Thinking in the Middle of Things

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In her many-sided theorization of the history of programmability, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun proposes a way of working and reflecting on technology that she calls working in media res – in the middle of things.1 Software cultures, according to Chun are best known through involvement, indeed nowadays, they can hardly be known from the outside. Something that characterizes the work of the Patching Zone is this thinking in the middle of things, but with a twist – that somehow, in everything they do there are many middles to be worked in, worked up and worked out. The Patching Zone thrives in the middles of technologies, knowledge practices, social situations, and in the invigorating tension of invention: what follows is an attempt to map some of these middles by means of a few vignettes.

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A crucial problem that projects like the Patching Zone have to navigate is the way in which currently in the context of the ideological ascendancy of the ‘creative industries’ funding for media projects for ‘excluded’ youth is often seen as something that means more ‘basic’, perhaps less ostensibly glamorous initiatives are deprived of profile and funding.2 This situation is amplified by the problem of stratification of education, which reduces peoples options, contributing to a situation where the gesture of learning to be a DJ or other avatar of the creative industries is seen as more exciting and likely of success than to be a car mechanic. Partly, this problematic tangles with the abrupt divisions of work in Dutch schooling, resulting in the idea that taking a gamble is better than risking a life of menial work.3 This is a difficult policy to sustain en masse, but submission to meniality is unbearable. We are presented with another kind of middle, what Isabelle Stengers and Philippe Pignarre call an ‘infernal alternative’, a set of impossible choices4. Other ways out have to be found, and, in parts, Rotterdam seems to have made itself an useful margin of experiment in ways to go beyond debasement or delusion as the options for its young. Parallel initiatives such as Rotterdam Vakmanstadt with the renewed emphasis on meaningful, multi-layered skill, with a rich sense of the wider ‘ecosophical’ dimensions of life also provide a very useful sense of how this can be done.5
A significant way that the Patching Zone mitigates against being stuck in the regime of impossible choices, is through collaboration with institutions that aim to think through the nature of common institutions and organizations in the digital era. The Culturelokaal research effort, for instance, poses itself the problem of how to imagine the future of institutions such as libraries, youth services, schools. One of the crucial ways of reducing the infernal alternatives people face is by multiplying the number of collective resources and avenues for expression.
Importantly too, the Patching Zone navigates this set of problems by integrating work teams. It sets challenging tasks for postgraduate students working with experts and with interested people from local communities. Thinking in the middle of things also implies working in relation to different paces, kinds and privileges in relation to different forms of knowledge. The question of how opportunities are made and are taken, couples with a need to understand questions of justice. This is something that is too much for any one project to bear, or to solve, but such problems can also be reworked in order that intuitions, structures, ways of speaking may amplify art or design’s imperative to re-imagine the world in multiple directions.

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The streets of Rotterdam, Gouda, Dordrecht are paved upon beaches carried back in from the coast and spread under cobbles and slabs. This something that gives Dutch towns and cities something of the ineffable air of a picnic. Such a mildly festive atmosphere maybe not entirely obvious, and is sometimes only palpable with a degree of effort, but there is a certain sense amongst the toes of the Netherlands that they may almost perceive themselves to nearing the verge of liking to slip off their shoes and have a wriggle on the beach. This happy atmosphere is occasionally also visible in the vivacity of the faces breathing in the fresh winds rushing in off the North Sea. Connecting this endless supply of oxygen to the population of covertly dancing toes are the statuesque bodies of the Dutch, a people whom, at least since Mondriaan’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, know, with uncannily intimate brilliance, how to dance to a grid. It is entirely fitting therefore that the dance moves set up by the Patching Zone’s Go For It! project establish a means of linking this preternatural talent in a space that is at once both beach and grid, the pavements of Rotterdam Zuid. This project exemplifies thinking in the middle of things in a different way, it loads unexpected circuitry into the street, turning a patch of ground into something that elicits a new liveliness. The city becomes a site for interactive geometries to weave themselves and lets the beach trickle through the paving slabs at a slight faster rate than usual.

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One of the traditions in design that the Patching Zone resonates with is Participatory Design.6 This current of work arose through the need to incorporate users of objects, buildings, places and systems into the processes of their commission and design at a fundamental level. In this way, the objects and processes that are introduced cleave more keenly to the requirements of the job that they do. But participation is not simply an efficient way of generating requirements specifications, it is a way of thinking through design problems from inside the situation where they arise and in which they develop. It also requires a process of learning, and to a large degree embeds learning in to the systems it yields.
Designers need to learn methods to draw out insights, observations, experiences from users. Users of systems need to learn to both step back from what they are used to in order to reflect upon it, but they also to step into their habits, their usual work-arounds in order to reflexively think through their importance. As such, participation generates impulses towards a recognition of the sites it operates in as sites of learning coupled with judgement and decisions. When things work well, such impulses proliferate out, setting up resonances with other scales and locations of life, in which the everyday, expertise, and processes of rethinking and imagination can be brought together.
This is when it works however, participation can also simply be a plug-in for defunct planning processes. It can find itself overloaded with problems generated by other domains, deep level problems that cannot readily be resolved by a phase of involvement or consultation.7 At its best, the Patching Zone works in the thick of this set of problems, not by dodging them or black-boxing them, as beyond the possibility of timescale or budgetary reality but as something that runs through all work. Moreover, the way it does so is through by recognizing the partiality of all knowledges, that in proceses of participatory design, everyones’ knowledge is incomplete, and in the process of atrophy or growth. The development of media systems is a particularly interesting context in which to pose these questions since they are both intimate and scalable, having implications that are both personal and operating at levels at which more generalisable speculations or conclusions can be made.

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A further way in which the Patching Zone plunges into the middle of things therefore is to work with non-traditional clients, non-traditional or ‘unfinished’ experts, using non-traditional working methods in under-valued sites. It is, given this degree of compositional disequilibrium, somewhat unlikely that anything approaching an immediately easy life is produced. Working through the problem of generating a design or a process, finding the right way of going about things whilst keeping everyone on board can be frustrating. One way of responding is to react by people keeping their heads down, focusing on their technical limits, and functioning well within the skill-base. That makes sense, it makes you reliable and interpretable to others, builds your skills, but it may mean a project gets a bit stuck in cases where the professional domain needs to expand. How is it possible to stay focused and still be open-minded?
A slightly different way of doing things is exemplified by the Re-X project in Voorstraat in Dordrecht. Much of the work here is concerned with the inter-relation of informal city networks with low-key social movements such as guerrilla gardening, and the renewal of older ones such as tinkering and old school locative media habits such as talking to your neighbours. This project inhabits many middles, of ecology, reverse gentrification, and the media practices it encourages.8

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Peoples’ lives are complicated, they are always in the middle of things, too busy to be interrupted, finding it difficult to really focus. It’s necessary therefore that projects work also with things that aren’t quite so distractable, the expressive richness of everyday bits and bobs, a plant that can push its way up out of the ground without too many meetings to plan the process, a way of cobbling together designs from preexisting code and components. Thank god, in fact, that some work has gone on before.
The “Process Patching” technique of the Patching Zone suggests a means of understanding the multi-layered nature of work in electronic art, a space composed of a matrix of influences, and recognizes that such work is made by being in the middle of development. 9 Skills, ideas and habits such as those of programmers, engineers, circuit benders, artists, researchers, and others align in different ways to yield particular projects. Long duration practices and high level skills mix with buzzwords and the anaesthetic stupor of policy documents, momentary glimpses of opportunity, equipment, grant wrangling, schmoozing, mixing in turn with enthusiasm, street knowledge and the energies yielded by learning something new.
But thinking in the middle of things also means that the obdurance and activity of stuff: software, tables, buildings, books, addresses, plant pots, mesh networks, window cleaning cloths, the algorithmic richness of behaviour of wireless protocols,10 add themselves to the mix. Thinking with things, what they can do, what they resist, and what happens when they break, also means to become aware of the subtle affordances and sympathetic liveliness of artifacts. This is something that has resonance both in terms of the everyday, but also in terms of the way in which computing and network technology is reworked, drawing it out of its boxes and into the thick of things. On the Re-X site, Kristina Andersen, blogs about a video by artist Koki Tanaka which minimally tweaks domestic objects into a new kind of insouciance simply by the minimal effort of a tender attention to detail. 11 She also proposes what she calls naïve electronics, an intuitive rather than logically driven approach to the generation of off-grid interactive artifacts that fuels itself on curiosity as much as the flow of electrons. Here the ability of circuits, sensors and many different kinds of current to teach us how to work with them in playful ways is what counts. Such attentiveness in the middle of things creates a context in which things are less mute, generating possibilities for many kinds of middle to find their edge.

Notes

1 Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2010
2 Angela McRobbie, ‘Reflections on Precarious Work in the Cultural Sector’, in, B. Lange et al, eds., Governance der Kreativwirtschaft, Transcript Verlag Bielfeld (2009)
3 Whilst there are many impressive aspects to education in The Netherlands, one of which is the significant degree of freedom for schools to generate their own educational practices, which, in the larger cities makes for the possibility of a real sense of education as being a collective intellectual project, by the time a child enters secondary education there is a strong set of stratifications taking place, with schools aimed at producing populations for various occupational kinds. This is in turn reinforced in higher education, with quite stark differences between the hogheschool (or polytechnic) and universities, re-enforcing and perpetuating social divisions.
4 Isabelle Stengers and Philippe Pignarre, Capitalist Sorcery, trans. Andrew Goffey, Continuum, London 2011
5 See, Rotterdam Vakmanstad, publiek onderzoek 2006-2008, Air Foundation, Rotterdam 2008, downloadable from http://www.henkoosterling.nl/rtd-vakmanstad.html/ and, Henk Oosterling, Woorden als Daden, Rotterdam Vakmanstad/Skillcity 2007-2009, Jap Sam Books, Heijningen, 2010
6 There is an extensive bibliography on the field, but see, G. Bjerknes, P. Ehn, & M. Kyng, eds., Computers and democracy: A Scandinavian challenge, Avebury Press, Aldershot, 1987
7 Javier Lezaun and Linda Soneryd (2007) ‘Consulting Citizens: Technologies of Elicitation and the Mobility of Publics’ with Linda Soneryd, Public Understanding of Science 16 (3): 279-297
8 It is also open all the time – very much an affirmation of living in the thick of it. This may mean that a certain amount of energy for the project is drained by coping with life in the building, just keeping the place going while getting on with life may make things introverted at times. How can a project maintain a public openness whilst carrying out occasionally rather tricky technical development work?
9 See, Anne Nigten, Process Patching, at http://www.processpatching.net/
10 For more on wireless protocols, see, Adrian Mackenzie, “Intensive movement in wireless digital signal processing: from calculation to envelopment”, Environment and Planning A, 2009, vol.41, pp.1294-1308
11, http://rx.pr0be.info/node/76