Tigertxt – interview with Rachel Baker

MF: you recently completed ‘Tigertxt’ a project working
with Amber Nectar, the football fanzine of Hull City to
produce a temporary SMS network for the zine and for the
fans of the club. What kind of situation was Hull City in
when the project started, how did the connection with Amber
Nectar come about?

RB: I’m just going to start with a bit of context. The football industry in the UK became a point of fascination for me for several reasons – it is a massively important motor for the broadcasting industry and hence the Internet industry. It drives huge markets for each, predicated on feeding the passion and identity needs of the football fans. But the Internet has definitly brought some by-product activity along with it. The fans can very quickly form communities and start to self-organise. Corruption runs rife throughout the football clubs and coupled with the fact that the Premiership clubs are hoovering up all the money, the lower division clubs are prone to bankruptcy. This leaves the fans wanting to act, and Internet has helped many of them to form co-ops and independent supporters organisations. This is what happened at Hull City FC, a victim of management corruption and the unfair economy of the football industry.

The project started at the point when Hull City FC had
been ‘rescued’ or bought by Adam Pearson, former commercial
director at Sheffield Utd. That meant I’d missed the boat on
the momentum created by the crisis, when fans didn’t know
wether they would have a football club or not in their city.
I went to couple of Tigers Co-Op meetings with the intention
of documenting the process of fans self-organising. This is
where I met Les Motherby, accidental media spokesperson on
behalf of the fans and editor of Amber Nectar, (Hull City’s
ubiquitous fanzine). My agenda was to get involved in some
local community actions in Hull and the football club
situation provided this but I needed someone to introduce me
to the whole narrative. The idea for the mobile phone
platform was originally intended as a means of developing a
communications system for a specific group of people that
acted as a gateway between other mediums e.g Internet and
print. AmberNectar already covered both of these and they
had a presence that was needed for people to relate to.

MF: Why did the project last for a fixed period of time?
Where there advantages in this?

RB:The project hasn’t finished as a far as I’m concerned …
we still have some SMS credits left and there is still the
possibility of getting some sponsorship for more SMS
credits. There are no advantages in the project being
temporary because the subscribers don’t get a chance to
experiment with it and feel confident to use it for their
own ends.

MF: Within the context of the Tigertxt work another
initiative Twinfan came about, what was this? In what ways
did it work?

RB: Twinfan was set up because I was showing Tigertxt at a
digital arts festival in Maribor, Slovenia and I decided it
would be fun to use the SMS gateway to get Maribor fans
connected with Hull fans. I wanted to attract local Maribor
football fans into the gallery. But it didn’t really work,
probably because there was no real reason for Maribor fans
to be interested in Hull fans, PARTICULARLY when invited to
be in the context of an arts festival. I was just playing
with the notion of football as an international language -
which it definitely is…

MF: How did the project work in relationship to Amber
Nectar and to other media covering the club? What kind of
things did it allow to be said?

RB: Tigertxt allowed for a raw, personal text commentary by
Les at live matches. It also allowed for me to send the odd
STATS text , comparing social statistics gleaned from Hull
City Council’s annual report with Hull City FC stats. It
allowed fans to direct their communication at players. SMS
is obviously limited as a medium for expressing ideas
through language, you only have 160 characters. But football
fans are well able to express their feelings simply and
directly through terrace chants, which can agitate and
affect the state of play very powerfully. But Hull City fans
were not in a very agitational frame of mind when we started
Tigertxt. They’d had enough of provocative opinions about
corruption etc, and just wanted a bit of success on the
field.

Also Amber Nectar saw the project as a ‘service’ for their
subscribers rather than a political or cultural tool.

When I began thinking about this project there were 2
pnenomena that I had decided were significant and I wanted
to converge them.

1)empowerment of the football fans in relation to clubs
2)the mobile phone as a tool for producing localised zine
media .

Evidence for the first phenomena rested on things like the
formation of Tigers Co-Op on the part of fans to rescue Hull
City FC from extinction due to corrupt management of the
Club.

I was impressed at seeing football fan culture mobilising
itself through new media technologies i.e internet and
phone.

However, the football fan is not generally politically
motivated, only specifically (like road hauliers) – they
just want their team to win. They are willing to be
exploited as long as the team succeeds and as long as their
identitification with a community and with the pursuit of
glory, remains intact. They will only get political if the
team consistently fails. (i.e Corrupt management of a
successful team would not be cause for political activism,
its just the norm) For a brief moment Hull city fans were
asking questions about the club and even the local council.
But that moment has passed.

Evidence for the second phenomena rests on the mobile phone
used in drug dealing, co-ordinating activist demonstrations,
etc.

That the mobile phone could work in conjunction with street
publishing media i.e the poster, the flyer, the zine, was an
untested theory. I just instinctively believe that it could
given the right context to do it with – football culture in
Hull, may not be the right context.

However, the financial interests invested in the
technological infrastucture by big TelCo’s mitigates against
the mobile phone being used as a medium for zine publishing
from street to web. Yes, we can cheaply build independent
sms gateway servers for the convergence of web and mobile
phone and this is exciting, but circumnavigating the owners
of cellular infrastructures is just not immediately
possible. Having to bulk-buy text messages is proving
expensive. DIY zine media is not supposed to be expensive.

Mobile phone and football culture both exist within the
TelCo’s industry and the football industry, and the
financial agendas are too huge and overwhelming.

With merchandising, Sky, Cable TV, Interactive TV, Internet
and media rights, football is big business. The football fan
is now viewed as a consumer – they even view themselves as
consumers. (When encountering Tigertxt many fans immediately
asked ‘how much does it cost me?’) Its hardly surprising,
and the heavy commercialisation of football will get even
more extreme with New Media channels looking to further
exploit the passion and brand loyalty of the fan.

In the delivery of information the football fan is
expecting a service wether it be from a fanzine or from
Total Football. The fanzines are beginning see themselves as
a professional service and buy into glossy presentation.
Ultimately their unofficial, critical, independent,
uncensored status is under threat – since the desire to make
it pay, and for club approval, is overwhelming.

The independent fanzine editor of today is the official club
website manager of tomorrow.

My intention for Tigertxt was as a mobile extension to the
Amber Nectar fanzine, with location-based response via SMS
feeding back into the Zine publication. (Mobile media by the
fans for the fans – how trite!)

But this reveals certain idealistic assumptions I made about
fanzines, and fans being pro-actively engaged etc. The
momentum behind Tigers Co-Op has fizzled out. There is no
requirement for ‘situationist’ media intervention of any
kind in Hull since there is no ‘situation’ any more. Hull
City FC is in the play-offs. To believe that fans are
interested in generating their own content through mobile
phone media may be misguided. The ‘service’ model remains
entrenched. They may as well wait for the official club
mobile phone service to arrive.

But also, designing an open, independent, 2 way send/receive
mobile media model seems to be expensive aswell as romantic.
I thought 2500pounds would be enough. Hmm. Amber Nectar
could have published at least 5 issues or more of the
fanzine with that. (As with streaming servers, the Arts
Council may have to recognise the need for providing sms
servers for the independent non-profit sector.)

So what are the implications of going with the service
model and developing Tigertxt as a commercial venture?
Ofcourse I was aware of the entrepreneurial possibilities
when I began and I have no problems with people exploiting
Tigertxt as a commercial venture but that means everybody
must win, including Amber Nectar. And I guess it has to be
done as a proper business proposal.

MF: There’s a transition in work by people connected with
irational and by others towards work that provides what
might be called infrastructure. Programming for particular
groups or uses; establishing setting up contexts in which
other people carry out the ‘expressive’ work normally
expected from those allocated the role of artist. How has
this shift in activity been thought through?

RB: It s been thought through in as much as there is a
desire on the part of Irational artists to find means of
empowering groups rather than an individual artist and that
networking technologies can be used effectively to this end,
and public art institutions will fund this. However, its
always tricky if you are not part of the group in question.
I imposed myself on the football fans in Hull so it didnt
work out so well. I should have been braver, used my
distance and non-integration to challenge them. I used to
dislike the elevation of the Artist as sole proprietor of
expression in public culture. But actually that might not be
a bad system in some cases. There is a general human need
for roles it seems. The artist can act as a provocateur or a
lever to challenge these roles but it will always snap back
superficially to some system that makes sense to everybody.
You be the artist, I’ll be the football fan.

MF: You say that you wanted in some way to get involved in
some community politics in Hull. Why – or more precisely,
in which ways – did you want to do this? You list a number
of ways in which you could be categorically excluded from
the fans. Was this basis for the attraction for some kind
of involvement?

RB: Hull is an ugly, degaded and brutal place to be. Flat and
exposed to cold winds on the North East coast it seems like
a very inhospitable place to settle. Ive never seen such
poor housing and ugly town planning. If I was growing up
there I would be very angry, miserable and psychologically
disturbed. You just know that the place is run by a council
with very little imagination and a lot of corruption. I’m
not surprised Hull has some of the highest crime statistics.
I’m not surprised there is a large Asylum Seeker community
dumped there. I’m not surprised they are regularly
harrassed. I AM surprised there’s not a riot everyday.

There is a tiny art community, mostly generated by the art
college. But I noticed that the art produced there is rarely
‘socially engaged.’ It’s actually very high quality,
formally and conceptually. As if the best reaction to the
poor social state of affairs in Hull is an absurdist and
avant garde one, which I can sympathise with. But it’s an
escape or an avoidance.

The escape for much of the local population in Hull is Hull
City FC. This is essentially a civic concern at the heart of
a community that will collectively and visibly demonstrate
their anger at its potential disappearance but not their
anger at the levels of poverty in the city or the quality of
its housing. To me this is absurd and surreal. And
interesting. The passion for the football club is NOT
manipulated and not misconceived, its very genuine. Its
where all the love goes.

A collective grassroots demonstration of any kind is
attractive to me in a place like Hull. I look at the crowd
in the stadium and I fantasise about the same crowd smashing
up the horrible Princess Quay shopping centre. But all the
energy and aggression is focussed on the game. And I think
its probably better that way. More creative in fact.

MF: What was the relationship with the commissioning
organisations to the project and the wider context of the
institutional framing of the work?

RB: The art college was the sponsor. The University of
Lincoln and Humberside. Actually I was asked to facilitate a
streaming media infrastructure that would available to
students at HTBA but there were many problems to do with
insufficient networks at HTBA and bureaucratic problems at
the college. There was a bizarre moment involving the
posters. These were to be displayed in pubs and directed at
the football fans. But all the institutions involved in
funding or supporting me required a mention on the poster
somewhere. Instead of NTL or NIKE, the football fan was to
be bombarded by logos from Arts Council of England, Hull
Time-based Arts Yorkshire Arts, The Media Centre,
Interactive Solutions, Hull College of ARt and Design. None
of them seemd to realise that these institutional references
would be offputting or unrecognisable to the average
football fan. It was an uncomfortable clash but actually I’m
more willing to go with it. I’d really like to produce a
Hull City football shirt customised with all the above
art institution logos.

MF: The shirt would be well smart! Would a good way round
this, and perhaps a more clear way of understanding the kind
of work you are doing be to say that the posters actually
form an integral part of the work? It’d therefore be
ludicrous to have a sponsor-logo stamped on it

RB: Yes the posters are an integral part of the work, and I wouldnt have
thought it needed spelling out, but maybe it does.

MF: You mention that some of the elements of the project
weren’t taken up in ways that you might have hoped for, or
that the timing or the work maybe didn’t fit with the ways
things were moving with the relationship between the fans
and the club. I wonder, given the rhetoric of community
forming and empowerment that is often found in both talk
about communications technology and ‘socially engaged’ or
‘community’ art, what are the way in which aspects of a
multilayered work which are neither spectacular failures,
nor spectacular successes can be acknowledged in the work
and also talked about and thought through?

RB: Well, we have another season to come and I’m aleady
receiving email from fans wanting to know if Tigertxt is
resuming. Interviews like this one are important for me to
reveal the work and I guess it could be published on the
AMber Nectar website or the paper fanzine. I would like to
leave the community empowerment rhetoric and concentrate on
the existing language of the fans (very male and
uncompromising) and just maybe challenge it slightly at odd
angles.

MF: I was wondering more whether, in the context of the
networks and contacts that you operate in there was enough
space and time given to talking through and learning from
projects in a more collective and possibly recorded way.

RB: Not really, especially if its football-related because in the
context you are referring to there is no real interest in this culture.
I suppose a formal presentation of the project at some point
could happen if I organised it, expecially at HTBA, but I need to resolve a few issues with Amber Nectar before that happens.

MF: But, following that, in what ways do you think texting
allows conventionalised uses of language to be challenged or
played with?

RB: You are working with a limited and simplified use of english. You have to be sensitive to the existing linguistic codes of
the target group i.e the hull city FC fans. Its very specific,
humour is needed, the right references etc.
Thats why Les was doing most of the texting. But I like
the idea of randomly dropping in 2 alien linguistic forms:-
e.g hard social stats and intimate messages.
But this might be too arty and disturbing for the linguistic order
of things and be rejected by the Hull City fan fraternity.
Still, we must all cope with rejection at times I suppose.

MF: I’d like to look at how the project is represented to those not in
it. Obviously the primary focus is on the ‘social sculpture’ the the
communicative dynamic that is opened up. But there’s this other element,
which how the work is then passed on in different circles and contexts.
I’d like to thread this back to firstly, the way the work is related to
the sponsoring institutions, and secondly, how this very lived network
aesthetic that you work with shows itself outside of its immediate enactment.

RB: For the institutions, it’s: Documentation Documentation Documentation
I ‘m really rubbish at this.
I don’t have a good relationship with the camera. But really I needed
to record myself giving out the flyers to queueing fans and
capturing the posters displayed in pubs and street.
I may have to stage it.

MF: For the other part?

RB: Then there’s the archiving of all SMS texts. Which I like a lot,
but I had to suggest this to Interactive Solutions before they
realised it was an obvious thing to do. Publishing the archive on the web
is even more appealing as an artist, but not if you’re a commercial client
which is who Interactive Solutions ainly deal with I suppose.

In mediation and documention, network and process-based art takes
on the form of a narrative, a story, a myth which is very important
to look after and sustain.
But this is hard work and doesn’t get funded properly.