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Dead medium: Recycling obsolete computer hardware II (Redundant Technology Initiative)
Source(s): Interview with James Wallbank, Redundant Technology Initiative
From: Tilman Baumgaertel
Date: Thu, Dec 14, 2000, 06:10 PM

"We are interested in the least cool technologies"

Interview with James Wallbank, Redundant Technology Initiative

?: James, you are the founder of the Redundant Technology Initiative. What is this group about?

James Wallbank: Redundant Technology Initiative started as an idea in 1996 in Sheffield [ENGLAND]. I was talking with my friends who were, like me, interested in digital media. As it stood, we found out that job number one was to get a whole load of finance together, so we could buy some Macintoshes and some PCs in order to actually get access to some of the tools for the job. I though: "Hey, there is just no way that we can afford 1.000 pounds for a new PC. And even if we do buy one, two years later it will be worthless. So, hang on, why don't we re-formulate the problem? Why don't we use the technology that is already worthless, but cost 1.000 pounds two years ago?"

At that time, I heard a lot of people who were involved with digital arts saying things like: "Oh, I have a great idea and I could really be creative, if I had one of those new Power Macs." All that Redundant Technology Initiative does, is to say: "Ok, that problem is not a problem with access to technology, but a problem with your creative ideas." We only use technology that we can get for free, for zero cost. And then our problem is creative, not technical or financial - the creative problem is to do something exciting with the technology that we already have access to."

?: So what do you do to get PC equipment in the first place?

Wallbank: The whole thing started with a advertising campaign. In 1997 We printed 2000 copies of a leaflet with the last of our money. It said: "If you have trash computers, if you are upgrading your computer system - don't just throw them away. Phone us!" We had a plan to distribute these leaflets to businesses around the region. But some of our friends said: "Well, that is kind of interesting. My partner works at this office, and they are throwing their computers out. Give me one of those leaflets!" We just randomly, without any plan, gave away 200 leaflets - and all of a sudden the phone was ringing every day! We had about four or five calls every day from people saying: "We have these computers that are stuck in our back room. Will you come and take them away - please!" We ended up getting hundreds and hundreds of computers - so many in fact that we didn't dare to distribute the rest of the leaflets!

?: How many do you have now?

Wallbank: We've just slimmed down.

? Oh, you're throwing away computers yourself now?

Wallbank: Well, we actually take the computers apart and recycle the computers in an environmentally friendly way. We've just taken 8000 kgs of computer components and dead equipment to the recycler. Monitors are absolutely full of toxic chemicals and heavy metals, and they need to be disposed of in an environmental way. If you go to a recycler, you'll be amazed by the quantities of computers. One commercial recycler that we use deals with 450 PCs every day!

We still have around 250 Central Processing Units left. So typically the machines that we now have are 486 PCs. This kind of computer is now freely available. The high end machines we are being given now are Pentium 90's and Pentium 133's. This is kind of strange, because just four or five years ago, this was top-notch gear, and now it is in the trash. What's going on? I have some questions about what's happening here especially in the new media arts scene. People seem to be hypnotized by the newest, flashiest, most expensive pieces of equipment.

?: Well, the "interactive installations" of the 80's and 90's were relying on fast, big computers, because they were very graphic based and used sophisticated user interfaces.

Wallbank: I really strongly contest the idea that higher technology means higher creativity. You never hear anybody say: "Black and white photography is just rubbish. Color photography is more creative because it does everything that black and white photography does, and it does color as well." You never hear people say that... because it's stupid! But you hear exactly the same argument about PC architecture all the time. People will say: "High resolution is always better than low resolution. Millions of colors are more creative than 16 colors. Hundreds of megabits have more creative possibilities than five megabits." These are spurious arguments. The issue is about creativity and great ideas, not fast hardware.

?: Why do you think that the idea to work with low tech equipment pops up now, while it was fashionable among media artists to work with the fastest Silicon Graphics machines only a couple of years ago?

Wallbank: Well, trash technology upgrades every year, and you don't even have to pay for it. Now we are getting to the point where you can run a powerful graphic user interface on a machine that costs absolutely nothing. In our Access Space, we run Linux, the free operating system, with an X-window front end, a web browser, a word processor, a graphic image processor, and other graphic tools. With that you have all the tools that you need to create web pages and all sorts of other things. You have all the tools to run a global publishing campaign - and you don't have to pay!

?: Do you think that this low tech approach has something to do with the proliferation of the internet in the last couple of years.

Wallbank: Yes, it is a absolutly vital that things like HTML, the language that makes the webpages, are simple and easy to do. It is interesting to see that the industry is trying to convince us that HTML is complicated and hard. Just in case anyone doesn't know: you can write HTML with Word Pad or any other text processor, so you can make a web page in five minutes with a free tool. You do not need some kind of Cyber Studio graphic user interface, that costs 200 pounds. And the web pages that work best are small and simple, not ones filled with fancy graphics and complex scripting.

?: I guess to collect all these computers must have been quite time-consuming?

Wallbank: Absolutely!

?: and hard. Did you ever get the impression that getting all this hardware got in the way of the creation of your art?

Wallbank: We are trying to create a continuous cycle; yet we are not trying to become a clearing house for technology across the whole of the UK or something like that. What we are trying to demonstrate is that any group with very little funding in any local area can get access to enough information technology for free to run an online lab. The Yorkshire area (which is a very poor area) is probably with a very one of the most difficult areas in Europe to do this. We don't want to be the center of all trash technology activity, just one node of a network of groups doing creative things with free computers. We encourage anyone to start these local initiatives.

?: But does collecting old computers and creating art with them have the same importance for you?

Wallbank: We see all of this as part of one process. When people are giving us their machines, they don't just give us the boxes and the technology, they are also giving us their support. And naturally these people also want to come to our exhibitions and our events, and actually see the exciting things that we make with their equipment. Other people of course also come, and they say: "Wow, this is really cool. We want to be part of this, we want to give some computers as well." It is this continuous, self-sustaining cycle of technology and creativity.

?: One installation of the Redundant Technology Initiative I saw was at the "net_condition" exhibition at the Zentrum fr Kunst und Medientechnologie, which consisted out of all these computer spare parts that were arranged like a mosaic on the floor. Can you tell me a little bit about the installations that you produce with all these old computers?

Wallbank: That particular installation at Karlsruhe was an extremly low tech installation; then again it was very high tech. We were donated 7 tons of trash PC equipment by Siemens in Karlsruhe. The challenge was: how could we take these trash cans full of computer parts and make something exciting out of them. You know, the simplest jokes are the funniest. We simply started to dissemble everything, and ended up with these fragments that we ordered into this digital magic carpet, with all these kinds of shapes and reflections. In a was it is a very mechanical process, but we ended up with something that was visually exciting and satisfying.

?: One reviewer said that it was too aesthetic and too good-looking.

Wallbank: Kind of interesting, isn't it - if we manage to make something that people find very aesthetic, but that didn't cost anything. At the same time, there were a number of pieces in that exhibition that cost tens of thousands of pounds to produce, and you looked at them and thought: "Well, I guess, I get the idea, but I am not sure wether it satisfies me." That piece came really out of practical requirements. We had three days to build it, we came with no equipment at all, because it would have been prohibitively expensive to transport pre-prepared IT equipment. So we came without a clear idea what we were going to do.

What we are trying to concentrate on more now is to reprogram the computers we are given, so we are using computers in an active way, not just the interior parts. Our newest piece is the "Low Tech Video Wall", which is a network of 37 machines, which displays a picture on a six by six wall of computer screens - a single streaming picture on all the screens; one picture distributed over 36 screens. It all runs on 486 computers, all of them trash computers. We can stream about fifteen minutes of fantastic ASCII art. (All of the "dots" of the picture are actually text characters.) This is not only made with zero cost hardware, it is also made with zero cost software. It is all running under Linux. Who says you can't do exciting stuff with trash technology?

?: Is this your revenge against Nam June Paik, who also made Video Walls, that used of course much more sophisticated technology?

Wallbank: I guess what it shows is that you can make things that look really beautiful by re-purposing technology in a way that wasn't previous envisaged. We simply ignore the manufacturer's ideas about what these machines are for. We can use text to make images - we can use the interior components of computers to make images, we can use networks as displays...

?: Do you have a personal relationship with these machines? Do you like them? Do you get a kick out of this technology?

Wallbank: I think one of the things we do with Redundant Technology Initiative is to demystify technology. These computers - they are rubbish, you know, they are very shoddy things. They are just some metal and some plastic and some wires. They are packaged very carefully, when they are new, to convince you that they are actually worth 1.000 pounds. But in fact they are just plastic boxes with a metal frame and some components inside. The manufacture quality of the physical components of computers is very low. They are actually quite unglamorous bits of metal and plastic.

By the time we get the PCs, they have scratches on the cases and all the glamour is stripped away. All you see a beige box, that has become kind of yellow if the user happens to be smoker. If you open the PC case you find layers of dust and grime. I guess this is the skin cells of office workers that has slowly built up into this gray layer. And keyboards! They are horrible and messy, and it is kind of nice to realize that you don't have to treat these things as some kind of holy relics. And, hey, if you happen to drop a computer, it's okay; there are hundreds more where it came from. It's like de-fetishizing the physical form of the computer.

So, in answer to your question - I'm excited by using this gear, but I see each individual machine as a building block - just a tools for doing a job.

?: So you don't think of yourself as a computer freak or a nerd?

Wallbank: (laughs) Well, I might be a computer freak, but I want to see these bits of kit do something exciting. I don't want just to keep them, and treat them like my pets. There's a great temptation to keep equipment just because it's kind of cute or because it's of historic interest, but at the project we resist this nostalgia. If we can't use a PC, we don't keep it.

What we are interested in is the least cool technology. If you look at the value of technology, it is very much like fashion. It starts off being very, very expensive, and than maybe six months later, it's are a lot cheaper. If you wait for 18 months, you don't want to be seen dead wearing the year before last's fashion. It is totally worthless. And than five years later, it is kind of cool to wear those old things again.

We want to stay in this totally uncool valley - an area that we call "trailing edge". We are just moving up to Pentium 90 machines. They are not old enough to be cool, but not new enough to be worth anything. Trash technology is not a fixed specification of machine - it's a moving target. And the reason that we stay "trailing edge" is because older computers start to increase in value again, after a certain amount of time - and we need to stay in the zero value zone.

I am sure that in four years time, we will be getting access to the first iMacs, and I guess they will look really old and dated and tired by then. Only if we can use this stuff when it is really unfashionable, can we get it for free.

?: The topic of decay is very important in art in general, if you think of British Romaticism, for example. Do you see any connections between what you are doing and the artistic fascination with things that are abandoned and broken?

Wallbank: Absolutely. Sheffield is a post-industrial city. It used to be a steel city; now the steel is made by robots. Physically the environment in Sheffield has been in decay for thirty or forty years. There are a lot of empty factories and warehouses. I started by making art in the city just by going through skips and taking bits of scrap metal that were rotting away and painting on them.

?: My question was more if you see yourself in the tradition of art movements that deal with decay, such as Black Romanticism. Or Piranesi, for example?

Wallbank: Well, you can make these connections if you like, and they are interesting to me. But you have to see Redundant Technology Initiative as a pragmatic response to a difficult situation. We wanted to get involved with digital media, and that's why we started to collect old hardware. The whole thing has taken on all sorts of resonances and all sorts of ideas - for example, about systems of control. We are trying to prove that you can be independent, that you don't need sponsors and big funding. You are welcome to make thematic connections to historical art movements if you like, and I encourage our audience to do so. But I don't think it's up to us to define exactly how people should interpret what we do.

?: What kind of role does the internet play in your artistic strategy?

Wallbank: We use the internet to publish our ideas about enhancing access by using trash technology. If you like, we've been using the internet to market the technology that nobody else markets. After all, the industry has nothing to gain by marketing stuff that people can get for free. The industry is in the business of making these perfectly capable computers to look totally uncool. We are trying to tell people that this is very good stuff, and that you can do some very interesting things with it.

?: But you don't see yourself as net artist?

Wallbank: The net is an integral part of what we are doing, to get the information out there, to get people to see what we do. People frequently respond to our website, and then send us computers or ideas or free software. I am sceptical about the idea of net art that has no real world interface. We provide real world interfaces, that's our Access Space, where people can really come in the door and really get involved. And we also provide real world interfaces at our exhibitions and installations, where people can come along and talk to us.

?: You mentioned your Access Space. Can you talk about it a little bit?

Wallbank: Since April we are running an internet lab, where people come in and get access to the internet and learn to work with computers. It is funded by the National Lottery Fund and the European Regional Development Fund. (One of the points of our Access Space is that we haven't paid anything for the technology, but we till have to pay the salaries of the staff.) A project which has to do with access to the internet and improving IT skills and enhancing the potential for small business is something which has a really big priority in a poor and depressed area, which has suffered very much from industrial decline. To have this European backing has been an advantage to us in developing our artworks as well, because we have had to audit what we do, and prove that art and internet access and being creative with technology actually creates jobs and improves people's lives and empowers people.

?: Could you give an example for that?

Wallbank: There are requirements from Europe to give support to small enterprises, and what they call micro-enterprises, which can be as small as one person doing her own thing. For example, we had one guy coming into our space who was a furniture designer. He had just graduated, and tried to sell his unique pieces of furniture, things like office furniture, coffee tables, things like that. He had trouble getting in touch with people. When he was travelling around he could see absolutely, at the most, three potential clients in a day. He came in and in a single day he made himself a web page with pictures of his designs. Now he is able to call up 30 people in a day, and say: "Have a look on my web site, and you can take look at my designs". Just three months later, he has managed to sell his first coffee table design, and gets a percentage for every piece that is being sold.

?: But furniture is a very privileged profession after all. How do unemployed industry workers benefit from this?

Wallbank: Sure, but now this table will be made by a factory in Sheffield, so it will increase employment in not-so-privileged professions, too. Sales of this table are predicted to be worth more than 100.000 pounds in the first year. That represents more manufacturing jobs. Frequently artists and designers fail to claim credit for helping boost economic activities that are outside the art world. One of the things that we are doing is to track some of the genuine economic effects of "cool designs" and "creative buzz" - it's a very interesting perspective, and one that artists don't usually investigate.

Of course, on an individual level it will always improve your employability if you can word process your C.V., if you have basic online skills, if you can learn about email and the web. At the moment we are focusing on people who have creative content that they want to put online.

But in fact anyone who wants to do something constructive, to improve their skills, to communicate about what they are interested in, is welcome at the space. We act as an ISP for community projects that are concerned with urban regeneration, and don't have anything explicitly to do with art. It's interesting to see the change in people's attitudes when their community has it's own website. They feel like they have a voice, and it increases their determination to make sure that things in their area improve.

We don't have any sort of curatorial policies. All we ask is that people do something positive and active with the internet, rather than using it as a digital version of television. We are trying to encourage activity rather than passivity. The only blockage to participating in Access Space is your skill level (which you can improve) and your will to get involved.

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