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Artistic Research Project "Commune"

The artistic research project Commune, conducted by Christoph Knoth and Konrad Renner (both professors of Digital Graphics at the HFBK Hamburg) and taking place during the summer semester of 2020, investigated the social structures and technical needs of temporary communities in the digital sphere. What power structures exist in the digital sphere? What are the technological, but also social (and usually invisible) norms that are constructed within it? In partnership with the designer and curator Prem Krishnamurthy, a number of experts were invited to participate in a total of four rounds of digital discussion. Students from the Digital Graphics class prepared the framework, in terms of both form and content. Discussions were conducted on the visually adapted Jitsi server (by Benedikt Rottstegge); they could also be followed as a livestream on the project’s own dedicated website.

With Prem Krishnamurthy performing magnificently as moderator, a very wide diversity of discussion participants were brought together: whilst the Amsterdam design studio Moniker reported on their experience of participative online film projects and described the effects of gamification, Elvia Wilk discussed forms of communication in live-action role-playing (LARP) groups. For these groups – which also exist in the digital sphere – are by no means protected spaces with established communication rules. Rather, it is a case of developing an ethical Interaction Design and becoming conscious of the existing forms of racism. This was also the central theme of the lecture by American Artist. They researches the digital information age against the backdrop of blackness and Afro-American culture. One of their theses is that current network technology must also be examined for colonial influences, just like other social spheres. Artist* references the transition that took place in the 1970s from black command lines to the white user interfaces that we use today. This is because white interfaces – Google’s front page, for instance – are perceived as neutral. Although many devices of today offer a dark mode, this does not represent a general systemic change in technological development, as the structures of Silicon Valley are insufficiently diverse to support this.

In her contribution, Laura Kurgan addresses the significance of homophily – the supposition that we like people who are similar to ourselves. Social housing planning is based upon this hypothesis, and, indeed, it is also applied to virtual communities. A good example of this is the Facebook algorithm that relates to findings on homophily. However, even the investigations into friendship conducted in 1964 by the scientists Lazarsfeld and Merton demonstrate the deficiencies, as Kurgan neatly demonstrates. What if the opposite were true? In support of this, Kurgan cites a scientific study by Mark Granovetter. In 1973, Granovetter demonstrated the importance of the less developed social relationships: it is the weak ties that are in the position to bring together members of very different small groups. If the algorithm were different, perhaps we would not find ourselves in this filter bubble?

Influenced by his experiences with the Occupy movement, Richard D. Bartlett has developed software that uses virtual decisionmaking and coordination or voting processes in non-hierarchically organised groups and institutions. Building on his experiences with The Hum, a form of management consultancy for organisations without management, he founded the research network Within this network, he collects instructions and support for smaller groups and crews who arrive at certain specific content-related issues and come together in order to perform meaningful work together. In this context, individual experiences of family and religious communities have a significant influence on behaviour and presentation within groups. How do we take all interests into account without holding endless meetings with no decisions? How should we collect feedback, and how should we prioritise? Thus, the focus is primarily on interpersonal rather than technical problems. Many groups fail because they require one hundred percent agreement from all members for all their decisions. It would be far more helpful to define a set of minimal compromises that can then be built on and further defined.

At the conclusion of this series of discussions, on 1 July 2020, a meeting took place between James Andrews and Rebecca Stephany: two figures who address empowerment, community building, and diversity in very different ways. Whilst Andrews, who has a background in the music business and early Internet business, brings together venture capital and young entrepreneurs who operate outside established networks and take social interaction into virtual spaces, Rebecca Stephany conducts work on visual fundamentals: working jointly with the designer Anja Kaiser, she has developed the “Glossary of Undisciplined Design”: this multi-part project consists of a series of teaching formats and workshops, the symposium, and a publication. In it, they present non-adapted pioneers in graphic design alongside contemporary artists whose practices question the Eurocentric and male-dominated historiography in graphic design. The range of formats they present in the context of Commune include artistic interventions, performances, and lectures. In this way, they allow a multiplicity of voices to be heard with an equality of rights and equality in terms of content, an approach that Commune also pursues and achieves.

In the second phase of the project, explorative workshops, experimental series, and visual sketches will be used to research ways of allowing different opinions and attitudes to be heard with parity and ways for discourses can be enabled that are not normally perceived owing to the existing power structures. The results will then be published on an online platform. Together, all of this adds up to a speculative collecting of knowledge on alternative methods of digital communication, on social responsibility in digital learning, in transparent decision-making processes, and in the influence of the interface.

10th June – 1st July 2020, Commune, 10th June 2020, Design Studio Moniker (Luna Maurer & Roel Wouters, Amsterdam) and Elvia Wilk (the art and architecture critic and author of the 2019 novel Oval, who lives in New York City) | 17th June 2020, Laura Kurgan (professor of architecture at the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia University) and American Artist (an artist, author, and culture producer who lives in New York City.) | 24th June 2020, Richard D. Bartlett (software developer, activist, and author) and Nora N. Khan (a critic and author who writes on technology, digital culture, and philosophy who also lectures at the Rhode Island School of Design) | 1st July 2020, James Andrews (networker and entrepreneur) and Rebecca Stephany (designer and professor for visual communication at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe) | A project by Prof. Christoph Knoth and Prof. Konrad Renner, with Prem Krishnamurthy and students from the Digital Graphics class at the HFBK Hamburg. Supported by the Hamburg Open Online University |

Link to the Commune-Website

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