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Benjamin Foster, Postulating the Accumulation of Meaning Through the Constantly Becoming Constellation of Signs (detail), 2011 Benjamin Foster, Postulating the Accumulation of Meaning Through the Constantly Becoming Constellation of Signs (detail), 2011
ALL WRITING BEGINS SOMEWHERE. ONCE UPON A TIME. LET US GO THEN YOU AND I. LET ME TELL YOU A STORY. THE STORY I WANT TO TELL HERE, WHICH IS A STORY ABOUT WRITING TODAY, BEGINS WITH A QUALIFICATION. IN THE AGE OF PHYSICAL PRESENCE IT USED TO GO SOMETHING LIKE THIS: “BEFORE I START I HAVE TO DECLARE A CONFLICT OF INTEREST.” AS AN INVITED PANELLIST TO THE CTRL-Z SYMPOSIUM I AM FACED WITH AN OLD SCHOOL NECESSITY OF HAVING TO FESS UP THAT I WAS A PART OF THE EVENT I AM WRITING ABOUT AS A REVIEWER/COMMENTATOR (I MUST DECLARE MY SPEAKING POSITION IN 80S ARGOT).

Nothing controversial there. However in the age of that increasingly anachronistic chimera ‘new media,’ I must foreground my ‘embedded-ness.’ The Gulf Wars weren’t the first military conflicts to physically place journalists on the ground amongst the combat, however they did give the lexicon of media theory a new label for journos who plied their trade under precarious and unstable conditions of mobility.

How do writers work under these rapidly moving and changing conditions, these vectors of marks? This was the provocation thrown down to participants by symposium convenors Niall Lucy and Robert Briggs from Curtin University’s Centre for Culture & Technology: “In the age of personal computers, mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter, word, Photoshop, SMS, email and e-publishing… who—or what—is a writer?” The identity of the writer and of writing under such proliferating and increasingly atomised channels of distribution was the ostensible theme of Ctrl-Z and it was complemented by a prudently curated selection of artworks, video and ephemera of the scribbler’s craft. Perth-based artist Benjamin Forster’s mixed media installation The Accumulation of Sediment, presented a series of striking monochrome generative images, each unique and eminently collectible. It explores the relations between text and writing, hand drawing and digital imaging and the ways in which they “come to claim,” as Lucy and Briggs note in their catalogue essay, “priority over subjects and objects. Not textual representations of the world, but textual markings as world. Signs as signage—orienting rather than communicating, receding into a background hum rather than interrupting a prior silence.”

Speaking on the theme of moral panics in the media about the impact of new media, Catharine Lumby, via Skype, regrettably fell victim to that curse of all writing, but particularly electronically mediated writing—noise. Despite the good efforts of symposium organisers to resolve the “technical difficulties,” Lumby’s presentation resembled a performance art piece inspired by Francis Bacon and Charles Dodge (Suvendi Perera, Robert Briggs and Tama Leaver fared better by virtue of not being virtual). While this distortion was clearly a technical artefact, an unwanted “ambiviolence” (as Stephen Heath would have it), it was in its own weird way a didactic lesson: while forever letting us down (especially at conferences devoted to new media), new media reveals more about writing than we may think.

Gregory L Ulmer’s pre-recorded Skype talk from Florida was much more revealing than Lumby’s tessellated and fragmented live feed that mediated presence, no matter how convincing and live it may seem, is always a delay, an act of writing. Apart from discoursing in his charismatic way about the changing paradigms of literacy and electracy (of which his asynchronous video presence was a cipher), Ulmer demonstrated with panache that when it comes to eating a sandwich as a punch-line, nobody does it better.

The new “affordances” of media streams such as Twitter, Digg, Facebook and blogs, which make Duchampian writers of us all, were not simply accepted as utopian givens on the day, but subjected to lively critique by panellists and Symposium attendees alike. Indeed Mark Amerika’s numerous invocations to Marcel Duchamp’s famous 1957 lecture “The Creative Act” gestured to the often forgotten relations between an artist, an artist’s work and the spectator. As a “mediumistic being”, the artist is largely defined as such by the spectator, not out of any intrinsic qualities of artist-ness (to dramatise the point Amerika performed a remix of Duchamp’s text from his hybrid remixthebook project, which seemed a fitting talisman for the relational, socially-networked encounters with writers and writing, artists and art that were up for grabs on the day, see page 22). But when the spark of being a writer fades, when the work of writing in any and in-between all media is confused with the instant cred of #I’m being a writer today (You and 1 million other people like this!), such media merely carry the inconsequential weight of pixels, letters, marks on a white field. This is why Amerika’s passionate advocacy of exploring the capacity of evolving publishing platforms for the age of electracy (of which his Alt-X Press initiative in 1993 is but one), was a timely reminder that this work continues apace. Everyone may not be a writer, but may become one.

A final word on incarceration, death and ghosts. The venue for Ctrl-Z is reputedly the most haunted building in the Southern Hemisphere. I’m told by my hosts that wherever Pentonville-style panoptical prisons were built in the colonies the asylums soon followed. No doubt something to do with the pervasiveness of the gaze, this unforeseen consequence of Jeremy Bentham’s mediated and pervasive form of discipline unwittingly anticipated various histories that would emerge in the 19th century that equated the origins of media with the spectral. Amid the talk among delegates of apparitions, literate or otherwise, said to trouble the halls of the Fremantle Arts Centre, something of this mordant theme did in fact travel West that weekend. Or perhaps it was already there. Media theorist Friedrich Kittler died in Berlin the previous month. His purported last words, “Alle apparate auschalten,” (All Instruments off!) gesture to the indelible, taken for granted dependence of the psyche on technology in the age of the post-human that he explored in his writings.

When the passion for inventing new modes of writing and the means of distributing it wanes, it will indeed be time to switch off all apparatuses.


Ctrl-Z is conceived as an ongoing series of symposia to be held in Australia and overseas. Its proceedings, along with other special issues devoted to new media philosophy, will be published in the Ctrl-Z Journal.

Ctrl-Z Symposium, Writing in the Age of New Media, presented by the Centre for Culture & Technology, Curtin University & Fremantle Arts Centre, Nov 19, 2011

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 25

© Darren Tofts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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