Interface: Art + Stability

In Conversation with Emmanuel Madan

What is software without hardware? Join us as DEL participant, artist and National Director of the Independent Media Arts Alliance Emmanuel Madan shares his vision for the viability of the Arts ecosystem and what role a union, Artwork_Local404, could play within that system. In this conversation, we discuss the importance of language, authorship, and time when it comes to the development of meaningful work (tools, platforms, initiatives and art).

Dive into this discussion with DEL participant, artist and the National Director of the Independent Media Arts Alliance (IMMA), Emmanuel Madan, where we touch on the Arts ecosystem and how it would benefit from the DEL project and union simulation Artwork_Local404. Through his time at the DEL, Madan connects his unwavering commitment to economic stability for artists to his continuous investigation into the transmission of knowledge. Pay close attention to how his initial conversation with artist and fellow DEL participant Christine Swintak addresses the simultaneous presence of need and surplus as they explore potential models of exchange through mapping the infrastructure of shipping containers. Furthermore, follow along as this discussion moves from the distribution of resources to discovering the fundamental diversity of artists’ needs. It is here you will discover the underpinnings for the transmission of knowledge through Artwork_Local404, as the team confronts the critical question of designing hardware that can meet the imaginative needs of an artists’ union. Created in collaboration with DMG founder and DEL participant Izzie Colpitts-Campbell, Madan introduces the conceptual design of a phone interface that could prompt participants with cultural and economic questions of constraint, while collecting their numerical responses as a form of data collection intended to inform the creation of the union. It is by working through the limitations of a phone interface that the team is reminded that contemplation takes time; in order for this project to be meaningful, it will take extensive consideration and careful deliberation to be fruitful to the lives of artists.

Produced by the Artengine Stream Team:

Mikke Gordon aka Seiiizi

Ryan Stec

Kimberly Sunstrum

Editorial Assistant

Erin Galt

Production Design Consultation

Leslie Marshall/MAVNetwork

Post-Production Support: Chris Ikonomopoulos

DEL Theme Music by Mikki Gordon aka Seiiizi

Artengine’s Digital Economies Lab brought together a diverse group of artists, designers and other creatives to rethink the infrastructure of cultural production in the 21st century.

Funding for the Digital Economies Lab was received through the Canada Council for the Arts Digital Strategies Fund.

I think definitely in the fields in which we work our technology is a given, and it’s really infused all of our conceptualization of the world around us. All of our metaphors are heavily informed by digital tools and practices. Yeah, I think we have a special kind of comfort with these ways of doing things. It also means that we’re, maybe, less patient when things are poorly designed or we’re not willing to accept things as they are presented to the average technological consumer. I think that’s a great thing because it empowers us to modify or tweak the tool so that it does suit our needs and to think, to not accept technology as it’s delivered, as it’s marketed as the only possible way that things can work.

Who is behind an initiative has everything to do with what elements they're going to find to place into this compendium, this encyclopedia of knowledge, of experience.


Emmanuel Madan

One of the things that, perhaps, is less evident in the output from Artwork_Local404 is that it ended up being an artistic endeavor, in a certain sense, more than an economic proposal. Basically, when we got to the point where we were creating a phone-based interactive interface for callers to navigate, that was when I really felt like my usual predilections as an artist–that is to engage with software and really get into the guts of how systems are designed at the software level–that became a really exciting thing for me to work on…

There’s a kinship with some of the projects that I’ve done as part of User where you inhabit these extremely technical and often quite sterile or even hostile environments, like a phone interface: push one, push two, push three–

like one of the most hated technological inventions of this age.

That’s really interesting for me: to get into the guts of and play around with and think about those constraints and that extremely limiting logic and how you can, nevertheless, arrive at something that’s imaginative.

Ryan Stec

And yet, (1) there’s a kind of nostalgia for a phone interface all of a sudden as much of that has gone away and then (2) you also see the meteoric rise of something like Clubhouse, which suddenly became a kind of fad and interest in audio, in this speaking. 

I wonder if in those discussions, was there something particular about… Because some of it was about leaving a voice message. 

What was it about the phone and the voice as a part of an organizing principle or a kind of connectivity in terms of thinking, not just artistically but organizationally?

Emmanuel Madan

Yeah. Well, I guess there’s an immediacy about phone-based interfaces and it worked well, I think, with the fictional proposal that we were making. 

We were representing a community of artists who would have disappeared from online platforms. 

So we were reverting to these earlier, more dated technologies and reanimating these spaces that had been abandoned with the arrival of digital platforms. Not that phone… I mean, the phone interface is ultimately a digital platform also, but there’s something about the interface that feels quite different. 

And as to the voice element–I’m someone who comes from a background of transmission-based practices. I spent a number of years working in radio as a broadcaster and a lot of experimental uses of transmission technology, so working with the telephone as a transmission technology was an interesting exploration for us, I think.

Ryan Stec

Yeah. And as a transmission–because it was to receive a message, but also–was it an exchange? 

Was it also to send a message? 

Was it a send and receive system or it was…

Emmanuel Madan

It was an interactive system. 

But the main thing that we developed as part of this project was a number of prerecorded messages and the user navigates through these messages by means of a touch tone interface. 

The system is collecting responses from callers, but they’re digital responses. 

They’re like numerical responses that can then be analyzed as data, basically. 

The thrust of the questions was what kinds of challenges, problems, and frustrations did you face as someone who’s trying to make a living as a creative person. 

We proposed possible challenges that people might be facing that are based on our own lived experience as artists. We were trying to… 

We were using these as prompts to get people to think about the situation that they find themselves in.

Some of that is economic: 

“Has your work been stolen? 

“Have you been underpaid for the work that you’ve produced?” 

“Have you lost control over your intellectual property?” 

But there were also other considerations, other forms of exploitation other than economic: 

“Are you in an exploitative or abusive relationship with your employer or the client that has contracted you?” 

And “what are the intersections of that with other forms of exploitation around, say, gender or age or racialization or economic class?”


Ryan Stec

I think that also came up, actually, in the discussion with Suzanne about where the Almanac has arrived, or is in this current state, and this idea of a kind of modularity that stretches or nodes on a network that can be adapted to a community context… 

Metaphors and ways of speaking are really important to the productive aspects of what will come next. How important for you is it to find the right terms to discuss it? 

I think even going back to that earlier point that I remember having in the first weekend of the workshop saying–it was one of the projects that I don’t think it turned into the 404–was, 

“Doesn’t this feel like you’re reinventing an organization that you work for, but it was reinventing it under different terms?” 

So I guess I’m asking, for you, do you see that importance? 

Do you think it’s important to find the right terms that will actually redirect projects in new ways?

Emmanuel Madan

There’s no doubt. 

Terms are vitally important. 

Choice of terms is not trivial and I think that it has a huge impact on how things are perceived. 

One of the things about Artwork_Local404 is it participates in the language of union, but I think it’s really trying to get at the fundamentals of the idea of union, which have over time I think largely been forgotten. 

I think current understandings of organized labor are very institutionalized. 

There’s a connotation of heavy bureaucracy, top heaviness, all that stuff, right? 

This is partly why unions have such a bad rap in contemporary society: there’s all of this structure. Right? 

But I think the understanding that the four of us had in proposing the union was we’re inspired by non-institutionalized ideas about basic union and solidarity. Right?

I think probably the closest antecedent would be the IWW (International Workers of the World), the one big union, which really tries to keep away from what ended up happening in the union movement, which was a heavy bureaucratization and ultimately division, right? 

The fact that you’re in these very small negotiating units is really very much counter to the fundamental idea of, “We stand together.” 

The working class and the ruling class had nothing, like those sorts of very basic.. Idealistic sure, perhaps even a little simplistic, but like those are the stark, founding realities of the union movement and I think it was important to recenter those understandings.

Ryan Stec

Going back to the criticism that is often launched against the union, that bureaucratic of… That slowing things down is a bad thing, that we have characterized that slowness as a problem, that it’s one of the, I think, most challenging parts of contemporary society is to figure out where we need to go slower and where we do need to go faster. 

We’re extremely slow in figuring out how we can care for a wider range of people, how to deal with issues of, for instance, access to water, extremely slow. 

And yet there’s other places where we need, whether it’s a bureaucracy or to move slowly, to actually resist the speed in order to have different kinds of considerations. So trying to figure out, too, a way where, actually, slowness is a value that is, we need more of, we need to slow certain things down.

Emmanuel Madan

I think it’s a really great point and deliberation basically is what needs to take sufficient time. Democracy is a slow process and must be so in order to be meaningful. 

So this is, I think, part and parcel of that.

Interspecies Communication

Cheryl L’Hirondelle presents the process and ideas behind her new work Nipawiwin Akikodjiwan: Pimizi ohci, shown for the first time as part of our Entanglements exhibition. The work is a immersive AV installation about (and with) the eels and their challenges in the context of our local hydroelectric dam on the Ottawa River. L’Hirondelle discusses how her relationship with the falls evolved as she discovered the existence of eel ladders designed to help the endangered animals on their journey through the river.