RE:NET.CONGESTION - INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF STREAMING MEDIA
by Eric Kluitenberg
The dust has far from settled as this is jotted down on the laptop (October 20th), so it is too early for a clear assessment how successful or unsuccessful this festival has been. One thing that we all felt very happy about as organisers of net.congestion was the fact that a quite diversified and elaborate group of excellent people met at the festival. We hoped for an atmosphere of friendly confrontation, between artists, musicians, clubsters, activists, film makers, networkers, and technologists. We knew there would be friction, but this friction should be part of this meeting of diverse minds.
The question remains, why to bring such a diverse mix of audiences / participants together?
I still think the argument is clear, and valid - we recognised an intense interest from the main-stream media and ict industry in streaming media, and a tendency to equate streaming media to the creation of an expanded (interactive) form of television, but this vision did not correspond to how we perceived the really interesting aspects of the practice of streaming media.
What's more we have witnessed, and have been involved with a remarkably different set of cultural and political practices of streaming media that indeed shaped a totally different image of tomorrow's media. These other practices, or should we say 'practices of otherness" around streaming media, are what we feel at home in (ŕ not @ home!), and these practices we felt should be highlighted now, because they are energetic, alive, creative and urgent.
The festival should cover the whole range of artistic, radio, music, club initiatives, right down to the tactical outlets, reporting tools and political and activist endeavour in streaming media. By bringing people involved in all these diverse fields together, we felt a new energetic impulse might be given to the development of streaming media as a viable artistic and social practice.
We started our process of thought by writing down some of our initial ideas in a concept document. The document ended up in version 4.0 after a series of rewrites. Let me first re-introduce two of the key parts of this text here.
[From: net.congestion - concept document 4.0:]
>>> Conceptual Background:
After the Internet survived the Y2K prophecies almost flawlessly, the stage now seems set for the transformation of the net into a main-stream medium. In less than 10 years after opening up to private users, the character of the Internet once again is changing dramatically. Part of this transformation are the continuously enhanced graphic capabilities of the World Wide Web, but even more so the new forms of micro-, narrow- and broad- casting via the Internet that have emerged in recent years. The generic name for these new types of live media programming via digital networks is called Streaming Media. Similar to discussion groups and mailing lists before, these new types of live programming via the net could be set up relatively easily by independent groups of net. enthusiasts, or even by individual experimenters.
These new open distribution channels, typically spurred frantic activity in arts and music communities around the planet, leading to novel media formats as net.radio and net.audio, or web-tv. This early artistic activity was quickly followed by a tremendous interest of tactical media initiatives, who work in a more decidedly social and political context. Finally also the club culture scene, media-artists, and even documentary film makers began to experiment with the new streaming media.
This early phase of experimentation now seems to come to a close, making way for a new stage in the development of the Internet; the fusion of old and new media, most notably of Television and the Internet. With television becoming digital from recording and production to distribution, and the Internet being enhanced with capabilities for delivering live programming, it became more or less inevitable that the two would come together. The striking announcement of the mega-merger of Internet access provider America On-Line and media conglomerate Time Warner on January 10th of this year, no more than illustrates this process. This and other so called "deals of the century" represent the marriage of 20th century broadcast media brands to 21st century delivery systems. Behind these developments lie the technologies of streaming media. With this new transformation towards a main-stream medium, also main-stream interests enter the net.
Dilemma's and opportunities
On the one hand countless new opportunities emerge for distributing live content via digital networks. The main-stream breakthrough certifies continued technical development and interest for the new medium. The danger of marginalisation of the early innovators, however, is equally real. The Streaming Media Festival offers a platform where these artistic and tactical initiatives can reposition themselves, present and share their excellent work, and meet and exchange with the people who shape the future development of streaming media, both in the main-stream as well as at the edge.
Right now, streaming media is at an interesting crossroads. The tools, which are being utilised by streaming media producers in the cultural and commercial fields are almost the same. The main differentiating factor between these two groups is the content, and the way the content is presented. This is a new phenomenon.
This is the perfect moment for streaming activists to gather. The moment to confront the fact that although these developments represent great creative promise they also threaten to destroy everything that gave the net a natural bias towards principles of participation, collaboration and distributed authorship. The internet as a space for new forms of freedom, a zone in which radical cultural forms could emerge from new social processes could be overwhelmed by the production and consumption of spectacle. The emancipatory potential of the internet is in danger of being snuffed out by being transformed into a classical broadcast medium, neatly dividing producers and consumers.
Only two years ago cultural and artistic groups such as Xchange experimented with the medium and were well in advance of industry (at this time there were not many commercial streaming media enterprises apart form those creating player and encoding tools). Developments such as the Radio Internationale Stadt's content database "Orang", Heath Buntings World Service, Interface Pirate Radio, and 'self.e x t r a c t i n g.radio' by r a d i o q u a l i a were exciting technical and conceptual innovations of the technology.
Recently, however, we have experienced a very sudden change - mp3 is now the most widely searched term in search engines, replacing 'sex' for the first time in the modern public history of the Internet. This curious fact heralds a new era of public interest in streaming media. Additionally, there has been an increase in sophistication of streaming media technology, and bandwidth accessibility is growing fast. These circumstances have yielded an unprecedented growth of commercial streaming media enterprises and their propriety innovations.
Unfortunately the cultural and artistic communities have not continued their initial rapid development, and we are quickly seeing these important initiators and innovators, who were once leaders in this field, being left behind by main-stream developments in the media-industry. As actors in this field and organisers of this festival we feel that this is not a necessary course of development. We rather see a an increased urgency, and a wider window of opportunity for artistic and critical exploration than ever before. The festival wishes to create an innovative platform for that. <<<
Has the festival offered a platform for continued innovation outside the framework of the main-stream media industry and its practices? Is there a new impulse and drive to engage in a new stage of development of artistic and tactical streaming media practices?
I think it is simply to early to tell, but it is not impossible to make some critical assertions:
If we (as organisers and participants) sit back now and say, "well that was a wonderful festival", a nice meeting and rubbing of minds, and wait for the crystals to start sparkle in the light after this initial collision, surely nothing much will happen.
Instead I would propose to capitalise on some of the ideas and suggestions put forward in the festival, to create working structures that all these initiatives can somehow benefit from. Let me just mention a few:
- The open streaming alliance, is an idea that was initiated at the festival, but partly did not lift of because of various deeply domestic and practical reasons. There is an initiative underway to work on the network of shared streaming media server resources, a network that could develop into a world-wide facilitator of artistic and tactical streaming media projects. This is an idea that needs to be pushed with great determination.
- Organising content and dealing with the vast amounts of information that are continuously being produced by all the artistic and tactical streamers present at the festival is increasingly difficult. Everybody agrees that databases enable content management at a level where the human operator alone cannot cope anymore. Open source development of such database driven content management systems is an issue of greatest urgency, not just for the streaming scene, but for any type of independent media culture.
Projects such as OMA (Open Meta Archive) and MMBase should be critically evaluated and opened to the wider domain of independent media culture, because they can provide invaluable tools for the future.
- The cross-over terrain between club culture and media culture has become ever more relevant with the emergence of streaming media. Initiatives such as klubradio.de from Berlin have started to think about this hybrid type of cross-fertilisation, and even about hybrid financial models, cross breeding club & dance culture and independent media.
- The Indymedia network has proven to be a highly relevant and vital model. The fact that the idea of creating an alternative media outlet through streaming media and the web, for those world-citizens who do not wish to be transported as mindless sheep to the slaughter house of "globalisation", has had such a strong international resonance, speaks for itself. The political and the artistic domain can meet in these initiatives and their networks can blend. It seems essential to push forward a critical discourse and exchange between net.culture and the anti-globalisation movement.
- With net.congestion a breach appeared in the closed front of main-stream media. National newspapers, national broadcasters such as the VPRO, MTV, and others, for the first time seemed unable to ignore streaming culture. There seems to be a value in raising the public profile of these practices to ensure their long-term sustainability, but my personal feeling is that this should be a sovereign and self-conscious gesture. If the drive would appear to fuse with the broadcast environment all that is precious about the current state of streaming cultures may still be lost.
- From this self-conscious point of view it also seems critical to re-evaluate the relationship to the main-stream media and ict industry. The industry needs a critical counter-partner to move ahead, so creative friction is called for.
- Finally, it seems that critical analysis is still largely absent. A discussion has started at this festival, both to identify the distinctive qualities of streaming media and its artistic and tactical appropriation, as well as to contextualise streaming within wider media-analytic, cultural and social/political discourses. This debate needs to find a channel, one that readily does not exist at the moment. nettime's emphasis on the political economy of the net and general net.culture may be to generic for this debate to flourish, while xchange has provided a home mostly for sound arts and artistic ventures into the heart of streaming - this highly specific and invaluable focus should not be lost. So perhaps it is time to start a new forum as an extension of what happened during net.congestion.
In short, there are ideas, beginnings, threads….
Now tune in