. These open discussions, which aimed to introduce culturally diverse voices and perspectives, often focused on topics that concerned the relations between cultural institutions and the corporate world and the changing climate for cultural work as corporate management models were implemented. They focused on the economy of the art world in the context of globalization and the role of cultural practice in a time of crisis. The texts of many of these discussions are gathered and edited in this volume.

Creating an edited compilation of an online forum like this is an enormous challenge, since these conversations are multi-threaded and interwoven with events and communications that are not always at hand. They play out across different intervals and registers, poised as they are between writing and speaking, performance and elucidation. Voices coincide and diverge, presences come and go, thoughts migrate. The editorial team of Susan Hapgood, Vasıf Kortun, and November Paynter has aimed to produce a volume that does justice to the form. When I read these documents, I think of them situated in their time. VOTI aimed to facilitate exploration of the role of curatorial practice during a time of profound change. It sought to develop aesthetic, intellectual, organizational and political strategies that were informed by the urgencies of a particular historical moment. The discussions grapple with the transformations that were being wrought by critical technological and economic change, in order to explore their implications for cultural work. They concern the material situatedness of everyday practice across radically reconfiguring geographies and connective intervals: people writing from their studios, institutions, places of transit, in expressive forms that range from the poetic to the polemical, with varying senses of political and experiential urgency. They are comprised of spaces through which participants are assembled and coordinated yet compelled out into the world into new cultural situations, conversations and identifications: urban spaces of the everyday, familiar yet foreign.

Forums like VOTI show that these kinds of connective experiences can materialize in ways that endure, however ephemeral they may seem. Their effects are subterranean, flowing into other networks, communities, discourses. Ideas, relational forms and affective bonds morph and transform, reconstitute and reproduce, often at long intervals, and in the most unexpected places. In these ways the VOTI discussions contain lines of flight that can, from the standpoint of this historical moment, be traced. They are clusters in nets that have become vast. Such network space, once thought the most transitory of landscapes, is etched with generative chords.

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Text commissioned for e-publication VOTI Union of the Imaginary available for free download from VOTI e-publication at saltonline.org.
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