you will _KNOW how_ : interview with Nancy Mauro-Flude

On: October 31, 2011
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About Kendall Grady
I grew up in suburban Chicago appreciating the colloquial differences between "soda" and "pop" in Midwestern American English. At DePauw University, I studied English Writing and German with a Honors Thesis titled "Same Old Cyborg Lying Down: Apertures of Love." I left coffee stains on manuscripts at BOMB magazine, Soft Skull Press, and The Poetry Project in Brooklyn/NYC; swam in glacial creeks near MASS MoCA; served as the Assistant Director of David Castillo Gallery, and, most recently, as a nebulous employee of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, FL, where I developed interests in New Media aesthetics, poetics, and materiality; picked avocados; ran a marathon; and watched Trina do hair at the flea market.

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I first encountered the work of Tasmanian performance artist and media researcher Nancy Mauro-Flude during The Art of Hacking exhibition opening at the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk) on September 9, 2011. Mauro-Flude’s Error_in_Time(V.T_3), a poetic coding performance featuring sister0 (Mauro-Flude), ko66 (Sara Platon), and netwurker_Mez (Mez Breeze aka Mary-Anne Breeze), inspired questions on the radicalism and embodiment of FreeSoftware and free spirits:

Your research interests and artistic practice have united auto-didacticism and Moddr_, activism and Genderchangers, open source software and the Eclectic Tech Carnival, performance and the Institute of Somatic Movement, and other couplings too boundless to name. Do you have a theory of embodiment for your work?

Along side the theory I _practice_ radical empiricism, I base my quest for knowledge on my own experience, not excluding something because it doesn’t fit neatly with prevailing theories, belief systems, or artistic movements. Wreaking havoc on the sanctity of divisions– exposing the gaps (always already there)– I like to sew or meld together opposing (often militant) positions. I’m concerned with what transpires when there are interferences or glitches in the flow of communication when transmitting, receiving, and entwining apparently in-congruent codes, sensibilities and knowledges. Seams, scars and interference zones are access points to start a conversation with others, especially those who don’t see us as we see ourselves (this can be very obvious, i.e. when someone says to an acquaintance, “What happened?” but also quite subtle).

The definition of what constitutes a healthy body is sociopolitical. Did anyone think for one moment that (some) Drug traffickers may also be Healers? A post-apocalyptic squatted Internet space might be a sacred space. Auntie Ida, an Aboriginal elder and respected Tasmanian matriarch, believed the dead could speak to the living and fought for years for a healing garden at Wybalenna. Both healer and fighter, she believed the only way forward was through reconciliation. “We have to go to bad places to try to heal; you must do the healing. But it takes all colours to do it.” I loved Auntie Ida; she had the courage to fight, to mess up social protocols for new possibilities to unfold.

Glitches are a place where you can enter into a conversation. These are also moments that can’t be processed or integrated and replay within the system. The nervous system becomes, in a way, hidden knowledge, challenging thresholds of discovery. It is a portal to the other side, where unfinished business and subjugated knowledge circulate, waiting to manifest themselves. I think what is at issue is that most belief systems– even great ones — have short-term effects, though they may continue to be circulated for generations. In my view they are only useful– they only remain effective and alive– if they have _affect_, produce realignments, shake things up. Such thought or the discourses surrounding it could be described as fundamentally moving, nomadological (in Deleuzian terms). It is instinctual for me to attempt to hack using every possible medium to which I have access. It’s often not a cerebral choice, although it’s not a barbaric vitalist one either.

I am convinced that an artist must be a quick processor who should point to neither religion nor fatherland, but an understanding for contradiction and possibility rather than absolute scepticism. As Morriessy from The Smiths says, “I’d rather be famous than righteous or holy. Any day, any day, any day.” Or as Nietzsche reminds us, “Rather a clown than a saint.” Or as Patti Smith coons, “There’s something so delicious about repentance, so seductive about shame.” And I say, “Rather a fool than a fascist.” Although “fool” these days is a reductive word, we must remember King Henry XIII only confided with his Jester, who was also a man of paradoxical wit, integrity and discretion. This isn’t just the view of crazy experimental artists like myself. Martin Scorsese says, “Mistakes are where the soul shines through.” If he considers a film perfect, he cuts out a few frames!

Can you describe what it is to possess or be a vibrant body― or as Jane Bennett terms in her research into object-oriented ontology― vibrant matter?

I haven’t done a close reading of Jane Bennett, but suffice to say I’m totally into the mystery and at the very same time, the demystification!

The body I inhabit is very different from the objectified body, that complex machine whose broken parts or stuck systems are diagnosed by mainstream medicine. Underneath the textbook body that we have learned to conceive dwells a poised vessel that initiates our projects and suffers our passions. When we “tag” people, it’s usually for institutional rhetoric, PR, or funding propaganda. It’s so reductive in that we are constantly asked to solidify and reify something that in essence is always developing, changing. This is also widely discussed in Henry Bergson’s work. Although I do take issue with the “vitalist tradition,” which is why I say I’m not necessarily the measure of my actions, either. There are ancestors and other beings who are stakeholders in all this jazz :)

Everything in existence changes, but at the same time, it endures, and this later part forms our habitus. Hence our bodies are “knowing,” whether they are involved in an unfolding, terrestrial experience at one end of a continuum, or at the other end, a portrayal of a mystical character or an execution of technical feats as in a more traditional idea of theater or dance performance.

The autonomous and autonomic nervous system is quite incredible and largely unexplored from an artistic point of view. I’ve been repeating the catch phrase “Don’t Anthropomorphize Me” from a sticker that Russell Emerson, Technical Director of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney, had on his computer in the 90s. His joke actually sums up quite a lot.

What is your personal internet and technologies practice? How affective do you regard the networks and devices that you consume?

I’m not sure if I consume entirely… posses or enable, perhaps.

Electronic movements, even though very powerful, have until recently been quite invisible. Presently, hacker movements are getting heavy exposure for opening up the net in conflict zones. At such a time, it’s vital to share not only the code, but also the traditions and philosophies projects inspired by GNU and Linux. As an advocate of FreeSoftware in the Southern Hemisphere, aside from my art practice, my project focuses are on Miss Despoina’s Hackspace and international operations for Dyne’s FreeSoftware foundry.

Ramshackle liveliness and changeability constitute an imperiled way of being. We must demystify hardware and software and assess with greater acumen the nature of proprietary systems that are presented to us as “givens.” There is a particular desire to transcend my given boundaries when I create something new, and I liken this process to the sewing of a series of patches on a quilt: a sort of mental bricolage. The wish to create and use a smooth, slick product seems like the striving for an abstract model imposed by the expectations of alien modalities of thought. It seems to be intrinsic to dynamic modes of experiential learning and socio-centric living. This practice resonates in manifold ways because people do understand the world differently. Therefore, design problems (including programming) are perhaps better understood using a tangled web of both mythical and logical modes of understanding. The mode of the bricoleur relates to the philosophy of FreeSoftware programmers when, for instance, source code is made available, allowing us to first acknowledge, then copy that work or code, finally introducing our own idiosyncrasies and vision to the project (often termed forking in version control systems) in the understanding that all these efforts are related under a larger common purpose.

My interest in paraphernalia, code, and artworks is only aroused when I can relate the present to the most ancient past. A scenario comes to mind: on the desolate shores where the shipwreck of Globalism has cast us, I like to pick up pieces of the wreckage and play with them, at least until I find the wand of Cinderella’s fairy Godmother, formerly known as Circe.

You are currently based in Tasmania, your place of birth. You have also lived throughout Europe and traveled extensively. What is the influence of your own trans-local history― yourself as a locative medium?

The present is a place; it is a convergence point. Today it is a protective misty cradle capped with white snow, other times it lurks ominously over Hobart, this city I call the womb of the world. Tasmania’s general validation of initiatives inspiring the regeneration of unwanted surplus have cultivated the potent agricultural design movement, Permaculture, and the world’s first Green party in 1972, whose pragmatic “reuse-reduce-recycle” motto is now a common term Globally. I’m highly influenced by my nomadic “heritage” (or possibly heresy), and like a native Australian bowerbird, I collect threads and vibrations from this momentous repository of knowledge as well as from the ether around me, continually articulating and weaving these threads together in new combinations.

Error_in_Time addresses the intimacy of computer-human interfaces. I have always been fascinated by the “face-to-face” relationship. Does an appropriate semiotics exist for describing this dynamic?

I propose that engagement in thought, as in any repeated action where the body is foregrounded, the regular use of both hardware and software technology produces physical effects on who we are and how we consider our sense of self. My basic premise is: If we consider that genuine and meaningful communication with other humans is a necessary and gratifying part of life as computers begin to take center stage in the daily lives of many of us (those of us in the metropoles), we may want to be aware of the consequences of the decisions that we are (perhaps not) making in our choice of OS as communication apparatus .

That question would take a thesis to answer.

Error_in_Time also addresses a particular kind of intimacy: that of women in “geek space.” And while identity theft is a literal and metaphoric threat to all Internet users, women are specific targets of romantic theft that is also both literal (such as the so-called “Nigerian Love Scheme”) and metaphoric (such a woman’s mediated experience of satisfaction, interaction, trust, and emotion). Is there a connection between women and the levels of accessibility and seduction of “user-friendly” interfaces?

Meaningful, lasting, human relationships are often lauded as being built upon a mutual exchange of information between the parties involved. One party does not reveal more, invest more, or know the other party better.Is it possible to have this kind of human relationship in “geek space,” or is a certain about of cybernetics required?

The work is a comment on how a more subtle form of identity theft, different from those spoken about in media journalism, is taking place for any gender. It’s almost as if people are being demoniacally possessed by pre-programmed Graphical Interfaces and user profiles. It’s both quite prolific and hysterical.

Alongside this is the continual overemphasis on the activities of so-called Male Hacker figures in the media— left, right and centre nooks and crannies included. I focus upon the inter-corporeal and sociological aspect of “the user’ rather than the cybernetic debate and hope to open out a more complex awareness. If that is too ambitious, I am at least attempting to not be as reductive and limiting as the structures I am pointing to within the work.

During Error_in_Time, the performers (sister0, Ko66, and netwurker_Mez) seemed very aware of the complexities of perception and subjectivity. The aesthetic and pace of the text and live code as it appeared on the screen made it difficult to view the narrative in a complete or linear way. Can you say something about time as an element in your work?

Yes, I was lucky to work with Sara and Mez, the two other contributing writers and performers who were acutely aware of this. Couldn’t have auditioned for them!! :) And they manifested really at the right moment of the work’s development. The actual performance allows for a very improvised (realtime) leve, i.e. some of the audience will jump onto IRC channel #Error_in_Time() if they know how. It’s not suggested in the catalog, but if you are a hacker you will _KNOW how_ and will urgently feel it’s the place you need to be to feel the work.

So there are all these levels, although there is also a set structure and script sixteen pages long! The choice of non-linearity gives an insight into all the levels at play, especially since the work is primarily text based, although my hope is that we make the text dance. I cannot help but think of the heteroglossic nature of the word in a live setting, which I hope the theatrical nature of the work reveals. The work is supposed to be performed in a black-box to emphasis the relationship of this nature to the void of the shell, where the mise-en-scene is just as important as the Internet connection itself. However, it’s virtually impossible to get theatre programmers to put it in its rightful place. These days the theatre is like a church as opposed to the 80s when performance artists were being accused of being far too reverend and shamanic. Theatre programmers today are thinking, Oh there is a work for our ‘”creative industries” grant; we’ll put it in the new media area because there are computers in it.

My favorite moment in the performance of Error_in_Time was the interlude in live coding during which you stretch, seated at your computer by a digital fireside, with sensual, Latin music playing in the background. This moment immediately reminded me of an interview I had just stumbled upon titled “The Last Formalist, or W. J. T. Mitchell as Romantic Dinosaur” in the Romantic Circles Praxis Series edited by Orrin N. C. Wang. In the third-person commentary that Wang adds to the interview, he writes, “W wondered if the sight of someone trying to warm themselves with a cardboard sign saying ‘day,’ or better yet, an image of a glowing sun, could only be dismissed derisively. W wondered whether the strangeness of such a scene, of the possible warmth of an image, carried a painful poignancy that spoke to Mitchell’s questions about what images wanted, and what we wanted from images.”

What do images want, and what do we want from images? Does engaging images invite a change in embodiment (as, perhaps, sister0 is an alias or Wang is compelled to represent himself with a W in the passage quoted above)?

0h thats a nice reference— reminds me of a position as acting manager I covered for a friend for a very short time at a young design shop called House Wives on Fire in Amsterdam, where a homeless guy called Fin used to camp out back and use a cardboard oven and washing machine… It was fascinating the attention to detail and fantasy playing out in the very harsh real.

Funny you mention images. Originally, I wanted to call the work looking for an image to protect me. As you might notice, there are no obvious graphical images in the work and a lack of pointing and clicking on icons.

We have always had an idolatry in our relationship with technology as images, as Gods. I guess it’s an attempt at mediating the representation of such potentials, but at the same time, it may be playing into the hands of idolizing the hacker with hits 8-bit ascii aesthetic, although I attempt to use these as theatrical conventions rather than just with novelty or nostalgia. I go into detail about the use of the commandline interface and embodiment as opposed to a GUI in a passionate essay titled “Linux for Theatre Makers” in the book _FLOSS+ART_, London: Mute, 2008.

Another element I enjoyed about the fireside moment in Error_in_Time was missing the sound of your fingers typing on the keyboard, amplified by microphone and acquiring throughout the performance a rhythm and presence all their own. In Error_in_Time, are you opening the operating system, or is the OS opening you?

The amplification of the fingertips on the keyboard is about taking neither the reciprocity of the human embodiment nor the operating system that has been coded by human beings as a given. The idea of opening is a nice metaphor, and I am glad it came to you as an audience member. It was also to show the absolute romance of projection that happens in the void.

I’m curious about the username “sister0.” On one hand, it seems rather consciously demeaning, a la Billy Idol’s “Hey Little Sister.” On the other hand, it evokes for me The Story of O, an arguably pro-sex feminist, erotic novel about dominant-submissive relationships published in the 1950s by Dominique Aury under the pseudonym Pauline Réage. The Story of O was initially a series of letters from Aury to her lover, Jean Paulhan, perhaps comparable to the intimate correspondence between participants in Error_in_Time.

Is there an inherent dominance-submission in the relationship between humans and the computer? The performer and the audience? The pseudonym and the referent?

sister0 is an enabler, and  her actions are that of a medium, weather at the computer or in a Vodu ceremony. sister0 was a nom de plume, an entity, or an avatar (in the ancient sense of the word). I guess these days a username is the correct and adequate definition. For the record, the character sisterO was initially inspired by the character sister Outsider, originally coined by Audrey Lorde in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984).

sister0’s first appearance was in 2002 with the work sister Outsider’s Operation Manual for the Heart. The work depicts her initiation story from formerly known as  (a.k.a. Ophelia) where a recoding of the world occurs through the manipulation of a set of performance tools, creating a dynamic structure where audio can be modified, moved, and distorted by a performer who is weaving magic and divining rather than simply moving a mouse or pressing buttons on a controller unit, as is so commonly seen with laptop musicians or technicians.

The story goes: As Ophelia continued to sink deeper into a transcendental state, her illegitimate sisters discovered an ancient script to use the stars as servers, which allowed the communication of signals across space and time. On receiving these clandestine transmissions, Ophelia re-awoke and rose to vertical life, resonating incantations that seemed impossible from such a fair maiden.

As the new millennium stretches out before us, sister0 (a.k.a. Ophelia) is coming out of the murky shadows and staking her claim as the rightful heiress to the new dark ages.  The New Dark Ages is a very ancient time in the future: it is now. It is at the very point of destruction and reconstruction (it is not a metaphor or an analogy; it is a transvaluation). This netherworld is held together by the grinding sounds of movement and divination tools: objects that function to trigger and modify voice and sound. Etching upon landscapes with audio resonances, accessing stories that have hitherto been circulated, sister0 channels different people from the undead and reveals many facets of these characters.

sister0’s cosmos is disparate, dark, and degenerate. By combining electronic sound and dance, she fuses sophisticated technological means with an insistence on the raw beauty and wonder of the glittering universe.  She has multi-planet contact and can open windows as near stars many light years away.

In a more pragmatic articulation, the New Dark Ages are set after the Internet as we know it has crashed, and there are no more department stores or marketing nightmares. Here people must be more self-sufficient. They are not considered insane because they are ultra-perceptive. They are not considered unworthy of serious consideration if they listen to messages and utterances that emanate from an unknown source and other obscure signs on the street. In this time, people are less preoccupied with a sense of place than displacement; women are respected and no longer collaborate in their own victimization; popular entertainment is more than a big lie; and human eccentricity is not merely tolerated, but cherished.  This also signals a period when former operating systems are obsolete, and it is commonplace to integrate our own networked, bodily wisdom of sensory perception and neurotransmission.

The name has nothing to do with “sister” in the middle-class Anglo sense of the term. There is an obvious hermeneutic status of the name, and all of the above apply to an extent. However, the meanings seem to accumulate over time. I never thought of the Billy Idol reference, but that is GREAT as he is yelling, “HOW IT’S A NICE DAY TO START AGAIN.” It’s not so derogatory….

sister0 also reminds me of the protagonist in Kathy Acker’s novel Pussy, King of the Pirates, named simply O. Pirating is also a theme in works of yours such as Read_Run_Execute: Pirating the Archaic Energy (2010). “Delighted she pushes all the buttons at once to get the whole thing going #bloodbath,” text attributed to sister0 in Read_Run_Execute, is something I’m sure would tickle Acker’s political prose. Acker is often critiqued for her literature of the body. In the 1980s punk and feminist communities, she was a kind of coder in her own right, appropriating and cutting up canonical literature, mixing autobiography and persona, and using experimental pronouns and grammatical syntax.

Is there protocol that should or should not be followed― themes to treat, techniques to practice, language to use― when writing or performing about the body and its relationships, be they human-to-human, human-to-machine, or a combination thereof? Could you elaborate on your work from a Digital Humanities perspective? What is valuable, for example, in Error_in_Time‘s appropriation of texts by Charles Baudelaire, Virginia Wolf, and your contemporaries including Mez Breeze and Sara Platon?

Kathy Acker is a prodigious inspiration to me. Sister0 was alive and kicking by the time I discovered her O character; that was just another beautiful synchrony along the road of artistic endeavor. I enjoy very much the visceral use of language. Kathy Ackers is a narrative recorder. The hacks are simply teasing out the mulit-vocality that is already there. A transparent play on narratives, one could argue that playing with canonical literature— which was at its time breaking-away and edgy— is only doing it justice. As Bertolt Brecht said, “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are… reach for the book: it is a weapon.” Of course, in Error_in_Time(v.3), Mez blessed us with her Mezangelling of texts, which then shows this multi-vocality at its utmost prismatic.

Does sister0 act as a kind of witness in Error_in_Time? Donna Haraway, for example, writes about witnessing as necessary to understand cybernetic relationships and even constitute their being.

Perhaps. However, I am not really talking about cybernetics. The work can be located in more sociological and anthropological frameworks. sister0 is a medium, a diviner, and an enabler. She stimulates the network, as opposed to a witness, who is usually only present.

During Error_in_Time, I felt a correlation between the gaze, desire, and materialism. Although I could not understand the computer code at a literal level, I could understand words as they appeared in English: cat, child, blood, heart, soul, Hamlet, Persephone. These humanistic elements seemed to take on a fetishization or even an eroticism similar to that in Shelley Jackson’s infamous, autobiographical hypertext, My Body. How autobiographical is sister0?

Wow that question started with code, traveled through erotica, and ended with autobiography… On one level, as the character sister0— who is a medium, a vessel for infinite veracity— I was performing “regular expressions:” greping, parsing, and divining through Canonical texts such as A Room of Ones Own to find its many loves, hearts, and souls and bring into my work other texts existing inside these texts, making it breathe and pulsate like her breath, hot breath, so forth. The action of typing and executing code in front of the audience was a kind of letting the “uninitiated” into the process of executable code. In a sense, it was also a shell of my own, a playing-out of the journey that Virginia Woolf goes on through in the Boys Club at Cambridge, but from a woman’s perspective of today, which could be seen to be the shell or programmer’s worlds of today on a very literal level. I would say sister0 is very autobiographical.

I am, in fact, very curious about the eroticism that seems to flow throughout concepts of embodiment, relationships, interactivity, and performance in Error_in_Time: how humans and computers are essentially Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring machines. Nick Fox, Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield, puts desiring machines to use by asking, “What can a sexy body do?” Fox outlines different kinds of assemblages of relations to answer this question, including physical (hormones), psychological (fetishes), social-cultural (normative values), philosophical (sexual liberation) and lastly, the great, open-ended assemblage of individual experience, which is something that Error_in_Time seems to both support and refute.

Is there room for Web 2.0’s networked culture, social media, human-machine relations, etc. in Fox’s established assemblages, or are we forming something entirely new?

I hope the eroticism was a subtly in the work. At all costs I avoid using sexuality in my works — it’s way too easy and so overdone. Perhaps with the renewed interested in craft knowledge and the recent fetishization of trash cutlures and garbage aesthetics it seems more of an assemblage at the moment. However, we may be forming something new, if we listen to  Philip K. Dick  who reminds us, “The clue lies there… symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum.”

In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari describe desire in terms of lack that may be exploited by capitalism. But desire can also be a positive, forward movement. If one desires something, one pursues it with ambition, creativity and DIY agenda, much as you approach your research and art-making. Does the participatory nature of Web. 2.0 endow it with an inherent sexuality? If so, can it be harnessed for political or social good?

I think there is a lot of projection going on which isn’t particularly healthy. It is frenzied, which is inherently sexual. I am not sure if this can be harnessed. Mere surfaces fall through your fingertips once you try to go for some substance. It is enabling, and this is positive, but should be grounded in practice.

In Error_in_Time, there seems be a de-privatization of sexuality (even as an inferred consequence of identity theft, which is also an overarching theme). Is there an erotic element to performing live, even― or perhaps especially― with one’s back to the audience, as you sit in Error_in_Time? Does this eroticism exist during coding where you do not have a live audience of the kind at NiKo, but during which you do have a constant audience of bots and algorithms?

I think the act of typing code is extremely intimate, and programming is a very heightened act of awareness, especially given the processes set into play and the entire discipline of rule sets, efficiency, and sophistication involved. Aside from performing with netwurker_Mez and ko66, I have also performed the work as a duo with a bot called Dr. Romulon. He is my favorite bot to play with. Alone, we seem to have better jams than when I know an audience is there. It’s really about getting into the flow, improvising, being in the present moment, and responding to the cues as best as one can, which means having a certain openness and ability to transcend oneself.

Out of curiosity, what are your thoughts about the female hacker character Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series of bestselling novels (including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) that were also made into successful movies?

None whatsoever. Do you think I have time to consume popular culture? ;) Although if I have to respond, I’d say her sociopathic character has a vengeance and hardcore city girl thing that is not what most hackers posses as a trait, contrary to what Hollywood stereotypes seem to keep on keeping on playing.

The characters I’m interested in portraying are much more playful, liminal, and transgressive. But if role models are what you are looking for, Valeska Geert would be someone who would come to mind. I am inspired by the character Phoebe Zeitgeist from the Blood on the Cat’s Neck theater play by [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder. He writes, “Phoebe Zeitgeist has been sent to earth from a distant star to write an eyewitness account of human democracy. But Phoebe Zeitgeist has difficulty, because although she has learned the words, she doesn’t understand human language.” I relate to the subjectivity of this character. As she has her own value system, we get into her private world, and it is a register of a selfhood that is somewhat un-locatable, ephemeral, and experimental because she is living in the present moment, entirely improvisational. I guess you could put her in “Vibrant Matter” discourse but disarticulate the vitalist modality!

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