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World Wide West: The advent of the internet in awakening democracies

Discussion with Keiko Sei, János Sugár and Ferenc Gróf

11 February 2022, 5 pm

Event will be held in English as a Zoom webinar.

For most Central Europeans, the advent of the internet in the 1990s was intertwined with a "reintegration into the world", which meant a search for paths to liberal democracy and a market economy, from the position of the "former East". We experienced the spread of internet access as an event that was finally taking place here in synchrony with the rest of the world. Businesses, universities, town halls, high schools, cafés and homes gradually began to connect to digital networks previously accessible only from research centres and laboratories. Beyond the vision of a universal library, the Internet represented a new type of mass medium. It was to create a radically free environment in which everyone could express their opinion and finally became famous for 15 minutes. Its democratizing potential would derive from its non-hierarchical, decentralized structure, managed by the users themselves. Indeed, the net rapidly evolved into a complex and unstable patchwork of avatars, cliques, DIY creativity, and piles of information, in which one occasionally wondered if there really was not a dog behind the keyboard on the other side.

The contrast with today perhaps could not be starker. The paradigm of access for all has been twisted into a data-mining tool. Freedom of speech has also been shown to have a flipside in the form of trolling and fake news. The environment of intended unlimited creativity and heterogeneity is ultimately owned and controlled by a few big players. For most of us, the internet has thus shrunk into a handful of user platforms that we hang on to even when we don't want to, that know more about us than we know ourselves, and that divide us more than they connect us. From today's perspective, the promises of the Internet in the 1990s seem to be a nostalgic and all-too-temporary autonomous zone. The question remains whether a combination of advanced capitalism and populist opportunism are the only reasons for the failure of this utopia, or whether other factors are at play. Has the Internet ever really been free and egalitarian? Could it ever have evolved otherwise?

As artists and activists, the participants in this discussion have been concerned about the direction of the internet and the power of media since the 1990s.

Keiko Sei is a writer, curator and media activist. After having worked as a video curator in Japan, she moved to Eastern Europe in 1988 to research media/independent media in the region. After the regime’s change, she continued to work on the issue of independent media/media activism and art in the former Yugoslavia in connection to the civil war, as well as in the wider region of Central Asia and the Caucasus. In 2002 she moved to South East Asia to extend her work and research in the farther East where she started film education in Myanmar and helped with the launch of the Wathann Film Festival/Institute. Her curatorial projects include The Media Are With Us!: The Role of Television in the Romanian Revolution (Budapest, 1990), The Age of Nikola Tesla (Osnabrück, 1991), Eastern Europe TV & Politics (Buffalo New York, 1993), POLITIK-UM/New Engagement (Prague, 2002), and Re-designing East (Stuttgart, Gdansk, Budapest, Seoul, 2009–2013). She writes and teaches worldwide.

János Sugár is an artist and filmmaker. He studied sculpture at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts and was a member of the Indigo group led by Miklós Erdély. In the early 1990s he co-founded the Department of Intermedia at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, where he has been a professor of art and media theory ever since. As founding member of the Media Research Foundation, he co-organised the MetaForum conference series with Geert Lovink and Diana McCarty. Three editions were held between 1994-1996, focusing on multimedia, the Internet, and media content. He co-edited two books on media theory, Hyper text + Multimédia (Artpool, 1996) and Buldózer: Médiaelméleti antológia (Media Research Foundation, 1997). Since the early 1980s he has participated in numerous major national and international exhibitions.

Ferenc Gróf developed a practice focusing on ideological footprints at the intersection of graphic design and spatial experiences. He is a founding member of the Parisian co-operative Société Réaliste (2004—2015) whose work questions contemporary political representations as well as ideological design through text-based interventions. As a member of the collective, Gróf has created a peculiar toolkit from linguistic and typographic elements, statistics and cartographic signs to examine social processes and to exhibit correlations between past and present. As Société Réaliste has been on hiatus since 2015, Gróf works on his own, continuing the critical, narrative implementation and investigation of political design that has characterized his collective practice. He lives and works in Paris and has been teaching at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Art (ENSA) in Bourges (FR) since 2012. Gróf’s most recent solo and collective exhibitions were hosted by the Kiscell Museum, the acb Gallery, OFF-Biennále and the New Budapest Gallery in Budapest, the Hessel Museum and CCS Bard Galleries in New York, Galeria Arsenał in Białystok, Kulturni Centar in Belgrade, and Kunsthalle Bratislava.

Event is part of the exhibition project We Have Never Been Closer currently running at tranzit.sk.

ERSTE Foundation is main partner of tranzit. Supported using public funding by Slovak Arts Council.



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