Interact To Survive – Arjen Mulder

Posted in MediaArt, Society and Technology, Theory by tpdr on March 2, 2009

This post is based on an interview with Arjen Mulder by Arie Altena, ‘Interageren om te overleven’, Rekto:Verso, published by Rektoverso vzw, nr.33 Jan-Feb 2009, p.5-7.

First of all I think it is interesting to know that Arjen Mulder is actually a biologist. This means that his texts about interactive art, is influenced by biological phenomena. I guess this is the reason why I have the feeling, when reading his articles, essays, they always feel more ‘media ecological’ than other texts (to read more about Media Ecology, check other article on my blog).


First of all Mulder states that all art is mediated, but that it will/must always try to make something happen ‘outside’ of the medium, especially today, in times that we are surrounded/blinded by media. Art has always been ‘interacting’, and these days it seems like it is surviving because of interactivity.

Interaction is a fact, but ‘Interact or Die!’/’Interact to Survive’ gives it some kind of biological aspect. It is of course true that we, as humans, have always been interacting with our environment in order to survive, what is really new are the images that first appaered on the walls of caves and later became paintings, drawings, photographs, etc. These pictures were stable and established a one-way-communication with the audience. They made it possible to contemplate, something which is difficult when it comes to moving images like film. For Mulder it is hard to analyse a movie while watching, and he finds it easier when he just starts thinking based on the first image, which is some sort of archetypical image from the viewer’s point of view. Afterwards you can add other snapshots of important actions in the story of the film to make connections and complete the analysis. You can, in this situation only contemplate if something happens. Mulder further remarks that the new media don’t seem to force themselves on us as much as older media. They also allow more interaction, an exchange of ‘thoughts’. The consequence for the new type of contemplation, is that you don’t hav to look back anymore but are invited to look forward to see where it is going or how to make you think about how to get there. Instead of telling us that life is hopeless, the new media tell us we can achieve something if we put our mind to it, like reaching the next level in a game or how we can work towards an economic system without waste and/or pollution. We will have to learn about what will go wrong or what will work for the future if we do this or that.


An important question related to this is whether art can be an ‘early warning system’ like Marshall McLuhan stated years ago, even if there will be no more autonomous art, like Mulder said in his book ‘Over Mediathorie'(About Mediatheory, 2004). According to Arjen there is no problem since what McLuhan was talking about is that art can make us think about what media do to us, how they change/affect our thinking, feeling, etc. Mulder says media art today will still show what the new media are doing to us. Artists have always been interested in new technologies, trying to find out what they can do, how they can be used and what effects they have on society. What interactive art tells us now is that we are part of a network, not being separate individuals but connected to other spaces, objects, etc. than our own. This does not mean that we are nomads again or become schizofrenic, but we will have to try and think ‘cradle to cradle’. This means we have to learn how to think back from the future to the now. Only then one can see what is realy possible, it is the same methodology used for durable product development.


‘Copy-paste’ and ‘mash-ups’ are common actions today, ex. on Youtube, Lev Manovich talks about ‘deep remixability’ but doesn’t feel like there is much innovation happening. Mulder thinks Manovich is making the mistake of just looking at the images, which even though there are a lot of clips online aren’t always as old-fashioned/’classic’ as one might think. The interfaces added to this the ‘activation of the screen’ which is already an innovation on its own. According to Mulder Manovich is one of those people who don’t think of ‘interaction’ as an important change, a ‘revolutionary phenomenon’. He remarks that interaction has had an impact as important as the influence of film has had on the future of photography, with this one important difference, it is not about the images anymore, but about the interaction itself. Mulder would even call it the ‘imageless art’, but it poses even more important questions such as: What makes us move, react and decide and where does this takes us? What are the consequences, how will the world respond and what can we learn from this? Conclusion of Mulder is that art is exploring new terrains


According to Mulder YouTube is about editing the overload of clips and picking out the most interesting/popular ones. This leads to a new/own kind of evaluation of teh content, in other words ‘from primetime to primeposition’. Now to answer the question of YouTube being the end of massmedia, we have to say it will/has change/changed the older media (re-mediation). First of all we have to remark that Mulder has some problems with the term ‘massmedia’. TV(in the pre-digital TV era) for ex. is not really a massmedium to him as we watch it on our own, or with a limited amount of people and we can’t talk back to it, or interact with it in any way. Therefor to him a politician giving some kind of lecture or a music group doing a pop concert are more ‘massmedia’ to Mulder than TV or other so called massmedia.


Art should be unstable, ephemeral, no more heavy pieces that will cause problems in the future in relation to conservation and stockage. For Mulder the beauty of the new media arts is that it lets you experience something new until the exhibition is over and the installation is taken apart, removed, … , it becomes ‘ephemeral’, making it more ‘touching’ than solid forms of art. Even though some people think it is all about big machinery, it is more about what happens to the visitor, how the process of affection/emotion is triggered, not purely technical but also not totally human, it is a mix, it is ‘in between’. Mulder adds that he really likes interactive art the is still ‘a little bit of a mess’, almost like some kind of silly game. To illustrate he rcalls this action during Ars Electronica which asked people living in the neighbourhood to create something in their backyard at a certain time on a certain day. At that time the area would be photographed from a helicopter and he really liked the mix of words, typography, drawings made by the locals in their yards. The good thing also accroding to Arjen is that it could have failed and that this would have been experienced as an enormous desillusion.


As a final remark I would like to add that Mulder is suprised that ‘Media Theory’ is still holding on. Some time ago Arjen stated that he expects media theory to be replaced by software theory, since all media are affected by the computer, and thus by software, as a metamedium. It might not be true today yet, but I certainly hasn’t given up hope.


Media Ecology

Posted in Theory by tpdr on February 12, 2009

This post is based on a text I wrote last year for a seminar called ‘Media Ecology – Beyond Cross Media”, under the inspiring guidance of mr. Willem Van Weelden.


‘Media ecology’ (ME) is not easy to define, but still I will make a modest attempt to be as thorough as possible. At the same time I will try to make clear in what way this field of research could still be interesting to me in the future.

Actually I am a real fan of the term ME, because as Matthew Fuller also remarked, both words individually carry a big load. (Matthew Fuller, 2005, Media Ecologies, Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge Press MIT, p.2) The word ‘media’ refers to a whole domain and ‘chain’ of different media types, including the process of ‘remediation’. Instead of eliminating each other, old and new media help one another to find their (new) place in the media landscape. For example the invention of the Internet did not main the end of television or newspapers, but it did force these media to change their way of functioning. The second word, ‘ecology’, refers to the study of organisms, their structures, their mutual relations, their dynamic behaviour, …, in short the study of the systems related to living organisms.

Neil Postman described the term ME in 1971 as the study of how media influence our perception, feelings, values and our chances of survival. He would also describe it sometimes as the study of media as ‘environments’, linking the term immediatly to the actual study of ecology, but in both cases the most important subjects for him were the structure, the content and the impact of the media. In one way or another people are influenced by their media environment, especially when we talk about their behaviour, feelings and actions since the aspects of the media related to their structure and content determine how and what we can communicate or use the media for in a given situation or context. (Wikipedia (open content), n.d., (, 20/04/2008)

In the same period Marshall McLuhan also defined ME. To him it was about studying the way we could connect all different media in a way in which they would help each other instead of eliminiating one another. (Wikipedia (open content), n.d., (, 20/04/2008) When you put it in this way, I am afraid it feels to much like a definition of ‘cross mediality’. This last term also often seems to have become a fancy word, especially used by ‘marketing boys and girls’ trying to impress their client or boss. In this way ‘cross mediality’ just points to much in the direction of ‘trying to get a commercial message to the customer in as many ways as possible’. To me ‘cross mediality’ doesn’t go much further than ‘an excursion along different mediated moments’. ME, in my opinion wants to go beyond this, which is why I prefer a more moralistic and filosophical definition like the one of Postman. At the same time I have to remark that his description needs an update. These days you can hardly separate the structure, content and impact he mentioned, especially with the new technologies we know today. I guess it needed somebody with a more contemporary view, like Matthew Fuller, to redefine this field of research.

According to Neil postman, media also shape the cultural norms and values, the political and social organisation of a certain society. (Jensen Dehaes (jan 2005), ‘Scouting a New Media Ecology’. (, 20/04/2008). In this way he already suggests a certain interdisciplinarity, but it is Fuller who mentions this in a more explicit way by refering, in his book ‘Media Ecologies'(MIT Press, 2005), to thinkers in the domains of literature, cybernetics, filosophy and art. The examples he uses in the same book to underline certain thoughts emphasise this approach by linking ME to phenomena like hacking, revealing the political and social concequences at the same time. As for one of most important remarks, I would have to refer to the connection he makes between ME and the ‘merzbilder’ of Kurt Schwitters. This statement reminds us of the thought that by connecting different components, the outcome of this becomes bigger than the usual outcome of the addition of the components. This phenomenon seems to be the consequence of the poetic potential that can be found within every object, by means of associations or by formal aspects. In this way a ‘conceptual-in-between’, an extra meaning as meta data appears as part of the connections. To Fuller it is there for important to consider the way in which we can become aware of and make use of these new dimension of the objects. (Matthew Fuller, 2005, Media Ecologies, Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge Press MIT, p.1-4) Because of the links he makes between ME and literature this comes very close to what you could call ‘intertextuality’, again refering to what happens in the ‘in-between’, the ‘inetr’ of two contents or two objects.

I would propose that, taking into account the fact that content, structure and impact are almost completely mixed up, we add the interdisciplinary insights of Fuller to the original definition of Neil Postman. ME should in this way pay more attention to the extra meaning that comes with objects by means of their aesthetic or poetic potential and the meta data of their connections. The suggestion of Fuller to examine what happens when certain connections are made, by studying the effect actually making these connections, seems to me to be an important proposal when it comes to a workable methodology.


I am aware of the fact that even after this attempt to define ME, the term still remains sort of ‘slippery’. Part of this is due to my insufficient knowledge of the theories of certain filosophers, quoted by Fuller. On the other hand the field is still very dynamic, which is a positive thing for me, but it makes it hard to give a clearly defined description.

In another text of Matthew Fuller ‘Towards an Ecology of Media Ecology’ I could conclude that we are moving in the direction of more media ecological projects that try to mix media ecologies with natural ecologies. First of all this would mean that we will try to create works that take the ecological consequences of media into account. Secondly, future projects will try to examine ways in which ecological organisms can create a powerful alliance with certain media.

We can be sure that media will be more and more interwoven with our natural/physical environment, and since all these networks we already know today take care of the global connections, it is not so strange that people will look for a this kind of opportunities. I am looking forward to the future and lets keep an eye on this to make sure we discuss new developments in a thorough way.