Alessandro Ludovico on "Post-digital Print"
Alessandro Ludovico is a researcher, artist and chief editor of Neural magazine since 1993. He received his Ph.D. degree in English and Media from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge (UK). He is Associate Professor at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton and Lecturer at Parsons Paris - The New School. He has published and edited several books, and has lectured worldwide. He also served as an advisor for the Documenta 12’s Magazine Project. He is one of the authors of the award-winning Hacking Monopolism trilogy of artworks (Google Will Eat Itself, Amazon Noir, Face to Facebook).
The following is a transcript from the talk by Alessandro Ludovico during The PNEK DAY event on March 16th 2017 @Kunsternes Hus, Oslo.
Alessandro Ludovico (AL): Starting a magazine was my secret dream since I was a teenager. I convinced a friend to start a magazine and in 1993 the very first issue came out. And for the first issue we wanted something very special, and we got it. We included the only Italian translation of the William Gibson’s Agrippa (book of the dead) - a publication that would predict the relationship between digital and print. It was published in the form of a short novel, as a book made out of photosensitive paper. So when you read it - it disappears. Together with the book there was also a floppy disk with the digital version. With a hidden peculiarity: when you clicked on the icon turning the pages, the very moment the page was turned on the screen, it was physically deleted from the floppy disk. So by the end of the reading, the floppy disk was completely erased. That was already telling a lot about the role of the digital on the one side having wonderful properties and the different properties of the print from the other side. It was a great beginning. We didn’t have any copyright permissions, we didn’t ask anyone for a permission at that time. That was also a statement as we were talking about the absurdity of copyright and how it was handled at the time.
We were extremely ambitious. We also wanted to reflect on the technology we were talking about in the printed pages. So, for example, we included classic optical artworks from the 70s, scanned them and published them, to have a different type of engagement with the printed pages. The first issues also had the page numbering in binary code. It was another statement to challenge the format. However, it ended quite soon, as the printing company wasn’t happy. After the third issue, he said: “If you want me to continue to print it, you have to use decimal numbers.”
We included classic optical artworks from the 70s, scanned them and published them, to have a different type of engagement with the printed pages.
We were investigating the role of print compared to the role of digital and how to deal with these two mediums. In 1997 we launched our first website. In 2013 the magazine had its 20th celebratory issue, next year it will be the 25th. The first English issue was released in 2003. Now we sell around 4000 copies of each issue, we are distributed in 300 stores in the United States, Canada, Asia, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. We have 180 university libraries that have subscribed to the magazine. I am also proud that Neural Magazine has never gotten any kind of public funding. The magazine is funded through subscriptions and ads.
But why make a magazine about new technologies in 1993? We were not alone and I was quite obsessed about this structure of networks. I wanted to make a magazine, that not just necessarily would have been the best possible magazine in the world about technologies, I wanted it to be an important node in the network of other magazines, and to connect with others. In 2002 there was a meeting with 11 printed media art magazines. The moment we sat down, I said this is an opportunity to create a network. I was determined and that’s what we did - we created the magazine network.
Why establish a network? The main reason was to collaborate. Our slogan was “collaboration is better than competition”. We had meetings where we supported each other by sharing knowledge. Neural was the first one to use PayPal payments, Mute was the first to experiment with print on demand. We had meetings and we explored, and discussed these possibilities. We also managed to publish three readers on this topic. (in 2005, 2006, 2007) These publications and also the book Post-Digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing since 1894 that sums up 10 years of research, can be freely downloadable at:
With the series of artworks in between, the network concept started and is still striking me. Network as distribution and instrumental infrastructure can become very powerful. But the lesson we should learn from the internet is that networks can be scalable, we shouldn’t always think of it as a huge structure. And when they are small they are more manageable, they can be rescaled and used in very effective ways.
Networks are also about distribution, and distribution means access. In 2012 we embraced another challenge after 20 years of publishing. As a magazine that publishes reviews, we receive tons of publications. Then we established the Neural Archive which is extremely focused on new media art.
I started to think: we have this small very focused library, and there are other institutions who have small libraries like that. When you look at these small art scenes, there are institutions who have archived these publications that cannot be found in libraries, but are important documentations of the field. When I am visiting an art library or a university library, I am checking what they have. And usually they have very few things or a totally misplaced publications. I started to think that we have a lot of knowledge in one place. But how can we give this knowledge back to the community? The physical Neural archive is something we cannot give public access to, but we have an online database of everything we’ve got. We are not scanning the books, we don’t want to exploit other publishers, so we just publish the cover, bibliographical data and content index. You can search through it, and it turns out to be a very nice tool for research, you can search for one artist and track where he published a text or had his artwork exhibited. We recently reached 1000 archived publications. It is still an ongoing process.
The very moment we publish something online, we are taking responsibility for it. It becomes official that we have a physical copy of each of them which means we are committed to preserving it. And that someday somebody else in the scene could say: “yes we can take over it and continue the work!”
Libraries are a very hot topic for me. Libraries are about preserving. There are many net artworks that are lost forever, but the memory might have been conserved through documentation in a magazine or a book. I see libraries as very strategic agents in the digital and post-digital era because they are making memories accessible. The idea comes from breaking the walls of the library. Libraries are great, but I find them to be monumental institutions. The idea of making a selection of books available outside the library, like walking libraries, means to move a bunch of culture where it is needed. Now we go to a library if we need to find something very specific, otherwise we just open Google and start searching.
The idea of the Temporary Library is to create a curated selection of books, make them available as a small library. First we establish a concept. In the case of Transmediale, who were celebrating 30 years anniversary, we wanted to reflect on the festival’s history, but we also wanted to reflect on the impact of the festival in Berlin. We started to make a list of books, co-curated by me together with Annette Gilbert. We compiled a list of books, which we thought would reflect on the impact of Transmediale. We asked publishers, institutions, people and friends to donate one copy of selected books. We asked for 200 books, we got 170. I was extremely happy that it was used at Transmediale. People were checking what’s there, reading, there were even students who brought their laptops and just studied the selection. There are things that are very hard to get because they were published in only a few copies and forgotten in some storage. That is what I try to define as a sleeping knowledge. But it is not meant to be only a festival event. After the festival the whole collection has to be donated to an official library. In the case of Transmediale, there is a deal with The University of Arts in Berlin, that they have to accept the collection under the conditions that if another event in Germany would ask for it, they would be open to enter into negotiation, and possibly make it available there. The selection becomes permanent afterwards, but it can be moved elsewhere if needed. The University of the Arts were even more enthusiastic, they wanted to exhibit it at the library for a couple of months before adding it to the permanent collection.
In 2017 there are going to be two new selections. The first one will be displayed at ISEA 2017 in Manizales, focusing on Latin American media art. The second one will be part of the xCoAx Conference in Lisbon, Portugal with a geographical focus.
AL: Those who buy are funding us. But it is a renewed relationship with every issue. It is a challenge for us to keep it interesting enough over time, continue to attract subscribers and advertisers. I have seen plenty of magazines dying over time. Most of them at some point were not able to cope with what was going on anymore. Beyond the graphic design it is absolutely essential that every issue is evolving. Different not only in terms of content, but also concept and its structure. The digital is meant to be ephemeral somehow. I can lose it, I can change it. While with print you can’t do that. And it is a nightmare for a publisher. Print has this archival validating quality. Digital from the other side has this speed of light and it can also be so huge. In my research I started to think about the quality of digital. And one of my claims was that if you think about the first computers, there was no storage. It was not invented to store, but to process. The storage is something that is conflicting with its initial infrastructure. The digital storage is always a kind of oxymoron - a contradiction in terms, and cannot be reliable. Just as with the preservation of digital artworks. It is again a question of fighting against the windmills.
The digital storage is always a kind of oxymoron - a contradiction in terms, and cannot be reliable
EE: Today we live in a culture that counts likes. We have this terror of clicking and liking. It also concerns reading. How do you approach that new reading group. Who reads Neural today?
AL: We only have statistics from the online platform. It is mostly the age group between 25-50. I never thought about targeting specific groups. Since the very beginning I thought about the magazine as a collection of ideas. If the idea is interesting, it is not a matter of age. Targeting a specific group means to code your information in a way that it is digestible by that specific group, which means you also have to keep up with trends. But on the other side, with an evolving product, you cannot just stay with your own generation or your friends, otherwise you are signing your ending. I have to be extremely attentive to what younger artists are doing, even if I don’t like it. What is the meaning and how can I contextualize in a proper issue. That is the challenge of the time. And of course with years the challenge gets bigger, because I get more distant from certain practices.
You cannot just stay with your own generation or your friends, otherwise you are signing your ending