TECHNO-Trangressions C.U.K.T.: Jacek Niegoda and Peter Style

C.U.K.T. (The Central Office of Technical Culture) was established in 1995 in order to disseminate and distribute technical culture. C.U.K.T uses its own stamps and distributes official forms; it exchanges correspondence with other institutions as well as with local and national authorities. Since 1995, C.U.K.T has collaborated with a number of institutions, such as schools, local leisure centres, galleries, and museums. It also co-operates with local and national authorities such as the County Council of Bytow, the City Council of Gdansk, the Marshal Office of Pomorze County and Lubusk County, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Polish Ministry of Culture. Members: Andrzej Wiadro, Anna 95-97, Awsiej/Kabala 95-96, Dr.Kudlatz, Mikolaj, Paulus, PH.D.Jan Smuga, RA-V, TJ 4495-97, Virus, Vitriol 95-96, Peter Style, Ewert, Dj 11.

J. K.: Your practice is located somewhere in-between Dadaist radical actions and Marxist demonstrations. The very concept of Technical Culture seems to be a powerful formula for accommodating such diverse tactics. How would you define your practice?

P. S.: “Weird dancing throughout the night. Unauthorised subconscious displays. Kidnap someone and make him happy. Don’t do it for other artists, do it for people who will not realise that what you have done is art. Avoid recognisable art-categories. Leave a false name. Be legendary.” (Hakim Bey)

J. N.: Unfortunately, technical culture is entirely dysfunctional, at least as an artistic and cultural formula. According to a fundamental principle of C.U.K.T., C.U.K.T. does not create anything, it only increases people’s awareness. And technical culture is not merely an artistic concept, but the reality of our culture and civilisation. The main purpose of our activity is to make people aware of technical culture, which is more than just art. It is a phenomenon encompassing all disciplines: art, technology, mass media, medicine, anthropology, etc. Through its activity, the Technical Culture Central Office draws attention to specific aspects of technical culture. We are now about to establish a Ministry of Technical Culture for our future activities…

J. K.: C.U.K.T. aims neither at representation nor at interpretation; it is inevitably provocative and often subversive. What is C.U.K.T.’s main strategy?

P. S.: We act as volunteer officials on a meta-national level, outside the oppressive political structure of centrally issued directives and long-term planning; free from political submissiveness and social responsibility. At the same time, we have practical ideas on how the country should function in terms of education (example: Art Day Action), unemployment (Action for the City of Bytow), political power (Wiktoria C.U.K.T. presidential campaign), and technology (Technopera). The first logo for C.U.K.T. was designed in 1995, and along with our official stamps and a proposal, the idea of C.U.K.T. was introduced to the authorities of the city of Gdansk. C.U.K.T.’s previously unofficial location at the Napoleon Fort in Gdansk has after two years become our official headquarters. It was from there that we initiated actions such as the first presidential election campaign and a series of education and research activities. The year 1999 brought another logo, new ID cards, and new C.U.K.T. business cards, which were designed according to European standards. 1999 was also a year of preparation for the Victoria C.U.K.T. presidential campaign. We had been laying the foundation for this event for the previous five years, because by our actions we were targeting the large population of Polish ‘Cyborgs’. Now that the new generation has been brought up, we alert them to the possibility of a dramatic change in the way Poland is ruled. We give the power to Victoria C.U.K.T.! Computer programs seem like the only effective strategy for ruling a country in which there are either too many diverse opinions, or none. The decision making process should be left to computer logic.

J. N.: Our strategy could be compared to that of any typical office or institution, insofar as it consists in filling out forms and producing documents. Only the capacity and diversity of our activity is perhaps different. Each of our actions is preceded by a correspondence with institutions similar to us, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. We write reports. We also conduct research, or something of the sort. For example, we conducted a series of tests in order to identify cyborgs in the years 1995 and 1996. We also actively participate in the social and political life of our country by organising educational programs (e.g., we suggested Art Day as a new version of the Polish national holiday, in addition to giving a series of lectures at a Gdansk gym and in the townhall at Lubusk.) Since the first presidential election in Poland in 1995, we have regularly nominated our own presidential candidate, such as Groby in 1995, and most recently, the virtual candidate Victoria C.U.K.T.. There is not a hint of provocation or rebellion in all this, whatever we do is meant as a serious and practical response to specific social situations.

J. K.: There has always been something very disturbing about Polish art, an incredible sense of detachment from a more universal cultural discourse; perhaps this is due in part to specific political circumstances, and to the artistic ideals that have been promoted here over the last centuries, projecting a strong sense of escapism and the ideal of suffering for humanity. World War II did not help either. While other countries managed to get over the holocaust in a constructive way, Poland, and specifically Polish art, has been bearing a sort of “martyrological” stigma, which later turned into a communist stigma. Today, despite of the advent of the new media, Polish art still seems to deal with many of the same issues, only now artists are using different media. Recently there have been many successful attempts to break this pattern of cultural isolation:artists such as Alicja Zebrowska, Katarzyna Kozyra, Pawel Althamer, Slawek Belina, Barbara Konopka and Anna Baumgart, among others, have tried to find a more universal approach to art. Still, I am not sure if this means that the changes are going to be profound and permanent. Where do you see your own practice in a global, rather than local, discourse?

J. N.: I am not sure that the artists mentioned here are less prone to escapism than all other artists, both in Poland and abroad. All artistic practice or activity, insofar as it means exhibiting and being a part of the art world, is as such detached from reality. The idea behind the Central Office of Technical Culture was to break this pattern; we wanted to create a dialogue with the outside world, not an art fantasy. We exchanged galleries for techno clubs, museums for electoral offices, and art works for information campaigns. We have changed through our work, but there are also other institutions that have been visibly changed by dealing with us. Take, for example, the most recent campaign of Victoria C.U.K.T.. After this, nothing will ever be same anymore.

P. S.: We don’t know…

J. K.: What do you mean by “we do not know”? Do you not know the names of the artists I have mentioned, or do you not see yourself as part of a global artistic discourse?

P. S.: We do not see ourselves as belonging to this art scene. We are outside of it, and we do not want to be a part of it; we exist in a different dimension altogether. Our strategy is very different from mainstream Polish art and our purpose is different.

J. K.: Your Declaration calls for secrecy and the control of information which could otherwise be potentially deadly. On the other hand, you also talk about technical culture as mass culture. Barry Jones (McKenzie Wark, Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, Pluto Press, Australia.) has introduced the concept of the “information proletariat‚” arguing that the ability to control and access information was one of the major political issues of the 1990′ s. The question of who has control and access (to information) thus also becomes a question of power.

P. S.: Information gives us knowledge and knowledge gives us power.

J. N.: We are against information apartheid, but at the same time we believe that uncontrolled information can have a fatal impact. To you, this claim may seem paradoxical, but in fact it is deeply logical. We are for equal access to information, but at the same time we want to stress the importance of knowing what information could and should be used for. As we have already said, information means knowledge and knowledge means power. We all know from recent history what the abuse of power and technology can lead to. Therefore, in the light of fast growing communication techniques, we attempt to create an awareness of how the information-flow should be used in an ecological and user-friendly way. One such “awareness-creating” action has already been mentioned: Art Day. We strive for equal, wide, and unlimited access to information. One of our main electoral campaign slogans was “Computers for everyone.” Interestingly enough, two other candidates for president (Kwasniewski and Olechowski) soon also started to use our slogan and to support widespread access to the Internet. The popularity of such ideas is confirmed when you consider that one of the above mentioned candidates won the election, while the other made it to the second place. Sadly, neither of them was radical enough to propose the use of the Internet as a new strategy for implementing political power and, ultimately, running the country. We opted for the replacement of traditional politics by the Electoral Citizen Software, and for substituting our parliamentary democracy by an electronic one. We think it would be a great opportunity for all citizens to have influence over how the country is run, not only once every four years, but every 24 hours. In our view, everyone should go online and vote on issues that are important for him/her once a day.

J. K.: As I read your manifesto, I noticed a few contradictions. On the one hand, you aim to “unmask the manipulation of information,” but on the other you claim that “technical culture art is a manipulation of information.” Could you explain this?

P. S.: Information that has not been manipulated in one way or another does not exist. The process of information distribution is similar to the distribution of food in society; it is produced in factories, then distributed first wholesale, and later sold individually in supermarkets. Every single product carries a label containing information, such as when to use the product by, its ingredients, recipes. All this in many languages and many colours. Behind the finished product, there is a whole industry that wants to manipulate our brains and stomachs. Then there is the specifically Polish phenomenon of activists who produce more or less organic food, but even they are becoming more and more incorporated into the big industrial organism. Sometimes I have the impression that the speed with which new supermarkets are built is comparable only to the speed with which new portals pop up in the Polish Internet. In both cases information is segregated, “polonized,” and then distributed.

J. N.: In view of the mass character of information-flows, it would be almost impossible to prevent the manipulation of information. The only thing one can do is to be aware of this while being at the receiving end. Today we no longer believe that the washing powder of brand X is better than that of brand Y, because we understand that advertising aims to manipulate our opinion, and that we have to develop some sort of resistance to it. Information today is all about reaching one’s target audience effectively, and the means to achieve this goal are becoming more and more sophisticated. Everything is packaged attractively and appropriated to the context in order to persuade the audience that it is true. However, what really matters is not persuasion as such, but its intention, the purpose of the manipulation. We find it most important to avoid the potentially dangerous influence of wrong information. This is about shopping for what we really want, not for what we are told to buy.

J. K.: Since the launch of the worldwide web as a new mass medium in 1993, it has quickly been embraced by media practitioners. The web has paved the way for the formation of loose groups in a virtual environment that encompasses both locality and trans-locality. However, this development does not seem to have affected Polish artists. Can we talk about a Polish net art scene at all? What is net art in Poland? And where does C.U.K.T. stand in this context?

J. N.: It is hard to talk about Polish net art, as it is practically non-existent, with the exception of one Internet group, called “Neurobot.”

P. S.: Net art does not exist in Poland. The Internet only enhances the Polish feeling of loneliness.

J. K.: As it is torn between the grim vision of clerical power attempting to make all Poles saints-to-be, on the one hand, and the utopian leftist fantasy of the welfare state, on the other, Polish society does not seem to be aware of the power that the latest technologies have, both in a cultural and a social context. What kind of challenges does the medium “Internet” face in today’s unstable political and social climate in Poland, and what does it mean for your practice as a group?

J. N.: The Internet is an excellent tool that couldallow citizens to monitor and influence the decision-making process of the government over the net. Perhaps Poland should start some legislative initiatives, first on a local level and then on a national and European level. More advanced European countries and the US have already established such projects. It should also be possible to influence the political decision-making process over the internet (e.g., a quick analysis of public opinion). Sooner or later people will realise that politicians are obsolete. When that time has arrived, an electronic democracy will be established. Today, people’s acquaintance with the Internet is still far from advanced, because they only have a very limited idea of how they can best use it for themselves. In our most recent campaign, the Victoria campaign, we received many, often extreme responses on our website, but also serious and constructive ones. The more people engage with what we offer, the more balanced their opinions will be.

J. K.: Which brings me to the issue of media access in Poland. Take, for example, web-based artistic practice: one needs to search for a long time in order to find any example of this at all. Is that just a reflection of the current economic situation, meaning that Polish artists have very limited access to these tools, or is it because the Internet is still somewhat of a novelty, something that artists do not feel comfortable enough with?

P. S.: I would like to stress again that we do not make art. We use the art scene, its galleries and museums, just as we would use streets, clubs, schools, or trains. But based on our observations, we can say that the technological resources in Poland are indeed limited. That is most visible in galleries and offices, where once in a while one still sees analogue typewriters being used. Photocopying is more widespread than computers. But of course there are many young people who use the new technologies on an everyday basis.

J. N.: Many of these problems developed after 1989 [the introduction of martial law]. At that time, Poland was already technologically behind, but the elitist mass media enhanced its backwardness even further. This media-elite distinguishes itself by a modernist believe in authority, whether it is the authority of a working class culture or that of nationalist-conservative rhetoric. It also shows a strong aversion to innovative communication technologies in general, because it perceives all communication technologies as a potential means for creating social anarchy. During our presidential campaign, we experienced much dislike from the media, especially from those on the political right, despite their traditional association with more progressive views. This is why we are working to establish the Ministry of Technical Culture; we want to help Poland become the European “tiger” of technical culture. Some slight changes are already noticeable, and I think that Victoria C.U.K.T. deserves at least some credit for that. At least people are now becoming more and more aware of the fact that investing in technology may be a key to progress. Local and national authorities, for instance, have introduced a number of new ideas, such as incorporating computers into the school curriculum on all levels.

J. K.: The C.U.K.T. declaration talks about a climate of economic efficiency in modern societies where “humans are perceived as a market,” and morality becomes an “outmoded concept,” to be replaced by efficiency, profit and economic progress. This could be seen as a subversive tactic to provoke a more critical perspective on the current state of our society. But could it also be read as an ironic criticism of Polish society as it is now, more than ten years after the great economic and political shift, which, in fact, resulted in dramatic and lasting transformations, both on a social and a cultural level?

P. S.: This declaration was written more than five years ago; it is an official document that expresses our view of the outside world. In fact, we should add a paragraph on humans: an obsolete species that only slows down progress. Machines would be much more efficient if they were allowed to solve their own technical problems. Poland today mostly imitates what has already been achieved by the countries of the former West, besides competing locally for power and money. There aren’t any propositions to speed up the technological and mental progress of Polish society.

J. N.: Our declaration certainly wishes to provoke a debate on authority and values, in a language that now, at the end of the 20th century, may be understood.

J. K.: Last spring, when we met in the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw, you were just launching the presidential campaign for your virtual candidate Victoria C.U.K.T.. Now that the elections are over, with an ex-communist (how do they prefer to call themselves now? The New Left? ) having won and become the current president (Alexander Kwasniewski), what will happen to Victoria?

P. S.: We can now only hope for good luck in the green card lottery. If this does not happen, Victoria will be set on fire in a white limousine, with the clip of the explosion on the news for the next 5 years, until the next presidential elections. And then, to everybody’s surprise, it will be revealed that Victoria actually survived the accident, just like “Terminator”, and that she is ready for another attempt to make Poland the “tiger” of technical culture. Anyway, this is the official story for the press. Experts know that Victoria’s death is impossible.

J. N.: We are curious ourselves to find out what Victoria does now.

J. K.: That reminds me of the current debate over the relationship between machines and human beings. You argue for handing over political power to machines, and you call for the personalisation of machines to form a sort of partnership. The fight for the rights of machines is one of your main goals. All of this is very reminiscent of Mark Derry’s vision of machines that populate “Gaia” and thus endanger humanity. On the other hand, there is Huge Harry (“‘Huge Harry’ is a commercially available voice synthesis machine. Designed by Dennis Klatt at the MIT Speech Laboratory, and produced by the Digital Equipment Corporation, ‘Huge Harry’ works as a researcher and a spokes-machine at the Institute of Artificial Art in Amsterdam. Arthur Elsenaar has developed a portable control system that allows the sophisticated computational control of human facial muscles. It enables him to interface more directly with digital machines such as ‘Huge Harry,’ and it also gives Harry the opportunity to make a face at public occasions.” (Mute, 9; pp 14 – 21)), Arthur Elsenaar’s now famous “artificial life figure with a human face,” who set forth the view that machines are entities that are oppressed by humans; Elsenaar consequently published the “Universal Declaration of Machine Rights.” Are we talking about a struggle for power between two species, or about how to achieve a more creative relationship between humans and machines on the road to a co-evolutionary future?

P. S.: Humans have lost the struggle already. The only chance to preserve a unique human consciousness is for humans to co-operate with their own creation, machines. Machines need a power supply and people need money. Why can’t we become walking cash machines (ATMs), or television sets that proudly stand in the corner of the room? And for the stubborn radical supporters of humanism we could invent something like a perfectly human-like device. The choice is only limited by the presence or absence of access to money and power. What would have more significance for a blind person: to haveelectrodes implanted and thus be able to see reality, at least in the form of gray, blurred images, or to visualise the Internet in his/her mind? Many would give anything to have that option. Human beings without machines have nothing to offer, neither to themselves nor to their environment. If all servers and broadcasting stations were to be switched off, what would we talk about at the work place? How boring the lives of the working population would be…

J. K.: Could you list some of your previous projects?

P. S.: In 1995, we launched our first electoral campaign: “Technodemonstration – Anti-election.” Between 1996 and 1999, we did the “Technopera from 1.0 to 4.1 Pro,” using different forms and adaptations and variable libretti. In 1996, we organised the “Action for Bytow City.” 1999 was the year of “Art Day celebrations.”

J. N.: In “Action for Bytow City,” we refurbished houses for sportsmen, painting zebra crossings on the city streets. Our actions were always about current and urgent social issues, with a particular focus on technology.

J. K.: A final thought: if you were to think about your activity in terms of net activism, how would it make you feel to be the pioneers of Polish net art and the makers of Polish media art history?

P. S.: Sad and lonely.

J. N.: Even though I fiercely protest against being part of an art cliché, our offer is the only one available with regard to Internet activity in Poland. That makes us feel very lonely.

London, 25 – 29 October 2000.

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