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The Mouths of the Thames

Matthew Fuller: an interview with Mongrel and some of their collaborators.

The Natural Selection project is an internet search engine that works in exactly the same way as any other one of these vast pieces of software that find data on the web, but that adds its own twists. It is clear that search engines have acquired immense positional importance in the network, acting as a gateway (both in the sense of allowing and blocking access) to material on the web. As a technical and media context it is one that is riven with the most inexplicable density of political and cultural machination. Can you tell us something about the project?

Harwood: Well basically, it's the same as any other search engine. The user types in a series of characters that they wish to have searched for. The engine goes off and does this and then returns the results. If you're looking for sites on monocycles, that's what you get. If you're looking for sites on elephants, that's what you get. As soon as you start typing in words like 'nigger' or 'paki' or 'white' you start getting dropped into a network of content that we have produced in collaboration with a vast network of demented maniacs strung out at the end of telephone wires all over the place. The idea is to pull the rug from underneath racist material on the net, and also to start eroding the perceived neutrality of information science type systems. If people can start to imagine that a good proportion of the net is faked then we might start getting somewhere. And as a search engine, from Europe it runs faster than most US based search engines. Enlightenment and a cheaper phone bill - you can't lose.

Richard Pierre Davis: Natural Selection started off as part of the project National Heritage and was conceived as a response to all the hype surrounding the internet and in particular far right activity on the net. It snowballed into it's own identity with input from various artists collaborating on the project with Mongrel steering the ship into a one finger salute to the PC clones and all them fronting fakers worldwide.

Mervin Jarman: Natural Selection offers an added value to critical work on the internet which is unequivocal in that it allows practitioners to plug their work into arenas that would otherwise be inaccessible. This is particularly because of its constructural texture and its ability to redefine and redirect search strings to specified locations, commonly termed aiding and abating - luring the unaware into a spate of awareness that they may not have voluntarily wanted to realise.

H: One of the hidden things about the project is that it's based on a harmless hack on one of the mainstream internet's most popular sites. We corroborate our searches with other search engines. They don't necessarily like us doing this. So we are engaged in a running battle with the site managers of various engines who keep trying to lock us out, trying to stop us reverse engineering their workings and using it to our advantage. Presumably they think we're some kind of commercial competitors. If only...

MF: That's an example of a technical conflict going on in the work, which is obviously a very live one since it messes so heavily with control of proprietary culture masquerading as social resource. (Something extended in the cracked software projects in Natural Selection such as HeritageGold): Echoing this, like most of Mongrel's work, Natural Selection doesn't shrink away from difficulty. If people are going to check it out, they need to be looking for more than a punchline, or a nice neat 'anti-racist' or 'multicultural' solution. The nineties has seen a near complete homogenisation of language around race. A fait accompli which trivialises the deep texture of language, culture and racialisation. We seem to have entered an era of a miserablised 'politics of semantics' represented by arguments over phrases such as Bill Clinton's, "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is" and London's Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Condon's nervous wordplay in trying to avoid the acknowledgement of the institutionalised racism of the police. At the same time, Natural Selection very much delves into this politics of semantics as it is constructed through software conventions and the protocols built into the World Wide Web. Perhaps we can develop this - Matsuko, you worked very much in the image construction and design of the paper edition - Colour Separation. Could you say what the shifting masks and racial stereotypes relate to in the paper? What relationship might the ultra-gridded structure of the edition have to a database? It almost reminds me of a cellular structure in a spread-sheet...

Matsuko Yokokoji: Colour Separation is an element of the National Heritage 'Campaign'. It functions as a poster and also as a free distribution paper. We made eight stereotypes and four masks. That's the system. It makes a chart of the nonsense of racial categorisation. We could see the myth of racial classifications. In Japan when I was growing up in the 60's and 70's, we knew about it through the media. We knew that black people look like Stevie Wonder, we knew that white people look like Marilyn Monroe. So we actually tried to build these stereotypes out of the photographs of faces of real people. And what we found, in trying to make these stereotypes of the four colours, but mixing in the ideas of the stereotypes from other people in Mongrel too - a real mix - was that these stereotypes were completely unattainable. What we ended up with then was completely untypical stereotypes. Anti-stereotypes. No glamour at all! The kind of people you'd see walking the streets in London. The masks perform operations on the faces. They stitch them up. They are roles that move across the entire spectrum of classification that we represent, across all the untypical-stereotypes. You have White Masks on Black Skin, but you also have Black Masks on Black Skin, Yellow, Brown, whatever... It produces a more complex tangle of interrelationships and conflicts.

MF: Mervin, your site for Natural Selection, seems to be an extraordinarily sprawling mess that almost matches the complexity of the web itself in its wrecking havoc on the stupidity and cruelty of the British immigration system. It jumps in and out of different types of English, different styles of web design, stolen data, data originated by you and by the Migrant Media video collective and others. It generates confusion, but never lets up on the political pressure. What do you think people who end up on the site from the Natural Selection front end are going to think?

MJ: An immediate response to your observation would be 'that's the yard in me' you see growing up in Jamaica it is endemic that you learn to improvise, in other words 'tun yuh hand an mek fashion' seen. Now the BAA thing goes out to a primary group of yardies mentionable those who are thinking that the grass is greener on the other side, and the overall analogy of that is not necessarily. the language thing is or has become a form of cultural identity so no longer am I just a English speaking person but to express one self in this kind of broken English dubbed patois (patwa) contemporary it adds flava and undermine bureaucracy. I believe though that it is important for you to understand the fundamentals of my implications and method of construction; to answer the question on the style and chaotic method that seem to be the underline composition you have to imagine things from behind my mask where unstructured and chaotic deranged behaviour is the most intelligent and effective means of communication without being detected specially when dealing with various authority and institutional organisations. this is how the lie becomes the truth vice versa. BAA is consequently absolve from the fact that this policy of abuse and brutality has been perpetrated at against me and others whose only crime is to want to travel the world like Columbus, Marco and the great Admiral Penn and General Venables, with the only difference being their is no 'design' to it as was with The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. And the opposite is true if you were to visit Jamaica.

RPD: The BAA site shines a spotlight on the blatant injustice of anyone attempting to enter Britain with the misfortune to be born with a suntan and no British passport but coming from an ex-British colony it actually works against you it gives a insight into how problematic it is to gain entry once you make contact with the immigration system if your status don't fit the bill and you just happen to fall into the category of a yardie [Jamaican gangster]. How convenient it is that the so called authorities can make a decision based on their stereotyped media hype when just a little while ago the British government used to recruit West Indian labour to help build and service Britain.

MF: Richard, BlackLash is one of the most sickest, violent anti-police games available on the planet, but the four black stereotypes that players have to choose from are also taking the piss out of 'the community'. What's going on? - and who's the game aimed at - Blonde kids from Surrey who want to play Tottenham roughnecks for a day?

RPD: BlackLash is based on a combination of stereotypical half truths and hardcore reality coming from the point of view of a young black male trying to survive inner city life in the nineties hence the name BlackLash. You choose one of the stereohyped characters after which you then proceed to battle the forces of evil that plot to convict or eliminate you from the streets. It also aims to encourage the black community through game culture that it is possible to break into different areas apart from music, and create games that have got some thing to say. Yah heard

MJ: I believe BlackLash speaks in volume to the black community, I believe the innovation is a brilliant wake up call for young black people it may look like a classic notorious shoot em up game but my interpretation of the characteristic of black lash is that is a serious wake 'em up call. its all about 'REPRESENT' who is representing whom: 9 question I ask? who are you bout yuh want test bad man crew, little punk its best if yuh calm before mi machine (gun) tun onn. Black Lash a ask who are you how yuh want test wicked man crew, little punk its best if yuh calm before mi machine (computer) tun onn 9. My analysis of this is yesterday - BlackLash. And tomorrow? Seems ironic, but the people will get the message - Peace

MF: It seems clear that the variety of competing art systems in the UK are largely designed to exclude work that is socially, technically and aesthetically conflictual, whilst at the same time relying on the retrospective absorption of many such currents in order to validate their position as liberal/open/laboratories of subjectivity/ (delete as applicable). Has Mongrel come up with any ways of dealing with this? Are you ready to be dug up as a particularly noxious but sedated time capsule in twenty years time?

H: I think its time we decided to take on the media by mounting it from the rear. I feel more and more that there is no place for us in the usual art/education environment and that we have to make our own. I think we need to design projects that carve out a place in the media and manipulate it < a kind of popular independent media > somewhere between underground music clubs and class war. No one else will realise we make good stuff unless we tell the bastards in a way that takes the piss out of them. I feel confident that if we take on the media now we have the skills to deal with it without loosing touch with who we are. Bollocks to the "sedated time capsule" take it while we are alive.

MJ: If the question is as a mongrel am I waiting for something better (a buy/sell out) offer so that we (I) will conveniently shut the fuck up and live a quiet conservative life......Mr Jarman may be but mervin@mongrel no fucking way not on their tiny little willie - the driving force behind my motivation comes from far further than consumerism and giving credibility to or validate any position as liberal/open or otherwise suggested - life is one big road with a lot of signs on both side as a mongrel these signs can either be objective, subjective and/or rejective and my endeavour is to speak when I am not spoken to and that is to speak my truth.

MF: In National Heritage and Colour Separation there is a repeated motif of the mask - stereotyped racial features that it seems are literally sewn onto people's heads...

MJ: I believe the mask to be one of the most defining aspect of the whole project in more ways than one; the mask represent the mask that I always have to wear at the point of entry into Britain, it represent the mask that I wear repeatedly as I go about my everyday activities in this lovely multicultural state. ...And then it also represent the mask that mongrel has to wear in sourcing resources for the project. So you see the whole National Heritage project is a constitution of the mask.

MF: Another mask Mongrel uses is a reversioned copy of the government Department of National Heritage crest on most of its projects. Why? A recuperation of the state?

H: When we started the project the government department that handed out the cash for the arts was called the department of national heritage. This department gave 76% of it's money to class A and B as defined by another government department. We decided we wanted to make this Government department complicit with the making of the images. What's important about this point is the relation between the British State's Cultural Elitism and who is paying for it. Top collections of art in the UK are decended from slavery money, either directly like the National Gallery or indirectly like the Tate. Not only this but the site that the Tate gallery is on was a prison for transporting white slaves or bondsman to Australia and the Southern states of America. If we have to articulate these images then the arts industry should acknowledge their own complicity with them also.

MJ: I believe the crest to be a celebration of the diverse British ethnicity after all who are the Brits if not a group of fucking mongrels. You need not go further than Byju's Aryan nation construction for what is 'truly' British, though much undetected by most.

Matthew Fuller worked with Harwood to produce the Natural Selection project for Mongrel and also worked on the Colour Separation paper with them.