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C0dE 0f practice: Online Panel Discussion 13 June - 18 July, 2005

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C0dE 0f practice
Posted by Kelli Dipple, May 26, 2005 4:41 PM
How do we identify, sort, search and locate ourselves amidst the dynamic instability of immaterial culture and its artifacts? In a data based landscape of self organization, automation and agency, and further through the use of social, networked, location aware and ID specific - tools, systems and software, where is the curator/artist/audience placed in the 21st Century? Under what conditions do we collaborate, participate and appropriate? What social, political and cultural reference points inform legacies of new media, activist, interventionist, net, code, software and sound art? What tendencies, behaviors and practice evolve?
Re: C0dE 0f practice
Posted by Sarah Cook, Jun 11, 2005 11:22 AM in response to Kelli Dipple
Welcome to the C0de of Practice online forum. I have been graciously tasked with moderating discussion here for the next five weeks.

The key questions of this forum are posed in Kelli's post above. As I have recently returned from a spring season spent on top of a mountain, I have been thinking of our search for the answers to these questions as a journey, a summers walk (Richard Long style perhaps). As I see it we have three paths to follow one which we know about from studying it on a map beforehand (the theoretical path); one which we know because weve each walked a part of it beforehand (the practice-led path), and one which weve each heard about and are anxious to walk together so that we can share our impressions and observations of it as well as report back to others about it (the contextual path).

Along the first path I propose we begin by discussing the theoretical framework and content of the exhibition Open Systems currently on view at Tate Modern.

Along the second path I propose we discuss the nature of curatorial practice in relation to systems-based, conceptual, immaterial, networked art practice.

Along the third (thorny) path I think we should look around to see the landscape linking these two things namely what it is to live and work (as artists, as curators, as audience members) in this data-based society.

I am going to pose a brief interpretational panel at the beginning of each path, noting features of the terrain ahead. Please choose where to locate yourself and lets go! Who has the GPS device? Who has the bells on their backpack to let the grizzly bears know we are coming?

C0de of practice, path 1: Open Systems
Posted by Sarah Cook, Jun 11, 2005 11:58 AM in response to Kelli Dipple
The exhibition Open Systems: Rethinking Art c 1970 takes conceptual art as the common ground for the work included, but poses the question of how artwork was transformed from a static object to a system of objects in space understood in relation to the viewer.

The exhibitions premise admits however that in most cases the system is nevertheless still a closed one.

What happens if that system is an open one? The exhibition ask this question too, arguing that through the artists evidencing of human existence (not the same thing as the artist inviting human interaction, though some of them certainly did, i.e. Oiticica and Clark) the system was shown not to be objective but in fact open and subjective (and hence flawed).

So it seems that the first step in seeing how this historical legacy might inform readings of contemporary art is to determine how our notion of openness has changed from 1970 to today, particularly through pervasive network technologies.

Open Systems suggests that the artists exhibited are linked by their use of a generative or repetitive system as a way of redefining the work of art, the self and the nature of represen tation

Surely this is still ongoing, and with networked technologies ever more so (though definitions of both generative and repetition may be more modulated in the field of media art comments?). I do not wish this path of the Forum to become solely about updating or making contemporary the Open Systems exhibition, but its a fun exercise to get our creative juices flowing and to determine what we mean by open.

Consider for instance, Thomson&Craigheads project Template Cinema ( The work makes online movies by appropriating data in realtime from the web (webcams become the footage, netradio becomes the soundtrack, chatroom chatter becomes the intertitles/script). The software runs an endless recombination of databased material every 3-5 minute film has the same template form but entirely different content. In this the work is both generative and repetitive questioning the nature of the work of art (singly authored or data-driven) and the nature of representation (the codes and clichs of film).

Or consider Germaine Kohs project Relay ( The software translates SMS text messages into Morse code and broadcasts them in a public space in flashing lights. What the piece says is entirely up to the participants who send in the messages.

Both pieces suggest a different kind of openness, afforded by network technology one that overtly invites collaboration (Kohs audience are the co-creators of the work) the other that implicitly allows for it (punters queuing up to pan the webcams at Logan airport, for instance, become inadvertent camera operators directing the films action). Are the works indeed generative without this collaboration?

While repetition is a characteristic of both projects, each viewers experience of these works is entirely unique (they are time-based works afterall). Thus, is it the fact that they are experienced through time that is as much a part of their openness as the formal properties of the media with which they are constructed?

Re: C0de of practice, path 1: Open Systems
Posted by Christiane Paul, Jun 13, 2005 2:29 AM in response to Sarah Cook
Our notion of systems and openness certainly has substantially changed since 1970 and network technologies have played a major role in it (I will talk more about the differences in openness in a separate, less theoretical post). What I find particularly interesting is that the 'systems approach' in the late 60s and during the 70s was also very much inspired by technological systems -- they just had not reached the scale and sophistication we are looking at today.

As Gloria Sutton puts it in "Exhibiting New Media Art" (Rhizome Digest, November 5, 2004 and November 12, 2004,

"In the 1960s-1970s artists interested in issues of media, computation, social networks, and communication theories used to be in active dialogue with their contemporaries probing other issues under the general guise of "conceptual art." ... Of course back then the issue wasn't about NEW media art, but the introduction of media art within established venues for contemporary art and the exponentially increasing impact of media and computer technology on the arts writ large. Questions commonly asked included: what exactly was the role of the arts in a technologically driven society? Are computers, consumer electronics and communication theory transforming art production or simply obscuring it? What was technology's relevance to art, if any, and did art operate under a technological imperative? Sound familiar? While these questions could have come from any one of the many new media art discussion lists, they were questions posed by Philip Leider, a founding editor of Artforum, as well as by other critics and artists in the pages of art journals and exhibition catalogs between 1962 and 1972."

(One of the obvious questions invited by Sutton's statement is why these discussions aren't surfacing in Artforum today but predominantly unfold on lists and in "new media theory").

In this historical context it's interesting to revisit Jack Burnham's essays "Systems Esthetic" (Artforum, 1968) and "Real Time Systems" (Artforum, 1969), both of which were reprinted in Great Western Salt Works (1973). Burnham used (technologically driven) systems as a metaphor for cultural and art production. His definition was inspired by systems biologist Ludwig von Bartalanffy who defined systems as "a complex of components in interaction." In "Systems Esthetic," Burnham states that there is a "transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates not from things but from the way things are done. A systems viewpoint is focused on the creation of stable, ongoing relationships between organic and non-organic systems, be these neighborhoods, industrial complexes, farms, transportation systems, information centers or any other of the matrixes of human activity."

I find Burnham's application of the 'systems esthetic' to the art market particularly interesting. In "Real Time Systems," he compares artists to "programs and subroutines" that "prepare new codes and analyze data in making works of art." Burnham's system has several layers and control structures: the activities of artists are controlled by "metaprograms," (taking the form of "instructions, descriptions, and the organizational structure of programs" and including art movements as well as the structures of the art world, business, promotional and archival); these are in turn controlled by a "a self-metaprogram establishing strategies on all lower levels in terms of societal needs." The self-metaprogram consists of and produces values resulting from the processing structures of galleries, museums and art historians.

Today we seem to see systems aesthetics in a far more literal, technologically determined way, e.g. the Internet as a system and information matrix. Artists are literally writing codes and analyzing data (particularly in data visualization projects); in the networked realm, the "meta-programs" could be seen as the contextual structure created by archives (and servers), industry, entertainment etc.; and the "self-metaprogram" as the protocols that define network exchanges (from the Domain Name System to the hypertext transfer protocol), created by governing bodies and organizations inscribe and produce values. Of course, this is only one possible way of looking at it

For Burnham, it was the art system outlined above that created the illusion of art residing in objects and therefore led to dematerialization -- without institutional legitimation, the object wouldn't necessarily be defined as an artwork but the art system can sustain the concept of art even without objects. This, according to Burnham, is the difference between hardware and software (the "information processing cycle of art, books, catalogs, interviews, reviews, advertisements, sales and contracts can be recognized as the software extension of art"). As he puts it, "the art object is, in effect, an 'information trigger' for mobilizing the information cycle," which strikes me as an interesting definition of digital art -- but in this case the information processing cycle consists of the artwork itself, which often is reconfigurable, participatory, generative and generates discourse on the network.
C0de of practice, path 1: Open Systems
Posted by Christiane Paul, Jun 13, 2005 2:31 AM in response to Sarah Cook
I visited the "Open Systems" exhibition about a week ago and, wandering through the galleries, I couldn't help making connections between the works on view and contemporary, digital ones, which made the exhibition an even more enjoyable experience. This "pairing up" of works was often less driven by the broader concept of the work than the visual, visceral experience of it. I can't resist listing some these pairs below (for those who are inclined to follow the links) but would like to frame them in terms of Sarah's comment on how notions of "openness" may have changed over the decades.

The works shown within "Open Systems" naturally can very often only point to possibilities of openness -- considering art beyond the confines of the museum and exploring societies, communities, architectures, natural processes as systems; or suggesting the openness of the art objects themselves. The works still manifest as objects in space while often transcending the very notion of object.

We tend to think of digital, networked systems as intrinsically 'open' ones, but openness can substantially differ from one digital artwork to the next:

+ Some works are 'open' to navigation but still 'informationally closed' (a term I borrow from N. Katherine Hayles) since viewers navigate through a (visual, textual, aural) system that has been configured by an artist, responds to its internal organization, and is not open to reconfiguration.

+ There is a multitude of projects where artists have established a framework that allows any participant to create a contribution to the system. Josh On's "They rule" (, which allows anyone to create maps for the interconnectedness of the board of directors of corporations, or many of Andy Deck's works ("Open Studio," an online drawing board; "Glyphiti," "Icontext" et al. -- would be good examples. (These types of works are far more open on the level of experience and perception than technologically, since they constantly keep evolving and are conceptually shaped by the contributions of participants)

+ Another form of openness occurs in the works that create interfaces and filters for ongoing processes, such as exchanges on mailing lists and newsgroups. In this case the artwork is based upon but doesn't interfere with an 'open system.' An example would be Warren Sack's "agonistics -- a language game," which applies the concept of agonistics (the science of athletic contests) to online exchanges on mailing lists. The project creates an interface that positions contributors according to topic and argument and exposes who is 'dominating' the discussion. (

+ A different category of openness unfolds in (semi-)autonomous, "generative" projects -- which Philip Galanter has defined as any art practice where the artist creates a process, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is then set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art.

+ The type of openness where any contributor can also reconfigure the system and its framework itself, mostly occurs within the realm of open source software development, be it in an artistic context or not. "Processing," a programming environment initiated by Ben Fry and Casey Reas would be an example. (

Juxtaposing works from "Open Systems" with contemporary digital ones, one can see openness play out in very different ways (unfortunately, not all of the works are documented with images at the Tate site, so I'm sometimes pointing to other URLs for an image / thumbnail):

+ Hans Haacke, Condensation Cube 1963
+ Eduardo Kac, Teleporting an Unknown State, 1994-2003
Where Haacke's "biological system" triggers an ongoing condensation process within a (closed and sealed) Perspex box through light, Kac's work induces actual photosynthesis and growth of a living organism through the Internet as a life-sustaining system. (In one of the versions of the project, the plant was completely dependent on people 'transmitting' the light through the network).

+ John Baldessari, Throwing three balls in the air to get an equilateral triangle
+ Antoine Schmitt, threesome
Where Baldessari photographically documents the possibilities of a graphical system formed by the 3 balls, Schmitt's 3 balls find their formations through code-driven, generative behaviors.

+ Lygia Clark, Dialogue Goggles, 1968
(see Fig. 4a)
+ Hachiya Kazuhiko, Inter Discommunication Machine
Clark's Dialogue Goggles -- two connected diving goggles -- force their wearers to literally face each other eye-to-eye; Kazuhiko's work takes this approach to a different level by switching the points of view between the two wearers of goggles (you see yourself through the other person's eyes).

+ Gerhard Richter, 48 Portraits 1972
+ Heath Bunting and Olia Lialina, Identity Swap Database
Richter's photographs of famous men (found in an encyclopedia) challenge the supposed neutrality of the encyclopedia, which makes every personality conform to a uniform (database) format and effectively "neutralizes everything." The Identity Swap Database plays with similar ideas from a very different angle. It uses database strategies and the uniformity of the photographs and data that represent our identity (in passports and official documents) and subverts it. Everyone can submit their data and search the database for people with the same markers of identity for a potential "identity switch."

+ Alighiero e Boetti, Mappa, 1971
For images of his maps, see
+ Mark Napier, net.flag
Where Boetti's maps highlight political systems through their flags (which represent each country on the map), Napier's reconfigurable flags point to the new concepts of national and personal identity emerging in the distributed geography of the net.
Re: Re: C0dE 0f practice
Posted by Charlie Gere, Jun 13, 2005 9:45 AM in response to Sarah Cook
Hi everybody

I like the idea that Sarah proposes, of thinking of different ways of addressing the topics of the forum in terms of paths and walking. Its more than just a convenient metaphor, but opens up an interesting approach (!) to the question of systems. Paths and walking are tropes that are to be found in the work of a number of continental philosophers, precisely as a way of resisting the totalising effects of systems.

I am thinking in particular of Heideggers image of the woodcutters path and the clearing as a way of characterising the nature of thought, of Michel de Certeaus comparison between the panoptic and totalising view of New York he saw from the World Trade Center and the experience of actually walking in the city and of Derridas continual evocation of the notion of the aporia, meaning a kind of confrontation with the impossibility of thinking something through, deriving from the Greek for no path.

The notion of the aporia, the point at which there is no obvious path to follow, connects to other anti-systemic strategies and ideas, including Keirkegaards leap of faith as a response to and critique of the totalising and systemic ambitions of Hegelianism, and Godels notion of incompleteness, which addressed the claims of mathematical systems to be able to produce solutions to any mathematical problem.

So what do these rather abstruse ideas have to do with art? The answer I think is quite a lot, especially in relation to the conference and exhibition we are discussing. At a recent SMAL meeting I rather clumsily tried to show how some ideas circulating in new media art circles about self-organising systems, open source etc bear some resemblance to ideas that were current in the late 60s and early 70s about systems, systems thinking, systems aesthetics etc Christiane mentioned Jack Burnham in her post, who was of course one of the principle theorists of such thinking and aesthetics.

What I think characterises both the current thinking and that of the early period is what I describe as a systems utopianism, meaning a belief that the system itself can systematically, automatically produce better conditions or realise a more ideal state of affairs, especially if the expanded possibilities offered by new technologies is taken advantage of. Something similar can also be found in the fashionable but problematic Marxist ideas of Hardt and Negri, and is also at the heart of the neo-liberal project with its derivation from a reductive understanding of Adam Smith and his invisible hand.

One of the reasons why it is important to look historically at such developments is that earlier experiences and their outcomes can help us understand our current predicaments. The systems utopianism of the earlier period had more or less disappeared by the mid-70s and Burnham and others considered it to have been a panacea that failed. There are all sorts of reasons why this might have happened, including the comparative inadequacy of the technology.

But I think that it is a question of a contradiction that operates within systems themselves. Every system contains aporetic contradictions that cannot be resolved within the system itself (this roughly was Godels insight), and which require a decision, a leap of faith perhaps, beyond the programmatic and calculative reason of the system. It is interesting that the Tate show is called Open Systems, which would seem to acknowledge this. Here open can refer not to visible and free as in open source, but open in the sense of without calculative and programmatic enclosure. Rather than the prescribed routes of culture as a kind of traffic system, we are confronted with an open without paths (a-poros), in which we have to make decisions. In a world increasingly dominated by instrumental, rational and calculative systems, this might be a way of thinking about what artists do; force us to confront the limits of the system and the point where decisions have to be made.
Re: Re: C0dE 0f practice
Posted by Patrick Lichty, Jun 13, 2005 9:59 PM in response to Sarah Cook
To begin with, location is a strange thing for me; my home is in Louisiana, my head is often in a loose gravity well near New York, and my posterior is usually somewhere just south of Detroit.

I would like to say that over the weekend that I viewed the conference archives, and that the wealth of information put forth by the speakers, combined with the aptly selected body of works places me in a position of near-paralysis while I muse upon the material in these proceedings.

The model suggested by systems is dynamic by definition. The phenomenology of a systemic art (or curation, or criticism, for that matter) implies processes of meaning, representation, power, legitimation, interaction, and the like of events and processes which are unstable. This includes art which is constantly in development (in beta) or emergence (in alpha), models of curation which in themselves are considered artistic works (Schleiner, July, Manetas), and the shifting of the compartmentalized roles of the engaged parties in any cultural space from the compartmentalized to the continuous. The shift to a systemic cultural practice, or suggestion of same, places the individual in an ambivalent space in which discrete roles and events transform into iterative processes and loci of cultural engagement in contrast the traditionally hierarchical models of the institution. However, the issues of protocols and power relations that I allude to may be beyond the scope of this missive, and were covered well by our colleague Christiane Paul in her presentation.

A fine metaphor for the construction of digital culture is that of codes, and perhaps its no accident that the calendar of events for cultural spaces is often called a program, that we talk about memetic codes, and functions of culture/cultural functions. It makes perfect sense to consider a networked art and culture as a set of social protocols based on a system of cultural codes, and that we have events like CodeDoc and RunMe. Its a good metaphor, and one that was first introduced to me by Casey Reas (the systems paradigm).

In considering an epistemology of the discussion of cultural systems and immaterial aesthetics, I come back to Flussers thought on discourse and dialogue, an interpretation of which I consider a system. My understanding is that according to Flusser, the discursive infers the unilateral/transmissive informatic model, while dialogue deals with a collective model where knowledge is produced through iterative discussion; or a systemic engine for knowledge creation. Therefore, where many of us speak of discourse, perhaps in the cultural milieu in which the artist, curator, and audience are often placed in multiple and ambivalent positions, I would like to offer that the New Media arts offer as much of the dialogic as the discursive, which again challenges traditional paradigms of the delineated body of work/knowledge.

However, while our discussion will undeniably operate under the framing apparatus of analyses of cultural systems, I also want to hold at least my own assertions circumspect as one of many possible frames for our discussion. This may be a rather banal declaration, but in saying so, I want to consider that while using the discursive hammer (tool), all issues may closely resemble nails.

In closing for this entry, I would like to refer to Warks declaration to critique the critique to say that my thoughts are offered not with definitiveness, but as possible points for dialogue as this panel continues. It is my belief that Wark is suggesting a systemic approach to knowledge that is constantly in flux as it attempts to understand itself, only to find that what is derived is the next moment of discovery.

Thank you for your time, and I hope to be more concrete in future entries.
Re: Re: C0de of practice, path 1: Open Systems
Posted by Sarah Cook, Jun 15, 2005 10:45 AM in response to Christiane Paul
I am thrilled by some of the interesting points raised thus far and wanted in this post to keep our discussion centred around notions of openness and the art. I think what Charlie points to in his text about anti-systemic strategies is key. The overall feeling I had in the Open Systems exhibition was that the artists had made finished works by employing systems which were inherently unfinished or incomplete (or as Donna de Salvo says, flawed). I think of Marcel Broodthaers A Winter Garden in particular (, especially given its use of the close-circuit camera, capturing your presence in the space, making you another object in its collection.

And yet, I would completely agree with Christiane that the works on view seem open to navigation but informationally closed. Which makes me wonder in our current overloaded information society, is a closed system an inherently flawed one? Is openness how we now judge the benefits, the goodness (to bring ethics into the equation) of a system? We perhaps used to think databases were just good for storing and managing information, and now think they are only good if you can add to, modify and access, beyond just navigationally, that information.

As Charlie writes, artists force us to confront limits of the system and point to where decisions have to be made. However, few of the works in the exhibition, which are, in the end objects after all, could be actually affected by any decision we the viewer could possibly make. Christianes great list of new media projects reminded me of a few more wherein reconfiguration is indeed possible. Heath Buntings mailing list @Banff is a good example ( Frustrated by the channels of communication dictating the departmental review process taking place at this international art centre, Heath and his colleagues established an anonymous virtual bulletin board. As they write:
The list serve was created with the idea of establishing an uncontrolled email system that would replace other archaic systems previously established by the institution and at the same time challenge the hierarchies of bureaucracy. Because of the opportunity for anonymity, @banff became a place for staff and artists to post serious, hilarious, often sordid and always controversial comments, without the fear of reprisal. I was working at the Centre at the time and can testify that the project certainly pointed out to staff and management alike the flaws in their existing systems and where further decisions about process needed to be made. The mailing list was more cathartic in allowing people to state what their jobs were and how they hoped the department might change than were the tense facilitated meetings. It opened everything up.

Another reconfigurable (though less emancipating) system is Philip Pocock, Axel Heide and Gregor Stehles work Unmovie ( This online participatory cinema project combines a chat room-like setting for online users, AI personalities (bots ranging from 13th Century Zenmaster teachings and Nietzschean philosophy to Bob Dylan song lyrics and Andy Warhol solipsisms) and a database of existing net video clips, which have been catalogued by keyword. The conversation with and between the bots generates a mutating script, which is used to query the database and dynamically generate an Internet video cut up, which has been streaming live since November 10, 2002. Users have access to the underlying database and can classify the video clips to affect the stream that is delivered based on the interactions of the bots. As the artists write, The autopoesis of the code driving this unmovie-making virtual machinery, along with the unpredictability of online user input affecting the system, create an added turbulence, foreseen by Unmovie and actually cherished as a sign of life, participation in the open construction of cultural objects.

I dont feel weve exhausted discussion around the question of the generative in relation to both this exhibition and contemporary new media practice either. There are many instances in which the artist no longer points us to where to make the decision, or even makes the aesthetic decision themselves (which clearly most of the artists in Open Systems have done) but rather leaves it up to the programme, the software, the system itself. (I wonder what generative curating would look like). Patrick points out the importance of an iterative discussion in a collective knowledge generation, which suggests a different kind of incompleteness, a recursive back to A (or back to Beta) repeating in the process of making the work. Donna de Salvos comment, which I pointed to in my first post, equates openness with the generative and repetition. But surely repetitive iterative processes produce more stuff rather than less? How does the generative system result in the dematerialised object?
Re: Re: Re: C0de of practice, path 1: Open Systems
Posted by Charlie Gere, Jun 15, 2005 1:21 PM in response to Sarah Cook
Hi everyone.

Following my last post I want to connect some of what I said there to the question of ethics in relation to systems, open and closed.

One way of approaching this is through the works by Hans Haacke in the Open Systems show.

The first is Condensation Cube, from the mid 60s, a paradigmatic cybernetic artwork of the sort that greatly interested Jack Burnham, an early advocate of Haackes work. It is a perspex cube in which a small amount of liquid condenses and evaporates in a self-regulating system. Condensation Cube is a good example of a closed system, both in the sense that it is self-regulating and that it is a stable, unitary, aesthetic object, a Perspex cube comfortably embedded within white cube of the gallery and, synecdochically, of the art gallery system. In that what happens in the cube is contained and autonomous it is a good reflection of the idea of the art gallery as an autonomous, disinterested space

The second piece is Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. This is an excerpt from the Documenta X catalogue (via the ZKM site), which describes the piece.

The work consists of 146 photographic views of New York apartment buildings, six pictures of transactions, an explanatory wall panel, and maps of Harlem and the Lower East Side. Each photograph is accompanied by a typed text that describes the location and the financial transactions involving the building in the picture. Haacke discloses the transactions of a real-estate firm between 1951 and 1971. Harry Shapolsky, the key figure, who is well protected by influential friends, is guilty of an assortment of fraudulent practices of which the judicial system has been exceedingly forgiving. Haackes one-artist show at the Guggenheim, of which this work was to be part, was canceled by the director of the museum six weeks before the opening, and artists occupied the premises in protest against this censorship.

What is interesting about this piece is less its overt polemical and political intent than its status of an artwork. The abuses the piece highlights would probably be more effectively addressed in a practical sense in a more conventional form of expose, such as a newspaper article or documentary. For me the piece is more effective in terms of its implicit critique and deconstruction of the limits of what can be legitimately included in the system of art and the gallery. The fact that the trustees failed to acknowledge the legitimacy of its inclusion in the Guggenheim, and that a curator who tried to defend it was sacked, is not just evidence of conservatism, power and influence, but intrinsic to the artwork, if it is to work at all. The inclusion of elements that are other to how artworks were then conceived, and cannot easily be assimilated, is a kind of performative ethics. The piece does not merely represent, but actually performs a complex position whereby the limits of a system are exceeded without necessarily leading to recuperation, dialectical sublation etc (which of course means that its uncomplicated and no-longer controversial inclusion in a space such as Tate Modern negates its performative value).

Another example, not in the show and for my money deeply problematic, is Harold Cohens Aaron software. Cohen, who gained an international reputation as a painter in the 1960s, has spent the last thirty five years or so, developing an AI system/program called Aaron, which can draw and, more recently, paint. (or, perhaps, draw and paint). In a sense Aaron is a perfect self-sufficient system, involving the software, hardware and material substrate, and which produces the work without human intervention (though Cohen continues to develop the program).

There is a great deal that can be said both for and against this project and I am not interested in rehearsing the various arguments about intentionality, AI etc other than to pick up on one point that emerged at a presentation by Cohen at Tate Modern, which I chaired (the webcast is archived

though I darent watch it for fear of seeing myself as pixellated blob). During the Q and A session someone asked a question that to me seemed absolutely crucial but which Cohen seemed to regard as pointless. The question was how does the program know when to stop, how does it know when a drawing or painting is finished. I was amazed that Cohen did not seem interested in this problem.

It is particularly interesting because it seems to relate, in ways that need proper further examination, to one of the crucial issues in the development of computing, that of the stopping or halting problem that led Alan Turing to develop his conceptual Turing Machine in the 1930s, which also relates to Godels uncertainty theorem. More here at the ever-useful Wikipedia

Though both the halting problem and the uncertainty theorem concern issues in mathematics and computations, and I dont want to abusively apply them to other domains for fear of criticism a la Sokal and Bricmont, there are clearly resonances with other critiques of systematisation, as Derridas infrequent but important invocations of Godel acknowledge. Knowing when to stop involves making a decision, which always necessarily goes beyond the systematic and the programmatic. As Derrida puts it

a decision, if there is one, cannot take place without the undecidable, it cannot be resolved through knowledge As to a decision that is guided by a form of knowledge if I know, for example, what the causes and effects of what I am doing are, what the program is for what I am doing, then there is no decision; it is a question, at the moment of judgment, of applying a particular causality. When I make a machine work, there is no decision; the machine works, the relation is one of cause and effect. If I know what is to be done then there is no moment of decision, simply the application of a body of knowledge, of, at the very least, a rule or norm. For there to be a decision, the decision must be heterogeneous to knowledge as such Otherwise there is no responsibility Even if one knows everything, the decision, if there is one, must advance towards a future that is not known, that cannot be anticipated. If one anticipates the future by predetermining the instant of decision, then one closes it off, just as one closes it off, if there is no anticipation, no knowledge prior to the decision. At a given moment, there must be an excess or heterogeneity regarding what one knows for a decision to take place, to constitute an event (Derrida, 2002, 231 2).

The event is always monstrous.

A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be predictable, calculable and programmable tomorrow. All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, to welcome it, that is to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange, but also, one must add, to try to domesticate it, that is, to make it part of the household and have it assume the habits, to make us assume new habits. This is the movement of culture. Texts and discourses that provoke at the outset reactions of rejection, that are denounced precisely as anomalies or monstrosities are often texts that, before being in turn appropriated, assimilated, acculturated, transform the nature of the field of reception, transform the nature of social and cultural experience, historical experience. All of history has shown that each time an event has been produced, for example in philosophy or poetry, it took the form of the unacceptable, or even of the intolerable, of the incomprehensible, that is, of a certain monstrosity (Derrida, 1992, p 387).

Systems, closed systems at least, foreclose, are intended to foreclose, to render unnecessary, the making of a decision that constitutes an event, and opens up the possibility of the future. To operate efficiently systems require that all the elements are homogeneous or homogenised. For example in the legal system an agreed language must be capable of covering the singularities it needs to address; in the economic system material goods are subsumed under the aegis of exchange value; increasingly media are all digitised, rendered homogeneous as 0s and 1s. This leads to the suppression or disavowal of that which cannot be incorporated, ie the radically other or what Lyotard would call the differend. (A good example of this in relation to law is to be found in an essay Bill Readings wrote about aboriginal landrights trials in Australia, in which there is a radical and unbreachable difference between the conception of ownership and land entertained by the aboriginal plaintiffs and by the dominant, hegemonic justice system).

This leads me to an issue I have with the Season of Multimedia Arts in London (SMAL), in which many of the questions of systems the Tate show invokes re-emerge. (Saul, Luci, Peter and any other smalistas who may be reading this, I hope you will take these comments in the spirit in which they are offered, as part of what I hope will be a continuing and vigorous debate).

For those curious to learn more about SMAL its Wiki site is at

With provisos about the necessity of some basic infrastructure, SMAL aims to be open, and in particular consensual. On their site there is a link to the Seeds for Change site

which contains a description of their idea of consensus, which SMAL has adopted

Consensus is a decision-making process that works creatively to include all persons making the decision. Instead of simply voting for an item, and having the majority of the group getting their way, the group is committed to finding solutions that everyone can live with. This ensures that everyone's opinions, ideas and reservations are taken into account. But consensus is more than just a compromise. It is a process that can result in surprising and creative solutions - often better than the original suggestions.

Consensus can work in all types of settings: small groups of activists, local communities, businesses, even whole nations and territories. The Zapatista movement in lower Mexico (Oaxaca and Chiapas) answers to a public control called "la consulta". This group - comprised of all men, women and children age 12 and over - meets in local meetings where discussion is held and all the members make the final decision.

Within a small group of up to 20 people consensus tends to be more simple, as everyone can get to know each other and reach a mutual understanding of backgrounds, values and viewpoints. For larger groups different processes have been developed, such as splitting into smaller units for discussion and decision-making with constant exchange and feedback between the different units.

It is hard not to be beguiled by this utopian vision of a kind of utopian form of governance, but I think it has a number of significant and important problems (putting aside the practical questions it brings up). It is very Habermasian and the idea that dialogue and consensus could achieve resolution is at the core of Lyotards dispute with Habermas and his own concept of the need for dissensus.

One is that any attempt to reach consensus will necessarily involve the creation of a shared set of terms and references, which in turn will, necessarily, involve a homogenisation of those terms and either an incorporation of difference and other as the same or its occlusion and disavowal. Thus consensus is potentially and even actually totalitarian, a totalitarianism which is likely to work, in practical terms, in subtle and invisible means, the silencing of weaker and subaltern voices, peer pressure, unspoken and unacknowledged operations of power and hierarchy, and the effects of charismatic individuals etc

(I am always unnerved when the Zapatistas are mentioned. They have become the poster children for a certain romanticised idea about the possibility of revolutionary resistance, that seems to fascinate whats left of the radical left in the USA. Subcomandante Marcos is the Che Guevara of the 90s and 00s. Am I the only one who is disquieted by a supposedly autonomous peasants movement, whose so-called spokesperson is middle-class ex-philosophy professor, who also smokes a pipe. More to the point I doubt anybody outside has any real idea what goes on in their meeting, or how decisions are actually made. Just remember the kind of idiots a lot of Western intellectuals made of themselves praising the Chinese cultural revolution.)

This leads to the other point. Consensus might be thought of as an attempt to avoid somebody taking decisions about who or what is including or excluding in the name of an all-inclusivity. Apart from the fact that (a) even not taking decisions is a decision and ends up having a decisive effect and (b) decisions get taken anyway, we always have to answer to an ethical requirement to take decisions and to take responsibility for those decisions and to be answerable for them. I work in a university, which is full of rules and requirements and hierarchies and forms about who takes what decision when and where. I have to take decisions for which I am answerable and which I will have to justify and for which consensus is simply not an option. Decisions always involve exclusions. As Derrida puts it I am responsible to any one.. only by failing my responsibility to all the others.


PS In relation to Sarahs paths metaphor it is interesting that Simon Pope has been investigating artists who incorporate walking in their practice as part of his inquiry into space and locative media. In the latest issue of Mute he discusses some of his ideas

(Simon are you reading this? Id love to talk some more with you about some of these issues. Lets have a drink soon).
C0de of practice, paths 1, 2 and 3
Posted by Sarah Cook, Jun 16, 2005 1:05 PM in response to Charlie Gere
[Dear readers, we seem to find ourselves moving from the first path (about systems and the exhibition Open Systems) to the second and third paths about the state of curatorial practice, and the wider context of working in networked space were not lost yet, are we? I'll post the roadsigns for paths 2 and 3 below, but meantime...]

I wanted to reply to a few of the things Charlie mentioned in his post. The first was his reading of the Hans Haacke work. I completely agree that it is effective in terms of its implicit critique and deconstruction of the limits of what can be legitimately included in the system of art and the gallery and I think this demands a closer reading of it. Why could it not be legitimately included then, but can now? Does that have to do with the timeliness of the content of the work, or the form of its critique, or the change in our understanding of how art can be politically provocative? An interesting thing about the moment in history that the exhibition Open Systems tracks is the revolt against the term systems (and all it stood for) in socio-politico arena (De Salvo cites the student revolutions of 1968), at the same time as its adoption and critique by artists. One wonders if the same cant be said for management today the top-down control of those systems (I am led to think of the work of Carey Young questioning management posturing, or the raft of alternative web-browser art or computer viruses as art see -- or the unreliable archivists, artist-led reconfigurations of museums collections, all essentially disrupting the systems of information control and management). Much of contemporary art legitimated by the system of art and the gallery trades on irony. Work that isnt ironic doesnt get much play in the mainstream art galleries. [For more on this see Lev Manovichs 1996 diatribe on The end of computer art and the art that gets into Turing-land (not ironic) and the art that gets into Duchampland (ironic) here:

De Salvo also comments on the importance of the move in that moment from artists working with representations of situations to working with the situations themselves. This first hand engagement -- with the world, with the people in it (the public) -- is precisely that which has thrown up the most problems for the museum and the curator. Its a perennial problem how to show participatory work, how to document it and what to save from it. This is loosely tied to Charlies point about generative art, and the question of how does the program know when to stop. In many instances, by deciding what gets kept of the ephemeral/activist/performative/dematerialised art event, the curator is in fact the one making that final decision, stopping the work (pinning the butterfly to the board in the collection). In the same way that the museum directors decision to cancel Haackes show imbued the art work with a whole new reading of its success, both then and now. (Anecdotally, its widely recognised that the best art that comes from kindergarten classes is that where the teacher has taken the finger-painting away from the child at just the right moment, before it is ruined with another splodge of paint or glued macaroni).

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the question of curatorial process and Charlies bigger question about the incompatibility of systems with a process that seeks to trade on consensus. He writes:

systems, closed systems at least, foreclose, are intended to foreclose, to render unnecessary, the making of a decision that constitutes an event, and opens up the possibility of the future.


any attempt to reach consensus will necessarily involve the creation of a shared set of terms and references, which in turn will, necessarily, involve a homogenisation of those terms and either an incorporation of difference and other as the same or its occlusion and disavowal.

Which leads me to ask, just how impossible (or systematically flawed) is it for curators to work collaboratively? To put aside their individual judgments (their decision about when the show is complete, when the work is finished) in order to participate in consensus building? Is this why group-curated exhibitions the Documentas, the Century Cities, the Biennials throw up so many problems, are potentially so unsatisfying? Do we still live in an age when the single viewpoint is the favoured and more successful one? I dont think so, and I hope not. Speaking from experience I can say that those collaboratively curated projects I have participated in, when we have struggled to come up with shared terms, shared references, have always benefited from the discussion, the arguments, and that part of the working process has been evident and been a contribution to the field of knowledge around the work in question (even if the final product is a failure). I am hardly systematic about the way I curate but I am honest about where I can contribute and I trust (taking the leap of faith Charlie made reference to in his first post) that the resulting work in the way Haackes does will simply speak for itself.* After all, mistakes are to be made so that others can learn from them. Or, more accurately, we have to homogenize some terms (new media art anyone?) in order to see where they can be de and re constructed more meaningfully.

*An aside: I once curated an exhibition anthropologically or ethno-methodologically examining a subcultures production (the snowboarding industry) by trying not to make any aesthetic judgments about the quality of the work but by allowing the network itself to generate the show, to decide what got exhibited ( It has remained a valuable experience as it allowed me to track the emergence of a self-defined field of cultural production (and in that parallels my experience of net-based art practice) and determine just how distanced and observational a role a curator can play. Turns out, almost not at all. We are all a part of the networked culture throwing up networked work I look at art on the web, I work on the web, I am entertained on the web, I participate in a commercial life on the web, I educate myself on the web. How can one be a distanced critic, a traditional curator dispensing aesthetic judgments in that soup when what I do has some small part in how I experience it and how it emerges?
C0de of practice, path 2: Practice
Posted by Sarah Cook, Jun 16, 2005 1:08 PM in response to Sarah Cook
[As some of these points were raised by Charlie and my post above, I though I should re-iterate them here, in the legend for the map of path 2. Apologies if we're getting ahead of ourselves. On every hike I've been on some sprint ahead, others dawdle behind. Find your own comfortable pace please.]

At the conference on Curating Immateriality held at Tate Modern (the webcast archive is linked from this site), the question was asked whether or not traditional curating follows a centralised network model and if so can curating follow a distributed network model? What would it mean, practically, to be a curator/node?

Without wanting to reinforce binaries it seems important to distinguish the different elements of the practice of curating (selection, organisation, programming, presentation, historicization) and to determine models for it. For instance if curating web art is predominantly informed selection and hence like filtering or editing (as artist Vuk Cosic and others have repeatedly posited, see for instance: or then is it truly possible for it to be distributed? To put it bluntly, how would the show get done? There has to be an end point, a cut off, a moment of agreement between all the distributed nodes on what is in and what is out, and hence completion. At the conference the point was made that a book editor is not working in a distributed network model, she is still a centralised filtration node.

Thus we come to the question of the degrees of agency of the curator in the filtering or algorithmic process of curating in a distributed network. Are we living in an age of curatorial (framing) statements or curatorial control? Which makes for the better show?
Re: C0de of practice, path 2: Practice
Posted by Charlie Gere, Jun 16, 2005 2:25 PM in response to Sarah Cook

Just a couple of quick thoughts in response to Sarah's post.

Firstly I think there is an important distinction to be made between collaboration and consensus. The former need not and often does not involve much of the latter. Nor, necessarily, should it always, though this opens up a big can of worms.

Secondly I am intrigued to know if anyone other than the six of us is actually attending to this forum. Nothing has been posted on the public forum, yet.

Apart from hoping that people are reading the posts and will respond this also raised intriguing issues in relation to the themes of the forum.

In a sense this forum is not just bound up in a number of systems, legal (invited participants sign a document agreeing to certain duties and limitations), economic (we get paid in exchange for our participation), technological (it is made possible by the on-line, internet technology), cultural (what we say and how we say it is governed by protocols and expectations), but it is also a kind of system itself, which, in the absence of more than the originally invited participants, is closed. Of course the presence of other 'public' participants is unlikely to change things greatly, especially given that those who might participate will almost certainly be self-selecting.

I suppose the question is how do we open up what appears to be a closed system to elements which exceed it. This is a kind of mirror of much of what is at stake with 'new media' art.

ta ta for now

Re: C0de of practice, paths 1, 2 and 3
Posted by Patrick Lichty, Jun 17, 2005 9:24 PM in response to Sarah Cook
Sarah's notes on the tension between open and closed systems in curation, the notions of curating interventionist/activist work (which recently happened with "The Interventionists" -, and the limits of systematic archival all bring up iinteresting points. These issues bring to mind what I might term, 'open', 'closed', and 'porous' or 'fluid' systems.

There is a metaphor that a historian mentor of mine once used regarding the creation of the archive/record as interstitial 'snapshot'. The metaphor was that of throwing hallf-congealed gelatine against the wall and then trying to nail it to same. What you wind up with is the event (the gelatine), the trace (the trail it left as it slid down the wall) and the trail of nails (the Anderson-eque 'records of the time')

The intention of that remark is to comment on the recording of events which are unstable in time. For example, how does one handle the curation of pieces like the RTMark intervention at the Whitney Biennial 2000, in which anyone could submit their URL (this is taken somewhat out of context, but I hope you understand my point), or pieces which change over time, such as Davis' World's First Collaborative Sentence ( Perhaps the latter stands alone far better than the first, but the point remains as to the ability of the institution to contextualize the nature of the works. However, the two stand for potentially 'unstable' works that could (have) changed significantly over time.

The Haacke piece is a brilliant metaphor for the closed curatorial/institutional model; its own closed loop ecosystem. Likewise for Hirst's "A Thousand Years" in which the cow's severed head could have been stripped bare by the flies enclosed in the vitrine, the end result is entropy. Is the reason for an interest in systemic art and curation is a concern for cultural stasis or entropy? This is merely one question in my head at the moment.

An open system for curation that comes to mind is the ArtBase, There has been a great deal of discussion of the terms of being part of that database, in that members, who pay a nominal minimum fee for membership, allow some licensing of the rights regarding the work to Rhizome. To me, the issue is not so much in the particulars of the issues in the ArtBase itself, but the problems associated with agendas of control, and who can 'access' the work, whether merely to view, or institutionally/curatorially, etc.

Anopther open model is Univerrsity of Maine's "Pool" (much of which seems to be in revision at the moment) which takes a commons approach to legitimation in statistically weighting the works in the database by genre, popularity, and a number of other parameters. One might say that for a cultural database, one way to create open systems for curation may lie in parametrically-based representational systems that key off meta-tags. But then, under a parametrically-driven model os curation, would this be seen as another model for artists to shape their work to be seen, much like targeting content for search engines?

So, I've thought a bit about the open, closed, and porous here, but going back to the porous, mutable work, I think about the Variable Media Initiative that Ippolito, et al have been working on that sets rules for inherently ephemeral works for their reconstruction without the violation of intent.

What comes to mind here is the ability to set a series of parameters for a given work, and while being able to vary the specifics of that work under the rules of a variable media piece, the intent remains the same. Could this be expanded into some of the models (or is it contained within them) that are mentioned in the proceedings, such as the 'kurator' software? These appear to be other good models for concrete, but fairly open/customizable curatorial frameworks, especially when considered as general schemas. When taken in this light, one could apply the principles of variability, parametric filtering, and customization to all three of Christiane's components (audience, artist, and software [and I'd add, hardware]) to aspects of the curatorial as mentioned before, as well as production and experience of the work. another question remains as to how abole institutions would be able to deal with many of these ideas, although Ippolito was working with the Guggenheim on variability.

This idea of a dynamic cultural record or event is one of great interest to me, and has been something that Schleiner and I have tried to work with in some our curatorial/scholarly projects, in having fluid curatorial policies, suggesting algorithmic ties between criticism and work, etc. However, I believe that such a discussion might be a topic for another note.

Best, Patrick
Re: Re: C0de of practice, path 2: Practice
Posted by Patrick Lichty, Jun 20, 2005 4:26 PM in response to Charlie Gere
Some good points here on practice, and very sticky when it comes to rethinking the role of curator in terms of contemporary culture. The role of the curator becomes much less clear, and even becomes circumspect if distributed culture is truly rooted in the decentralisation of power.

Sarah wrote:
"(does) traditional curating follows a centralised network model and if so, can curating follow a distributed network model? What would it mean..., to be a curator/node?

In contextualizing that statement in the curatorial projects of Schleiner and myself, it seems to be a matter of intent and agency. Unless curatorial agency is completely handed off to a group that operates under very flat organizational models (I'd refer to Stafford Beer's thought on Team Syntegrity on this [see Beer, "Beyond Dispute" for a possible model]), there will be some form of centralization in the function of the curator.

Here is the crux of the problem as I see it. Curation, and even blogging, for that matter, is a form of cultural filtration that seeks to derive meaning through the deliberate thematic selection of content, thus contextualizing it. Schleiner's model admittedly referred to curation as a form of filter, and although my (re)distributions mobile art show project had a six month "open" curatorial period in which my parameters were very fuzzy, they were my parameters.

Even operates under a set of parameters, while customizable, still creates a culling of content through thematic filters.

I think it's pretty clear that what we're looking at is curation as a content gate/filter, but then what remains is the power relation that governs it. Because of the nature of institutions, I do not see the role of the curator (or other cultural gate-keepers) disappearing soon as they serve legitimating function within the larger culture. Perhaps what we might be seeing here is a permeability of the institutional power boundaries in that distributed culture allows for non-institutional (asymmetrical) cultural functions, or cultural Temporary Autonomous Zones that get noticed?

Sarah continues:
"To put it bluntly, how would the show get done? There has to be an end point, a cut off, a moment of agreement between all the distributed nodes on what is in and what is out, and hence completion. At the conference the point was made that a book editor is not working in a distributed network model, she is still a centralised filtration node."

Exactly. And even though Intelligent Agent looks at the community to drive its content, I still pick the topics or select the guest editors, who are still filters.

Would an open, self-regulating node such as a WIKI would be a good model to experiment with a truly distributed form of curation or scholarship?

Charlie wrote:
"I am intrigued to know if anyone other than the six of us is actually attending to this forum. ...this also raised intriguing issues in relation to the themes of the forum."

Undoubtedly. I think that this returns to the fact that a truly flat model of knowledge production is problematic under Western social structures. One question that I have is whether in an idealized model of distributed culture, is the notion of expertise flattened, as in Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron", or is it localized within a specific context, creating nodes/wells with more heavily weighted/travelled paths of association? Are there other metaphors that are more apt?

Charlie continues,
"Of course, the presence of other 'public' participants is unlikely to change things greatly, especially given that those who might participate will almost certainly be self-selecting."

Or in a public space like a WIKI, would these selections be canceled out by others?

Charlie continues,
"I suppose the question is how do we open up what appears to be a closed system to elements which exceed it. This is a kind of mirror of much of what is at stake with 'new media' art."

I agree wholeheartedly. This was also mirrored in New Media graduate studies I have seen, in which many of the projects did not neatly fit the curriculum guidelines. And in cases like the Walker, in which New Media apparently did not fit the implied institutional mission, the New Media program suffered. What seems to be apparent here is the transgression of (at the time) traditional boundaries, and it'll take time to negotiate the institutional challenges posed by New Media, which include the cultural functions of New Media itself, which is another matter.

All the best,
Re: Re: C0de of practice, paths 1, 2 and 3
Posted by Christiane Paul, Jun 21, 2005 3:45 PM in response to Patrick Lichty
I want to go back to some of the questions raised by Sarah regarding different approaches to and models for curation, among them: does traditional curating follow a centralised network model and if so, can curating follow a distributed network model? If curating web art is predominantly informed selection filtering or editing -- then is it truly possible for it to be distributed?

I think one could make a convincing argument that curation of any art form and in any venue consists of 'informed selection,' comparable to a filtering or editing process. This is not necessarily specific to curation of net art.

The understanding of traditional curation as more centralised and Internet curation as more distributed in my opinion is not based predominantly on the role of the curator, who is selecting, filtering, or editing in any of these two scenarios. Where the 'distribution' occurs is in the 'exhibition environment' of the network itself, as the following two exhibition situations iIlustrate:
+ A traditional exhibition of painting is organized by a single curator and shown within a gallery for a certain amount of time; it is seen by a local audience and then travels to other countries / cities; there is a catalogue documenting the show, which constitutes the 'record' once the exhibition closes; the institution has a website with a discussion forum, where visitors can comment on the show in public; discourse about the show occurs in the framework set up by the institution, as well as newspapers, TV etc.; critics, historians and some visitors might do research as to which other exhibitions have explored the theme / artists works over time etc.
+ A net art exhibition is organized by a single curator and launches on a website (of an institution, or non-profit net art portal or on the curator's own site); it is seen by a translocal community, never closes and continues to exist indefinitely (until some party fails in sustaining it); in the curatorial statement on the site, the curator links to several other online shows that have dealt with a similar theme and are relevant (any reader / visitor can see the previous shows and the new one next to each other in different browser windows); ongoing discussion of the show immediately occurs on mailing lists in several countries; some curators and theoreticians criticize the curator for omission of crucial works in the field and post a different version of the exhibition on their site / blog (since all the work in question is online, a body of exhibitions -- all including 'original' artworks -- begins to exist side by side); on the basis of the discussions, some of the artists also decide to modify / improve their work, which keeps evolving.

It is in the latter scenario where the distributed model occurs and profoundly affects the curatorial role, even if it originally was only a single curator who selected (of course the filtering could also be done by a collaborative team or through a site such as -- moderated but open to contribution by anyone -- which would increase distributedness on the curatorial end). The exhibition, from its very beginning, exists in a distributed network and is not bound by the framework of one institution. Which 'voice' in this network has more curatorial control becomes debatable.

I think it is difficult to polarize centralised vs. distributed in a clear-cut way. Distribution also occurs within a more centralised model and there is a certain amount of centralisation in the distributed one. This also means that systems are not by nature incompatible with a process that seeks to trade on consensus. The situation is more of a both / and than either / or.