Debates & Credits - Media / Art / Public Domain
Goryucheva, Tatiana & Eric Kluitenberg (ed.)
De Balie, 2003
isbn: 90-6617-298-3



There are two ways to understand the term ‘users’ - this central concept in the discourse of communication in the new (on-line) media: as addicts or activists.

In the context of drug abuse, a ‘user’ is an addict, a sorry remnant of what once was – or could have been – an autonomous and responsible individual. Now, the ‘user’ is a function of the substance they are using. Or is it the other way: are they being used by their substance? Not consumers, but consumed?

Is this the way we look upon the new media’s relation to those who make use of it? Is our common denominator as ‘users’ of these media that they are consuming us? Are we automates, clicking diligently through a maze of buying impulses triggered by that most unfailing of all defaults installed in us, humans: desire? Are we the product? Are we communicating or merely – and blindly automatic, in the numbed way the addict goes through the routines connected to their fix – responding to the dictates of the interfaces that we are hooked on as much as we are hooked up?

It sometimes seems to be that way. We sheepishly accept the ever tighter enclosures of the domains for our social interactions, on-line and off-line. We seemingly ignore – blissfully complimenting ourselves with our individuality, ascribed to us a thousand times a day by  a thousand friendly messages – that we are addressed as targets, collectively. We are being spoken to. But are we speaking? Does being a ‘user’ mean that we communicate by repeating the mantras which have been pre-formatted for our use? Can I say: ‘just do it!®’ without subscribing to a branded emotion or violating some businesses copyright?

Before they became addicts users were people who made use of something for a purpose: instruments, tools, items of convenience. Or who utilized certain tools in a specific way: a hammer, a pencil, a brush, a knife... ‘Use’ was closely connected to ‘craft’.  The way a craftsman uses his tools is an indication of his proficiency.

When everybody has become an actor in a globe-spanning media theatre, then acting out one’s role has become a craft, a purposeful activity. You have to know your métier if you want to be effective in this arena – if you want to participate. If you want to be heard, you will have to consider communication as a ‘craft’: as the proper way to utilize your tools for a specific purpose.

In most big cities around the world, the urban lay-out is a communications tool by itself; not just the billboards, the traffic signs, the shop windows etceteras, but the very structure of a big city is a communications application. The question is this: are we, city dwellers, using this application as receivers or senders? The answer is dependent on how we relate to the communications environment around us: as consumers or as participants. Most explicit messages in a cityscape are from either commercial or official ‘senders’, and we, passers-by, simply consume or ignore these messages. The interaction that is implied in them is either seductive or authoritative: “please come in!”, or “no trespassing”. Real interactive communication takes place in another part of the communications environment that is a city: on the streets where people meet in a great variety of ways; as participants in the traffic, as tourists asking for directions, as acquaintances chance-meeting, as friends dating, etceteras. To them, the city is a memory game of connected routes, sites and situations. A virtual city of recollections has grown in their minds, and the real interaction between them and the city is a constant ‘mapping’ of one onto the other, of the virtual onto the real city and vice versa. This interaction is mainly private.

In old Mediterranean cities, like Bologna or Sienna in Italy, this kind of interaction still has its privileged public sites: the central piazzas of such towns. Here, around noon and at the end of the work day, people gather on their way home to exchange news, views, small talk, rants, what have you. The square in front of the Bologna Cathedral may look like the epicenter of a massive demonstration at any day around 5 PM. Groups of people are gathered around a few speakers who seem to sometimes vehemently disagree. Bystanders join in the discussion, while the original protagonists may retreat into the mass. A web of discourses is spun over the piazza by people wandering from one group to another, taking the latest news, the latest topic, the latest opinion from one circle to another. This is public interaction in its most lively form and, in a sense, a reminder of how democracy came into being on the public squares of Athens.

In today’s cities, it seems this kind of person-to-person and private-to-public interaction, this personal communication in the public domain, has been relegated to the ‘official’ channels of communication. We speak out remote, not face to face with ‘the public’. The design of new cities – and often the renovation of old ones - both illustrates and strengthens this remoteness. Once public spaces have become the courtyards of private businesses, monitored by private security and closed outside business hours. More and more, the strata of life – work, commerce, living, leisure, traffic – have been separated, more and more public spaces have being ‘cleansed’ of their ambivalence, thus filtering out a key factor in interfacing the strata and the connected information channels: chance. There are fewer and fewer places where the channels intersect, like they still do in Bologna. 

Meanwhile, the borderlines between public and private spheres – so unequivocally drawn in old and optimistic texts as the declaration of human rights – have become blurred to the point where they are hardly discernable anymore. What makes people – individuals – spill out their most private lives in the most public of remote media, television? The assumption that it doesn’t matter? That I can be Me anywhere I damn well like to expose Myself? It’s the addict’s morale: I need my fix and if you have a problem with that, you can go to hell. What makes a business think they can call me up when I’m having dinner at home with my family, and demand that the ‘elder family member’ answer some questions they have?  Around eight, because that’s when you’re supposed to be home. It’s the pushers morale: You want my stuff, so you will answer me whenever I know I can reach you. And if you don’t want to be disturbed in your private sphere, screw you. What are you trying to hide anyway?

The private sphere has become public and the public domain privatized and commodified. ‘Public’ has come to mean ‘exposure’ rather than ‘common interest’, ‘15 minutes of personal fame’ rather than ‘the common voice of the people’. One could go so far as to say that ‘public’ has become a commodity available at a price, instead of a mental space shared by a community, a culture. The rhetorics of ‘being yourself’ and ‘being an individual’ have been seized by brands who have thereby effectively modified what used to be known as ‘public communication’ into public expression of a comodified individuality. Brand X says you are “an original” if you buy and smoke their cigarettes... 

Leo van Munster, 'trust me', projection, Moskow 2003

When, therefore, a group of designers and artists decides to intervene with their work in public space, they are performing a political act. In disseminating their messages through the communications tool and channel that is the city, they suggest a reopening of the kind of public space that has been under pressure ever since public communication became ‘remote’ – relegated to the confined and regulated channels of commercial and official mediation. Such interventions remind us, city dwellers, of our tendency to become addicts to mediation instead of conscious users of media. By simply inserting a different kind of messages into the massive structure of commercial seduction or official command, these artists and designers engage in the political debate about the city’s communications environment as the site of public discourse, as the theatre where private views and public speech meet – or should meet. They challenge the confines of regulated media by taking part of and partaking in the public space reserved for paying clients. This is an act against the commodification of public communication, and therefore an act of civil disobedience. Public space has been sold out, and these artists and designers suggest we can break that privatization of the public domain.

To use the communications tools and networks for a common purpose, is to make public space. Pushing products may be viable business communication, it is not the end all of common discourse. Or is it? Selling public space, whether it be mobile telephone frequencies or urban communication space, to the highest bidder amounts to curtailing the public domain under the auspices of democratic government. 

Seen from this perspective, the term ‘user’, both in computer and media environments, radically changes its meaning. Instead of a knee-jerk response, ‘use’ becomes an activity. To be a ‘user’ now means to be an active participant in the networks of communication which are open for you to use.  And if they are closed or sealed off – use your tools to access them! The user uses their tools to actively assist in crafting the space common to all users: a civic activity in the public domain.

To be a user, in this context, is hard work. It’s not the tools – they are available and easy to handle -,  it’s the scale and proportion that they can be used in, and the infringement on regulated communication space that are the problem. Getting together a van, a beamer and a computer is relatively easy; getting permission to beam your message up a 45 by 30 meter wall in the center of the city is the tricky thing! Using communications tools for a purpose with a wider scope than expressing your branded individuality via the channels the brands leave open for you, that is civic activity. The craft of public discourse - call it activism if you like.

max bruinsma