Counteracting Digital Exclusion

Talk with Zbigniew Sobczuk

When technological advancements begin to dominate us, reducing us to mere consumers, our only defense is to engage in cultural activities that respond to our imagination, intelligence, and spiritual needs

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AGNIESZKA SŁODOWNIK: What is mindware?

ZBIGNIEW SOBCZUK: Mindware is a new category that belongs to the same series of keywords as hardware and software. It is, by design, the missing piece that would explain contemporary tools and the software that runs them, both in terms of the purpose of their existence as well as their conscious and creative applications. We first noticed the need for the mindware component during a three-way discussion on the wide range of experience, knowledge, and attitudes people have when it comes to new technology.

photo: W. Pacewicz  And that was the beginning of the joint concept for the Mindware: Technologies of Dialogue project, created by media researcher Piotr Celiński, producer Marcin Skrzypek, and art curator Zbigniew Sobczuk. We decided to hold an event in Lublin that would embody the idea of mindware through public-space art projects, the analysis of the theoretical underpinnings of mindware, and the creation of what we call the “mindware club”, an open space that welcomes other, often yet-unidentified, forms of activity.

What’s the point of this enlightenment?

It guarantees sustainable social and individual development in response to the changes under way in technology and civilisation. It may also counteract digital exclusion and help people regain a sense of agency, putting them at the center of the issues in their lives. When technological advancements begin to dominate us, reducing us to mere consumers, our only defense is to engage in cultural activities that respond to our imagination, intelligence, and spiritual needs. That lets us adapt to living with new technology and develop a relationship with it. For social groups, families, and individuals, such a creative approach is simply prudent.

Would you describe it as a kind of awareness that helps us take control of the situation?

Lack of control has brought about a wide range of social ills over the past decade and half of the technological revolution. By mindlessly embracing new technology, losing perspective towards it, and not encouraging technological awareness, we’ve allowed it have a deleterious effect on social stability and growth as well as our spiritual balance. We propose that people practice conscious restraint in enjoying the achievements of modern civilisation.

Is the project intended to scare people away from technology?

It’s more of a warning than a scare tactic, but that’s a secondary issue. Our main goal is to define and explain technology through dialogue and action. This particular project, part of the National Cultural Program of Poland’s 2011 EU Presidency, deals with communication and the use of technology in discussing and sharing experience and knowledge, while posing questions on the nature of dialogue and its role in social progress. Our modes of conversation have changed significantly over the past fifteen years or so, and our apparent adaptation to these changes is merely superficial. The first stage of the project deals with the field of communication; this theme is evident in our choice of artists, the issues we’ve chosen to address, and the theoretical topics covered in the discussions and lectures, as well as the promotion and identity of the project, which is designed to be a work in progress, rather than being geared towards a specific result.


Mindware, which took place in Lublin (22 September to 30 October, 2011), explored such concepts as public avatars, the theory of the mass ornament, the ecosystems of new media, inter-species communication technology, online and offline phenomena, GPS art, real-world tagging, remixing and mapping images of cities, communications networks, and hypertext happenings. The project was part of Attention Culture!, the National Cultural Program of the Polish EU Presidency 2011.
Zbigniew Sobczuk is an art project coordinator, art curator, and designer. He was one of three curators of Mindware: Technologies of Dialogue together with Piotr Celiński and Marcin Skrzypek.

What’s the story behind the infodiver?

The term “infodiver” (infonurek) was intended as a joke. The actual name of the project created by the famous artist and programmer Paweł Janicki is “irReal<->irBorg,” but its concept does in fact involve “diving” into reality and reading the invisible space that is technologically superimposed onto the city. Along with a team of young participants, Paweł Janicki created a workshop that aims to effect a qualitative change in how we explain new technology. Flashy tech demonstrations often fail to convey complex concepts in an accessible manner.

Do you want to explain the inner workings of particular appliances?

No, what we want to do is write manuals using simple language. Sometimes the user’s manual to a given “appliance” matters more than the appliance itself. Marcin Skrzypek, our project producer, never stops repeating that everything we do must translate into normal terms.

Have you managed to avoid being hermetic?

We certainly try to keep an open work model. We consult with artists, the media, and social groups, but we also try to leave room for serious theoretical debate on cyberculture, education, and the role of new media in art. Choosing the right selection process for the artists was a crucial step in the project. We selected them through an open submission process. We then worked with them to develop their ideas, which were later “inscribed” into the city during their virtual residencies. Afterwards, each artist completed their residency with a three-week stay in Lublin, during which they planted their pieces in the public space. The next stage of the project was devoted to presenting their work: discussions and lectures were held alongside art exhibitions, coming together to create a unique palimpsest with multiple layers of meaning and references to the themes of technological progress and the advancement of civilisation.

How do these artists view technology? Do they test the inventions, or are they inventors themselves?

The rift between technology on the one hand, and culture and art on the other, is becoming increasingly apparent. The days when artists would be the ones to try out new technology are long gone. The role of today’s artists is different: they are here to harness cyber-reality, interpret it, remix it, explain it, and help people become accustomed to it. This approach is, admittedly, a bit utopian, but if the world of technology and art ever grow closer, it will be thanks to ideas. There are several concrete, European examples of successful collaboration between art and technology, such as the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Transmediale in Berlin, and the WRO Art Center in Wrocław.

To what extent is your project grounded in the everyday life of the local community? What benefits will Mindware bring to Lublin? Will it help locals improve their competence in new media?

That is our first and fundamental objective: the project needs to leave something behind once it’s over. Paweł Janicki’s project is a good example of this idea, but other pieces will also serve as educational tools and will be applicable in new contexts: Dominika Sobolewska’s Seeing Place, Dotka’s Mass BioOrnament, and Andriy Linik’s monumental installation, Aiolos, for instance. Mindware: Technologies of Dialogue is just one step towards the creation of a local space devoted to artistic reflection on the reality of technological progress.

Will the other installations make sense outside the context of the project?

Yes. Take for example the “analogue” project by Yuriy Kruchak of Kiev, which offers excluded local communities an opportunity to become part of a greater network thanks to the use of a symbolic social interface. This universal happening addresses the common and relevant problem of belonging to a network, and can take place in a variety of places and circumstances. A different visual equivalent of the social interface can be used each time. In Lublin, it was an enormous banner consisting of five pieces, each of which was decorated by members of one of five marginalised communities that met — both physically and symbolically — at Plac Litewski in the Lublin city centre.

I don’t see any technology being used.

It’s a project that doesn’t involve the use of any technology. What it addresses is a social mechanism in which the symbolic categories of offline and online are very important. The same is true of A Talking City, by Vasili Macharadze and Tomasz Malec, which uses eighteen stops on three intersecting lines in the city’s public transportation system. Passengers were given the task of collecting passages from 90 different historical stories about Lublin, then posting them in other locations. What resulted was a remixed narrative poem about the city, while an analysis of the routes covered by the stickers produced a unique map of the public transit system.

You don’t shy away from traditional modes of presentation.

Technology doesn’t need to take centre stage. Projects can also be based on “analogue” concepts, as demonstrated by Boris Oicherman, who improved the appearance of the city by remixing images captured by a camera installed on a special vehicle that roamed the streets of Lublin. The vehicle also carried the artist himself, along with projectors that displayed the remixed images back onto the city. The idea behind Oicherman’s project took inspiration from an unrealised concept by László Moholy-Nagy from the 1930s. His project envisioned a truck driving around the streets of Berlin, carrying two mirrors, one flat and one concave, each facing in opposite directions. Two cameras, placed on the same truck, would simultaneously film the city and the reflections in the mirrors. The project fell victim to Nazi restrictions and was never carried out. Another historically-informed piece was Arthur Clay’s Club Blok, which was inspired by the legacy of the Polish artist Henryk Berlewi and optical art. The idea behind Clay’s project was to expand the phenomenon of op-art into the technological dimension.

And what about interactivity, a crucial part of media art?

Let me tell you about two pieces. The first was a performance by Martin Baraga titled Public Avatar, which inverted the phenomenon of the virtual entity by bringing into existence a real-world avatar controlled over the internet. An adaptation of this famous project featured three inhabitants of Lublin who roamed around the city for several hours, performing requests submitted online. Another uniquely interactive project, created by Dominika Sobolewska, was The Seeing Place. Special interfaces — objects resembling enormous eyeballs set inside a spherical mirror — were placed in six spots around the city, from which they transmitted camera footage to a hub, culminating the project in a central location. The artist’s idea was to have the people who interacted with these eyeballs transported over the internet to a “seeing place”, of which they would be “virtual inhabitants”. The eyeballs were set up in high-traffic areas such as a bus station, a library, a pub, and a post office. The footage was sent to a place that had been abandoned and excluded as a result of socio-economic changes. The transmission allowed them to be reclaimed and put “back in the loop”, at least for a moment.

What is it about the phenomenon of clicking that you find so interesting?

What’s interesting is that we often fail to notice certain superficial activities, ones imposed on us by socio-economic changes. Take clicking, for example: we don’t directly associate clicking the mouse with the events occurring on screen. Clicking is simply a side effect of work. If we dissociate the action of clicking from its purpose, it becomes what Siegfried Kracauer called a “mass ornament”. This concept inspired the three young artists in Dotka (Barbara Dzierań, Urszula Kowal, and Justyna Zubrzycka) to create an interactive bioinstallation, the tissue of which is created as a result of its interaction with the user. Viewers of the piece directly affect its form through a touch-sensitive interface. Touching the panel triggers a pump to push nutrients through a system of tubes that feed into glass vessels containing algae. The growth of the algae in the containers becomes a manifestation of each button’s individual “click rate”.

Which of the mindware art projects would you describe as completely out of the ordinary?

Among the most interesting mindware concepts is a project by the Serbian artist Darija Medić which shows the city’s radio space — an invisible, superimposed reality. The medium of radio, which once served to transmit voice over vast distances, is now used to transmit data. Medić “eavesdropped” on the internet over the radio, translating data streams using a speech synthesizer. The purpose of her project was to draw attention to the inadequacy of translation compared to pure data, and to materialise the data stream by verbalising it and broadcasting it on Radio Lublin and over short-range, low-power radio transmitters manned by the artist and her assistants. While we may be aware of the fact that we are constantly enveloped in “radio space”, we don’t know how it has changed in recent years and what content is being broadcast on it. We know of the existence of a superimposed reality and codes of different types, but they’re not a part of our everyday experience.

What once seemed current and static has now become a thing of the past, and things that are familiar to us now will soon change too.

Perspective is crucial. You have to have the right perspective on life, but you also need perspective when it comes to the artistic interpretation of reality. Art needs to be treated like a unique mirror that reflects reality, but produces an image that is sometimes warped and deformed.

But artistic interpretations of reality are subjective.

The artistic truth about life is often unpleasant, difficult, or presented in an incomprehensible fashion. Our goal is to communicate clearly. We tend have a positivistic outlook. I have no doubt in my mind that the artistic process is something that can be discussed with the artist. And the artist can be convinced that ideas have to be reflected in a certain way in order to be understood in a certain way. That’s what mindware is all about. We become excluded when we lack the necessary competence and fail to comprehend what is being broadcast at us. Our goal is to emphasise the rational aspect of understanding socio-economic progress and to initiate and foster creative and conscious use of new technology.

translated by Arthur Barys